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JULY 19, 1977
I HOPE WE can all be reasonably comfortable here. I know we're all packed in and there are no windows. But also I feel a little "back here and up above you," which I don't intend to be symbolic or whatever.
First I should say I'm very honored and pleased to be asked to be here among poets like Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and William Burroughs who have been my teachers, even though I haven't sat in their classes except in the case of Allen in Vancouver in 1963. But also I have certain doubts I must admit up front about being somebody who dispenses any kind of absolutely-applicable-to-everybody information.
"Visiting Poets" is a very accurate term. I'm a poet. I'm not a professional teacher. I've never taught in this way before. I do believe that by telling you what I've experienced and all the things that have turned me on, I might possibly be of use to you. This is going to be quite rapid in places. I'm going to try and give you as much information as I have, in the sense of trying to give you some options. I think it's very important to know how many possibilities there are for an artist, and there are almost too many. There are too many. So, if the information goes by you quickly or there are things, names, that you're not familiar with, I hope you'll ask me and I'll be glad to try to amplify.
The form of this will be, I'll come and present something each time. I'll be playing you some music, reading some work by myself and others, talking about it, and then you'll be free to ask questions or discuss whatever I've been talking about.
I'm also very pleased to be the first part of a course with Philip Whalen who also has been a teacher of mine, in a sense, a very great poet and beautiful man, to whom I feel I particularly owe a lot of the delight I have in the process of writing, and I feel that Philip communicates that in particular.
I wanted to start with a subject I think is basic to my work and to art, I presume. That's the word "arrangement." I'm partly using that word because I want to avoid using words like "composition," "structure," and so on, which I don't feel mean that much anymore. I think the problem with talking about art is that art is so particular that you want to talk concretely and precisely. It's very hard to do that all the time. You've got to generalize sometimes but the process of working is a particular process. You're dealing with words, one word at a time, with all the circuits that are in your mind, with all the things that impinge on you. How do you put them together. All right, the word "arrangement"--hear the word "range" in that word--a field which I think we've been given as artists since the fifties in this country by men as diverse as Charles Olson and John Cage, from two sides. You might even think of them as the positive and negative, or make a figure like that. I'll be talking more about them.
But when I was thinking about giving this course I tried to think back to things that were important starts in my work as an artist. I've tried to go back as far as possible, and I've found a story that I read when I was in junior high school. I was a science fiction nut then, partly because of a kind of nervous boredom that prevailed then, and I don't think I was learning anything about scholastic material. I read thousands of science fiction books, one after the other, huge shelves of them, anything: Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, all those people. So anyway, there was this story, and I'll just read you a few paragraphs of it because I think this is one of the things that really started me off, even though it was years before I ever wrote anything.
This story's called Mimsy Were the Borogroves by Lewis Padgett, who also went by the name of Henry Kuttner. In the story, in the beginning, a little boy named Scott, who's ten years old, is playing down by a creek and finds these strange objects, and these objects are toys, they're instructional toys that came from another planet in the future. He doesn't know that, but he takes them home and he and his sister Emma, who's about five years old, start playing with them, and these toys start working on their minds and changing them from human beings into . . . what? So I'll just read you part of the last three pages of this.
Scott kept bringing gadgets to Emma for her approval. Usually she'd shake her head. Sometimes she would signify agreement. Then there would be an hour of laborious, crazy scribbling on scraps of note paper, and Scott, after studying the notations, would arrange and rearrange his rocks, bits of machinery, candle ends, and assorted junk. Each day the maid cleaned them away, and each day Scott began again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
An hour later a clatter of feet upstairs roused him from his doze. Scott's voice was crying exultantly, "This is it, Slug! Come on!" [Slug was a name for his sister.]
Now to me, that's a very stiff shot at something that still involves me in ways I never could have understood then, because I wasn't writing. But actually I'd started as a musician. I started playing the drums when I was in the third grade grammar school band and went on through to play in symphony-type situations and bebop drums and rock-and-roll in David Meltzer's Serpent Power band in San Francisco, in 1967. So anyway, I must have had some sense of arrangement in terms of music, but not yet in writing. And that story now comes back to me with all the feelings of great discovery and mystery and desire to do something with this [picks up niece of chalk, a book, etc.] . . . and this . . . and this. Where do I put it? What happens when I put it there? What does it do to this? How close is it? Does it repel me? Does it repel you? How much does it weigh down the table? Can I look through it? What do I see when I look through it, and another whole vector of stuff coming in visually? Anyway, it took years to begin to articulate that in a form of art.
I should also say that when I was very young, about six years old, my parents took me to a natural history museum in Boston, which is no longer there. But it was a marvelous place, great big old red brownstone building with dark rooms. I see them as if they were covered with black velvet inside, and with beautiful glass cases with buttons that you push and lights come on and wonderful objects inside. Imagine, six years old, and there it is--minerals! Crystals, quartz, calcite, agates, opals--things; I didn't know what they were. Push the button, see this arrangement. And the minerals themselves as an arrangement of molecules, the axes of a crystal. They are distinct substances, and they have powers. I'm reminded of--probably some of you have read Castaneda--the business about finding your spot. Where is it? Where is the spot where your power can most come out of you, be of most use? I think the problem is, though, that there is not a spot. There are spots. More than one. I don't want to use the word form here, I want to use the word forms. The word is plural, always plural. You never have just one. In fact, sometimes there is a desire to have one, but unh-unh, something always comes. But thank God it does.
So I began to look at minerals and I began to collect them, and I remember my folks bought me one of those little boxes with the cardboard dividers and little specimens. Little dollar tiny box, calcite crystal, put it on a page and see how the words doubled. Okay, I took that home and I began to go out and find rocks, began to bug my parents to take me out on Saturday to quarries and my father didn't want to go; he wanted to stay home and listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast, and I had to go out to some quarry and pick up rocks. I began to learn the names. And not just the names but where they came from, what they were made of. You understand, I had no desire to do anything with this to be professional. Later I did, but at this point it was just pure fascination. What are those things?
In fact, I remember a funny incident in Providence, Rhode Island, where Brown University is. Because my father was professor of music there, I got to know the chairman of the geology department. He used to let me go and open the drawers and look at all the minerals. And I remember being in there one day and there were these guys and they were all working with Bunsen burners and blowpipes and everything and they were smashing rocks with hammers and they were taking a test, an exam. I was in junior high school and they were in sophomore year or something, and one of them saw me looking through the drawers and he said, "Hey, come here, what is this?" "Sure," I said, "that's an apatite crystal from Ontario." He said, "Thank you," and he wrote it down. So I got chastised of course: "Don't do that, this is a serious test." But I remember it struck me that they were going through all these procedures, these rules they were taught; that you burn the thing and you get the bead of it, you put it in a solution, it turns a certain color, you write something down, there's mathematics, and then you find out. I didn't have to do that. I picked the thing up, I looked at it, I held it in my hand, maybe I sniffed it, maybe I licked it, and I knew what it was and I knew where it was from, just purely from looking and touching and having them. This was the way I learned this. Now, alright, this gave me trouble with education.
That's another reason I feel strange here, because I hated school and in fact I had two years of a major in geology. I got to the point where I thought maybe I would become a geologist but when I found out what geologists do, it wasn't what I had imagined. I had a very romantic image, I guess. I thought I would be standing in the Gobi Desert with a pick, finding dinosaur eggs or something, like Roy Chapman Andrews. And, no, that's not what it is, you know. I mean, when I did this, I hit the school and majored in geology just at the time when, in the late fifties, geology was changing from being a descriptive science to a real high-toned mathematical, geophysical, super-laboratory stress-and-strain type science. Anybody who looked at rocks and collected minerals and got something out of that . . . Forget it. I'd get in the laboratory, look through the microscope, "Yeah, sure." Slide rule.
And these guys were so dull. I remember this one guy, he was an expert on foraminifera, tiny little--they call them forams, maybe some of you know them. Tiny shelled creatures that lived in early Paleozoic time. He went down to the basement all the time and he took these rocks and he smashed them up with a hammer and took these tiny things out and put them in trays, classifying them. That's all he did. He didn't read the newspapers or anything. He wore gum shoes that made a funny sticking sound when he walked by. It was really terrible. So I was disabused of any notion of being one of these people. I mean, I'm not trying to indict . . . I've met geologists since that were pretty hip people, but gee, the line of them didn't look that way then. I saw some of their wives too. A Geology Wife. . . that's . . . that was actually a term we used to use. Anyway, I'm far afield but maybe not.
So, the minerals. Very early I saw reproductions of the works of Yves Tanguy, who you may know is one of the surrealist painters who came to this country during the war and lived in Connecticut, and who painted landscapes where the horizon is maybe not there. You can't quite tell. In seems to be a slanting plane. It may be on the water, in may be the desert, but anyway, there are these forms. Are they mineral, are they animal, are they about to move or are they frozen there since before time? Fantastic. They're placed. There's an arrangement. I saw these and I felt what I would call now a recognition. Isn't it Duncan who talks about recognition? When you see something you've never seen before and you know that it's going to be of use to you and part of you; you recognize it. There's something in you that is ready for that, that is circuited or whatever, that is connected correctly so that you glom onto that thing right away. I did that with Tanguy, before I really knew anything about painting or aesthetics.
In fact, Tanguy--this is a little bit of a digression, but one of his juvenile paintings, which is reproduced in the Museum of Modern Art catalogue for his first show there, shows an ocean liner. It's a kid's painting. It's primitive. It's too long, it has endless rows of little windows. Like, I was in first grade during the Second World War and we used a lot of red crayon. We had the Jap Zeros being shot down and the submarines, and the pictures were all filled up with red. You liked to draw big fighting ships and put in millions of windows. You get totally involved in that, you forgot what it was all about, what was the story? So, anyway, Tanguy had this painting of this ship which seemed to be stretched incredibly out. Now, I did recognize this because I had recurrent dreams that were exactly that image. In fact, it would go from a concrete image of that to a strange, sucking kind of force-field thing, which can't exist in this state. It's been described to me as possibly intra-uterine dreams. In other words, dreams of being in the womb. I don't know whether I accept that, but think about it. So Tanguy was a great influence.
And then, to continue the painting, in the fifties I saw reproductions of Philip Guston's paintings that he painted in the early fifties. Do any of you know Philip Guston's work at all? His paintings in the fifties were grey fields with many red or pinkish marks tending to be clustered. In fact, they remind me a bit of Mondrian's "Plus and Minus" or "Sea" pictures; in fact, these influenced Guston. These marks would tend to cluster and center, off-balance, and he would repaint. He would take them out, paint them over with grey or white, and the grey would get mixed up with the pink and so on. Well, later I met Philip Guston and he's become a good friend. And incidentally, he's one of the best readers I have of my own work. He is a great reader and I think a painter who is a reader is a terrific reader of writing. He does not have the preconceptions that writing must be "this, that, or the other." He looks at it as fresh. Here's a quote from Philip Guston talking about those paintings:
It cannot be a settled, fixed image. It must of necessity be an image which is unsettled, which has not only not made up its mind where to be but must feel as if it's been in many places all over this canvas, and indeed there's no place for it to settle--except momentarily.
The thing has either just moved or is about to move, that's the sensation you get. I'll probably talk about him again. He's on my mind a lot.
Now music. Notes, frequencies, vibrations, positions on a scale. Arrangements of notes. Charlie Parker playing different intervals from a chord, what have become known as more outer intervals than those that were played before. Thinking of musical space as an arrangement of frequencies, of course, in time. And Schoenberg, on the other side, written music, realizing than there were twelve tones that could be used as an organizing principle instead of tonally-centered seven-note scales. And then there's John Cage and Charles Olson. I think I was aware of John Cage earlier. I know that a Merce Cunningham performance in Providence in the early sixties was a tremendous experience for me, and John was there, and David Tudor, and Robert Rauschenberg was traveling with them and making up the decor of the dances from pieces of stuff that were right there, wherever they went. They went on a tour of colleges. I'll never forget John Cage's music for one of the dances. There was a hall with an aisle down the center and two aisles down the sides with that rubber, those rubber strips that are serrated. You know, you've seen them. He took a window-stick that he found there and placed the metal tip in touch with the serrated rubber and walked very slowly backward, not crashing into things, down the main aisle making a sound, very softly, you could hardly hear it, and around the back of the room and then down the other aisle and across the front. This took maybe twenty minutes, and that was the music. Invention. And awareness of what was there in the environment that he could use, and a pattern that was already laid out that he could follow. Anyway, that impressed me a great deal.
Merce Cunningham's dances themselves, in fact he had a dance called Field Dances, which pretty much described what he did. I don't know if you know his work, but one of the things he did was detach body movement from story framework so that what you see is the gestures and movements, the possibilities of the body, arranged, in arrangement. I can see that word is not going to last very long.
Jumping back a little bit, I became a cave explorer, and that sort of came out of my interest in minerals. My folks took me to Luray Caverns in Virginia when I was about ten years old. Well, it's a beautiful cave full of orange and red stalactites, totally covered with these beautiful and weird formations. And incidentally, in a later class I'll be playing a tape of a very strange musical instrument that they have there, which they call "The Stalacpipe Organ." What they've done is they've tapped, sounded, all the stalactites on the ceiling of this one big room and placed little electric hammers next to them that are attached to a keyboard. In fact, they've even cheated a little bit. They've filed off a little bit of the calcite to tune the note a little better, which I'm not so sure about. So they have this organ console and they play things like "Shenandoah," and I'll be playing you a rendition of "Beautiful Dreamer," which is actually very beautiful.
Anyway, the caves. I got very involved, to the point of joining the National Speleological Society, which is a group that keeps news between cavers moving, and exchange of maps and equipment and so on. And when I was in high school I got very involved with caves in Tennessee and Virginia; I used to go down there in the summertime. And some of these caves had thirty or forty miles of passageways. You would go in and crawl and climb and use ropes and go down shafts that were wet and were muddy and follow where it went. In a cave you can't tell where you're going and it's totally dark, except you have a flashlight if you've provided for yourself properly, and a carbide lamp which burns acetylene and is actually better than a flashlight, brighter. The rock has been cut by water, which has followed the line of least resistance, of softest rock. Layers of water have sunk down. There are levels. You're following the result of a natural process. You go where it goes. I think that connects with arrangement in a way.
From that, I think about the arrangement of the actual world. This stuff. You know, not microscopic, not atomic. That's another arrangement, which scientists seem to make symmetrical and even. I'm not so sure if it is, but they say so. Although I love some of the names that they use for things: "charms" is one of the new particles which is within the electron now. The smaller they get, the more particles there are. But the actual world is what I think we deal with as artists, or as anybody. Now what I mean by "the actual world" is that you look out your window and you see trees, and leaves on the trees, and birds. Now, where are they? What kind of pattern do they make? What sort of arrangement? There seems to be no intelligence behind it but there is an arrangement. There are places in space being occupied and moving. In fact, I was recently looking out the window at some birds and I imagined that space was a fabric and that each bird was attached to a place on that fabric, and they were all in motion, all the birds, but they never let the fabric in between them go slack, if you can imagine. Anyway, that's the actual world.
So, geology. I'm reminded of a story. I was once in Cambridge with Aram Saroyan who some of you may know of, who at that time was writing one-word poems. He would sit and smoke some dope and type one word and sit and look at it for hours and take it out and type it again. Originally they were words like "oxygen" and then one day the word "leukemia" appeared . . . Anyway, I left for California at that point and got involved with rock-and-roll. But I was sitting there with Aram, and Robert Creeley, the poet, was visiting. Aram is a person who has to exactly know and exactly state, "I know you," this sort of thing. He looked at me and said, "I know what your work is. I know exactly what your're doing." I said "Huh?," and he said, "It's a big cliff of rock. That's what it is." And I thought and I said, "Yeah," and Creeley sort of looked at us. And later I thought about it and I thought that it was a tremendous misconception because what he thought of it as, is that you look at the rock as just one thing. It's a cliff, okay? You go do something else. The way I look at it, because I've had geological interests and some training, is that geologists read the rocks. They can read the layers by the fossils in them and what ages and what came first and sometimes there are very complicated arrangements of strata and faults and things, and they can read what came first even though it's all messed up. So when Aram said "Your works are like cliffs of rock," I thought, yeah, that's right. They have that particular solid separate arrangement aspect and I read them, and I want people to read them. And he was saying that you don't have to read them, just look at them. So we agreed, but we were totally wrong, which is an artistic problem too. I have a quotation from Heraclitus here:
The most beautiful world is like a heap of rubble tossed down in confusion.
Has anyone seem Jean-Luc Godard's films? Have you seen La Chinoise? There's an exchange in there that hits me particularly. It's between a boy and a girl: "Guillaume," played by Jean-Pierre Leaud; and "Veronique," played by Annie Wiazemski.
Guillaume says: People ought to be blind.
Now don't hear that "sounds and matter" as any simplification or abstraction: sounds and matter: emotions, feelings, desires, densities, substance, arrangement. Everything is there.
Ah, I forgot something. Along the way from the Mimsy Were the Borogroves story (this connects with it), I began to read H.P. Lovecraft. Does anybody know of him? Yeah, okay, he's become popular recently. But I only knew about him then because I lived in Providence, and he was born and lived in Providence all his life. I knew the houses where he lived and the streets he walked, some of which were the same streets which Poe walked, and he knew it. Anyway, he wrote things like this. He's one of the interesting bad writers. He was influenced by writers like Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, and Poe. He often has a flowery, sort of stupid, style. But he has some notions about things in his imagination. Listen to part of his story The Call of Cthalhu.
There had been eons when other Things ruled on the earth, and They had had great cities. Remains of Them were still to be found as Cyclopean stones on islands in the Pacific. They all died vast epochs of time before man came, but there were arts which could revive Them when the stars had come round again to the right positions in the cycle of eternity. These Great Old Ones were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape, but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.
Now the phrase, "The stars were right" snuck in. I think you can see the connection with arrangement and Lewis Padgett's story. "When the stars were right," Arrangement, but what arrangement? Some more Lovecraft, this time from The Lurker at the Threshold.
Of all this, only the slightest memory, because of what I saw framed in that opening where I had expected to see but stars, and the charnel, nauseating smell that poured in from Outside--not stars, but suns, great globes of light massing toward the opening, and not alone these, but the breaking apart of the nearest globes, and the protoplasmic flesh that flowed blackly outward to join together and form that eldritch [that's a word he loves], hideous horror from outer space, that spawn of the blankness of primal time, that tentacled amorphous monster which was the lurker at the threshold, whose mask was as a congeries [know what a congeries is? An arrangement of -- a circular arrangement of separate things] of iridescent globes, the noxious Yog-Sothoth, who froths as primal slime in nuclear chaos forever beyond the nethermost outposts of space and time!
Okay, I'm a kid--you know--I still love that. These things breaking apart and coming together, coming across time and space from another dimension. This is at the end of a story where somebody has unlocked these keys and guards which block these things from coming back, and they're beginning to flow through the opening. He sees them as these separate things which join together and become tentacles. Okay, enough of him.
Michael McClure, in his long poem Rare Angel, has these lines completely out of context. But hear how I hear them, given my interest:
and study the positioning
Louis Zukofsky, who I'll be talking about more, quoting from Spinoza:
The more an image is associated with many other things, the more often it flourishes . . the more causes there are by which it can be excited.
And Thoreau, writing in his Journals:
Perhaps I can never find so good a setting for my thoughts as I shall thus have taken them out of. The crystal never sparkles more brightly than in the cavern.
James Joyce, in a letter:
The elements needed will fuse only after a prolonged existence together.
I've had that experience myself, and I think many or all writers have. Write a work and you work on it a long time and it seems to be finished, but there's something wrong. You like it well enough so you don't throw it away, and months later you read it and it's all there. It's right, it's congealed, it's a whole. All those diverse elements have come together correctly. In other words, they give you something to think about.
Edgar Allan Poe, from The Fall of the House of Usher:
The conditions of the sentience [I think that's the correct word, though in my edition it said "sentence" which is somehow more appropriate] had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones [he's talking about the house, which is about to fall] --in the order of their arrangement, as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around--above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn.
And Samuel Beckett said:
It's perhaps all a question of hitting on the right aggregate.
Incidentally, I forgot than I meant to preface this whole talk with two quotes. Samuel Beckett was interviewed, believe it or not, in 1961. I don't know if you know much about him, but he's an extremely private man. He wouldn't be doing this. Never. He lives in a very unlisted condition somewhere outside of Paris. But some graduate student from Columbia or New York University tracked him down and grabbed him in a cafe and shoved a tape recorder in front of him, and got him for a minute and he asked him, "Well, what does the artist do now? What's the next thing?" And Beckett said, "To find a form that accommodates the mess, than is the task of the artist now." The mess. The mess. And we're in a mess now. Look at--we're packed in here, for one thing. I mean, we have fifteen kinds of electric toothbrushes. TV versions of things. I'd like to say that, in conjunction with my saying that, maybe things are going to go by a little fast and that there may be a lot of things in this, that's what you have to deal with. Somehow you have to do that. You have to pick up on it, use it, avoid it, do something with it.
And the other quote to book end this whole thing was from Morton Feldman, who's a composer who was a part of John Cage's group, a friend and influence and influenced by and so on. Feldman said, "What was great about the fifties. . ." And the fifties is a period when I feel I began to wake up about art. I'm a product of the fifties. Larry Fagin, who's a little older, and I have had a lot of talks about this particularly. What were the conditions of the fifties, as opposed to the sixties when there was a tremendous change. I mean the mess really got going in the sixties. That's where the mess took wing, it seems to me. In the fifties if you were "out of it" in high school, you went and got a Dave Brubeck record or something and you took it home and it was yours and you listened to it. Maybe you knew one person you could talk to about it. You discovered it. You actually discovered it and made it part of you. "What was great about the fifties is that for one brief moment--maybe, say, six weeks--nobody understood art." Nobody. That's why in all happened. I mean, he's talking about the abstract expressionists and John Cage and the whole . . . "Because for a short while, these people were left alone. Six weeks is all it takes to get started."
I've talked to Philip Guston about this very thing, and he was there and he was part of that, and he says that the issue in the forties was not "what kind of art no make." I mean, these guys had seen Cubism and Surrealism and Chirico and Picasso and the Social Realists in this country in the thirties. It wasn't like which one to choose or how to make something out of that. It was whether you could paint at all. Whether art was possible at all. Start from scratch. No kidding. I mean, up against it. So, those two quotes. This is why I like to book end this with them. Because one of them, the Beckett, is a "mess." It's everything, it's "let's have everything," it's "let's grab part of everything." The other one is "nothing." Ignorance. Nobody understood art. What do you do? Okay, those guys started to put paint on again. Make a mark on the canvas and see what that did to the space and see what would come next. In fact, one of the things Guston likes to talk about most is cave art: the first painters, who are incredible if you look at their work. I'm not sure that anyone is more sophisticated. The mark, the first mark. Of course Guston talks about it like Mallarme's statement, "being a civilized first man." In other words, you're in the cave and you've got your stick, but you know all about art, you've been to the Louvre. You're both of those. That's the way he thinks of his condition as an artist now, and it has to do with the Mess. We know everything. I mean, not always "know" in the sense of "understand" everything, but we're exposed to too much of everything.
I also want to say that there are no rules. At least not at first there aren't. If you start with rules, you've really got a tough road. What I think is that you start with materials. You start with matter, not with rules. The rules appear, the limitations appear, and those are your limitations and the limitations of the material. Stone has a certain cleavage. You can't make it look a certain way if the stone is not constructed to allow you to do that.
So. Gertrude Stein. I remember my father bringing home a book, when I was about ten or twelve years old, from the library: Blood On The Dining Room Floor. I don't know if anyone knows it, but in was like a murder mystery in a way. I looked at it and it was full of these sing-songy, simple, repetitive-but-not-quite things. And I didn't know who the hell she was but I guess my father told me that this was an adult book and was for real people. And he said, look at this thing. So when I did get to read Stein I already knew; there she was. This is part of her Stanzas In Meditation:
Next to next to and does. ["Next to next to," get that. "Next to" and "next to," two states. And "does": active, period.]
It's broken after the "know." "If after all they know that I say so," if you want. The hinge is between those two. Okay, join. Things in arrangement join. And let's see what time it is, speaking of arrangements.
I wanted to end up this part of my presentation with a very dangerous thing to do, for me. I'm going to try to talk about a whole poem. To explicate a poem seems to me to be nearly impossible, but I've seen in done once by John Ashbery in an incredible way. I'll tell you about it, but I don't presume to be able to do it. We'll see. He was on a panel discussion at Columbia in the mid-sixties and they had mimeographed copies of his poem Landscape, which is in The Tennis Court Oath and has incredible lines in it like "the bartender examined the lumps" and "the ladder failed" and things like that. And somebody said--everybody in the audience had a mimeographed copy of this--"Well, what does this mean?" So he took each line and he erected another line from it. In talking about it he created in the air a parallel poem, which was just as fantastic--in my memory of it an least, of the time--as the original poem. But it was a different poem, and he was giving people an example of the artist making up the work right there. I still can't believe it. But he did it, I'm here to tell you.
Now I will proceed not to do than. No chalk. I wish I could play the piano for you. [writes on blackboard:]
This is a poem from a group of poems I wrote in 1966, when I was living in Cambridge in the same house with Aram Saroyan, and he was writing these one-word poems, dividing everything down to the smallest possible thing, as I was talking about, and I immediately wanted to put them together. I couldn't stand the idea of one word. I don't think there is one word. So this is one of those poems. I did maybe twenty or thirty of these. I suppose they're about as unadulterated, pure, if you will, as anything I ever did. I was really trying to work with the words, look at the words, try to use all their qualities. There's no question of meaning, in the sense of explaining and understanding this poem. Hopefully, it's a unique object, not just an object. Language isn't just objects, it moves. I'll try to talk about some of the qualities of these words that I was aware of when I was writing it, as best I can. It was eleven years ago.
"ounce code orange": ways of measuring, in a sense. Weight, a symbol system, a color. "a/the": the indefinite article, the definite article. "ohm" is the unit of electrical resistance, a quality of metal, let's say, that requires a certain amount of juice to go through. In other words, this is a fuzzy, resistant word. In hangs down here, it affects particularly this space. I wanted these things hanging in the middle because they could adhere to words in either the top line or the bottom line. "the ounce," "a/the code," "the orange." You can't say "a ounce" or "a orange," practically. You can say "a code." So there are those vectors going there. "trilobites": you know what a trilobite is, it's an early animal of the Paleozoic Age that was a crustacean divided into three lobes. As a word, to me it's completely irreducible. What are you going to with it? "A trilobite": it's like a clinker. Angular, uneven, heavy word. So, I made a plural, and I also say, "trilobite trilobites." That second trilobite becomes a verb. And I feel, as Fenollosa pointed out, that every noun is a verb, and vice versa, and there really are a hell of a lot of them in the English language which don't connect except in being the same word, like the word "saw." "I saw the saw." What sense does that make? Wonderful to work with, though. I also found out later that "ounce" is the name for a kind of leopard. I don't know if anybody knows that. I think it's Indian, or Tibetan. It's a cat called an ounce. So, you think of "pounce." There are these words that begin to adhere and appear like ghosts around these things. Ounce, pounce, bounce. "Code"--I don't know, that's beginning to seem a little neutral to me. "Orange": the color and the round thing, the fruit. Now that I've said that, the word "ounce" begins to seem round to me. "A trilobite," "the trilobites." That's how that goes. And this is the dead spot of the poem, the resistance: "ohm." And it's also almost like the "Om," the balance.
ALLEN GINSBERG: What was the "ounce code orange" there?
CLARK COOLIDGE: What was it? It's like "Ice Station Zebra": "Ounce Code Orange." This just came to me. "Secret Agent X-l." "Ounce Code Orange." Code Orange, the Second World War.
A.G.: An "ounce"?
C.C.: An "ounce code," a weight. I don't want it to be "pounds and ounces." I want it to be some other connection.
A.G.: When did you write that poem?
C.C.: 1966. I can only think of about twenty of those that interested me, that really did interest me. You really can't stay there, and I feel that language moves a great deal more than that.
QUESTION: Did you have any reason for writing it or did the words just come out?
C.C.: I had a reason for getting to the place where I started no write that kind of thing, which I was trying to explain in being influenced by Saroyan putting his one word. He put so much pressure on one word, is what it was. He insisted that that word was the poem. You could talk about art being insistent emphasis. The words really came to me very strongly, as strong things. And I began to think: but I want to put them together with that kind of intensity. I want to see what happens. Also, another thing I was interested in, at the time, was making a poem of words than don't go together in some ways, that have a resistance, that they don't go. Than kind of energy. As that word "ohm" has to do, in a way, with electrical resistance.
LARRY FAGIN: In fact, the one-word poems have all the pressure because of the lack of relationship with anything else, any other words, or the relationship with no words being there, which created that pressure that's like a vacuum on the one word. If Aram took the word "ounce" and just put it there, all the pressure would be on the "ounce," and this is exactly the opposite, which is about the pressure between the elements. If you had only one element . . .
C.C: I want these things to affect each other.
L.F.: That's a different kind of arrangement.
C.C.: Yeah. His poems seemed to be under a bell jar with all the air removed.
Q: Did you pick "ounce" because that was a particularly small unit?
C.C.: No. Just the word; the sound and whatever ramifications of meaning it had at that time, which as I say, I can't really recreate now, entirely. I have to think them again. This is what you have to do with old poems, you have to see them again.
A.G.: A two-part questiom. What were you doing just before and what did you move to after? And was there any influences from Ashbery's Europe at that time?
C.C.: The year before these poems, I was very influenced by Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath, which came out in the early sixties. Europe was absolutely the poem that turned me on and mystified me. I found out later what he did. He took a book called Beryl of the Byplane that he found in Paris and used that for phrases right out of the book, so there was a sort of narrative ghost to that poem inside the structure. I didn't see that at all. All I saw were these constellations of words. In fact, some of them really are just that. Does anyone have the book? Here, section twenty-six is simply: "water," way over here. Next line "thinking," and under "thinking," "a," the small letter "a." I thought, wow, he's doing something with almost nothing! A fantastic opportunity to try. Not that it's easier. It isn't easier. I don't even knowwhat that poem I wrote [on the blackboard] is, frankly, now. It's too late. I put in up there because it mixes in with the talk about arrangement. You can see clearly the separations of those words and that is an arrangement. That's why I put it up, not to justify that as a poem. It was part of my process at the time. I'm glad Allen asked me what I did after this. Before this, I wrote a lot of poems made somewhat like the other poems in this book [The Tennis Court Oath].
A.G.: What's the structure or arrangement of those? I'm not familiar with this field of poetry.
C.C.: Somewhat surrealist. Using American--I always think of Ashbery as a suburban American--tone and diction, which I could identify with closely. I always thought he was influenced by painting, although Ashbery himself said that he really wasn't. So that's either him denying what's true, or I'm wrong. Of course Ashbery did spend a lot of time writing art criticism around the time of this. I believe these poems were written in Paris when he was writing daily reviews of art shows. What he says about it is that it was the discipline of having to write on something on the typewriter every day that most influenced him, not the fact that it was on paintings. I can't believe this. I mean, look at these.
Q: I can see the logic in your poem. You can start out with "trilobite trilobites" and think of "trilobite" used as a verb like "fossil," then picture the fossil of a trilobite to be like the sections of an orange, flattened out, threaded. Then, if you use your "ohm" as in fabrics of electricity, all right? And then you picture an orange opening up into packets like ounces, and also words. The words "orange" and "ounce": the e-endings, the o's, and the configurations and symbols of the words, the actual hieroglyphic symbols and iconography of the words. And then I picture this impact of webs and laces of particles. You know how an orange section has many little sections like a trilobite? So it has logic.
C.C.: Sure, yeah, I'm glad you see the interlacing. Next?
Q: You've sort of explained the arrangement and graphed out how the words are inter-reacting together and how they stand alone. While you were writing it, was there any preconceived idea of what you were going to do or was it completely spontaneous?
C.C.: I didn't know what words were going to come. I remember that I wrote that quite quickly except that there were some other words later, which I erased, that I realized were not part of this constellation. I felt myself about to use the word "energy." Anyway, I erased those words and it was quick. The whole time it takes to talk about it here is so much longer than the time it took to do it.
L.F.: Would you cast this poem in terms of bebop?
C.C.: No. It's not a bebop poem. There's no way this has the. . .
A.G.: Is that an abstract expressionist poem?
C.C.: Sure. It was influenced by some of those guys. Guston and DeKooning and. . .
A.G.: In terms of placing one brush stroke after another, it seems like pasting words up in a way.
C.C.: In a way, except that I typed them right out. I didn't use any cut-up, although I had done cut-ups before this. From reading Burroughs in 1963, 1964.
L.F.: What about finding pockets of this kind of thing in people like Whalen's poetry? I mean, literal little constellations within poetry which have a syntax that's recognizable.
C.C.: I'm bound to leave out fifteen or twenty people who had an effect on these kinds of things. These poems, as I feel now, form a pocket in my own poetry. They're very strange, because I have a feeling that language inevitably moves and changes, probably from the influence of being a musician. That seems like a very sad thing now. I can't even read it. Visually, I thought I had a thing to talk about.
Q: When you were studying geology, did you study any higher mathematics like non-linear algebra and trigonometry?
C.C.: No. I was terrible in mathematics in high school.
Q: That seems to me to be a crazy matrix that has no equation kind of meaning like "put it together like a sentence and it's going to mean that." It's just like an over-all abstract message, like an alchemical key.
C.C.: Yeah, maybe. Except, what's it a key to?
Q: I don't know.
C.C.: An attempt to be a key maybe. No, I have no mathematical competence whatsoever.
Q: Have you ever made psychological. . . Remember you talked about the vision of what you called an intrauterine type of enveloping? Have you ever linked that with your love of caves?
C.C.: In my high school yearbook, a friend of mine wrote, "to Clark who loves to go in caves" and something about Freud. Well, what can you do with that? I mean, sure, but. . .
Q: But remember that you said at first; that it was a force in another dimension, which I can get to. You said your friend said it was intrauterine, but you said that you felt that it was a force in another dimension.
C.C.: It was stretching. You're talking about the ship?
Q: It was the ship you said you couldn't describe in this dimension.
C.C.: Yeah, because the closest I can come to it is something that's simultaneously a slot in a substance and a wire right out in the middle of space. You know what I mean? It's both things at once, and it pulls and tugs, and it goes this way and you're caught in it. It's horrible, it's a nightmare. This was a recurrent nightmare. So when I was six or seven I'd wake up screaming.
Q: Were you afraid of caves at first?
C.C.: No. I'm more afraid of caves now than I was then, because I haven't done it regularly in a long time and I find that it's a particular activity in using those muscles and your mind in a particular direction. And if you lay off for a while, then you begin to be afraid, and you do begin to think that all this rock is going to come down on you, which it's not, it's paranoia. You have to keep doing it. It's like playing an instrument. You get rust. Fear is like being rusty.
Q: I can't really see a connection in meanings in the terms, and I think that in that way you succeeded in what you said you were trying to do; break out of a meaning net. But I can see something very much in the sound. For one thing, it sounds like you could almost play this on the drums. And secondly, just about all the words except the two articles ring some change on the sound "o." It's very constant.
C.C.: Yeah. So obvious I didn't even mention it. Well, "trilobite trilobites": it sounds like a rudiment, a paradiddle or something you have to practice. That's what I don't like. It's not [hums a bop rhythm]. You know, it's not as shapely, which I've tried to do more of since.
Q: Is there any way of understanding the shape that comes out?
C.C.: You mean the way the words are arranged? Only to make spaces in which those things in the center can attach to one side or the other. There's no significance to the fact that it looks like a "Z."
Q: You seemed to mention that they were coming out spontaneously and supposedly just random words. How do you know the fact that there is some connection? How does one word somehow reach another?
C.C.: I hope you didn't understand that I mean "random." I don't mean "random." I don't think that's possible. They're coming from a place where you are working in your mind. Does anyone know Anton Ehrenzweig's book, The Hidden Order of Art? He's got a term that's a ten-dollar word: "dedifferentiation." What it means is that a young child or an artist has a place in their mind where they can hold many many elements, many diverse elements, ready to be put into something they're making. I mean, many more than you're conscious of. I feel that apparatus--I didn't want to call it subconscious, let's make it a little more sharp--I think that goes on, and that there is a selection process. That, rather than random. In isn't like "give me another one. I'll use it."
Ashbery, John, The Tennis Court Oath (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962).
Beckett, Samuel, "Text for Nothing/8," Stories and Texts for Nothing (New York: Grove Press, 1967) p. 114.
Coolidge, Clark, Space. (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 68. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.
Driver, Tom, "Becket by the Madeleine," Columbia University Forum, IV, Summer, 1961), p. 23.
Ehrenzweig, Anton, The Hidden Order of Art (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967).
Feldman, Morton, "Give My Regards to Eighth Street," Art in America, March-April 1971, p. 99.
Godard, Jean-Luc, "La Chinoise," Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Jean Collet, (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1970) , p. 145.
Guston, Philip, "Philip Guston's Object--A Dialogue With Harold Rosenberg," Philip Guston-- Recent Paintings and Drawings (New York: The Jewish Museum Catalogue, 1965).
Heraclitus, "Fragment 124," from Robert Smithson, "A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects," Art Forum (Sept., 1968).
Joyce, James, Letters (New York: Viking Press, 1957).
Lovecraft, H.P., "The Call of Cthulhu," The Dunwich Horror and Others (Sauk City, Wisc.: Arkham House, 1963) , pp. 144-145.
---, and Derleth, August, "The Lurker at the Threshold," The Watchers Out of Time and Others (Sauk City, Wisc.: Arkham House, 1974), p. 147.
McClure, Michael, Rare Angel (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1974) , p. 33. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.
Padgett, Lewis, "Mimsy Were the Borogroves," A Gnome There Was (And Other Tales of Science Fiction and Fantasy) (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), pp. 169-172.
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Thoeau, Henry David, Journals (New York: Dover Publications, 1962), vol. 3, p. 334.
Zukofsky, Louis, Bottom: On Shakespeare (Austin, Texas: The Ark Press, University of Texas Press, 1963) . Quoting Spinoza, Ethics, p. 29.