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  1. The Book of Questions: Yael, Elya, Aely, tr. Rosmarie Waldrop (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), p.7 [unnumbered]. Back

  2. Veronica Forrest Thompson, Poetic Artifice: A Theory of Twentieth Century Poetry (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), p. 132, italics added; subsequent citations from Forrest-Thompson are from this text. This remarkably precocious book carries Empson’s criticism one step further than Empson was willing to go--into the realm of what Forrest-Thomson calls the “non-meaningful” levels of language, which she sees as the vital future for poetry. Her considerations of Ashbery and Prynne are particularly valuable, as is her critique of the flaws inherent in “confessional” poetry--she speaks of the “suicide poets”--from whom she is at great pains to exclude Plath. At times, Forrest-Thomson’s work is frustratingly claustrophobic; but its uncompromising, fierce and passionate seriousness makes it an enormously moving experience to read. Forrest-Thomson, whose Collected Poems were published in 1990 by Allardyce, Barnett, died in 1975 at the age of twenty-seven, after receiving her Ph.D. from Cambridge. Back

  3. Steve McCaffery discusses how anagrams drove Saussure to distraction near the end of his life when he was studying late Latin Saturnian verse. “Implicit in this research is the curiously nonphenomenal status of the paragram. [It is] an inevitable consequence of writing’s alphabetic, combinatory, nature. Seen this way as emerging from the multiple ruptures that alphabetic components bring to virtuality, meaning becomes partly the production of a general economy, a persistent excess, non-intentionality and expenditure without reserve through writing’s component letters. . . . The unavoidable presence of words within words contests the notion of writing as a creativity, proposing instead the notion of an indeterminate, extraintentional, differential production. The paragram should not be seen necessarily as a latent content or hidden intention, but as a sub-productive sliding and slipping of meaning between the forces and intensities distributed through the text’s syntactic economy.” --“Writing as a General Economy”, in North of Intention (New York: Roof Books / Toronto: Nightwood Editions, 1986), pp. 201-221; subsequent citations from McCaffery are from the same essay. Back

  4. Johanna Drucker has been exploring this area in a systematic way. Her “Writing as the Visual Representation of Language” was presented at “New York Talk” on June 5, 1984. See “Dada and Futurist Typography: 1909-1925 and the Visual Representation of Language”, Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1986. Back

  5. Galvano della Volpe, Critique of Taste, tr. Michael Caesar (London: Verso, 1978), p. 193. Quoted by Jerome McGann in the Conclusion to The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Back

  6. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, tr. John and Doreen Weightman (New York: Atheneum, 1984), p. 388; V. N. Voloshinov [pseudonym of Mikhail Bakhtin], Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, tr. L. Matejka and I. R. Titunik (New York: Seminar Press, 1973), p. 14; Caudio Amber, Guide Amber Gastronomie (Graisse, NY: White Castle Press, 1950), unpaginated. Back

  7. Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980) was my starting point for these considerations. I discuss issues related to absorption in “Film of Perception” (see especially the discussion of movies that begins the section) and “On Theatricality” in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984 (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1986). Back

  8. Nick Piombino makes this distinction in “Writing, Identity, and Self”, in The Difficulties 2:1, 1982. Back

  9. See note 5 above. I discuss this work more fully in “McGann Agonist”, in Sulfur 15, 1986. Back

  10. McGann, The Beauty of Inflections (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 40, n. 35. Back

  11. “Dysraphism”, a medical term, means congenital misseaming of embryonic parts. The root raph means seam, as in rhapsody--what is stitched together. Back

  12. The text follows T. H. Johnson’s edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955), no. 505, vol. 2, pp. 387-388, although I have adopted two of the variants (provoked for evoked, luxury for privilege) and followed the apparent lineation of the manuscript, rather than Johnson’s, in regard to the penultimate line. --Think though of Stephen Sondheim’s A Sunday in the Park with George as an opposite perspective on what it would be like to be in a painting: Sondheim has the figures in Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte express a feeling of being hot and trapped as they stare down on carload after busload of museum patrons. Back

  13. Susan Howe, “The Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson”, in Temblor 2 (1985), pp. 113-21. Howe presented this remarkable essay at the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver, where an early version of this essay was also performed. Among a number of parallels with this work, the theme of “captivity” is an allegory for absorption: the fear of, and attraction to, being absorbed by Indian culture and the taint--from the white man’s perspective--of temporary, or partial, absorption in that culture. Back

  14. Ford Madox Ford, The English Novel: From the Earliest Days to the Death of Joseph Conrad (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1929), pp. 62-63, 70-71, 86, 148-49; recently republished by Carcanet. This work was especially prepared for Lippincott’s “The One Hour Series”. In his wonderfully digressive and ornately self-conscious preliminary remarks, Ford writes, “I should like to observe for the benefit of the Lay Reader, to whom I am addressing myself--for the Professional Critic will pay no attention to anything that I say, contenting himself with cutting me to pieces with whips of scorpions for having allowed my head to pop up at all--to the Lay Reader I should like to point out that what I am about to write is highly controversial and he should take none of it too much au pied de la lettre” (p.31). Back

  15. Quoted by Fried, p. 97; italics added. Diderot’s remark epitomizes the double-bind of women being defined by a male gaze: to be seen as a woman one must be passive, while to stare back (as in Manet’s Olympia) is to exhibit oneself, to become a whore. This implicitly valorizes the woman as subject, absorbed in the world as opposed to acting on it. As Nicole Brossard made clear at the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver, discussing her Journal Intime (Montreal: Editions Herbes Rouges, 1984), the subjective space is treacherous for a woman since it risks accepting the subjectification of women in the model described by Diderot. Brossard’s response is to write something called an “intimate journal”, a diary (the traditionally accepted form of women’s writing) that refuses the primary terms of that form, refuses, that is, to absorb the gaze of the reader but rather deflects this gaze onto the artificial/actual process of self-construction: “ma vie qui n’est qu’un tissu de mots” [my life which is only a tissue of words] (p. 15). This transformed, you might also say evacuated, journal requires the name poetry. Back

  16. Bob Perelman, “Notes on The First World”, Line 6 (1985), pp. 101, 108-109; this talk was originally presented at the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver. The poems quoted by Perelman in his talk, as well as the citations that follow, are from The First World (Great Barrington, Mass.: The Figures, 1986).--“If only the plot would leave people alone”, Perelman writes in “Anti-Oedipus” (p. 20). His passionate refusal to be housed by the poem, his insistence on breaking loose from the social hypnosis that deadens response, nonetheless cannot readily be understood as preventing absorption, despite its striking awareness of itself as a poetry & its forthright address to the reader. For Perelman has created poetry that is funny, political, engaging--and does not distance itself from the reader in ways we have grown accustomed to. In a recent interview Perelman was careful to put off the suggestion that because his poems do not employ causal unity (are not “little short stories”), they are therefore not coherent. “China”, a work in The First World “coheres grammatically, thematically, politically in terms of tone. It’s certainly not something that throws you off the track, like playing trains as a kid, whipping from side to side until someone falls off--it’s not that.” This last image of a train flipping the tracks is precisely a description of the effect of the antiabsorptive on reading. (Interview by George Hartley, conducted in Berkeley in 1986, quoted in “Jameson’s Perelman: Reification and the Material Signifier”, a draft chapter of Hartley’s dissertation (University of New Mexico); not included in the chapter of the same name in Hartley’s Textual Politics of the Lanugage Poets (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989). Back

  17. Nicole Brossard, A Book, tr. Larry Shouldice (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1976), sections 19, 91, 98, and 99. Back

  18. See McGann, The Beauty of Inflections, part III, chapter 1, and especially pp. 152-55, 160-61, and 166-69. Back

  19. At the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver, Andrews read from I Don’t Have Any Paper So Shut Up (or Social Romanticism) (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991), a work related to, and written just after, “Confidence Trick”. In Vancouver talk Andrews also read excerpts from “Total Equals What: Poetics and Practice”, published subsequently in Poetics Journal 6 (1986). Back

  20. David Antin, Tuning (New York: New Directions, 1984), pp. 105-106. Back

  21. Quoted by Fried, p. 84. In the present instance, quoting part of Diderot’s French might qualify as appealingly superfluous: “aucune figure oisive, aucun accessoire superflu. Que le sujet en soit un.” Back

  22. Ezra Pound, “Affirmations--As for Imagisme” (1915), Selected Prose: 1909-1965, ed. William Cookson (New York: New Directions, 1973), p. 375; italics added. Back

  23. See David Antin’s The Principle of Fit, 2 (Washington, DC: Watershed Tapes, 1980); Antin expressed his distrust of jump cutting and other forms of radical juxtaposition in recent art at a talk at the Guggenheim Museum in the late 70s. See also Louis Simpson’s various comments in What Is a Poet?, ed. Hank Lazer (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1986). Back

  24. “There is no form of platitude which cannot be turned into iambic pentameter without labor. It is not difficult, if one have learned to count up to ten, to begin a new line on each eleventh syllable or to whack each alternate syllable with an ictus.” --Pound, “Affirmations”, p. 375. Back

  25. Helen Vendler, Introduction in The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 2, 17, italics and brackets mine; later quotes from pp. 9, 13, 17. The Harvard Book of Contemporary American Poetry--including “contemporary” poems by Stevens, who was born in 1879 and died thirty years before this book was published--is the only recent anthology of American poetry that my local public library has acquired. For more on official verse culture see Marjorie Perloff’s astute commentary on the Vendler anthology, “Of Canons and Contemporaries”, in Sulfur 16 (1986) and Rae Armantrout’s “Mainstream Marginality” in Poetics Journal 6 (1986). Back

  26. Donald Wesling, The Chances of Rhyme: Device and Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); later quotes from pp. 54, 56, 73, 81, 98, 108, 118, 121, 133. Back

  27. Alan Davies, “Unadorned ca73”, Signage (New York: Roof, 1987). p. 60. Back

  28. Steve McCaffery, “Drum Language and the Sky Text”, in Alcheringa 3.1 (1977), p. 81; as subsequently revised by the author (manuscript, 1986). Back

  29. Robert Kelly, Thors Thrush (1962; rept., Oakland: Coincidence Press, 1984), unpaginated; “spel V” is part of this work. There is a Tibetan saying to the effect that the sacred is sound (entoning the lower notes are believed to bring one closer to the sacred). The practice of mantra chanting is relevant as well: written on the page, a mantra would appear like a concrete poem; performed it may become hypnotic. Back

  30. Velimer Khlebnikov, “On Poetry” in Collected Works, Vol. 1: Letters and Theoretical Writings, tr. Paul Schmidt, ed. Charlotte Douglas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 370. The quotation immediately following is from “Our Fundamentals” in the same volume, p. 385.
    In “The Poetics of Sound”, originally in Technicians of the Sacred and reprinted in Pre-Faces & Other Writing (New York: New Directions, 1981), pp. 144-45, Jerome Rothenberg provides a relevant commentary on an aborigine rain chant--“Dad a da da / Dad a da da / Dad a da da / Da kata kai”: “Sounds only. No meaning, they say, in the words of the song, or no meaning you can get at by translation into-other-words; & yet it functions; the meaning contained then in how it’s made to function. So here the key is in the ‘spell’ & in the belief behind the ‘spell’--or in a whole system of beliefs, in magic, in the power of sound & breath & ritual to move an object toward ends determined by the poet-magus. Said the Navajo chanter . . .: ‘The words have no meaning, but the song means’. . . . Such special languages--meaningless &/or mysterious--are a small but nearly universal aspect of ‘primitive-&-archaic’ poetry. They may involve (1) purely invented, meaningless sounds, (2) distortion of ordinary words & syntax, (3) ancient words emptied of their (long since forgotten) meanings, (4) words borrowed from other languages.” Back

  31. Michel Leiris, “Jazz”, interview ed. and tr. Michael Haggerty, in Sulfur 15 (1986), p. 103. Back

  32. Leiris, “Acted Theater and Lived Theater in the Zar Cult”, tr. James Clifford, in Sulfur 15 (1986), p. 115 and, just following, p. 117; first set of italics added. Back

  33. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, including the Demotic Spells, Vol. 1: Texts, ed. Hans Dieter Betz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). As a typographic, pictographic, lexical, indexical, and syntactic extravaganza, this work suggests, without necessarily intending to, the richness of “antiabsorbiana” that can be found in scholarly translations of obscure and occult material. This book is then close to the sort of text Armand Schwerner parodies/honors in The Tablets. “PGM L. 1-18: . . . out of . . . and if their principal (lots?) should [fall] on the side of [the lots] of ‘Tyche’ or ‘Daimon’ [it is good?] for a spell (?) concerning sorcery / --the same principal (tosses?) of the lot producing the same results, with ‘Tyche’ or ‘Daimon’ being an excellent toss.” (p.283) The book also contains pages of spells using beyonsense magical words such as Khlebnikov discusses. Back

  34. Some examples: The typographic visions of Johanna Drucker’s letterpress bookwork extend the poetic of lettrism and futurist book art into the present. Tina Darragh has consistently worked with complex visual arrangements, elaborate punning, puzzles, & procedures in an effort to interrogate (in a buoyantly funny way) the structures of language. David Melnick’s Pcoet, made up almost entirely of nonstandard words; & his Men in Aida, a homophonic translation of the Illiad, are intensely musical works that use an invented syntax in one work & invented words in the other not to formulate a transrational or universal language, as proposed by Khlebnikov’s related work with zaum, but to create a world as local & specific as possible, in which a heightened awareness of the pleasure of words is its own sensuous reward. Frank Kuenstler’s densely mosaicked Lenz proceeds, for the most part, by splicing two words together with a period and placing these pairs in paragraph sequences: “purr.Force leica.Misanthrope deanna.Dearborn” (New York: Film Culture, 1964; p.63). In contrast, Michael Gottlieb’s “Phlogiston” disrupts lexical identities by intercollocating the letters of capitalized and lower-case phrases: “L I KoEn e already K N EfWr o m” (Roof VI, 1978; p. 40). Clark Coolidge’s early works developed several antiabsorptive styles. In Suite V, two words are juxtaposed at the top & bottom of each page (for example, “dots” & “mats”), leaving the page mostly blank; while some of the poems in Ing consist of configurations of word parts, numbers, articles, & isolated words & phrases. “On Once” begins: “no in took/ than mar// their/ than the / thinks// a su/ (he of)// the awd con// is solu// no non/ of the/ of using// but a// a but/ a Rug// ‘Schillan’”) (New York: Angel Hair Books, 1968; unpaginated). Back

  35. Basil Bunting, “The Use of Poetry”, in Writing 12 (1985), 36-43. Back

  36. Among other works, I am thinking of Coolidge’s Quartz Hearts & Weathers; Christopher Dewdney’s Spring Traces in the Control Emerald Night; Peter Seaton’s The Son Master, Crisis Intervention, & Piranesi Pointed Up; James Sherry’s Popular Fiction, George-Therese Dickenson’s Tranducing; Jerry Estrin’s In Motion Speaking; Abigail Child’s From Solids; Lynne Dreyer’s White Museum; the prose works in Diane Ward’s Never Without One; & a number of Steve Benson’s performance transcriptions. Back

  37. Clark Coolidge, “Rova Notes”, in Sulfur 17, 1986, pp. 129-34. Back

  38. Larry Price, “Aggressively Private: Contingency as Explanation”, Poetics Journal 6, (1986), 80-86. Back

  39. Steve McCaffery, Panopticon (Toronto: blewointmentpress, 1984), unpaginated. Back

  40. Passages quoted are from Barrett Watten’s “Plasma” in Plasma/Paralleles/X (Berkeley: Tuumba, 1979), unpaginated; “Real Estate”, 1-10 (Oakland: This Press, 1980), p. 31; Total Syntax (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), p. 64. Back

  41. Silliman is responding to the Vancouver presentation of this work as well as subsequent discussions of it in a letter to me dated September 12, 1986. Back

  42. Lyn Hejinian, The Guard (Berkeley: Tuumba Press, 1984); all quotes except the prose extract are from the first page of this book. At the New Poetics Colloquium in Vancouver, Hejinian read from and discussed The Guard--see “Language and ‘Paradise’”, Line 6 (1986); the prose extract is from p. 91 of this text. Back

  43. George Bataille, Erotism: Death & Sensuality, tr. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986), pp. 17-19 and 25. Italics added: “jolts of melody”. Back

  44. From my “Blow-Me-Down Etude”, Rough Trades (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1991), p. 104. Back

  45. David Bromige, poem read at Ear Inn, New York, October 11, 1986. The final seven lines are Steve Benson’s contribution to a collaboration with Bromige. Back

  46. Bruce Andrews, Jeopardy (Windsor, Vermont: Awede Press, 1980); reprinted in a less effective horizontal format in Wobbling (New York: Roof Books, 1981), pp. 90-93. Back

  47. Nick Piombino, “Subject to Change”, in Temblor 5 (1987), 127-131. Back

  48. Nick Piombino, “Currents of Attention in the Poetic Process”, in Temblor 5 (1987). pp. 120-131. Both cited Piombino essays are in Boundary of Blur (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1991). Back

  49. As the Klupzy Girl virtually puts it in my Islets/Irritations (New York: Jordan Davies, 1983), p. 47. Back

  50. Robert Grenier, A Day at the Beach (New York: Roof Books, 1984), unpaginated. Back

  51. Samuel Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape (New York: Grove Press, 1960), pp. 9-28. Back

  52. “The Taste Is What Counts” in my Poetic Justice (Baltimore: Pod Books, 1979), p. 47. Back

  53. The last two sentences of the stanza are based on this passage from Merleau-Ponty: “It is that the thickness of flesh between the seer and the thing is constitutive for the thing of its corporeity; it is not an obstacle between them, it is their means of communication. . . . The thickness of the body, far from rivalling that of the world, is on the contrary the sole means I have to go unto the heart of the things, by making myself a world and by making them flesh.” --from “The Intertwining--The Chiasm”, chap. 4 of The Visible and the Invisible, ed. Claude Lefort, tr. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwest University Press, 1968), p. 135. A chiasm is a decussation or x-shaped crossing or intersection. This is its meaning in anatomical nomenclature as well; for example, the optic chiasm is the crossing point of the fibers from both eyes, where they connect to the brain.

    Merleau-Ponty elucidates the meaning of flesh in these words: “it is that the look is itself incorporation of the seer into the visible, quest for itself, which is of it, within the visible--it is that the visible of the world is not an envelope of quale [a pellicle of being without thickness], but what is between the qualia, a connective tissue of exterior and interior horizons--it is as flesh offered to flesh that the visible has its aseity [self-origination] [. . .] whence vision is question and response. . . . The openness through flesh: the two leaves of my body and the leaves of the visible world. . . . It is between these intercalated leaves that there is visibility. . . . the world, the flesh not as fact or sum of facts, but as the locus of an inscription of truth: the false crossed out, not nullified” (p. 131; only bracketed ellipsis added).

    It’s interesting to juxtapose a passage from Jerome Rothenberg’s opening up of the concept of “deep image” in his 1960 essay “From Deep Image & Mode: An Exchange with Robert Creeley”: “So there really are two things here, conceivable as two realities: 1) the empirical world of naive realists, etc. (what Buber and the hasidim call ‘shell’ or ‘husk’), and 2) the hidden (floating) world, yet to be discovered or brought into being: the ‘kernal’ or ‘sparks’. The first world both hides and leads into the second, so as Buber says: ‘one cannot reach the kernal of the fruit except through the shell’; i.e. the phenomenal world is to be read by us: the perceived image is the key to the buried image: and the deep image is at once husk and kernal, perception and vision, and the poem is the movement between them. Form, then, must be considered as emerging from the act of vision: completely organic. . . . Form . . . is the pattern of the movement from perception to vision: it arises as the poem arises and has no life outside the movement of the poem, i.e. outside the poem itself. (This implies too that the experience of the poet, unlike that of the mystic, is patterned and developmental, i.e. expressive; the mystic, so I’m told, may not even be said to be seeking a vision of reality, but absorption within it--silence rather than speech. But mystics are close to visionary consciousness and are often poets themselves.)” Prefaces & Other Writings, pp. 57-58; italics added.

    Compare this with Creeley, writing in In London: “The so-called poet of love / is not so much silent as absorbed. / He ponders. He sits on / the hill looking over.” Collected Poems (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 454. Back


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