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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Robert Sheppard: North American Poetics: A Sample

Jerome Rothenberg states rightly that a characteristic of poets ‘has been the push … to self-define their workings, often in a language that makes a continuity with how they speak within their poems’, and I shall be making some play of the variety of forms in the poetics discussed. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 405) Each of these North American poets, in the interests of economy, is represented by one work only, using the list of publications established in an earlier post, and I will comment only a little on each.

Amy Lowell’s ‘Poetry as a Spoken Art’ (1917) emphasises the audible qualities of poetry and offers an apologia for free verse as rhythmical utterance. (Cook 2004: 69-74) Ezra Pound’s ‘A Retrospect’ (1918) has been reprinted often, thus reinforcing my earlier contention that Pound operates, in this limited field only, as a kind of specific rather than a universal founder of discursivity. Pound, like Lowell, offers a justification of free verse or for particular rhythmical contours as analogues for certain emotions, but he adds his famous ‘Don’ts’, which additionally emphasise imagistic clarity and verbal economy. (Cook 2004: 83-90; Scully 1966: 30-43; Herbert and Hollis 2000: 17-25) T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), is a poetics for the writing that became The Waste Land, stressing how tradition impacts upon the present act of writing, and how modernist ‘impersonality’ is an escape from personality and false emotion, almost an escape into tradition, as the poem attempted to prove. (Cook 2004: 97-105) Hart Crane’s ‘General Aims and Theories’ (1925) suggests ways for the modern poet to incorporate the industrial and urban energies of the modern world into the creation of a new poetry of impersonal consciousness and spiritual illumination. (Cook 2004: 135-38) Wallace Stevens takes on the form of the aphorism in ‘Adagia’ (1934-40) to articulate a nuanced sense of a similar impersonality, testing out various metaphors for poetry as the supreme fiction. His contention that ‘The theory of poetry is the life of poetry’ expresses a commitment to poetics, a commitment felt throughout his poetry itself. (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 56-66; 66) Gertrude Stein likewise was given to ‘explanation’ of a peculiarly indirect kind. ‘Poetry and Grammar’ (1935) is one of her famous lectures which justifies her work to the baffled audience created by her unlikely celebrity; in her repetitive, apparently simple prose (not unlike the texture of the creative work itself) she presents the history of her writing as the struggle to find the difference between poetry and prose, only to find that nouns and an experimental mode of minimal naming are the constituents of her poetry. (Cook 2004: 208-214) William Carlos Williams’ ‘Introduction to The Wedge’ (1944) is a short passionate modernist definition of the poem as a machine, whose parts must all function. However, he rejects formal poetic artifice for this machine, while reminding his readership of the fact that poets make such machines rather than deliver utterances. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 137-139) Langston Hughes’ ‘How to Be a Bad Writer (in ten easy lessons)’ (1949/50) is a parody of the Creative Writing ‘how to’ book: an ironical list of mistakes aimed specifically at African American writers. One offence is to refuse to write about everyday experience; another is to use archaic diction. Slapdash work and bohemian dissipation are likewise satirised. (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 127-8)

Like Pound’s poetics, Charles Olson’s much anthologised essay ‘Projective Verse’ (1950) is often cited as a source of others’ poetics and, just as importantly, as a much imitated model for its writing, with its abrupt, demotic, fiercely intelligent but trenchantly non-academic tone. It presents a poetics of perceptual and scriptural kinetics, theorising the poem as a field of verbal energy, whose moments of creation gather the poem’s subject matter in an improvisatory sweep. (Cook 2004: 288-295; (Scully 1966: 271-282) (Allen and Tallman 1973: 147-158 (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 92-99) Louis Zukofsky’s already discussed Objectivist ‘A Statement for Poetry’ (1950), recasts Pound’s three types of poetry into the simpler categories of image, sound and concept, as components of a poem whose form will develop prosody during its composition, though not in the improvisatory manner of projective verse. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 143-6)

e.e. cummings’ preface ‘An Introduction’ (c. 1955) oddly works to delimit the impact of the poems they introduce: by denying their possible universality and their social engagement, for example, in favour of a private communion with the reader in the name of beauty. (Scully 1966: 124-125) The first half of Marianne Moore’s essay ‘Idiosyncrasy and Technique’ (c. 1956) opts for the efficacy of the technique of straight writing, that is, without obfuscatory diction or elaborate ornament; the second half, on ‘Idiosyncrasy’, concerns subject matter, particularly the elusive materials one can garner from literature (she quotes one of her allusive poems) and from life. (Scully 1966: 107-122)

Robert Duncan’s ‘Notes on Poetics Regarding Olson’s Maximus’ (1956) recapitulates and reaffirms the axioms of post-Poundian poetics. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 187-195) Olson’s ex-student, Edward Dorn, in his similarly entitled ‘What I See in The Maximus Poems’ (1961) looks not to history, but to geography, and finds in Olson’s work an investigation of the particularity of place, with which Dorn elsewhere makes his own poetic continuity. (Cook 2004: 361-366)

John Cage’s ‘Lecture on Nothing’ (1959) is a performance text that constitutes its own poetics (or vice versa) arranged in strict columns, across which a text about the making of itself (as poetry, as form) may be recited in fragments with unnatural silences to defamiliarise it for the contemplating audience. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 413-15)

Frank O’Hara’s ‘Personism: A Manifesto’ (1959) parodies the manifesto form to argue for a pragmatics of formal description and an ironical intimacy of address in the poetic exchange. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 353-355) Allen Ginsberg’s ‘When the Mode of the Music Changes the Walls of the City Shake’ (1961) begins with an attack on conventional forms for their inability to register the complexities of perception and consciousness (specifically Ginsberg’s own!) and ends by hailing a revolution in American letters. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 324-330) John Weiners’ ‘The Address of the Watchman to the Night’ (1963) rejects his earlier bohemianism of depraved excess in favour of a poetics of perpetual alertness to that which is close to hand. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 351-2) Amiri Baraka’s ‘Black Dada Nihilismus’ (1964) (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 420-22) is a more public act of renunciation and realignment: a manifesto poem for black consciousness poetry, arguing the recognition of the symbolic power of black history and the actual power of black revolt. The appearance of this poem on disk, set to aggressive free jazz by The New York Art Quartet in 1965, propels poetics into a strictly performative context. Adrienne Rich’s ‘Poetry and Experience: Statement at a Poetry Reading’ (1964) was a publicly uttered renunciation of her former poetics, as her work became more militantly feminist. (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 141-2)

Denise Levertov’s ‘Notes on Organic Form’ (1965) melds her post-Olsonian inheritance with an older Romanticism, perhaps owing to her English poetic origins in the 1940s, so that Hopkins’ concept of the instress is re-functioned as the shape of an experience as that is negotiated by the shaping of the poem. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 312-317) In contrast, Jackson MacLow’s short ‘Statement’ (c. 1965) outlines his anarchist poetics of procedural technique, allowing minimal intentional interruptions by the authorial ego. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 384-5)

Jack Spicer’s ‘Excerpts from the Vancouver Lectures’ (1965) are transcriptions of extemporised remarks made at a poetry conference, and range from the mystical idea of writing as ‘dictation’ to the identification of the serial poem as way of structuring intermittent consciousness. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 227-234) As academic interest in the New American Poetry grew, the lecture room increasingly became a site for poetics. Both Robert Creeley’s lecture, ‘I’m Given to Write Poems’ (Allen and Tallman 1973: 263-273) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s account of the writing of a poem in his ‘Genesis of After the Cries of the Birds’ were delivered at the same conference in Berlin in 1967, thus also reminding us of both the public and the inter-authorial communication at such events at which poetics is disseminated. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 445-449) Creeley’s title recognises the pressure to write and the feeling that a poem is ‘being permitted to continue’ in its improvisatory unpredictable coming into being (to use his description that has been recast into a definition of poetics itself, in the hands of Rachel Blau DuPlessis. She calls poetics 'permission to continue'.). (Allen and Tallman 1973: 263)

Gary Snyder’s heady mix of Buddhism and ecology, ‘Poetry and the Primitive’ (1967), sees poetry as an essential ‘ecological survival technique’, a view that has recently become popular again, thus demonstrating that repressed poetics have the possibility of return in new situations. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 395-406; 395) John Ashbery’s ‘The Invisible Avant-Garde’ (1968) is a lecture to the Yale Art School on the concept of the avant-garde (the irony of the venue is not lost on Ashbery) in which he reflects upon a polito-poetical situation that he has surely experienced; when his or her avant-garde practice is assimilated to cultural taste, a truly vanguard artist must learn to escape this automatic acceptance. (Cook 2004: 393-398) This is ironical, given that as Ashbery was writing, a new avant-garde was just around the corner, ready to take up that challenge. Robert Grenier’s ‘On Speech’ (1971) is arguably the founding document of the poetics of the Language Poets, with its anti-Olsonian admonition ‘I HATE SPEECH’ that emphasises a primarily scriptural context for writing. (Silliman 1986: 496-7)

Ishmael Reed’s ‘Neo-Hoodoo Manifesto’ (c. 1972) is as playful as Reed’s novels in presenting a tricksterish pan-African diasporic energy manifesting in what he calls the ‘Now Locomotive’ of the moment. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 440-41)

Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘Letter to Miss Pierson’ (1975) takes the form of an answer to specific questions from a correspondent; Bishop advocates a course of exhaustive reading (but not reading ‘too much about poetry’) and balances the necessity of hard work (as is evident in her own case) against the mysterious and surprising aspects of writerly process. (Herbert and Hollis 2000:104-5; 101)

Between 1971-5, Bernadette Mayer and the Members of her St Mark’s Church Poetry Project Writing Workshop assembled their ‘Experiments’ (1978), a series of creative writing exercises that has proved authoritative and has been subsequently supplemented by Charles Bernstein and others. (Silliman 1986: 557-560) Clark Coolidge’s ‘from Arrangement’ (1978), an excerpt from a public class at the Naropa Institute, is a lesson in the practical reading of non-referential writing, such as his own. (Silliman 1986: 553-4)

Jerome Rothenberg’s ‘New Models, New Visions: Some Notes Toward a Poetics of Performance’ (1977) argues for the centrality of a paradigm-breaking poetic practice that combines ethnopoetics and the avant-garde, and combines performance strategies with those for the page alone. (Hoover 1994: 640-44) Likewise concerned with performance, but in a specific context, Steve McCaffery’s ‘Text-Sound, Energy and Performance’ (1978) praises the somatic excesses of sound poetry which arguably release repressed energies and (non-)meanings ordinarily latent in language. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 427) On the other hand, Edward Sanders’ ‘Investigative Poetry’ (1976) argues for a new genre of writing as radical historical recovery through a documentarist poetics. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 430-32)

Rae Armantrout’s ‘Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?’ (1978) deals with the sexual political question it asks, but also defines a poetry that is not ‘language-oriented’ at all, but one that, in her characteristic way of cutting to the chase, ‘sees itself as well as the world’, and brushes to one side a binary between text and experience that has both sustained and vitiated American poetry . (Silliman 1986: 544-546; 546) (Coincidentylally, it's a formulation I've recently reversed; let's see the world as well as the poem!) It is almost ironical, therefore, that this short piece, like many that follow from that rising avant-garde, appeared in the poetics journal L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, in this case, in its founding issue. Ron Silliman’s ‘From The New Sentence’ (1979) furnishes the poetics of a collagist mode of poets’ prose influential with that grouping. (Silliman 1986: 561-575)

‘My Poetry’ (c. 1980), by David Bromige - a wonderful man, whose recent death was a great sadness - is a typically teasing and hyperbolic account of his past works, a parody of pseudo-poetics as an explanatory gesture, but he intermittently reveals an underlying yearning for authenticity. (Silliman 1986: 216-226)

Susan Howe’s ‘P. INMAN, Platin’ (1980) takes the form of a book review, but through it Howe presents her poetics of fractured and discontinuous surface. (Silliman 1986: 555-6) Similarly, Bruce Andrews’ ‘Misrepresentation’ (1980), subtitled ‘A text for The Tennis Court Oath of John Ashbery’, is also a reflection on a book, this time the early (and often rejected) avant-garde work Ashbery published in 1962. It is an effusive endorsement of the kinds of textual exuberance we find in Andrews’ own work (and in his poetics, of which he is a continual practitioner). (Silliman 1986: 520-529) The serial poetics statements of Language Poets Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman, ‘for Change’ (1982) are terse position-statements sent from one avant-garde to the central magazine of another, French, avant-garde, a mode of poetics exchange not common. (Silliman 1986: 484-490) Carla Harryman’s ‘Foreword’ (1980) is a piece of poet’s prose that resembles her ‘creative’ work, in a refusal of the division between discourses. (Silliman 1986: 483) Stephen Rodefer’s ‘Preface to Four Lectures’ (1981) stands back to explain how the collagist nature of urban experience determined the fractured surface of his serial poem: a musical and painterly structure resembling both a museum and reality beyond. (Silliman 1986: 515- 1981) Charles Bernstein, to whom reference is made throughout this work for his commitment to poetics, and who is the subject of my next chapter, is well represented by the essay ‘Writing and Method’ (1981) which hovers around its central axiom that creative work is itself already a kind of poetics: ‘All writing is a demonstration of method; it can assume a method or investigate it.’ (Silliman 1986: 590) This, in turn, might be thought of the central poetics statement of Bernstein as a poet. (Silliman 1986: 583-598) Barrett Watten’s ‘Method and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E’ (1984) is part of Watten’s critical journey through several volumes to define the operational social contexts for the writings of the language group, in this case its central journal, and thus of himself; he often alarmingly uses his own works as exemplars, in a way that transgresses pure poetics. (Silliman 1986: 599-612) Lyn Hejinian’s 'The Rejection of Closure' (1984) argues for the ‘open text’ as against the closed, not metrically as in earlier poetics, but in terms of interpretive choices deliberately offered to the reader. (Hoover 1994: 653-658)

Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ ‘Otherhow, Feminist Poetics, Modernism, the Avant-Garde’ (1985) is an extract from her book The Pink Guitar, from which I have above quoted one of the most useful definitions of poetics; she theorises avant-garde practice as an investigation (jointly) of genre and gender. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 433-435) Canadian poet Lisa Robertson’s ‘How Pastoral: A Manifesto’ (1993) consists of a statement and a commentary that elaborates her list of ‘wants’ and ‘wishes’. Her desire for a ‘poetics of historical responsibility’ is fuelled by a need to haunt the interstices and absurdities of history. (Wallace and Marks 2002: 21-26; 26)

Dick Higgins’ ‘Intermedia Chart’ (1995) is a multiple Venn diagram showing the overlapping of intermedia experiments between elements such as concrete poetry and Fluxus; the gesture of poetics is enacted by the inclusion of circles marked simply with question-marks, reminding us that poetics is a self-generating activity oriented towards the future. (Rothenberg and Joris 1998: 428)

Harryette Mullen’s ‘Poetry and Identity’ (1996) considers her early work, immediately identified as ‘black’ writing, and her later identity as an avant-gardist, which challenges those (and other) identities. (Wallace and Marks 2002: 27-31) Kristin Prevallet’s ‘Investigating the Procedure: Poetry and the Source’ (2002) deals with the inheritance from earlier forms of documentarist poetics like Sanders’, to outline a processual practice she has made her own. (Wallace and Marks 2002: 115-129) Mark Wallace’s ‘Towards a Free Multiplicity of Form’ sees a similar, though wider, inheritance of forms for a post-Language poetry avant-garde, though it sees pitfalls in both automatically declaring some forms (politically) liberating and by delimiting the possibilities of ‘the lyric’, for example. (1996/2002) (Wallace and Marks 2002: 191-203) Elizabeth Willis’ ‘The Arena in the Garden: Some Thoughts on the Late Lyric’ (2002), offers more narrow evidence, around the late 1990s, of a return to lyric in experimental American writing. (Wallace and Marks 2002: 225-35)

A number of recent writers have adopted disconnected forms for poetics which make continuity with their modes of creative writing itself, but possibly reveal a limitation of these poetics. Reading these documents, I feel a need for a more definitive statement, a feeling that the discourse might risk becoming an evasion of poetics as a mode, perhaps has developed conventions and paradigms that – in the true spirit of poetics – need breaking. Andrew Levy’s ‘An Indispensable Coefficient of Esthetic Order’ (1996/2002) is a free and speculative meditation upon what the author’s relationship to (his) poetry might become, which he characterises as a form of silence in which (what he does not want to call) subject matter forms. (Wallace and Marks 2002: 381-394) Tan Lin’s ‘ambient stylistics’ (2002) is a sprawling piece of autobiographical poetics, dealing with the conditions of truth-telling in poetry and with poetry as a deliberate imprecise measure of that which cannot be measured (the world). (Wallace and Marks 2002: 339-365) Sianne Ngai’s ‘Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust’ (1998/2002), on the other hand, is anything but impressionistic. A traditional essay, owing to Bataille and other theorists, this piece rejects the ritualistic declarations of ‘desire’ as aesthetic aim or motivation in earlier poetics and replaces this with more negative excesses. But it does not turn to the lyric or any other repressed mode, but sees language itself as abjection: ‘A poetics of disgust, one that accommodates the subject’s negative potentiality in impotence or lack, can only emerge from poetry built from linguistic raw material.’ (Wallace and Marks 2002: 161-190; 180) Whatever one thinks of such abjection, the essay’s focus brings this history of (ongoing) American poetics to a convenient pause and reminds us that poetics is primarily about such ‘building’.

An obvious complementary source of poetics (and much else) is the literary interview. While the Paris Review interviews from the 1950s onwards are perhaps the best known and set the standard for its development, this type of recorded exchange is virtually an art form in its own right, with thousands of examples. Barbara Tomlinson’s Authors on Writing (2005), an analysis of metaphors used by writers to describe their processes, is drawn from such interviews; her representative corpus consists of 42 pages of references in small print. To focus on one writer alone, American poet Robert Creeley was a willing interviewee and, much to the delight of his interviewers (including myself) a garrulous and focussed talker. It is no wonder that there exist two volumes of some of these interviews with him, Contexts of Poetry: Interviews 1961-1971 (1973) and Tales Out of School: Selected Interviews (1993). One example, ‘Linda Wagner: An Interview with Robert Creeley 1965’, appears in both books in differing versions (and in yet another version, in the canonical Paris Review series in 1968). In this mutating text, among other things, Creeley characteristically ‘speak(s) personally’ of his method of writing as the articulation in language of a moment’s improvisatory occasion. (Allen and Tallman 1973: 273-292; 281)

The poetic colonising of cyberspace began early and Creeley was one of the earliest pioneers as his Day Book of a Virtual Poet evinces (Creeley 1998). As poet in (virtual) residence he muses on poets, poetry and poetics, such as Williams’ famous poetics sound-bites, ‘Only the imagination is real’ and its qualifying ‘No ideas but in things’, ironically refunctioned by Creeley with reference to contemporary property rights. (Creeley 1998: 24) The internet, with its email lists, websites, and blogs is in a state of constant technological and phenomenological development. Perhaps the most extraordinary blog is Ron Silliman’s, which has attracted over a million hits, and which is almost daily concerned afresh with poetry and poetics. Slightly more ephemeral, though archived, are the discussion lists, such the British & Irish Poets email list. The danger of online debate is that ‘spats over terminology sputter out into mutual frustration or continue into areas very remote from poetry and poetics’, as Kit Fryatt reminds us in his ‘“Norms and Forms”: 10 Years of the British & Irish Poets e-mail list’. I can confirm this, having been a ‘lurker’ since its inception; the quality of posts in 1996 was higher than it was a decade later. (Fryatt 2007: 88) Fryatt remarks: ‘It is the nature of online communities to mutate, and sometimes to die off altogether, but long before they do, they generate complaints of a nostalgic nature.’ (93) It seems that the poetics discussion list, on both sides of the Atlantic, and in cyberspace, has not lived up to its optimistic beginnings as a forum for discussing poetics as a speculative discourse.

The anthologies used to compile this U.S. and Canadian corpus are Jonathan Cook’s Poetry in Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, which offers other kinds of writing as well; James Scully’s pioneering Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. London and Glasgow: Fontana/Collins, 1966; Allen and Tallman’s The Poetics of the New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, 1973, which is an invaluable source; Rothenberg and Joris’ Poems for the Millennium. Berkeley: The University of California Press, two volumes, 1995 and 1998, which contains a selection of avant-garde poetics; Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree. Orono: The National Poetry Foundation, 1986, which was a major poetry anthology of the Language school, and which included sizeable poetics statements; Paul Hoover’s teaching anthology Postmodern American Poetry. New York and London: Norton, 1994, proved useful; Wallace and Marks’ Telling It Slant: Avant-Garde Poetics of the 1990s. Tuscaloosa: The Univerity of Alabama Press, 2002, was invaluable for tracking post-Language Poetry poetics; Herbert and Hollis’ Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2000, is a book of two halves, presenting a wide selection of avant-garde poetics of the first half of the twentieth century in its own first half. It is less useful for the poetics of recent work.

For poetics reaching into the 21st century I recommend ed. Craig Dworkin’s The Consequence of Innovation: 21st century poetics (New York: Roof, 2008), particularly for Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poetics. This would have featured in the above if it had been to hand at the time I composed the above.

This post was part of an abandoned book on poetics (or rather, a re-distributed book; parts of it became When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry, and others await their day, such as this one.). Here are others:

Part One: Poetics and Proto-Poetics
Part Two: Through and after Modernism
Part Four: Some British Poetics

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