Monday, June 30, 2008

Han Bennink site

I've just discovered that Bennink has a site and - yes! - has put up examples of his art work. No idea about prices.


But today it is different

To keep things ticking over before tomorrow's post on The Red Wheelbarrow, here's a statement by WCW which should be placed above the door of every classroom.

The whole field of education is affected - There is no end of detail that is without significance.

... at present knowledge is placed before a man as if it were a stair at the top of which a DEGREE is obtained which is superlative.

nothing could be more ridiculous. To data there is no end. There is proficiency in dissection and a knowledge of parts but in the use of knowledge -

It is the imagination that -

That is: life is absolutely simple. In any civilized society everyone should know EVERYTHING there is to know about life at once and always. There should never be permitted, confusion -

There are difficulties to life, under conditions there are impasses, life may prove impossible - But it must never be lost - as it is today -


The effect of this realization will be the emplacement of knowledge into a living current - which it has always sought -


With decent knowledge to hand we can tell what things are for

(WCW, 'Spring and All', pp 139-40 - punctuation follows the printed text)


(Every time I go back to 'Spring and All' I'm shocked to be reminded that it was first published in 1923 and yet how fresh it still reads. Books like this simply don't have a sell by date).

Sunday, June 29, 2008

so where does Belgianwaffle stand on the Amy Winehouse phenomenon? (said in a Humphrey Lyttelton-style voice).

Well, I'll spare you the 'I thought Amy Winehouse was a branch of Oddbins until I heard ...' gags. Actually, I couldn't name a single single by La Diva - which obviously puts me at a disadvantage compared to all those hip Cambridge dons who set one of her lyrics for the recent Finals paper. Yo!

What I can say is that this strikes me as a typical bit of British media hypocrisy - i.e. heap vitriol upon the girl while simultaneously filling every available column inch with pictures and opinion about her.

The death of Diana signalled a terrible vacuum for the UK media. Posh has been exhausted (well, it didn't take long) and so who else can fill the void?

Let's imagine The Sun running an 'expose' on Frank O'Hara and Babs Guest. I'd read that.
Into Brussels on the bike to see the exhibition on Rock Star art at the Bozar (Eno, Pete Doherty, David Byrne, etc.) - not really worth even the teacher concessionary price of 3 euros - my, how I sound like Ed Reardon - and then freewheelin' (Bob Dylan reference) down to Sterling Books (which is something of a Joseph Conrad outpost of Poetic Culture here in Belgium given their poetry buyer Helen something or other). I'm in search of the Collected Barbara Guest - I had a hunch they'd have a US copy (didn't) - but I end up finding this ...

... which just goes to prove that this is the best of all possible worlds.

And who accosts me as I unlock my bike chain outside the Bozar? Martine and Eric fresh back from China. It is a small world, as they say.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Today's find from the Mediatheque - and it's really good. The second track 'Koekoek' (will have to ask the wife what this means in Dutch) is lovely.

Is Mengelberg the Dutch Monk? Maybe.

And while we're in the neighbourhood, why not put up this cover art by Mengelberg's long time collaborator, Han Bennink. I'd love to get hold of these (now unobtainable) CDs simply for the visuals - let alone the music.

(currently being used in an advert on ITV - & I'm pleased to say I missed the product).

Friday, June 27, 2008

Riddles of Form/ Four

Barbara Guest’s Crystal Objects


I am in love with a man
Who is more fond of his own house
Than many interiors which are, of course, less unique,
But more constructed to the usual sensibility,
Yet unlike those rooms in which he lives
Cannot be filled with crystal objects.

There are embroidered chairs
Made in Berlin to look like cane, very round
And light which do not break, but bend
Ever so slightly, and rock at twilight as the cradle
Rocks itself if given a slight push and a small
Tune can be heard when several of the branches creak.

Many rooms are in his house
And they can all be used for exercise.
There are mileposts cut into the marble,
A block, ten blocks, a mile
For the one who walks here always thinking,
Who finds a meaning at the end of a mile.
And wishes to entomb his discoveries.

I am in love with a man
Who knows himself better than my youth,
My experience or my ability
Trained now to reflect his face
As rims reflect their glasses,
Or as mirrors, filigreed as several European
Capitals have regarded their past
Or which he is the living representative,
Who alone is nervous with history.

I am in love with a man
In this open house of windows,
Locks and balconies,
This man who reflects and considers
The brokenhearted bears who tumble in the leaves.

In the garden which thus has escaped all intruders
There when benches are placed
Side by side, watching separate entrances,
As one might plan an audience
That cannot refrain from turning ever so little
In other directions and witnessing
The completion of itself as seen from all sides,

I am in love with him
Who only among the invited hastens my speech.


The coincidence of a beautiful sunny day and the arrival of the Chicago Review with the special feature on Barbara Guest proved too powerful to resist. I found myself going back into her Selected Poems and worrying away – again – at ‘Belgravia’ and that line:

The brokenhearted bears who tumble in the leaves.

There are three main things I wish to tackle today.

First, how poems change over time, how any reading has to be of its moment – with all the advantages that entails – and always provisional. In some interview Peter Gizzi talks about his students saying they’ve read a poem implying it’s over and done with. He replies that he’s read the poem twenty times and still finds more to marvel at. I suppose that’s how I feel about ‘Belgravia’ today.

Words such as ‘marvel’ and the ‘marvellous’ seem to crop up when you talk about Guest’s poetry. It is unashamedly luxurious and dazzling and breathtaking. A connoisseur’s art – no doubt about it. You turn a Guest poem in the light like some precious objet d’art – and I can hear teeth grinding coming from more politically motivated readers out there. She’s not to everyone’s taste.

Guest, herself, wrote of the rare pleasures of reading – and I see Brenda Hillman has used the statement in her Chicago Review essay:

“The conflict between a poet and the poem creates an atmosphere of mystery. When this mystery is penetrated, when the dark reaches of the poem succumb and shine with a clarity projected by the mental lamp of the reader, then an experience called illumination takes place. This is the most beautiful experience literature can present us with, and more precious for being extremely rare, arrived at through concentration, through meditation on the poem, through those faculties we often associate with a religious experience, as indeed it is. The reader is converted to the poem ....”
(‘A Reason for a Poetics’ in Forces of Imagination)

I’ve written before about ‘Belgravia’ and while I still go along with much of the reading I’d want to place the emphasis differently. And – I think – I understand that peculiar line or at least can find a way to justify it. An ‘illumination’ of sorts?

The brokenhearted bears who tumble in the leaves.


Second: what is a word? Reading Guest yesterday and today I am made especially conscious of the mystery of the word. How a word ‘exists’ as a written/printed sign and shape, a black shadow of itself upon the white page (& yes, I am thinking of Guests’s repeated use of snow, mirrors, watery surfaces in her poems – they’re all potentially textual metaphors); as well as an acoustic entity (ephemeral, shaped by the interplay of breath, tongue, teeth, lips, received by the ear and its membrane and labyrinthine canals and inner chambers - & yes, I am thinking of voyages in Guest’s poems); as well as a concept (whatever psychology and neural science and cognitive linguistics have to teach us about how sound and sight work in terms of language acquisition and use). In short:


Where Critical Theorists would label and dissect I am happier today to remain with Guest’s sense of magic, mystery and alchemy.


Third. Crystal Objects. Two years ago I didn’t go far enough. Today let’s look at the process of crystallography:

How do crystals form 
and how do they grow?

Crystals start growing by a process called "nucleation". Nucleation can either start with the molecules themselves (we'll call this unassisted nucleation), or with the help of some solid matter already in the solution (we'll call this assisted nucleation).
Unassisted nucleation

When molecules of the "solute" (the stuff of which you want to grow crystals) are in solution, most of the time they see only solvent molecules around them. However, occasionally they see other solute molecules. If the compound is a solid when it is pure, there will be some attractive force between these solute molecules. Most of the time when these solute molecules meet they will stay together for a little while, but then other forces eventually pull them apart. Sometimes though, the two molecules stay together long enough to meet up with a third, and then a fourth (and fifth, etc.) solute molecule.

Most of the time when there are just a few molecules joined together, they break apart. However, once there becomes a certain number of solute molecules, a so-called "critical size" where the combined attractive forces between the solute molecules become stronger than the other forces in the solution which tend to disrupt the formation of these "aggregates". This when this "protocrystal" (a sort of pre-crystal) becomes a nucleation site. As this protocrystal floats around in solution, it encounters other solute molecules. These solute molecules feel the attractive force of the protocrystal and join in. That's how the crystal begins to grow.

It continues growing until eventually, it can no longer remain "dissolved" in the solution and it falls out (as chemists like to say) of solution. Now other solute molecules begin growing on the surface of the crystal and it keeps on getting bigger until there is an equilibrium reached between the solute molecules in the crystal and those still dissolved in the solvent.

Assisted Nucleation

Pretty much the same thing happens as in unassisted nucleation, except that a solid surface (like a stone, or brick) acts as a place for solute molecules to meet. A solute molecule encounters the surface of a stone, it adsorbs to this surface, and stays on it for a certain time before other randomizing forces of the solution knock it off. Solute molecules will tend to adsorb and aggregate on the surface. This is where the protocrystal forms, and the same process as described above happens.

You can probably see why, from what I wrote above, crystals grow fastest in a solution in which the concentration is near saturation. If there are more solute molecules in a given volume, then there is more of a chance they will meet one another. You also don't want to heat up the solution because that acts as the major randomizing force in solution which causes the aggregates of molecules to break up.

(taken from

For me, it’s this paragraph which is of most relevance:

“Most of the time when there are just a few molecules joined together, they break apart. However, once there becomes a certain number of solute molecules, a so-called "critical size" where the combined attractive forces between the solute molecules become stronger than the other forces in the solution which tend to disrupt the formation of these "aggregates". This when this "protocrystal" (a sort of pre-crystal) becomes a nucleation site. As this protocrystal floats around in solution, it encounters other solute molecules. These solute molecules feel the attractive force of the protocrystal and join in. That's how the crystal begins to grow.”

It seems to me that this is a pretty good model of Guests’s poetic process in this poem. Guest’s imagination seems to be led by the ear. In the first stanza of ‘Belgravia’ notice how the poem works its sounds:

I am in love with a man

Guest establishes what will be a recurrent phrase – and we’ll look later at how this use of refrain works – shaping it by means of the near rhyme ‘am’/’man’. What I was not yet alert to was how this creates a sense of self containment to the line. The phrase has an integrity to itself.

Who is more fond of his own house

I notice here how Guest seems to be developing the ‘is’ sound through the line: “is” to “his” to “house”. (Semantically, the relation of “his” and “house” works well in terms of male property and possessions).

Than many interiors which are, of course, less unique,

Here,the ear detects the delayed echo from “man” in the first line in “than” and – possibly? - a typographical ‘rhyme’ in “many”. The ear and eye read in tandem. The ‘or’ sound set in motion by “more” is now attracted by “interiors” and “course” and – in passing – “are”.

But more constructed to the usual sensibility,

By line four Guest’s acoustic thinking is clear – “usual” echoes “unique” in the previous line.

So far so what? Isn’t this what many poets do? Yes – although not necessarily with quite such density or delicacy. However, what seems clear is how the crystallisation model holds. How sounds in Guest’s poem adhere (nice word) momentarily and then a new nucleus occurs.

Let’s transfer to another dimension of the poem.

Characteristically, Guest is working a highly allusive poem. It’s interesting to think of allusion as a kind of shadowing – another narrative haunting this story – or a kind of ‘anticipatory’ echo – other words sounding across time. Guest’s ‘crystal’ objects work in the dimension of time as well as sound.

So, what sounds here as we walk through the corridors of this haunted house-poem?

Nursery rhymes of falling (suggestive, of course, of loss of innocence):

Jack and Jill – where Jack broke his crown and Jill “came tumbling down”; Humpty Dumpty who fell off the wall and couldn’t be put back together again; Rock a bye baby (“rock a bye baby/on the tree top/when the wind blows/the cradle will rock/ when the bough breaks/the cradle will fall/down will come baby, cradle and all”).

Fairy stories of imprisoned women (suggestive, of course, of sexual entrapment):

Bluebeard who forbids his wife to open the door of the room where hang the bodies of his previous wives; Beauty and the Beast where Beauty breaks the heart of the Beast when she leaves but keeps her promise to return;

And we can throw our allusive net still further – out to Jane Eyre and Citizen Kane.

I am in love with a man
In this open house of windows,
Locks and balconies,
This man who reflects and considers
The brokenhearted bears who tumble in the leaves.

We come back to the poem and this stanza which has tantalized me for so long. It’s now possible to see how Guest’s poetic imagination is working.

What else has this “house” been but the poem itself – a space in which she is the ‘guest’ (the pun had to come – and remember that Barbara Pinson ‘takes’ her husband Stephen Guest’s name) and yet simultaneously a trespasser and prisoner. Might this be symptomatic of Guest’s own uncertainties as a young poet entering that very male domain?

This house is “open” – invites all and sundry such as the readings and stories suggested above. There is transparency – “windows” – yet also “locks” and projections out “balconies” (into other poems?).

In the immediate vicinity “the brokenhearted bears” are prepared by the type of acoustic crystallisations we have noticed in verse one: the assonantal “broken” with “open”. But what of the “bears” – how do they arrive seemingly uninvited?

Go back to the second stanza and the “embroidered chairs/Made in Berlin” might Guest’s eery/eary imagination be bending – not breaking – “ever so slightly” “chairs” and “Berlin” (‘Ber-lin’ said in that US English speaker approximation reminiscent of Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” gaff).

How contrived! And yet is it? For Guest’s ear is whimsical and full of memories. For there’s another fairy story that comes to mind – which we’ve been deliberately saving up – about a girl who enters a house and sits on a chair and breaks it: Goldilocks.

Let’s listen to those lines again:

I am in love with a man
In this open house of windows,
Locks and balconies

“Locks” – Guest ushers her in so discretely, this little girl burglar, porridge taster, bed trier, chair breaker. And she breaks hearts too – those of the bears she leaves behind. As one cannot help but inferring this poem is at least partly autobiographical and touches on painful experiences of love and/or marriage.

And now I begin to understand Barbara Guest’s crystal objects: how sound crystallizes as image. The ear leads the eye and the mind. How she ‘invites’ her reader to read according to the “usual sensibility” – pursuing a sequential developmental logic – which the sounds are working to undermine.

This is why I lingered on the shape of the phrase: “I am in love with a man”. Guest’s use of this line as a refrain might lead one to think of a confessional poem, an unfolding of the convoluted secrets of the heart. Instead it holds the development back, the line imposes a formal patterning at odds with a greedy what-happened-next urgency.

How interesting that the last line of the poem should read:

Who only among the invited hastens my speech.

‘Hasty’ speech is inimicable to the poem’s need for time to crystallize, hasty reading, too, for that matter – illumination is“arrived at through concentration, through meditation on the poem”.

The third stanza also now seems more comprehensible –

Many rooms are in his house
And they can all be used for exercise.
There are mileposts cut into the marble,
A block, ten blocks, a mile
For the one who walks here always thinking,
Who finds a meaning at the end of a mile.
And wishes to entomb his discoveries.

This poem-house invites reading exercises – brisk walks and work outs. Yet for what? To achieve “blocks” – fortuitously for the pun, Guest’s New York habits of language transfer to (what I presume is) her London setting. And if we find “meaning at the end of the mile” there is deathly quality to any sense of triumph – “to entomb his discoveries” (the male possessive prounoun is deliberate).

Bell(e) grave ear after all.

It’s tempting to leave the poem here but we need to push the reading further still.

Question One: Is Guest – even in this early poem – setting a challenge to her readers as to how to read her ‘properly’?

To be greedy for meaning, to want to record one’s achievements is to kill the life of the poem? Whereas to go with the sounds and crystallizations of the language is to be alive to the magic and revelatory moments?

Question Two: Is Guest setting history – official narrative and factual time – against fairy story - ‘once upon a time’ – as a gendered opposition: ‘his’ versus ‘my’ – effectively my word against his? Sequential time versus the Other time of the poem?

Question Three: if the “garden” is allusively present as Wilde’s ‘Selfish Giant’ parable and Adam and Eve’s pre-lapsarian state of Grace what are we to make of the theatrical spectacle she immediately introduces? Where the audience become more intent on their own appearance –

As one might plan an audience
That cannot refrain from turning ever so little
In other directions and witnessing
The completion of itself as seen from all sides

As – earlier – “rims reflect their glasses”. Is there a very real danger that crystal objects might be traps? That we – the reader who give ourselves and our time to the text – become lost in a crystal maze of dazzling reflections?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Riddles of Form/ Three

Call me on my mobile ...

Robert Creeley & Alexander Calder

In Vezelay there is a new modern art gallery. With its chic modernist interior and artworks it seems out of place in a French town so steeped in an older age, the houses and shops mounting to the hill top from where the church has a commanding view of the surrounding area.

I remember standing in one of the gallery rooms, watching a Calder mobile turn in the breeze coming from the open window and the disturbances in the air caused by the visitors coming and going. The view through the window was more fitting for a Bonnard or some ‘paysagiste’ surely not this “contrivance of wires”.

That afternoon, I happened upon this poem by Robert Creeley and gradually the confusion I had felt in the morning - the incongruity of the mobile, the room, the landscape - started to disappear.

How mistaken it is to judge simply by appearances. We have to think – feel – through to the underlying form.


Still Life Or

that the wind can catch at,

against itself,
a leaf or a contrivance of wires,
in the stairwell,
to be looked at from below.

We have arranged the form of a formula here,
have taken the heart out
& the wind
is vague emotion.

To count on these aspirants
these contenders for the to-be-looked-at-part
of these actions
these most helpful movements
a strong & constant wind.

That will not rise above the speed
which we have calculated,
that the leaf
that the wires
be not too much shaken.

(Robert Creeley)

NOTE: Blogger is incapable of respecting the line layout required. You'll have to go to the poem on the page. Sorry!)


Unlike several books working connections between poetry and painting, I have absolutely no intention of suggesting that Robert Creeley had a particular Calder mobile in mind or that this poem is ‘about’ a Calder mobile (or any other for that matter). Nor do I want to make a simple connection between Creeley’s disposition of lines and the dispersed form of such wire sculptures. The purpose is to look ‘through’ the poem to its compositional principles: we’re after the “form of the formula” here.

Nevertheless, the visual layout of the poem is immediately striking and not that common for Creeley (Charles Olson’s pages possess more of this sense of ‘scatter’). Like a mobile, Creeley’s poem seems to work with its surrounding space, in this case the white expanse of the page is equivalent to the three-dimensional space of a room. Significantly, the ‘space’ between poem and ‘outside’ the poem is made permeable. Creeley’s title is and is not part of the poem itself. The lines are disposed down and across the page in a way resembling a mobile – words drift to the right, are weighted back hard left, liberated from the strict conventions of a traditional iambic pentameter line. This is an early poem and Creeley will go on to explore and develop the possibilities of a line and enjambment throughout his career.

That’s enough of the eye. Let’s look at mobiles with the ear. Imagine Creeley is actually constructing a mobile not with coloured shapes – like Calder – but sounds. Or, rather, for Creeley shapes are sounds.

I’m going to dismantle the Creeley mobile and make piles of some of the constituent sound-shapes.

‘o’ sound-shapes


‘at’/’av’ sound-shapes



‘can’/’con’ sound-shapes


Going back to the poem it becomes apparent how Creeley is arranging his sounds, the ‘shape’ of sounds. How “mobile” relates to “below” which in turn relates to “emotion” to then connect to “most”. Creeley’s sophistication as a poet is to avoid crude rhyme. “Mobile” does not rhyme exactly with “below”. Instead the ear detects the shared sound – the long ‘o’. Subtle, too, the way Creeley works different parts of a word, the sound sometimes occuring in the first, second or last syllable.

Then there’s the ‘at’ syllable sound which occurs so often and yet it’s easy to miss. Why? Since Creeley audaciously works it with words we typically overlook: “that” and “at” (we tend to focus more on nouns, verbs, adjectives). I’m reminded of Louis Zukofsky’s caution to “those ... too sure that the little words mean nothing among so many other words”.

One of the delights of this poem – as many of Creeley’s poems – is to see such functional items of vocabulary being given poetic distinction. A fact that reaches deep into the modesty and care of Creeley’s art. For it becomes clear that Creeley requires a care-ful reader: in the sense of one who “will not rise above the speed/we have calculated”, timing reading to allow sounds to work as well as one who will take the trouble to pay attention, to care enough about words and poems and to value language. Thus the modesty and ethics of Creeley’s art.

Notice, again, the subtlety whereby “can” is just close enough to “contrivance”, which in turn resembles – but not exactly – “count” – and the “con” syllable sound returns in “contenders” and “constant”. In musical terms, Creeley takes a central chord and then plays progressions – related yet augmented ((apologies for rather clumsy appropriation of musical terminology – Robert if you’re reading!)).

Such is the delicacy of Creeley’s ear that the reader is drawn ever more into the acoustically mobile space of his poem. Sounds have been set in motion, harmonies heard ‘just off’ perfect resolution, the notes ‘turned’ as sound-shapes in the breathing breeze of reading.

Creeley arranges proximate sounds such as the ‘t’ and ‘th’ in the line:

that the wind can catch at,

Read it out loud and feel how the tongue works works with the teeth and alveolar ridge. Delicate little operations in themselves but which acquire greater value in contrast to the open vowel and rounded lip shape of ‘o’ in “mobiles” (line one) and the sibillant frictions of “against itself”. Listen, too, for the softer ‘th’ consonants against the harder ‘c’ and ‘t’ consonants. Similar effects can be heard at work in:

We have arranged the form of a formula here,

Here, it’s the delicacy between ‘v’ and ‘f’ as well as the playful yet serious “formula” emerging out of “form”.

Creeley works his sounds at microsopic levels of attention as well as larger scales (as, for instance, the ‘o’ chain which stretches throughout the poem and modulates from “mobile” to – appropriately – “movements” and “too”. How, here, to separate sound from sense?).

Once again, hardly any attempt has been made to ‘explain’ the poem, what it means. It seems to me that any reader actively engaged in Creeley’s writing – the pleasures offered by the tug and release of the lines, the delicate modulations of the sounds, the physical enjoyment in the voicing of the words – finds ‘meaning’ enough. If a mobile is a structure of weights and balances in movement – has not Creeley crafted a poetic structure which has its own sculptural logic? An artifact which is and works in its own terms. As Charles Olson said at the Berkeley Conference – Creeley speaks of this in an interview with Linda Wagner – :

“that which exists through itself is what is called meaning, that kind of meaning, that kind of signification, is what a poem is. It does so exist through itself, through agency of its own activity; therefore, is; therefore, has meaning.”

It was Ted Berrigan who reminded his students of the Italian derivation of ‘stanza’ – a little room. Reading Creeley’s poem, I am led back to the room in the galleryin Vezelay. Yes, Creeley’s poem is like the mobile in the room. Yet, at the same time, it is also the room – the space – in which the words turn.

“Emotion” involves motion. As with many of Creeley’s poems one senses what is unspoken – being said between the lines (how apt the cliche is for once!). This is a poetry about making the words move and being moved – by love, friendship, happiness, misery. Furthermore, it’s also about not being able to blurt things out. Might this be one of the poem’s precoccupations? The room needed to breathe – whether for words to be spoken (“the wind to catch at”) or for people to feel at ease, at home, in touch yet also free?

Thus, Calder’s mobile was not out of place. Its shapes cut the space, created new shapes in the surroundings and was simultaneously of itself and a bringing into relation of all around it: the walls, the window frame, the hills beyond, the visitors, the currents of air, my own presence in the room, even my own breath.

For Creeley, too, I think, the poem is of itself and in relation. Still life (fixed on the page) yet there’s still life ( the language is alive, we’re alive!). It is a moving between: messages, wires, calling and receiving. Words are in the air all around us. A spoken sense of community.

11 o'clock. I go downstairs to make a coffee and see that the post has come - three uninteresting envelopes without my name on them. As if by some sixth sense I open the front door to see if - you never know - a package has arrived. And there's a squat brown jiffy with the new Chicago Review. And only last night I sent an e-mail to find out what had happened to my subscription.

This kind of thing makes me absurdly happy.

(Not that one should make such statements in these politically correct times ... but has anyone written about how beautiful Barbara Guest was? Or do I just go for that kind of look?)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Difficult to work more today with the girls home from school (Wednesday half day). I go through old notebooks and start to see patterns and preoccupations emerge.

Here are some projected sections for future posts:

- Poetry & Compression: Pound – Objectivists – H.D. – Mark Truscott

- The book as object: Blake – Raworth – Alan Halsey – Martin Corless-Smith

- How poetry appears: little magazines, chapbooks, e-journals, Blogs, readings

- Originality vs. Palimpsest: Rosemarie Waldrop – Blake & Milton – Jack Spicer – Emily Dickinson & Susan Howe – George Herbert’s Easter Wings – Harold Bloom

- Syntax: Gertrude Stein – Clark Coolidge – Christine Stewart – Hannah Weiner

- Poetry & the space of the page: Raworth, Graham Foust, Larry Eigner

- Poetry & Death: Peter Gizzi & Jack Spicer – Blanchot – Cocteau – Tarkovsky

- Using the poem to think with: W.C. Williams – Creeley – Coolidge – James Schuyler

- Poetry & colour & painting: Wallace Stevens – Barbara Guest – Frank O’Hara

- Poetry & Things: O’Hara – Berrigan - Ron Silliman - vs. Rilke & Heidegger

- Poetry & naming: Kenneth Koch - Lisa Jarnot – Christopher Smart – Coolidge – the Bible - Ogden Nash – Dr Seuss – Johann de Witt –

- Poetry and the ‘before language’: nursery rhymes – Kristeva & the ‘choric’ – Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – Joseph Ceravolo – Cy Twombly –

that’ll keep us going ...
Riddles of Form

Part Two

Poetry Rocks

Clark Coolidge and Jack Kerouac

Or should that be Jack Kerouac and Clark Coolidge? In terms of literary history it is Kerouac who comes first. However, in terms of personal history, the names are reversed since it was Coolidge who turned me on to Kerouac.
Think, maybe, for a moment about how you make an acquaintance with a writer: a lucky find in the library? A teacher introduces the name into class discussion. That boy friend or girl friend who gives you THAT book as a first present. Books and writers enter your life in many ways. And some never leave.

Coolidge wrote a terrific book called Now It’s Jazz, Writings on Kerouac and the Sounds. It changed Kerouac for me. Utterly. Until then Kerouac had been the preserve of friends and acquaintances, the type who went to India, wore tie-dye shirts, smoked pot while listening to Van Morrison records, read On The Road (and read it badly). I know there’s plenty of drugs and sex in On The Road – but there’s a lot more besides.

What Coolidge locates in Kerouac can be summed up in this sentence:


There you have it. It’s a lesson you learn once and forever. In one go so much British poetry of the past century falls into perspective. That dull, lifeless, suet pudding diet. There’s better elsewhere ... as Harwood and Raworth and Bonney realised.
I’m not going to rehearse Kerouac’s position in the Beat Movement – you can find detailed accounts elsewhere. Furthermore, I don’t buy into the Kerouac myth, the look which sold a million pairs of jeans as Wiliam Burroughs quipped. For me, it’s what Kerouac does with prose, with the sentence, with words that matters – and holds such transformative power for poetry.

“Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything... ”
(On The Road, Part One)

Kerouac exploits the semantic ambiguity of “along the line”. It’s the line as the road, dizzy miles stretching away across the American landscape holding out hope and freedom. The road taken. It’s the line of life written across the palm of your hand by destiny, Fate, the stars, call it what you will. And it’s also the line of writing extending itself across the page. To repeat: writing means motion.

Then there’s that word “Beat”. It’s the dead beat, the down and out, the man on the margins Kerouac was and identified with. Beat is the heart beat, the pulse in your veins, sign of the blood travelling through your body. Beat is also rhythm – all kinds – musical, Cosmic, being ‘in tune’ and ‘in time’ with the movements of the Uni-Verse. And Kerouac adds his own private etymology, relating the word to beatitude – supreme blessedness and happiness, a state of divine grace and Enlightenment. As he wrote: “somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”

So it’s not surprising that the young Clark Coolidge was stunned by his first encounter with Coolidge:

“On the Road was first handed to me by somebody in the dorm at Brown, my sophomore year, 1957-58: “Here, read this”. ... On the Road started to open a vast door I couldn’t then even imagine the edges of. I remember that even his bright clattery name excited me. It seemed to tear a hole in the syllabus of discussable American novelists ... So I poured over page after astounding page, in a mood which told me: You’re on the hinge of a Move”.” (15-16)

There’s another key phrase – “on the hinge of a Move”. There’s always this sense of movement. Here’s Kerouac describing Dean Moriarty’s skill in parking cars. (We’ll look at cars and poetry more later.) Notice here how Kerouac chooses to focus on the interaction between man and machine – intuitive knowledge, hand and head in synch, not book knowledge. Notice also how the prose – well, it’s poetry really – embodies the energy and movement:

“... he’d finished his first fling in New York. I say fling, but he only worked like a dog in parking lots. The most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world, he can back a car forty miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it fifty miles an hour in a narrow space, back swiftly into tight spot, hump, snap the car with the emergency so that you see it bounce as he flies out; then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, hand a ticket, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner’s half out, leap literally under him as he steps out, start the car with the door flapping, and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run; working like that without pause eight hours a night, evening rush hours and after-theater rush hours, in greasy wino pants with a frayed fur-lined jacket and beat shoes that flap ...”
(On The Road, Part One)

“back swiftly into tight spot, hump, snap the car with the emergency so that you see it bounce as he flies out”

Kerouac drops articles “ (...) tight spot”, uses cartoon-style monosyllable onomatopoeia “hump, snap”, internal rhymes “bounces as he flies out”. The sounds jive - alive with possibility. The very length of the sentence creates a breathless effect, the reader runs to catch up with the words. You don’t overtake when Kerouac’s driving the line.

// did Jean Luc Godard learn from Kerouac’s prose? I’m thinking of ‘A Bout de Souffle’ and the famous jump cuts as Belmondo drives through the country lanes and around Paris.//

Now for Coolidge himself.

Coolidge has written a lot. You could spend a lifetime reading Coolidge’s works. And then some.

Coolidge has written some pretty unreadable poems – by which we’re beginning to understand they’re entirely readable. They simply don’t allow you to take your eyes of the page.

Here’s an early Coolidge poem – it’s just eight words:

ounce code orange
trilobite trilobites

There’s another work by Coolidge – Smithsonian Depositions – composed entirely out of words from other people: Robert Smithson himself, Kerouac, Beckett, J.G. Ballard, Arthur Conan Doyle, the list goes on ...

It helps when reading Clark Coolidge to know he’s fascinated by geology, science fiction, Samuel Beckett and jazz.

Coolidge plays the drums. This, too, is important.

Coolidge is important, too.

His text The Crystal Text is my favourite of his works I’ve read so far. Take a look.

Here’s Coolidge’s poem ‘On the Road’


Well, you just have to read and get involved
with things and scribble. The letters
under the mountain, and the wrath that
turns auto. We’ll never sour up any
plans by jabbering on. We’ll whittle
while we run. And in back of it all
the spiral ramp of conversations, higgly-
piggling over hours and starts and landings.
Nobody digs it all better than in
comminglings of flowage, hot off the rocks
back of the batter pen where dimers stand.
And the flash floats out of the stars into
our upraised tips. Writing means motion.
The hover left behind in the lever jacket,
the car park flap, the inhabited sever.
I was ready to take up amazement and
follow the words.

Here it’s really not a case of trying to show how the poem relates to events in the novel. Coolidge just isn’t that sort of poet.
What’s of interest here is how the writing is in motion. How sound is rhythm. In his book on Kerouac, Coolidge confesses to his ‘sub-vocal’ ability:

“Do you know what I mean? I don’t know how many of you, when you read silently, hear every word. In my case it’s impossible not to do it.” (35)

When you read Coolidge you really READ him. The words acquire a mineral-like density. They’re things. Look at a line such as:

The hover left behind in the lever jacket

How he places an article before “hover”, hardening what we typically take as a verb. How “lever” – a noun here due to the definite article – is made to work as an adjective. Go back to that short poem – ‘ounce code orange’ – and see how the words seem arranged like rock specimens on a tray. The normal rules of grammar seem to be of little help here. The poem seems to be jamming up. Words impacting. Sediment.

If early Coolidge focuses on writing as motion by blocking the easy flow of sense, the 1980s Coolidge of ‘On The Road’ is exploring how words can move through sound.

Well, you just have to read and get involved
with things and scribble.

A seemingly effortless opening – in jazz terms it could be an opening theme before the other players start in. It’s the first of many run over lines – Coolidge’s use of the line suggests a forward movement, hairpin bends. Language spools like the scroll Kerouac famously typed his novel on.

with things and scribble. The letters
under the mountain, and the wrath that
turns auto.

Rapidly it becomes difficult to excerpt lines for the effects are dependent on what precedes and follows as much as for what is within the statement. (Why, too, a paraphrase of a Coolidge poem is so challenging. Perhaps that should read pointless?)
Here I like the way Coolidge shows he’s thinking both in terms of the forward momentum of his lines but also thinking of the line as a discrete unit. How, for example, he sets out the key nouns: “things”, “scribble”, “letters” while spacing them – typographically and rhythmically with conjunctions and articles.

The disposition of the words on the page also enact the sense of movement. As, line three “under” is placed on the line below its subject. As in line four, “turns” acquires added emphasis due to the eye’s twist in reading.

We’ll never sour up any
plans by jabbering on. We’ll whittle
while we run.

Coolidge is now in gear and the sounds are starting to gel. Hear how the seemingly prosaic opening “Well, you have ...” has come alive in the reiterated “We’ll never ...” and “We’ll whittle ...”, the short ‘e’ opens up. (How, too, the ear picks up the punning possibility in “wheel” – the steering wheel and the movement itself).

Flat ‘a’ sounds seem also to be working – a kind of slap bass effect – “wrath” from line three carries into “plans” and “jabbering” line five and, further ahead, “back”, “ramp” lines six and seven. Further still, line eleven - back of the batter pen where dimers stand. Read these lines out loud slapping your hand against your leg – you’ll hear how sound and rhythm mesh.

Returning to lines five and six

We’ll whittle/ while we run.

Shouldn’t that be “we’ll whistle while we run”? Or even “whistle while we work”? Of course – and yet of course not. This is Coolidge’s be-bop poetics – taking off from a well-worn phrase. Spinning it. Taking it for a drive. The Seven Dwarves, World War chippiness, Beat cool, all are fused in a phrase. Who says Coolidge is unreadable? I never knew there was so much in it! As he writes elsewhere “sentences are shortness of breath”.

What Coolidge responded to in Kerouac’s prose is present here in his own writing. The sheer delight in turning words over the tongue: those breathed and unbreathed ‘w’/’wh’ sounds played off against the ‘l’ and ‘tl’ sounds with the challenge of the rolled ‘r’ of run. Try it and you’ll see what Coolidge means.

And to anyone out there who might accuse Coolidge of ‘simply playing with words’ the only appropriate retort is: well, what else SHOULD a poet do? (... you just have to read and get involved ...).

Once you get the idea you can find delights all over the poem.

And the flash floats out of the stars into/our upraised tips.

The alliterative energy of the ‘fl’ consonants, the shift from closed ‘a’ vowel of “flash” to the long ‘o’ vowel of “floats”, the stresses of “upraised tips” working in tandem with the ‘t’ and ‘p’ consonants. If this is ‘abstract’ poetry it is simultaneously so physically tangible for any reader who is prepared to READ.

//cycling to the pool yesterday afternoon I suddenly make a bizarre jump from Kerouac and Coolidge to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Look at the poems and certian notebook entries where he splits words apart by sounding etymologies//

Notice we haven’t for a moment asked what the poem ‘means’. The poem IS its meaning. Or if that sounds too glib, why not take Coolidge at his word:

I was ready to take up amazement and
follow the words.

And we’d be well advised to do the same.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Riddles of Form – One (part two)

Ways of Reading

Easy poem? Difficult poem?

In these sections I’m thinking of taking what for many students would seem a ‘difficult’ poem. Difficulty is often hard to define – is it a matter of vocabulary, an unusual layout, contorted syntax, ambiguity, etc.? However, difficulty can also lie in apparent simplicity. A student confronted with certain poems sits baffled. Where to begin? The poem is simply what it says. There seems to be nothing to get your teeth into. As Peggy Lee sings: Is that all there is?

I’m taking Lee Harwood’s poem ‘Green Summer Notebook’ as an example. I doubt many teachers use Harwood’s poetry in the classroom or that exam boards would set such a poem. Quite clearly it doesn’t deliver some of the expected features.

Is it an easy poem? Is it a difficult poem? Let’s see.

What about the title?

Green Summer Notebook. I’m interested from the start in the way the title seems to declare something rough and spontaneous about the text. Will the poem be directly transcribed or collaged from a notebook? Will it read like a set of diaristic entries? Voyeuristically, I prepare myself for glimpses into the poet’s mind or life or reading – perhaps all three!

In addition, I’m interested by the juxtaposition of the physical book, time of year and the clour green. Literally, then, this is Harwood’s notebook with a green cover which he kept during a summer? Or do we read “green” more figuratively – a “green summer” – the grass was lush, the leaves on the trees – or even to do with freshness, innocence, being untried ... ? The title seems to combine very particular items with a more abstract use of language – and this, I think, is something quite typical of Harwood’s poetry. And I’m reminded of Howard Hodgkin’s paintings – his frequent use of very specific titles for paintings which seem only remotely ‘figurative’.

The way the poem looks on the page

As printed in the Collected Poems, the poem has four sections. At first sight it might seem formless – there seems to be no concern for syllable count or rhyme or fixed meter to govern the lines.

Does this matter? Might such a scattered layout actually be true to the notebook mentioned in the title? The look of the printed page captures the spontaneity of the notebook jottings?

However, Harwood is a better poet than that. Our first impressions are not so much incorrect as a little too generalised.

Looking again, you start to see decisions have been made – even if we’re not quite sure why at this stage.

In the first section, Harwood seems to use a two-line unit in amongst longer or shorter line units.

The second section is barely one line made up of two imperative sentences. Strange – but a decision has been made to do this.

The third section contains one phrase in block capitals and two units double indented. The other lines are conventionally set to the left hand margin. There seems to be a recurrence of the earlier two-line unit.

The fourth section seems almost reassuringly ‘normal’ – four two-lines units (three of which begin “To - ...” ) with a final two word closing line.

Clearly it would be inaccurate to say the poem possesses “no structure”. We might not be able to say yet why Harwood is doing what he does – but that invites us to continue the reading.

So, rather than see the absence of any immediately obvious form as
i) an example of incompetence or
ii) a deliberate attempt to confuse

see it more as
i) a way to find a form which will allow the poem to ‘work’ and
ii) a way to draw you into the poem

Why doesn’t the poem use capital letters and ‘normal’ punctuation?

The poem looks strange on the page due to what again might seem to be poor writing skills on behalf of the poet. Forget capital letters or full stops and commas in an essay and you’ll be penalized. So why can Harwood do this and get away with it?

Why? Because this is poetry!

Harwood is very aware of the customary ways we capitalize and punctuate. One reason to abandon these customs might be – again – to be truer to the notebook and an informal way of writing. Another reason might be to suggest poetic writing has freedoms that critical writing or other forms of ‘proper’ expression demand. Certainly it gives the writing a more casual, spontaneous feel.

There’s a third reason. By removing capitals and conventional punctuation, a poet removes words from their habitual grammatical function – if you like, that words simply function as sentences and make logical sense. Now, words appear as little units – which, through printing, they most evidently are:

w – o – r – d – s

A poet can exploit the shape of words – for example

w - a - t - e - r


m - a - j - o - r

have a mirrored resemblance. More relevant to this discussion of ‘Green Summer Notebook’ is the sounds of words. The eye (and mind) is less preoccupied with the grammatical sense and words are freed to sound within and across their lines.

// placing Harwood’s work in a broader context it becomes apparent how his poetry draws influences from several important American poets of the early-to-mid 20th Century. Ezra Pound and Charles Olson are two obvious figures who abandoned conventions of spelling, capitalization and punctuation. Their reasons? A way of announcing a modern and immediate feel to their writing. Pound would be aware of Futurism and Dada two movements which experimented with typography as a way of revolutionizing language and thinking. He also telescoped words – “sd” for “said” – in his poems and correspondence. The effect seems to be one of a more direct speech and an egalitarian unpretentious style. Olson seemed to be particularly aware of the typewriter and the way it broke words into discrete printed shapes and spaces. However, as e.e. cummings’ poetry shows, all too easily such typographic subversion becomes a limiting mannerism of its own. //

Then, when Harwood does capitalize – as in section three “THE CENSOR LOOMS” – or section four the three recurrent “To –“ phrases – the lines acquire an added emphasis.

In terms of different indentation – as in section three – common sense suggests that Harwood is setting these lines off as a separate thought or a new idea within the context created by the other lines.

So, rather than see such liberties as wilful, see how the use of typography and punctuation can be used meaningfully.

Listening to the sounds

Here are the first five lines of the poem:

nearing mid-summer

sweet nights of light
and red skies

Venus appears in the pale air
the evening star
(delete whatever)

In terms of basic comprehension, there is little of any great difficulty here. The poet establishes the time of year, the time of day and the appearance of the planet Venus in the night sky.

What, then, to say about these lines? And there might be several readers feeling that my prose equivalent does the job as well. Why does Harwood feel the need to chop up the lines other than this makes it seem more like a poem?

I would argue that Harwood is not simply interested in establishing a factual account. These opening lines work more lieka first ‘theme’ in a piece of music. The sounds are being ‘arranged’ very deliberately and not simply to make the poem ‘pretty’ or ‘poetic looking’. Let’s listen closer.

What becomes evident to a closer reading for sound is the way Harwood is arranging a delicate modulation of end consonants in the words: “summer”, “air”, “star” and “whatever”. Despite these being consonant endings the ‘-r’ syllable is almost working as a vowel.

Why does Harwood do this? Perhaps to embody a sense of softness and gentleness appropriate for balmy summer nights. And let’s not confuse this with onomatopoeia. No one is saying we hear the sound of wind in the leaves or the tide at a distance. Harwood is not ‘copying’ nature. Instead, within the sounds available to him these have a quality, a ‘texture’ which suits this part of the poem.

Next, the bright long ‘i’ sounds and long ‘e’ sounds: “nearing”, “sweet”, “nights”, “light”, “skies”, “Venus”, “appears”, “evening”, “delete”. At this level of recurrence this has to be more than coincidental.

Why does Harwood do this? Again, let’s not assert that the sounds are bright and so we see the stars. Rather, that out of the available sounds such bright and clear sounds possess a quality which suits what is being stated (I hesitate to say described).

And why I hesitate to say “described” is that, as such, Harwood is not describing – think how a meteorologist or astronomer would tackle similar phenomena. What we find – and one of the most interesting aspects of Harwood’s poem – is that sound and sense are inextricable. The sounds are the sense, the sense is in the sound.

But what of that broken line? Another example of poetic affectation? The danger – as Harwood would be only too aware – of using too many long vowels (here the ‘i’ and ‘e’ sounds) is that the poem becomes saccharine. The ear cloys with too much sweetness – compare the opening lines of Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night. By breaking the line and using the short ‘e’ sound found in “red” , Harwood tones down the lush effect. (That the skies were red is neither here nor there. We’re thinking in terms of the poem as a composition. And we’ll come back to that broken line later).

Finally, the pattern of long ‘i’ and ‘e’ sounds also work to create a coherence to the lines. The sounds ‘thread’ the lines together suggesting connections – by no means simply logical – between the night, the sky, the planet Venus, and the act of writing and revising. That the lines are spaced apart is – again – more than a novelty effect. By means of this spacing Harwod stops the reader’s eye running to quickly along the grammatical sense of the poem, skimming the poem’s surface. Instead, a rhythm to the reading is established one which allows the sounds of the composition to work. That this might also relate to a slow and rather leisurely feel to the poem only goes to show how different elements of the poem are working effectively together.

OK, let’s talk about “sense”

The broken line is worth looking at again. Many readers would make the jump to “red skies at night/shephered’s delight”. It is interesting to see Harwood resist the proverbial saying, preferring instead to gesture towards it. And this, I think, is a characteristic of his poetry.

A lesser poet – no, let’s say a different poet – might have used the old saw directly. Harwood knows his reader will pick up on it and part of his reader’s delight is this little shared intimacy of language. A raised eyebrow, a nudge, - or as the closing words of the poem say: “you know”.

It would be wrong to suggest that this is elitist, that Harwood expects too much of his readers. He is not being ‘difficult’ by working off the unstated phrase. In fact, it is the very opposite of elitism. Harwood presumes a shared background of language and one that has been handed down generation to generation. This is a popular poet.

What then of line five which breaks with the stars and skies and – typographically – breaks the page by appearing in parenthesis.

(delete whatever)

It sounds dismissive, casual, uninvolved, as if he couldn’t be bothered. A cynical counter voice to the lyrical preceding four lines.

It could be an instruction to himself lifted from the green notebook. It could be a thought going through his head as he composes the poem – although, as a poem of he 1970s it is perhaps unlikely to be his computer’s Word programme sending up a text box instruction. Might it even be an imperative addressed to the reader?

And this, it seems to me, is the point. Within the first five lines Harwood has created a deceptive and flexible ‘space’ for his poem. There seem to be two voices – one ‘main’ lyrical voice with its sotto voce ‘bad conscience’ making snide asides.

Time is layered: the time of year, the time of day, the stored time of the notebook (from which, for all we know, every phrase derives); and the time of the actual writing of the poem.

What is exciting about this poem is the very real sense of the poem in the process of writing and of an uncertain ‘depth’. To borrow from the visual arts, ‘figure’ and ‘ground’ seem to move. What has seemed to be fixed in time and space is now in a process of being written and coming into being. Furthermore, if we – the reader – are to “delete whatever” – Harwood seems intent on bringing us into the poem. What are the consequences for sense and meaning?

Is it the poem, the poet or the reader who “makes sense”?

//Harwood’s indebtedness to New York poetry of the 50s and 60s can be traced here and its close links with Abstract Expressionism. Look at de Kooning’s retention of underdrawing in his paintings and the concern to keep the tactile sense of the sweep of the arm in the stroke made by the brush//

Where else do we see this immediacy of composition? Look at lines six and seven:

a warm stillness
a still warmness

Again, there is the look and feel of an actual notebook entry. The poet trying out the lines, the sound, the shape through variations. (See also section ii. “Take notes. Make outlines out.”)

The minimalism is deceptive and that is another delight. First, notice the cheeky ungrammaticality of “warmness”. Shouldn’t that really be “warmth”? Yet this would miss the poetic rightness of the two lines and the impudent effect. (How dull had the poem continued with more atmospheric writing before delivering some trite moral. Harwood has a sense of humour - and tact).

Second, the reader becomes aware of a formal logic declaring itelf : a series of corrections and errors. Thus:

- the earlier “delete whatever”
- “frost waits for no man” itself a revision of “time waits for no man” with Harwood’s additonal remark suggesting that the accepted phrase is inadequate
- in terms of one phrase reworking another, line eleven “someone should say” is modified into lines fifteen to sixteen “as/they say”
- “stuck in the basics of survivial” is rewritten as “stuck in the basements of survival”
- and section (i.) closes “I reread this as mistakenly”

The effect of this is to create a sense of provisionality. One statement exists for a time only to be rephrased, the terms redefined later.

Perhaps this is “the basics of survival” and the nearest we will get to an explicit statement of what the poem is “about”? Certainly the poem seems reluctant to make any definite statement. The lines are unresolved fragments, barely sentences in the accepted grammatical sense. Main verbs or clear subjects are hard to establish. And yet the lines seem to be ‘about’ something. And this is also a characteristic of Harwood’s poetry – an implied subject or centre of interest.

The “basics of survival” might apply to emotional survival (a love affair, a bereavement), to the tomato plants surviving a late frost, to military survival tactics (Harwood often collages phrases from spy and war novels), to the poem – poetry – itself? The phrase “the ground to work from” carries inevitable echoes for a reader of Robert Duncan.

Is this “trivial” – a poem which concerns itself with the light of a particular day, of the cyclical movement of planets (and which we take for granted), of the fruits that grow for us to eat, and of the writing of poems?

You feel that Harwood is suggesting – not lecturing – that these are all part and parcel of each other and certainly not “trivial”. That you ‘get’ this – or you don’t – and thereby the poet achieves another little pact with the reader. As he writes later:

To keep it that simple
the foundations built as you go

you know

Building the poem (the process of composition, the notebook, sitting at his writing desk) and building a life – relationships with people, seasons, times of day, books, tomato plants – all require adjustments, improvisation, rules of thumb and not hard and fast absolutes.

And that final flourish says it all:

you know

Cheeky again and open to multiple readings:

- we agree (a final wink to the reader) you and I
- tranferring responsibility – you know (but I don’t)
- initiating a new chain of thought – I’ve just thought of something else ...

and that the sounds of the phrase are so exactly in accordance with the preceding “as you go” upsets any reassurance. Here sound works deliberately counter to the possibilities within the statement.
(The “basics of survival” continued

I’m deliberately separating off a discussion of the third section since it relates to other issues to be explored elsewhere. What’s interesting is the way that a seemingly rather ‘occasional’ poem (I notice that it wasn’t published as part of the main ‘Boston to Brighton’ volume) opens up to include issues of poetic survival – i.e. what seems to be a version of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence.

In section three, Harwood opens with the intimidating block capitals “THE CENSOR LOOMS” followed by “back of all thoughts”.

The poem seems to be more and more about the habits and processes of writing, here, specifically about the nagging doubts that surround the writer concerning his work. Is it – am I – any good? Should this line be kept? Should I rework it? Refine and polish or trust first thought best thought?

There is then a witty cartoon western transition, playing on “back” – “meanwhile back at the desk” and the portraits (photographs or postcards?) stuck over the writers’ table. Significantly, these sources of inspiration (Harwood’s father, the poet F.T. Prince, the artist Rembrandt, the novelist R.L. Stevenson) seem indifferent, looking above or to the side. (Here Lacan will be relevant concerning the gaze and the sense of selfhood – I’m not up to that today!).

Interestingly the section closes with the line:

There are dreams and actions and responsibilities

Harwood wears his reading lightly and yet the weight of his poetic responsibilities are clear. This line reworks a line by W.B Yeats (“In dreams begin responsibilities”), which was in turn used by Delmore Schwartz for a short story, and – as I recall – used by John Berryman as an epigram for a volume of Dream Songs. An example of the “ground to work from” – the soiled layers of language of precursor poets. )



To spend the best part of a day with one poem – is this a wasted day?

In the university you are expected to devour several volumes in preparation for a weekly essay. That’s not how to read poetry.

Poetry requires time. Reading unfolds. It doesn’t – if it is any good – give in one go.

Recipes, fire drill instructions, traffic signs – these are texts which deliver their message quickly and efficiently.

One poem out of a collection of three hundred? But who’s counting? If I read only one today I will read it well.

Reading a poem is to have an experience. You read and engage with the words which are part of you – of who you are and were and might become.

To read lazily or inattentively or to read using someone else’s words is to miss the experience.

Why read the menu when you can eat the meal?

Read another poem by the same poet and the poem will acquire greater resonance. It will not be identical with the first – why should it be?

As if by magic the previous poem will acquire greater resonance when I re-read it. It seems that I have not exhausted it. How could I be so presumptuous!

As Heraclitus might say:

You never read the same poem twice.


Rilke on reading poetry

Here I sit, reading a poet.There are quite a number of people in the reading-room; but one is not aware of them. They are inside the books. They move, sometimes, within the pages like sleepers turning over between two dreams. Ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading! Why are they not always like that? You can go up to one of them and touch him lightly; he feels nothing. And if in rising, you chance to bump lightly against the person sitting next you and excuse yourself, he nods in the direction from which your voice comes, looking at you, but not seeing you; and his hair is like that of a man who has been asleep ...

‘Bibliotheque Nationale’, The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke (p36)

and which calls to mind Wim Wenders’ film ‘Wings of Desire and the angels walking through the Staatsbibliothek ...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Quotations on composition

“Inspiration, art, artist – so many words, hazy at least, that keep us from seeing clearly in a field where everything is balance and calculation through which the breath of the speculative spirit blows. It is afterwards, and only afterwards, that the emotive disturbance which is at the root of inspiration may arise – an emotive disturbance about which people talk so indelicately by conferring upon it a meaning that is shocking to us and compromises the term itself. Is it not clear that this emotion is merely a reaction on the part of the creator grappling with that unknown entity which is still only the object of his creating and which is to become a work of art? Step by step, link by link, it will be granted to him to discover the work. It is this chain of discoveries, as well as each individual discovery, that give rise to the emotion – an almost physiological reflex, like that of the appetite causing a flow of saliva – this emotion which invariably follows closely the phases of the creative process.” (50-51)

“The very act of putting my work on paper, of, as we say, kneading the dough, is for me inseparable from the pleasure of creation.”(51)

“The idea of work to be done is for me so closely bound up with the idea of the arranging of materials and of the pleasure that the actual doing of the work affords us that, should the impossible happen and my work suddenly be given to me in a perfectly completed form, I should be embarrassed and nonplussed by it, as by a hoax.”(53)

“As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me. ... However, I shall not succumb. I shall overcome my terror and shall be reassured by the thought that I have the seven notes of the scale and its chromatic intervals at my disposal, that strong and weak accents are within my reach, and that in all of these I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience just as vast as the upsetting and dizzy infinitude that had just frightened me. It is into this field that I shall sink my roots ...” (63-64)

“my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.” (65)

(Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, ‘The Composition of Music’)
Riddles of Form – One


Q: Why do you want to write a book about poetry?

A: As part of my teaching in a High School I am expected to teach poetry as part of the curriculum. Over the past ten years I have experienced an increasing sense of disjointedness between what I teach (what I am obliged to teach, what I feel I should teach, what I think would work with a class) and what I read and think about during the rest of my day.

Connected to this is an ever-increasing hostility expressed by a class whenever poetry is mentioned: groans, complaints, “that sucks”, etc. .

Why is this? Putting aside normal adolescent reluctance to start a new piece of work, poetry in particular – not the novel, not drama – arouses such extreme feelings. What is it about poetry that is so off-putting?

I think that this response is very revealing not just about current adolescent attitudes towards a genre of literature. I think it goes wider – to students’ attitudes to literature in general; to the current approaches to teaching poetry in the classroom; to teachers’ own experiences with poetry; to cultural traditions that have been established concerning poetry, what is/is not worthy of being taught (the ‘cannon’ as such); to the tradition of Practical Criticism within English studies and the examination system I.A. Richards being especially siginificant here); to the uneasy relationship between the academic reading and study of poetry and the poets who are actually writing; and – moving broader still – to how poetry functions within ‘our’ society (by which I take a Western, 21st Century, post-industrial, consumerist society as my model) and attitudes towards Otherness, alternative ways of thinking and living and speaking.


A typical scenario:

The teacher enters the room with a bundle of photocopies of a poem. The sheets are distributed. The teacher (or a student) reads the poem out loud. The students are instructed to prepare the poem – using dictionaries, perhaps a guiding question or two. They work individually or in pairs.

After a given amount of time – 15 minutes to half an hour – the teacher attempts to draw out the students’ understanding of the poem. The usual procedures are in evidence – ambiguity in terms of vocabulary (a secondary meaning is used as a key to a secret level of the text), imagery, form, tone .... the list is well known.

Depending on the group, the poem, the time of day, the teacher’s approach, so the discussion becomes animated – perhaps one student ‘clicks’ with an aspect of the poem and leads the class off at a tangent. Alternatively, the discussion sags, the teacher steps in and drives the students through the poem.

The period is nearly over. There is a hasty attempt to draw the strands together, to give a ‘reading’ of the poem. The teacher asserts a dominant reading: ‘what the poem is really all about’, ensuring also that key learning objectives have been covered. An essay is assigned – or not. The students leave the room. Next class (Physics, Geography, P.E.). A dim memory remains of the poem. In a week’s time there will be another photocopy to be handed out.

So what’s wrong with this? (Although I am fully aware that one can only do so much given scheduling and syllabus requirements, the ability and enthusiasm of the students, and the teacher’s own energy and competing demands upon their time.)

First, the way that the poem is given as an isolated example. The class contact with the poem begins – and ends – abruptly. There is little opportunity to set the poem within cultural or biographical contexts, nor within the work of the poet or a wider generation. An impression is created that poems exist as little islands of language or like free samples of perfume in magazines. Tear off and sniff.

Second, the implicit assumption of a ‘correct’ reading. The teacher will strive to focus the different opinons, abitrate between valid and invalid ideas. And, typically, an attempt to state what is the subject matter of the poem (with other features such as imagery and language being secondary and contributory). The “This poem is about” model.

Third, the expected development of reading in terms of students’ incompetence and the teacher’s competence. That meaning will be gradually revealed. The power structure within the classroom is unchallenged. (Poem as Strip Tease model).

Fourth, the assumption that the poem has something to hide. Meaning lies buried ‘within’. The poem as treasure map model.

Fifth, the use of procedures – effectively a toolkit – knowing that the ability to spot features and label them will be rewarded. The poem is like an ornithological field trip – there’s a simile! I’ve seen an example of assonance!

Sixth, little opportunity for the students to engage in ways other than intellectually with the poem. The poem has become – as such – a kind of crossword puzzle.

Seventh, and perhaps most damagingly, the overriding impression is that poems exist for classroom – and, by extension, examination – analysis. It is as if poets write poems simply for students to write essays or obtain grades.

And so what would be alternative methods?



There was a period of time when he would spend evenings in a basement flat in a room surrounded by shelves full of books. In another room a small child lay sleeping. The child did not belong to him. The books did not belong to him. He felt an interloper, a trespasser. Among the books some were familiar, many were not. He did not dare take a book from the shelf. It did not feel right. It was not his right to do so. In fact, it was many years before he could buy and read with a clear conscience several of those books which he remembered seeing. In that room. On those shelves. And a child sleeping.


Listening to Walt Whitman

reading ‘Song of Myself’ as both an inspiration and great corrective. Inspiration in terms of his self belief and the way certain lines encapsulate key ideas I want to explore. Corrective in terms of Whitman’s optimism and sweep of vision – who, other than Blake, in the English literary tradition gets close? I think Whitman has to be one of the key writers for this project – who yanks (pardon the pun) poetry out of the classroom and connects it back into LIFE.


I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease ... observing a spear of summer

(poetry working outside of ‘normal’ attitudes towards time profitably spent. the importance of rapt attention: the particular, the seemingly ‘insignificant’. a new – and truer – sense of leisure.)


I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

(WW’s poetics of contact: skin, fingers, ingesting, consuming, embodying – versus abstraction and intellection. An uninhibited poetic erotics - & O’Hara afterwards).


Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?
Have you practised so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun .... there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand .... nor look through the eyes of the dead .... nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

(WW dismantles the entire educational literary examination structure. the intellectual arrogance, greediness & presumption of the ‘clever’reader – but who misses what is essential. a ‘true’ reading of the poem involves the cosmos itself. direct contact with things. contradiction & Zen-like paradox within WW’s thought: you read the poem to be ‘awakened’ to why the poem cannot tell you what is essential. wider spiritual teachings of abandoning the ladder you climb upon. becoming courageous – think and act for yourself!)


Loafe with me on the grass .... loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want .... not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valued voice

(again, seemingly paradoxical – a poet denying words, rhyme, music. rather, WW goes for the erotics involved in language – reminds me of something by Barthes – the grain of the voice? a timbre, the impossible to replicate, body and ‘soul’ united. beyond words).


A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? .... I do not know what it is any more than he.

(classic transcendentalist philosophy – the child knows & systemized education unlearns. the so-called ‘weak’ student often reads a poem with uncanny insight)


O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing

(for WW poetic Voice is inextricably connected with political Voice – the true meaning of Democracy – and lost in current US/UK practice. opens the political dimension of the argument)


In me the caresser of life wherever moving .... backward as well as forward slueing,
To niches aside and junior bending

Oxen that rattle the yoke or halt in the shade, what is that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.

(Franciscan tendency in WW’s thinking?– and a so far unaddressed aspect: poetry and ecology. poem: Nature – and a revision of nice safe readings of Romanticism.)


The wild gander lead his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation;
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listen closer,
I feel its purpose and place up there toward the November sky

(great quote for the ‘riddles of form’ in nature ‘speaking’ a secret language)

Scattering it freely forever

(Derrida & dissemination! WW’s male erotics of sowing seeds in the minds of his readers)


I resist anything better than my own diversity,
And breathe the air and leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place

(great for sections on poetry & breath: Ginsberg is the logical connection here – but also Olson’s ‘Projective Verse’)


These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

(“riddles” of course. also the paradoxical nature of WW’s teaching: I am saying nothing new – you know it already. also an anti-commodification of knowledge – who can rightly argue for copyright on ideas?)


Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have .... for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has.

(again, the secret language of form. I bet Coolidge would love these lines)

This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.

(intimacy. another theme – how a poem, a poet, enters your life – if you wish. to counter attitudes of “this has nothing to do with me” or “this poem doesn’t speak to me”)


What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?


And I know I am solid and sound,
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow,
All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means.

(human anatomy – the skeleton – genetic ‘writing’ – DNA – a pun on sound (?) and Cage’s realisation of the impossibility of silence as we ‘hum’ with life. poetry as gnosis.)


I am the poet of the body,
And I am the poet of the soul

(begging the question whether for WW there is a distinction?)

- more to come -

Friday, June 20, 2008

a series of working notes ...

i. Purpose & purposelessness: avoidance of predictable outcomes. The antithesis of the executive-managerial mindset. Cage: "When I'm not working I sometimes think I know something. When I'm working I discover that I don't know anything at all."

ii. Global existence based in particulars & the local. Creeley. Olson. W.C. Williams. Emily Dickinson. (Against internet thumb-brain-screen model).

iii. Poetry as the antidote to mediatised boredom (Big Brother, talent shows, reified entertainment - Adorno, Marcuse). Requires work, engagement. Counter the arguments of high/low culture, educated/uneducated, upper/lower class.

iv. how you use the hours of the day - does your work further happiness (your own, others?. Stoic philosophy adapted: a poem which does not apply to the 'now' is of no value. A poetics of living = a politics of living. (Thoreau). How politics in poetry goes far beyond subject matter. Think: form, rhythm, a way of thinking. Of living in a language.

v. dedication. Of finding yourself in work/ in The Work (Ishmael, Marlow). Manny Farber & termite art. The work evolves: the life evolves. Whitman. Lawrence. Duncan. (The Poetic Gnostic).

vi. Freedom. To write as itself an act of liberation. However, a 'life sentence' to language. Blanchot - writing & death. Grammar & language (Stein, Tender Buttons).

vii. transformative power of poetry - the dull & inert 'raised'. Change your language to have a new experience. Found poetry (Cobbing, I.H. Finlay, b.p. nichol).

viii. intuition. inspiration. jokes. dreams. the unconscious. Poetry as the 'other' language (vs. rational. conscious. planned). Alternative logics.

ix. poetry creates meaning. Language games. Retallack, Cage, Wittgenstein. Literally: poetry makes sense.

x. argue against 'creative' types. Argue for Blake's holy conception of the Imagination Jesus in everyone. Dismantle a culture of self-inscribed failure & inhibition. Whitman. "put a motor in yourself" (Zappa).

xi. soporifics, opiates, dulling, numbing, drugs, alcohol, shopping, passivity, resignation - 21st culture paralysis (negative). Instead: Kerouac's Spontaneous Prose, hitting the 'beat' leading to 'beatitude'. Rimbaud's deregulation of the senses (positive).

xii. Poetry & breath & breathing space. Words: "the thinnest material we have" (Coolidge). "the edges of two words" (Stevens). Ginsberg & Buddhism. Cage & silence. Whitman: "and breathe the air and leave plenty after me".

xiii. Poetry & sound. The mouth:lungs:tongue:teeth. Phonetics. Vowels & consonants. The poet's palate/palette. Pound on the leading of the vowels. Jaap Blonk.

xiv. poem as Oracle. the poem anticipates us. Zukofsky: poem as constellation. Light travelling. Past-future.

xv. Poem as listening. How do we listen? The final speaker is the listener. Milton & "obedience". Can you 'focus' your ears? Dickinson (the spirit is the conscience in the ear).

xvi. making a poem. machines made of words. Creeley's poem & Calder mobile.

xvii. interstitial thinking. "ma" & Japanese thought. Feldman. Heidegger's conception of poetry & space. Dickinson's webs & lines.

(meetings begin. More later.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

re. 'Riddles of Form' - tentative first thoughts of ways to develop chapters. Here are two. Comments etc. invited!

Chapter: Beginnings

"you know you can always begin anywhere" (John Cage)

Where does the poem begin?

- linear models the only way to go?

- Big Bang theory

- Paradise-already-lost

- Plato & Wordsworth: anamnesis

- Emerson & Transcendentalism: born a know-it-all

- Derrida and the question of Origins

- Darwin & evolution

- Jacques Monod: chance and necessity

- Epicurus & Lucretius: the clinamen


Hughes 'Thought Fox'
Heaney 'Digging'
O'Hara 'Talking to the Sun on Fire island'


Rilke on the 'inspiration' for the Duino Elegies


Chapter: Creative Fictions

Making the Uni-Verse

- King James Bible. opening pages of The Book of Genesis. Adamic naming & poetic naming. Christopher Smart.

- God-as-Artist-Poet

- Aboriginal Songlines (Chatwin)

- Milton, Paradise Lost

- Dogons

- Kabbalah

- Graves' White Goddess & tree lore

- African poetry: sowing rituals. Mancala games.

- DNA.


John Donne
Philip K. Dick


Stockhausen on his days of the week opera - sound & creation
Zappa & The Big Note
Robert Fludd diagrams (divine chord)


Monday, June 16, 2008

the paradox inherent in the nature of things

"The fundamental thing in the Japanese character is a peculiar combination of poetry and humour, using both words in a wide and profound yet specific sense. "Poetry" means the ability to see, to know by intuition what is interesting, what is really valuable in things and persons. More exactly it is the creating of interest, of value. "Humour" means joyful, unsentimental pathos that arises from the paradox inherent in the nature of things. Poetry and humour are thus very close; we may say that they are two different aspects of the same thing. Poetry is satori; it is seeing all things as good. Humour is laughing at all things; in Buddhist parlance, seeing that "all things are empty in their self nature" ... and rejoicing in this truth." (R.H. Blyth quoted by Joan Retallack in 'Musicage' p. xxxviii)

Saturday, June 14, 2008

dream last night involving Jeremy Prynne. We're in a bar somewhere - London, Cambridge Oxford (?) with an assortment of Prynne-ites. He looks his real age and yet i) resembles the golfer Greg Norman (i.e. kind of sandy blonde raked-across hairstyle); ii) speaks with an East Anglian farmer's burr and Cambridge High Table posh. At one point he starts reading his poems in a duet with an acolyte - all the while holding an old Sony Walkman cassette recorder to preserve the event.

Needless to say, I cannot remember a phrase he read.

(Two years ago, a similar dream in which Robert Creeley showed me his notebooks).

Misha Mengelberg

spend this afternoon watching this - one of those lucky finds at the Mediatheque. Recommended.

I'll try adding a video ... fingers crossed...

Friday, June 13, 2008

I've been printing off two years' worth of Blog entries with a view to seeing what pattern emerges - the kinds of preoccupation - with a view to (maybe) giving things a shape.

If you - anyone - has the time/inclination to specify which posts seem of particular interest, I'd be grateful.

I'm cutting out incidental posts - and then changing my mind: the Pyramid photo post is relevant to 'Riddles of Form'. A key 'structure' after all.


"Like the movies and the movie houses, "printed matter" plays an entropic role. Maps, charts, advertisements, art books, science books, money, architectural plans, math books, graphs, diagrams, newspapers, comics, booklets and pamphlets from industrial companies are all treated the same. Judd has a labyrinthine collection of "printed matter", some of which he "looks" at rather than reads. By this means he might take a math equation, and by sight, translate it into a metal progression of structured intervals ... Judd's sensibility encompasses geology and mineralogy. He has an excellent collection of geologic maps which he scans from time to time, not for their intended content, but for their exquisite structural precision. ('Entropy and the New Monuments', Robert Smithson,1966, p18)


Minus Twelve


1. Zone of standard modules.
2. Monoliths without color.
3. An ever narrowing field of approximation known as the Method of Exhaustion.
4. The circumscribed cube.


1. Equal units approaching divisibility.
2. Something inconsistent with common experience or having contradictory qualities.
3. Hollow, blocks in windowless room.
4. Militant laziness.


1. Postulates of nominalism.
2. Idleness at the North Pole.
3. Exclusion of space.
4. Real things become mental vacancies.


1. Gray walls and glass floors.
2. Domain of the Dinosaurs.
3. Toward an aesthetics of disappointment.
4. No doors.


1. A flying tomb disguised as an airplane.
2. Some plans for logical stupefactions.
3. The case of the "missing-link."
4. False theorems and grand mistakes.


1. Memory of a dismantled parallelepiped.
2. The humorous dimensions of time.
3. A refutation of the End of Endlessness.
4. Zeno's Second Paradox (infinite regression against movement)


1. Dogma against value.
2. Collapses into five sec
3. To go from one extreme to another.
4. Put everything into doubt.


1. Two binocular holes that appear endlessly.
2. Invisible orbs
3. Abolished sight.
4. The splitting of the vanishing point.


1. Sinking back into echoes.
2. Extinguished by reflections.
3. Obsolete ideas to be promulgated (teratologies and other marvels).
4. Cold storage.


1. Refusal to privilege one sign over another.
2. Different types of sameness.
3. Odd objections to uncertain symmetries in regular systems.
4. Any declaration of unity results in two things.


1. Deluging the deluge.
2. The Great Plug.
3. The Winter Solstice of 4000 B.C. (a temporal dementia).
4. Toward innumerable futures.


1. Aluminum cities on a lead planet.
2. The Museum of the Void.
3. A compact mass in a dim passageway (an anti-object).
4. A series of sightings down escarpments.

(from Robert Smithson: 'The Collected Writings' ed. Jack Flam)


I bought the 'Collected Writings' a while ago and shelved it for a rainy day. Yesterday was certainly rainy and - surprise, surprise - down comes this book.

In fact, it wasn't such a coincidence. Who better to help me think about structures and matter and poetry than Robert Smithson? For me he exists at an interesting 'node' uniting New York Minimalism, Land Art, J.G. Ballard, Beckett, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (see 'Minus Twelve' above), Clark Coolidge ('The Crystal Text'), Deleuze and Guattari (the sheer range and dynamic of his thinking).