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Self-evidence with Difficulty

By George Quasha
Site of the Café Le Métro poetry reading coffeehouse from 1963-1965, located at 149 2nd Ave., New York City

Site of the Café Le Métro poetry reading coffeehouse from 1963-1965, located at 149 2nd Ave., New York City

For many years I’ve been interested in difficulty; I suppose in the present context it could be called the poetics of difficulty. I remember at age 14 carrying around the hardback Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas (acquired for a dollar from a book club), opening it from time to time and understanding almost nothing, yet there was an unfamiliar thrill that kept drawing me back in. The attraction was as strange as the text itself. I think that was Lesson One, too destabilizing at the time to grasp.

Poets invent readers. The first reader invented is oneself, or at least oneself as the possible reader—the reader to come. It starts by reading without understanding and finding it oddly powerful. If this often fragile experience doesn’t get ruined by teachers insisting on the priority of understanding, reasonableness or some other species of correctness, it opens a path. (Understanding might discover it has an alternate nature, something like sudden awakenings, breaks in clouds.) It raises the question who is the intended reader of this alien writing and could that be me? And this unnatural excitement (I also got Flowers of Evil from the book club to fail to understand) changed my relation to text. I would eventually come to understand that writing for readers one holds in esteem risks serving a lingering childhood desire to please and avoid rejection—in short, an emotional corruption. It was clear to me even then that Baudelaire was not aiming to please, not at least in any familiar sense.

Yet even the most radical of poets intends some kind of confirmation (due to the island no one is) but how much? An unanswerable question in general, but a poet eventually seems to require at least one flesh-and-blood reader, perhaps to be convinced of intrinsic sanity—Rimbaud had Verlaine for a while, Blake had Catherine (plus the visitations of his brother Robert, post-flesh-and-blood). Probably the only reliable confirming witness over time is the one a poet invents or, depending on the ontology, discovers virtually, who smiles approvingly after each new line (only to frown later on reviewing certain lines, but it’s that first smile that really counts in sustaining motivation). It’s easy to see why so much poetic history can be described in terms of social groups, whether political, geographical, aesthetic… —people who read each other. “Poetry wars” may ensue…. Residual question: Can poetry be without this evident double function as medium of rescue for the “isolated” mind and discovery of common purpose, like social impact? No answer intended.

A reader has to learn a poet’s language. It’s not fundamentally different from learning a foreign language. The very first hearing of an extremely foreign language, which one has never laid ears on, may not sound like language at all—was it insect chatter, clicks and gulps? crazy music? When at age 20 I first heard Jackson Mac Low reading in Café Le Métro on 2nd Ave. I was quite sure it wasn’t poetry, maybe it wasn’t even really language! Many months later, after weekly readings there, walking along Waverly Place I suddenly realized that I could no longer deny that what I’d been hearing—vigorously denying it was poetry—had changed me beyond all recourse. I was the reader Mac Low (+ David Antin, Diane di Prima, Jerome Rothenberg, Paul Blackburn, Armand Schwerner, Allen Ginsberg, et al.) had invented. In a sense I was no longer me. First in an open series of not-me’s still to come.

Not being who one thinks one is, is one of the great achievements of poetry. (It may be a first step beyond fixations of culture—literary dogma, ideology, cultural consumerism). I’ve come to consider that any language that can bring about that miracle might be a species of poetry. The logic of that thought leads to the view that poetry is undefinable if definition requires definite boundaries. One knows it in the moment and not a moment before. Even if it takes months or years to know it, it is known only in its moment. An acquired critical armamentarium may only render the matter (whatever poetic stuff is) less accessible for the (young, especially) poet. The risk of inculcating critical, or any, standards is that it may actually delay one’s being invented as reader of a given poetry, especially a challenging one.

Without the experience of being reinvented and realizing how deeply language is implicated in that event, I doubt that radical reflection on identity, its instabilities and its “mind-forged” disproportionately powerful social constructs, is possible. This is a first level on which poetry can be said to be transformative or revolutionary—or insurrectionary, to use Hakim Bey’s term in a context of anarchism and complexity (I plan to address this later).

But the focus here is on a kind of self-evidence. This sort of notion is notoriously difficult to define, and like Wittgenstein’s insistence on context and usage games, it calls into question our reliance on definition itself. I don’t go to poetry because I know what it is, and I don’t write because I know what I want to say or how I will say it; it would be more accurate to claim that I do these things because I don’t know and have discovered that way certain necessary but often mysterious benefits. By not tying the benefits of my writing to other poets’ conceptions of poetry I’m freer to engage theirs on their own terms. I suppose I read them to discover other species of self-evidence, a further not-knowing with alternative accuracies, rather than add them to my own (how tedious) monument of poetic conception. The poem not as walled city but either as a working nomadic encampment (cf. Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z.—Temporary Autonomous Zone) or as microcosmic site of unlimited access (cf. Robert Duncan’s “open universe” underfoot and underhand).

Perhaps this is why I have been drawn to poets who show me alternative dimensions. So, one aim of this April journey through the blogosphere is to call attention to certain alternative poetic manifestations, manifestations of alternatives to consensus.

I will probably die before reading all of the writing of certain of the poets, past and present, I love most. Of course there are poets like Blake where, even if one reads all of the work, it remains in an important way unread and requires in Gertrude Stein’s sense beginning again and again. (Maurice Blanchot is a writer I think of this way.) In the case of Stein herself, not only do I keep finding more (and more keeps coming back into availability), but I find myself concentrating on certain texts due to feeling I underread them (e.g., Stanzas in Meditation), and never getting around to reading all of, say, the unabridged The Making of Americans. True to her intentions, these works never cease to challenge, even annoy, a sign that my energy is not meeting the text, or an unacknowledged “me” has been disturbed and is fighting back. This is true for Jackson Mac Low as well—and even though, very sadly, he has left us physically, the work keeps coming forward, adding to a vast very living body of work. And even now Anne Tardos mentions she’s working on The Complete Light Poems (60! How great.).

Then there are highly productive living poets I’m fortunate to know, like Robert Kelly, Clark Coolidge, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Charles Stein…, who have enormous bodies of work, a great deal unpublished, while the work continues to grow daily—older poets whose work matures while retaining… what?—a certain lusty teenage growth energy? A stand against consensus, corruption, late capitalism? Access to further dimensions? Hmm.

What’s interesting about all of the above-named poets, starting with G. Stein, is that for them writing is integral to a way of living the day, its continuing present, an actual modality of being itself. Their writing is a lifetime, at intersection, which is different from a diary. The work is not a running commentary on daily life as such but a non-ordinary medium of access and engagement with what, without the work, is ordinary in a sense that is not yet aroused to radical attention. A lens onto singularity. It seems the work is a sort of textarium, a living growth zone, which requires sustained attendance so the entities don’t wilt. For poets of this nature our tradition, our literary culture, has barely honed appropriate tools of evaluation. The most responsive (or responsible) act is not to enter the zone looking for the award-winning orchid. Perhaps it’s to check one’s pulse on entering and leaving. It points to a dimension of work which one enters as oneself and leaves subtly othered.

The Logothete spins a world of words
then lives in it.

Peter Lamborn Wilson, “All-Nite Diner” (unpublished)

I want to be from where I’m from
the problem is to be the place I am

no one faces as many faces as I do mornings
it is another person every breath

no wonder we say but there is wonder
think of where the alphabet finally led us …

Robert Kelly, Uncertainties, #52 (Station Hill, 2011)

Reading any poet with sustained attention—but in particular poets who intentionally counter consensus, who run interference to the deeper habits of mind—I want to find my way into the core reality of the vision. I don’t mean that there’s a main point or doctrine or any other “thing,” or that knowing “it” explains the work. But there is something vital to the work that’s not so easy to acknowledge—the level of reality, the level of being [bracket level, reality, being] that a work insists on to be known as what it is to the poet. Duncan used to say that he and Charles Olson had made work that insisted on being taken at the level of its poetics; I took this to mean in part that casual reading or reading to select the “major poems” did not meet the core reality. (And Duncan was critical of anthologies, especially anthologizing sections of longer poems—like John Cage’s statement that you can’t cut a long work because it’s long all over.) This view of the text as interwoven with a life or serving a life at the level of its actual complexity, rather than representing or expressing a life or its ideologies, suggests that a poetry requires the full range of non-reductive possible response that life itself does.

Thinking of poetry in this way, the operative word for what one poet gives another may not only be “influence” but transmission. A poetry entered with some degree of completeness transmits more than its ideas, emotion, formalities, stylistic moves. Hearing the voice of the poet transmits more than these plus a style of reading. Seeing the poet in person, getting to know her, can be a great amplification of certain unnamed factors. (Evidence for the interweave of text, voice, and face in poet-reality I have found in filming hundreds of poets, saying what poetry is, for the ongoing video poetry is.) But it may well not be the business of criticism to make poetic transmission a whole lot clearer, at least not directly—for fear of appearing to objectify what happily can’t be reified without ceasing to be what it is. What may be a special work of poetics, differing from other formal approaches, is the possibility of enhancing non-reductive ways to protect and be open to transmission. It’s certainly not about privileging poets and their lives, but it is about finding orientations toward… what? self-organizing reality? barely noticed criticalities?—however we think of it, we know it first as immediately self-evident, a sort of radical empiricism beyond precedent, and without the burdens of metaphysics, religion or ideology. I’m stopping here to avoid giving the impression that I think I know how to do it.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 by George Quasha.