Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Local Word

From reading Ginsberg again.

On hearing Robert Creeley read:

“I was astonished at the closeness of his speech with its hesitancies word by word the forms of his writing. It seemed that, in his specialized – i.e. personal, unique, home-made, close to the nose, close to the grain, actual – world of writing and speech, the forms he wrote were precise notations of the way his mind thoughts occurred to him, as he noticed them, and the way they’d be uttered out loud. ... The main principle seemed to be that his mind moved syllable by syllable – as if his basic unit of thought was the syllable – as if thought-forms could be broken down further than picture image, further than thought-breath or whatever larger unit Kerouac or Olson or Duncan or Williams or others have used, could be broken down below words themselves even, to syllables, one by one moving forward in time, one by one at a time left on the page to tell what change mind went thru in the head at the desk or with pen in hand on the lap on a ship or a plane or in bed, slow as a live clock, monosyllable by monosyllable ... here Creeley was exhibiting his own personal objective yoga as it were of speech-mindfulness, a completely unique universe uncovered by awareness of the syllable as basic atom or brick of poetic mind. What was rare to experience was how much the entire set of mind, the set up, represented in the beginning of the poem, was modified by each new single-breath’d syllable. So each one word syllable modified by hindsight all the previous words. Of course that’s universal in speech, but to hear speech so bare that the modifications of mind syllable by syllable were apparent, were the theme and play of the poem, was like raw mind discovery to me anew, like rediscovering Cezanne’s method of creating space, or Poussin’s arrangement of planes or Pound’s quantity of vowels.” (‘On Creeley’s Ear Mind’, 414)


On William Carlos Williams’ poetry:

“Generally we don’t see ordinary objects at all. We are filled with daydream fantasy so that we don’t see what is close to the nose, and we don’t even appreciate what everyday tables and chairs have to offer in terms of service for food or a place to sit; in terms of the centuries of maturing that it took to give us a place for the food. Zeroing in on actuality with the ordinary mind and abandoning any thought of heaven, illumination; giving up any attempt to manipulate the universe to make it better than it is; but, instead, coming down to earth and being willing to relate to what is actually here without trying to change the universe or alter it from the one which we can see, smell, taste, touch, hear and think about. Williams’ work as a poet is very similar to Zen Buddhist mindfulness in practice, because it clamps the mind down on objects and brings the practitioner into direct relations with whatever he can find in front of him without making a big deal about it; without satisfying some ego ambition to have something more princely or less painful than what already is ...

... That’s the whole point; dealing with this universe. And that was a fantastic discovery: that you can actually make poetry by dealing with this universe instead of creating another one.” (‘Williams in a World of Objects’, 340-41)


and the closing lines (apologies for the line layout) of ‘Howl’ Part One:

and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed

with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating plane,

who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,

the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,

and rose incarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio

with the absolute heart of the poem butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Afternoon of a Poem

an old afternoon and reading
some magazines and sandals
upon the terrace left awry in
shapes unmade by leaves the rain of
noon blue after thunder sky
in a garden of someone
I don’t know mowing lawns
and red geraniums
the cold soles of urgent feet
somewhere the air motions hairs
along your arms and down the road
somehow the sun is sliding now
the tree a line of heat among the cracks
of terracotta pots
the little lizard of the stones
and no ideas but astir
amidst the leaves where bikinis breeze
and birds make promises in trees
there on the horizon or some
Chinese white chemise
the buttons come undone
and mauve and green
compose this scene of
sudden sun and owed repose


Started playing around with this on Monday and chucked it to one side. This morning it all seemed to come together.

I'm beginning to learn how to be patient.

I keep twiddling with it - maybe best to leave alone?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Wednesday Sonnet (revised)

it’s raining
no it’s cars no
it’s tyres

sticker off
shiny black
paper back
on the road

a penguin


I'm carrying this one around with me - up and downstairs & in the car & out into the garden.

One or two people have asked me 'who to read?' and 'where to start?'. I think this book answers both questions.

And here's a poem from 'Night Scenes' I tracked down via (



Fifty-seven dollars and the four
cents I left on the desk in room 118,
not much else a half a cup of tea,
unfinished books, some phone
numbers, the Wolf Man, tenacity,
one cat, at home in Brooklyn
with the spiders and also 7th
Avenue, the basement of Macy’s,
the L train, the hello lady at
the Korean market on 14th
Street, hardly any smoking of pot,
was thrown out of the Charleston,
have a wheelie-cart for my luggage,
two tranquilizers, four Prozac,
minor elk viewing, movie stardom,
and the greatest waves of
happiness this sixth day of July.

(Lisa Jarnot)


Poems like this bring your days into focus.



(am I right in seeing a fox behind the stars on the cover? Or do I need to see my optician?)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Starting to look back at the Sonnets of late April early May.


Low Budget Supermarket Sonnet (revised)

we wish you

crunchy bits

we wish you

rich in fibre

we wish you

non-stick krispie manifestos

beauty is a dispensation

beauty is an 'in' sensation

beauty is assassination

shoe lace
inner sole & solace

good buy

Dull, grey, muggy Monday.

That's the weather outside the window. The human weather is much brighter: I find a friendly post by Michael Lally concerning the DiPalma 'Riddle of Form', an e-mail in my Inbox from Mark Truscott, and Lisa Jarnot's 'Night Scenes' has just dropped through the letterbox.

Anyway, to anyone out there reading the posts on poets & poems - please respond. I really am feeling my way - and would be grateful for counter-readings, developments of what I'm starting to talk about, suggestions of sites or materials that would take the discussion further. (One or two people have already - and that's great).

I am aware that a Blog can seem to be a 'sounding off'. And that's really not my intention.

A 'sounding' would be much closer to the mark.

And - if you wish to get in touch by more private means than the Comments - use my e-mail: (not the one with the 'jj' prefix).

"Bon continuation!" - as they say here in Belgium.

I'd always wondered what that voice sounded like ...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Another one of those I've-heard-the-name-but-never-checked-out finds at the Mediatheque. On to track three and it's all very pleasant in a diluted Miles kind of way. But I'm not convinced ...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Riddles of Form - Ten

Using the Poem to Think With

‘Joe Brainard’s Painting “Bingo” ’

Ron Padgett


I suffer when I sit next to Joe Brainard’s painting “Bingo”

I could have made that line into a whole stanza

I suffer
When I sit
Next to Joe
Brainard’s painting

Or I could change the line arrangement

I suffer when I sit

That sounds like hemorrhoids
I don’t know anything about hemorrhoids
Such as if it hurts to sit when you have them
If so I must not have them
Because it doesn’t hurt me to sit
I probably sit about 8/15 of my life

Also I don’t suffer
When I sit next to Joe Brainard

Actually I don’t even suffer
When I sit next his painting “Bingo”
Or for that matter any of his paintings

In fact I didn’t originally say
I suffer when I sit next to Joe Brainard’s painting “Bingo”
My wife said it
In response to something I had said
About another painting of his
She had misunderstood what I had said


I like Ron Padgett’s poems – one of my earliest discoveries due to his friendship with Ted Berrigan. Berrigan talked about Padgett in his lectures so I thought I should look into the work. Actually, it’s hard to believe anyone could actively dislike Padgett’s poems – or Padgettt himself, for that matter. The poems are affable, cheerful, self-effacing – like the man himself (judging by podcast interviews and his way of reading his poems)*. Maybe that’s why I took to his poems so quickly: they seem to be accessible, unintimidating, about his world and reading and friends. They’re very welcoming.

I’ve deliberately chosen ‘Joe Brainard’s Painting “Bingo”’ since it seems so user-friendly. Padgett talking about a painting by his great friend Joe Brainard. Yet it’s easy to fall for such writing and miss the subtlety of Padgett’s art.

Let’s have a look.


The first thing to notice is how the poem invites being read as part of the ekphrastic poetic tradition. The title leads us to assume this will be a poem ‘about’ Joe Brainard’s painting entitled ‘Bingo’. Normally, such a poem would describe the painting and – by its use of words – ‘reveal’ the painting more truly. Words ‘painting’ the images upon our minds – a complex (and daunting) psychological-philosophical-linguistic act in itself. The tacit assumption is that language allows us to ‘see through’ to the art work itself.

What I would like to argue is that from the very first line, Padgett’s poem rips apart the conventional assumption of words’ connections to objects. That the poem will ‘show’ us the painting. However, unlike the aggressive and disruptive experiments of early Ashbery and Coolidge, Padgett carries this off with a gentle charm – even insouciance.


That first line:

“I suffer when I sit next to Joe Brainard’s painting “Bingo” “

Typing out the poem, I sense how poetic writing can approach calligraphy (in the sense of revealing an individualistic handling of words). I admire this line for its shape, its syntax, the disposition of its sounds – and its ordinariness.

The conversational tone; the grammatical balancing of subject and verb (“I suffer” = “I sit”); the shared short ‘e’ sound within “when” and “next”; the carrying ‘ay’ vowel sound from “Brainard” to “painting”; the close echo of ‘ing’ in the last syllable of “painting” and the first syllable of “Bingo”; the delayed echo from “Joe” to the last syllable of “Bingo”.

Would O’Hara – someone who, for me at least, has superficial similarities in his writing to Padgett – phrase it like this?

“I’m sitting and I’m suffering looking at ...”

Wouldn’t that be more O’Hara? Forcing the phrase more at the reader, more insistently present tense and urgent. Greedier? Whereas the phrase “when I sit” has the effect of slowing down the line, makes it more meditative, contemplative, perhaps even a little uncomfortable.


I’d then argue that the poem becomes a poem about this line. Duchamp-like, Padgett isolates an ‘object’ – here not a urinal or wine rack but a strip of language – and places it on the page. Effectively, we forget the painting. It’s a sentence we’re looking at.

In doing this, Padgett foregrounds the process of poetic composition, turning the poem upon itself and raising all sorts of profound questions concerning a poem’s status, poetic language, the very way language functions in everyday life. And it is all done in such a genial way.

“I could have made that line into a whole stanza”

As indeed, these two lines could form the basis of a book on linguistics or semiology. Notice how the sounds are evolving: the ‘ay’ sound now occurring in “made”, the long ‘o’ in “whole”. Just enough to give shape to the writing and to maintain the poetic logic parallel to the argument being developed.


“I suffer
When I sit
Next to Joe
Brainard’s painting
“Bingo” “

Now Padgett’s page becomes a notebook, a manuscript sheet – the process of composition and re-drefting is now incorporated into the poem itself. There are several consequences worth considering.

First, how Padgett reveals affinities with modern art movements in New York – de Kooning’s way of collaging drawings into paintings or (later) Jean-Michel Basquiat’s doodle erasures. (I stress, however, Padgett’s poem embodies painterly process rather than describes).

Second, how Padgett foregrounds the artifices of poetic language – here, the effect of enjambment. Momentarily, Padgett is sat “Next to Joe”; momentarily “Brainard’s painting” – the noun comes alive as a verb; momentarily we hear someone cry with joy “Bingo”.

Third, in contrast to what I was arguing as an O’Hara technique of achieving immediacy, Padgett manages it here simply through placement of words on the page. (I’m reminded of further modern art techniques of flattening the canvas space so the painitng becomes simply a surface – e.g. Cy Twombly). We seem to be looking over Padgett’s shoulder seeing the words take shape on the page.

Fourth, the delight in watching a poem emerge from the ‘seed’ of its first line. Padgett is using the poem to think with. (“The poet thinks with his poem . In that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity.” - W. C. Williams cited by Creeley in Contexts (96))

“Or I could change the line arrangement”

Constantly you hear Padgett’s ear at work – leading and reinforcing the thought (who can say which is first?).

Write the line differently :

“Or I could alter the line arrangement”
and you lose the balancing of vowels that’s been established from line one.


Padgett then digresses – a key tactic of his poems in general and one that raises still further questions as to what is or is not the principal subject matter of his – any – poem?

There’s undeniable comic effect, the reader enjoying the Woody Allenish neurotic worrying:

“I suffer when I sit

That sounds like hemorrhoids
I don’t know anything about hemorrhoids
Such as if it hurts to sit when you have them
If so I must not have them
Because it doesn’t hurt me to sit
I probably sit about 8/15 of my life”

Yet there’s another device at work - deliberate use of redundancy. Each line takes up from the preceding line in a manner completely at odds with more radical styles of disruptive syntax yet – here – threatens to become equally disconcerting: “hemorrhoids” ... “hemorrhoids” ... “them” ... “them” ... “sit” ... “sit”... . It’s an effect reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s dizzyingly exhaustive permutations in a novel such as Watt. Also, of the kind of giving over to language seen in Ashbery’s poem ‘The Instruction Manual’.


“Also I don’t suffer
When I sit next to Joe Brainard

Actually I don’t even suffer
When I sit next his painting “Bingo”
Or for that matter any of his paintings”

Padgett is now riffing off the first chord – part of his achievement the way his language manages to combine conversational veracity with poetically shaped sound. It’s so easy to miss the technique (“also” – “Joe” – “don’t” – “Bingo” just one of the little sound logics still at work).


“In fact I didn’t originally say
I suffer when I sit next to Joe Brainard’s painting “Bingo”
My wife said it”

We’re into the last section of the poem and Padgett has very nearly managed to saw off the branch he’s sitting on. Having taken the initial phrase for a walk he now turns it inside out like the music hall magician with a glove to show us there was nothing there all along.

It’s winning in a raised eyebrow kind of way – yet serious, too. For Padgett’s opened up the citational nature of language. As Denis Potter once said: the trouble with words you never know who else’s mouth they’ve been in.

You said ... ? But I said ... She told me that ...

We’ve all been there – and family life is particularly prone to such crossed wires. But here’s Barrett Watten making much the same point in a more astere L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E laboratory way. I quote:

“There is no language but “reconstructed” imaged parentheses back into person “emphasizing constant” explanation “the current to run both ways.” The ocean he sees when as “sour frowns of the ancients’ ‘signifier’” that person jumps in. We are at liberty “to take ‘the’ out of ‘us’,” to have selves “not here” in the machinery ...” (‘Statistics’, from 1-10)

So is it “I suffer” or “ “I suffer” ”? When suffering itself becomes eased (or increased) by being revealed as a verb handed around between husband and wife.

Yet there’s a final flourish:

“She had misunderstood what I had said”

The key word here is “misunderstood”. Padgett now gives us a little lesson in etymology (incidentally, there are several poems testifying to to his dictionary appetites) making us reflect upon the origins of ‘to understand’. How appropriate in a poem so preoccupied with sitting (and unpleasant consequences thereof), the pay off is a moment of mis-under-standing.

The bottom falls out of language?

* check out
Joe_Brainards_Painting_Bingo-Studio.mp3 to hear Ron Padgett read the poem.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Riddles of Form/ Nine

What Is Poetry

(John Ashbery)

What Is Poetry

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?

Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we

Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they

Will have to believe it

As we believe it. In school
All the thought got combed out:
What was left was like a field.

Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.

It might give us - what? - some flowers soon?

(John Ashbery)

In many ways this has to be a figurehead poem for Riddles of Form. A poem that addresses the fundamental question – what is poetry? – ends on a question, defines what for me is one of the fundamental problems in the teaching of poetry (“In school/All the thought got combed out”), and simultaneously sabotages ‘commons sense’ reading while embodying (rather than defining) what – for Ashbery – poetry is.

“The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya?”

It is a provocative opening. The reader is trained for this: clearly a series of metaphors. “Medieval” connotes antiquity, “frieze” must relate to decoration – however, by the time we get to “boy scouts” and “Nagoya” (Nagoya? Quick! The atlas!) there’s the feeling that our reading has hit a brick wall. Confusion. Frustration. And we thought we knew how to read poetry.
Another attempt.

“The snow
That came when we wanted it to snow?”

Is this an image or a statement and/or related to the previous sentence? We’re already beginning to lose our bearings. The tautological flavour of the sentence is unnerving. as is the suggestion of rhyme and yet subsequent lines do not continue this pattern and – in any case – what a clunkingly obvious rhyme! Further confusion. More frustration.

Another attempt:

“Beautiful images?”

Snow is beautiful – lots of poems have told us that – but John Ashbery seems incapable of stirring his reader with evocative descriptions of snowy landscapes (bring back Robert Frost!) and that medieval town with its frieze of boy scouts isn’t exactly painted on the backs of our retinas. Disappointment added to the confusion and frustration.

“Trying to avoid
Ideas, as in this poem?”

So, let’s get this right – a poem that calls itself ‘What Is Poetry’ and which has the affrontery to declare that it is trying to avoid ideas! The copy of ‘The Selected Poems of John Ashbery’ is snapped shut. The reader throws it down in disgust and reaches for his copy of Ruth Padel’s ‘52 Ways of Looking at a Poem’:

“... Did readers really want to see such an unsexy thing as a poem undergoing that even unsexier thing : in-depth analysis? ...” (2)

So let’s show how ‘sexy’ reading John Ashbery can be – photo, please ...


Back to the poem.

I am exaggerating, of course. However, it is clear that Ashbery is inviting and playing off the kind of referential interpretative strategies we use in traditional reading.

“In school
All the thought got combed out”

Was this Ashbery’s own experience? Why he started to explore ways of writing poems which investigated the possibilities of language when the intellectual head lice were removed? (Vision of the process of education as a queue stretching to the door before the Infestation Officer).

Let’s take the title – ‘What Is Poetry’ – and the way it is positioned between a statement and a question. This, in turn, leads to the poem’s opening lines which are a succession of questions. These can – despite my reading above – be squeezed for ‘sense’.

“The snow/ That came when we wanted it to snow?” might be interpreted as reading for narcissitic wish fulfilment – the reader projects his/her own ideas and feelings at a poem.

“Beautiful images?” Interrogates whether a poem has to deliver evocative descriptions of landscape – the kind of writing highly prized by student creative writing classes.

“The medieval town, with frieze/ Of boy scouts from Nagoya?” may even be ‘domesticated’ by being read as a surrealistic gesture, poem ‘diagnosed’ as typical of a wacky, dream-like, escapist way of writing.

However, it seems to me that with Ashbery it is as important to consider the rhetorical dimension of the poem. Not what the questions say, so much as that there are statements being made as a succession of questions. Ashbery simultaneously seems to be attempting definitions in the very act of undermining any faith in these statements. Each question possesses little evident connection to the previous one. How the last – “Trying to avoid/Ideas, as in this poem?” – turns the poem 360 degrees back upon itself.

This device of self-referentiality – much favoured by modern critical theory – is given a delightful New York Poet spin. There’s a cheeky knowingness with which Ashbery foregrounds the very poem itself (and I see a similar wit in Lee Harwood’s poetry).

The cheekiness continues with the mock serious:

But we

Go back to them as to a wife, leaving
The mistress we desire?

It’s unlikely, of course, that Ashbery sees himself in the marrying role and this adds a further weight of irony to the lines. But who is this “we”? As we might well ask of the subsequent “they” (“Now they
/ Will have to believe it” ) and the “you” ( “Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.” ) It’s the not the place here to expand at length on Ashbery’s subtle use of ‘you’ in his poetry as a whole (the way, for instance, it seems to operate both in terms of the speaker of the poem and the assumed reader). For this poem, I want to stress how it is another aspect of the unsettling effect of the writing. Conventionally we – the reader – are pulled into a text by such pronouns (a typical strategy of advertising and political campaigning). In Ashbery’s poem the pronouns seem unanchored – we glimpse how language operates, how meaning is allowed to come into being: He’s talking to me... This refers to me ... That sentence relates to him ... etc. We sense, too, the difference between this kind of poem and the more self-declared ‘confessional’ poem where the speaking voice is anchored by its pronoun.
So is this some kind of ‘anti-poem’? A deliberate attempt to destroy poetic meaning?

I don’t think so for the poem is embodying Ashbery’s sense of what a poem – what poetry is – in the very act of seemingly dismantling the rules.

Going back to the opening verses:

“The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?

Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem?”

let’s not worry about referential sense – of why medieval towns and boy scouts.* Instead, let’s listen to the language. Does the sound make sense?

It quickly becomes apparent how Ashbery is creating a sonic logic to his poem. How the long ‘e’ sound is threaded through the words “frieze” and “we” and “ideas” and later on into “believe” and “field”. In a way it works like a structural backbone to the poem – as ‘meaningful’ as any conceptual scheme or agument to an essay.

As a kind of counterpoint, Ashbery sets in motion the ‘oy’ sound with “boy” which is echoed in “Nagoya” and then “avoid”. What occurs is a wonderful marrying of sense and sound. In Ashbery’s poem there is a sensuality – ideas are sensual – as seemingly ‘incoherent’ ideas are made compositionally meaningful through sound and the other devices we have been exploring. One might even go so far as to argue such writing is sexy! The reader experiences the physical pleasures offered by language – pleasures missed by the analytical comb intent on untangling the knots.

What, then, of the closing lines? I think we would be unwise to expect any definite statement – and why it seems appropriate that Ashbery finishes on a question: “It might give us - what? - some flowers soon?”

I’ll admit to feeling uncertain about the last lines. Do we take it that it is the “thin vertical path” which might blossom? When, working with the ‘sense’ of the field metaphorics, flowers would be more at home there. And what of these flowers? Is Ashbery drawing upon a well-established poetic device – the ‘flowers’ of rhetoric and poesy? And should we see the poem – printed upon a page – as a “thin vertical path”? So what then is the field?

It’s not a cop-out to say the confusion is deliberate. I think Ashbery has established throughout the poem an expectation of determined meaning which is – in its very act of being articulated – undermined.

For me, it’s the sensual logic which carries the poem: I ‘feel’ the relation of “like a field” with “shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around”. It’s an ear logic. And I’m thinking of poetic fields – Robert Duncan’s ‘Opening of the Field’ foremost. Of how Ashbery would be aware of Olson’s poetics of ‘Open Field’ composition (which is not to say this poem operates accordingly) as well as the wider possibilities of ‘fields’ which informed Olson and Duncan’s poetic aesthetics. Magnetic fields, force fields – the agricultural-pastoral model is by no means exclusive.

And it is this sense of the poem as a ‘field’ – an interplay of forces and energies (sound, rhythm, grammar, tone, semantic and other logics) – that I believe Ashbery wishes to rescue from a reductive reading. The kind of reading which prefers the “thin vertical path”.

And it’s not so much the path ‘not taken’ – it’s not one or the other. Rather that opening to the possibilities of the field which include of course flowers and frolics ... Ashbery’s poetic pastoral Arcadia?

* Somewhere I have the interview Ashbery gave on this poem with Teacher & Writers in which he explains the reference to boy scouts – as I recall he quite literally encountered such a group. By all accounts this is typical of many Ashbery poems – using overheard remarks, chance events, the very things we all experience. I wouldn’t go so far then as to say this ‘solves’ the first two lines.

Somewhere else, too, I remember reading Ashbery talking about the influence upon his poetry of his Paris years. Rather than any key author or poetic movement, Ashbery specified seeing the water running around the blocked drains in the street. I’ve often wondered what he meant by this – is it, perhaps, to do with the divergent logics of his poetry? The refusal – again – of the direct path?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Spent the first part of the morning typing out from the notebook and then looking at the words on the page. However my mind isn’t really in it – so I’ll turn to another Riddle of Form post...

Riddles of Form Eight

Poetry & Minimalism

Mark Truscott


Here’s Walt Whitman:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains
of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world ...

(from ‘Song of Myself’)

and here’s Mark Truscott:



(‘Ornament’ – the poem in its entirety)

The contrast is immediately clear. Where Whitman expands, Truscott contracts. And yet ...

I’ve headed this section ‘Poetry & Minimalism’ but perhaps it’s not a very accurate title. The peculiarity of Truscott’s work is that for all it’s seeming reductiveness it – paradoxically – expands. Poems which seem at first sight one-shot deals start to take over your mind and expand with possibilities. Haiku logic? Beckettian negative aesthetics of paring the text to the bone? The old Mies van der Rohe cliche? Let’s see ...


Mark Truscott’s poems – often no more than a handful of words on a page – pose some major questions about what is a poem, a line, of why there is so little. Furthermore, of what there is – why this? And then wider questions of the very act of reading: the eye ranging over the page, of the development of reading (how words start to suggest and connote), of the relation between silent reading with the eye and a spoken reading with the tongue and ear.

“Up to a certain time I was cutting into things. Then I realized that the thing I was cutting was the cut. Rather than cut into the material, I now use the material as the cut in space.” (Carl Andre)

Reading Truscott’s poems you sense a microscopic focus upon the potentialities of language: of a word, of its composite letters, of the space between and around the printed word, even of a ‘between-ness’ between sound and visual mark. (I’m reminded of Giacometti’s tiny sculptures – working ever smaller to expand space.)

A good question: where do these poems ‘take place’? Not purely on the page. Not purely in the ear. Which, of course, could be argued for poetry in general. And that, I think, is one of the great values of Truscott’s work. His hyper-attention to language revitalizes one’s reading in general. You finish a Truscott poem and start reading Shakespeare. Suddenly the adjacencies of two words leap out as a potential ‘Truscott’ poem. Sitting waiting for the pool to open a fragmentary phrase starts to open up:

letters ... let tears ... airs ...

I think these are also superb poems to transform what poetry is – or could be – for students. The vocabulary is minimal, there is rarely the need to look words up in the dictionary, hey! you don’t even have to turn the page – that’s the entire poem in six words! “I could do that!” – to which the only reply is: then try it ... .

As in Carl Andre’s statement above, I sense that Truscott’s poems are ‘interventions’ in poetry – in daily language for that matter. They are entities in themselves yet also cuts into the surrounding world of words.

I’ll offer a reading of a few poems from ‘said like reeds and things’ – which isn’t to be exhaustive: there are longer poems both on the page and run across pages. However, I think (& hope) the following will give a sense of what’s stimulating about Truscott’s writing.








(I’ll place a small line below to show the end of the poem. In the actual text Truscott opts for a poem a page, the title in capitals, the poem printed high on the page ranged left – not, as one might have done, centred both vertically and horizontally. I assume this is meant to reinforce the tiny effect: it’s as if there could be more – but there’s not.)

There’s several things I like about this poem – taking it on its own, first, although it is immediately followed by ‘EXTENSION’ which demands to be read in tandem.

First, the typographic similarity of ‘one’, ‘on’, ‘no’ combined with the judicious lacing of each word on a separate line but retaining a line space between each line. Exquisite. Here already we hit something of a paradox: for the sparseness of the writing there’s something lush about Truscott’s volume. It’s beautifully designed by Darren Wershler-Henry. The graphics, the typeface, the very page quality are to be savoured. Snow figures in several of these poems and it’s that kind of deep fresh snowfall effect – where your footsteps sink satisfyingly into the powder.

Second, what for me – and I expect many readers – was the initial ‘one liner’ effect. Ha! He’s switched “on” around to get “no” – clever. Next poem ... I really think we shouldn’t be too sophisticated to fall for this effect in the poems. However ...

Third, if this was all, then Truscott’s work wouldn’t be of great interest. He’d be a kind of poetic jokesmith – a minimalist cummings. I think there’s a lot more going on. Let’s think about Truscott’s lexicon. In this instance “one”. He seems to deliberately choose a word which suggests entirety, indivisibility, a discrete entity. In addition, it hinges between two different ‘languages’ – existing as a mathematical integer and the linguistic marker for self or person. Any reading of the poem will have to maintain these different senses in mind. Do we read the poem mathematically or philosophically or erotically (!) or ...

Fourth, a deliberate setting in opposition of syntactic, semantic and typographic dimensions of the poem. Thus, our normal habits of thought lead us to expect ‘one’ plus ‘one’ equals ‘two’. Accretion. And, I think it is fair to say, upward development: I place one penny upon another. In Truscott’s poem, the eye moves downwards and finds the expected mathematical logic defeated: “no”.

Fifth, developing this further, “on” reads as a contraction of “one” to the eye – the ‘e’ has been removed. An effect reinforced by the equally amputated (but inverted) “no”. The title suggests extension – the poem itself operates a counter logic.

However ... (and this is where I really take my hat off to Mark Truscott) to read with the ear opens up another dimension of the poem. As delicately as a Robert Creeley, Truscott teases his vowel apart: the ‘o’ in “one” shapes to “on” returns to “one” then expands to “no”. It’s delicious! Truscott reminds us of how we lazily see an ‘o’ in “one” but don’t as such hear it. And, furthermore, pulls off a stunning paradox: the word of negation (semantically) is – compositionally in the poem – the word of expansion (aurally).









Here, of course, there’s the little joke that this poem – another four-worder – could be regarded as an ‘extension’ of an already tiny poem. Particularly when, on closer scrutiny, it seems identical but for the last word. As several people have said to me – “if he can get paid for writing so little more fool you for buying the book.”

Yet I think there is a provocative element to Truscott’s writing – which could extend to an entire aesthetic politics – but I’ll leave that to one side for now. Back to the poem ...

Here Truscott does develop upon the previous poem – “or” is less a reversal typographically than a reduction: Truscott thinks with a printer’s instinct spotting the loss between ‘n’ and ‘r’. To the ear, there is an extension of the ‘o’ vowel – the long ‘o’ replaced by the ‘or’ sound which is still perceptibly longer than ‘one’ and ‘on’. Semantically, there is a further development – an extension, indeed – as the closed logic of “one/ on/ one/ no” * opens to the wider possibility of “or”.

But I want to go back to the vey experience of reading such poems. Yes, the initial ‘puzzle’ and pleasure of recognizing the twist. Then, the development as the words start to expand in space and thought. Simply typing this reading of – what? - eight words has taken an hour and a half. The effect is vertiginous. What if one were to read everything as a Truscott poem? Poem ... page ... word ... time ... the room ... the sky ... expands. Dizzying!


Here are a few more poems to ponder and I might come back to them after lunch ...


Oh, it



odd eolith ogre aphesis



in grass





a one

an on



image is seven.


*typing this I suddenly hear the entire works of Samuel Beckett – Truscott manages to outdo The Unnameable’s last staggering words?
The previous post is not an attempt at concrete poetry - it's me trying in my ham-fisted way to learn how to indent prior to posting on Mark Truscott.

Thanks to Ron Dowd for the tip on HTML. It works!



Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I've just come across this article on LZ's handling of words & quotation in the online magazine Jacket - Abigail Lang,
The Remembering Words, or « How Zukofsky Used Words » (

A much more professional job than I was able to do! It's really worth reading.
Riddles of Form – Seven

Louis Zukofsky


che di lor suona su nella tua vita

I walked out, before
"Break of day"
And saw
Four cabins in the hay.

Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves - four -
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay.

The waters
At the ramp
Running away.

(from ‘Anew’ 1935-1944)


“Texts don’t have meanings, except in their relations to other texts, so that there is something uneasily dialectical about literary meaning. A single text has only part of a meaning: it is itself a synechdoche for a larger whole including other texts. A text is a relational event, and not a substance to be analyzed ...”
(Bloom, ‘Kabblah and Criticism’, 55)


By way of an introduction

I was reading Bloom just before we went away to France and so it’s appropriate to resume by quoting from his text Kabbalah and Criticism. More and more the issue – it seems to me – is to focus on what ‘meaning’ means when we talk about poems and what reading a poem really involves. As Bloom says:

“A theory of poetry must belong to poetry, must be poetry, before it can be of any use in interpreting poems.”(57)

I realize that there are many consequences of such a statement that go way beyond what I want to discuss here. However, a major value of Bloom’s thinking for me at the moment is as a way of breaking with the traditional ‘interpretative’ model of the poetry classroom – and, indeed, poetry teaching.

How many times have students produced essays including phrases such as “what the poet is saying ...”, “at a deeper level ...”, “the message X is trying to communicate to us is ...”, “what the poem is really about is ...”. How many times, in a class discussion of a poem, does the teacher adopt the conjuror’s role and produces the rabbit out of the hat – the biographical titbit that ‘unlocks’ the image, the secondary meaning of the word on line 10 which ‘explains’ the whole poem. Mea culpa!

It just so happens that another Blog –

is offering a reading of Zukofsky’s poem. It interests me in that I sense there’s an evident struggle going on to ‘make sense’ of Zukofsky’s poem in ways that I can identify with but would now like to transform. I notice statements such as:

“I did find pleasure in the sight and sound and the obscurely juxtaposed lines of thought, but I was still not convinced that I had cracked Zukofsky.”

“Clearly, the poem has a lyricalness, and a visualness, and interesting juxtaposition, but considering Bengal's idea of Zukofsky exposing the inadequacy of language, the poem reaches a new level of insight and genius.”

“The more literally we take Zukofsky's words, the more inadequate they become for expressing any particular idea but only as much as the reader can formulate. This, I considered to be my first real encounter with Zukofsky.”

The idea of “cracking” a poet – or poem – and the “inadequacy” of language are what most concern me.

The first relates to the idea of poem as puzzle (or deliberate attempt to mystify), the second a sense that a poet uses language that is in some way impoverished, or not up to the ‘normal’ ways of communicating. I’m particularly interested in the last statement – that the more we take LZ’s language literally the more it becomes inadequate to express ideas. I think I’d be right in saying that there is also an implied sense of the poem as printed is in some ways ‘other’ than the ‘real’ poem (or a more coherent statement of ideas).

Ideas. There’s the rub. Increasingly I wonder whether poetry IS about ideas – or, at least, what we generally mean by ‘ideas’: concepts, paraphrasable ‘content’. (Although I accept that academics, exam boards and teachers prefer poetry to be ‘about’ this – that word ‘about’ is revealing).

Which is not to say a poem is not meaningful – as I hope the previous posts have suggested, poetic meaning is ‘other than’ and multiple. I will try to explain in terms of this short Zukofsky poem – and by doing so to try to suggest where I find pleasure in reading Zukofsky.



Zukofsky and quotation

che di lor suona su ne la tua vita,

The version of the poem I am reading is printed in the Johns Hopkins Complete Short Poetry of Louis Zukofsky. I’m interested to see that Brooks Winchell doesn’t include the title in his analysis. For me, that’s already a pleasure missed.

Why? In fact, I realise that such a device – Zukofsky is using Italian for God’s sake! – could be offputting, the kind of smart arse gesture of a poet out to hoodwink the average reader or to put over his superior education and culture.

It doesn’t take too much effort to locate the lines – from Dante’s Inferno Canto 4, line 77. So, yes, there might be a self-congratulatory pleasure in thinking you’ve ‘cracked’ the clue. However, let’s remember Bloom’s statement about poetic meaning and “relations to other texts”. How does this line from Dante ‘speak’ in Zukofsky’s poem?

Returning the lines to their original context they read:

“E quelli a me: “L’onrata nominanza
che di lor suona su ne la tua vita,
grazia acquista nel ciel, che si li avanza”.”

Or, in English:

“And he to me: “The honourable renown
that of them echoes in thy life above
wins grace in heav’n, which their worth doth own.”

I’m no Dante scholar but the circumstances are clear: Dante has descended into Hell, guided by Virgil, and witnesses those who have excelled in art and science but rest in Limbo. Zukofsky seems to be setting up a potential thematics - not just to this poem but the sequence of poems that make up the volume ‘Anew’ – of the merits of worldly fame and (we’d assume specifically for Zukofsky) poetic achievement.

In addition, Zukofsky seems – in a way dear to Bloom’s heart – to be acknowledging the role of poetic influence. Dante guided by Virgil works as a parallel structure to Dante’s words acting as ‘guide’ to Zukofsky’s poem.

Let’s return, though, to the quotation itself. Why, for instance, doesn’t Zukofsky translate it? Why not footnote it at the bottom of the page (in my edition there are no notes – however, I see evidence on websites of Zukofsky offering explanations to certain parts of this poem)? Is this anything more than literary insiderism?

I think it is and returns to the issue of taking Zukofsky’s words ‘literally’ and finding them inadequate to sense. I’d argue very differently. It seems to me that Zukofsky very deliberately retains the quotation in Italian to suggest a ‘power’ that words carry.

Reading, shaping the words in the mouth – Italian words of the 14th Century – on Tuesday 22 July 2008 is to undergo a kind of magical (spiritual?) experience offered by language. Dante’s words “echo” in my ears today. Zukofsky wants that frisson – imagine him transcribing the words onto the page of his manuscript on a particular day in 1935(?).

I stress what seems obvious or just one of ‘those’ literary devices as it relates directly to the issue of inadequacy. Zukofksy understands the powers words hold and how quotations are far from ‘simple’. Directly related to this has to be his earlier ‘Poem beginning “The”’ and the subsequent project ‘A’ (in both cases the citational marks are scrupulously intended). *

Time is embodied in the poem – and why I find descriptions of Zukofsky’s language being “inadequate” misleading. One of my favourite statements by Zukofsky describes the extraordinary ‘time’ of poetry:

“Felt deeply, poems like all things have the possibilities of elements whose isotopes are yet to be found. Light has travelled and so looked forward.

How do we know? We look at the stars and because the light from them has travelled we see them shining tonight as tomorrow.” (‘Poetry’, 4)

Which I always interpret in terms of poems working like stars – we see the light ‘now’ which has travelled and will travel beyond us. Our reading – any reading – is belated and yet necessarily of our moment which is, paradoxically, also to anticipate the poem. (This, again , has direct links with Bloom’s ideas in Kabbalah and Criticism concerning influence and tradition).

The quotation yields still more: Zukofsky in citing Dante’s words significantly ‘misreads’ (by which I don’t mean an error, rather in the Bloom sense of a powerful act of reading).

Go back to the ‘original’ lines and we find the words are spoken by Virgil – not Dante – “E quelli a me:”. Zukofsky is too sophisticated a poet-reader to do this accidentally. The lines now acquire even greater resonance concerning poetic speech: a simultaneous act of appropriation and ventriloquism. Dante speaks through Virgil (the precursor Master poet); Zukofsky takes Dante’s words and cuts the umbilical cord to their original matrix of meaning. This is rich stuff, it seems to me!

And then in writing these lines ‘anew’ (the title for the volume seems absolutely pertinent here) so they begin to speak differently:

che di lor suona su ne la tua vita,
(that of them echoes in thy life above)

How interesting that the line now – shorn of its original context – starts to work less in terms of infernal punishment and worldly achievement versus eternal happiness and more intimately in terms of the poet himself (or the reader) – “thy”, memory, even language itself (the “echoes” of words). Again, this is why Zukofsky’s method of citation is far more than a provocation and – again – why taking Zukofsky literally is to discover extraordinary power and potential in language.

While I am reluctant to bring in any ‘special’ knowledge into the reading (no rabbits out of the hat!) it seems permissible to mention Zukofsky’s own discussion of the poem in terms of dreams:

“When I awoke the exact words of the poem I dreamt were lost, but those I wrote down still seemed to follow on the events of the dream.” (cited in ‘The Poem of a Life’ by Mark Scroggins, 221)

It’s a similar scenario to the famous Coleridge anecdote about the interrupted composition of ‘Kubla Khan’. Remaining with the quotation from Dante just a little longer, it is clear that the words also relate to different states of mind: waking life ‘above’ ground which intermittently receives the words which rise up and “echo” from the buried unconscious? Or – and here kabbalistic reading returns – is poetic language itself echoing a higher ‘music’? This poem – perhaps the volume as a whole – will explore very concrete experiences for any artist of the relation between inspiration and composition. Again, pressing Zukofksy’s language – taking the words literally (and what else is there to do?) – yields such potential power. Not – I would argue – inadequacy.

Furthermore, I hope the ‘meaning’ of the poem has been seen to emerge out of reading Zukofsky’s text poetically. Working with the way his language is working in itself. Not by imposing some pre-determined structure or trying to simplify or paraphrase.

I am not saying the poem is ‘about’ abstract concepts of Time or poetic inspiration, that reading the Divine Comedy holds the ‘clue’, that the poem has significance because it illustrates a theory expounded by Harold Bloom.

I am saying that its language is speaking if we’re prepared to listen. That meaning is ‘embodied’ in the workings of the language. That this is the ‘materialism’ of Zukofsky’s poetry.


Zukofsky and sound

It seems natural to move next to a consideration of sound in the poem given that the title itself - che di lor suona su ne la tua vita – speaks of echoes.

Again, the intention is to read poetically rather than conceptually. To listen to what the language is doing.

The first verse seems to establish a series of meaningful sound patterns:

I walked out, before
"Break of day"
And saw
Four cabins in the hay.

Zukofsky works an ‘or’ sound through “walked”, “before”, “saw” and “four”, contrasting it with the ‘ay’ sound heard within “break”, “day” and “hay”. I also notice he is working with soft last syllable sounds: “before” , “day”, “saw”, “hay” lack any hard terminal consonant (in fact only “glasses” and “ramp” possess any edge).

In verse two:

Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves - four -
In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay.

I find pleasure in the line “Blue sealed glasses” – something about the long ‘oo’ placed against the ‘bl’ set against the rougher sibillance in “glasses” with its ‘gl’ first syllable. I notice the sibillance in “sealed”, “glasses”, “preserves”, and “sash” (with a delayed echo in verse three: “waters”).

In verse three:

The waters
At the ramp
Running away.

I hear the “ur” vowel sound at work in “preserves” now take shape due to “further”. The penultimate “running” now brings into focus a series of ‘in’ sounds (“cabins”, “in the ...”, “window”, “in the ...,”).

Listening more delicately, I start to wonder whether LZ is exploring shades of sound between ‘or’, ‘ow’, ‘oo’, ‘ov’ (“walked”, “window”, “blue”, “of”). And as eyes and ears work together, is “of” working in sound reflection with “four” ?

I’ve deliberately refrained from making any interpretative move. No onomatopoeia. No this ‘means’ that.

Why? Because I think Zukofsky’s poem deserves to be read as it sounds. That it is possible to find a relation between the sibillants and a series of ‘things’ which share a glassy, reflective quality. However, this seems a very reductive reading. Might it not be possible to say that sound has its own meaning? In the sense that it sets up recurrences, symmetries and dysymmetries which are ‘logics’ in themselves? That one of the great pleasures of reading (and writing) poetry is discovering how words can be made to work together? Looking in further poems by Zukofsky how he – for example – uses soft consonants against hard and thereby developing an engagement with the poet which goes much deeper than a set of ten abstracted concepts. Who wants the Bluffers’ Guide to Louis Zukofsky anyhow?

I realise that this kind of reading entails its own dangers: poetry becomes pure verbal music. However, right now, it’s a risk worth taking to counter-balance what seems to me – in much school teaching of poetry – an overly intellectualized approach.

I think Zukofsky’s use of sound does go beyond pure musical effect. And that’s what the next section will be about.


Zukofsky and grammar and syntax

I am deliberately steering away from any ‘content’ based reading: in section one exploring how citation works, in section two how sounds work, in this section how grammatical and syntactical patterns work meaningfully in the poem. I am not trying to read the poem metaphorically, symbolically or allow the ‘referential’ dimension of the language to take effect (e.g. he is describing a scene with four cabins, jam jars, the sea ...).

Zukofsky famously argued for the poet “giving some of his life to the use of the words the and a” and defending the meaning of “the little words” (‘Poetry’, 10). Let’s see how they work in this poem.

First, I am intrigued by Zukofsky’s handling of line and how it relates to the sense units. Why does he turn the first line on “before”? -

I walked out, before
"Break of day"

Why does he invert the normal word order in lines 5 & 6? -

Blue sealed glasses
Of preserves - four –

What about the deliberate parallelism in lines 7 & 8 –

In the window-sash
In the yard on the bay.

Finally, how – grammatically – is “further” (line 9) to be understood: as a logical connective or in a spatial sense?

I am not going to offer any interpretation other than to suggest that is here that the earlier discussion of sound returns. In other words, how Zukofsky’s poem acquires a meaningful form: reading enters into this interaction of sound logics with the grammatical and syntactical logics. The poem – so to speak – comes into being at these points of intersection.

The sounds are not ‘decorative’ of a content. They embody.

The grammatical and syntactical structures are not ‘obscure’ or ‘hiding’ a meaning. They constitute ways of meaning. **

Zukofsky’s language is not ‘inadequate’ to ‘a’ meaning. He could not have expressed it ‘better’ (which is not to say that it is a Great Poem – such value judgments seem perilous to me at present. Let’s just look at what is going on) .

Experience is not anterior to the poem. The poem IS the experience.

That there are – or were – cabins, a window, the sea, is quite possible. However, in the poem, there are the words “cabins”, “window”, “the bay” which possess their dictionary senses, the senses ‘intended’ by the poet, the senses any reader might possess, while at the same time work as compositional elements – rhythmically, acoustically, grammatically, syntactically.

To quote Zukofsky himself:

“The order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention. ... Poems are acts upon particulars. Only through such an acivity do they become particulars themselves – i.e. poems.” (‘An Objective’, 18)

And that is what this poems demands: an attention to its particulars rather than theoretical generalisation or abstract conceptualizing. And that, perhaps, is another aspect of Zukofsky’s ‘materialism’.

Does any of this make sense?


* Not wishing to divert attention at this point, I’d suggest via a footnote how this reading of quotations has a relation to the Welsh poet David Jones’ ideas of anathemata.

I simply don’t have time right now to address the other type of quotation used by LZ in line 2 – clearly the foregrounding of citation marks (the act of quoting) is significant when the title omitted them.

** “in dream the simple and familiar words like prepositions, connectives, etc. are not absent, in fact, noticeably present to show logical absurdity, discontinuity, parody of sanity.” Lorine Neidecker. I have no intention of suggesting Zukofsky would have known of this statement by LN but it’s wonderfully suggestive in terms of this particular poems ‘mechanics’.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Jacket Quiz

Unearthed this during my July Spring Clean.

Name the author & title and you might win a copy of 'Poems to Make Love To' by J.H. Prynne.

The Great British Menu

Imagists & Objectivists & Jack & Gertrude & The Black Mountain

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E & other Interesting Stuff
During the past ten days down in France someone decided to rearrange my books - on the basis of tallest on the left, smallest on the right.

Having calmed down (eventually) I seized this as an opportunity to do some tidying up. So here are some glimpses - in true colour supplement style - of the Belgianwaffle Office Library ...

A slice of New York

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Zen and the art of Panda maintenance


We saw this during the holdiays - one of those quality time activities one does 'en famille'. Apparently there's a political fuss brewing. Pandas are sensitive icons.

We enjoyed it immensely - although it did occur to me that there was a fundamental flaw to the film, i.e.: that the most subtle pressure causes the greatest effect (as the 'enlightened' Panda grasps his adversary between thumb and index finger and presses ... ). Which means that the previous 50 minutes or so of predictably extravagant displays of Dreamworks IT department power and dexterity are ... well ... a bit pointless? (An effect similar to watching 'Titanic' and discovering how banal the drawings are of the seemingly gifted 'avant-gardiste' Leonardo).

Less is more - as the saying goes ...

Saturday afternoon

We're back in Brussels. Apologies for not posting during the past week or so - I couldn't intercept a web connection.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Expect stuff on ... Mark Truscott, Ron Padgett, France, The Carla Bruni 'Sensation', why it's great to get away - and why it's nice to be back.

And thanks to everyone who has posted comments. I'll work through them.

Monday, July 07, 2008

A poem must be a holiday of Mind.

(Paul Valery)

Friday, July 04, 2008

just watched this on BBC4.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Blast from the past

and a big Hello to Erik T. Burns - I hope you got my belated e-mail (plus explanation).

Do get in touch.

Riddles of Form – Six

Easy Poem? Difficult Poem? (II)

A Drop of Golden Sun – Ray DiPalma’s ‘Fragment’


sooner or later the sun cracks rebecca
sooner or later the sun hits
and not much is left of her
and cabbage the dog

misery is singing its pennies on the horizon
and rebecca of the sleek mechanics kisses
her knuckles

sick rebecca
of the tick and lop
inches through the dry foliage
cashes in her stockings

1001 sharks the sun
re-b re-b re-b
hawks and sharp stones



There’s a picture I have in mind of a medieval monk sat at his writing desk with a page before him. He is copying the Gospel and decorating the letters. Through the stained glass window light falls upon the page he is working on. The message is clear: God’s light illuminates man’s work. Man devotes himself to bringing God’s Word to light – and life. The Word Incarnate. Logos.

However, in Ray DiPalma’s poem the terms have changed.

sooner or later the sun cracks rebecca

The sun “cracks rebecca” damaging, breaking apart, fragmenting the name. Is it even a name? DiPalma denies “rebecca” her capital, the mark of individuality and the properness of the proper noun. The “Rebecca” of the Old Testament, wife of Isaac, whose name means – by various accounts – to tie, to bind, a snare – is reduced to “rebecca” one word among others.


The title. The poem is ‘a’ fragment? Or the poem fragments? Noun or verb – we cannot decide. Certainly a glance at other poems that DiPalma is writing at the same period suggest that fragmentation is a major preoccupation. From ‘Exile’:

Above the tracks
a steep embank-
ment. Limestone.
Mud. Weeds. A
concrete wall

From ‘She’:

She multiplies and divides consolation in my hands.
She cuts down my vision with her eyes.
She consumes all so that we both might want.


In the first case, DiPalma breaks with the referential pull of language to describe a scene (itself of broken windows and a dangling staircase). Each section of the poem lures the reader with its prepositional logic – “Above the tracks”; “Below”; “To the left”; “To the right”. The short line and severe enjambment break sense units leading to radical shifts of reference:

Mud. Weeds. A

The indefinite article – literally ‘indefinite’ here – is juxtaposed with concrete nouns, plausibly ‘real’ in the landscape. It’s as though a letter has fallen out of the sky and lodged itself in the ground.

In the second example what seems to be a traditional ‘blazon’ poem celebrating through itemizing the attractions of the beloved is twisted into a surreal cataloguing of attributes kept together by the repetitive “she” at the start of each line and the coincidence of sounds being worked counter to the discordant imagery. Notice, though, how each line is “cracked” apart – DiPalma inserts an extra space between “She” and the rest of the sentence. Here it seems DiPalma’s focus is not so much on prepositional logic as the pull of the personal pronoun. “She” acts as a semantic ‘glue’ giving the incoherent coherence.


It might seem paradoxical to say it but one of the pleasures I derive from reading Ray DiPalma’s poems is that I do not know how to read them. How out of keeping this seems in a society of consumerism where immediate availability and satisfaction are unchallenged beliefs.

Let’s look at the first verse:

sooner or later the sun cracks rebecca
sooner or later the sun hits
and not much is left of her
and cabbage the dog

A reader looking for conventional ‘sense’ will already be baffled. We have what seems to be a horrible accident involving the sun striking a girl called Rebecca. Little is left of her as well as her pet dog who happens to be called Cabbage. Some kind of warped children’s book? Ray DiPalma meets Edward Gorey?

I think it is useful to take the children’s story a little further – not for the ‘sense’ so much as the connotative values of the style. Might DiPalma be wanting to evoke a return to first reading? When we first learned our ABCs? When letters of the alphabet came accompanied by pictures and words with sounds? (A is for Apple ... The dog goes ‘bow wow’ ... And notice how the penultimate line suggests a stumbling first reader spelling out the name). In this context the very choice of name seems more than coincidental:

r – e – b – e – c – c – a

how it incorporates the first three letters of the alphabet. How it suggests another ‘reb’ word – rebus – which, according to the SOED, is:

“an enigmatical representation of a name, word or phrase by figures, pictures, arrangement of letters etc. which suggest the syllables of which it is made up.”

Going further still, DiPalma also seems to be evoking the cadence and rhythm of a children’s song – try saying the first lines (slightly modified) to a melody such as ‘Oh, dear what can the matter be’:

soo-ner or la-ter the sun cracks re-be-cca
soo-ner or la-ter dee-dee-dee dee-dee-dee
soo-ner or la-ter and not much is left of her ...

It seems to possess that kind of child’s sing song voice only to flatten it with “and cabbage the dog”. It’s as if DiPalma is inviting a reading only to block it. A sense reinforced by the first and second lines – line two fails to complete the pattern established by the first.


“Patterns occupy my desires” writes DiPalma in another poem of this period – ‘Poem’. We have to be careful identifying DiPalma with the ‘voice’ of his poems but it is a revealing statement. That first verse again:

sooner or later the sun cracks rebecca
sooner or later the sun hits
and not much is left of her
and cabbage the dog

Working against the forward logic of the syntax is very evident repetition: lines one and two opening “sooner or later” and lines three and four “and”. It is this attention to form – rather than sequential reading – which seems particularly important when reading this poem. We have to go back to basics, relearn our ABCs so to speak, when reading DiPalma. The sounds, the shapes, the syllables of words are once again physical things we have to negotiate rather than – as with acquired habits of reading – things we take for granted.


Words are letters. Rebecca – or, more accurately – r-e-b-e-c-c-a. Thinking differently, thinking now in terms of formal patterns, the poem starts to yield some interesting possibilities.

“rebecca” is similar in structure to “cabbage” – sharing a repeated consonant and six early letters of the alphabet. They’re not anagrams – but there is a distinct resemblance.

The eye starts to travel down the page and hits upon another ‘doubling’ structure: “1001”. Here the symmetry is perfect. It seems as though DiPalma is deliberately using this as a formal logic.

The eye travels back up the page and other ‘doublings’ declare themselves: “sOOner” – itself doubled; “sINGING”; “peNNies”; “kiSSes”.


Words are sounds. Another pleasure to be found in DiPalma’s poetry is the way the eye and the ear are being simultaneously brought into the act of reading. Transferring the ‘doubling’ logic, it is evident that it is at work at the level of sound.

In verse one: the repeated last syllable in “sooner” and “later” which echoes in “rebecca”.

In verse two: “rebecca” can be heard in “mechanics”.

Alert to such sound patternings, the ear listens more closely and experiences a dizzying sense of possibilities. To take only a few examples:

The shared short vowel in “not” and “dog” and “lop”. The “ic” sound running from “mechanics” to “sick” to “tick”. The “un” sound “1001” (one thou’sun’d and one) and “sun”.

In the line “misery is singing its pennies on the horizon”, “pennies on” echoes “horizon”.

Then what of the chains of sound DiPalma seems to be setting in motion? “Sooner” modulating to “sun” heard in passing through “pennies on” to “1001” to “sun” and then “stones”. The complex play of ‘k’/’c’ seen and heard in:

and rebeCCa of the sleeK meCHaniCs Kisses
her KNuCKles

siCK rebeCCa

and one more – the strange fragmentation effected in the last verse:

1001 sharks the sun
re-b re-b re-b
hawks and sharp stones

where “sharks” is split apart in to “hawKS” and “SHARp”.

It is a strange experience to become so focused upon what usually seem side effects of written communication. How DiPlama seems to be foregrounding the letters and syllables as potentially meaningful in themselves. Yet, to go back to our earliest experience of reading, this is how we started to ‘make sense’ of a line of text. And might one go even further and see fragmentation happening even at the level of the letter itself -

o e c

as we return to our earliest experiences of holding a pencil and shaping the letters of the alphabet?

Where does such reading end?


For while the eye and ear are dancing around the page finding such formal logics, the poem still proceeds by means of semantic logic – if one that is frequently broken or shifts across different schemes of meaning.

In verse two:

misery is singing its pennies on the horizon

A monetary theme is introduced* – seen later in “cashes in her stockings” – yet it’s hard not to read the line more ‘poetically’ as rain and a knowing allusion to ‘Pennies from Heaven’ and interesting for its theme of taking simple pleasures for granted (blue skies, the new moon, reading?) until they are removed and ‘paid’ for.

and rebecca of the sleek mechanics kisses
her knuckles

DiPalma’s Italian ancestry would lead him to understand the rich signifying possibilities of hand gestures but what – exactly – does it mean to kiss your knuckles? Success? (You can see Obama’s ‘knuckle kiss’ with his wife on You Tube). Or a slang expression for a punch?

In verse three, “rebecca” transforms herself into an insect:

sick rebecca
of the tick and lop
inches through the dry foliage
cashes in her stockings

She’s a “tick”, an inchworm, perhaps even a bookworm eating her way through dull pages. How interesting, too, that after the ABCs of verse one, here DiPalma might be alluding to the song ‘The Inch Worm’ with its chorus about learning your numbers – “rebecca” is an arithme-tick:

Two and two are four
Four and four are eight
Eight and eight are sixteen
Sixteen and sixteen are thirty-two

with two verses sung in counterpoint:

Inchworm, inchworm,
Measuring the marigolds,
You and your arithmetic,
You'll probably go far.

Inchworm, inchworm,
Measuring the marigolds
Seems to me you'd stop and see
How beautiful they are.

Language acquisition and numeracy – two stages in the process of the child’s education and social integration. The movement, too, from Innocence to Experience and how tempting it is to hear the famous lines by Blake “O Rose thou art sick” in DiPalma’s line eight: “sick rebecca”.

Tempting, too, to hear a deliberate fragmentation in “tick and lop” of “politick”.

And if so – so?


“I am/Going around with a code of upheavals” (DiPalma, ‘Paradigm’)

In a – perhaps - vain attempt to shape these readings into something that ‘makes sense’ I’ll use DiPalma’s own words: a code – or codes – of upheavals. Is this not the experience of reading a poem such as ‘Fragment’. It’s not so much nothing makes sense as too much is making too much sense. Our reading works from the individual letter shapes to consonant-vowel patterns, to competing discourses, to allusions to popular culture and literature, to anagrammatical inversions and perversions.

I’m deeply intrigued as to what makes someone write like this – or, rather, how someone comes to write like this. It appears so cerebral and yet in a statement made in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book DiPalma seemed resistant to theoretical thinking – “I prefer example to precept” - and his selection of a quotation from Wittgenstein seems especially revealing:

“329. When I think in language, there aren’t ‘meanings’ going through my head in addition to the verbal expressions: the language is itself the vehicle of thought.”

The last verse is instructive, too:

1001 sharks the sun
re-b re-b re-b
hawks and sharp stones

The preoccupation with childhood rhymes returns in “sharp stones” – “sticks and stones/ will break my bones/ but names will never hurt me”. A little far fetched, perhaps, but justified in this poem so concerned with names and hurt “the sun cracks rebecca”.

Yet what else “cracks”? I think DiPalma is concerned with language itself and the ‘damaged’ meaning we deal with in the modern world. “1001” can be read as ‘one thousand and one’ but it is also the very basis of computer code: ones and zeroes. ‘Thinking’ in terms of artificial intelligence becomes simply a matter of 1 or 0; ‘on/off’ logics. Much as ‘o’ is not ‘c’ is not ‘e’, or as ‘rebecca’ is not ‘cabbage’ or ‘sharks’ are not ‘hawks’ or ‘sharp’ stones.

Then there is “re-b” which we read earlier as the first uncertain attempts to read the first syllable of “rebecca”. Might it also be an early music lesson with a less than talented pupil requiring the assistance of a helpful tutor?

“Oh let's see if I can make it easier ...

Doe - a deer, a female deer
Ray - a drop of golden sun
Me - a name i call myself
Far - a long long way to run
Sew - a needle pulling thread
La - a note to follow so
Tea - a drink with jam and bread
That will bring us back to do oh oh oh”

(Maria in The Sound of Music)

We all know how the song goes. How interesting that Ray Dipalma ushers his own name into this name-obsessed text (Ray: ‘re’, the ‘hopeful’ tone) which works rebus-like to associate sound with image – in this case “a drop of golden sun” (and we’re back to line five and ‘Pennies from Heaven’).**

Solfege – or, as DiPalma might prefer – solfeggio is the scale created by Guido of Arezzo. The notes are taken from The Hymn of St John:
Ut queant laxis resonāre fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes.
(So that these your servants can, with all their voice, to sing your wonderful feats, clean the blemish of our spotted lips. O Saint John)

DiPalma places two systems of ordering – computer binary logic and the Western musical scale. Codes. And it is no longer a matter of asking which is right, which holds the key – rather it is the acknowledgment that this is where we are: in the cracks between competing systems of meaning. As DiPalma quotes in his text ‘Tying and Untying’ previously mentioned (its very title so apposite here):

“The poem as simultaneous structure, impersonal, autonomous, released from the charge of expression, of assertion; the poem as arbitrary construct, absurd, self-destroying, no longer aspiring to convince or even to hoax.”

A quotation which he – significantly – attributes to ‘Source Unknown’.

To return to my opening image of the monastic scriptorium this is what we have lost: a writing bathed in the light of faith. There is no longer the guarantee of The Word – yet we remain fascinated and under its spell. Here I detect a doubleness right at the heart of DiPalma’s work – a recognition of a ‘postmodern’ condition of competing codes of discourse and meaning with no ultimate authoritative Truth. While, at the same time, a desire to explore these meanings as if to find some consolation. “Cabbage” is so close to “cabbala” (Kaballah) (in fact it is one of those differentiations listed for computer spell checks etc.).

Here is not the place to develop ideas on Kaballah in full but to sketch out its relevance for a reading of DiPalma’s poetry:

i) God as matter and spirit, as Truth, yet is unknowable
ii) the ‘emanations’ (Sephirot) through which Truth can be approached
iii) the emanations which are vowel sounds
iv) a concept of reading by which everything – letters, words, numbers, even accents – contain ‘hidden’ senses.

The first word unknowable, let’s leave the last word with DiPalma’s mysterious ‘Source Unknown’:

“... the poem as agent of transformation, equal in value to the poet himself and therefore capable of changing him; the poem as means of escape from identity; leading to a world of contemplation, indifference, bliss.”


* "cabbage" is slang - mostly in the US (?) for money
** also, of course, Daphne du Maurier's novel 'Rebecca' in which the narrator's witheld name is a key element of the plot (after she receives a note from Maxim, she says how her name was "spelt correctly, an unusual thing").

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

... browsing Ron Silliman's Blog - as I do daily (sometimes more than that due to our US/Belgian time differences) - I see a link to Creeley's "sound shapes". What? Someone else? Damn! Pre-empted again!

In fact, it's a link to this very Blog. One of those you-see-yourself-as-someone-else-in-the-mirror effects (as happened to me once in a Paris metro compartment).

I'll admit to feeling chuffed.

Trying to squeeze in the post I promised on ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ - it’ll have to be notes.

Riddles of Form – Five

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

(William Carlos Williams)


The notoriety of this poem – one of those that I’ve heard certain people (colleagues, students, etc.) say trumphantly: “now that’s why I think poetry is a load of rubbish”). Is it the poetic equivalent of the Carl Andre bricks or John Cage’s 4’33”?


Then again, I’ve heard the opposite response: “Ah! At last a poem that says something – what a lovely picture.”

It’s not a question of ‘who’s right’ but I do think this poem is working in more interesting ways than either of these reponses suggest.



so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens

Take away the line breaks and you destroy the poem.



The line breaks impose a pace to the reading of the poem – slowing it down. This forces concentration and attention which – it seems to me – are integral to the poem’s ‘meaning’.

We are made to scrutinize a (red) wheel barrow and some (white) chickens.

We are made to scrutinize these sixteen words. Only sixteen? So much depends upon sixteen words ... is this possible?

We are made to scrutinize the world around us (if WCW is making such a deal about wheel barrows and chickens what’s going on around me?)


“so much depends”

You can read this as asserting the extra-ordinary importance of this (seemingly) so un-extra-ordinary scene.

You can read this as asserting just so much (and no more) depends upon these items. A weighing of words and establishing of values.

WCW is intent on a purification of language, reconnecting words to things, to life, to experience. I sense an aesthetic but also political and moral dimension: what it means to speak accurately (later, Allen Ginsberg will talk of the inherently bogus nature of political speech in terms of its thirdhandedness).


But do the lines initiate an idea or argument?

Or do they read as a continuation or qulaification of a foregoing discussion?

“Having said ... so much depends upon ...”.


There is an uncertainty as to the poem’s borders – where it begins.

As with the Creeley poem this might be to suggest continuties between page and the ‘outside’. In the specific volume ‘Spring and All’ there is most definitely an attempt to blur edges – prose/poetry, explanatory writing/imaginative writing, art/life – and the poems themselves demand to read in series. (Thus the typical ‘first encounter’ with ‘The Red Wheel Barrow out of its original context deforms the text).

“So much depends upon”. Correction – it is as much what surrounds as is ‘within’ the text. (A point not lost on WCW).


I hear a ‘voice’ – an educated early 20th Century American voice. Conversational – not at all ‘high flown’ or puffed up. Not at all the voice of Victorian British poets intoning majestically. This could be a phrase said in a town hall meeting, a discussion over breakfast.

The language of poetry and the language of everyday life are one and the same.



so much depends

the break between “depends” and “upon” allows “so much depends” to exist as a grammatical unit of meaning. Then the little ‘thunk’ effect as the eye goes down to the next line. Literally, then, depends upon.

a red wheel

the break here brings the activity of reading and conceptualizing to the foreground. At the end of line three the reader ‘sees’ a “red wheel”. As the eye moves to the next line the concept is modified: “red wheel barrow”. WCW subtly alerts us to the provisonality of all perceptions – most especially in terms of language and the physical act of reading. Long before Derrida, WCW seems to be exploring the ‘differance’ and play of signification at work in writing. (And in Derridaean style, let’s not overlook the fortuitous echo of “read” within “red”. Literally – a ‘read’ wheel, no, red wheel barrow ... as if there were really a wheel barrow there at all!).

glazed with rain

the effect of the break here seems to be one of making distinctions, of perceiving with subtlety. Rain is not rain water. One is the action of precipitating, the other the product. (Ask a gardener). Again, a driving force behind the poem seems to be that of paying attention: in life as in language.

beside the white

here the colour adjective hovers uncertainly in space – WCW foregrounding the fragility of grammatical constructions and what slight nudges can send things haywire. (Look at Miles Champion’s early volume ‘Compositional Bonbons Placate’ for an amusing development of this).

“chickens” arrives with a sense of relief and closure – but also anticlimax and bafflement. You mean that’s all it was? So much depended upon – uh?

Actually, this is one of things I really like about the poem: that it refuses the trick, the punch line moral, the and-what-I-have-really-been-talking-about-is ... . No. The poem is as it is. No symbols. No metaphors. No similes. No allegory.

No ideas/ but in things (‘A Sort of Song’).



There’s plenty happening, though, in terms of WCW’s language. (As always with American English poetry I have to factor in my own British English pronunciation.)


subtle interplay of ‘s’ (its placement at the start or mid-position as against end of the word) and hard ’z’ sounds

so - depends - glazed - beside – chickens


activation of unvoiced vowels

much – a – (wat)er – be(side) - the

although I’m aware that these could be said more actively


approximate sounds being set against each other

(de)pends – (u)pon; depends – glazed (inversion of dz/zd); much – chi(ckens)



so – barrow; glazed – rain; beside – white


What seems siginificant is the ‘buried’ quality of such sound interplay – WCW avoids (rather than isn’t competent enough to do) assertive rhymes and echoes. The ‘heightened’ language of a reader’s expectations is being strategically held back.

Another way of looking at it: WCW is challenging lazy expectations of poetic sound. Other logics are at work, so many different ways of working sounds. Decisions made step by step, word to word. Not a scheme or a projected shape.


Let’s prune the poem back still further. Chop the first four words -

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

What is lost?

Might not this work rather well as a Poundian Imagist poem or elongated haiku?

But this isn’t – it seems to me - what WCW is after.

The opening phrase “so much depends/upon” gives the poem its meaningfulness. To put it better: it establishes an attempt to provide meaning. WCW evokes the kind of phrase which connotes meaningful discourse. This is the language of essay writing, of philosophical texts, writing which clarifies, apportions value.

The subsequent three sections do work like an Imagist poem. Effectively WCW collages. The language here is simple statement (“a red wheel/barrow”) and (“beside the white/chickens”) combined with elementary description “glazed with rain/water”) – the last phrase the closest, perhaps, to ‘conventional’ poetic writing. Certainly there is a rupture in style with the expectations set by section one.

We were made to expect meaning – now this!

Common sense and daily experience allow for white chickens to be in the vicinity of red wheel barrows (and here there’s the invitation for lazy projections onto the poem of WCW’s celebration of poverty, daily life etc – what Ron Silliman pinpoints as the School of Quietude’s appropriation of WCW. Yes?).

Grammatical habits also allow for the chickens and wheel barrow to exist together – WCW retains cohesion by means of “depends/upon” leading to the “wheel/barrow” which is, in turn, “glazed” by the rain water, and stands “beside” white chickens. Descriptive and prepositional logic are sound.

And yet, the “wheel/barrow” and “white/chickens” are NOT meaningfully connected.

Yes, you could see this scene in a million back yards.

Yes, you can read the lines a hundred times and they make perfect grammatical sense.

Yet why the hell is this poem putting a red wheel barrow and white chickens together? And claiming that so much depends upon them?

Is this surrealism? ("beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella" – Lautreamont). Hardly! Yet the effect is nothing short of transformatory the moment you allow for what WCW has done in this poem.

To recap:

- exploded conventions about line and sense units
- made the reader aware of the actual reading of the poem and – by extension – habits of thought and inattention in daily life
- effected a change in the poetic voice and/or what language is available to poetry
- expanded what had been a limited range of sound possibilities and enabling sound to develop according to its own ‘in situ’ logic while also avoiding ‘beautiful’ and sonorous effects
- juxtaposed different ‘discourses’ of meaning within the poem (expository/ grammatical/ imagistic collage/ common sense) to break apart lazy habits of reading. (Is ‘The Red Wheel Barrow’ where L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry begins? Why Clark Coolidge would become so fond of the word “so” as to entitle an entire volume ‘The So’?)

The effect for me is of a poem sliding apart in terms of all these different ‘dimensions’ or movements. Ironic, given the utter stasis of the purported ‘subject matter’ (what a poor term that is).

Nothing is happening.

So much is going on!

What’s for sure is that to either rubbish the poem or to see it simply as a reassuring ‘slice of life’ is to be asleep to what depends upon these sixteen – yes, only sixteen - words.

The word must be put down for itself, not as a symbol of nature but a part, cognizant of the whole – aware – civilized. WCW)