Monday, September 29, 2008

Altering Time (on artist George Deem)

"Seven Vemeer Corners," by George Deem
"Hands off Mayakovsky," 1977, by George Deem

On May 12, 2008, I received a manuscript from the artist George Deem titled Hey Nurse I’m Worse, consisting of what he described as “painter’s book” of writings and images.
I had known George for many years, dating back at least as early as the publication by Sun & Moon Press of his companion-assistant, Ronald Vance, whose I Went to Italy to Eat Chocolate, I produced in a side-stapled volume in 1978, the covers of which consisted of m hand-colored map of Italy. I also published a poem of George’s work in an issue of Sun & Moon: A Journal of Literature & Art.

I met both George and Ronald soon after in their New York apartment, and then, over the years lost direct touch with them, although George continued to send me announcements of his art shows and catalogues.

In 2001, I attended Mac Wellman’s dance-drama, Antigone, where I was seated next to a handsome, somewhat elderly man, who looked strangely familiar. During the intermission, we spoke, and he admitted that I too took looked familiar. It turned out to be George Deem.
Although I was enchanted by his new manuscript—which began with selections from George’s various artists’ books, one group titled, “Three Painter’s Daybooks,” and ended with “Yankee Vermeer” of 2007, depicting a scene from a Vermeer painting with a man dressed in a Yankee uniform attempting to peer through one of Vermeer’s draped windows—I knew immediately that I would be unable to publish the work. Such a publication needed a larger format than my small Green Integer volumes, and it would be absolutely necessary to print the book’s many art reproductions in color, unaffordable on my budget. Accordingly, I set the manuscript aside, planning to write George a long letter expressing my admiration of the collection, but also explaining why it was not a suitable title for Green Integer.

As often occurs in a business centered upon correspondence, a few weeks quickly turned into months. In early August, I determined to catch up with back correspondence, but this time issues of my health intervened. I was taken aback, therefore, to read in the New York Times of George Deem’s death, at the age of 75, on August 11, 2008.

As the Times noted, Deem’s art was thoroughly involved with a “visual commentary on the history of painting.” Often beginning with masterworks by Caravaggio, Chardin, Ingres, Homer, Matisse, Picasso, and Vemeer, Deems—painting in the manner of the great artists—wryly subtracting elements from the originals, adding figures from other periods and cultures, or recombining aspects of the original masterworks with contemporary pop images. Deem’s anach-ronistic paintings and drawings were rendered so believably—Deem was a master of reproduction—that rather than jarring the viewer, the artist enticed him into the frame in a search for what one inherently felt was wrong with the picture. That search, in turn, often led the viewer on to a series of discoveries and other questions. Italian Vermeer (Caravaggio), for example, suddenly reveals what the Dutch painter’s darkened rooms might have looked like under the flow of Italian sun. A work such as Still Life with Egg—which features an egg on the edge of a plate, above which hangs either the painted image of the same scene or a mirror reflecting that image back—calls up all sorts of issues of art history relating to still lives, particularly invoking Magritte's C’est ne pas une pipe.

Accordingly, through his combinations of art and literary figures and the questions his “recreations” evoked, Deem’s art altered time and history, making us see what we thought we knew in entirely different ways and from utterly different perspectives. Moreover, as Vance commented on his friend: “[Deem] was interested in the dimension of time. He wanted the viewer to experience not only the painting in front of him but also the referenced works that came before.” And in that sense, Deem’s art was not only concerned with an alternating past time, but in actively linking that past with the present.

Los Angeles, September 28, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

Between: The Art of Collaboration (on Douglas Messerli's Between)

In the 2008 volume of my ongoing cultural memoirs, devoted to what I have described as “In the Gap,” I have found myself using time and again in some of the titles of my essays the word “between.” The gap I describe is often a significant spatial manifestation that calls up geographical and geological separations such as canyons, ravines, tunnels, holes, breaks, fissures, and cuts; but just as often I see the “gap” as a space between individuals, between companions, friends, acquaintances and between their values—vast spaces that, in order to move forward in language and action, must be bridged or, at least, traveled through by the individuals on either side of those separations.

Looking back upon my life, I now see that many of my years were consumed in battles with just these “gaps,” with my frustrations for being unable to fully communicate to my peers and family. In fact, for most of those early years, I tended to think of myself as doomed to live a life of “separateness” and lonely isolation; and even in my early adult years I sensed that I worked best as a kind of maverick, as someone working slightly askew with and apart from the other creative figures of my time.

How strange, accordingly, that I would “fall” into the habit of publishing others work, taking on the responsibilities of not only making other people’s writing available, but actively working with them to promote it and gain an audience for that work.

Although I began writing poetry (as well as drama and fiction) in a style that many described as impenetrable and even hermetic, as I developed I began to realize that my work, far from being some isolate experimentation, was very dependent upon other writers, not just those who directly influenced my poetic thinking, but writers from whom I often sought out language itself through various collage techniques. In a sense, I was creating through both the eye and the ear, by seeking out works and short phrases that set my own thoughts afire.

Unlike Gertrude Stein, who insisted in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that her writing was grounded first in the eye, my work has always depended more upon the ear, upon the aurality of the word. The meaning I discovered in these collage-based works was dependent less on the definitions of the phrases and words I used but upon how they sounded, upon what they sounded like they meant. As I have commented elsewhere in these volumes [see My Year 2005], I eventually realized that most of my friends had truly memorable voices, and when I wrote through their poems and other writings, I heard those voices more than the words that visually stood out upon the page beckoning me to embrace them within my own text.

The result was that my writing often sounded, as I mention Bernard Welt once observing, like something coming from another source, something written in another language and brought into English. It is no accident, I now perceive, that I soon began publishing as many books from other languages as in English, or that I had been attracted from childhood to collaborative arts such as theater and performance. My own early books, such as Along Without and The Walls Come True, were self-described as a “film for fiction in poetry”and an “opera for spoken voices,” and at this same period, as yet another aspect of self, Kier Peters, I began to write plays. It is now clear that my several pseudonyms and personas were, in this sense, collaborations with Douglas Messerli. Ultimately, in After, I would take this ideal of collaboration even further in writing “after” writers in both English and in other languages.

When in 2001 I was invited to write a book of poetry to be published in both Italian and English, I chose a kind of double helix of influence, writing “through” the English translations of various Italian poets I had published, along with references to visual images in several collages by Los Angeles artist John Baldessari (himself of Italian ancestry). Several friends, Paul Vangelisti and Marjorie Perloff among them, commented that the work, Bow Down, somehow sounded more influenced by the Italian language and landscape than by the American. Yet I was never been able to visit Italy until 2003, when I used money from a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance to travel to Rome for a week—and where, incidentally, I began this series of cultural memoirs.

In 2000-2001, moreover—the year of that generous grant—I began an even larger work, influenced perhaps by Stein’s several “portraits,” poetic letters intricately related to the particular writing styles and voices of my poet friends. After completing what I felt were “representative” poems, that is poems which, in some small way, captured the concerns and voices of their work, I sent each of the poets a letter explaining:

This is part of an ongoing work, called Between: Letters to Poet
Friends, in which I’ve written through the works of poet friends,
asking them, in turn, to respond to the work I’ve written,
either by writing “through” my poetry as a whole, through a single
poem or the one I’ve just sent them, or by any other method they might
desire to apply.

In writing “through,” I have taken small phrases and words from your
poems, combining them with personal associations. I am not responding
directly to the writing, but allowing your words to create possibilities
that move the text forward.

Like the poems I had written, the responses of the 46 poets* who participated were mixed. Some almost slavishly “cut up” my own writing in general or worked directly with the work I had just submitted. Ray DiPalma, for example, blacked out several words and phrases from the poem I had written “through” his own writing, ending his with his apparent response: “resonance does not mind the result.”

Others more clearly responded to the ideas they found in my collaged texts or even in the ramifications of such a linguistic interweaving. In my “The Way to Start a Sentence,” for Charles Bernstein, for example, I had written a paragraph that I felt was quite close to certain of Charles’ poems, attempting to demonstrate his wry sense of humor:

Monotonous agitations fall across the page of definitions and the
meaning of even meaning is confused with the means of that
stupefying occupation of blowing kisses to the balcony. On the way
to L.A. I met a surrogate for you in the bar who said: you’re now free
to stroll into focus if you put your good foot forward and follow
the brick hick up the road. He was kind of chunky but not very

In his response, “In Between,” Bernstein answered in seemingly more personal ways, commenting on my regular but short visits to him and his family: “You arrive in discrete packets over years / and the composite is neither immaculate nor contingent.” “Go ahead: live on the tongue just as you clam / up in company. The page splinters even the address.” Later in his poem he wryly noted: “I have stolen the sentence and now can’t find / a word, just when I need it.”

French poet Henri Deluy took my very method itself, a cut-up narrative, as his central theme. In my poem, “In Cairo,” the second paragraph read:

It was not a lie exactly. It was not a truth. A little knife, with a horn
handle. And blue magpies to break the sequence of what went unsaid,
like writing not to write. You went off for a while to seek an anecdote.
I went over to the tree of knowledge to count its fruit. Each integer
shaped the sequence of the others, so that two for example became a
couple of fours, the fours a square door. I entered the room. There was
nothing else to be said.

Deluy’s work, titled “A (Defective) Story” (a kind of “defective-detective story) appeared to appropriate my use of the image of the knife to suggest a “cut into language,” or, in short, a story with numerous missing elements: a road overgrown with grass, soap, fabrics finely woven, dogs, bones that lie, burning trash, etc. “What is lacking. / What is lacking in verbs, / Could be lacking /More broadly / In he who cuts into language.”

If my poem “There,” written through the poetry of Robert Creeley, seemed to be addressing him directly—“Agh, brother spirit: take this physical sentence into consideration when you curse my flying off”—he, accordingly, interpreted my ending despair—“I shouldn’t have gone into being back to what I lacked. But there is where I sit and cry here, come near!”—somewhat literally, if humorously. As Bob wrote me in a letter of March 1, 2000, “Thanks for your intriguing poem! It seemed to crawl under my veritable skin!” Creeley’s response, titled “There”—

Well if ever,
Then when never—

House’s round,
Sound’s sound.

Here’s where
Comes there.

If you do,
They will too.

—might be seen to epitomize his tautly-written metaphysical works.

Nick Piombino appropriately responded to my “Lost Horizons,” in which I spoke of a traveler in search of the very meaning of his voyage—

Some say there is a mere implication, but I would argue that to
set out on any voyage is an explanation to the widened yawn. Heed
this, the traveler says, in his split or origins from meaning. The
returnee is simply a disturbed sound at the end of its trail, a hesitation
just before the adjust. Going away is not coming back.

—with a quote from my own The Walls Come True:

I am interested in the way words begin to get where they are going
not where they have gone.”

Later, he asked:

If your words are only your words, who would they speak to?

Piombino brilliantly concludes:

What comes between, is ghostlier still. Only by surrounding it can
it be captured; and it is still not completely here in these virtual

Until he asked me, I had lost the lostness of “Lost Horizons” but
the horizons were still there. Only the question brought the words
together. A question came between and between is not usually
what comes in the way. A question asked words to present them-
selves. And the lost still warms the horizons in “Lost Horizons.”

If Piombino found resolve in my very attempt to bridge what stood “between,” others, such as Carl Rakosi, in his satiric dismissal of my attempt, seemed to widen the chasm between us: my poem “This Is the Wind,” may have appeared to him to be a statement of a growing distance between us, but, in fact, was related to his many poems involving the sea:

This is the wind: without a port, a continuously undefined plane
in the form of a skip…routing the shad and salt deposits into the
open coast.

His answer, as I have noted in my essay on him in My Year 2004, merely reiterated his growing hostility to what he perceived as “clever,” complex, or difficult poetry:

You sit in words
and long to be great.

So play our your
heroics on a trombone.

Bray a few laughs
and be gone.

But even he had to admit that my project was “worth trying.”

How different was the response by Robert Kelly, who wrote: “I was amazed and moved by the “chrestomathy” of my work you’d turned into that beautiful poem of yours. How much we get reading through one another’s work is one of the great learnings of our time. And here (privately, personally) I am touched by how well you understand the doctrina or whatever it is from which my work comes…” His response, “The Agonies of Reasonable Love,” ends with a literal reaching out between the two of us:

Outside the skin is what is left of hands.

This is the most thing you make me say I said.

How beautiful was Fanny Howe’s patiently considered response to my original poem “Line to Silence Out”:

Past the stone walls of language’s love is the vineyard of my laugh, a way of being bound that rhymes with the limbs mounting the air of a rising raft—or rift where my lover lays. Amour is a loaf of around.

Fanny “hooked up [her] lines / and waited,” she writes.

I hung up my sheets on the line
and waited

Rain spattered the white linen

At last. Recognition.
I could see the writing

Martha Ronk questioned my use of the expression “No mind, no mind!” in “The Film Breaks into Dialogue”:

No mind, no mind! The heart gathers in broken lines to
Take it back to the source of its mistake. Teeth grind.
The world pierces the chatter of the birds—or is it what
a German taxi driver once reported to me was an
Erdbeben. You fly! the cat sits up alert—even when it is
only a window being shut to the morning sky.

“Is it “never mind” or a zen exhortation / smashing the cups of logic?” Ronk asks.

Each gesture to evidence leaves something out
tea or the cup or the emptiness therein.
The self I was formerly, also a shadow.

John Ashbery could not find the time to write a poem in response, but wrote that my poem, “The Decibels,” “seems to me to be a poem that I haven’t written yet and would like to write, rather than a poem in imitation of my style (whatever that is). I still hope to write this poem.”

Bernadette Mayer found that “the whole thing makes me want to laugh—maybe it has to do with hanusse. or haigh. [the reference being to my fiction, Letters from Hanusse, which I wrote under the pseudonym of Joshua Haigh]. The poem I wrote, “The Real,” incorporated several words from her poems in her early collection Poetry, taking the last paragraph of my poem into a Christmas celebration:

Since there’s no beryl, no myrhh, no wise man from the east,
she put on the red dress of her innocence. She ordered the
angels out to consume the dream. Now she waits in utter faith
for reality.

In Mayer’s response, titled “christmas,” she and her family, fearing the holiday, “threw up on the crèche by the creeks of east nassau / & on the statue of a saint / who will forever remain unnamed.”

since there’s no periwinkles
& certainly no incense
I had a dream instead
that love had one glittering glove
this is subjectivity plus objectivity
in the religion named for a metal
or even a good mean
of red lentil soup with asparagus & celery root
garlic & onion amen

Perhaps Quebecois poet Nicole Brossard, however, summarized my attempts to bring together myself and friends most fully. To my “The Possibility” written through early poems of long career, Brossard responded in her untitled work:

not an answer but a curve in sentences written
some twenty years ago
meaning time is surfacing a second time
alive and spiraling
like an emotion at the heart of language
and geography
of course a possibility remains: to translate
now while in Key West under a palm tree
I can remember sentences en franςais
the smell of fresh coffee
at a time I believe I was about to fall
in love which explains why
my appetite for curves grew wild
while “a word caught at the edge of my mouth”
I would for the first time wonder
about the word cliff
how to include the possibility of its meaning
in one’s life

Until writing this piece today, and rereading that poem in the midst of writing this essay, I had forgotten Brossard’s words.

Accordingly, I now repeat what I wrote earlier:“The gap I describe is often a significant spatial manifestation that calls up geographical and geological separations such as canyons, ravines, tunnels, holes, breaks, fissures, and cuts; but just as often I see the “gap” as a space between individuals, between companions, friends, acquaintances and between their values—vast spaces that, in order to move forward in language and action, must be bridged or, at least, traveled through by the individuals on either side of those separations.” To those metaphoric separations I must now add Brossard’s “cliff” and, of course, the possibility of a past time that comes curving back into the present.

For time—both memory and the present—has now taught me that art—if it is to succeed in its translation of experience and transference of imagination between writer and reader, between any one and another—must always be a collaboration.

Los Angeles, September 4, 2008

The poets who responded and were included in Between were Barbara Guest, Clark Coolidge, Diane Ward, Lyn Hejinian, Carl Rakosi, Guy Bennett, John Taggart, Dennis Phillips, Leslie Scalapino, Arkadii Dragomoschenko, Robert Creeley, Nick Piombino, Régis Bonvicino, Ray DiPalma, Norma Cole, Bruce Andrews, Paul Vangelisti, Cole Swensen, Joe Ross, Rae Armantrout, Charles Bernstein, John Ashbery, Ed Roberson, Robert Kelly, Martin Nakell, Saúl Yurkevich, Andrée Chedid, Paal-Helge Haugen, Charles North, Rosmarie Waldrop, Miles Champion, Henri Deluy, Marjorie Welish, Fanny Howe, Luigi Ballerini, Martha Ronk, Jerome Rothenberg, Jean Frémon, Will Alexander, Tom Raworth, Bernadette Mayer, Tan Lin, Cees Nooteboom, and Nicole Brossard. I wrote Los Angeles poet Bob Crosson on December 8, 2001, and the next day he was found dead in his small apartment; his response, accordingly, was noted as “Silence. His death.” The last poem in the book was written to my companion, Howard Fox; I wrote his response from a passage in one of his art catalogues.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

My Turn (on Douglas Messerli's operation for prostate cancer)

Patient Messerli, Douglas
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

In July 2008, soon after completing an essay on the death, by prostate cancer, of my father (see June 15, 2008), my primary doctor, with the improbable name of Redcross, thought he detected a hardening of my prostate. After ordering a PSA (prostate specific antigen) test reading, first 3.5 and a couple of weeks later it was at 6.0, I was referred to a specialist, Dr. Jay Stein, who ordered a biopsy. On July 17 I was admitted to the Taper Imaging Center of Cedars-Sinai Hospital for a prostate biopsy. On July 24th Dr. Redcross reported that they had found cancer, but that it was a very early find in a very small area. “Radiation takes care of most of these occurrences today,” he reassured me. Obviously, given the experiences recounted above, I was disconcerted. But I took a positive attitude, knowing of the advances in curing the disease since my father’s death and believing—what else given the situation can one do—in the doctors’ prognoses. As Dr. Stein had observed on my earlier visit to him, given my family history—the death of my father and the discovery of prostate cancer in my uncle—there was a strong possibility that I would also get the disease.

My blood pressure continued to rise during this period, and Dr. Redcross prescribed yet another pill, Feditab, to help bring it down. I was also distressed to find out from another doctor that the two small growths on my penis were STP venereal. And, on top of all of this, I was terrified what another doctor, Dr. Olsen, might find in my upcoming esophagoscopy and colonoscopy. It was as if my entire body was conspiring against me. Certainly I had expected to encounter the results of my prodigal living, particularly my heavy drinking, at some point in old age, but now, at relatively early age of 61, everything seemed to be coming to haunt me at the same moment.

On July 27 and 28, Dr. Redcross ordered a urine test to see if he could determine any secondary cause for my spike in blood pressure. That test proved negative. Dr. Redcross again reassured me that my cancer was at its earliest stages and would be easily containable.

Meanwhile, I continued to write essays for the volumes of My Year and edit new titles for Green Integer, as well as prepare for teaching, which was to begin at the end of August. Finally, on July 30th, Howard and I met with Dr. Stein to discuss the findings of the biopsy. My cancer was evidently fairly high on the Gleason scale, meaning that it was an aggressive version of prostate cancer. Although he presented all my options, and suggested I consult a radiologist, he argued for complete removal of the prostate. He gave us several essays and suggested a book to read, and we were sent home with rather serious decisions to make in the next few days.

Although my father’s cancer had obviously not been resolved by the operation, the major problems he later suffered had been through lesions produced by the radiation, which resulted in profound bleeding. Howard and I both determined that, since the discovery of the cancer was early and the growth contained, the removal of the prostate would give me the best opportunity to curing the cancer.

I called my family and several friends—the Bernsteins, the Nakells, Paul Vangelisti (who agreed to replace me for one week of my classes), Thérèse Bachand, Deborah Meadows, the Antins, the Perloffs, and a few others. I determined to be upbeat in my attitude about the whole thing and to continue writing up to the very day of surgery, now scheduled for September 15th. Meanwhile, as for any such serious operation, I was scheduled for a whole new series of appointments: a bone scan (which ultimately proved negative), an X-ray to check a possible mark on my ribs, two sessions in which I stored my own blood for possible use in surgery, and a pre-operation checkup, which again involved a battery of blood tests and X-rays.

My colonoscopy on September 5th resulted in the removal of 14 polyps, all of which were benign, but meant that I would have to have another test in a year. My esophagoscopy showed that I had Barrett’s syndrome, a precancerous condition of the stomach—a condition, I discovered I shared with my brother. In short, I was just well-enough to sustain major surgery!

I did maintain an outwardly soldierly attitude, writing an essay and mailing a new book, North of Hell, to the printers the day before the operation. I told friends not to worry for me, that I was assured I would be readily “cured.” My doctor friend, Joe Perloff—who himself had undergone a more painful hip surgery replacement at a far more advanced age just weeks before—e-mailed me to reassure that I had made the right decision. Dr. Stein, by all accounts, was one of the best surgeons for this operation, and Cedars-Sinai, we all knew, was a superior hospital. Indeed, by this time we had encountered through Howard’s previous arm operation, my biopsy and bone scan, and other visits to the institution that the nurses were particularly attentive and friendly. Through a mix of institutional bureaucracy (“Name,” “Birthdate,” each nurse called out upon encountering you) and informative chit-chat, one quickly came to trust these efficient yet caring individuals. When my blood pressure was high before the biopsy, I am certain that the humor of one nurse helped to calm me, through laughter, just enough so that they could operate. Put under general anesthesia for the colonoscopy, I lost some of my fear of being anesthetized (when I was a child, I had a tonsillectomy, and was put under by ether; I had ether dreams for weeks after. This traumatizing experience was made worse by the fact that I also was circumcised, without my parents telling me beforehand, apparently too prudish to discuss any sexual organ of the body; I was 13.)

My nights, however, were not so determined by fortitude. I did not sleep well for weeks before the operation, and when I did sleep I dreamt various dreams of loss and being lost. My subconscious clearly comprehended that in the cutting out of my prostate I was entering new territory—possible sexual dysfunction and incontinence—which might radically change my life. And then, there was always the fear of the unknown.

Cancer, still today, when we know that many cancers are easily curable, is a word that sounds like a momentous proclamation to friends and family. But those who suffer this “proclamation” know that the most frightening aspect of suffering it is all the hundreds of lesser operations, checks, and doctor visitations one must endure that so completely alters one’s life. For those who are retired or even semi-retired these weekly alterations perhaps even come to define one’s life; for those, like myself, still actively working, they become fretful interruptions, as week after week, doctor’s appointments are scrawled across the mornings and afternoons of the calendar. One does not really get to know one’s doctors until a word like cancer or heart disease is spoken. Then, he gets to know them all too well. Dr. Redcross had found a cache of film scripts in his attic, one in French, and knowing that I was a publisher, wondered if I might read them and evaluate their worth. I was happy to have the opportunity to do something for him. Dr. Stein had known Howard through the museum, which, I am sure, helped him to control a bit his slightly forward and gruff manner.

Like everything else doctoring is a social activity, and “caring” for your patient may have less to do with “attending to” than with “a liking or a regard.”

When the day finally came, we arose at 4:00 to be at the hospital at 6:00. My palms were alternately sweaty or cold (a nurse commented on the later), but I was a obedient boy; if I had been told to lie down on the lobby couch, I might have without complaint. I recall little after the period of waiting to be checked in. Once upon the gurney, I basically became a child again, simply obeying everyone by answering the questions that needed to be asked. I do not remember being anesthetized, and I hardly recall awakening some 6 hours later—four hours in surgery and another two in the recovery room. I looked awful, Howard reports.

The room I occupied could not have been more spacious. We later were told that the nicely appointed (with an expensively covered couch, two chairs and a table) and partially carpeted space, was Cedars-Sinai VIP room in the VIP ward. When not being occupied by celebrities or wealthy patients who had paid extra for its use, it was simply given to the next patient that came along—and this time I was that patient. I loved to imagine that perhaps Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, or Owen Wilson--all Cedars-Sinai patients at one time or another--had once slept in my bed. I hoped Britney Spears had not sullied it!

Yet that truly matters little to a hospital patient. For once one has entered the world of the hospital, no matter how well he is treated or opulent the room is, he is no longer an individual. Dressed in that dreadful and so easily opened hospital gown, he is now simply a body, and his private parts, exposed buttocks, or any other elements of that body have no value or interest to the scores of nurses and attendants except in their ability to heal. Almost all conversation shifts, accordingly, from events and ideas to a discussion of immediate bodily reactions that would never be discussed outside that institution. Bowel movements, the passing of gas, blood-urine content, etc. become the important conversations of each day. Accordingly, it is a nearly impossible to talk to visitors who are not willing listen to the evaluation of every ache and pain. And yet it is difficult, as a lying and sitting nearly nude body to speak of anything else. Marty Nakell and Rebecca Goodman stopped by the first night, a beautiful hydrangea plant in hand. I tried to talk with them, but found myself unable to concentrate, to refocus on the world outside my bodily rumblings and grumblings. In the end I was overcome by a feeling of nausea and was forced call the nurse. Embarrassedly I asked them to leave and come back again when they could.

When Marty returned, I was finally—after three days—feeling as if I would soon have a bowel movement. Suddenly, I knew my time had come. I had to ask him to leave again, as I ran to the bathroom, rewarded with my first bodily relief outside of the wonders of Vicodin.

I now understand why outsiders—as dear and friendly as they are to those imprisoned within—should be discouraged from visiting patients there for a short stay. Being a body is not being a friend.

But gradually, day by day, I did improve. I quickly gained the ability to get up by myself, to shave and sponge down my face, chest, and lower parts. I lugged my brother urine bag about and pulled along my sister IV machine—a monster from whom I was fortunately unattached when I began to drink liquids. Like other such recovering bodies, I trod up and down the hospital halls, but Howard’s attempt to strap on my walking urine bag ended with it slowly sliding down my leg, and we had to stop and ask nurses at another station for help.

Dr. Stein stopped by each morning, reporting on the third day that it appeared no cancer had spread to lymph nodes and had been limited to the prostate. There were no apparent signs of cancer in my body, but the cancer itself had been quite aggressive and dangerous. I am certain that had I not chosen to have it removed, the cancer would have spread.

Soon Howard became adept at changing my urine bag and I learned how to redress the cut described as my “drain.” We were ready to go home!

But in medicine there are always other possibilities. A doctor can never be entirely positive of any results. We’ll remove your catheter in another week. And then, about six weeks later, we’ll check your PSA again. It should read 0.0. If not, it might be possible that a deep-set node has become infected, but radiation will take care of that.

One day later, I sit here, at the computer, my abdomen slightly hurting, still feeling, every so often, as if I need to pass gas. The bed dress I wear is too warm for a September day in California, but it’s the only such bed gown I own.

Last night Howard asked me was there anything I liked about the hospital. I answered that—except for my joy in the room—my favorite moments involved the way the nurses prepared me for sleep, their final checks of temperature, blood pressure (which was near-perfect during my entire stay) and pulse, so reassuring as they tucked me in with my nightly cup of pills. It was soothing, like being a child again, as sleep rolled over me and I knew I needn’t worry about anything except getting well.

Last night I had terrible dreams: the medicines the nurses had given me had been embedded with beautiful images to hide the real world, the one we daily face. It had all been a trick, a kind of medical brainwashing, lies to cover up the truth. All night I tried to see through those lovely images, and every once in a while the curtain parted to reveal the more frightening world behind it.

This morning I had the equivalent of phantom pains: I swear I could feel my hospital identification bracelet just below my left hand.

Los Angeles, September 19, 2008

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Naton's Capital: The 4th Night (Lasagna)

A better dressed Lasagna from a much later date
The Ellipse, Washington, D.C.
Curator Jane Livingston
The Corcoran Museum of Art Atrium
One day, in 1976 I believe, I inexplicably donned a plastic mask we had been given by friends that resembled Groucho Marx—a mask most people have seen, consisting of heavy eyebrows set over a pair of glasses, underneath which lay an extravagantly large nose and an enormously black, plastic mustache. The mask was the perfect size for my face, and completely transformed me, changing me, despite its clearly male characteristics and my own moustache and beard underneath, into someone looking like an Commedia dell’arte figure. To that I added my long, white and green-striped cotton bathrobe and, out of a whim, topped it off upon my head with a pair of white jockey underpants. The combination, when I glanced into the mirror, immediately suggested to me a kind of maddened artiste or chef.
Although I seldom enjoy costumes, I immediately entered our living room, displaying my transformed self to Howard. As quickly I became this artiste-chef, putting on an exaggerated French-Italian accent and describing myself as “Lasagna!”
Howard broke into laughter, quite loving my new manifestation. Accordingly, when a few months later we were invited to a Halloween party given my some of his Hirshhorn Museum friends, he suggested I should come dressed as Lasgana.
By the time we reached the house near Dupont Circle where the event took place, its rooms were filled with quite extravagantly dressed celebrants, one of whom I remember, a flasher, wore a long black overcoat which, when opened for the flash revealed a fully dressed being except for his penis, framed in a kind of plastic-covered window. “Just look, don’t touch,” Howard jested.
My costume, by comparison with the others, seemed to me to be quite simple, and I presumed it would draw little attention. I was surprised, accordingly, when many of the more cleverly dressed individuals pointed me out to each other. Even more strangely, to my way of thinking, few of them seemed to recognize who I was underneath my “disguise.”
I spotted our friend Phyllis Rosenzweig, a museum curator who shared an office with Howard, across the room and quickly joined her, speaking to her in the voice of Lasagna. Phyllis is quite shy when it comes to overbearing individuals—and Lasagna was overtly large in his gestures and linguistic tropes—almost panicked. As I came toward her, she quickly backed away. “Ahhh, but my dear little one,” I responded in my obviously fake French-Italian accent, “we are so terrified of me, one I am sure with whom you must be so well acquainted.” As she backed further into the corner, I pulled a bit away, calling over to her: “You really don’t know who I am, do you?” She shook her head emphatically, “No, I don’t!”
I laughed as only the French can laugh, “Oulala, my dear. I shall have to leave you alone and come back later when you have thought about who I might possibly have been.”
In short, my simply conceived costume was a great success. I seemed to have become the mystery guest of the evening.
A year or two after that event, we were invited to attend an opening at the Corcoran Museum of Art, a museum for those acquainted with Washington, D.C., located across the street from the White House. The dress for this occasion, so the announcement proclaimed, was either Black tie or Halloween costume.
Howard is not the kind of person to wear anything that might hide his true identity. I believe at that previous costume party, he had come dressed as himself.
He has several times described how, when he was a child, his mother had designed and sewn a frog costume for him. As the night approached, she slipped him into the costume and zipped it up. “Come look in the mirror,” she implored, “You look great!”
Little Howard cautiously approached the extended mirror, peering out through the eye-slits of his green-colored frog suit, and burst into tears! “I thought that I was the frog,” he explains, “that I had become a frog, and I was horrified!”
It thoroughly surprised me, therefore, when he suggested that we both go in costume.
“You, in costume?” I queried.
“I thought I might go as Jane Livingston.”
Jane was a friend of ours, curator at that time at the Corcoran. Several years later, in 1989, she curated the legendary Robert Mapplethorpe show, which, because of its sexual and homoerotic images and, presumably, their fear that they might never again receive NEA support, her museum cancelled two weeks before its opening; at that time Associate Director of the Corcoran, Livingston promptly resigned.
I could not imagine that Howard was serious about his intent, until, a day before the opening, he came home with a fright wig and a pair of hot pants! I was astounded. Was he truly going through with it? I had, of course, decided on Lasagna as my persona.
Suddenly, there we were, parked on the ellipse, Howard looking absolutely ridiculous and not at all like Jane Livingston, and I, trying desperately to get into the character of Lasagna, about to cross Constitution Avenue. “How do I look?” Howard asked, for what must have been the tenth time.
I giggled. “Absolutely beautiful!”
I moved to open the car door. “I don’t think I can do it,” he suddenly announced. “You go first, look the place over and tell me if it’s okay.”
“What to you mean, me first!” I protested. “Either we both go or neither of us goes.”
“No, just check it out. I’m afraid to go in looking like I do.”
I knew there was no convincing him otherwise. And I knew, once I had opened the car door, there was no turning back. With all the self-inflated ego I could gather, I began my walk across one of the most noted avenues in the world. Cars came to a standstill, some tourists spilling from their vehicles just to wave. I waved back. People began to gather at the corners, their faces filled with wonderment, awe, and outright disbelief. Today, I am certain, I would have been immediately arrested!
But then, like an actor determined to play the role larger than even the character might bear, I determinedly walked up the several steps of the museum and into the large atrium which greets Corcoran visitors. Flanked by two great banquet tables serving food and wine, stood small groups of the numerous guests—all of them in costume, but of a different sort—gowns and tuxedos only.
Like H.C. Andersen’s emperor dressed in an invisible robe, Lasagna strutted around the entire perimeter of the large hall, nodding at the discreet pairings of well-dressed attendees and, on occasion, when he began to notice laughter springing to their faces, even waving. He was a great success!
Having swirled across the entire space, I exited and descended, as royally as I could, the Corcoran’s stairs, once more crossing Constitution Avenue while waving to my loyal admirers before escaping into our awaiting car.
“No, Howard,” I nearly exploded in laughter. “I think you should not go into the party. I think we should now go home.”
Howard, who had observed my out-of-doors sensation, broke into a hoot of laughter, and drove away. By this time we had become near lunatics in our recognition of our audacity and my public performances. But Howard had also now become somewhat nervous. He was, after all, still dressed in a woman’s blouse and hot pants, having pulled the fright wig off and thrown it into the back. I had removed my mask and even my white toque of underpants, but was still fully robed. And just as suddenly, we were caught at a stop light in the all-Black neighborhood through which he had necessarily to pass on our way home.
Fortunately, it was getting dark. Howard suggested that we quickly leave the well-lit street and pull into an alley, where, presumably, we could change into our everyday clothes. As soon as we turned into the alley, however, a car followed. We quickly swerved into another alley, the car still behind us, and into another and another—traveling through a virtual maze of back-street alleys until we finally lost our pursuers. As quickly as he could, Howard opened his door, pulling off his blouse, bra, and hot pants as he attempted to pull on his own slacks.
Suddenly, as we stood beside the auto, we realized our pursuers had rediscovered us. They pulled up behind us, as we jumped back into our car and drove off!
Our howls of laughter, tinged by our inner fears of terror, probably could be heard by all who passed us as we sped out of the city and into The Old Line State. Los Angeles, September 6, 2008

Monday, September 1, 2008

The Rhythms of the "Language" Poets

Ted Greenwald (c)2007 by Charles Bernstein/PennSound

There is a recurring and near-prevailing attitude in contemporary poetics—especially in the academy—that a harmful disjuncture between prosody and American poetry has occurred. Writing in a recent issue of Paideuma on Ezra Pound’s metrics, Sally M. Gall exemplifies this attitude when she claims:

Over the course of a few generations we have arrived at a dis-
embodied realm where students, professors, scholars, critics, and,
I fear, some “poets” seem unable to hear the rhythms of the spoken
word. Part of the blame must be laid on an educational system that
has forgotten how to teach poetry as an art. And part must be laid
on the proliferation of poets who are completely uninterested in
musical values, and…practice a fundamentally non-musical free
verse. (Paideuma, VII [Spring 1979])

As early as 1961 John Crowe Ransom took a position very similar to Gall’s when he wrote, “It is strange that a generation of critics so sensitive and ingenious as ours should have turned out very backward, indeed phlegmatic, when it comes to hearing the music of poetry, or at least, to avoid misunderstanding, to hearing its meters. The only way to escape the sense of a public scandal is to assume that the authority of the meters is passing, or is passed, because we have become jaded by the meters…. (“The Strange Music of English Verse,” in Hemphill, ed., Discussions of Poetry: Rhythm and Sound, 1969). And more recently, Donald Hall has argued that “It is a characteristic flaw among young Americans, however accomplished and innovative, to lack resourceful sound. Tin ears make bad alloy with golden metaphors” (“Reading the English: The Continental Drift of the Poetics,” in Parnassus, Spring/Summer 1979). John Hollander has gone so far as to describe our age, in terms of metrics, as being so stylistically anarchic that “one almost feels that a poem need be defined as any utterance that purports to be one” (“The Metrical Frame,” in Gross, ed., The Structure of Modern Verse: Modern Essays on Prosody, 1979).

Whether or not one agrees with these attitudes—and I should imagine that any reader of contemporary (or, for that matter, of modern) poetry can point to one or more examples of poets who have little sense of whatever one defines as rhythm—what underlies statements such as these is the idea that prosody is a dying art, and that critics interested in it have little choice but to turn their attentions upon those few poets still writing in traditional metrics or upon poets of the past.

This sense of contemporary American poetry having abandoned prosody is reinforced, it seems to me, by the fact that when there have been attempts to bridge the perceived “gap,” the tendency, as Michael Davidson has observed, has been “to read contemporary verse in terms of what can be counted” (“Advancing Measures: Conceptual Quantities and Open Forms,” a manuscript read at the Modern Language Annual Convention, 1979). Paul Fussell, for instance, argues that the best of contemporary American and British poets “have returned to a more or less stable sort of Yeatsian accentual-syllabism,” which makes “the metrical radicalism of the 1920s” look “every day more naïve aesthetically….” (“The Historical Dimension,” in Gross, 1979). In The Book of Forms, Lewis Turco even defines English-language free verse as “more often than not…iambic, or iambic-anapestic.” However, while such notions of metrics may be applicable to a number of contemporary American poets working in a kind of vaguely conceived free verse, these statements shed no light upon the works of a large number of poets writing since 1950 who, taking their cue from Pound, have sought not only to “break the pentameter,’’ but to break other metical patterns as well. In fact, an “extreme” of this poetic tendency, represented by the “Language” group (a broad gathering of poets such as Charles Bernstein, Ted Greenwald, Bruce Andrews, Ray DiPalma, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, James Sherry, and myself), has struggled in its poetry against the whole notion of counting, against any fixed metrical measure or structure. Bernstein, one of the most vocal advocates of “Language” concerns, explained recently in a telephone conversation of October 7, 1980: “I am not interested in counting, but losing count. I want to so involve the reader in the reading experience that he or she will lose all count.”

As an alternative to “counting,” Davidson argues that in contemporary poetry one must look at prosody not as a concept of measure, but as a concept of “number,” “A play of ratios which occurs not at the level of the counted foot or even line, but, as Donald Wesling points out, at the level of the ‘whole poem!” I think Davidson’s thinking here is basically correct; but in arguing this, he really moves away from Melopoeia—the traditional focus of prosody—into broader issues of genre and Logopoeia (what Pound described as the “dance of the intellect among the words,” akin to Aristotle’s lexis), and through these concerns into issues of meaning. Davidson admits that such elements “may fall more properly within the domain of the linguist or literary theorist than that of the prosodist….”

Poets of the “Language” group, in fact, do take poetry in a direction away from melos into logos. Bernstein even describes “the music of poetry” as “the music of meaning” (“Semblance,” later collected in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984, 1986), a music of content. For Bernstein, as Don Byrd has said of the poetry of Louis Zukofsky, “the music of the poetry is just the experience of sound coming to mean something” (“Getting Ready to Read ‘A,’” a paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention, 1979). Accordingly, issues of prosody are seen as being inseparable from the overall structure of the poems. This is not to suggest, however, that writers such as Bernstein or Ted Greenwald are disinterested in prosodic values. It is only that, because no one prosodic device is given primacy, it is impossible in some “Language’ poems to isolate any one or series as such. To speak of prosodic “devices” belies an attitude contrary to that of such “Language” works. Prosody in a typical Bernstein or Greenwald poem does not support or even contribute to the meaning, but makes up the meaning, is meaning itself; it is less a device than the very process by which the poem comes into being.

The following selections from Bernstein’s first book Parsing (1976), and from Greenwald’s influential volume Licorice Chronicles (1979) may better help one to understand how prosody functions in such works.

the snow,
this parsing of the world
to make worlds & worlds
like atmospheres
a substance, of gravity
that pulls apart
or back on
i slept then, i bathed on wednesdays also
the feta cheese
the mozzarella marzipan
the seedless eye brown pencils
was waiting for the bust &
was on the telephone
gyroscope, sleeping binge
was hiding in a rock,
crystal, postcard
was a blue flame,
a grammar booklet, an asure

coordinating cities gulls still gull, and, arms binged with wine, as wine
pin roars in galeforce over lines,
horizon on gum letting loose a brack
of crickets by the door
near lowering eyes of a schooled quench
begging for a glass of water, and I sit watching
a jar of water with grass
in it watching amoebas swimming around and, I conclude
everything far as jar or jars is concerned is
plain dough staring to be known by a bad smell
heading bearing out conclusion airy as seams
that where there’s smoke there’s and, whichever way you burn
one, both, or one foot is still
flat on the ground
and, sunrising further in the east wherever that is, each day
leading to conclusions :
(from Licorice Chronicles)

One perceives almost immediately that this poetry does not really benefit from scansion.* Certainly several of the lines might be scanned; as evidenced in the series of imabs in the three lines in the middle of the first selection (“the feta cheese / the mozzarella marzipan / the seedless eye brown pencils”), the Bernstein work might even be characterized as being dominated by the iamb. Nearly every iambic grouping, however, is broken by radical shifts in metrical patterns. The iambic “was on the telephone” is interrupted by the anapestic “gyroscope, sleeping binge”; and the following iambic trimester gives way to two dactyls (“crystal, postcard”). This irregularity of rhythm is even more apparent in the Greenwald selection, where one observes a breakdown of the iamb even at the level of the line. The first five words of line one, for example, set up expectations for an iambic line, which are immediately thwarted by a kind of caesura (indicated by the commas surrounding “,and,”) and by the following spondee (“arms binged”). Although this first line returns to an iambic meter that is carried into the second line, it is soon broken again in line three by the shift from the iamb to the trochee; and the poem rarely returns to the iamb for more than a half-line at a time. In other words, even though one can find groupings of standard metrical patterns throughout both of these selections, they are so irregular—they are so continually interrupted—that it seems almost pointless to speak of measure or rhythm in these works in the way one might discuss it in a poem by Yeats or even by Pound.**

It is just as obvious that these selections, however, contain a great number of what are generally described as prosodic devices. In fact, it is impossible to miss such obvious patterns at work in these poems like alliteration (“mozzarella marzipan” and “an azure azalea” in the Bernstein poem, and the s and w repetitions in lines 6-8 in the Greenwald selection); assonance (the short e sounds of “seedless eye brow pencils” in Bernstein, and the ä in the “water…watching amoebas…around” sequence in Greenwald); as well as word repetitions (the “world/worlds & Worlds” group and the series of “was” constructions in Bernstein, and the “gulls/gull,” “wine/wine,” and “water/water” repetitions in Greenwald). In the context of such erratic rhythms, the existence of these more basic prosodic devices may be puzzling. If these poets, as they claim, are “attempting to avoid systematic prosody,” then why, one wonders, do they employ so many language patterns that one associates with Melopoeia?

The answer, perhaps, depends not as much on the rationale of these particular writers as it does on the way in which modern and contemporary critics and theorists have defined Melopoeia and, in particular, rhythm. In his study of the roots of the lyric, Andrew Walsh suggests that in the past couple of centuries there have been basically “two…versions of the roots of poetic meter” (Roots of the Lyric: Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics, 1978). One approach, rooted in the ideas expressed by Wordsworth and the poets before him, and argued in this century by critics such as John Thompson, “traces meter back to the rhythms of speech” (Welsh, p. 191); as Thompson observes, “Meter is made by abstracting from speech one of [the] essential features (phonomeic qualities of segmental phonemes, stress, pitch, and juncture) and ordering this into a pattern” (Thompson, The Founding of English Metre, 1961). The other version of poetic meter traces its roots back to the rhythms of song, to the measures of music. M. W. Croll, who represents this viewpoint, argues “Dancing and music are the arts of rhythm; they have nothing to learn about their business from poetry; poetry, on the other hand, has derived all it knows about rhythm from them” (Croll, “The Rhythm of English Verse,” in Patrick and Evans, eds., Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm, 1966). The prosodists with whom I began this essay have either implicitly or explicitly aligned themselves with one or the other of these approaches.

Building on Northrup Frye’s discussion in Anatomy of Criticism of “babble,” Welsh posits the idea that, while both of these approaches are legitimate, there is a third version for the roots of poetic meter:

The third root—less well recognized, perhaps, but no less funda-
mental—lies in the mysterious actions of the closed, internal rhythms
of language, the echoing of sound…called charm-melos. It is the
irregular rhythm of special, hidden powers in language, quite distinct
from the commerce of everyday speech and equally distinct from the
more regular rhythms of music and song. (Welsh, p. 195)

To demonstrate this, Welsh points to examples from Wyatt, Skelton, Shakespeare, Dryden, Blake, Poe, Pound, and other poets.

What is most pertinent is Welsh’s discussion of the way in which charm-melos or carmen functions. Focusing on primate charms and magic incantations, Welsh, with the help of linguists and anthropologists, characterizes the rhythms of the charm-songs as being highly irregular and depending heavily upon assonances, alliterations, rhymes (internal as opposed to end rhymes), and word repetitions in the language of the poem (Welsh, p. 136). Such devices, Welsh explains, produce an incantory effect, behind which stands the intention of the charm-song—enchantment. In charm, language does not represent mental concepts, but is a physical action and process. “Charms are meant to make things happen, to cause action”; and, in connection with this, the charm-song consists of a language apart from that of ordinary speech, a language wherein special powers reside. “To produce an effect, the charms must use, along with ritual actions, words capable of acting, words felt to be themselves actions…” (Welsh, p. 151). As Welsh quotes Bronislaw Malinowski (from Coral Gardens and Their Magic): the vocabulary, grammar, and prosody of charm-songs

fall into line with the deeply ingrained belief that magical speech must be
cast in another mould, because it is derived from other sources and pro-
duces different effects from ordinary speech.

These “different effects” are concerned with power. The language of the charm-song, in its potential to enchant, to cause action, is derived, as Welsh puts it, from “the old powers of sound and rhythm flowing into and shaping the language…. The language of charms is a language of power, and that power comes primarily not from lexical meanings, …but from other meanings hidden deep in the sounds and rhythms” (Welsh, p. 153). The control of such powers, finally, depends “not upon clear vision, but on obscure, esoteric knowledge, traditional or personal, which no amount of vision alone can uncover” (Welsh, p. 160).

The parallels between the charm-melos that Welsh describes and the contemporary experiments in “Language” poetry are striking. I have already indicated the irregularity of rhythm in the Bernstein and Greenwald selections; and I have pointed to how dependent these works are upon devices such as assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and word repetitions. The effects of such devices in these poems, if properly analyzed through more formal studies of such works, I suggest, would be perceived as very close to what Welsh has described as charm-songs.

Poets such as Bernstein and Greenwald, more importantly, are less interested in the lexical meanings of their words than in how these words function, in how they act or, as Bernstein has argued again and again, how the words syntactically behave in a series of “leaps, jumps, fissures, repetitions, bridges, schisms, colloquialisms, trains of associations, and memories” to which they are subjected and/or from which they are themselves generated (see “Thought’s Measure,” in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, no. 4 [1981], collected in Content’s Dream, 1986). Such words are not the medium of some message, but are the message itself.

To say this is not to completely deny referentiality, is not to ignore the fact that “marzipan” is a confection made from a paste of almond and sugar, or that “gulls” are aquatic birds. After all, both of these selections generate ideas of sorts: the Parsing passage speaks of the notion of “parsing” the world, of creating linguistic relationships of experiences and things, of a “seedless” grape, an “eye,” and an “eye brown pencil,” of a “bus” and a “bust.” Similarly, the selection from Licorice Chronicles suggests the possibility of “coordinating” reality, of shaping reality like “dough” into coordinates such as those implied by the relations of words like “glass” and “grass,” of a “glass of water” and “a jar of water with grass / in it.” The ideological content of these passages, however, is not where the vitality of these poems lies. Rather, it is the process of these works that most matters. That process, in turn, produces meanings that, like the charm-songs, depend less upon the dictionary than upon the rhythms and sounds of the language, and upon the author/reader’s private memories of, experiences, and associations with them.

Even more compelling is the way these and related poets describe their works. In notes from a series of eleven workshops Bernstein headed at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the winter of 1980, he argues that he and Greenwald are indeed interested in music and rhythm, but less in the music of the rhythm of speech and song than in the rhythms of the mind, “the music and rhythm of contemplation” which, through the act of writing (or speaking words to paper) becomes the form of the life, “a life as it is being lived in the body” (“Thought’s Measure”). Such a poetry of activism carries with it, Bernstein argues, a language which, in its self-conscious generation of the world—of words as objects—is necessarily opaque, dense, and private because the order of the poem is the order that comes from one’s “private listening, hearing.”

The very fact that this language is private connects it, in Bernstein’s ideology, with issues of power.

One power of the concept of privacy for writing is that of an address
of intimacy (“truthfulness” rather than “truth,” to use Wittgenstein’s
distinction) that allows the formal requirements of clarity and ex-
position to drop away. “At home, one does not speak so that people
will understand but because they understand” (Fuchs). Confusion,
contradiction, obsessiveness, associative reasoning, etc., are given
free(er) play. A semblance of coherence—of strength or control—
drops away. In contrast to this, or taking the idea further, the private
can also seem to be the incommunicable.

Elsewhere, he speaks of his interest in using words which “cast a spell,” an interest in words which are powerful enough to bring the mind into their grip. Such words, such a language creates an “intense experience of separation that is a part of the continuing power of privacy in writing [which] can make tangible what otherwise seemed invisible.” As Mac Wellman, another poet/playwright connected with “Language” writing, has expressed it, there is behind these kinds of statements almost a “religiosity,” “a religion of the word” (“Some L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Outlaws”), which reminds one of the charm-poets who saw their words not as a literary work, but as a verbal act “by which a specific force is let loose.” For the speaker of the charm, Milinowski reminds us, language was believed to exercise “the most powerful influence on the course of nature and on human behavior.” Measure for the ancients, as for Bernstein, is not something to be counted, but something to be “counted on” (Bernstein, letter to Michael Davidson, September 30, 1979), a powerful force which lies in the rhythm and sound of the mind revealing itself in the phoneme, morpheme, word, phrase, or sentence.

Bernstein and others, in short, describe their poetry in terms that are remarkably similar to the way in which Welsh characterizes the charm-song. I am not claiming necessarily that “Language” poets such as Charles Bernstein or Ted Greenwald are consciously (or even unconsciously) writing charm-songs; their work is a complex of many contemporary issues of poetics. I am only speculating that the rhythms of such poets may have prosodic roots in traditions other than speech and song. The notion that most of contemporary poetry has abandoned issues of prosody, accordingly, may be not only mistaken, but fails to recognize the narrow way in which modern and contemporary critics and poets define prosody—a narrowness that often ends in the dismissal of “Language” poetry and other chance-generated works by poets as diverse as John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and David Antin. Robert Bertholf recently found fault with “Language” poets, for example, because “contiguity predominates over image, breath, and music” (“The Polity of the Neutral,” Montemora, no. 5 [1979]). Rather, I argue, breath and music (image we must save for a later discussion) are in fact central to “Language” writers such as Bernstein and Greenwald; it is only that the music and breath they hear is from a source as old as language itself.

Philadephia, 1981