Barrett Watten's Progress, Roof Books, 1985, is a book length poem of 600 5-line stanzas (five to a page), composed in 1982-83.
The stanzaic form is without precedent; that is, I know of no other poem written in this style:
____ ________ ______ ____
____ _____ ______
____ ____ _______
___ _______ _____ ____ . . . .
--with the shorter line shifting position throughout the sequence. The use of a conclusive ellipsis at the end of every stanza is quite eccentric, and its purpose here is not explained. Traditionally, an ellipsis is used to indicate the omission of text, or to indicate hesitant speech.
The poem has no ostensible "subject" and is not musically inclined. There is no "narrative" or orderly discussion of concepts. The lines do not "follow" though the separation between superficially unrelated statements is obviously intended to signal potent or surprising contrasts. There is no way, therefore, to determine what the probable "correct" order of the stanzas (not to speak of the individual lines) should be. There may be an hermetic principle of ordering constructed around nodes of preoccupation, but any larger underlying scaffold would have to be deduced externally, since the poem itself does not offer any clues to the blueprint. Its form, therefore, constitutes its whole evident structure; and that form suggests an a priori structural ordination, without any overt reference to the prosodic quality of the language of the lines, or of their potential synchronicity.
I am making things difficult
to spread out
And advertize this camera
In place of orbs of the eyes. . . .
In public, you are invited to
Interior to frivolous talk.
Foliage behind virtue of beds. . . .
An extraction of surplus value
Raised anywhere is.
But identical to product
So that I and my ideas will win. . . .
There are a number of threads within the poem, though none of them fits into linear sequence which we could connect, and indeed part of the poem's point seems to be the futility of attempting to do so. Most of the statements--the great majority of them--are fragmentary. Which is to say, that the poem does not grow, organically, out of the code of its statements, but lies, dismembered, within its traces. In linguistic dissociation, language is inseparable from the distribution of power in society. The use of language depends on the social position of the speaker, and the authority of language comes to language from outside. Thus, speaking the language is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a power. Alienation from language is a typical reactive symptom; but it also may constitute a tool in the struggle between omnipotence and regression, or resistance. In other words, deliberately dissociative constructions may be regarded from an aesthetic point of view, as having a value apart from what they may signify as evidence of mental state.
In Moore's work, as I have said, atypical a priori structures are set up anterior to performance, in the same way, really, as Silliman and Watten do in Ketjak and Progress. In both latter cases, however, the form is not a vehicle for the placement of words and sentences in an ordered sequence, but an arbitrary containment for disconnected, or con-fused, randomly ordered, statements (or fragments of statements). In Moore, there are tropes of gendered dialectic, for instance, of subterranean disequilibrium, or social static, but these are not allowed to alter apparent rubric.
Ellipsis as an organizing principle has its limits. How do fragments of ideas, suggested or abbreviated, function within a fixed system of units? Earlier, I suggested that such works might be understood as the intersection of three dimensions: The empty form, the words themselves, and the content which the words both embody and refer to. Removed from adequate contexts, fragments of perception or analysis or description may indicate a breakdown (or failure) of the impulse to treat materials as if the world made sense. Ultimately, the undermining of meaning through the confusion of contexts reflects back on the structure. Private or hermetic sub-languages (which is how we might describe Ketjak or Progress) are instances of linguistic alienation. But they are not involuntary. Instead, they are intended to distort the normal apprehensive awareness of "sense" to explore new versions of irony, surprise, and difference.
If language decomposes at the same rate as attention, poetry might become as impatient as a video clicker. Stray, random impulses--nervous, cynical, bland--zip across like "nigger"-particles in a cloud-chamber of semi-comatose awareness.
In Moore's poems, the speaker takes responsibility for all the consequences of meaning which devolve from the expansion of its topics. In Watten's Progress, there is no responsibility towards the possible implications it sets into motion. Threads may die out, or be abandoned. Or picked up later, and examined, as if they were seen for the first time. The reader is left to construct his/her own version, with only a tangential relation to the static model.
Point at points in the mind
At which partitions connect.
. . .
To jump from a 13-story hotel
And assume a net,
That the way things work is
Not a projection of syntax. . . .
The "partitions" here are not a "projection" of syntax, but suppositions of deductions based in turn on other suppositions--like a bad dream of going into room after room after room, each with an unmarked door to.... The risk of assuming anything about a collection of disjunct statements is obvious, since, like any paradox, it only asks what it refuses to explain. A progression does not imply necessity, only a development from available options. That is the risk of leaving everything open to question and surmise. If all the rooms are empty, what is the point? But that of course isn't the whole story.
[End Part Four]