Showing posts with label Objectivism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Objectivism. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Photo by Abraham Ravett

Charles Reznikoff
reading Holocaust 1975

Get the CD

Photos from the session

Charles Bernstein’sReznikoff’s Voices”

Friday, October 01, 2010

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Allen Ginsberg & Basil Bunting, circa 1965

Basil Bunting reads Briggflatts

Monday, March 01, 2010

Immortal Cupboard: In Search of Lorine Niedecker
by Cathy Cook
will be shown in San Francisco
Friday, March 12
@ Artists’ Television Access
along with a talk by Jonathan Skinner




Monday, November 02, 2009

Char by Man Ray (1933)

I had an “aha moment” reading René Char’s The Brittle Age and Returning Upland,the two volumes of mid-sixties poetry translated by Gustaf Sobin & released this year by Counterpath Press in a design that winks at the New Directions volumes both authors had. Char’s an Objectivist. Well, not an Objectivist really, but he is someone who echoes some of the same concerns that show up in American poetry in the work of Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff et al, writers who were in fact his contemporaries. In this sense, Gustav Sobin, Char’s neighbor & protégé, whose own poetry has always struck me – as do the work of John Taggart &, in places at least, the late Ronald Johnson – as shaped heavily by Objectivism, seems the perfect person to have tackled this work.

This is not, I think, an instance of the translator turning his subject into a mirror of his own obsessions – the volume presents not only Char’s French originals, but, as an appendix, a number of variant translations by Sobin himself, apparently done in “an earlier period.” Nor is it out of any conscious parallel on Char’s part – he knew of American poetry, as it knew of him. The book’s rear cover quotes some lines by Williams directed to Char by name: René Char / you are a poet who believes / in the power of beauty / to right all wrongs. / I believe it also. While the poems of The Brittle Age (L’Âge Cassant) may look reminiscent of Stein’s Tender Buttons (& thus, by inference at least, Williams’ Kora in Hell: Improvisations), they’re nothing like them in tone or focus:

In fidelity we learn never to be consoled


No man, unless he be dead in living, can feel at anchor in this life.


How would the end justify the means? There is no end, only and forever the means, always more machinated.


However, these three poems could fit almost seamlessly into Of Being Numerous, George Oppen’s great poem of the same period. How is that possible? In what sense might these brief pieces conceivably capture the essence of Williams’ comment about beauty? If anything, the emotion of the first poem relies entirely on Char’s own obsessive commitment to fidelity in language, which is everywhere manifest in this volume.

It was Char, after all, who was Roland Barthes’ template of zero degree poetry in Writing Degree Zero, even if Barthes’ description sounds for all the world like early period Clark Coolidge. For Char does, like Zukofsky, like the best of Oppen, represent the turn toward language in the poem. Not in the aesthetic sense that one might think of, pointing to Baudelaire or Mallarmé or even Stein, but rather in the ethical one – where Char has a lot in common with Oppen, say, or with Ponge. Francis Ponge is the poet whom I’ve always thought of when I imagined a French equivalent for Objectivism. It is not simply his obsession with objects – “The Object is Poetics” the title of a key statement, intending very much both senses of that first noun – but the degree to which language & voice are intertwined in his thinking.

I don’t think of Ponge particularly when I think of Char, nor vice versa, but perhaps that’s a mistake on my part. Both were born within the same time frame as the Objectivists (dating from Reznikoff in ’94 through Oppen in ’08) – Ponge in ’99, Char in ’07. Both French poets died in 1988, four years after Oppen, a decade after Zukofsky.

All of these poets had their lives & careers disrupted by the Second World War. Char & Ponge were both active in the French Resistance. Oppen saw combat. In the U.S., the anti-communism & anti-semitism that led to the disappearance of most of the Objectivists from print & literary society between 1940 & 1962 prevented them from having the kind of international discovery of one another that one sees much more commonly today. It was, in fact, Cid Corman whose Origin first put both groups of poets together. But I don’t think I ever got the genius of Corman’s editing on this until I read Sobin’s translations.

As translations, they seem serviceable, but the appendix of variant translations – there are ten in all – tend to be more direct, more colloquial & more well constructed. Consider the opening lines of “Septentrion,” a word that is obsolete in English, refering to the North:

—Je me suis promenée au bord de la Folie.—

Aux questions de mon coeur,
S’il ne les posait point,
Ma compagne cédait,
Tant est inventive l’absence.

Here is the main translation from the body of the book:

—I walked along the edge of the Folie. —

To the unmentioned questions of my heart
My companion yielded,
So inventive is absence.

Here is the version from the appendix:

—I walked along the edge of the Folie. —

To the questions of my heart,
If none were forthcoming,
My companion yielded,
So inventive is absence.

I might have prefered “Which it failed to pose,” or even “Which I failed to pose” to “If none were forthcoming,” but there seems to me no way of avoiding the fact that Sobin’s earlier, rejected version is superior to the later “main” one. It better captures the cadence of Char’s logic that get irretrievably lost in inserting “unmentioned” into the first line of the second stanza. “Unmentioned” not only bloats the line, it’s a less exact rendering of Char’s original: unspoken would have been better.

This isn’t particularly a criticism of the book, however. Sobin has complete translations of the two volumes, and that’s what’s rendered here in the main body of the text. But he also has these other variations, some of which are considerably better than their counterparts in the completed project. One could have, I suppose, combined the two & only published the best versions. But this seems the much fuller view, showing Sobin approaching these poems not once, but twice. One wonders what cut short the earlier attempt. Either way, this is a wonderful book. Just be sure you read the appendix – some of the very best work is there.

Monday, April 07, 2008

I was somewhere in the vicinity of 20 to 22-years-old when, during an intermission at a marathon antiwar reading at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco where I was hovering, as was my wont, at the periphery of a crowd that surrounded Robert Duncan, who had just read, when Mark Linenthal, whom I knew from his role as the director of the San Francisco Poetry Center, approached with a granite-faced man and said to Duncan, “Robert, I want you to meet George Oppen.” I can recall also Oppen’s first words to Duncan, “I want to speak to you about your open vowels.” It was an event that seared itself into my memory because it violated one of the tenets of my imagination, that all famous writers already knew one another, must secretly hang out together, having fabulous gabfests, the “deep gossip” we associate with poetry. What I don’t recall – and this is the first of several regrets I have here – perhaps because I was so overwhelmed at the idea that I watching the meeting of Duncan & Oppen, was what Robert replied.

My second regret, unfortunately not an uncommon one for anyone who was a renter for decades, especially in an area like San Francisco or the East Bay, where one is forever having to balance space & the needs of one’s book collection, is that I no longer appear to possess one of my favorite volumes of that period, four decades ago, a copy of Oppen’s first book, Discrete Series, published not by Oppen himself, but a chapbook reprint done by Ron Caplan out of Cleveland. At a time when everyone I knew seemed to own copies of The Materials, This in Which, and Of Being Numerous, I was just about the only person I knew who owned a copy of that.

I’d acquired my copy of The Materials early on, I don’t know where, almost certainly at Cody’s or Moe’s in Berkeley or (far less likely) City Lights across the Bay. This in Which I’d appropriated, the old five-finger-discount, the first time I’d ever seen a copy, from the university bookstore at UWM, the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, in the summer of 1967. Rochelle Nameroff, my wife at the time, and I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Here was this old Objectivist, actually alive & writing again, producing great work. There are poems there, such as “Street,” as fine as anyone has written:

Ah these are the poor,
These are the poor –

Bergen Street.

Hardship . . .

Nor are they very good to each other;
It is not that. I want

An end of poverty
As much as anyone

For the sake of intelligence,
‘The conquest of existence’ –

It has been said, and is true –

And this is the real pain,
Moreover. It is terrible to see the children,

The righteous little girls;
So good, they expect to be so good . . .

Ellipses, as they say, in the original. There are small moments here that I don’t think I fully understood or appreciated as a young man, the doubleness created by “An end of poverty,” rather than the more standard preposition to. Or the reiteration in that last line, which at the time I might have read as sentiment rather than the certainty of horror. Or that most curious of words, Moreover, concluding the longest of this poem’s disjointed, half-broken sentences. This is a poem that works precisely in all the ways its syntax appears not to.

But the poems of Discrete Series, composed between 1929 & 1934, spoke to me then, as they do to me now, with a directness I find nowhere else in Oppen’s work. It’s not simply that they were the poems of someone in his early twenties, the same age I was when I came upon that volume at Serendipity Books in Berkeley.(It’s hard for me to imagine that when Oppen met Duncan back there at Glide Church, he was not yet 60, younger than I am today, or that Duncan, who was older than my parents, was not yet 50.) Rather, Discrete Series offers the poems of a modernist, an aesthetic in which action (including even political action) is possible. Consider, for example, how the gaps & omissions of the following untitled piece operate in contrast with “Street”:

Hides the

Parts – the prudery
Of Frigidaire, of
Soda-jerking –


Above the

Plane of lunch, of wives
Removes itself
(As soda-jerking from
the private act

Cracking eggs);


This poem operates like a tiny Moebius strip in that the dangling final noun-phrase big-Business is precisely that which “Hides the // Parts – the prudery / Of Frigidaire.” There is, in any consumer business, including one as simple as a lunch counter, a radical gap between that which is customer-facing & that which is not. This dissociation between public & private is paralleled by that alienation that transforms any “private act” into labor for pay. Thus if the gaps of “Street” stand for just how good those righteous little girls won’t be soon enough, and how and why, the vertigo of sheer terror, the unmarked ellipses of this earlier poem stand for processes no less brutal, but hardly inevitable. Only one of these exists in a world in which political action is even conceivable.

I will always be an advocate for the earliest Oppen. Far from the unrealized works of a beginning writer, they show us the poems of an optimist, someone who has not yet adjusted to the permanent defeat that was Stalinism. The later work, at least through Of Being Numerous, is no less luminous, but its relationship to the world is chastened, perhaps even depressed. This of course leads to my last regret – those twenty-five years between poems.

ж ж ж

A Celebration of
George Oppen’s 100th Birthday
100 minutes of talk & poetry

Hosted by Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Thomas Devaney
& featuring
Stephen Cope
, George Economou, Al Filreis,
Michael Heller, Ann Lauterbach, Tom Mandel,
Bob Perelman, & Ron Silliman

Today, April 7

6:00 PM, Arts Café, Kelly Writers House
Locust Walk
of Pennsylvania

Thursday, April 03, 2008

A Celebration of
George Oppen’s 100th Birthday
100 minutes of talk & poetry

Hosted by Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Thomas Devaney
& featuring
Stephen Cope
, George Economou, Al Filreis,
Michael Heller, Ann Lauterbach, Tom Mandel,
Bob Perelman, & Ron Silliman

Monday, April 7

6:00 PM, Arts Café, Kelly Writers House
Locust Walk
of Pennsylvania

George Oppen and his wife, Mary, sailed and hitchhiked from the West Coast to New York City in the 1920s. There, Oppen became a central member of the Objectivist Group of poets that flourished in the 1930s. George and Mary Oppen moved increasingly to the left during the Depression, becoming social activists and joining the Communist party in 1935. During this period Oppen's poems appeared in small journals such as Active Anthology, Poetry, and Hound and Horn, but he soon gave up writing for more than two decades. Oppen revived his poetic career when he returned to the United States in 1958. In 1962, New Directions published Oppen's second book of poetry, The Materials, which was followed by This in Which (1965). In 1969, Of Being Numerous (1968) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Oppen's Collected Poems (1975) includes all of his poetry from Discrete Series (1934) through his last work, Myth of the Blaze (1975). In the late 1960s, Oppen moved to San Francisco, where he lived until his death in 1984.

Poet and critic Stephen Cope is editor of George Oppen: Selected Prose Daybooks, and Papers (U. of California Press, 2008), and a founding editor of Essay Press. He has taught at universities in California, Iowa, and Ohio, and is on the faculty of Bard College's Language and Thinking program.

Thomas Devaney is the author A Series of Small Boxes (Fish Drum, 2007). He teaches in the Critical Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania, and is editing a feature section "Oppen at 100" for Jacket 38 (October 2008).

Rachel Blau DuPlessis has both written on George Oppen's work and edited his Selected Letters (Duke U.P., 1990). DuPlessis has published numerous books of poetry and literary criticism; her most recent critical book is Blue Studios: Poetry and its Cultural Work. She teaches in the English Department of Temple University.

George Economou's latest book is Acts of Love, Ancient Greek Poetry from Aphrodite's Garden (Modern Library/Random House). Books of Cavafy translations and the poems & fragments of Ananios Kleitor are forthcoming.

Al Filreis is Kelly Professor, Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, Faculty Director of the Kelly Writers House and author of four books, most recently Counter-revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry, 1945-60.

Michael Heller is a poet, essayist and critic. Forthcoming in 2008 are Eschaton, a new book of poems, Speaking the Estranged, a collection of his essays on George Oppen, and Marble Snows: Two Novellas.

Ann Lauterbach's most recent books are Hum and The Night Sky: Writings on the Poetics of Experience. She is Schwab Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College, where she also co-directs Writing in the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts.

Tom Mandel grew up in Chicago and was educated in its jazz and blues clubs and at the University of Chicago. He is the author of more than a dozen books including To the Cognoscenti (2007) and is one of the authors of The Grand Piano, an ongoing experiment in collective autobiography.

Bob Perelman has published numerous books of poetry, most recently Iflife. He teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ron Silliman's most recent book is The Age of Huts (compleat) and several volumes of the collectively written Grand Piano project. In 2008, the University of Alabama Press will publish The Alphabet.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I make use of a lot of bots, automated web tools and searches that bring me things in which I might be interested. For example, a good percentage of the various overseas web stories about poetry I sometimes link to here come from a daily search of all news items tracked by Google. Once you peel off the clichéd pieces that seem to pockmark the world’s media – Local Author’s Work Accepted for New Anthology (almost invariably one of the vanity press publications that Gary Sullivan was targeting when he first invented flarf) – and the usual gaggle of book reviews (it is startling just how few newspapers bother to get decent writers for their reviews of poetry), a significant portion of what remains will give you a perspective on the world of poetry you might not otherwise come up with on your own.

Likewise I have standing “keyword” searches on eBay & elsewhere for work by writers & musicians in whom I have an interest. It was in that connection a couple of weeks back that I came across a Louis Zukofsky item that I had never before seen firsthand, and at a price that was notably lower than any of the copies listed as available on The item, Zukofsky’s Found Objects, is a chapbook issued in 1962 by H.B. Chapin as Blue Grass no. 3  from Georgetown, Kentucky.

The subtitle of the book, 1962-1926, offers a sense of its organization, reverse chronological order, something I think I’ve seen elsewhere only in Early Days Yet, the collected poems of Allen Curnow, the late (& definitely great) New Zealand poet. It’s a slim volume, just 44 pages, only eleven poems, tho the poems include “Mantis” and “Poem Beginning ‘The’” among them. At the time, only one of the poems here, “The Ways,” had not yet appeared in any book. The “book of origin” for every other poem here is duly noted at the end of each text. (But, in the Johns Hopkins edition of Zukofsky’s Collected Short Poetry, Found Objects is not credited as the source book for this poem, but rather After I’s.) Typed rather than typeset, Found Objects reflects a particular moment in Zukofsky’s career, the instant before he becomes – after four decades of work – widely read & influential.

Like all of the Objectivists, Zukofsky went through a “quiet period,” going ten years between books between 1946 and 1956. This hiatus echoes – it’s what a financial analyst would characterize as a “trailing indicator” – the eight year break Zukofsky took from the composition of “A” between 1940 and ’48. Other Objectivists, including Carl Rakosi, George Oppen & Basil Bunting, all went through even deeper periods of silence & non-writing. At the time Zukofsky “went dark” publishing, he had had just three real books, his curious critical tome Le Style Apollinaire; 55 Poems, published in 1941, a good 13 years editing the Objectivist issue of Poetry, and Anew, published in 1946.

The seeds of Zukofsky’s eventual success lay in some typed pages of his poetry – this was literally pre-Xerox – that Robert Duncan took with him to Majorca in the early 1950s where he shared them, and his boundless enthusiasm, with new acquaintance Robert Creeley. By 1954, both had gone to teach at Black Mountain & were actively promoting Zukofsky and his writing to almost anyone who would sit still & listen. It was, in fact, one of the Black Mountain students, Jonathan Williams, who would publish the book, Some Time, that would return Zukofsky to print in 1956. But it is worth noting that Williams’ Jargon Press did so with just 300 copies hors commerce, plus another 50 copies numbered and signed.

Zukofsky’s two books in the 1940s, 55 Poems, published in 1941, and Anew, published in ’46, had at least been published by one of the more prolific publishers of poetry in the United States, James Decker of Prairie City, Illinois. Virtually unknown today¹, Decker was the Sun & Moon of its generation, publishing August Derleth, William Everson, Lorine Niedecker, Charles Henri Ford, Norman MacLeod, Edgar Lee Masters, Clark Mills, Edouard Roditi, Selwyn Schwartz, David Ignatow, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth & Parker Tyler in addition to a magazine & several anthologies during its 13-year run as a press.

Zukofsky’s first book with the press went through several bindings, if not multiple print runs, and thus probably got more visibility and distribution than Some Time received 15 years later. Indeed, Barely and Widely, Zukofsky’s next collection, printed in 1958, probably his best known volume prior to the publication of his collected short poems under the title All and the emerging publication of “A,was functionally self-published – the publisher is listed as Celia Zukofsky – again with an entire press run of just 300 copies.

If Zukofsky couldn’t get his poetry to stay in print, he could at least recycle poems in chapbooks to keep his work in front of readers. In 1962, two years before Found Objects, Celia edited a collection called 16 Once Published, containing works from Anew, Some Time, 55 Poems & Barely and Widely, published by the Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Wild Hawthorn press. It wasn’t until 1965, when “A” 1-12, which had been initially done in a limited edition by Black Mountain fellow traveler Cid Corman in 1959, was reprinted in the U.K., and then Denise Levertov (again a friend of Creeley & especially Duncan) brought out All in two volumes from Norton, that Zukofsky’s poetry finally became widely available (if barely understood).

Found Objects needs to be read in the context of this history, and its simple production values suggests that this volume had a limited distribution, at best. Zukofsky himself, tho, who once proposed a “scientific” definition of poetry, would be the first to disagree. His introduction to Found Objects reads as follows:

With the years the personal prescriptions for one’s work recede, thankfully, before an interest that nature as creator had more of a hand in it than one was aware. The work then owns perhaps something of the look of found objects in late exhibits – which strange themselves as it were, one object near another – roots that have become sculpture, wood that appears talisman, and so on: charms, amulets maybe, but never really such things since the struggles so to speak that made them do not seem to have been human trials and evils – they appear entirely natural. Their chronology is of interest only to those who analyse carbon fractions etc., who love historicity – and since they too, considering nature as creator, are no doubt right in their curiosity – and one has never wished to offend anyone – the dates of composition of  the poems in this book and their out-of-print provenance are for them, not for the poets.


¹ Decker’s press had a tragic history. After sinking an initial investment into the press, Decker and his sister Dorothy were able to publish books at first using the revenues from their earlier books, in part by continuing to live with their parents. By the end of World War 2, however, authors were being asked to help subsidize their volumes by buying in advance as much as half of the print runs. Decker eventually sold the press to one of his authors, E.H. Tax, staying on as an employee. A year later, however, Tax discovered irregularities in the books & dismissed Decker, who then left town with his parents, leaving Dorothy to work with Tax. In 1950, however, she shot & killed Tax before committing suicide.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Julia’s Wild

Come shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come shadow shadow, come and take this up,
Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come, come shadow, and take this shadow up,
Come, come and shadow, take this shadow up,
Come, up, come shadow and take this shadow,
And up, come, take shadow, come this shadow,
And up, come, come shadow, take this shadow,
And come shadow, come up, take this shadow,
Come up, come shadow this, and take shadow,
Up, shadow this, come and take shadow, come
Shadow this, take and come up shadow, come
Take and come, shadow, come up, shadow this,
Up, come and take shadow, come this shadow,
Come up, take shadow, and come this shadow,
Come and take shadow, come up this shadow,
Shadow, shadow come, come and take this up,
Come, shadow, take, and come this shadow, up,
Come shadow, come, and take this shadow up,
Come, shadow, come, and take this shadow up.

One of just two poems in the new Zukofsky Selected Poems not to have appeared before in any collection of his poetry, “Julia’s Wild” is the closest the poet came to a pure poetics of the signifier, the same line taken from Act IV, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona turned 19 different ways over a space of 20 lines.¹ It’s worth noting the full sentence from which Cid Corman first took this quotation & fed it to Zukofsky:

Come, shadow, come and take this shadow up,
For 'tis thy rival.

Julia, Proteus’ betrothed, has, unbeknownst to him, followed her fiancé disguised as a young man only to discover him chasing after Sylvia, his best friend Valentine’s love. In this scene, Julia, has just exchanged a ring Proteus gave her – the same one she earlier gave to him before he set out from Verona – as a token to Sylvia in return for a picture. In the line as originally written, Julia directs the first shadow at herself – she is both disguised & here quite deflated at her lover’s inconstancy – the second at the portrait.

This is not the only moment in Verona, where the Shakespearean formula that Zukofsky finds everywhere in the bard’s labors, love is to reason as eyes are to the mind, suggests a clear downside. Later in the play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, Proteus will in fact attempt to force himself upon the unwilling Sylvia, only to be stopped by Valentine. Yet when Proteus apologizes to Valentine, it is Valentine who willingly gives his lover over to his friend:

that my love may appear plain and free,
All that was mine, in Silvia, I give thee

This is perhaps the strangest end to a rape scene in all of English literature. And it is interrupted solely by the cry of the disguised Julia, who now gives Proteus the ring that he had exchanged with her before departing Verona. The instant the deceit is undone & Julia revealed, Proteus’ desire shifts course:

Inconstancy falls-off, ere it begins:
What is in Silvia's face, but I may spy
More fresh in Julia's, with a constant eye?

At this moment, all treachery is forgotten, as though it had never happened. Valentine rebukes Thurio’s own attempt to woo Julia, the duke forgives Valentine &, in turn, lifts the banishment on his now suddenly reformed gang of outlaws.

The corollary of Zukofsky’s formula, it would seem, must be out of sight, out of mind. It’s ultimately acceptable for Proteus to rape his friend’s beloved so long as both friend & his own betrothed are out of view. Sylvia may protest Proteus’ initial assault, but she’s silent when Valentine bequeaths her back to Proteus. Seeing the offer transforms the act from the theft of her chastity to its mere exchange. It is Julia the unseen who is forced to protest – she’s not taken into account because she is in disguise. If, in fact, she were not there, it’s not clear what would then ensue. But, once revealed, the shift from this sex-as-chattel to Julia’s declaration that “I have my wish forever” takes less than 40 lines. All exeunt in the direction of a double wedding.

So, conceding for the sake of argument that Zukofsky may be correct about the centrality of sight in the work of Shakespeare, what precisely is the value of his formula, Love is to reason as are eyes to the mind? It’s the unvoiced question at the bottom of Bottom. And it’s not clear ultimately what Zukofsky’s answer would be.


¹ The first & 19th lines are identical.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

This is a coda to yesterday’s note on the idea of books as representation. It’s also a follow-up to my complaint back on the comment stream for May 12 that Le Style Apollinaire is “the great missing element in every LZ study I've ever read.” The reason, I think, is simple: of all Zukofsky works, with maybe the exception of WPA folk-art material, it has been the least available, the least known, the least read. The edition finally published last year by Wesleyan under the title of The Writing of Guillaume Apollinaire demonstrates why. Of all Zukofsky texts, including the homophonic translation of Catullus, Apollinaire proves the hardest to read. Then there is the question of how best to situate it within the framework of Zukofsky studies overall. Here, to give a sense of the flavor of it all, is the very first sentence, opening a section entitled “Le Flâneur”:

“Le flâneur de deux rives” who visited “le plus rarement possible dans les grand bibliothèques” and liked “mieux (se) promener sur le quais cette délicieuse bibliothèques publique” listened receptively and wrote down the words of a singularly mindful reader of his acquaintance:

This pastiche of English & French is nobly translated by Serge Gavronsky – just possibly the only translator I can think of with whom I would have trusted this text – as follows:

“The stroller of both banks” qui n’allait “as rarely as possible to the great libraries” et aimaitmieux (se) promener” along the quays, that delightful public library,” savait aussi prêter l’oreille:il a note les paroles d’un lecteur de sa connaisance singulièrement observateur:

Were it all in English, perhaps it might read:

The stroller of both banks who visited as rarely as possible to the great libraries and liked better (to) walk along the quays, that delightful public library, listened receptively and wrote down the words of a singularly mindful reader of his acquaintance:

Given that my own French borders on non-existent, I’m guessing a little there. Still, it would seem to me to be a deliberately resistant syntax even had it been monolingual. Hopscotching for no apparent reason from one language to the other only renders it that much more opaque. This is followed by a lengthy paragraph entirely in French in the spirit of Apollinaire’s “Le Flâneur des deux rives” but describing instead Zukofsky’s own experiences trying to find contemporary French volumes in the Carnegie Library, where they were often stolen due to poor stock control vs. the far richer collection of Yiddish literature at the 14th Street branch of the New York Public Library. The section then concludes with a short passage, this time in English:

Years after the War, following the shadow of the flâneur’s seeming divagations, his three books Il y a, L’Hérésiarque & Cie, and Calligrammes disappeared from the “Bibliothèque Carnegie” for several months, and after that passage were again available for public use.

The passage is dated “New York, March 14, 1932.” One can only imagine what a man like Zukofsky, who later in life is said to have kept every publication in its own separate plastic envelope, must have thought of theft & the chaos of a public library. But if it is Zukofsky speaking here, albeit through a filter of dueling tongues, who then is “Le flâneur de deux rives” to whom this is addressed? Guillaume Apollinaire, dead 13 years in 1932, or perhaps René Taupin, Zukofsky’s collaborator on this booklength critical project?

How one answers that question will set up to some degree just how one reads this work. And here is the conundrum: if the language of this passage (and this book) is not stable, neither is its sense of authorship, literally its author-ity, and finally its motivation. Gavronsky, in his English language introduction (following a French foreword by Jean Davie), puts a great deal of interpretive weight on a note penned to “an original unique written copy with the initials ‘G.A. & L.Z.” to the effect that “This collaboration was written entirely by L.Z. and the French quotations are also his arrangement. It was subsequently translated by R.T. into French, and the French version was published by Les Presses modernes, Paris, France, 1934.” This would hardly be the last time in the history of the academy where the junior author of a critical collaboration did all of the work, only to find the more established ‘collaborator’ listed first.

Yet this note, Brad Haas points out, is flatly contradicted by letters that Zukofsky sent to Ezra Pound in 1931 & ’32. In these, Zukofsky portrays himself as essentially a ghost-writer, motivated by the $50 per month – a living wage, even if a marginal one, during the Depression – Taupin is paying. The letters suggest that Taupin directed some if not all of the book’s focus, but left it to Zukofsky to get it into Taupin’s style:

Great difficulty of the work is that it must sound as if it came out of one consorted mind – Taupin’s – that is, his next on inspiration & mine must show the same woof of thought…. Net result: writing as an individual handiwork pretty distasteful.

The two letters to Pound, written a year and eight days apart, are quite consistent in presenting Le Style as a job for hire. Still, Zukofsky is adamant that the work entailed was his alone:

No, it’s not René, as you will see when you see his adaptation entirely in French (remarkable what a difference), but it’s L.Z. alright painstakingly obstructing the technique of FLOW.

Haas, who teaches at a Seventh-Day Adventist College in D.C. (where he also matriculated), and who has written usefully before on David Jones & Ronald Johnson, publishing for the most part in Carlo Parcelli & Joe Brennan’s webzine, Flashpoint, presents the contradiction between Gavronsky’s presentation – the work is an integral part of the Zukofsky canon – and LZ’s own to Pound – the work was a “job” – as though it were a scandal, rather than a question of how to represent the project given directly contradictory information. If Gavronsky is to be faulted, it’s for framing the context too simply. But the fuller version yields an irresolvable, and primary, question: Is this portrait a true Zukofsky? Or is it closer to A Useful Art, LZ’s WPA-financed writing on design, clearly a job for hire? One might ask the same of Kafka’s insurance writing, or of Charles Bernstein’s pharmaceutical newsletters in the years before he was hired into the academy. Some of my own handiwork can still be found in the California Penal Code, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think of it as “my writing.”

Gavronsky obviously wants to answer yes with regards to Apollinaire, Haas wants to at least entertain a negative response. The answer ultimately is to be found in the text, not necessarily just in the autobiographical passages – such as when Zukofsky seems to anticipate Benjamin’s elevation of the Baudelarean concept of the flâneur in confessing how he got the materials on which this project was based – as in its methodology, “L.Z. alright painstakingly obstructing the technique of FLOW.” That dimension is unmistakable. But is it possible to have a work that both is & isn’t a part of a poet’s oeuvre? On this point I agree with Einstein’s view: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I don’t think the question of the Apollinaire is an either/or – I think it’s a both/and.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Louis Zukofsky (L) & Jerry Reisman

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.

Those two sentences, the opening of John Ashbery’s “The New Spirit,” have been ringing in the back of my imagination of late, not with regards to Ashbery & his work – tho I think Three Poems to be his very best work – but with regards to Louis Zukofsky & the thought experiment of two weeks ago, in which I created a hypothetical Selected Poems that contained roughly one-third of his oeuvre, totaling some (again hypothetical) 427 pages. What if the assignment had been different? What if, instead, I had been given a set number of pages with which to work? Let’s say 150, more or less what the little Library of America (LoA) selected volumes for the likes of Kenneth Fearing, Muriel Rukeyser et al have had. How would one represent Zukofsky in such a space?

In that first version of a Selected, I allotted “A 265 pages, a bit of a fiction since the UC Press of “A” is set in 9-point type on an 11-point line where Zukofsky’s Complete Short Poetry from Johns Hopkins is set in 11-point type on a 14-point line. Set in the same point size – say the more common 9-on-11 – the short poems would shrink down roughly 20 percent, say 32 pages. What this means in practice is that our earlier version would have set almost exactly two-thirds of its pages aside for “A.

Working with a predetermined page count, I would take basically that same stance, setting 100 pages aside for “A,giving the rest to the short poems. Further, using the Library of America as a model, I would reverse my adjustments for page size in the opposite direction. That is to say, to get to 100 pages in the LoA format, I would have to limit myself to something like just 80 pages of the UC Press version of “A.” My basic premise with regards to that longpoem would be to keep complete sections, but if I choose the one that I think show off Zukofsky at his strongest – 1 through 3, 7, 9, 15 & 16, 22 & 23 – I have ten pages too many and, save for the Poundian opening of the first three numbers, I don’t really include any of the passages in which Zukofsky lets his thinking air out, developmentally. This would be exactly the sort of impossible trade-off that a project like this would entail. If I were to think of the book less as a Selected and more as an introduction to Zukofsky’s work, I might be inclined to go the other way – excising 22 and maybe including some passages (the same material I noted on May 31) from “A” – 12. Yet dropping “A” – 22 would probably cause me to cry myself to sleep that night.

Either way, I’m now going to have to reduce my selections from The Complete Short Poems down to just 42 pages. Twelve of those go immediately to “Poem beginning ‘The’,” leaving me just 30 pages for the remainder of Zukofsky’s career. This is the hardest single part of this project – worse even than choosing between “A” – 22 & excerpts from “A” -12 – because there are two projects, “Mantis” and “Song of Degrees,” that by themselves would take up 15 pages, both of which deserve to be here. Two other sequences or longer poems, “4 Other Countries” and “The Old Poet Moves to a New Apartment 14 Times,” are simply too long to consider. For similar reasons, I would drop all of the poem I love from the sequence “29 Poems,” part of the book 55 Poems that was Zukofsky’s first.

So let’s say that from the “29 Songs” section of that same book, I keep numbers 5 (“It’s a gay li-ife”), 16 (“Crickets’/thickets”) & 22 (“To my wash-stand”), plus “Mantis” & “’Mantis’: An Interpretation” from that first volume. Including “Poem beginning ‘The,’” 55 Poems has 23.5 of my sum of 42 pages for non-“A” work. That’s right, I think, in terms of representing his best work, since some portion of this represents his best work prior to that project while the shorter poems during it tend generally to be more slight.

I could, for example, pack all of Anew down into two pages, including 9 & 10, 20 & 21, 24 & 38. I would include just the first two sections from “Song of Degrees,” the only work I would keep from Some Time, and only the title poem from Barely and Widely, three books reduced to just a little over five pages.

From I’s (pronounced eyes), however, I would include Motet, which here as in the longer selected would be the one piece with a musical score included, “Peri Poietikes,” the title sequence & finally, the lone poem from After I’s, “Atque in Perpetuum A.W.” This is closer to six than to five pages, but with the three previous books, let’s say they all come in at eleven pages total. This leaves me with 7.5 pages remaining for all of Catullus, 80 Flowers & LZ’s final poem, “Gamut.” As I did before, I not going to spell these out here, simply because I haven’t done the homework on those texts that they require. However, here I think I would opt for giving more room to 80 Flowers, and for including “Gamut,” thus reducing Catullus to two or, at most, three pages.

So my table of contents would look something like this:

  • “Poem beginning ‘The’,” sections 5, 16 & 22 from the “29 Songs” section of 55 Poems
  • “A” 1-3, 7
  • “Mantis” & “’Mantis’: An Interpretation”
  • “A” – 9
  • Poems from Anew & Barely and Widely
  • Excerpts from “A” -12
  • Poems from I’s (pronounced eyes), After I’s, &Catullus
  • “A” – 15, 16, 23
  • Poems from 80 Flowers, “Gamut”

That, I think, is a do-able book. It would be, in fact, an introduction to Zukofsky far more than a true Selected, which dampens somewhat the value of printing the works in a rough version of chronological order, but it would still be – Zukofsky’s accomplishment, not that of an editor – an incontestably great book. And, I hope, not one that would have critics howling at “obvious” omissions, such as would happen if I did a similar volume for Ashbery & included nothing from Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror or the books that immediately followed that while devoting enough pages to Flow Chart to show how that work resists development.

Projects like this I think foreground all the ways in which books transform any writer’s poetry into poems, which from my perspective of always preferring the former to the latter is certainly going to be problematic. We forget, I think, all the ways in which books themselves are representations. That, after all, was the essence of what Jennifer Moxley was noting in her afterword to Often Capital, a concern with how that book might portray, or misportray, the whole of her writing. And it’s the issue ultimately behind the question of Ronald Johnson’s collected works, including Radi Os as published (four sections) vs. as written (nine sections). Not to mention the struggle between the project never completed, WOR(L)DS, and the version that got finished, ARK.

Not long ago, a publisher asked me to review the Complete Poems of an author, a member of the 1950s generation, now deceased. Save for an unpublished manuscript from his college years, the manuscript contained almost nothing that had not appeared in book form previously. I loved the manuscript & told the publisher so, but seriously recommended that they lose the word Complete from the title. The instant that book is published, dozens of other later poems are destined to show up in the manuscripts & correspondence of friends of the poet. Indeed, one of the fun aspects of attending the Zukofsky centennial last year at Columbia consisted precisely of hearing several short poems not contained in the Johns Hopkins Complete Short Poetry.

All of which suggests that in addition to the Complete Collected – an edition that does not yet exist – and reissues of Catullus & 80 Flowers, plus for my money “the twins,” “A” – 22 & 23, there are at least two, possibly more, selecteds that could easily be justified. Like the old Vietnamese war slogan – One, Two, Three, Many Zukofskys.


¹ Because it’s impossible to demonstrate via excerpts the ways in which Ashbery executes the most vicious parody of the School of Quietude imaginable, which is important historically precisely because the people being ridiculed lapped it up.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Obviously, I think that editing a selected poems for a writer like Louis Zukofsky needs to begin by defining how one approaches the longpoem “A” – not only does it give one a sense of how much room is or might be available for excerpting from the shorter poems, but the process alone should help one to address what I see as a critical question – how to incorporate both the short poems & the lengthy segments of “A into a single, coherent sequence. No poet I can think of has such a disparate relationship between his long works & his short ones. Would one, for example, follow a strictly chronological sequence, interspersing sections of “A” with short poems? Or would one place all of them at the front or back of the book? Basil Bunting, for example, who probably comes closest to LZ in the formal gap between his longer poems and the snippets he called “Odes,” treated the latter almost as if they were an appendix to the primary work. An awful lot of Spicer’s early poetry got treated the same way in the Black Sparrow Collected Books.

But Selecteds are not Collecteds, and presumably nothing would be chosen for a Zukofsky selected that one could imaginably call an “appendix” to anything. My first thought was to keep all of “A” together – but then going through the short poems, I changed my mind. The great pauses & gaps in writing that poem really argue for weaving in the shorter poems. Putting them into this chronological sequence also would give a selected an additional rationale for existing at all – it would be the first book to actually show the interplay of his longpoem with the shorter works.

My instinct here – that really is what it is – would be to keep all of my selections from the short poems through Some Time together before starting “A in the text. Those really are the early works. Then I would run my excerpts from “A” – 1- 12 together. Then I would insert poems from Barely and Widely and I’s (pronounced eyes), following this sequence with my suite of “A” – 13 – 16. This I would follow with excerpts from After I’s, then “A” – 19. I would then insert excerpts from Catullus, followed by “the twins,” “A” – 22 & 23, then excerpts from 80 Flowers & finally “Gamut,” which I take to be the lone poem completed from the envisioned project LZ was thinking to call 90 Trees.

So which poems, exactly, would I include from these collections?

  • “I Sent Thee Late” – this is the first poem in the Collected Short Poetry, an uncollected piece from 1922, during LZ’s matriculation at Columbia. It’s a schoolboy poem, perhaps, but superb & contains, tucked into its seven lines, so many of the seeds of his formal sensibility.
  • “Poem beginning ‘The’” – also from LZ’s Columbia days, but already a major poem, even if it is a parody of Eliot & “The Waste Land.” With this poem, Zukofsky announced publicly that he was going to be an important poet, ironic & erudite. This was the first poem in LZ’s first collection, 55 Poems (which contained, by my count, 62 poems).
  • From “29 Poems,” the first of two long sequences in that book, I would eight poems (permitting LZ the use of the N word in no. 6 because it isn’t charged with the ideological hatred that I find in the anti-Japanese lines of “A” – 10), numbers 16 & 17, then poems 26, through 29.
  • From “29 Songs,” the second, counter-balancing sequence in that book, I would include numbers 1, 5, 16, 22, 23,27 & 28 – some of Zukofsky’s finest & most well-known short poems are included in this sequence.
  • I would include both “Mantis,” (LZ himself uses the quotation marks) and “'Mantis,' An Interpretation.” As with “Poem beginning ‘The,’” and the prose piece of 28, LZ is showing an early proclivity for poetry that contains a critical dimension – in this, he goes beyond what might be implicit in Pound. These are poems that, of themselves, changed poetry.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that I’ve included 54 pages out of 73 possible. From the 43 poems Zukofsky gathered into Anew, his second book, I would be more circumspect. There are some great poems here, but by now Zukofsky’s best work generally was directed into “A,and the overall quality of this collection reflects that. By the time LZ starts Anew, he has already completed the first seven sections of A,” and by its end, he has completed “A” – 10 & is already midway into the ten-year hiatus that will separate that section from those that would follow it.

  • From Anew, I would include 1, 9, 10, 20, 21, 24, 31, 36 & 38 – depending on the layout, this would come to the most six pages.
  • From Some Time, a volume that partly overlaps with Anew & contains the remainder of the little Zukofsky wrote during the hiatus from “A,” I would include only “que j’ay dit devant,” “To My Valentines,” and the sequence “Songs of Degrees,” ten pages.
  • From Barely and Widely, I would include the title poem, numbers 4 & 8, both being examples of LZ’s use of the valentine, and 11, one of my favorite of his shorter pieces for its uses of found language. Number 12, “4 Other Countries,” is a problematic choice – at 27 pages, it’s one of Zukofsky’s most substantial short poems, which in the economy of a Selected volume can be a minus even as, in poetry, it should be a plus. Let’s say here that I’d include it, but if I got static from a publisher, this (along with the excerpts from “A” – 12) would the first to go. But at 33 pages, Barely and Widely is the volume of the shorter collections mostly thoroughly represented after 55 Poems.
  • I would similarly include a large portion of I’s (pronounced eyes), tho it’s a much shorter volume than Barely and Widely. Included would be “(Ryokan’s Scroll),” “Her Face the Book of – Love Delights in – Praises,” “Motet,” the one piece I would include that contains a score by Celia, “Peri Poietikes,” the book’s title sequence, and “To Friends, For Good Health,” an instance of the deliberately dumb joke as poem (the inspiration, I suspect, for much of Jonathan Williams’ poetry).
  • Selections from After I’s would appear after the most sustained sequence from “A in the collection. Here I would include the first eleven pages, through “The.”

I’m not going to specify which sections I would include either of Catullus, or of 80 Flowers, because I would really need to sit down & read both again closely. Catullus is the only book of Zukofsky’s I’ve ever sold without having a replacement copy in hand – a fit of stupidity on my part occasioned by the fact that when I lived in SF & Berkeley, I had to be ruthless in marshalling how much room was set aside for books (the impact of the cost of real estate on poetry collections). I never owned a copy of 80 Flowers I was using a Xerox of Robert Duncan’s copy until the Complete Short Poetry came out from Johns Hopkins. If I say that my goal would be to include 20 pages of each sequence, it comes with the understanding that this is a demonstrably larger portion of 80 Flowers than it is of Catullus. Both books are excellent examples – as is “A” – 22 & 23 – of volumes that ought to continue in readily available separate volumes, Catullus with the Latin on facing pages as it was in the original edition, 80 Flowers generally accessible as its own book for the very first time. Catullus is historically important, given LZ’s role in the evolution of homophonic translation, although there are passages in “A that also make use of the device. But to my eye 80 Flowers works better as poetry, so I would be happy to include a larger percentage of that volume.

Thus, with “Gamut,” Zukofsky’s final poem, to conclude the book, I would have – it would seem some 427 pages (presuming all pages to be equal, which they wouldn’t be – the UC Press version of “A” using a smaller font than the Johns Hopkins version of the Complete Short Poetry¹). Roughly one-third of Zukofsky’s oeuvre.

Again, published roughly chronologically as such, this is a volume that would serve a purpose, giving readers sense of Zukofsky that they can’t really get from either “A by itself or the Complete Short Poetry. This doesn’t mean, obviously, that these other books shouldn’t continue in print forever or that volumes that deserve their own separate existence (as the three volumes mentioned above do, or even 55 Poems & Barely and Widely) shouldn’t be republished.

Which to my mind proves that if the typical “new & selected” is a volume that almost always didn’t need to exist, a carefully chosen Selected can indeed prove to be an essential book.


¹ Which, I feel compelled to note, is not complete at all, omitting most of Zukofsky’s juvenilia from his days at Columbia, plus other pieces written under pseudonyms. Happily, I’m not aware of any that would deserve to show up in a Selected.