THINKING OF FOLLOWS
I. COMPOSITION AS EXPLANATION
In the beginning there is Gertrude Stein:
is the same except
composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different
everything is not the same."
This is also to say, in the beginning is Aristotle: "by myth I mean the arrangement
of the incidents."
Every speech act (every use of signs) consists of selection and combination (Saussure,
Jakobson). This means words always have a double reference: to the code and to the
context. The code gives us a vertical axis with substitution sets where the elements are
linked by similarity. We choose from them whether to say the man, the guy, the fellow,
whether to say walked, ran, ambled, sauntered, etc. Then we combine the selected
words on a horizontal axis to say: "the man ran around the corner." We put them in a
relation by syntax, by contiguity.
Literary language tends to divide according to an emphasis on one axis or the other.
Some are more concerned with le mot juste, with the perfect metaphor, others, with
what "happens between" the words (Olson).
For the long stretch from Romanticism through Modernism (and on?), poetry has
been more or less identified with the axis of selection, relation by similarity, metaphor.
This has large implications:
that the "world" is given, but can be "represented," "pictured" in language;
(Baudelaire: "Man walks through a forest of symbols")
that the poem is an epiphany inside the poet's mind and then "expressed" by
choosing the right words;
that content (and "meaning") is primary and determines its ("organic") form;
(Creeley/Olson: "Form is never more than an extension of content")
finally, that the vertical tendency of metaphor (Olson: "the suck of symbol")
is our hotline to transcendence, to divine meaning, hence the poet as priest and prophet.
"SHALL WE ESCAPE ANALOGY" (Claude Royet-Journoud), or,
COMPOSITION AS PROCESS:
Nothing is given. Everything remains to be
(Creeley: "a world that's
constantly coming into being")
I do not know beforehand what the poem is going to say, where the poem is
going to take me. The poem is not "expression," but a cognitive process that, to some
extent, changes me. John Cage: "Poetry is having nothing to say and saying it: we
As I begin working, far from having an "epiphany" to express, I have only a
vague nucleus of energy running to words. As soon as I start listening to the words,
they reveal their own vectors and affinities, pull the poem into their own field of force,
often in unforeseen directions, away from the semantic charge of the original impulse.
What matters is not so much the "thing", not the "right word," but what "happens
Valéry: "The poet enters the forest of language it is with the express purpose of getting lost"
Guest: "The poem enters its own rhythmical waters."
Jabès: "The pages of the book are doors. Words go through them, driven by their
impatience to regroup...Light is in these lovers' strength of desire."
Duncan: "His intellect intent upon the ratios and movements of the poem, he is
almost unaware of depths that may be stirred in his own psyche. What he feels is the
depth and excitement of the poem. The poem takes over."
But it is not true that "nothing is given:"
comes not only with an
infinite potential for new combinations, but with a long history contained in it.
The blank page is not blank. Words are always secondhand, says Dominique
Noguez. No text has one single author. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we
always write on top of a palimpsest (cf. Duncan's "grand collage").
This is not a question of linear "influence," but of writing as dialog with a
whole net of previous and concurrent texts, tradition, with the culture and language
we breathe and move in, which conditions us even while we help to construct it.
Many of us have foregrounded this awareness as
transforming, "translating" parts of other works.
I, A WOMAN:
This fact clearly shapes my writing:
in attitude, in awareness of
social conditioning, marginality--but does not determine it exclusively.
Lacan is preposterous in imposing his phallic cult on the signifier--and in bad
faith when he claims gender neutrality.
Conversely, I don't see much point in labeling certain forms as "feminine." (Even
though I like some of the suggestions. e.g. Joan Retallack's & Luce Irigarai's that the
feminine is "plural," comprising all forms that conspire against against monolithic,
monotonal, monolinear universes.)
I don't really see "female language," "female style or technique." Because the
writer, male or female, is only one partner in the process of writing. Language, in its full
range, is the other. And it is not a language women have to "steal back" (Ostriker). The
language a poet enters into belongs as much to the mothers as to the fathers.
In crossing the Atlantic my phonemes settled somewhere between German and
English. I speak either language with an accent. This has saved me the illusion of being
the master of language. I enter it at a skewed angle, through the fissures, the slight
I do not "use" the language. I interact with it. I do not communicate via language,
but with it. Language is not a tool for me, but a medium infinitely larger thatn any intention.
What will find resonance is out of my hands. If the poem works (and gets the chance
to be read) it will set off vibrations in the reader, an experience with language --with the
way it defines us as human beings. Walter Benjamin: "Art posits man's physical and
spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with his response. No poem is
intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener."
MEANING, especially DEEPER:
All I am saying here is on the surface, which is
all we can work on. I like the image in
Don Quixote that compares translation to working on a tapestry: you sit behind it, with a
mess of threads and a pattern for each color, but have no idea of the image that will
appear on the other side.
This holds for writing as well. We work on technical aspects, on the craft. We make
a pattern that works, coheres. Our obsessions and preoccupations find their way into it
no matter what we do.
But what the poem will "mean" is a different matter. I can only hope that it gives a
glimpse of that unreachable goal (which, paradoxically, is also its matrix), the
concentration, the stillness of those moments when it seems we're taken out of ourselves
and out of time.
Thoreau: "Nothing is worth saying, nothing is worth doing except as a foil for the
waves of silence to break against."
"I don't even have thoughts, I have methods that make language think,
take over and me by the hand. Into sense or offense, syntax stretched
across rules, relations of force, fluid the dip of the plumb line,
the pull of eyes..."
(A Form/ Of Taking/ It All)
1. EXPLORING THE SENTENCE:
The tension of line and sentence. But especially
the sentences. Erosion of their
borders. Sliding them together, towards a larger (total?) connectedness.
Both in The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger and in The Road Is
Everywhere or Stop This Body I worked on making the object of one phrase flip
over into being the subject of the next phrase without being repeated:
Exaggerations of a curve
exchanges time and again
beside you in the car
pieces the road together
with night moisture
the force of would-be-sleep
beats through our bodies
denied their liquid depth
toward the always dangerous next
dawn bleeds its sequence
of ready signs
The target was strictly grammatical. Consciously
I was pushing at the boundaries
of the sentence. I was interested in having a flow of a quasi-unending sentence play
against the short lines that determine the rhythm. So, on one level, I was simply
exacerbating the tension between sentence and line that is there is all verse. And
since the thematic field is cars and other circulation systems (blood, breath, sex,
economics, language, a set of metaphors never stated, but made structural) I liked
the effect of hurtling down main clause highway at breakneck speed.
It was only later, that I realized that this challenge to a rigid subject-object
relation has feminist implications. Woman in our culture has been treated as object
par excellence, to be looked at rather than looking, to be loved and done to rather
than doing. Instead, these poems propose a grammar in which subject and object
function are not fixed, but reversible roles, where there is no hierarchy of main and
subordinate clauses, but a fluid and constant alternation.
After a while, though, I began to long for subordinate clauses, complex sentences.
So I turned to writing prose poems. I became fascinated by Wittgenstein and by
the form of the proposition because of its extreme closure. This was a challenge
because my previous poems had mostly worked toward opening the boundaries of
the sentence, either by sliding sentences together or by fragmentation. I tried to work
with this challenge, accept the complete sentence (most of the time) and try to
subvert its closure and logic from the inside, by constantly sliding between frames of
reference. I especially brought the female body in and set into play the old gender
archetypes of logic and mind being "male," whereas "female" designates the illogical:
emotion, body, matter. Again, I hope that the constant sliding challenges these
"You took my temperature which I had meant to save for a
more difficult day" (R.W., The Reproduction of Profiles, 23)
"Isogrammatical lines connecting the mean incidence of comparable
parts of speech map the discourses of the world, I say. Against their
average, extremes of sense and absence create the pleasure of fragments.
Break the silence and pick up the pieces to find a cluster of shards which
catches lighton the cut and the next day too." (A Form/ Of Taking/ It All)
This glint of light on the cut, this spark given
off by the edges is what I am after.
Juxtaposing, rather than isolating, minimal units of meaning.
And the break of linearity. When the smooth horizontal travel of eye/mind is
impeded, when the connection is broken, there is a kind of orchestral meaning that
comes about in the break, a vertical dimension made up of the energy field between
the two lines (or phrases or sentences). A meaning that both connects and illuminates
the gap, so that the shadow zone of silence between the elements gains weight,
becomes an element of the structure.
and I know I
puff of smoke
a not yet open door
precisely: an occasion
Jabès, like the German Romantics, holds
fragment is our only access to
the infinite. I tend to think it is our way of apprehending anything. Our inclusive
pictures are mosaics.
3. COLLAGE, or, THE SPLICE OF LIFE:
I turned to collage early, to get away from
poems about my
overwhelming mother. I felt I needed to do something "objective" that would get me
out of myself. I took books off the shelf, selected maybe one word from every page
or a phrase every tenth page, and tried to work these into structures. Some worked,
some didn't. But when I looked at them a while later: they were still about my mother.
(As Tristan Tzara would have predicted. His recipe for making a Dadaist poem by
cutting up a newspaper article ends with: "The poem will resemble you.")
This was a revelation--and a liberation. I realized that subject matter is not something
to worry about. Your concerns and obsessions will surface no matter what you do.
This frees you to work on form, which is all one can work on consciously. For the rest,
all you can do is try to keep your mind alive, your curiosity and ability to see.
Even more important was the second revelation: that any constraint stretches the
imagination, pull you into semantic fields different from the one you started with. For
though the poems were still about my mother, something else was also beginning to happen.
Georges Braque: "You must always have 2 ideas, one to destroy the other. The painting
is finished when the concept is obliterated."
(Barbara Guest would qualify that the constraints must be such that they stretch the
imagination without disabling it.)
Collage, like fragmentation, allows you to frustrate the expectation of continuity,
of step-by-step-linearity. And if the fields you juxtapose are different enough there
are sparks from the edges. Here is a paragraph from A Key Into the Language of America
that tries to get at the clash of Indian and European cultures by juxtaposing phrases
from Roger William's 1743 treatise with contemporary elements from anywhere
in my Western heritage.
Flesh, considered as cognitive region, as opposed to undifferentiated
warmth, is called woman or wife. The number not stinted, yet the
Narragansett (generally) have but one. While diminutives are
coined with reckless freedom, the deep structure of the marriage bed
is universally esteemed even in translation. If the woman be false to
bedlock, the offended husband will be solemnly avenged, arid
and eroded. He may remove her clothes at any angle between horizontal
By this I mean taking some one aspect of an
work and translating it into
something else. For instance, When They Have Senses uses the grammatical
structure of Anne-Marie Albiach's Etat as a matrix, much in the way poets used
to use a metrical scheme. It was an additional challenge that Etat is in French, so
that the grammatical patterns did not work very well in English and thus had a
built-in push beyond themselves.
An example closer to home is Differences for Four Hands. This sequence began
with following the sentence structure of Lyn Hejinian's prose poem Gesualdo and
"translating" it into a kind of invocation of Clara and Robert Schumann.
In the finished version this is not all that easy to trace any more. Hejinian's sentence
is much more quirky than what I ended up with, because I needed something closer
to the tension between fluidity and stillness that's characteristic for Schumann's music.
And a sentence about the increasing number of children: "Run. Three children through
the house." "Run. Five children through the house." became a kind of refrain or
ostinato which changes the structural feel. But here is a passage which has remained
Two are extremes. You place on noble souls. The most important was
an extraordinary degree. What has been chosen from this, but a regular
process of communication, shortly implored for long life and forgiveness.
You are a target of my persuasion. I am overlooking the city. At times I
am most devout and at others most serene, and both pleasure and
displeasure haunt me. My heart is not above the rooftops.
Differences for Four Hands:
Any two are opposite. You walk on sound. The coldest wind blows
from the edges of fear. Which has been written down. Passion's not
natural. But body and soul are bruised by melancholy, fruit of dry,
twisted riverbeds. Loss discolors the skin. At times you devour apples,
at others bite into your hand.
Rhythm is the elusive quality without which
is no poem, without which
the most interesting words remain mere words on paper, remain verse. "Upper limit
music, lower limit speech" said Zukofsky. xxxck Rhythm, I mean, not meter. It is
hard to talk about, impossible to pin down. It is the truly physical essence of the
poem, determined by the rhythms of my body, my breath, my pulse. But it is also
the alternation of sense and absence, sound and silence. It articulates the between,
the difference in repetition.
I think on paper, revise endlessly. I am envious
of a poet like Duncan who has
such absolute confidence that anything that comes to him is right. "Speaking in the
God-Voice" I heard him call it. "Of course," he added, "if you speak in the
God-Voice you say an awful lot of stupid things!" More important to me: he
considered new poems his revisions (re-visions) of the old ones --this is beautiful.
But I feel closer to what John Ashbery said in conversation with Kenneth Koch,
that he feels any line could have been written some other way, that it doesn't
necessarily have to sound as it does.
I am slow and need to think about things a long
need to hold on to the
trace on paper. Thinking is adventure. Does adventure need to be speedy? Perhaps
revising is a way of refusing closure? Not wanting to come to rest?