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Friday, August 30, 2013

Notes on the Poetics of Rosmarie Waldrop: Form

Rosmarie Waldrop, in her poetics, seldom mentions form, or rather, she is more likely to mention language as the determining obsession of her work. As she confesses of one poetics piece, ‘Language had taken the place of God’, though it is a central and absent place. (D, 183) The title of her early PhD thesis, Against Language? and the title of her mid-career selected poems, Another Language ¸both attest to a lasting conviction that language is her poetic focus, and to two complementary aspects of her poetics. Firstly, being ‘against language’ means that formal manipulation is paramount, as she argues of European experimental writers like Helmut Heissenbüttel to whom she is heir. It secondly means being dedicated to techniques of collage (‘the splice of life’ as she wittily calls it (D, 211)) and to processes of palimpsest-like ‘writing through’ or ‘writing back’ to master and mistress texts, as it were, that can only be conceptualised as formal actions, as simultaneous acts of finding form and losing form, as my work (after Derek Attridge) puts it. These processes result, quite precisely, in ‘another language’.

She has an amusing anecdote about content and form, derived from her own early practice. Finding that all her poems were ‘about’ her mother, she decided to embrace collage, only to find that the poems produced by such a formal process still seemed to be about her mother.  She quotes Tristan Tzara’s teasingly enigmatic conclusion to his instructions for making a Dada cut-up poem: ‘The poem will resemble you.’ (D, 173) She interpreted this inevitable thematic resemblance as permission for operational freedom: ‘This frees us to work on form, which is what one can work on.’ (D, 211) Content is either unavoidable, as unavoidable as a mother, or it emerges from formal manipulation and experimental processes.

She is clear about this in her poetics, but form often appears as a minor chord in her theoretical voicings, as though perhaps the argument had already been fought and won or that it is, in some sense, obvious. Yet it is still axiomatic. In her sceptical, self-questioning contribution to a colloquium on the ‘politics of form’ her tenth ‘thesis’ reads: ‘The poem will not work through its content, not through a message, which in any case would speak only to the already converted, but through its form.’ (173) It is not surprising that the ‘excursion’ that follows this ‘thesis’ quotes both Brecht on alienation techniques and defamiliarisation and Adorno on art’s formal separation from reality. (Note also that she is experimenting with the forms of poetics as she develops her poetics of form to keep it speculative and conjectural via ‘theses’ that are questioned or complicated by ‘excursions’.)

More surprising, are the literary exemplars displayed in her second ‘excursion’ to thesis 10, for she quotes a passage by Reznikoff from Testimony and (less surprisingly) Heissenbüttel’s ‘Final Solution’, a text that (other than its title) doesn’t offer its theme, reflecting, in Waldrop’s interpretation, post-War West Germany’s quiestist ignoring of the horrors of the Holocaust. The content works through its form: ‘Its power lies in the fact that the text does not state what it was “they”’ – the poem uses this pronoun for the unspeakable Nazis which implies the false division with ‘us’ – ‘thought of what it was they could get the people to be against’, i.e., the absent Jews. (D, 177) Perhaps to avoid an obsessiveness of theme, she does not use Reznikoff’s Holocaust is her Reznikoff exhibit, where the dry language of reportage is arranged, lineated and offered as an aesthetic text. She instead refers to Testimony, Reznikoff’s earlier work that adopts the same approach to documentary texts about the violence of nineteenth century America (notably, industrial accidents). This work, which will re-appear in my discussion of John Seed, is praised for the way ‘Reznikoff goes against our ex/pectation of empathy. He lets the flat language of the news note stand as is, but accumulates the instances into a testimony’. (D, 175-6) Although Waldrop does not draw out the formalist implications of these techniques, offering them as examples in which a Brechtian defamiliarisation is effected through an Adornoesque autonomy from social reality (thus operating as a critique of it), both texts work through form; indeed they are instances of where forms are made out of meanings. As she concludes of Heissenbüttel’s text: ‘Nothing but this circling around an unnamed middle,’ in this case the Holocaust, or rather complicit Germans’ suppressed or unspeakable reaction to it, ‘could convey so much ambivalence’. (D, 177) Formal circling (or textual deformation and/or transformation) leads to a new meaning (characteristically for Waldrop one of semantic and affective complexity: not a message but ambivalence). Forms made out of meaning then constitute a new meaning. Being ‘against language’ indeed suggests, and leads to, ‘another language’.

In ‘Form and Discontent’ Waldrop comments both on ‘form’ as we’ve traced it thus far and on ‘forms’, i.e., particularly usages. (I make much of this distinction in my on-going work on form, as you will see.) She speaks of ‘wild forms’ as an antidote to ‘organic’ form, and of contemporary formally investigative poetry ‘reversing’ the movement towards the organic. (D, 199) She traces a Romantic interest in form, much as my work elsewhere sketches out a history, though she prefers to concentrate on Goethe, say, rather than Schiller, and argues that in that broad aestheticist tradition ‘the form of the work’ came to be seen as ‘determined by its conception, is an “inner” form, which lies behind the surface of the actual work and must be felt rather than measured.’ (D, 199) For Waldrop, ‘form’ is suspect as a term because allied to such organicism, suggesting some power growing and hidden in the work. I have some sympathy with this caution but prefer to ally conceptions of ‘form’ with identifications of actual ‘forms’, wild or otherwise, to maintain a sense of the materiality of the text, while still being able to work with a more generalised notion of form. While I think she is wrong to believe that the notion that ‘The cluster of conception/ content/ meaning became primary and determined the form, the expression’ was as universal as she claims (D, 199), of course, the similar notorious remark, ‘Form is never more than an extension of content’ was central to mid-century New American Poetics (and 1960-70s British open field writing). It carried the joint imprimatur of Robert Creeley and Charles Olson, exponents of accelerated free verse. They were definitely thinking of improvisatory composition, perhaps in analogy with music or art where it might be appropriate to say that form is what results from activity during a performance or mark-making event, though the ‘translation’ into literary application adds a semantic element that relieves such a formulation of its radicality. The most coherent expression of ‘organic form’ as a free verse poetics is contained in Denise Levertov’s essay of that title, though Waldrop doesn’t tackle it head on (which I might at some point).

For Waldrop the worst aspects of this version of ‘organic’ form involve the elevation of metaphor as ‘the dominant rhetorical device’ (which I do not see as necessarily essential to an emphasis upon form, but then I do not take the ‘organic’ very seriously and never have). (D, 199) ‘Wild forms’ are her counter-examples to this tradition, since they ‘stress … the horizontal, the axis of composition’ rather than the metaphorical. (D, 196) She lists contemporary wild forms: an emphasis on the visual, as in Susan Howe’s work; an emphasis upon the mathematical, as in Jacques Roubaud’s Oulipean work; and an emphasis upon ‘discontinuity, leaps on the level of syntax, of logic, of grammar,’ as in writers as varied as Carla Harryman and Mei-mei Bersenbrugge. (D, 197) And, of course, in her own work. But ‘wild forms’ still involve formal (if transformational) manipulations, if only in their rejection of (development beyond) free verse.

Waldrop’s (and others’) attraction to prose forms involves a move away from organic form, this time not in terms of its content dictating form, or even of its supposed drive towards rhetorics of metaphor, but due to its dissociation with ‘voice’: ‘When “free verse” took a step away from meter, it was a step away from the oral’, she says (in contradiction to the ‘organic’ theories that tied it to voice). ‘The prose poem moves yet farther in this direction. Its sound and rhythm are subtler, less immediate, less “memorable”. If it counts, it counts words or sentences rather than stresses or syllables.’ (D, 264)

 Work Cited

Waldrop, Rosmarie. Dissonance (if you are interested). Tuscalosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2005.    

Work Recommended

 Nikolai Duffy’s new Shearsman volume Relative Strangeness: Reading Rosmarie Waldrop is an excellent short exposition of Waldrop’s life and work as publisher, translator and writer. 

See all the links to The Meaning of Form here.  

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Friday, August 16, 2013

Notes on Gerald L. Bruns: The Material of Poetry

Obviously I made use of Bruns' concept of the ‘fictional poem’ in writing the poems of Rene Van Valckenborch in A Translated Man, and quote the following as a footnote, ironically refuted by my invented editor: ‘Bruns says, in a suggestive passage: ‘To be sure, the difference between a poem in a novel and a poem in an anthology is apt to be empirically indiscernible. To speak strictly, a fictional poem would be a poem held in place less by literary history than by one of the categories that the logical world keeps in supply: conceptual models, possible worlds, speculative systems, hypothetical constructions in all their infinite variation – or maybe just whatever finds itself caught between quotation marks, as (what we call) “reality” often is.’ (105-6)

The only thing I agree with my fiction is that this is ‘suggestive’. As are other parts of The Material of Poetry, in ways that I think will be useful to my critical work on the forms of poetics and the poetics of form, and may help to draw the two themes together and also to ‘deal with’ conceptual poetry as a phenomenon. (This is to ignore most of the book, the wonderful chapter on the materiality of sound poetry, with its enjoyable CD!) ‘My idea is that what is philosophically interesting is a poem that is not self-evidently a poem but something that requires an argument, theory, or conceptual context as a condition of being experienced as a poem (or of being experienced at all), as if poetry were, as I think it is, a species of conceptual art, where the relation between theory and practice is a / two-way street. In reading a poem, one might experience a theory of what poetry is.’ (16-17) Written just before conceptual writing appeared (though he quotes Dan Graham on the final pages) this is an evocation of poetics (as I define it as a speculative, writerly activity) refunctioned as readerly conceptualisation. As form is its content, so theory is the poem. The interinanimation of theory and practice embodied in poetics (an embodiment that also dissolves that opposition in my reading) turns poetry itself into a species of poetics. (I have always made the point that all poems are models for themselves, that poetics is inherent in the poem, even if not articulated.) I suppose I have trouble with the force of the word ‘requires’ there, but that disquiet is off-set a little (no, a lot) by the final sentence with its emphasis upon experience and thus discovery of the theory in the text. The reader is, as Muriel Rukeyser says he or she is: a witness.

He brings it home (for me, to British innovative practice) by referring to Allen Fisher’s poetics, which is in part a subject of my proposed book (twice, in its current projected form). He says: ‘As the British poet Allen Fisher has pointed out, poets do not mindlessly write poems; they develop … ‘project schemas’ and ‘conceptual programs’ that give their poems (even improvised or experimental ones) a kind of reason.’ (17) He’s quoting ‘The Poetics of the Complexity Manifold’ by Fisher, on which I have a long footnote in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry.) Bruns detects that philosophy (his problem not mine) will have to avoid the universal and embrace contingency in its engagement with poetry (and I’d say with poetics too). If these schema in poetry proffer a ‘reason’ to poetry (its conceptual core), Bruns asks: ‘What kind of reason exactly? Almost certainly it is one that appears historically from below rather than one that descends transcendentally from above – and one that arrives from the future and dovetails unexpectedly with what comes down to us from the past’. (This is strangely consonant with Derek Attridge’s notions of innovation.) The appearance of conceptual poetry might be one of those ‘reasons’, and one of the things that comes from the past; the Dan Graham piece is from the 1960s. (17) As Bruns says also: ‘The motto of art history is that anything is possible, but not everything is possible at every moment.’ (22) Could we substitute the word ‘poetics’ for ‘art history’ here? Possibly, because a few pages later he amplifies on this theme, with relation to the poetics of Steve McCaffery and quotes him: ‘ “Poetic research into the endless possibilities of language” means, anarchically, that anything goes. Nothing is forbidden or is to be stipulated in advance: The principles, rules, methods, or practices of writing (the ‘project schemas’ and ‘conceptual programs’) are to be invented as you go and discarded upon use.’ (24) After this little pronouncement, which sounds half-Paul Feyerabend and half-Lyotard on the Postmodern Condition, he quotes McCaffery himself; ‘I have no steady poetics’. (24) Of course, a poet like McCaffery may have a wobbling blancmange of a poetics, but no poetics is steady or it ceases to be poetics. After looking at Dan Graham’s ‘Schema March 1966’ – is the re-appearance of the word ‘schema’ coincidental? – which he calls ‘a poem machine’ for its schematic potentiality, he speaks of ‘poetry that reconceptualiszes itself in the process of being composed’; Fisher’s projects come to mind here in their process-showing more than some conceptual works which are often monolithic, but the point is: all poetry is conceptual poetry. More generally (and more usefully for my argument) he concludes: ‘The history of poetry is a history of the reconceptualization of poetry – and of language as well.’ This seems to be useful as a way of dealing with that qualified ‘anything goes’. ‘If poetry has a purpose, it is to keep history – and not just its own – from coming to an end.’ (all quotes here 113)

16th August 2013

Bruns, Gerald L. The Material of Poetry. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 2005

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Claude Herbert Sheppard 1924-2013

I read the following at my father's funeral at Worthing Crematorium, 1st August 2013

Most people don’t experience a singular event that defines their life. Claude did. It can be dated quite precisely: the night of 20th-21st January 1944. Half a century later to the day he, my mother, and I stood on a wind-swept Southwick beach looking out to sea and to my surprise – I’d remembered the date but his memory was notoriously bad – he remarked on the anniversary. This was the day when, at 19, he was transformed from an RAF rear-gunner in 102 Squadron – a dangerous position in a dangerous occupation in unglamorous Bomber Command – into a prisoner of war of the Nazis, itself a perilous situation. Perilous both at first, when the German Home Guard had to protect him from the anger of blitz-crazed Berliners on a U-Bahn platform, and at its chaotic end a year and a half later, when the Nazis melted away like feral ghosts, to leave an anarchic zone. Confused RAF fighters straffed columns of forced-marched POWs. A German farmer sheltered two escaped POWs – Claude and his friend Johnny – to hand-signal his way through the night, somehow telling the two hungry Englishmen that they never wanted Hitler. Claude escaped to Brussels, in time for parties and dancing in the street, and returned to Britain, via a debriefing to establish his identity, to a dull civilian life in Atlee’s far-from utopian Welfare Britain, whose founding Claude nevertheless supported. Claude remembered falling asleep on the upper deck of a bus, due to extended malnutrition, passengers unable to comprehend his condition.

No wonder he signed up again! For a shadowy few years, at one point romantically supping expensive wines that hoteliers had buried from the Nazis in Marseilles; at another, fighting communist insurgents in tropical Malaya in a forgotten campaign, during which his plane crashed and he broke his wrist. Until he finally left the Air Force, vowing never to fly again (one of the reasons I never flew in a plane until I was forty!). He’d already met Joan, my mother, apparently at a New Year’s dance in Brighton, rescued her from a drunken sailor, if we are to believe the stories, and married her in 1950. They look like film stars in the wedding photographs – some of you were there.

This was the beginning of his domestic life, his daily journeys – by bike and train and later by car – from Southwick to Newhaven Harbour. As a child I accompanied him when he worked Sunday overtime, driving along the seafront in the Triumph Mayflower (KOR 677), ‘Telstar’ playing on the car radio. The job was humdrum but with the occasional mystique that accrues to trains and ships, even cross-channel ferries. The small loving miracles of everyday life enveloped him. Southwick with its magnificent cricket club – three Saturday teams and a Sunday team! – suited him very well. He became a life member after services to it and of the adjacent social club he helped administer in his spare time. These and the Golf Club have sent fond messages in the last few days.

But the moment of that night in January 1944 played like an old 78, caught in a groove. He baled out at 20,000 feet, falling onto a burning city, ‘came down in complete darkness, knocked unconscious – woke up completely confused, imprisoned by Germans in cell overnight’, as Claude himself wrote around 2005 in some notes (never sent) for an aviation historian. You see, he’d baled out into World History, and he knew it. His account doesn’t mention trapping his foot in the cramped cockpit as he reversed it, the plane beginning to plunge, or the fact that he would repeat this trauma nightly in his single recurring dream, for at least 62 years, until dementia finally erased it. In the nursing home in recent years I expected him to revert to these war memories (as he started to do in health only in the 1970s when he located other survivors of that night, including the skipper, Reg.) But he didn’t: he sailed somewhere through the eternal calms of his domestic life of the early 1960s: more The Shadows than Glenn Miller, to put it in terms of his favourite musics.

Also in that account of his flying (10 ops) he related a ‘hair-raising incident’. Claude’s words again: ‘Coming home from an attack we were badly shot up and the skipper advised us to put our chutes on. We were standing by to bale out with the North Sea in front. One of our crew members had accidentally got hooked up with the chute lines and pulled the rip-chord…. He was holding the parachute in his arms. I often see his face (he corrected the word to ‘expression’). It must have been frighten….’ Here the fragment cuts off. Another take on the story ends: ‘He was a brave man.’ Claude told me he never saw the man again after this display of LMF (Lack of Moral Fibre).

Another part of the trauma was imprisonment in Stalag Luft III, a mobile life of forced marches into the chill of Poland and back into Germany. He taught himself and others accountancy (useful in Newhaven), including Johnny, later his best man. I don’t know a lot about this time. They lived on rotten potato peelings. One result of this was that Claude would never eat meat with gristle in, even fish with bones in! He always dressed well, perhaps in reaction to these months. Another result was more incongruous, even inexplicable: the rousing chorus of ‘Raus Raus!’ with which he would wake me in the morning as a child, in imitation of his German guards!

My childhood memories of my father are often images of the Mayflower-Telstar kind: his assembly of Airfix models of World War 2 aircraft with minute precision which I would clumsily hand-glide to land on the airstrip circled by train-track he’d screwed to a large sheet of hardboard; Claude reconstituting parts of ancient valve radios (another skill learnt in the RAF) to make new sets for me to listen to short wave stations from around the globe; the patio at Oakapple Road covered with cricket pads, whitewashed by him and drying, a mark of his captaincy; cricket coach trips to bluebell woods and pavilions with wooden boards, me rattling out bus tickets to the cricketer-passengers on the return journey. All of these tableaux of desirable innocence were played out under the shadow of that one event – though perhaps the rest of us couldn’t see it most of the time.

Although an essentially irascible man to the end, to me he was nothing less than gentle, tender even – though he was always disappointed at my reluctance, my refusal, to participate in any form of sport, my complete failure to follow his exemplary and sometimes excellent record as a lifelong sportsman: as boxer or footballer (before my time); as cricketer, golfer, snooker-player (in my memory). No tennis (he called it ‘an officer’s game’); no rugby (he never mentioned it). But it’s only now that I perceive his protectiveness towards me, though I’d always perceived (and resisted) his largesse, his generosity, again derived from wartime deprivation, I’m sure. Despite being an only child, I don’t think I was spoilt!

He was proud of my academic career, but my development as a writer might have been thought surprising to Claude. Strangely I never wrote that book on football he desperately suggested to me (though I am now telling his life story here, which he also slyly proposed). He was an avid but un-systematic reader – he’d tackle one of my childhood Biggles books as well as a block of Henry James – and only a few years ago he discussed with me DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers with an intensity worthy of a good undergraduate. He had a small library of books on wartime aviation and POW matters. He instinctively understood my 1986 poem Schräge Musik about World War 2 bombing and the world of dance band music (which was in the family), round about the first time he delightedly met his grand son Stephen. He spotted all the allusions despite the cut-up method of the text; and he gave me a couple of details which I smuggled into later printings of the poem. He also shyly confessed to having written a poem himself, on a troop ship during a particularly nasty storm in the Bay of Biscay in 1947. He could remember a verse and I wrote it down. I possess it somewhere.

Recent years saw his resilient endurance of what is perhaps misleadingly called a ‘fight’ against skin cancer. After his working life at Newhaven Harbour, capped by a rather clever move to an elevated post in his final three years, this clouded his retirement. Nevertheless, he enjoyed his vigorous golf and-snooker-playing and thorough home-improving years with my mother. And we shouldn’t forget the garden, which was maintained like that of a stately home. Given the extent of the surgery he underwent it is remarkable to think that he survived beyond his 89th birthday. He was a strong man. Antagonistic to doctors, he was nevertheless a grateful man. Like his comrade of years before, he was a brave man. Throughout this time, his self-sacrificial care for my mother stemmed from the same generosity I mentioned earlier. In short, he was a good man.

From RAF Records of bombing raids (complete with mis-spelling of my father's name):

LW227 DY-X

W/O R.G. Wilding - Pilot - PoW
Sgt J.L. Corrigan - FE - PoW
Sgt R.W. Chandler - PoW - NAV
Sgt J.C. Heap - BA - PoW
Sgt T.J. Buxton - WOp - PoW
WO2 F.F. Yeager RCAF - WOp - PoW
Sgt C.H. Shepperd - AG - PoW

20/01/1944 Berlin

'Standing By', my poem in his memory is now published with another poem as The Drop. See here