Friday, October 17, 2014

Williams’s “Speech Rhythm,” &c.


William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963

Chomping at the air, at nothing. Besieged by that nothing, its casual unpreparedness. Nevertheless, a sallying out, a “mere improvise” (see Shelley’s remark apropos the verse drama Hellas: “I doubt whether, if recited on the Thespian waggon to an Athenian village at the Dionysiaca, it would have obtained the prize of the goat.”) Out of an essay called “Speech Rhythm” William Carlos Williams submitted to Harriet Monroe’s Poetry in 1913:
No action, no creative action is complete but a period from a greater action going in rhythmic course, i.e., an Odyssey, is rightly considered not an isolated unit but a wave of a series from hollow through crest to hollow. No part in its excellence but partakes of the essential nature of the whole.
      This is the conception of the action that I want.
      In the other direction, inward: Imagination creates an image, point by point, piece by piece, segment by segment—into a whole, living. But each part as it plays into its neighbor, each segment into its neighbor segment and every part into every other, causing the whole—exists naturally in rhythm, and as there are waves there are tides and as there are ridges in the sand there are bars after bars . . .
      Each piece of work, rhythmic in whole, is then in essence an assembly of tides, waves, ripples—in short, of greater and lesser rhythmic particles regularly repeated or destroyed . . .
      For practical purposes and for me the unit is of a convenient length, such as may be appreciated at one stroke of the attention. It must not be so small as not to tax the attention, that is, to hold it; it should be in good scale as the architects say . . .
      The rhythm unit is simply any repeated sequence of lengths and heights. Upon this ether the sounds are strung in their variety—slipping, clinging, overreaching, triumphing but always going forward even through moments of total disorder in the advance. . . .
Waves : tides :: ridges in the sand : sandbars. Self-similar mechanisms across differing scales. “No part in its excellence but partakes of the essential nature of the whole.” Is Williams’s “Speech Rhythm” pointing to a kind of “fractal verse” avant la lettre? See Alice Fulton’s “Of Formal, Free, and Fractal Verse: Singing the Body Eclectic” (1986), with its “tentative exploration of fractal precepts”:
. . . any line when examined closely (or magnified) will reveal itself to be as richly detailed as was the larger poem from which it was taken; the poem will contain an infinite regression of details, a nesting of pattern within pattern . . . ; digression, interruption, fragmentation and lack of continuity will be regarded as formal functions rather than lapses into formlessness; all directions of motion and rhythm will be equally probable . . .
Harriet Monroe rejected Williams’s essay, “returned it as incomprehensible”—according to Mike Weaver, who found “Speech Rhythm” “uncatalogued among the Viola Baxter Jordan papers” and printed excerpts of it in William Carlos Williams: The American Background (1971). Williams, out of the Selected Letters (1957), writing to Monroe in a letter dated 10 October 1913, presumably regarding the rejected piece:
My dear Miss Monroe: How a thing can be hammered out until it is first perceived is beyond me—but if your editorial judgment is correct—patience.
      To me, what is woefully lacking in our verse and in our criticism is not hammered out stuff, but stuff to be hammered out. A free forum, there is the need, which asks only “Is it new, interesting?” I should think, even, that at times you would be concerned lest you get nothing but that which is hammered and worked out—except when the divine Ezra bludgeons you into it.
      France is France; we are not France. Would you not rather have anticipated a Lincoln than acclaimed a McMahon?
      Figure me, of course, the Lincoln.
And again, a few days thereafter (14 October 1913):
My dear Miss Monroe: To tell the truth, I myself never quite feel that I know what I am talking about—if I did, and when I do, the thing written seems nothing to me. However, what I do write and allow to survive I always feel is mighty worth while and that nobody else has ever come as near as I have to the thing I have intimated if not expressed. To me it’s a matter of first understanding that which may not yet be put to words. I might add more but to no purpose. In a sense I must express myself, but always completely incomplete if that means anything. . . .
Williams seeming to work out a processual dialectic, improvisatory, provisional, raw. I think of E. M. Forster’s anecdotal lady who remarks “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” in Aspects of the Novel (1927). And, too, Forster’s agreeably remarking on Gide’s Les Faux Monnayeurs, its—
. . . proposal that writers should mix themselves up in their material and be rolled over and over by it; they should not try to subdue any longer, they should hope to be subdued, to be carried away. As for a plot—to pot with the plot! Break it up, boil it down. Let there be those ‘formidable erosions of contour’ of which Nietzsche speaks. All that is prearranged is false.
(Shelley again: “I must trespass upon the forgiveness of my readers for the display of newspaper erudition to which I have been reduced.”)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thoreau / Williams / Aldo Buzzi


Aldo Buzzi, 1910–2009

Oh to be fleet and capacious and omnivorous like—and one pauses to random the brain’s pert inessential byways and furrows for some mythological beast not forthcoming, only to conclude, albeit reluctantly—like capital itself, voracious and consuming. To prehend invariably the multitudinous array, prehensile in the scrabblings, a mild indefatigable seizure in the gleanings, piling up unsortables in new and “uninstituted” ways. Institute: out of the Latin instituĕre to set up, in + statuĕre, see the Latin statūtum ordinance, see status, see station, see state. Long string of immovables. Henry David Thoreau, out of a Journal entry dated 19 August 1851:
      The way in which men cling to old institutions after the life has departed out of them & out of themselves reminds me of those monkies which cling by their tails—aye whose tails contract about the limbs—even the dead limbs of the forest and they hang suspended beyond the hunters reach long after they are dead   It is of no use to argue with such men   They have not an apprehensive intellect but merely as it were a prehensile tail. Their intellect possesses merely the quality of a prehensile tail. The tail itself contracts around the dead limb even after they themselves are dead–and not till corruption takes place do they fall.
And:
      The poet must be continually watching the moods of his mind as the astronomer watches the aspects of the heavens. What might we not expect from a long life faithfully spent in this wise—the humblest observer would see some stars shoot.—A faithful description as by a disinterested person of the thoughts which visited a certain mind in 3 score years & 10 as when one reports the number & character of the vehicles which pass a particular point. As travellers go round the world and report natural objects & phenomena—so faithfully let another stay at home & report the phenomena of his own life. Catalogue stars—those thoughts whose orbits are as rarely calculated as comets   It matters not whether they visit my mind or yours—whether the meteor falls in my field or in yours—only that it comes from heaven. (I am not concerned to express that kind of truth which nature has expressed. Who knows but I may suggest some things to her. Time was when she was indebted to such suggestions from another quarter—as her present advancement shows. I deal with the truths that recommend themselves to me please me—not those merely which any system has voted to accept.) A meteorological journal of the mind—   You shall observe what occurs in your latitude, I in mine.
I love the sly cheekiness of a kind of self-appointed divinity in Thoreau’s “I may suggest some things” to nature, “Time was when she was indebted to such suggestions from another quarter.” Too, I think of Williams’s call—in Spring and All (1923)—for “the perfection of new forms as additions to nature.” Against “the falseness of attempting to ‘copy’ nature.” Little sense of any Williams’s history of reading Thoreau. I see a single (odd and rather unfathomable) reference in Williams’s Selected Letters. Writing to Robert Lowell about Lord Weary’s Castle (26 September 1947):
. . . it’s interesting to me that you have found a way to mention local place names without that jumping out of context which so often occurs to make a work false sounding. It’s very hard to treat of American things and name them specifically without a sense of bathos, of bad sentimental overlap resulting. Look at the John Brown thing. Look even at Thoreau. Something happens, something happened even to Henry Adams, even to Henry James when the United States was mentioned. It is very difficult and somewhat obscure what happens—but you have got by nicely I think. Maybe its because you anchored your data in ground common to Europe and to Christianity—if that has to be.
Williams, seemingly in the course of writing, succinctly (and sweetly) putting Lowell in the European camp (that is, a tradition antithetical to Williams’s own). Bathos in Thoreau? Place names in the 19 August 1851 entry: “PM   to Marlboro Road via Clamshell Hill—Jenny Dugan’s—Round Pond   Canoe Birch road (Dea Dakins) & White Pond.—” Isn’t bathos a predominantly literary failing? Odd that Williams’d fret that.

I commenced with the “fleet and capacious and omnivorous” thing because I’d just reread some of the gastronome and architect Aldo Buzzi’s marvelous Journey to the Land of the Flies and Other Travels (1996). Admired, particularly Buzzi’s unexpected and extravagant pile of gleanings here:
      In 367 B.C., with the tragedy The Ransom of Hector, performed in Athens, Dionysus won a literary prize and, like a good Sicilian, wished to celebrate the event with a banquet. I don’t know if, like his fellow citizen Charmos, he kept at hand, while he ate, verses of Homer and Euripides and proverbs to cite in relation to every dish that was placed before him; but as for the food, it is probable that he regulated himself according to the ancient equivalent of the Sicilian saying “There is always room for an unexpected mouthful.” As often happens with tyrants, he exaggerated. He died at table, where one can put off old age but not death. (Nor did his tragedy survive him; already judged mediocre by contemporaries, it confirms that even in antiquity literary prizes tended to be awarded to mediocre works.)
      Two very special dishes have, by force of circumstance, eluded me: stigghiole, seen only from a distance on a street in Messina (as I was passing in a car, with no possibility of stopping, I saw the unmistakable azure smoke); and scuma (foam), the finest spaghetti, thinner than angel hair, a specialty of Catania, the city of the great physicist Ettore Majorana, who let his hair grow very long, like a like a generous portion of scuma, in order not to waste time at the barber’s. As the young Stendhal did, too.
Making room for that casual appendage of “the young Stendhal.”

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ian Hamilton Finlay / Novalis


Ian Hamilton Finlay, 1925-2006
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)

Out of a letter dated 21 June 1967 found in Midway: Letters from Ian Hamilton Finlay to Stephen Bann, 1964-1969 (2014):
. . . I am puzzling, and agonising, about a sort of extension of the one-word poem idea . . Not the 2-word poem, exactly, but the fragment, on isolated phrase, which is somehow soaked in meaning, in an un-obvious way . . Such poems would be a sort of equivalent of those corners, in farmyards, or wherever, which seem inexplicably to ‘contain’ some elusive meaning, in the form a few nettles, a shadow, and an old sack . . . The ‘fragment’ has obvious affinities with the concrete poem, in that both are ‘self-sufficient’ and ‘unexplained’. But one cannot have the fragmentary fragment, unless one does what my new friend, Prof. Guy Davenport, did in his Archilochos and Sappho translations—simply allow the historical fact of fragmentation to forgive what would be impermissible in a contemporary poem . . I am always convinced that one has poems without number inside one, and that the real problem is always to find the form which will allow them to exist. This is why I have sometimes toyed with the idea of pseudo-translation (just as various people seem to have assumed that Archilochos was Guy Davenport’s invention, which he of course was not). But such a solution is unsatisfactory, and I suppose I must content myself with the odd fragment that is not fragmentary, while rejecting the ones which seem as full of ‘content’ but don’t fulfil the other obligations of the contemp. poem. By the way, did I ever send you one my favourite one-worders—which I am having (I hope) done on a stone:

The Water’s Breast And
                ripples

or

The Boat’s
inseperable ripples

(which is a 2-worder)

or (a great favourite)

RING
   net
DOVE

which is the germ of a whole new method, if I could see it.
Ian Hamilton Finlay’s first one-word poems appeared in the final issue of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (No. 25) in 1967. Some of Finlay’s one-word poems—out of the Alec Finlay-edited Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections (2012):
The Cloud’s Anchor

swallow
And:
Wave

avé
And:
The Boat’s Blueprint

water
And the lovely late entry (1999):
A Last Word

rudder
Pertinent to the marvelous “corners . . . seem inexplicably to ‘contain’ some elusive meaning”—Finlay’s 1999 note called “Romanticizing,” reworking the Novalis fragment that begins “Die Welt muß romantisirt werden”:
The world must be romanticized. Only thus will we rediscover its original meaning . . . If I give a higher meaning to the everyday, a mysterious aspect to the ordinary, the dignity of the unfamiliar to the familiar, the nom de plume Novalis to the name Friedrich von Hardenberg, then I am romanticizing it.
And, too, some lines out of Finlay’s “Camouflage Sentences”: “Realism is a style which purports to be, and is at first often taken to be, without camouflage.” And: “Every style in art is a camouflage through which, by our own reconstruction, we think we see ‘real’ nature.”

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

O’Hara’s Reverdy


Pierre Reverdy, 1889-1960
(Portrait by Pablo Picasso)

Usual sleeplessness of four o’clock. Up to read “at” the Reverdy translations in the Mary Ann Caws-edited Pierre Reverdy (NYRB, 2013). Some of the translators: John Ashbery, Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Sieburth. Funny how Frank O’Hara—represented by a single previously unpublished translation (another is partially quoted in Caws’s prefatory note “Why Reverdy?”)—comes to preside over the book. Caws, in “Why Reverdy?” :
      A single moment has a singular potential. “Just for Now,” in Frank O’Hara’s translation,* lays the stress on that:
Life it’s simple it’s great
The clear sun rings a sweet noise

[. . .]

Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the espaliered sunshine
And my arms are stretched towards you
This day that I love you
It’s today that I love you
Later, assessing “the impact of Reverdy on American poets,” Caws points to Rexroth’s New Directions Selected Poems (1969) and Ashbery’s “A Note on Pierre Reverdy” and translations in the Evergreen Review (1960) and writes:
O’Hara memorably refers to him in his 1964 Lunch Poems
                                My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy
—and then goes on, in the same upbeat tone, to link his name to two other avant-garde writers:
                                everything continues to be possible
René Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it
(Isn’t the effect here to elide lines out of “A Step Away from Them” with lines out of “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul”?) The unpublished O’Hara translation (provided by Bill Berkson) is of Reverdy’s “Chair vive”**:
Live Flesh

Carcass my dear get up and walk
There’s nothing new under the yellow sun
Absolutely the last of the golden Louis
Light which is so detached
Under time’s little scales
Lock on the heart that’s breaking
A silk thread
A plumb-line
A thread of blood
After waves of silence
Those kinky black signs of love
Heaven smoother than your dear life
Neck twisted with pride
My backstage life
From there I see death’s harvests swaying
All the greedy hands that make smokeballs
Heavier than pillars of the universe
Empty heads
Naked hearts
Perfumed hands
Tentacles of the monkeys who claw the clouds
In the furrows of those grimaces
A straight line tightens
A nerve twitches
The full sea
Love
Bitter smile of death
I like some of the swerves and refusals: “kinky” for crin, meaning horsehair, “time’s little scales” for les pellicules du temps, meaning time’s scurf or dandruff—that sort of thing. Meeting the French text with a vigorous sense of play. For comparison, here’s Lydia Davis’s more literal version, blunter, more somber, attending more to the prosody of the original (Caws includes, too, a Rexroth version):
Live Flesh

Stand up carcass and walk
Nothing new under the yellow sun
The last of the last of the louis d’or
The light that separates
under the skins of time
The lock in the heart that shatters
A thread of silk
A thread of lead
A thread of blood
After these waves of silence
These tokens of love in black horsehair
The sky smoother than your eye
The neck twisted with pride
My life in the corridor
From which I see the undulating harvests of death
All those greedy hands kneading loaves of smoke
Heavier than the pillars of the universe
Heads empty
Hearts bare
Hands scented
Tentacles of the monkeys who aim at the clouds
Among the wrinkles of these grimaces
A straight line tightens
A nerve twists
The sea sated
Love
The bitter smile of death
* See “Just for Now” complete in O’Hara’s rendering here—out of the Bill Berkson-edited Best & Company (1969). Rather mysteriously, the O’Hara version quoted by Caws differs in its final four lines, with one word changed (the too poetic “espaliered” replacing the imprecise “squandered”—for éparpillé, meaning scattered, dispersed), a line missing (“At the wall midst the vines the greens”), and a line added—the somewhat limp “This day that I love you.”) The ending in Best & Company reads:
Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the squandered sunshine
At the wall midst the vines the greens
And my arms are stretched towards you

It’s today that I love you

** The original:
Chair vive

Lève-toi carcasse et marche
Rien de neuf sous le soleil jaune
Le der des der des louis d’or
La lumière qui se détache
sous les pellicules du temps
La serrure du cœur qui éclate
Un fil de soie
Un fil de plomb
Un fil de sang
Après ces vagues de silence
Ces signes d’amour au crin noir
Le ciel plus lisse que ton œil
Le cou tordu d’orgueil
Ma vie dans la coulisse
D’où je vois onduler les moissons de la mort
Toutes ces mains avides qui pétrissent des boules de fumée
Plus lourdes que les piliers de l’univers
Têtes vides
Cœurs nus
Mains parfumées
Tentacules des singes qui visent les nuées
Dans les rides de ces grimaces
Une ligne droite se tend
Un nerf se tord
La mer repue
L’amour
L’amer sourire de la mort

Monday, October 13, 2014

Italo Calvino / Thomas De Quincey


Italo Calvino, 1923–1985

Rain at four a.m. A low pressure system elbowing its way east: sensed in the balmy air, fish-scented. Unexpected after a cold weekend of high blue sky and autumnal clarity. Early Sunday out at sunup to tromp the Leonard Preserve, old prairie fields and hardwoods along the River Raisin near Manchester. Driving out: a straight line, single file, of black-faced sheep cutting down a briar-covered hill. A garden of particolored quilts, lumpy and meager, thrown over tomatoes against the frost. A red-tailed hawk hunched on a telephone pole, inscrutable, noiselessly turning to look. At the Preserve: air with an uncommon sweet smell, hint of strawberries, some unfathomable resin, some tang. Tiny kinglets in the shrubberies: both ruby- and golden-crowned. Five or six wild turkeys crowding the path, twenty or thirty feet away, ambling off into the tall grass. Osage oranges, their brain-lobed fruit. A red-headed woodpecker working the deadwood near the river. Plenty of deer: “coughing” and bounding, or standing perfectly still to look back in that placid half-knock-kneed way.



In the lecture called “Quickness” in Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988), he quotes Carlo Levi writing about Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy:
      The clock is Shandy’s first symbol. Under its influence he is conceived and his misfortunes begin, which are one and the same with this emblem of time. Death is hidden in clocks, as Belli said . . . Tristram Shandy does not want to be born, because he does not want to die. Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows—perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.
Calvino’s reply to Levi (and Sterne):
Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. . . .
Whence he proceeds into a lovely digress:
      From my youth on, my personal motto has been the old Latin tag, Festina lente, hurry slowly. Perhaps what attracted me, even more than the words and the idea, was the suggestiveness of its emblems. You may recall that the great Venetian humanist publisher, Aldus Manutius, on all his title pages symbolized the motto Festina lente by a dolphin in a sinuous curve around an anchor. The intensity and constancy of intellectual work are represented in that elegant graphic trademark, which Erasmus of Rotterdam commented on in some memorable pages. But both dolphin and anchor belong to the same world of marine emblems, and I have always preferred emblems that throw together incongruous and enigmatic figures, as in a rebus. Such are the butterfly and crab that illustrate Festina lente in the sixteenth-century collection of emblems by Paolo Giovio. Butterfly and crab are both bizarre, both symmetrical in shape, and between them establish an unexpected kind of harmony.
Words pertinent to my reading, with pleasure, of Thomas De Quincey’s memoirs (written c. 1834-40) of Coleridge—here out of the David Wright-edited Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (1970). (See De Quincey’s numerous—and, I suspect, rather lamented by some readers—self-urgings “to resume the thread of my wandering narrative.”) A lovely example regarding Coleridge’s father, “a learned clergyman, the vicar of Ottery St Mary,” seemingly a man whose errantry, caprice and waywardness aligns with Coleridge’s own. De Quincey:
His father was described to me, by Coleridge himself, as a sort of Parson Adams, being distinguished by his erudition, his inexperience of the world, and his guileless simplicity. I once purchased in London, and, I suppose, still possess, two elementary books on the Latin language by this reverend gentleman; one of them, as I found, making somewhat higher pretensions than a common school grammar. In particular, an attempt is made to reform the theory of the cases; and it gives a pleasant specimen of the rustic scholar’s naiveté, that he seriously proposes to banish such vexatious terms as the accusative; and, by way of simplifying the matter to tender minds, that we should call it, in all time to come, the ‘quale-quare-quidditive’ case, upon what incomprehensible principle I never could fathom. He used regularly to delight his village flock, on Sundays, with Hebrew quotations in his sermons, which he always introduced as the ‘immediate language of the Holy Ghost.’
De Quincey, too, in fleet digress apropos Coleridge père:
Dining in a large party, one day, the modest divine was suddenly shocked by perceiving some part, as he conceived, of his own snowy shirt emerging from a part of his habiliments, which we shall suppose to have been his waistcoat. It was not that; but for decorum we shall so call it. The stray portion of his supposed tunic was admonished of its errors by a forcible thrust back into its proper home; but still another limbus persisted to emerge, or seemed to persist, and still another, until the learned gentleman absolutely perspired with the labour of re-establishing order. And, after all, he saw with anguish, that some arrears of the snowy indecorum still remained to reduce into obedience. To this remnant of rebellion he was proceeding to apply himself—strangely confounded, however, at the obstinacy of the insurrection—when the mistress of the house, rising to lead away the ladies from the table, and all parties naturally rising with her, it became suddenly apparent to every eye, that the worthy Orientalist had been most laboriously stowing away, into the capacious receptacles of his own habiliments, the snowy folds of a lady’s gown, belonging to his next neighbour; and so voluminously, that a very small portion of it, indeed, remained for the lady’s own use; the natural consequence of which was, of course, that the lady appeared almost inextricably yoked to the learned theologian, and could not in any way effect her release, until after certain operations upon the Vicar’s dress, and a continued refunding and rolling out of snowy mazes upon snowy mazes, in quantities which, at length, proved too much for the gravity of the company. . . .
Festina lente. I recall a story out of Charles Sprawson’s terrific book about swimming, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero (1992). To wit: “When still a schoolboy in London, Coleridge was once walking down the Strand revolving his arms in imitation of Leander swimming the Hellespont. A passerby presumed that this was a novel method of pickpocketing and after apprehending him was so struck by Coleridge’s scholarly explanation that he gave him a ticket to a circulating library in the city . . .” Festina lente. Rabbit in a snail’s shell. Tortoise outfitted with tall mast and a billowing sail.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Merrill Gilfillan’s Red Mavis


Merrill Gilfillan
(Photograph by John Sarsgard)

Out of Merrill Gilfillan’s Red Mavis (Flood Editions, 2014):
Blue Ridge: Streams Are Roaring

Morning in the shade
of a persimmon tree. Later, downstream
below a hornbeam. A shy man hollers
from across the valley.

Every other rhododendron flower holds
a tiny bee, just the way
each macaroni shell in pasta e fagioli
eventually holds a bean.

A little Italian goes well up here.
Latin, too—castanea, ruficapilla, caroliniana:
Paroles: Dogwood calls the catbirds.
Black cherry calls the blue.
Examining the lingo, the paroles: Castenea is the genus name of the chestnut tree, the American chestnut an erstwhile mainstay of the Appalachian slopes; ruficapilla, literally “chestnut-crowned,” species name of the Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla), with its rarely-noted reddish-brown cap; caroliniana, amongst other, commoner, pertinences, being the species name of the American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), another tree native to the Blue Ridge. A whole “radiant node or cluster” there: ch’ing ming, “right naming,” le mot juste. Gilfillan is a master of a certain laconic economy, seeing itself making precise naming’s arrangements: “Black cherry calls the blue.” Too, there’s a kind of wry goofy numinosity, fervor ratcheted down a notch or two, in the “calling” of a line like “Dogwood calls the catbirds.” One senses the mischief in the earlier alignment of bee (in rhododendron flower) with bean (in macaroni shell), the natural world become like pasta e fagioli, mimicking an ordinary homemade thing. (No accident that Gilfillan’s title, Red Mavis, is a regional name—Thoreau knew it—for the brown thrasher, a bird of the Mimidae family, related to the mockingbird.)

To note: parallel to Gilfillan’s plein air sketching (I am thinking here of Kerouac’s use of the term—“everything activates in front of you in myriad profusion, you just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words”) of the adjacency, the (natural) surround,* there’s Gilfillan’s easygoing acceptance of the vagaries of human folly, the inexplicable human world. “Roan Mountain: Vireos Sing Falling Water” begins: “Those men in the valley / shredding lilacs in full bloom— / a little too human?”—and later asks: “Did I ever actually know / a woman named Normandie Beach?” Or there’s the two varieties of riffing of “Daybreak Sky”—a triad of sycamore fancies hinged to a “scratched out” tale of human straits and manners:
Sycamores along the Guyandotte
pretty as a pony: elegant as Appaloosas:
fancy as a rare blond python.

Daybreak sky

the gentle colors of a burst persimmon.
Coal Miner’s Daughter, scratched out,
then Coal Miner’s Wife.
To note: Gilfillan’s love of the names of things, of places. One part of “Smoky Hill Moon” ends with a kind of litany:
Sizzle of old names fried
in the sun. Yitas. Yupes.
The fabulous Aes—old names,
names I think of almost daily,
names cut free, gone missing,
broiled crisp beside the road.
Ietan, Highatan, Layatan:

private spellings sweet to say,
words rolled like dice,
scooped up by wild wind.
Names tongued and tangible, mouth-material, precise and particular names, names approaching scat (Jelly Roll Morton: “Scat doesn’t mean anything but just something to give a song a flavor.”)

To note: Gilfillan’s sense of fractal scale, deft telescopings. Looking off “Cumberland Mountain” (“a high clear place”): one notes how “bare trees show / the same almost prehensile reach and whorl / as the tuft of lichen riding in your buttonhole.” Or, in one of the “salted haikus” (a lovely flap-copy term, presumably Gilfillan’s own: “salted” with its sense of “cured or preserved” or of “seasoned with wit or good sense”—road and trail incidents put away, conserved, with glints of humor intact), a piece called “Night Sky, Pawnee Creek,” one slips between the brightest star in the constellation Orion and creek: “Rigel leaves a ripple / otter / through black water.” Against such potent miniatures: a series of prose poems, jump-narrative pieces, shotgun memoirs. Here’s one:
A Mile North

One partly cloudy March afternoon in 1978 I stopped at an oyster bar out in the back country of Florida, a well-worn roadhouse about a mile north of Crawfordville on 319. A gaggle of local men were sitting in an open-air, tin-roofed patio with a jug of mud-colored grape homebrew and a dimestore cooler full of oysters. They were shooting pool and passing the jug and shucking Apalachicola sliders. Someone even broke into “The Wabash Cannonball.” I joined them and said I’d driven south a week before from Ohio on the big-river downstream route. Eunice the barmaid was married years ago to a band leader in Cleveland—that put us in the same canoe. We sat there for an hour, beneath the strings of Christmas lights still looped across the roof beams. When we ran out of saltines for the oysters, Rodney went out to his truck and brought in a box of coconut cookies. His son was passed out dreamily across the seat of the cab . . . Such a thing. Such a thing as a mural for the day, weak gesso on old stucco for the simple Dionysian high-note of it: for the a capella laughter and the buds of clouds and the intermittent song, the accidental brackish sheen of salt and sugar on the mutual tongue.
“For the simple Dionysian high-note of it . . .” There’s no little sense and evidence of sheerly celebratory offices in Red Mavis, lauds and praises for the earth and its doings and inhabitants, noted with fond particularity, tender clarity, kindly acceptance: “Barmy old rattlesnake / lazes through / chicory blue . . .” (out of “R.I.P. Mary Fly”). Or: “Raucous wind, ratty clouds— / what the cat dragged in.” (out of “The Road to Jupiter”). The pleasure in modestly offering an approbatory something, not much. Here’s “Gift Horse”:
Toss a crust
for the quiet hermit thrush, sipping
the last of the garden:

fallen eggplant, soggy squash—
pretty much the same ratatouille
we had for lunch.
Not much, but measuredly—and humanly—enough.
* Exemplary, perhaps, the wild (and right) contiguities of “Cuatro de Mayo”:
Dabbling teal the color of ibis,
ibis in the shallows flashing
violet-rose, teal-wing green—

think along that cut of dream
the other night: “On a Greyhound
or a train,” talking
with an unfamiliar woman to my right.

We gradually unravel her privy news
as crows slip by: D. H. Lawrence
still alive, living far off in remote
seclusion—a jitney, then a mule—

We call for sherry, polished
walnuts, full pilgrimage.
Jets camouflaged sky-blue go over
in a fit of rage.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Edwin Denby’s Pleasure


Rudy Burckhardt, “Edwin Denby on West 21st Street,” 1937

“Neon in daylight is a / great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would / write . . .” Thus O’Hara writes in “A Step Away from Them”—a poem dated 16 August, 1956. A line so etched in memory that I go looking for the Denby line, somehow convinced of its existence in one of the sonnets, right there next to “The shoulder of a man is shaped like a baby pig.” Nothing. There’s only Denby in “The Thirties: An Essay”—written “in the late fifties” according to a note in the Robert Cornfield-edited Dance Writings and Poetry (1998)—recalling walking with Willem de Kooning “at night in Chelsea” during the Depression, with de Kooning “pointing out to me on the pavement the dispersed compositions—spots and cracks and bits of wrappers and reflections of neon-light—neon-signs were few then—and I remember the scale of the compositions was too big for me to see it.” And how Denby’d put what de Kooning made him see into a poem called “The Silence at Night,” found in the 1948 In Public, In Private. It begins:
The sidewalk cracks, gumspots, the water, the bits of refuse,
They reach out and bloom under arclight, neonlight—
Luck has uncovered this bloom as a by-produce
Having flowered too out behind the frightful stars of night.
(Dispersal and its ever-expanding scale caught in the reiterating: “reach out and bloom,” “bloom,” and “flowered . . . out.”) No daylight, little neon. Is, I wonder, the Denbyism O’Hara wants to capture not daylight-inflected neon, but the idiolect “great pleasure,” a way Denby had of speaking (writing)? (The pause O’Hara’s line break exerts before “great pleasure” adds some intensity and prominence to the phrase.) Out of Denby’s Dance Writings and Poetry:
There is nothing everyday about art. There is nothing everyday about dancing as an art. And that is the extraordinary pleasure of seeing it. I think that is enough for today.
      —“Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets” (1954)
And:
To recognize poetic suggestion through dancing one has to be susceptible to poetic values and susceptible to dance values as well. But I find that a number of people are and that several dancers . . . are quite often able to give them the sense of an amplitude in meaning which is the token of emotion in art. I myself go to dancing looking for this pleasure, which is the pleasure of the grand style, and find a moment or two of satisfaction in the work of a dozen dancers or more.
      —“How to Judge a Dancer” (1943)
And:
      A number of people have asked me the reason for the present wave of balletomania that is sweeping from coast to coast . . . My personal opinion is that ballet—when it is well danced—is the least provoking of our theatrical forms. Nobody on the stage says a word all evening. Nobody bothers much about sexiness or self-importance. The performers are bright, tender, agile, well mannered, they are serious and perfectly civilized. It is good for one’s morale, because it appeals to the higher instincts. You feel sociable and friendly and at the same time wide awake. I think that’s why so many people are delighted. Civilization is really a great pleasure.
      —“Markova’s Dance Rhythm; Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet” (1943)
And:
Standing among the ruins of the Palatine toward sunset late in October, I saw a flock of migrant birds keeping close like a swarm, beating their small wings almost in unison, forming—the swarm of them—a single revolving vibrating shape which kept changing in the air—a shape that distended, that divided like an hourglass, that streamed out like a spiral nebula and then condensed again into a close sphere, a series of choreographic figures which rose and fell above the city as the flock drifted upstream and out of sight. A social celebration and a prehistoric pleasure.
      —“Forms in Motion and in Thought” (1954, printed 1965)
And:
The plan of a choreography is a great pleasure.
      —“Balanchine and Tchaikovsky: Ballet Imperial” (1943)
And:
. . . if ballet is a way of entertaining the audience by showing them animal grace, why is its way of moving so very unanimal-like and artificial? For the same reason that music has evolved so very artificial a way of organizing its pleasing noises. Art takes what in life is an accidental pleasure and tries to repeat and prolong it. It organizes, diversifies, characterizes, through an artifice that men evolve by trial and error. Ballet nowadays is as different from an accidental product as a symphony at Carnegie Hall is different from the noises Junior makes on his trumpet upstairs or Mary Ann with comb and tissue paper, sitting on the roof, the little monkey.
      —“Against Meaning in Ballet” (1949)
And:
It was a great pleasure to see the new Monte Carlo; it was a pleasure too that it was such a success.
      —“Massine and the New Monte Carlo” (1938)
And:
      What is a “stylized movement”? It is a movement that looks a little like dancing but more like nondancing. It is a movement derived from what people do when they are not dancing. It is a gesture from life deformed to suit music (music heard or imagined). The pleasure of watching it lies in guessing the action it was derived from, in guessing what it originally looked like, and then in savoring the “good taste” of the deformation.
      Stylized movement has always been a perfectly legitimate pleasure in the theater. Sometimes it’s merely a little quiz game thrown in for variety.
      —“On Meaning in Dance” (1943)
If not an idiolect, a creed, the measure of an aesthetic. I think that is enough for today.