Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Barnes & Ignoble

I came across this in the LRB, 15 December 2005:

"Gertrude Stein ... wrote a word portrait of Braque in her finest mode of clotted twaddle. (Perhaps it was meant to be Cubist prose. If so, a bad idea - brushstrokes may slip representationalism, but words do so at their peril.)"

Julian Barnes and I have two things in common - we both took the same Eurostar train (he had the BBC camera crew following him up the platform and I didn't) and we both worked for the Oxford English Dictionary. How someone who has been so close to words can have such a reductive sense of language escapes me.

Let's have a dose of Charles Bernstein by way of an antidote:

"Yet my own primary and continuing response to Stein's poetry is one of intense pleasure in the music of the language: of hearing a palpable, intense, I'm tempted to say absolute sense-making: you can almost taste it; a great plentitude of meaning, of possibility for language, in language." ('Professing Stein/Stein Professing', p 142-3)

So, Barnes or Stein? I know which I'd prefer.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Chinchillas, again

Read the poem at:

Hear the poem at:

abstractions of chinchilla

Today, boys and girls, we’re going to look at ‘Song of the Chinchilla’ by Lisa Jarnot*.

I liked the poem immediately – and I’ve given it to 9th Graders who wrote some pretty stunning 20-minute poems in imitation. However, it was interesting to see one of our ‘top’ 12th Grade English students struggle with it – revealing something about how we teach poetry, what we teach. Which is as much to say how we have been taught poetry and what we have been taught.

To clear the ground right from the start. It is – just about – possible to imagine La Lisa ‘en vacances’, wandering the streets in France (Paris, most likely), seeing a woman (a Parisienne, more than likely) in a fur coat. Knowing a little about Lisa, it is hard to imagine she’d be happy about fur coats and so the poem could be a ‘lament’ (a Moaner Lisa poem?) about the fur industry, about callous consumerism, about a particular day/woman/fur coat. And this was what our student came up with in the end. Furthermore, that the poem lacked rhyme or identifiable rhythm, and was really automatic prose chopped up to make it loook like poetry. And all this said with a general disdain for the text – as if we were trying to catch him out with a secret ‘bad’ poem.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good student which makes the reading all the more instructive. And I know that – aged eighteen – this student’s reactions would have been mine.

Here are the first lines:

You chinchilla in the marketplace in france
you international chinchilla, chinchilla of the
plains and mountains all in fur you fur of the
chinchilla of the pont neuf, selling wrist
watches, on the oldest bridge of evolution that
you are, you, chinchilla ...

i) Is it an animal?

As in many of Lisa’s poems, there seems to be a deliberate use of proper nouns (places, people, animals) which make the poems immediately ‘accessible’ and – in many cases – funny. Furthemore, “chinchilla” sounds funny (or at least interestingly exotic to the English ear) – something to do with the internal echo “chin/chill” the ‘ch’ consonant sounds and the short ‘i’ vowels. You might also find chinchillas funny little animals – or armadillos or lemurs or aadvarks for that matter, other creatures that live in Lisa’s poems.

However, at the very moment the poem seems to depend upon the animal, a reader’s competence in zoology, or a Ted Hughes-like descriptive realism, the chinchilla ‘vanishes’ into language.

I make it fifteen ‘namings’ of the chinchilla and each time it is less present as the little furry animal. It starts to decompose into its constituent syllables and sounds and even into its letters.

In a sense, ‘c-h-i-n-c-h-i-l-l-a’ becomes a set of possibilities, notes – if we want to transfer to music – with which Lisa can build her variations:

‘chinchilla’ can be split into further words:

‘chin’ + ‘chill’ + ‘chiller’ + ‘in’ + ‘ill’ + ‘a’

some of which she takes others she leaves unspoken but implied

‘chinchilla’ can also initiate a series of assonantal rhyme words:

“chinchilla in” followed by “in the market place” followed by “in france” followed by “you international chinchilla”. ‘In’ threaded through the first two lines and beyond.

ii) Harmolodics?

Again, music is the best analogy. No sooner are we pulling out the ‘in’ chords, there’s the ‘ch’ chord at work subtly ‘diminshed’ with ‘sh’ and ‘ss’ sounds:

“You chinchilla” then “marketplace” then “france” then “international”.

And, to an RP English ear, a long ‘a’ sound seems to be at work in:

“chinchilla” then “marketplace” then “france”

although I accept US English might bend the vowel in “france” rather differently.

And I love a kind of ‘reverse’ rhyme effect achieved across lines 3 and 4: “all in fur you fur” with “pont neuf”. Fur neuf, as Georges Perec would say.

The poem dazzles with its harmonic play of sound. And, I suggest, a necessary part of this pleasure is the constant awareness of reference even as it is being denied. “Chinchilla” is an animal. You buy cheese at “the marketplace”. There is a country called France – and it is no accident that Lisa drops the capital. Things, places, animals are ‘evoked’ and yet the life of the poem is not ‘out there’.

iii) Apostrophes?

No coincidence that Lisa should employ in many poems the rhetorical device of apostrophe. It is the gesture of language to an (absent) referent – lover, country, King, dead poet, etc. The word stretches out to touch the ‘real’ while being forever firmly in place on the page. Thus:

“You chinchilla .../you international chinchilla .../ ...”

The effect is comical (ever talked to a chincilla?), bathetic (a chinchilla doesn’t seem to merit such epic tones), oddly wistful (even melancholic as the poem reaches its close).

Again, the reader is seduced, here not so much by reference ‘out’ to a real world, as the voice of the poet. A ‘real’ is created by means of a device true to the speaking voice.

Yet, here again, just as the poem is in danger of falling into the predictable – a kind of Disney nature film effect: “who-is-this-little-fellow-then?” – reference explodes the realism.

What is a “dark arabian chinchilla”? What are “abstractions of chinchilla”? Can you really have an “aperitif chinchilla”?

Here the signified is set at angles to the persuasive tones of the speaking voice. The more the chinchilla is addressed, the more its qualities and attributes serve to lose it among seemingly infinite equivalences.

iv) Anaconda or anaphora?

Indeed, where does it stop? How long can Lisa sustain the surrealist encyclopedia entry for “Chinchilla, noun”? And here we need to talk about anaphora – that device for creating order through repetition. Irrespective of the items or subsequent phrases, the initial word/phrase sets a sequential logic in play.

Ginsberg uses it in ‘Howl’, Smart uses it in ‘Jubilate Agno’:

For in the education of children it is necessary to watch the words, -which they pronounce with difficulty, for such are against them in their consequences.

For A is awe, if pronounced full. Stand in awe and sin not.

For B pronounced in the animal is bey importing authority.

For C pronounced hard is ke importing to shut.

For D pronounced full is day.

For E is east particularly when formed little e with his eye.

For F in it's secondary meaning is fair.

For G in a secondary sense is good.

For H is heave.

For I is the organ of vision.

For K is keep.

For L is light, and ל [Hebrew character lamed] is the line of beauty.

For M is meet.

For N is nay.

For O is over.

For P is peace.

For Q is quarter.

For R is rain, or thus reign, or thus rein.

For S is save.

For T is take.

For V is veil.

For W is world.

For X [drawn as a backwards G and a G stuck together] beginneth not, but connects and continues.

For Y is young -- the Lord direct me in the better way of going on in the Fifth year of my jeopardy June the 17th N.S. 1760. God be gracious to Dr YOUNG.

For Z is zest. God give us all a relish of our duty.

For Action and Speaking are one according to God and the Ancients.

Smart’s poem is constructed upon anaphora and belief. Belief that every moment must be given over to praise of Creation. And that way madness lies. For what cannot be included? Yet, given our time-bound existence, what can be said and done when all is said and done? (Here Christopher Smart meets Samuel Beckett. Look at the long sequences of alternatives in Beckett’s ‘Watt’). A sentence is an expanse of time. If I say this, I am not saying that. I have already fallen behind. Syntax squeezes the breath out of me like a snake in its coils.

In Lisa’s poems anaphora becomes a way of opening up the crazy independent creative logic of language. It makes sense (the structural logic) while making nonsense (the semantic value). Why not a chinchilla tractor? Or a chincilla sock? Or a chinchilla whale? Or a chincilla China chin? The categories are heterogeneous (although urban and rural geographical locations recur), potentially infinite, yet are given credit due to the formal arrangement – syntactic and grammatical.

v) “You just go on your nerve”

Thus spake O’Hara & it’s a typically throw-away remark concealing an entire aesthetics. You go on your nerve in the sense of risking the poem. Don’t step back into the predictable. Why use the safety net of established form or iambic pentameter? You go on your nerve, also, in the sense of what your blood stream is telling you. Your rhythm, your pulse, your breath and its flow with your heart and the art within your arteries. Or, as Charles Olson put it:

“Now (3) the process (italicized) of the thing, how the principle can be made so to shape the energies that the form is accomplished. And I think it can be boiled down to one statement ... ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. It means exactly what it says, is a matter of, at all (italicized) points (even, I should say, of our managment of daily reality as of the daily work) get on with it, keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen. And if you set up as a poet, USE USE USE the process at all points, in any given poem always ... “ (‘Projective Verse’, 1950)

I’m fascinated by the line turns in the poem:

“france/you”, “the/plains”, “the/chinchilla”, “wrist/watch”, “that/you”, “towards/the”, “the/neutral”, “of/chinchilla”, “aperitif/chinchilla”, “mind,/dark”, “tractor/of”, “the/chinchilla”, “dawn,/facilitator”, “the/food”

Listed like this the turns lose a lot. Like a spring, the poem’s wire is turned to create energy. I sense Lisa is working by breath** while also knowing how to allow a phrase to complete (line one) for sense or cadence, or to deliberately disrupt (line two, the surprise to find “chinchilla of the (pause as the line turns) plains and mountains” or the sly “wrist/watches” where “wrist” is etymologically re-activated in its writhing turn). Then, within each line, the distribution of the clauses creates sub-rhythms too complex to do justice to here.

Thus the false opposition between ‘what is being talked about’ and ‘style’. ‘Song of the Chinchilla’ is not a poem ‘about’ chinchillas, or fur coats, or Paris, or a biographically definite day. It is not a poem ‘expressing’ the poet’s paraphrasable views on the fur trade or life in France. It “is” its energy: the complex interplay of word, sound, rhythm, reference, tone. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is ‘purely’ language – which would invite the defensive retort: ‘oh, it's just words, so I was right it’s just playing with sound’. The energy of the poem seems to be precisely in its tension between a very definite set of signifieds and the verbal material. And I’d even say, it is – ultimately – 'expressive'. While I can relate elements of the poem to Ginsberg, or Smart, or O’Hara (and other readers will find their own echoes) it is very much a Lisa Jarnot poem, it possesses her 'poetic DNA' traceable in the articulations of its linguistic anatomy.

It is also terrific.

(*from the collection ‘Ring of Fire’)

(**I don't want to suggest Lisa is purely intuitive - look at her teaching sites for evidence of the theoretical underpinnings of the poetry)

(***chinchilla image derived from

Monday, June 26, 2006

belgianwaffle UK Tour

Belgianwaffle will be in the UK as of Thursday (until Sunday) with the younger Brussel Sprout. The Howard Hodgkin exhibition at Tate Britain looks likely for Friday. Anyone for lunch?

Attempts to rediscover a physical ordering of the language


Erthe tok of erthe
erthe wyth wogh;
Erthe other erthe
to the erthe drogh

Erthe leyde erthe
in erthene throgh;
Tho hevede erthe of erthe
erthe ynogh


(erthe = earth; tok = took; wogh = sin; drogh = drew; erthene throgh = grave; hevede = had;
apologies for omitting the two dots over the second 'e' in "earth")


They fle from me that sometyme did me seke
With naked fote stalking in my chambre.
I have sene theim gentill tame and meke
That nowe are wyld and do not remembre
That sometyme they put theimself in daunger
To take bred at my hand; and nowe they raunge
Besely seking with a continuell chaunge.

Sir Thomas Wyatt


“... have committed to Piero di Benedetto, painter, the making and painting of a panel which is there now, with all the material for it ... to be gilded with fine gold and coloured with fine colours, and specially ultramarine blue ...” (contract for Pierro della Francesca’s ‘Madonna della Misericordia’, 11 June 1445)


“The said master Luca is bound and promises to paint (1) all the figures to be done on the said vault, and (2) especially the faces and all the parts of the figures from the middle of each figure upwards, and (3) that no painting should be done on it without Luca himself being present ... And it is agreed (4) that all the mixing of colours should be done by the said master Luca himself...” (Signorelli’s contract for the frescoes in Orvieto Cathedral, 1499)


Reading the first chapter Michael Baxandall’s ‘Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy’ triggered ideas in relation to the early phase of English poetry.

I ‘did’ Anglo Saxon and Middle English poetry and muddled my way through ‘Beowulf’, ‘Piers Plowman’, etc as part of the exam requirements. It all seemed to be the dreary stuff and of no interest to us ‘moderns’. Pound knew different – Canto I is but one very obvious example. We live and learn.

Looking at many of the poems of this early period* I’m now struck by what seems to be an evident astonishment at words. As if the language is still new enough to be ‘foreign’. The words are heavy in the hands (or on the tongue). Thus the delight in patterning experience evidenced by ‘Erth tok of erthe’. That words could create structures of meaning. That sense could emerge through placement. It just doesn’t seem to be taken for granted that ‘word’ and ‘world’ could connect. I’m wary of applying the term ‘childish’ to this – although it is an effect also seen in nursery rhyme where meaning evolves through pattern (“This is the house that Jack built/This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built/This is the ....”). The ‘message’ is not easily distilled. Paraphrase loses something vital – essentially the dynamic energy of language itself.

By 1540 many things have changed. I sense in Wyatt’s line a whole different ‘feel’ for words. The length of line, the arch of syntax, the sense of an ongoing argument to which words are subservient. Putting aside debates about Wyatt’s stress and musical phrasing (cf Bunting), words here seem to have been ‘domesticated’. They are coins of exchange and no longer the raw material still rough before minting.

And yet, the knowing display of language:

“They fle from me that sometyme did me seke”

The modulation of ‘ay’ to long ‘e’ sounds; the arrangement across the line of those ‘e’s. Words still possess their own qualities but must now be used decoratively, a calculated expenditure of acoustic wealth. Furthermore, the poet’s skill is now foregrounded.

I’m not trying to make absurd cross-discipline connections. Painting and poetry have their own requirements. However, in this trade off between two systems of ‘value’ there seems to be an interesting line of thinking. For the poet, the word with its own brilliance, lustre, texture, rarity: for the painter, the paint with its own value, economic and aesthetic. Against this, the more ‘notional’ values of skill. Look what I can do with the materials: the cleverness and persuasion of my argument (poet), the dexterity in execution and the visual persuasiveness of my images (painter).

At this point I pluck ‘The New Sentence’ off the shelf and find this passage:

“What happens when a language moves towards and passes into a capitalist stage of development is an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its expository, descriptive and narrative capacities, preconditions for the invention of “realism”, the illusion of reality in capitalist thought.” ((p10) Ron Silliman)

Well, Alan, that gives us something to talk about over lunch on Wednesday ...

(* let’s not get all picky with dates & academic categories. I know 1066 and all that ...)

Saturday, June 24, 2006

And on the first day ...

The trouble is, of course, when the holidays arrive there is an initial sense of deflation. "Oh", you find yourself thinking, "so this is what we were waiting for...". The morning comes, and lunchtime, and four o'clock ... and so the day wears on.

Spent some time in the garden listing Things To Do - a mixture of half-formulated projects from the past nine months, vague ideas, and good resolutions.

I work my way through the first 100 pages of the 'Penguin Book of English Verse' noting down interesting verse forms, poets I'd never heard of, poets I had heard of (and read) but who now seem rather more interesting. Eg? Gavin Douglas. I wouldn't mind doing some deliberately 'bad' translations riffing off the texture of his English (if that's the correct term).


Boxcutter - interviewed in the new 'Wire' - puts me on to Pharoah Sanders (rhymes with "ganders" not "launders" as Ben reminded me once). Get hold of 'Summun Bukmun Umyun' and 'Elevation'. However, neither Caroline Records nor Music Mania in Brussels have heard of Boxcutter's new CD 'Oneiric'.


Really like 'His Desiccate Ancestry' by Thomas Hummel in the copy of 'Fence' which arrived this week.


"I come up for daylight and friends like whales come up for air" (Robert Wyatt at the start of the BBC bio-documentary last night).


The street and the bread walking the girls hand in hand with a bird so blue above our heads in the new trees.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

And of the reading of books there is no end

The last essay of the 2005-6 academic year marked. Whoopee! Nearly – as in four days – the end of term. Blogging will return with a vengeance …

And (after a conversation at lunch) this is for all you people who think it’s sinful not to finish a book …

This is what I am currently ‘reading’ (i.e. not reading, dipping into, leafing through, seeing what takes my fancy, photocopying and scrutinizing, putting on the back burner, re-reading, re-re-reading, and so on …):

Emily Dickinson’s ‘Collected Poems’, three books by Rebecca Solnit (Muybridge & West Coast artists & Getting Lost), those volumes by Graham Foust & Devin Johnston, A.N. Whitehead’s ‘Process & Reality’, ‘Imagination Verses’ (Moxley), recent copies of the LRB and New Statesman (both of which seem to be increasingly dull), the one before recent Chicago Review (which, by contrast, is really interesting), lyrics to songs by ‘The Fall’, ‘The Odyssey’ (Fagle translation), various back issues of ‘The Wire’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Rumplestiltskin’, ‘Goldilocks & The Three Bears’, Emma Chichester Clark’s ‘Blue Kangaroo’ books, anything with Quentin Blake’s name on the cover (bedtime stories for my kids), Joseph Ceravolo poems, Dick Gallup poems, bits & pieces of Ted Berrigan, my notebooks from 1995 onwards, daily dipping-intos of Blogs by Lisa J, Ron S, Josh C, Shanna C, Joseph Beuys’ Hat, HCE, eod, and anyone else I happen on, not forgetting ‘Moby Dick’ which I ran aground in last summer & will resume on Saturday (some books come around like planets), or any one of several books on Joseph Cornell (ditto) …

… some books are upstairs, some are downstairs, some come with me for a day, some sit by the bed, some have pencil marks in them, some glare across the room at me …

Who ever could have told me when I was a little chap in NHS prescription glasses “you can’t start a new book until you’ve finished the one you’re reading now" ? What a misunderstanding of reading and how books like to talk to one another.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Ear food for the week

i) 'Plat du Jour' by Matthew Herbert. (Check out & read on).

ii) 'A Love Supreme' by John Coltrane - the 'deluxe' (!) edition.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

"a lovely and familiar gravity"

I'd picked up 'Sense Record' a while ago and didn't really 'click' with the poems. A few days ago I was led back to Jennifer Moxley's work while looking for material on Rosmarie Waldrop. (There's an account of the "Waldrop effect" at archive/online_archive/v1_8_2002/current/readings/moxley.htm ). This time it was 'Imagination Verses' and - for whatever reason - the poems seemed to be speaking differently. How often this happens.

Here are some initial reactions:

i) Moxley exploits the possiblities of line spacing, allowing an individual line its own breathing space. It possesses its own grammar and cadence and thus can stand alone. It would be interesting to re-space a poem and see how the sense would become claustrophobic. Open it up even further & the thread would be snapped.

ii) And line spacing is itself a grammatical tool - kind of an invisible comma - allowing the lines to make sense 'apart' (often as quick images) while also having the potential to carry on sense/qualify the preceding statement.

iii) Concrete nouns work as abstracts while also working physically or evoke 'scenery'. (cf "buildings", "range", "journey" in 'Home World').

iv) Entire poems can work at the level of allusion - there seem to be many 'unspoken' contexts to the poems both personal and literary. (Here I can see possible connections to Rosmarie Waldrop's use of unattributed citations in her work - how many of Moxley's poems are embedding lines? The 'Duets' are the more self-advertised examples).

v) Deliberate clashing of frames of reference: the rural & the financial in 'Home World' for example. However, you could argue this is a false opposition given modern 'agri-business'. I'm reminded of Prynne-like delight in 'torque-ing' a word for its material potential.

vi) The use of "I" as a threading device: the "I"'s actions, experiences, dreamings, desirings, disenchantments which it's tempting - but probably mistaken - to identify with the autobiographical "I" of Moxley herself. The "I" is a ruse, almost a little motor to keep the poem running. Here I'm thinking of Lisa Jarnot's poems. And, for that matter, O'Hara.

vii) Related to (iv) an ongoing dialogue with poetic tradition at all levels: explicit statement, setting, diction, imagery, syntax, rhythm and sound. A line such as:

"I dreamt my sense could wend the fight away"


viii) Use of rhyme as a 'counter-logic' to the often disjunctive line syntax , sewing the poems together while - inevitably - accepting (inviting?) sounds to produce excess, to go their own way. And I'm picking up subtle effects where she often works off the unstressed syllable or semantically unimportant word. Furthemore, sounds being chimed at quite a distance - by no means within the line or the following. Certainly, a first reading tends to miss the delicacy here. Or at least mine does!

ix) A playfulness - her liking for punning slippages - "world" to "word" in 'Home World', the "apartment of my youthful reveries" in 'From a Distance I Can See', the startling "a broken spine/like any sign of care" at the close of 'Night Train to Domestic Living Arrangements'.

x) Two oppositional landscapes - geographic space (especially seas) and domestic interiors (beds, dishes, house). Here I'm reminded of Peter Gizzi's poems - especially the early volume 'Periplum'.

Well, that's a start. They're lovely poems. 'I am Depressed without Your Pencil too' is a particular favourite.

More to come on Moxley, Waldrop, and - no, I haven't forgotten - Gallup. It all depends on how quickly exam marking goes ... and the sunshine...

Monday, June 12, 2006

& with the other hand

... other writing going on. Not good for the Blog, but one of the reasons why I started it up. Sounds paradoxical, I know, but there it is.

As the newspapers put it here, "bikini & barbecue weather" continues.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


... too sunny to blog ...

(reading Rosmarie Waldrop's 'Cornell Boxes' - more to come)

Friday, June 09, 2006

and another book ...

Rebecca Solnit's 'Secret Exhibition' arrives this morning - so secret, in fact, it doesn't even have my name on the label & nearly gets returned to sender.

I discover work by Wallace Berman & George Herms & others which falls in so well with thoughts about Berrigan & Gallup's approach to writing.

Watch this space.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Bugs again!

Hmmm... not very happy about this. 7.40pm Thursday evening and Blogger seems very slow to respond - logging in, accessing my Blog, then the 'create new post' page. Last night I wasted an hour trying to post successfully - which starts to defeat the purpose of the Blog.

Coming soon: a reading of Dick Gallup's 'Guard Duty'. Blogger permitting ...

That's better ...

Apologies for the rather strange duplicate postings of yesterday. This was due to problems accessing Blogger.

Normal service resumes today (I hope).

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Toe Update ... breaking news ...

I have ten toes.

Five on one foot. Five on the other.

The nails need cutting.

I am waiting for a Lear jet to whisk me away to my personal chiropodist.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Annihilation of Time & Space

What better way to start the week - yesterday being a bank holiday here - than a book landing on your desk at coffee time?

Monday, June 05, 2006

Emma's beans

For the second dinner in a row, we eat Emma's haricot beans. Green fingers have jumped a generation in this family.


This afternoon I sat in the garden & read poems from Dick Gallup's 'shiny pencils at the edge of things'. When the sun went in I'd read a poem. When the sun came out, I'd shut the book & close my eyes. Not a bad way to read.

We like: 'the return of philista', 'a celebration', 'fits of candor', 'out west and back east', 'ember grease', 'some feathers', 'eskimoes again' & 'mirrors'. We don't get: 'persia is falling...', 'pomp ilk' & 'from the beaumont series'. But this might say more about us than the poems.

We particularly like lines such as "It is only orange light that brings forth the orange in things" and "Feather calligraphy avenue feathers".


"Because you do have a responsbility to the world, in which poems exist, if you can see poems there that could be written. You have a responsibility to write them. And if they don't turn out so well, or if they don't turn out to be so striking, if you weren't up to them at the time, that's all right, too. Yes." (Ted Berrigan, 'The Business of Writing Poetry')

Sunday, June 04, 2006

another line of enquiry ...

... is the role of the cover image to the volume itself.

It occurred to me - between various social functions this weekend - that Nora L. Koch's cover for 'The Green Lake Is Awake' (see below) cannot be coincidental. A rather luxuriant raspberry pink ripply surface.

I'm also thinking about the Brainard cover to Berrigan's 'Sonnets' - the recent Penguin reissue - with the arrow pointing between the toes. Athlete's foot (rather than the poet's foot)? Berrigan's can/can't-toes? Parasitic growths upon the Body of Literature?

Friday, June 02, 2006

Have an extraordinary day ...

Here at belgianwaffle HQ we're eagerly looking forward to tonight's BBC Four documentary on the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band & its leader Viv Stanshall.

Why do we like Viv Stanshall?

i) that Voice

ii) insouciance

iii) Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (film & lp)

iv) he lived in Bristol (as we did) on a house boat (which we didn't)

v) he was chums with Frank Zappa (enough said)

vi) those melancholic melodies which never fail to charm, me old china, know what I mean? eh?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The line of the water and the air


The fish are staying here
and eating. The plant is
thin and has very long leaves
like insects’ legs, the way
they bend down.
Through the water
the plant breaks from the water

the line of the water and the air.

I am just beginning to read Ceravolo’s volume ‘The Green Lake Is Awake’* and – as always with a ‘new’ poet – there’s a period of adjustment. Of unlearning. Of listening.

I’m interested in small poems at the moment. Dickinson’s. Graham Foust’s. To name but two. And Ceravolo seems to enjoy the miniature.

It’s tempting here to immediately categorize: i) Japanese haiku; ii) William Carlos Williams. The poem as a kind of meditation exercise, a honing of the senses through concentration on the object(s). The poem ‘succeeds’ to the extent the observed reality is ‘captured’ in language.

Yet the moment I employ the word ‘object’ the ground begins to shift. There are concrete nouns: “fish”, “plant” (twice), “leaves”, “(insects’) legs”, “water” (three times); “air” ; plus the more abstract “way” and “line”. At the very moment you begin to assert the ‘facticity’ of the objects, you also begin to notice how vague they are – what kind of fish? What species of plant? Which type of insect? And nouns such as “water” and “air” don’t help us very much either.

What is being described? Not the fish as such – more that they have not moved away and that they are eating. Not the plant as such – more a resemblance between its leaves and the legs of the unspecified species of insect. Not the plant or the water as such – more the relationship between the two.

Gaps seem to appear between a seemingly ‘available’ depiction of reality and the words themselves.

That the fish are “staying here” is slippery, too. What choice do fish have? In a bowl, in a pond, they are limited by their watery enclosure. (I’m reminded of Lara thinking her goldfish was ‘drinking’ when it rose to the surface. Do fish “drink”?)

And what is impelling the poem? For that matter, what occasioned it? The gap between lines 7 & 8 seem to suggest a ‘leap’, a sudden insight, reinforced by the final line “Told!”. Has the poem, then, simply been to achieve such a banal epiphany?

Obviously, enlightenment can come at any time – I do not know whether Ceravolo is working in this kind of Buddhist tradition. Maybe something else is at work as well.

Listening closely, very subtle sound threads seem to be organizing the poem. The short ‘i’ in “fish” sounding again in “is” and “thin” then “insects’ ”. The long ‘e’ in “eating” sounding again in “very” and “leaves”. The ‘ay’ sound carrying through “staying” and “way” and “they” to “breaks”. There are further examples. That they are so subtle adds to the ‘fragility’ of the moment – or of the poem itself. Make too much noise and the fish dart away, the surface is shattered.

I’m cautious about generalising but it seems that it is sound which impels the poem. Or, rather, the tension between sounds and a visual ‘given’**. Reading this way, “the line of the water and the air” becomes metaphoric of the poem itself – the meeting of two different ‘orders’.

I’m open to other opinions ...

* If anyone objects to me reproducing this poem (ie copyright issues) I will remove it.

** And perhaps we have to be careful about assuming seeing is so simple and direct in its contact with the ‘real’. There is the vitreous humour – that pool within the eyeball – and the watery film over the eyeball itself.

Animal? Vegetable? Mineral?

"And so I did walk around it, and I looked at all the things that it was, how it looked, and how its shoulders were, and how its legs were and tried to see what kind of animal this was, and eventually I feel I did understand it, its meaning, the how of its meaning." (Ted Berrigan, 'The Business of Writing Poetry' in 'On The Level Everyday')

Here Berrigan is describing his way of reading a poem - specifically 'The Grapevine' by John Ashbery.

It's that time of the year when we select poems for the June exams. How refreshing if a student would not try to "crack the poem" but make some attempt at the "how" of its meaning. We live in hope.

. Driving into work the other morning with 'Village of the Sun' playing & humming & drumming along  & think...