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Poetry in Principle

By George Quasha
Franz Kamin

Rare early photo of Franz Kamin creating a performance-installation

Mind-degradable Manifesto

I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to issue a manifesto like in the good old days, but any such assertion nowadays always seems to splinter into its ambiguities, leaving the motivating impulse unmanifest. The burden of poetic process is how easily it spoils even the finest dogma. However, if one located a principle that exists outside as well as inside art, stating it would not be a manifesto but a poignant observation.

Heroes of Mind-degradability

We’ve lost so many of the greatest (re)thinkers of poetic possibility in recent years that it’s important to keep reading out from their gifts and to rethink our own work in relation to them. Powerful among these are certain poets whose work literary critics and historians once doubted was poetry at all (deniers remain)—a distinction not in itself limiting, as there are ample instances past and present: Blake’s Milton and Jerusalem had virtually no readers in his time. David Antin and Jackson Mac Low are especially on my mind here, along with Franz Kamin, the latter by far the least known of the three. Their work was not based on literary models but an exploration of principles that required a radical revisioning of language. Some of these principles are hardly limited to language art, narrowly defined.

It’s a curious moment to be thinking about these matters as we awake daily to find out what major mischief our country is falling into now. It takes a special effort of mind to keep a focus—a double vision really—that both recognizes a terrifying process underway and nevertheless stays tuned to an other vision of possible being. Yet we return to this and related sites for what goes by the vexed name poetry—a name in dispute from many sides and within itself, ranging from accusation to Mental Warfare, Blake’s term for the crucial alternative to Corporeal Warfare. Which of these represents the recurrent and newly resurgent Poetry Wars?

Poetry has always excited antithetical passions, which pretty clearly attests to its fundamental power, however little it figures in the consciousness of our society at large. There’s the ever present question, which heats up at times like this, of how poetry can have an effective social role or “be relevant,” and the discussion reflected recently in social media shows that many think the issue can be resolved by leaving behind one kind of poetry, say, Conceptual writing, and embracing another, like a species of socially engaged writing. Often poets still seem to believe in these abstract distinctions as what matters, that a particular group or movement will make the difference, or that one approach or theory will win the debate. There’s no escaping ideology and there’s no denying the charge it carries. Yet when we look at powerful work it’s not so easy to characterize its genre or social position; it might have taken the charged issues into its language body and done something outside the categories we use in order to think.

I’ve written about Jackson Mac Low (1922-2004) on this site before in conjunction with John Cage, but I want to think of him now in the context of a poetry of principle. We call him not only poet but composer, performance artist, playwright, and in addition to the usual string of identifiers we could add political activist, anarchist, experimentalist, artist, and more. It’s hard not to use these abstract framing terms in our zeal to represent intricate identity in so radical and influential a practitioner, but he deserves better: we need to read him beyond what we already know. His work is hard to encompass in categorial description because he was always working on the outside of definition, even his own. Despite what some may think encountering his work, or the poet’s often elaborate notational commentary, it was not the product of concepts, rules and theory as such; he used strict procedures to work through and test out theories and concepts connected to philosophical issues that excited, preoccupied and perplexed him, and he oriented them toward opportunities for unrepeatable solo and group performance, which emphasized refined listening. His body of work is huge and, true to the person, full of contradictory extremes with contrasting dynamics—e.g., the systematic chance operations of Stanzas to Iris Lezak vis-à-vis what at the time was an almost alarming intimacy in Odes to Iris; performance “vocabularies” and processual thinking in the Light Poems, etc. At the center of all this was a writing practice serving as full-scale pervasive life practice. It was driven by a commitment akin to religious devotion yet without dogma or even belief; in fact, it was simultaneously meditative, mantric, proto-Buddhist, fiercely skeptical, politically activist, philosophical at root, and intimately personal. He’s viewed as a forerunner of/influence on Language poetry (a term he respectfully argued with) as well as Conceptual writing, included in Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, an invaluable and historically revisionist collection edited by Craig Dworkin & Kenneth Goldsmith (2011). You could say Mac Low contained multitudes including the poetry wars in his own body electric, although he was too modest and thoughtful to say a thing like that about himself. In my experience with him, he was uncontentiously responsive to the work of others beyond genre or fashion.

Other frames

At 22 in NYC I met Jackson at the same time as David Antin (along with Jerome Rothenberg, Paul Blackburn, Diane di Prima, Diane Wakoski, Armand Schwerner, Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, et al.) at Café Le Métro on 2nd Ave. where as a senior at NYU editing the student magazine Apprentice (begun by Blackburn years before) I would go most weeks to the readings. They fascinated and tormented me. At 14 in Miami, Florida I had suddenly realized I was a poet the moment I heard the mysterious and to me incomprehensible words, read aloud by a friend late one night, “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past…,” and years later I was still carrying The Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens in my back pocket; so I kept returning to Le Métro to find out why this also was poetry. It hit home one day that its not seeming to be poetry was one of its actual powers.

Jackson had set up a reading in which there was no apparent reader, as readers were spread out through the ample audience and uttering fragmentary phrases in no discernable pattern; it was eerie to me as I’d never conceived of such a thing. But not only to me. A cop came in to inspect the place under orders from “City Hall” to crack down on cafés as violators of the cabaret law, which required an expensive license (out of range to coffee-serving establishments patronized by indigent poets, some even sneaking in whiskey). I was standing in the back, all seats already occupied, and happened to see the cop, obviously confused and nervous amidst sourceless voices in unaccountably reverent quiet, go up to Moe, the proprietor, and say, “I’m issuing you a citation!” “For what?” countered Moe. “I don’t know but it ain’t right!”

Jackson wasn’t the only enigma; David and others read texts that I found perplexing as well. After all, I was spending the rest of my week reading the Metaphysical poets, Chaucer, Beowulf, and the like. The turn came one day as I was walking along Waverly Place and it suddenly hit me with startling force that I could no longer deny that Jackson Mac Low and David Antin et. al. had changed everything for me. Like that day in Le Métro, the chair where the poet sits was empty but new sounds were everywhere. I was at a loss to say what it all meant but it no longer mattered.

My story is not particularly remarkable except as an instance of the way poetry can be powerful in a certain frame, which is to say not only in the grand categories of understanding and influence but in discretely important ways to oneself at a given time and place. Beyond the “personal” but not beyond the experiential. Poetry at different points has reoriented my sense of myself and what it means to have a life work centered in questionable language. Poetry may be a life accident waiting to happen and poets are probably born and made, trapped and liberated by the prison-house/stormed-Bastille of language, and subject to unanalyzed psychonautic insight. Whatever its possible social function it could never not be the site where being sees what it is, or as Stevens wrote, “The poem of the mind in the act of finding/What will suffice….”

What sort of mind-action is the poem and what are the implications?

The strong devotion many of us still feel to Jackson Mac Low is due in part to an experience of his readings and performances, which bespoke a path in poetry but also a way of being grounded in listening. After performing with him or being present in a performance we heard language differently, as materially different as going from New York’s air to the Yucatan’s where you breathe the ocean at one moment and a Mayan ruin at another. To listen was to be instructed. Jackson’s reading did not strive for stylistic effect or attempt to persuade or impress but to realize actual qualities of voiced language that require “the body itself—one’s own ‘corpus’,” as Charles Olson said in Proprioception, “the cavity of the body.” The principle that drives this level of realization is hard to characterize but it has to do with an actual power of the poetic that recreates the reader/listener—creates not by way of a literary persona but an impersona, a new and possible receptive intelligence inside one’s own body and mind. You could describe it as momentarily getting free of one’s own identity just by being fully present there in the performative language sounding in space.

Early on Mac Low had the issue of getting beyond ego or the limitations of self, which had a Buddhist and anarchist resonance, and it motivated the procedural work with systematic chance operations. But he noticed that the self did not change much, let alone disappear. In my view he accomplished what is most important in that concern, namely, that by realizing an intention of the work to be itself transformatively, the issue of self faded away or, rather, woke to a species of non-duality by which self and non-self, poem and world, language and mind are experienced as inseparable. His performance work as well as his textual realizations took the powerful lessons of the procedural work into his greatest reinvention of writing. I first became aware of this development in Bloomsday, which we published at Station Hill Press in 1984, but it continued in a number of works after that and found its fullest realization in Forties, which Franz Kamin alerted me to as the “greatest Mac Low”; the first book was 20 Forties (Zasterle, 1999) and the final magnificent full edition edited by Anne Tardos, 154 Forties (Copunterpath, 2012). What was so startling and for me re-orienting was that the procedural work had transmuted into an unheard of species of processual, intuitive, spontaneous textual performativity. Jackson’s “language mind” now fully embodied the long-evolving experience of his work. This helped me conceive what I was understanding as principle—especially an axial principle of radical centering within language and the voice. It’s self-organizing with a free-moving zero point, and “self” discovers self-variance in response to the surround.

What is called thinking poetry?

A couple of years ago I also wrote briefly here about David Antin (and his appearance in poetry is (Speaking Portraits))—another recent incalculable loss (and now Joanne Kyger and Tom Raworth even more recently). Antin too was a poet of complex identity that included a quite new way of doing art and poetry criticism and whose later “talking” poetry caused him to be seen as performance artist or “stand-up poet.” He was a graduate student in linguistics at NYU when I was an undergraduate in literature, and we were together in M.L. Rosenthal’s poetic theory seminars where his brilliant paper linguistically analyzing Creeley and Duncan got me into seriously reading their work (and Wittgenstein as poet-philosopher).  When later I was on the faculty of SUNY Stony Brook and started Stony Brook Magazine (1968-70), David became linguistics editor. Both he and Jackson were major presences in the anthologies I would co-edit from that time (Open Poetry, America a Prophecy, and An Active Anthology). As much as Jackson he could be considered an early precursor to Language poetry as well as Conceptual poetry (also included in Against Expression), and neither of them identified with movements. There really was nothing around like what he was doing.

Antin’s famous shift from textual to “talking” poetry was something I experienced up close, as I attended its unanticipated beginning at Cooper Union in 1971. He discusses it in an intricate exchange with Charles Bernstein, a fundamental document of contemporary poetics (like so much of Bernstein’s broadly sympathetic critical work): A Conversation with David Antin (Granary Books, 2002, now online). The talk was stunning and at the end I couldn’t resist saying, “This is your real poetry, David,” to which he made rather affirming sounds. But it would take another talk at Pomona College and listening to the recording with Eleanor Antin for the importance of what was happening to fully sink in (“talking at pomona,” in Talking [Kulchur, 1972]). “I started thinking out loud,” he would say in retrospect as to why the shift from text to talking, “and that was somewhat better. I was committed to a poetry of thinking—not of thought but of thinking.”

Principle art

This is a key difference between what Antin was now doing, as against the procedural text work later appreciated as Conceptual—a poetry of thinking rather than a poetry of thought. The process of the poem is thinking itself, not able to be thought in the same way previous, or subsequent, to the act of the poem. Thinking in this sense is a singularity, or perhaps a singular processuality. The occasion of the poem is the unique opportunity for the thinking that happens there. If Lawrence Weiner’s 1968 “Declaration of Intent” is the Conceptualist model wherein the piece is thought/intended but “need not be built,” and if, as is often observed, some works by Kenneth Goldsmith are opportunities for thought but need not be actually read, then these both—as it were, brilliant one-liner thinkings for possible reflection—offer a defining contrast to Antin’s intention to think by way of the process of the poem. And this sets up the distinction between a Conceptual work and a Principle work. A concept can have a definitive expression/instance, and that adequate or possibly “perfect” execution may obviate any further need to make it. A principle, on the other hand, never has a definitive expression, and a work, to some extent defined by its principle, never offers a definitive instance of its principle. Each work or version of the principle is singular, and its “poem of the mind” is unique in both its inception and its reception. Any thinking about it cannot truly represent it and any discussion faces the problematic of translation.

Antin’s poetics of thinking while talking initiated a new kind of poetry, and yet in his terms it was not really an innovation or invention; rather, born of a specific need, it was a discovery of a principle intrinsic to the poetic not previously noticed. He was a poet finding out that (his) poetry showed up inside (his) talking, and it became more and more vividly in evidence once he declared the frame of poetry to indicate and sustain its public event. This contributes to our knowing something fundamental about poetry that frees it from the notion of dependence on tradition or precedent—or any species of authorization other than authorship itself. As principle-driven, poetry itself is never fully definable, although obviously there are genres of poetry that can be characterized after the fact; but to do so previous to the fact risks trivializing poetry itself. The word poetry is of course context-specific, as Wittgenstein would say, with many family connections; and there’s a sense in which as poet I myself create a context of its emergence, a notion expressed by Duchamp’s “It’s art if I say it is.” If you believe what I say or accept what I make as poetry, then you are part of a specific usage context with further life. If what matters to a poet is a certain social acceptance of the work or its impact in a given social context, then that’s the driving principle, or one of its principles (there can be any number). Antin was wary of that approach (as he was of “social climbing”) as limiting, perhaps corrupting, the functional value of making poetry, which for him was the opportunity for (shared) thinking; and if people didn’t like his talking or accept it as poetry, he was happy for them to leave. That was true for John Cage too, whose structured lectures (like “Lecture on Nothing” in Silence, 1961), an inspiration for Antin, were as Cage said, “poetry as I need it.” No waiting around for authorization by the critique du jour.

Further nature

Antin considered thinking-talking to be natural to him, and the public voice of his talking was not elevated or “poetic” but basically the same as his conversational voice; and not a reading-aloud voice, which he found unavoidable even when reading a transcription of his own talking piece. Talking was monologue structured by thinking freely in implicit interaction with an audience, “thinking on your feet” subject to developing in unexpected ways. Calling this “natural” implies a rather complex view of “nature.” Like observable natural phenomena that are self-organized, it has criticalities that are far too complex to foresee or control, no matter how much preparation there is. The technical definition of self-organized criticality (SOC) in physics is a property of dynamical systems that have a critical point as attractor, but for our purposes let’s just say that examples include earthquakes, weather systems, the global economy, ecosystems, and newly visible (due to enhanced technology) kinds of brain activity which do not correspond to known brain patterning. SOC, to simplify to make a point, tracks patterning force not only unknown but unknowable before the fact. The kind of “thinking nature” inside language that Antin attended is not likely to be less complex than other natural phenomena, and I have no doubt that the same is true of the compositional activity of Mac Low’s Forties—and, while we’re at it, Blake’s Milton, Jerusalem, et al. (Take a look at Donald Ault’s unparalleled Narrative Unbound: Re-Visioning William Blake’s The Four Zoas [Station Hill Press, 1987] which argues for the poem’s complexity and incompleteness as intrinsic to its meaning wherein “text and reader come into existence simultaneously to constitute and alter one another at each point in the poem.”) This is how I want to read: to engage the poem at its own level of poetics; it requires an “altered state of listening” at the more intense levels of compositional processing. It can be instructive in unimagined ways, pointing toward what Charles Olson called further nature. Let me also acknowledge that extraordinary scholars like Jerome McGann and Donald Ault and poets like Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Jerome Rothenberg, Robert Kelly, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Charles Stein among others, in their own extended poems as well as their attention to the work of others, have been navigating this wilderness for many years, contributing to proprioceptive poiesis.

Thinking proprioception

We could say that practically all the problems of the human race
are due to the fact that thought is not proprioceptive.
David Bohm

By what navigational device does Antin’s kind of in-motion composition operate—or Mac Low’s, who was himself composing Forties much of the time while travelling? Antin worked with a principle of tuning as against understanding:

Understanding is a literal idea based on a geometrical idea of congruence, and tuning is a notion of a negotiated concord or agreement based on vernacular physical actions with visible outcomes like walking together or making love.

This sense of poetic composition based on tuning involves speaking with listening and is relational. Proprioception is the “self perception” by which the body orients in space-time—how your hand can find your nose in the dark. Bohm says further:

It is more or less the same as what technical people call “feedback.” In a psychological sense, proprioception amounts to a kind of awakening of awareness to itself, i.e., awareness becoming aware of awareness. Proprioception means that awareness now also considers its own operations as something to be taken into account. Apparently there are not many people who have an awareness that includes awareness as being something to be aware of.

Franz Kamin

Franz Kamin

The issue, as in navigating moving composition, is feedback through developed listening, such that allows intelligent self-modification in process, without loss of the sense of being in actual space, the medium, the work, the world. It’s relational. The problem with the self and the thinking brain is that functionally it understands itself to be central, dominant, and in control. Thinking doesn’t know that there’s an intelligence in the mind as quick, precise and unmanaged as in the body—and not in evidence until we learn how to hear it. It requires a feedback medium of released self-perception. Composer, writer, poet, installation artist Franz Kamin used procedures—modeled on topology, general systems theory, meditational processes, and chance operations—together with spontaneous composition to bring about his unique version of proprioceptive process, which he called AUTOSKREELIK, writing about writing about what you’re writing about it. Antin’s location of thinking-talking in public introduced a dialogical/relational component to thinking in poem-dynamic—a practice of proprioceptive thinking. Likewise Mac Low’s Forties is a practice of proprioceptive poiesis, composed situationally in diary-like dynamic with his shifting locations. It extends the self-knowing, self-organizing awareness to the intimate word-syllable-sound level, the micro-logoic, the poem field self-aware and interacting with actual surroundings.

Franz Kamin’s Scribble Death, cover

Franz Kamin’s Scribble Death (Station Hill Press: Barrytown, New York, 1986)

By finding how to talk to and within itself in this emptied out space of listening at zero point, proprioceptive poiesis tunes in to a dynamic process of knowing in the present moment in time, right where it is. This understanding of the axial principle indicates a centering of attention that is self-perceiving and radically free.

The possible reader

Poets create readers and listeners. Certain kinds of reading/listening do not exist until the poem or performance creates them. Blake created possible readers who took many years beyond his lifetime to begin coming into existence. No doubt readers and species of reading never happened because the texts disappeared too soon; others become extinct without our noticing and sustaining them. I know there are multiple readers inside me thanks to Jackson Mac Low, David Antin, Franz Kamin…—and I might never have experienced such reading without Blake, G. Stein, Beckett, Stevens, Duncan…. A poem is a reading singularity to come. And a reading at that level finds an axis true to its moment, which is how it came to be.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Thursday, April 20th, 2017 by George Quasha.