To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Uncollected Poems (3): "The Silent Language," with a note on poetry & signing

for Joe Castronovo

two fingers,
nearly touch

matching the pulse inside
the skull
a figure “8” explodes

over the temples,
gentle movements of the mind
of words in air

in silence:
do I learn to speak you?
can you hear

the way the lines weave,
moving from the touch

to vanish
as sounds do
writing frees itself

from object-
at last



The dedication to Joe Castronovo goes back to the first associations I had with ASL (American Sign Language) and the possibilities of a poetry-without-sound. Led there by Ursula Bellugi and Ed Klima, following my arrival in San Diego, I made an attempt (circa 1976/1977) to work out an experimental approach to a total translation from ASL, collaborating with the deaf poet Joe Castronovo, who was himself a native signer. But circumstances got in the way & we never followed through on it, although since then I've come on the work of performance poets composing in ASL & have been delighted to see how much further it could go. The premature death of Joe Castronovo several years ago was a true loss to those of us who sensed the promise that his early work had set in motion.

In our book, Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse Toward an Ethnopoetics (1983), Diane Rothenberg and I reproduced an early and seminal account of ASL poetry, "Poetry without Sound" by Klima and Bellugi. Since then I also found important stimulation in essays by Michael Davidson and Dirksen Bauman, but the definitive current work in this area is Signing the Body Poetic: Essays in American Sign Language from The University of California Press, now readily available. My introduction to the Bellugi-Klima essay follows, as a statement of how this poetry radically altered my own inclination toward a phonocentric approach to a poetics.

POETRY WITHOUT SOUND. Even in its early, tentative stages, the signing poetry emerging as an aspect of the "culture of the deaf" challenges some of our cherished preconceptions about poetry and its relation to human speech. ASL represents, literally, a poetry without sound and, for its practitioners, a poetry without access to that experience of sound as voice that we've so often taken as the bedrock of all poetics and all language. In the real world of the deaf, then, language exists as a kind of writing in space and as a primary form of communication without reference to any more primary form of language for its validation. It is in this sense a realization of the ideogrammatic vision of a Fenollosa -- "a splendid flash of concrete poetry" -- but an ideogrammatic language truly in motion and, like oral poetry, truly inseparable from its realization in performance. (Ethnopoetic analogues -- for those who would care to check them out -- include Hindu and Tantric mudras, Plains Indian and Australian Aborigine sign languages, and Ejagham [southeastern Nigerian] "action writing": a history of human gesture languages that would enrich our sense of poetry and language, should we set our minds to it.)

[The Michael Davidson and Dirksen Bauman essays mentioned above appear in the Ubuweb ethnopoetics site:, while Symposium of the Whole, including the Bellugi-Klima essay, is currently out of print.]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Two Dialect Poems, with a note on Sor Juana & the Pitfalls of Translation

Translation from Spanish & related dialects or faux-dialects by Jerome Rothenberg & Cecilia Vicuña


At the high & holy feast
for their patron saint Nolasco
where the flock of the redeemer
offers high & holy praises,
a black man in the cathedral,
whose demeanor all admired,
shook his calabash & chanted
in the joy of the fiesta:


tumba la-lá-la tumba la-léy-ley
where ah’s boricua no more’s ah the slave way
tumba la-léy-ley tumba la-lá-la
where ah’s boricua no more is a slave ah!


Sez today that in Melcedes
all them mercenary fadders
makes fiesta for they padre
face they’s got like a fiesta.

Do she say that she redeem me
such a thing be wonder to me
so ah’s working in dat work house
& them Padre doesn’t free me.

Other night ah play me conga
with no sleeping only thinking
how they don’t want no black people
only them like her be white folk.

Once ah takes off this bandana
den God sees how them be stupid
though we’s black folk we is human
though they say we be like hosses.

What’s me saying, lawdy lawdy,
them old devil wants to fool me
why’s ah whispering so softly
to that sweet redeemer lady.

Let this saint come and forgive me
when mah mouth be talking badly
if ah suffers in this body
then mah soul does rise up freely.


Now an Indian assuaged them,
falling down and springing up,
bobbed his head in time and nodded
to the rhythm of the dance,
beat it out on a guitarra,
echos madly out of tune,
tocotín of a mestizo,
Mexican and Spanish mixed.


The Benedictan Padres
has Redeemer sure:
amo nic neltoca
quimatí no Dios.

Only God Pilzíntli
from up high come down
and our tlat-l-acol
pardoned one and all.

But these Teopíxqui
says in sermon talk
that this Saint Nolasco
mi-echtín hath bought.

I to Saint will offer
much devotion big
and from Sempual xúchil
a xúchil I will give.

Tehuátl be the only
one that says he stay
with them dogs los Moros
impan this holy day.

Mati dios if somewhere
I was to be like you
cen sontle I kill-um
beat-um black and blue

And no one be thinking
I make crazy talk,
ca ni like a baker
got so many thought.

Huel ni machicahuac
I am not talk smart
not teco qui mati
mine am hero heart.

One of my compañeros
he defy you sure
and with one big knockout
make you talk no more.

Also from the Governor
Topil come to ask
caipampa to make me
pay him money tax.

But I go and hit him
with a cuihuat-l
ipam i sonteco
don’t kow if I kill.

And I want to buy now
Saint Redeemer pure
yuhqui from the altar
with his blessing sure.

[Scheduled for publication in The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman.]


The centrality of Sor Juana to the poetry of the Americas is by now unquestioned, the great summation coming in Octavio Paz’s epical biography: “In her lifetime, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz [1651-1695] was read and admired not only in Mexico but in Spain and all the countries where Spanish and Portuguese were spoken. Then for nearly two hundred years her works were forgotten. After [1900] taste changed again and she began to be seen for what she really is: a universal poet. When I started writing, around 1930, her poetry was no longer a mere historical relic but had once again become a ‘living text.’”

In the translation, above, another side of her work emerges – one of less concern to Paz than to the present translators: her experiments with a constructed Afro-Hispanic dialect & with the incorporation of native (Nahuatl) elements into her poetry. Here the translation question comes up as well, not only the issue of political aptness, which may also be raised where the class & status of the poet & her subject are at odds, but something at the heart of the translation process as such. For it is with dialect that translation – always a challenge to poetic composition – becomes or seems to become most elusive. Though many dialects approach the autonomous status of languages, there is always the presence behind them of the official, dominant language, which can make them, in the hands of a poet like Sor Juana (as with a Belli or a Burns in a European context), an instrument for the subversion both of language & of mores. Their particularity is nearly impossible for the translator to emulate, even while bringing up similar particularities in the dialects or faux-dialects into which he translates them.

The wordings in the villanicos (carols) presented here are faux-dialects with a vengeance, while their intention (or hers, to be more precise) seems obviously liberatory in practice. We have chosen therefore to approximate both the measure in which the poems were written & the spirit of invention & play through which the dialects were constructed. For this our principal models for transcription & composition come from nineteenth-century American & African-American dialect poetry & practice, much of it as artifactual & inauthentic as our approximations here. Our view, like that of Sor Juana four centuries before, is from the outside, looking in.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (10): Michael Palmer on Shelley

from Some Notes on Shelley, Poetics and the Present (two excerpts)

(presented to the Keats-Shelley Society at the meeting of the Modern Language Association, San Francisco, 28 dec 91, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Shelley’s birth)

But I beg you to take into consideration the conditions under which I am writing, the time and place.
Heine, The Romantic School

I would like to take this opportunity to look informally at Shelley in relation to contemporary poetics and to look in a sense for the “necessity of Shelley.” I hope I will be able to gather up these fragments or notations of several months without pretending to mask their fragmentary character, since the Romantics themselves have taught our century the epistemological weight of the fragment, whether the sundered Orphic body and scattered limbs of Osiris or, less exaltedly, the quick thought on a scrap of paper.

As I was first beginning to reread Shelley, a quotation I had copied out from Susan Buck-Morss’s The Dialectics of Seeing (on Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk or “Arcades Project”) came repeatedly to mind. Buck-Morss draws the quotation from Benjamin’s Theses on History. (See also Gershom Scholem’s “Walter Benjamin and his Angel” in On Walter Benjamin, ed. Gary Smith.) It reads:

"There is a picture by Klee called “Angelus Novus.” An angel is presented in it who looks as if he were about to move away from something at which he is staring. His eyes are wide open, mouth agape, wings spread. The angel of history must look like that. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe which relentlessly piles wreckage upon wreckage, and hurls them before his feet. [...] The storm [from Paradise] drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. That which we call progress is this storm." (p.95)

Certainly a key passage for the understanding of Benjamin’s own romantic progressivism and the various contradictory threads which are responsible for the complex and compelling fabric of his social and aesthetic thought. Yet the visual meaning of this image of the Angelus Novus is anything but stable (see Scholem), as I am sure Benjamin would have acknowledged. We may just as easily interpret this figure as gazing “into the future,” or at some event in the world of the present, or into some entirely non-specific space. The expression could be one of astonishment, or incomprehension, or horror, or perhaps all three. The arms might be raised in surprise or benediction. “He” (we lack the angelic pronoun) seems suspended in a kind of cosmic dust, caught between this and some other world in weather he has never experienced. The gaze, then, is multiple and the figure, like so many crucial verbal figures in Shelley, is polysemous following Dante’s sense of that word. We might even refigure him as the Angel of Poetry, whose many faces are like the multiple Shelleys which, since his death, have been imagined or posited and projected toward our time. In any case, in its uncertainty or ambiguity, its backward-forwardness, it seems an appropriate figure to preside over this talk which must look forward and back, as well as at what “now” is now, and finally into the temporal modes poetry itself envisages, such as the future-present and the future-past, to name but two.

There is no question that the future has recently undergone some major alterations. In fact, it is possible to say that The Future as once conceived by utopians and revolutionaries of various stripes has (at least for now) entered into the historical past without ever having been realized, dissipated by its own repressive and totalizing social economy (which imposed the dictatorship of an endlessly deferred future on the texture of everyday life) as well, no doubt, as by the relentlessly ambitious and adaptive force of international capital, which has been busy with the business of creating its own narratives and its own set of possible futures for immediate consumption.

It is in the light of the collapse of various melioristic futures, their implosion into an unstable present, a “now” of uncertain boundaries both cultural and political, that we are asked to reread and in some sense rediscover Shelley for contemporary poetics. Certainly such a reading will be further qualified by the fact that Shelley (as Jerome McGann has noted) is a poet of futurist vision and address. Initially of course he is a poet of his present moment who invokes alternative social orders through an evocation of the specific injustices of the present and a highly abstract vision of future redress. He speaks to contemporary injustice at times with an almost agit-prop directness, at others with the layered symbolic language of allegory and myth. Regarding the latter, even his most “displaced” and idealized poetry has a proto-dialectical character to it (to borrow a term from Richard Terdiman); it is part of an argument that moves beyond the self and beyond aesthesis to engage with contradiction and paradox. Everywhere shadowing that future is the specter of another future from the recent past, Shelley’s almost immediate past, that of the French Revolution. The self-devouring of the Revolution and the age of reaction which follow serve both to problematize and to deepen Shelley’s own progressivism. A Spinozistic sense of community and desire will become more and more integral with the vision of radical renewal as Shelley seeks alternatives to anarchic violence and revolutionary chaos. Desire itself will be seen as signifier of resistance and subversion, as well as (quoting Epipsychidion) “An image of some bright eternity.” Epipsychidion is an act of defiant poetic excess, an act of resistance to the hypocritical puritanism of the time, but also to the idea of a poetry of limits. Like so much of Shelley’s work, it is impossible; its suppression is preordained. The poem, in its graphic sensuality, defies the decorum of the acceptable verse of its time. There is another and more threatening insistence which conjoins in poetically coded language the personal with the social vision. An escape from is always an escape toward:

This isle and house are mine, and I have vowed
Thee to be lady of the solitude. --
And I have fitted up some chambers there
Looking toward the golden Eastern air,
And level with the living winds which flow
Like waves above the living waves below. --
I have sent books and music there, and all
Those instruments with which high spirits call
The future from its cradle, and the past
Out of its grave, and make the present last
In thoughts and joys which sleep, but cannot die,
Folded within their own eternity.
(Epipsychidion, ll. 513-24)

A passage that, like so much of the poem, operates at many symbolic levels (along with Dante, are there echoes of Shakespeare’s Prospero here as well?). The poet-alchemist asserts the power of the poetic voice to command historical time, to resurrect the past for the present, invoke the birth of the future, and in so doing eternalize an ideal present (a present of living ideas). After the dystopic and utopian hours (I meant to type “horrors”) of our age, the status of such a claim must of course be at the very least thoroughly interrogated. What, if anything, do we believe of the poetic function now? What claims can be made for the poem in the world? In what margins and at what borders, barely visible it often seems, does it continue to be heard?

. . . . . . .

For the poets of my generation, Shelley was a poet under several erasures. There was the initial prohibition of the modernists who went, or at least claimed to go, “in fear of abstraction.” Shelley’s difficult and audacious juxtaposing of (at his best) precise physical detail with philosophical rumination ran counter to the entire economy of modernism. His often baroque syntax seemed to lead a reader toward the “dim grey lands of peace” deplored by Pound. Then too there was the inherited Palgravian Shelley, the Shelley of a lyricism which quickly became the debased currency of entire generations of pseudo-romantic pompiers. To recover such a music was roughly equivalent to recovering Debussy after being inundated by five decades of Hollywood sound scores. Perhaps equally a problem was the sympathetic but one-dimensional, vatic Shelley beloved by the Beats and embraced by the counter-culture. One had the spontaneity and speed, the enthusiasmos, of Shelley, but his brain had been removed. This is no less sentimentalized a portrait than Palgrave’s, or that of Maurois. Then too, there is the wild variation in the quality of work from a man who still, near the end of his brief life, was attempting to rhyme “twinkling” and “tinkling” with a straight face (“To Jane”). Shelley, it must be added, was a poet for whom formal perfection, the perfection of static form, was often secondary, however much certain critics of a generation ago strained to discover occulted symmetries throughout his work, as if thereby to justify it.

Let me quote from the well-known and revealing section on Shelley in Eliot’s “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”:

"Shelley both had views about poetry and made use of poetry for expressing views. With Shelley we are struck from the beginning by the number of things poetry is expected to do: from a poet who tells us, in a note on vegetarianism, that ‘the orang-outang perfectly expresses man both in the order and the number of his teeth’, we shall not know what to expect. The notes to Queen Mab express, it is true, only the views of an intelligent and enthusiastic schoolboy, but a schoolboy who knows how to write; and throughout his work, which is of no small bulk for a short life, he does not, I think, let us forget that he took his ideas seriously. The ideas of Shelley seem to me always to be the ideas of adolescence - as there is every reason they should be. And an enthusiasm for Shelley seems to me also to be an affair of adolescence: for most of us, Shelley has marked an intense period before maturity, but for how many does Shelley remain the companion of age?...I find his ideas repellent; and the difficulty of separating Shelley from his ideas and beliefs is still greater than with Wordsworth. And the biographical interest which Shelley has always excited makes it difficult to read the poetry without remembering the man: and the man was humourless, pedantic, self-centered, and sometimes almost a blackguard." (Selected Prose, p.85)

It is a passage quite astonishing for a number of reasons, not the least its patronizing smugness and condescension. Why, one wonders, does Eliot fear a poet from whom “we shall not know what to expect”? And why must a poet be separable from his ideas? To free him for pure, ahistorical readerly delectation? To isolate him definitively and securely in aesthetic space? Dante and Milton cleansed of ideas? One wonders whether Eliot had equivalent difficulty in separating his friend Pound’s poetry from his friend Pound’s ideas? And are we obliged to separate Eliot’s poetry from its anti-semitism, High Church elitism and its Podsnappery? Would we then be left with Eliotic poésie pure? The passage is replete with unintended ironies. Eliot has generated so much recent, lurid biographical interest, that we too now must be forgiven for finding it difficult to read the work apart from the life. And of course the final description of Shelley as a self-centered, humourless pedant matches many accounts of Eliot at certain stages of his life. What is most striking, of course, is the rage against Shelley’s ideas. Which, one cannot but wonder, seemed to Eliot the worst: Shelley’s feminism, his progressive egalitarianism, his ecotopic perspective, his idealism joined with an active interventionism, his atheism, his defiance of conventional amatory codes? Perhaps all of the above. Yet a good deal might be forgiven if the work would allow itself to be separated from its ideas, that is to say, acculturated and pacified. Eliot’s (unconscious?) echo of pseudo-Mallarméan ideology speaks to a still insufficiently examined inheritance from late Symbolism, an inheritance which saturates the atmosphere of much of Eliot’s work.

In the flux of our present, with poetry everywhere acknowledged as marginalized, what we least need is a poetry of accomodation, whether that be the self-absorbed and anti-intellectual neo-romanticism of the workshop, or the exhausted so-called “middle voice” of so much infinitely replaceable and infinitely consoling magazine verse. Nor, in full retreat, will it do to revive a bogus traditionalism. Shelley, perhaps more clearly than any of the other English Romantics, represents a radical alterity, an alternative to the habitual discourses of power and mystification by which we are daily surrounded and with which we are bombarded. He represents a poetry of critique and renewal, rather than of passive re-presentation, a poetry which risks speaking to the central human and social occasions of its time, yet speaks from a decentered and largely invisible place. It exploits the margins to speak as it will, out of difference, rather than as it is always importuned and rewarded, out of sameness. This “other voice of poetry,” as Octavio Paz has noted, speaks to the present from a unique (or at least singularly focussed) relation to past and future derived from the exigencies of the art. It speaks to the present, whether a present-now or a present-to-come (or indeed one never to be) much as do poets as apparently diverse as Dickinson and Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Holan.

. . . . . . .

[For Palmer’s complete essay, see his newly published gathering of essays & talks, Active Boundaries (New Directions). The work was originally published in Sulfur 33 (1993), Clayton Eshleman’s late-great magazine, and that same year in Keats-Shelley Journal 42. More on Shelley, including citations from Palmer, appeared in this blog on June 24.]

Rafael Alberti (1902-1999): Buster Keaton Searches the Woods for his Sweetheart a Genu-ine Cow

1, 2, 3 & 4.
These four footprints don’t match my shoes.
If these four footprints don’t match my shoes,
whose four footprints can these footprints be?
Can they be from a shark?
from an elephant babe? from a duck?
from a flea? from a quail?

(Pee, pee, pee.)

Where have you gone?
I don’t hear you, Georgina!
What will your papa’s moustachios think of me?


Art thou or aren’t thou?

Firtree, where are you?
Alder, where are you?
Pinetree, where are you?

(Did Georgina pass by here?)

(Pee, pee, pee, pee.)

She passed by at 1:00 eating grasses.
The crow caught her eye with a mignonette blossom.
The screech owl with a dead rat.

Pardon me, boys, but I can’t keep from bawling.
(Wah, wah, wah.)

Now you’re missing only one horn
for a doctor’s degree in a usefully surefire bike race
with a mailman’s cap as a prize.

(Scree, scree, scree, scree.)

Even the crickets take pity on me
& when I’m in pain the ticks will come with me.
Have a heart for me in this tux
out here looking for you bawling in between rain squawls
with a derby too & so tender
to display you from bush unto bush.



Are you a sweet little girl or are you a genu-ine cow?
My heart always told me that you were a genu-ine cow.
Your papa that you were a sweet little girl.
My heart that you were a genu-ine cow.
A sweet little girl.
A genu-ine cow.
A girl.
A cow.
A girl or a cow?
Or a girl and a cow?
I never knew nuttin.
Bye bye, Georgina.
(Biff bam!)

[Translation from Spanish by Jerome Rothenberg, first published here & dedicated to Heriberto Yépez, who originally showed me the experimental, almost Dadaist range of Alberti’s early poetry]

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

From Poetics & Polemics (forthcoming): "A Secret Location on the Lower East Side"

Pre-Face to Catalogue for New York Public Library Exhibit January 1998

Since everyone loves a paradox let me start off with this now familiar one: the mainstream of American poetry, the part by which it has been & will be known, has long been in the margins, nurtured in the margins, carried forward, vibrant, in the margins. As mainstream & margin both, it represents our underground economy as poets, the grey market for our spiritual/corporeal exchanges. It is the creation as such of those poets who have seized or often have invented their own means of production & of distribution. The autonomy of the poets is of singular importance here -- not something we’ve been stuck with faute de mieux but something we’ve demanded as a value that must (repeat: must) remain first & foremost under each poet’s own control. And this is because poetry as we know & want it is the language of those precisely at the margins -- born there or, more often still, self-situated: a strategic position from which to struggle with the center of the culture & with a language that we no longer choose to bear. Poetry is another language, as it is another orientation, from that of the other, more familiar mainstream, which has, in Paul Blackburn’s words, “wracked all passion from the sound of speech.” For many of us, so positioned, it is the one true counter-language we possess -- even, to paraphrase Alfred Jarry (& to be almost serious about it), our language (& our science) of exceptions.

The model figure here -- a hundred years before the Lower East Side works presented in these pages -- was surely Walt Whitman, whose 1855 Leaves of Grass, self-published, was the work of his own hands as well as mind, from manuscript to printed book to first reviews ghost-written by the man himself. And contemporaneous with that, our second founding work was that of Emily Dickinson, who never would be published in her lifetime but, more secretly & privately than any, hand-wrote & stitched together a series of single-copy booklets/(fascicles) as testimony to her own experiments with voice & line. Along with William Blake before them, she & Whitman are the poets of our language who first brought inspiration & production back together as related, undivided acts.

The work of the twentieth century (& into the present) was the continuation & expansion of those acts. In Europe the years immediately before & after the first world war -- what Marjorie Perloff calls & chronicles as “the futurist moment” -- saw a proliferation of poet-&-artist driven publications, from the collaborative “prose of the transsiberian” of Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay (a powerful multicolored foldout extravaganza) to the rough-hewn books of the Russian constructivists and the movement-centered magazines & books (Expressionist, Futurist, Dada, Surrealist) under the command, nearly always, of their poet/founders. The American equivalent was the first (golden) age of “little” magazines & presses -- central publications for what was emerging as a bona-fide American avant-garde. Writers who sought new ways & languages took charge of their own publication -- Gertrude Stein a case in point, whose works for years were published by herself & Alice Toklas, while others (Pound, Loy, Williams, among many) drew from a network (non-commercial, often poet-run) that ranged from Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions to Harry & Caresse Crosby’s Black Sun offerings to the important publications by George and Mary Oppen’s To Publishers, linking Imagist(e)s to “Objectivists” & both to the new poetries that would emerge post-World War Two. James Laughlin’s New Directions -- alive & vital to the present day -- came from the same fertile source, which also included magazines & reviews like Margaret Anderson’s and Jane Heap’s Little Review and Eugene Jolas’s Transition as first publishers respectively of works like Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake (the latter then known as “Work in Progress”).

The disruption of all that came with the new midcentury war & holocaust, preliminary to the cold war that defined the next four decades. The great European movements were long since gone or -- notably in the case of Surrealism -- had splintered into warring factions. A number of once marginal poets had received more general recognition (Eliot, Moore, Stevens, among the Americans) and with it access to the commercial literary networks. Others, like the American “Objectivists” (Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff, Rakosi), had fallen between the cracks & into a life of near non-publication. And the climate, in the decade following the war, seemed unremittingly reactionary, both on its “new critical” literary side & its McCarthyite political retrenchments.

The story by now is well known, but it is also true -- that it was against this background that the second great awakening of twentieth-century poetry was starting up, not only in the U.S. but in Europe, in Latin America, & in much of what was becoming, increasingly, the post-colonial world. Its two American centers -- as everybody also knows -- were New York and San Francisco, with links to other places large & small. If San Francisco was the great “refuge city” over all (I think that’s Robert Duncan’s term), New York was where a counterpoetics flourished in what Richard Schechner spoke of -- for theater & related arts -- as “a resistance and alternative to the conglomerate ... [that] exist[s] only in the creases of contemporary society, and off leavings, like cockroaches ... not marginal [he adds, but] ... run[ning] through the actual and conceptual center of society, like faults in the earth’s crust.” But the actual topography of the new poetry (circa 1960) was at a necessary distance from the commercial hub of American publishing (the concentration of media power in mid-Manhattan). Its terrain included not only the old bohemia of Greenwhich Village but moved increasingly, significantly, into surrounding regions ¾ eastward & southward into the tenement & loft areas of the Lower East Side, or into what came to be called the East Village, Soho, Tribeca, & so on. Rents then were cheap, & the cheapness, the economic advantage of life in the creases, was one of the attractions for the writers & artists who entered that territory. It was also -- at least at the start -- a time that was favorable for producing works on the cheap, either printing abroad (the dollar was still at its postwar high) or utilizing new & inexpensive means for the setting & manufacture of magazines & books: increasingly available photo offset technologies, but also more rough & ready means such as mimeo, ditto, & (somewhat later) xerox & other photocopying processes.

The result is what this show & book are all about: the emergence on the Lower East Side & environs (stretching all the way to Highlands, North Carolina, & Kyoto, Japan) of that kind of intellectual & spiritual energy that Pound, in the context of an earlier independent magazine & movement, had called a vortex: a place of cultural intersections & fusions, into which “all experience rushes,” to make the past & the present into something new. The publishers & publications included here represent the vortex, the vital center, of their own time & place. At its beginnings it was also part of that wave of liberations and resistances, still largely self-generated & unfinanced, that marked the 1960s and 70s in fact as well as in the popular imagination. The activity, with its spin-offs into readings & performances, was intense & (in its size & scope) unprecedented. The movements or groupings then active included the kingpins of the New American Poetry from the time of its 1960 emergence: Black Mountain poets, Beats, New York School, along with Fluxus, concrete poetry, Black Arts, deep image, ethnopoetics, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Under such headings -- or in some fertile space between -- the poets directly involved in the work of publication included the likes of Robert Creeley, Jonathan Williams, Cid Corman, Amiri Baraka, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Laughlin, Jack Spicer, Ed Sanders, Diane Di Prima, Vito Acconci, Bernadette Mayer, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Anne Waldman, John Ashbery, Clark Coolidge, Aram Saroyan, Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, Bruce Andrews, Bob Perelman, James Sherry, Lyn Hejinian, Margaret Randall, James Koller, Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, Jackson Mac Low, Dennis Tedlock, David Antin, Robert Kelly, David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, Nathaniel Mackey, even (at several points) the present writer. Yet even so large a list -- limited as it is to poets who doubled as publishers -- fails to catch the full breadth & force of what was happening there & throughout the world.

By 1980 -- the terminal date for this presentation -- the situation was no longer as clear as it had been earlier. The Vietnam War had shattered the image of American hegemony & the cold war had begun to simmer down. And while the Reagan years might have brought about a new resistance (& sometimes did), they also brought a new defensiveness in what became increasingly a culture war directed against the avant-garde rather than by it. The secret locations of this exhibit’s title were no longer secret but had come into a new & far less focused visibility & a fusion/confusion, often, with the commercial & cultural conglomerates of the American center. Increasingly too there had developed a dependence on support from institutional & governmental sources -- the National Endowment for the Arts, say, as the major case in point. The result was to impose both a gloss of professionalism on the alternative publications & to make obsolete the rough & ready book works of the previous two decades. But the still greater danger of patronage was that the denial of that patronage, once threatened, became an issue that would override most others.

At the present time, then, the lesson of the works presented here is the reminder of what is possible where the makers of the works seek out the means to maintain & fortify their independence. It seems possible with the new technologies now opening -- computer-generated publications & the still wide-open possibilities of internet & web -- that the great tradition of an independent American poetry will stay alive & well. Toward that end the contents of the present exhibition with its attendant book may prove to be a guideline & an inspiration.

[Published originally as pre-face to A Secret Location on the Lower East Side by Steven Clay’s Granary Books & scheduled for republication in Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetics & Polemics (University of Alabama Press Modern & Contemporary Poetics series), edited with Steven Clay.]

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (9): Some Outsider Poets

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

Is there for honest poverty / That hings his head, an a' that? / The coward slave, we pass him by - / We dare be poor for a' that! / For a' that, an a' that! / Our toils obscure, an a' that, / The rank is but the guinea's stamp, / The man's the gowd for a' that. (Robert Burns)

While the idea of a poetry outside-of-literature insinuated itself into the thinking of many within the nineteenth-century literary world, an actual but largely undervalued outsider poetry (many such poetries in fact) maintained its own semi-autonomous existence. With this split in the fabric of nineteenth-century consciousness (never wholly repaired up to the present) we enter the domain of the “self-taught poet,” separated from acknowledged literature by the accidents of class & region. Yet it was here where the bulk of poetry was written – or spoken & memorized – or where other works of language were created that did what poetry does but without a claim to being poetry as such. Though much of this – like most literature & poetry – was markedly derivative, there were also notable outcroppings of otherness & innovation, & in many instances a class-oriented political poetry that matched the workings of more established forerunners & contemporaries.

In the cluster of poems that follows we present a range of such works as written – with one notable exception – in English. That exception, who called himself “Raifteiri the Poet,” descended (not uniquely) from a line of bards outside the politically dominant English tradition but with autochthonous (Irish/Gaelic) sources of its own. Others, similarly situated, wrote in variants of English (dialects & creoles) that were themselves a challenge to the linguistic hegemonies around them. Yet something of that self-assertion also colored the writings of as purely English a poet as John Clare (too often taken as the stereotypical “outsider”), whose declaration of linguistic & grammatical independence is covered elsewhere in these pages. But the deeper incursions of outsider poets are exemplified here by the excerpts from Ernest Jones (1819-1869) &Thomas Cooper (1805-1892) – both of them political radicals but engaged concurrently in an attempt to participate in or to capture the high ground of literature as normatively practiced. For this their context was the mid-century Chartist movement of British laborers & artisans, that drew as well from the poetry & poetics of canonical figures such as Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, & most notably Shelley. (The Chartists’ publication of Shelley’s Queen Mab & its accompanying notes & essays led to its later reputation as “the Chartists’ Bible.”)

Still others, whom we might now think of as outsiders if not outsider poets, are represented here by the anonymous author of an American Revolutionary tract in Old Testament style; by the Nez Percé author of an 1880 history of his nation deposited in the cornerstone of a local tribal school & only recovered much later; & by “Uncle Jake” Carpenter who composed a series of beautifully lineated “obituaries” to celebrate deaths in the town of Three-Mile Creek, Avery county, in the western mountains of North Carolina (a kind of outsider’s Spoon River Anthology, as one of us once described them). In a more familiar mode, “The Boasting Drunk in Dodge” is a further example of anonymous, essentially oral/musical poems, while “The Honest Farmer’s Declaration” (1853) shows a divergent impulse toward typographical composition as practiced in a place far removed from any avant-garde pressures. And finally, the brief selection from Joanna Southcott’s prophetic writings – her poetry a vehicle for propehcy – gives a sense of the highly charged religious basis for what has come in our time to be named or misnamed “outsider art.”

[Three poems from this section follow]:

Antoine ó Reachtabhra (Blind Raftery) 1784-1835

Mise Raifteirí, an file, lán dóchais is grál
le súile gan solas, ciúineas gan crá,
ag dul síos ar m'aistear le solas mo chroí,
fann agus tuirseach go deireach mo shlí;
féach anois me lem aghaidh ar Bhalla
ag seinm cheoil do phócaí falamh'

I am Raiftieri, the poet, full of courage and love,
my eyes without light, in calmness serene,
taking my way to the light of my heart,
feeble and tired to the end of the road:
look at me now, my face toward Balla,
playing my music to empty pockets!

Translation from Irish by Thomas Kinsella

Ernest Jones 1819-1869

We plow and sow, we're so very, very low,
That we delve in the dirty clay;
Till we bless the plain with the golden grain,
And the vale with the fragrant hay.
Our place we know, we're so very, very low,
'Tis down at the landlord's feet;
We're not too low the grain to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.
Down, down we go, we're so very, very ow,
To the hell of the deep-sunk mines;
But we gather the proudest gems that glow,
When the crown of the despot shines;
And when'er he lacks, upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We're far too low to vote the tax
But not too low to pay.
We're low, we're low -- we're very, very low --
And yet from our fingers glide
The silken floss and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride;
And what we get, and what we give,
We know, and we know our share;
We're not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear.
We're low, we're low, we're very, very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man's arm will go
Through the heart of the proudest king.
We're low, we're low -- mere rabble, we know --
We're only the rank and the file;
We're not too low to kill the foe,
But too low to share the spoil.

Joanna Southcott 1750-1814

"But now I will come to Pilate's question, 'Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you?' the serpent, or the woman? Here is as just an inquiry as Pilate made. One of the two must be cast, before your full redemption can be accomplished. Now answer for thyself, O man! and I will for the woman. Did I not bear all the blame man cast on ME? (This refers to the Fall: 'The woman thou gavest to be with me, she tempted me and I did eat.') And is it not just, the serpent should bear the blame the woman cast on him? If ye judge this simple, read back, your Bibles, and ye will find all as simple. Simple was My coming into the world, and My manner through the world, and My going out of the world; all was as simple to the Jews as this appears to the Gentiles. Was I not born of simple parents, laid in a manger, and simply warned the wise men to return another way for fear of Herod, when I could have destroyed him? Did I not simply fly into Egypt, and full as simply returned again? For a God to be afraid of man, you must confess a simple thing."

And now in verse I shall begin
To echo back the lines to men.
Of simple parents I was born,
And worldly wise men did Me scorn;
Simply to Egypt I did fly,
And simply all was done,
And simply another way
I did turn back again;
Simply I oft Myself did hide
When man I could destroy;
Simply the manger made My bed,
While mankind did enjoy
Their beds of down, and wore their crown,
While I was forced to flee;
And simply shall their pride come down,
That every soul shall see.
Simple among the sons of men
I always did appear;
And simple in the woman's form
I've surely acted here.
Simple as these appear to be,
So simply all was done,
When on the Cross at Calvary
I gave My life for man.
For oh! how few regard My love,
Or to the manger go,
Just like the shepherds you have heard,
To know if it be true.
The manger here doth now appear
As much despised by man;
They cannot see the mystery clear -
The servant cannot come
No greater here for to appear -
Than was her Lord before;
And like the Jews the Gentiles are,
And open every pore.
Do I not see as well as thee
Thy poverty despised?
For like the Jews the Gentiles be,
And pride hath dimmed their eyes.
So now take care, I warn you here,
The natural branch did fall;
Then the wild olive sure must fear,
If none can judge the call.

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, July 29, & August 7.]

Friday, August 15, 2008

Uncollected Poems (2): Two for the Cockeyed Queen of Poland



There is something
following you . . .

But when I looked
behind me
the two women pointed –
at what?

The sun in the bowl
isn’t cautious.
Why should she wonder?

No dignity in that.
My shoes?

A turn of the lock
equalled death.
The two women pointed.

There is something
following you . . .

The sun in the bowl
isn’t cautious.

But when I looked
behind me –
a turn of the lock
equalled death.

No dignity in that.

The two women pointed –
at what?

There is something
following you . . .

My shoes?

A turn of the lock
equalled death.
Why should she wonder?

The two women pointed –
at what?

The lightbulb
& the cockeyed queen of Poland.

No dignity in that.


She is not a queen but trouble
comes to her. Bread
rises so slowly
she sees it & thinks of a black hand.

She was learning to cook.
Her favorite foods taste strange to her
soggy not fresh
pellets in the back of her throat
she could choke from.

I have given gifts to those subtle women
who are a step above me
always. A thrill
comes from long endurance
their sense of outliving the world.

We need ornaments.
We need nothing so badly
as time.

Like presidents we can never not smile.
A subtle woman or a queen
drives each one crazy.

[These poems were recovered, along with numerous others, in the process of assembling a volume of otherwise Uncollected Poems, scheduled for publication by Mark Weiss & Junction Press.]

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Translation and Illegibility, with a poem from A Book of Concealments

{The following is part of a talk that I delivered last January at a conference in San Diego on "illisibilité(illegibility) in contemporary French and American poetry. Among those present were Michel Deguy, Jean-Marie Gleize, Christian Prigent, & Nathalie Quintane from France, & it is principally to them that these remarks were addressed. A French translation is scheduled to appear later this year in a proceedings of the conference (Actes du Colloque) to be published by les Presses de l'ENS-LSH de Lyon (Ecole Normale Supérieure).]

In The Lorca Variations, a series of poems from the early 1990s, I took a step beyond translation by writing with Lorca (or my translation of Lorca’s book-length poem series called “The Suites”) as my source – isolating his nouns and other words (which were by then my own in English) and systematically recasting them into new compositions. In another series of poems, Gematria, I used a traditional Jewish form of connecting words by numerological methods and a word list of numerically arranged words and phrases from the Hebrew Bible, to make a poetry – as with the Lorca Variations – that I thought was both personal to me and was created by means that shared in what Blake saw as “the most sublime act ... [:] to set another before you.” And in more recent work, while continuing to make translations from Picasso and from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval, I have interspersed appropriations from their work with my own – composing three series of a hundred numbered verses each that I have called Autobiography. Still more recently – in A Book of Witness, my first work in the emerging century – I used the first person voice, the pronoun “I,” to explore whatever it is that we can say for ourselves – not only my personal self but that of all others – and I have intercalated in those poems short first person fragments from a number of my contemporaries. It was my hope in so doing that I could find new freedom (liberté) in my work as an artist and could even and meaningfully put identity into question.
. . . . . . .

Here in fact the account might end, but I will allow it to go just a little further.

Moving on from A Book of Witness, I have turned my attention to a new work, A Book of Concealments, a series or cycle like its predecessor and now approaching 75 poems, in which I have deliberately dropped [concealed] the first person pronoun but have continued the intercalations with small fragments from my own earlier work and from a mystical Jewish text, Sifra di Seni’uta, the source in fact of the series title. In the context of the present gathering, the idea of concealment might be seen to be a central issue. For this occasion, anyway, I can propose that in composing poetry what is said is balanced always by what is left unsaid. It is different in that sense from the discursive language in which I’m writing the present talk and in which I try to leave no gaps, while it corresponds in its concealments (its dark matter, so to speak) to a world of which our fellow poet Clayton Eshleman once wrote: “Since the hidden is bottomless, totality is more invisible than visible.”

I do not believe that this is true for every poem and every poet, but on the whole the language of poetry, even where it appears to be demotic, is a language that posits the unspoken, the unrevealed that gives to the revealed its mystery and power. In addition – whether it’s Poe’s attack on “the long poem” in favor of “brief poetical effects,” or Ezra Pound’s condensare, or the emphasis by some Romantics and some postmodernists on the fragment – poetry is rarely allowed the discursive spread that we grant to genres like the novel or the extended essay. For myself and others growing up in the shadow of the second world war, the lure of such a language and of modes of thinking and living that might extricate us from the brutalities of power and the banal and bloated forms of expression that reinforced them, was what drove many of us to poetry. (Nor is it much different today – the cold war gone, the time of the assassins ever renewed.)

The work that resulted was necessarily contrarian, not only in its overtly stated attitudes but in its creation of forms of languaging that overthrew or negated the anticipated and more familiar modes. With that came both the risk and the challenge of illisibilité – often charged and often denied – as when Gertrude Stein wrote, addressing that issue eighty years ago as I would now: “It is wonderful how a handwriting which is illegible can be read, yes it can.”

Stein’s comment is playful, as such comments have often been, and the charge to which it responds goes back (say) to Friedrich Schlegel’s defense in his essay, On Incomprehensibility, circa 1800: “Verily, it would fare badly with you if, as you demand, the whole world were ever to become wholly comprehensible in earnest. And isn’t this entire, unending world constructed by the understanding out of incomprehensibility or chaos?” Or again: “Of all things that have to do with communicating ideas, what could be more fascinating than the question of whether such communication is actually possible?” It is a curious defense of poetry, but an important one as well, from Schlegel’s time – at least – up to the post-Steinian present.

To put the communication of ideas in doubt is not to deny ideas and meaning but to set up another basis for poetry and a contrary notion of communication. (In the Mischgedicht – the poetry of mixed means – that Schlegel and the Jena romantics proposed for poetry and of which Michel Deguy is one of our current masters, all forms of communication and meaning were in fact called into play.) And beyond meaning as such. it’s obvious that the poem relies on other means (other powers), like those in Jean-Marie Gleize’s quotation from Deguy’s “definition” of poetry: “The poem is made of sequences in which images, figures of speech and rhythm are undivided.” And yet any of these (reminiscent of Pound’s sorting of poetic acts into phanopoeia, logopoeia and melopoeia) may appear to take pride of place in the work of any particular poet or in the field of any particular poem. We are in that sense not far from the time, post World War Two, when many of the poets among us returned poetry to performance and in doing so called new attention to its rhythmic and oral qualities and simultaneously seemed to bring poetry out of the margins and into a new if transitory visibility. There was a moment then – and renewed again and again in the interim – in which the most hermetic (apparently hermetic) poetry found new hearers (if not readers) in the poetry reading or the concert performance. I remember my own first experience of this – in 1958 – when I interviewed Kenneth Rexroth (25 years my senior) in performance at the Five Spot (nightclub) in New York, reading works of French modernists and avantgardists (among others) to the jazz of the Art Pepper Quintet, exploring the side of that poetry that came across directly or that his reading and the attendant music helped bring home. (And this was something that all of us have experienced at one time or another – from then to now.)

A few other points and then I’m finished.

To say first what might be unnecessary to say by now: when rhythm and sound are foregrounded – as in the case of oral poetry and poetry performed – image and meaning aren’t excluded and may in fact be enhanced and carried forward.

Second: The language of poetry – some of it stunningly complex – has existed across millennia at the center of cultures without writing but with qualities shared with poets in our own time – and perhaps forever. (This has been a crucial part of my own poetics and ethnopoetics since the late 1960s.)

Third: over the last hundred years (at least) we have seen the appearance of poetries and other forms of writing and art in which incomprehensibility (Schlegel”s Unverständlichkeit) is absolutely favored, and where it is, as in music, no impediment to communication [except of course for its strangeness – its unwillingness to make sense]. Sound poetry (poésie sonore) had its origins as art in early Futurism and Dada, was carried forward by poet-artists such as Kurt Schwitters in his great Ur Sonata, reached new heights in contemporary poets such as Henri Chopin and (sometimes) Jackson Mac Low, and still has resonance and cachet into the present. By the same token a work like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is no less (or more) comprehensible than Picasso’s Ma Jolie, though the road to great prestige in poetry lacks the reinforcement (the interest and monetary interest) that the market gives to painting or to sculpture. In short the poem of a Stein or a Schwitters communicates precisely its incomprehensibility, for which no paraphrase or transformation into comprehensibility is needed, or if achieved, is inferior to what was there to start with. [And there is also of course poetry that is difficult to grasp in its syntax and meaning – often deliberately opaque and dark – like yours in any instance or like mine.]

Aside from that however – all of which seems obvious to me – I would call into question some of the premises about readability and unreadability that seem to underlie this conference. If what is meant by illisibilité is merely the presence or absence of an audience for poetry or for a poetry of some complexity or range, I find that situation a little more complicated, a little less obvious than it may seem. From the time I first came into poetry – a half century ago – the work of poets I have most admired has in varying degrees been open or closed to access The situation in the fifties and sixties – here in the United States but not necessarily elsewhere – seemed to involve the outcropping of a public poetry with characteristics that linked it not to the banal poetries of our childhood but to the most radical poetry and art of the several preceding generations. In that way this new poetry functioned for a while at least as part of an emerging vanguard, its language symptomatic of a changing consciousness (irrational and rational by turns) – political, social, ecological, oneiric, even (let me just say it and quickly back away) psychedelic. As the most obvious example, a work like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl had a greater than expected public surface and appeal, both for those of us who read a lot and for those who only read a little, and many other writings were a part of the same wave. In some sense of course it was the figure of the poet that was revived and brought forward (and the poems often neglected), but some of the poetry that rode that wave was as ambitious and complex as any then being written. For a time this was amplified by the reading and performance of poetry in public places, many of them outside of the familiar literary arena. In the rebellions and demonstrations of the 1960s and 70s, poets played an initially central role before those in the truly popular arts caught up and then surpassed them. There and in the sometimes massive public festivals that have continued to the present, we saw – we see – a curious play between complexity and populism (poetry on the page and poetry on the stage, if we want to rhyme it into English), and the growth of the internet has brought further elements into the picture. It has possibly been easier to balance these here in North America, or possibly not, but it’s the multiplicity and the range of poetry that continues to incite me – lisible and illisible, readable and unreadable, comprehensible and incomprehensible, rational and irrational, voiced or read in silence, mine or yours.

. . . . . .

I will end with a poem of my own, which is in part about poetry and may be simultaneously lisible and illisible.


for Scott McLean

He will keep writing,
will he not,
as you will.
A pressure like a finger
builds inside
his chest
& travels upward,
somewhere between
the trachea
& glottis,
pushes the fold aside
& breaks.
Imagined speech.
It is the same for everything
we say we think we know
the speaker but the speaker
escapes our observation.
It is this concealment
that reveals
the truth of poetry
no less authoritative
than the other
in full gusto.
From the direction of his voice,
an absence & a grief,
his profile is a kind of blue.

The footfall of a wanderer
crosses the open field
in daylight.
Let the spirit rise
until it’s mind,
the untranslated,
in which the lyric voice
resides mind’s matter
& its coming forth
by day.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Pierre Joris: from Justifying the Margins: “Nimrod in Hell” with a note & reminiscence on Joris même

My father was a healer & a hunter. Is it any surprise that I became a poet & a translator? We don’t escape our filiations: we only stand more revealed, as the territories shift, as the hunt closes in. In an early work I spoke of St. Hubertus, patron saint & protector of hunters, bishop of Liège, also invoked against rabies. While hunting on Good Friday, he had been converted to Christianity when he saw a stag with a light cross between its antlers — this was supposed to have happened in the dark woods of the Ardennes, i.e. just north of where Arthur Rimbaud was born, & in a space he measured out in long walks.

But in Hubertus, or behind that too easily christianized hunter, lay already an earlier hunter: not a saint, though an even more biblical figure: Nimrod, “the first mighty man on earth” —a hunter, a mighty hunter before or against God (depending on the translation). The Old Testament associates this giant & mighty hunter with the project of Babel (his kingdom comprising Bavel in the land of Shinar, where the Tower will be built) and thus with the question of language & translation. And not surprisingly, as Giorgio Agamben reminds us, Dante has Nimrod in his hell (Inferno XXXI, 46-81) with the loss of meaningful language as his punishment. So that what the giant speaks in the Commedia is neither the lingua franca of Latin nor the new Vulgar Tongue. Dante gives us one verse of Nemrod’s ranting: “Raphèl maì amècche zabì almi.” Commentators from Benvenuto to Buti, or more recently, Singleton, are certain that these words are meaningless. A few, such as Landino, suggest that the words could be Chaldean, others that they may be Arabic, Hebrew, Greek… But the problem may not be there at all: The words Dante puts into Nimrod’s mouth are fitting, are accurate in their intention on language. Their meaning, in that sense, is absolutely clear: they mean to be ununderstandable, to be the babble of Bavel, the language that is untranslatable into any language — & that therefore, we know, must be translated. And yet – the lingo of Babel was the single language that all humanity understood, that a jealous commander-in-chief then shattered as punishment for the early humans’ communality; “divide et regna” already the essence of YHWH’s political science. So that Nimrod either remembers the first, unified language of the human race which we no longer know, or he speaks in one of the post-Babelian lingos, which are what makes translation possible.

But his words, no matter which language or non-language they are in, are fitting in a further sense: they are babble, thus a babelian bavel, & thus connect to bave, Fr. for drool, spittle. A false etymology – but are any etymologies really “false”? Aren’t they the engine whose misfirings, rather than smooth transparent linguistic runs, drive poetry forward? A false etymology, then, possibly, but one that brings in that much despised excretion without which we would have no language. And now, looking up the etymology of “bave” it turns out that the word goes back to pop. Latin “baba”, an “onomatopoeia that expresses the babble [le babil] of children.” Or of giants. Or of the single universal language all humans once spoke in their lingo-genetic childhood. Now this bave, this spittle, this active saliva (doesn’t the word “alive” hide somewhere in “saliva”?), as George Bataille’s Encyclopedia Acephalica teaches us, is “the deposit of the soul; spittle is soul in movement.” For spittle accompanies breath, “which can exit the mouth only when permeated with it.” Because “breath is soul, so much so that certain peoples have the notion of ‘the soul before the face.’” Without spittle, no breath, no soul, no language – it is the lubricant that immanentizes the pneuma. But it is also, the EA goes on, that which “casts the mouth in one fell swoop down to the last rung of the organic ladder, lending it a function of ejection even more repugnant than its role as gate through which one stuffs food.” And it’s sexual connotations & erotic manifestations allow it to befuddle any hierarchical classification of organs. The EA again: “Like the sexual act carried out in broad daylight, it is scandal itself, for it lowers the mouth – which is the visible sign of intelligence – to the level of the most shameful organs…” The scandal of children & giants speaking in a language comprehensible (or incomprehensible) to all, like spitting in public. Neither YHWH nor Dante can let this happen. The one shatters the single language, the other gathers the now incomprehensible words of the giant hunter Nimrod but makes them, has to make them fit into his language, wiped clean of spittle.

For Nimrod’s languaged anguish cannot, and does not exceed the Dantean world, it fits exactly into the cosmotopography of his lyric epic. It is metrically exact & accurately rimes with “palmi” two lines above & “salmi” two lines below. Gentle giant, speaking nonsense in comely divine words. Not surprisingly the prissy Latin poet wants worse from Nimrod, telling him “Stupid soul, keep to your horn,” and dismissing him thus: “Let us leave him alone and not speak in vain, for every language is to him as his is to others, which is known to none.” Yet Nimrod in rage hunts still – for meaning, & he says his meaning.

Poet, translator: même combat! We keep hunting among stones, Dante hunts down language in the De Vulgari Eloquentia where he tells us: “let us hunt after a more fitting language…so that our hunt may have a practicable path, let’s first cast the tangled bushes & brambles out of the wood.” (Ronald Duncan’s translation, modified). But the selva will always be oscura, mutters Rimbaud in the Ardennes, stumbling through Hubert’s hunting grounds, escaping mother and her tongue (is that why he gives up writing poetry?) and he stubs a toe, goes to Africa, travels the desert, the open space, no selva oscura, no guide needed, he has learned the languages, this nomad poet who knew that “living in the same place [he] would always find wretched,” to go on trafficking in the unknown, master of “la chasse spirituelle,” a hunt that will not let up.

Homophonically this morning I hear Dante/Nimrod’s line as:
“Rough hell may enmesh ease, a be-all me.”

* * *


It is astonishing to me how Joris, whom I’ve known going back into his jeunesse (& almost into mine) has emerged as an exemplar of a total poetics, at the heart of which is that nomadic poetics which he’s been delivering to us over the last two or three decades with such singular force. During that time it has been my good luck to work with him on a number of collaborative projects: Schwitters’ & Picasso’s collected writings & the two massive volumes of Poems for the Millennium (1995 & 1998), along with poems & poetics happily conceived & shared between us. Several years ago, in an interview on collaborations for Robert Archambeau’s Samizdat (number 7), I was asked, particularly with regard to Poems for the Millennium, “to say something about working with Pierre & how that collaboration has lasted so long.” A part of my answer follows, in the form in which it will appear in Poetics & Polemics 1980-2005, to be published later this year in the University of Alabama’s Modern & Contemporary Poetics series. That book is also -- & rightly – dedicated to Joris as “nomad & fellow traveler.”

The later work with Pierre Joris is, as I see it, a culmination for me of what came before and an indication of how fruitful collaboration can be in the kind of world we share. For all of that I’m a little hard pressed to remember the steps by which we came to work together. I had known Pierre since the late 1960s, when he was a student at Bard College and was living in New York City for a year or two after graduation. After he moved back to Europe we saw each other on and off in London and Paris, and in 1986, when I started a brief tenure at SUNY-Binghamton, we got the bright idea of bringing him over as a graduate student. I had already floated a proposal for a big twentieth-century book but was very uncertain about it as a one-man proposition. Once into conversation with Pierre, however, it became clear that we were both close enough and different enough to consider this as, simultaneously, a singular and dual venture. The key in fact was in the interplay that it allowed us – the possibility, as with other collaborations, of opening it up beyond what either of us was capable of doing on his own. And right from the start – and over the years that followed – the work proceeded, minus all acrimony, as a process that energized us in the work at hand and in our other workings.

Both of us had made anthologies before and both of us were devoted to the idea of the anthology as a kind of manifesto. We were also, both of us, devoted to the idea of poetry – the kind of poetry we needed – as a radical enterprise that cut across nations and cultures, and we both felt the absence of a gathering reflecting the history of modern (and “post”modern) poetry as we knew it. Over the years we had been engaged in acts of translation, and Poems for the Millennium, we knew, would be heavily dependent on translation. And when Larry Venuti, in affiliation with Temple University Press, raised the possibility of commissioning a work of translation in a new series he was starting, we sensed the chance to create a selected writings of the German artist and poet Kurt Schwitters. The Schwitters project – later published as PPPPPP: Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics – became a kind of testing ground for the collaboration, and a work also that we felt long overdue in English.

. . . . . . .

Joris’s background and intentions, then, were in most ways very similar to my own. At the very least we felt a kinship as poets that made the work of collaboration a consistently meaningful process and reinforced a sense that our dual input strengthened our ability to create an image of poetic worlds more diverse (and therefore “truer”) than what either of us might have done in isolation. We could also call on a significant number of others to add to that diversity and to the necessary sense of creating a big work in common. In doing this we were aware that the immediate model for what we were doing was the otherwise debased form of the university anthology. We willingly accepted the subtitle “The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry” as a kind of riposte to Oxford- and Harvard-sponsored compendia (among others) that perpetuated a tediously canonical poetry and poetics of which we (a larger “we” than just the two of us) no longer chose to be a part. We supplied commentaries – sometimes as mini-manifestos – in much the way I had done in the earlier assemblages (themselves a send-up on academic practices), and we enlisted a distinguished board of “advisors”
that spoke to our overriding sense of kinships and alliances. We were careful in doing so that such a board would be dominated by poets rather than academics and would be international in scope.

The structure of the book was otherwise of our own devising and different in kind and intention from more conventional assemblages. We chose in the first volume to highlight a number of the movements that characterized the early twentieth-century and had been ignored or diminished in most academic gatherings. Accordingly we gave a separate section of the book to each of six of them – Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Negritude, and the American “Objectivist” poets. The rest of the poets were grouped in three large “galleries” following a rather loose chronological sequence, and we opened the book with a section of nineteenth-century “forerunners” and ended with a section (“A Book of Origins”) that gave a glimpse into historical and ethnopoetic recoveries across the whole preceding century. In the second volume we limited ourselves to two galleries and incorporated a number of movements or quasi-movements as “corridors” or “clusters” within the galleries – many of them still more local or regional than those in the previous volume. And – as a kind of musical or compositional gesture – we began with a section that was pure prelude (“In the Dark”) and closed with a short coda-like section (“At the Turning”) in which we joined two of our own poems with Robert Duncan’s final, altenstil poem, “After a Long Illness.”

In all of this we were trying to present a range of realized possibilities while hoping that the work wouldn’t be read canonically in terms only of its inclusions and exclusions. To avoid that, I suppose, we also put what was probably a greater than needed emphasis on the personal nature of what we were doing – in Olson’s words again, our “special view of history.” Going still further, I would describe the book as a construct or even, if it comes to it, a fiction – but the kind of fiction (“supreme” or otherwise) that all such works must surely be.

ADDENDUM & BOOK NOTE. "Nimrod in Hell" also appears in Joris's Alibar II, a new book of poems just published by Phi Editions in Luxembourg; and the larger book of his essays, Justifying the Margins, in which it functions as a sort of "exergue," will be published this fall by Salt Publishing in England. "Not a prose-poem, not an 'essay' as such,'" he writes, "not a bio-note really, but something else, a noamadic inter-genre piece of writing, I guess."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (8): Heinrich Heine, with Gerard De Nerval, A Prose Poem & a Commentary


Longing & love!

It’s all broken: I’m lying here sprawled on the shore, deserted & naked, a corpse that the sea has spit up with contempt.

Before me the ocean fans out, a vast desert of water, while in back of me nothing but exile & grief, & over my head clouds sail by, grey & formless, the daughters of air, who draw water up from the sea, whisps of fog that they lift with great effort, then let them fall back on the sea, exquisite & useless, just like my life.

Waves murmur, gulls caw, old memories seize me, dreams forgotten, snuffed out, images slow to return, sad & tender.

Up north there’s a beautiful woman, regal & beautiful, wearing a white robe, voluptuous, circling her frail cypress waist; her hair in black curls unloosening, blesst like the night, from her head crowned with tresses, wind blowing capriciously, touching her tender pale face, & there in her tender pale face an eye large & powerful shines, a black sun.

Black sun, how many times have your flames turned against me, your ardors consumed me, how many times was I left here staggering, drunk from your juices!

But just then a trace of a smile crossed her lips fiercely arched like a child’s, sweet but fiercely arched, breathing out words faint as moonlight & gentle as attar of roses.

My soul then came forth & glided rejoicing up to the sky.

Be silent, you waves & you gulls!

Joy & hope! love & longing! everything comes to a close.

I lie down on the earth, a miserable castaway, pressing my face still aflame on the watersoaked sand.

[Translation from French by Jerome Rothenberg, after Nerval’s translation from German]

* * *

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

I don’t care very much about my fame as a poet, nor am I concerned whether my songs will be praised or blamed. But you shall lay a sword on my grave, for I have been a good soldier in the war of liberation of mankind. (H. H., The Voyage from Munich to Genoa) And again: I am the son of the Revolution, and I take up the charmed weapons upon which my mother has pronounced her magic blessing. (H. H., The Romantic School)

(1) A turning from Romanticism as previously practiced & a reminder of how much tension existed in such movements, both within & across generations. But with Heine selbst the drama of poetry (& of “the poet”) took its own particular twists, & after sentimental (“romantic”) early lieder, he became in works such as Germany: A Winter’s Tale (1844) a satirist/ironist who, as Nietzsche wrote of him. “possessed that divine malice without which I cannot conceive perfection.” His, then, was a further example of an oppositional, often courageous practice marked by a strong impulse toward dismissal & invective — against his literary & philosophical predecesors (The Romantic School, etc.) & the cultural & political milieu that banned his work & drove him into twenty-five years of Paris exile.

Growing up in a period of post-Napoleonic reaction & with a sense of betrayal by earlier Romantics, much like what was felt by Shelley’s generation in England, he was a supporter of later revolutions (1830, 1848) & of a nascent socialism & communism. His turn toward materialism & a kind of art-&-life continuum was a counter both to his own romantic questing & to those “Goethians” & Jena School Romantics (“priests and petty nobility, who conspire against the religious and political freedom of Europe”) who “allowed themselves to be misled into oclaiming the supremacy of art and turning away from the demands of that original real world which, after all, must take precedence.” In saying which he revived & transcended the older Romanticism while pointing to a conflict that has still to be resolved.

N.B. That he was also the only major Jewish poet of the nineteenth century — though a convert as well to evangelical Protestantism (“[his] entrance ticket to European culture”) — is another point worth noting.

“Yes, if a man isn’t willing to take some risk for his
opinion, either his opinions are no good or he’s no good.
Remember Heine? You have admired him. He walked through
a revolution too. He didn’t have his eyes left, and he
wasn’t as gay as you. It was paresis laid him low. (What
got you?) He left what he called his mattress grave and
found his way, blind, through the bullets in the street,
it was 1848, to the Louvre. He did it, he took the risk,
to have another look at Venus. What were you looking at
in a broadcasting studio?”
Charles Olson, from “A Lustrum for You, E. P. [Ezra Pound]

(3) His close relationship with Gerard de Nerval with whom he collaborated on the translation of many of his lyrics as prose poems, is the basis of some of our translations here. [Other translations by Ezra Pound lie behind Olson's Lustrum.]

[From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009. For further information check the following URL: Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, & July 29.]

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

from Daichidoron: 32 Ways of Looking at the Buddha

for Hiromi Ito

(1) When the Buddha walks. his feet are so close to the ground that there is not even a hair's space between his soles & the earth;

(2) the imprint of a wheel appears on the soles of the Buddha's feet;

(3) the Buddha's fingers are exceptionally long & slender;

(4) the Buddha's heels are broad, round & smooth;

(5) the Buddha has a web-like membrane between his fingers & toes;

(6) the skin of the Buddha’s hands & feet is soft & smooth;

(7) the Buddha’s feet have unusually high insteps;

(8) the Buddha's calves are rounded & firm like those of a stag;

(9) exceptionally long arms,when standing, the Buddha's hands reach his knees;

(10) the Buddha’s genitals are hidden inside the body;

(11) the Buddha's body height is equal to his armspread, considered to give a classically proportioned body;

(12) the Buddha's body hair grows in an upward direction;

(13) one hair grows from each pore on the Buddha’s skin;

(14) the Buddha's body gleams with a golden light;

(15) the Buddha emits a halo of light which frames his body & extends outward about three metres;

(16) the Buddha’s skin is extremely smooth;

(17) seven regions of the Buddha's two feet, shoulders, & neck are full & rounded;

(18) the sides of the Buddha’s body under the Buddha’s arms are full, not hollow as on an ordinary person;

(19) the upper part of the Buddha's body is majestic, like a lion;

(20) the Buddha's posture is firm & perfectly erect;

(21) the Buddha’s shoulders are full & rounded;

(22) the Buddha has forty teeth, as white as snow;

(23) the Buddha’s teeth are straight, without gaps, & equal in size;

(24) the Buddha also has 4 canine teeth which are larger, whiter, & sharper than the rest;

(25) the Buddha’s cheeks are full & firm like those of a lion;

(26) the Buddha's saliva imparts a delicious taste to everything he eats;

(27) the Buddha’s tongue is long & flexible, when extended it reaches to the Buddha’s hairline;

(28) the Buddha's voice is pure, strong & deep, has an exceptional ability to communicate to the listener, & can be heard from a long distance;

(29) the pupils of the Buddha’s eyes are a deep blue colour, like the blue lotus flower;

(30) the Buddha’s eyelashes are long & regular;

(31) the Buddha has a protuberance on the top of his head, representing wisdom;

(32) the Buddha has a light emitting clockwise curls of hair on his forehead.

NOTE. The lead-in to the poem came, like much else, from conversations with Hiromi Ito, herself a major figure in contemporary Japanese poetry & for some years a neighbor & close friend in southern California. I had recently written & published a series of poems, The Treasures of Dunhuang, many of which were my own takes on images of the Buddha from the great painted caves of Dunhuang in western China. My first sighting of those was in an exhibit of that name at the Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, in 1996, reenforced by a visit to Dunhuang in 2002. What struck me then was the surprising twist given to images that we thought of as familiar – much like images of Jesus when one sees them in out-of-the-way regions of the Christian world. I had long had in mind, & more so recently, perceptions about the nature of poetry enunciated by poets like Novalis – “The art of estranging in a given way, making a subject strange and yet familiar and alluring, this is romantic poetics” – & referential too, I thought, to how we come at poetry today.

It was Hiromi’s sense of other images, other places, though, that led me to the Daichidoron - the Mahaprajnaparamita Shastra, discourses on the-Great Wisdom Scriptures, attributed to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna (circa 150-250 a.d.). The 32 lines, as they appear here, are a found poem that in some sense completes the work for me. (For which see also China Notes & The Treasures of Dunhuang, published by Ahadada Books in 2006.)

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Charles Bernstein: 4 Poems, with a Note on Escape, from Rousseau to Bernstein

Transegmental Drift

It’s the mind makes a muck of these Sylvan
Occlusions and mannered pronouncements.
“Abominable!” is the word, beastly –
Sound obtruding into the poem like a
Pork rind at a Bar Mitzvah. Just give the
Twist a break, or several. Nailed down to
24-hour fog duty. The un-
iforms are soiled and ill-fitting. But jeans
Regularize all that. The stuff of themes: Cut and paste, morose, interdenomi-
nation, laser-sharp lobotomy. The
Door the door closes. As when a conti-
nental divide becomes metaphor for
Swimming laps (summary judgment). Goad the
Goalie but leave me to fall to pieces
With my jet skies on. The waves roll, taking
No toll. How about you?

The Sixties, with Apologies

I remember the future, how it was
So much like the past, those days
Rowing on the lake for the sake of
Rowing itself, never looking out, never
Any ducks lined up, only the fragrance
Of fragrance, the similes on a smile
Touched by an angle. As if our fund
For hedges was any more effective than
Duping, duking, doping, throwing
Cold water on sizzling runes. Jesus
Would have dug it, before he got hung
Up in all that superstructure. Even
The water withers in the mouth, like

Hope evaporating in the words of the
Town criers and motion sensors. Gale
Winds diminish in the mind since
Whatever is apparent and clear in
My brain is so much Yukon flu.
The utter white spaces of deception.
It’s ok, but I did that 20 years ago.
Millions of miles beyond care, sobered
Up on 12-year-old bourbon & lobster
Rigamarole. The blood on George Bush’s
Hands keeps coming out in my stool.
Night is never dark enough because
Everything I see frightens me.

Death on a Pale Horse

Circumstance guards way before
Targets long out of reach but forever
Emblazoned on mind’s horizon.
Like phase or water without wetness
Sheer incline to other slope
So that shibboleth becomes
Token of last year’s dope
Or cagey proportion not quite sized
For the next reason. How completely
Dandy, doing dithers in slivered
Solicitude or postcoital entropics.
Seize the tone or time’ll
Trick every last one of you, it’s
That close, that final.

No Hiding Place

I thought language poetry was against emotion in the name of

I thought language poetry was against theory in favor of praxis

I thought language poetry was lots of words making the most of

I thought language poetry was the diehard foe of the massed mediocracy

I thought language poetry was a big tent without roof or floor

I thought language poetry was sympathy without tea

I thought language poetry was ambient sound in serial locomotion

I thought language poetry has branches in Paris, New York, Toronto,
and Palm Springs

I thought language poetry was Marxist

I thought language poetry was anarchist

I thought language poetry was the antichrist

I thought language poetry was bourgeois aestheticism

I thought language poetry hated the voice

I thought language poetry was all voicing and never content

I thought language poetry was against realism

I thought language poetry was a new form of realism

I thought language poetry was against dogma

I thought language poetry refused its commissars

I thought language poetry was against closed groups

I thought language poetry was all thought in pursuit of potential

I thought language poetry was Gertrude Stein all over again

I thought language poetry was trying to make the reader feel

I thought language poetry was wary of proclamations of sincere

I thought language poetry was a lot of nonsense packaged to look

I thought language poetry was the possibility for freedom

I thought language poetry was the major precursor to word-salad
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I thought language poetry was short for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry

I thought language poetry favored style over manner

I thought language poetry was too intellectual

I thought language poetry was too difficult to ignore

I thought language poetry was the cat’s scratch

I thought language poetry was neither a school nor a movement
but a transient moment

I thought language poetry was a chimerical constellation

I thought language poetry was tendencies and investments not
rules or orders

I thought language poetry was minor literature with a vengeance

I thought language poetry was a collective figment of a collective

I thought language poetry was an illusion

I thought language poetry was over

I thought language poetry resists the authority of language poetry

* * *


Early in Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, Jeffrey Robinson and I present Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a forerunner both to romanticism and to the modernism & postmodernism that follow. After commenting briefly on the politics of The Social Contract and related writings, we turn to Rousseau’s Confessions and the late Reveries of a Solitary Walker (posthumously published in 1782), which reveal “another side of Rousseau” – we write – “equally crucial for Romanticism: the defiant expression of the mind in its freedom. The Reveries push, or expand, the arena of wandering self-exploration into the semi-conscious zone that can --according to Rousseau & the many later writers from Keats & De Quincey & Hugo to Baudelaire & Nerval & Poe & Mallarmé & well into the surrealist writers of the twentieth century & beyond — offer its own challenge to the cultural police by envisioning, through what appears to be a regressive or escapist lapse from the real world, a new space for our communal wandering.”

And at this point, & without further elaboration, we offer the following quote from Bernstein’s Artifice of Absorption, as a link & continuation from Rousseau :

But escape can be an image of release from captivity
in a culture that produces satisfactions as a means
of exploitation or pacification. The problem
with “escapist” literature is that it offers no escape,
narratively reinforcing our captivity.
To escape, however, if only
trope-ically, is not a utopian refusal
to encounter the realpolitic of history: it is a
crucial dialectical turn that allows imaginal place
outside history as we “know” it,
in order to critique it,
an Archemidian point of imaginative
construction, in which we can be energized,
our resources shored.