Friday, February 27, 2009

Big Shots


I am a large format landscape photographer--at least I used to be.  It's been quite a while since I took any shots, but I have all the equipment:  Eight cameras, a full darkroom in my house.  I took up this "hobby" (actually, hobby is a poor word for what is one demanding bloody obsession) while living in Northern Japan in 1985; the landscape there was still somewhat unspoiled by industrialization and sprawl, though the Japanese were wasting no time in subduing the remaining open space; if you think we're hard on land here, you should see how they regard "nature." I thought the opportunity of exploiting that opportunity was too great to be missed, so immediately began exploring the countryside and farming communities for subject-matter. I spent a month in Kyoto, photographing the gardens (both sacred and profane), using a 4x5 with Ektachrome slide film. 

When I returned home, I took up large format black and white image-making seriously, stepping up quickly to 8x10, and then 11x14 formats. With negatives that large, the method of printing is contact, since the apparatus needed to enlarge a negative of that size becomes increasingly unwieldy; besides, one of the great attractions of contact printing is the lush, highly detailed (grainless) images which are possible. As everyone knows, Edward Weston worked exclusively with contacting his 8x10 negatives. Both as an amateur collector, and later, as a professional book dealer, I've acquired and traded important books of images. 

From time to time, I will post images of my own online. I'm trying to set up a link page where I can post larger images. Also, I'll be reviewing and discussing the work of various photographer whose work I find fascinating, such as Frederick Sommer, Sudek, Friedlander, Caponigro, Minor White, etc.  

The image above was made with a 4x5 camera using Kodak Tri-X sheet film, printed on Agfa Portriga Rapid #2 paper (with the Cesium in the emulsion). It was taken at Death Valley Dunes in the late afternoon of a day in 1990. I like the sense in which the shadows of the distant landscape are mirrored and balanced by the contrasting mass of the ridge line descending towards the viewer, creating an interesting tension.        

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

STANZAS FOR AN EVENING OUT






















In 1977, when I self-published the above book, I'd been working for the U.S. Government Department of Health and Human Services for three years. I was trying to figure out how to pursue a literary career on the side, while earning enough money to support my family. I was also uncertain about how my life, the workaday world, and the aesthetic choices (alternatives) I perceived, could possibly fit together.  

Putting together a book of poems then seemed like a good way to define what it was I had accomplished, and to present a "version" of myself that was a combination of who I thought I was (as a writer), and--pertinently--what kind of writer I thought I would like to be. I think I realized, even then, that art--writing--is to a large degree a self-fulfilling projection of an idealized identity (persona). Who you are and what you say (show) to the world is to some degree a promise, or a wish--of who you imagine yourself to be, and how you imagine that will be received. This is hardly ever addressed in discussions with writers, perhaps because it's an embarrassingly private matter, and perhaps because it may seem self-evidently obvious.  But it isn't, by any means.

Much literary ambition is expressed as a projected determination to succeed. It is assumed, I think, that the creation of a public persona, through one's poetry, happens naturally. Of the poetry which I admired in my early twenties, it seemed to me that the qualities I most enjoyed, and might emulate were: Rhapsodic thrall, stylistic economic precision, and a perspicacious curiosity in mystery.  

I was also interested--always have been, actually--in books, their feel, their qualities. Some writers pretend not to care much about how their work appears, as if the "container" was somehow irrelevant to the contents. I always knew that I would never be satisfied with someone else's "translation" of "me." Some writers only care about how much esteem they can garner through inclusion into a system of book production, i.e., winning the sweepstakes of acceptance by a major, or recognized, publishing house.  

In 1976, I was sending my work out to magazines, counting my rejection slips. I was confronting the inevitable fact that unless you have connections--people who know you and your work--or are very lucky, your work will seem irrelevant and invisible to anonymous readers. The kind of work that interested me, the kind I wanted to write, wasn't what editors of major periodical venues were looking for.  

During that same period, I was editing a little poetry magazine, titled simply L, and was also publishing, with the help of some grant money, books by other poets. Without perhaps realizing it, I was setting up as a sort of "anti-publishing" entity, along with dozens of other underground writers and publishers. This was a revolutionary period in the "little magazine" amply documented in A Secret Location on the Lower East Side by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips [Granary Books, 1998]. I was isolated from most of the rest of this other activity, but I was aware of it, and was, perhaps involuntarily, becoming associated with its aims and intentions.  

Most of all, I liked books, and dreamed of becoming a part of the phenomenon of authorship. While attending the Writer's Workshop at Iowa in the early 70's, I'd come into contact with Harry Duncan and K.K. Merker at the University printing lab. The fine printing/letterpress tradition was very much alive and well there. I could see how the presentation of a work of literature was determinative of the significance of the work--the two weren't separable. Olson's admonition not to allow your work to simply be meubles, or furniture inside a pre-fab room, led me to the realization that a poet's relation to his/her audience is perhaps the first priority in addressing the enterprise of writing. It needs to be foremost in a writer's mind.  

Who is your audience? How does your work migrate from your desk to someone (the reader's, the listener's) else's attention? How do you "package" yourself? How do you package your work? Is a poem, a book of poems, a commodity, a product to be marketed? What is the difference between grafitti, and a page of typed lines? What is the difference between making a mimeographed pamphlet, and a hardcover book published by Alfred A. Knopf? Is there an "official verse culture" which represents the power center of the cultural empire? 

What I realized, in 1976, was that what you believe about yourself, as a writer, is largely a fantasy, built out of your imagination of what books and literature mean. Writing is an imaginative act; but so is publication, book design, readings, as well as the whole superstructure of teaching, foundations, grants, prizes and rewards. It's all an enormous projection devoted to defining and refining the canons of taste and "value." How any given writer responds to the imaginative challenge of being in this environment may perhaps be the crucial, decisive act of his/her life.  

I published Stanzas For an Evening Out [L Publications, 1977, 203pp] because I had a clear vision of what I wanted myself to be, as a writer. Its limitation as a piece of writing, derived from my own immaturity as a writer; its meaning, as a piece of book design and layout, was my preferred version of what I loved as a consumer of (poetry) books as things. I could not have been happy with an editor's or publisher's version of my work, or myself. If I had been offered the opportunity by a major publisher to publish a book of poems, I would certainly have accepted. In the intervening years, having abandoned the possibility of an active identity as a writer in the "real" world, I came to realize that my frustration as a would-be writer had its roots, first, in the nature of my personality, and, second, in my resistance to being defined by an external agency of the cultural marketplace. 

While at Iowa, I could see how my peers would succeed, through a single-minded determination to adapt themselves to the demands of the literary marketplace. For them, in many instances, accommodating oneself, in one's work, to the expectations and priorities of the prevailing modes and cliches of form and social relationships, was the main task. In this respect, it bore almost a complete resemblance to the careerist model of any other middle-class job-track, securing degrees of competence, competing for honors and rewards, currying favor, leveraging advantage. 

In retrospect, I'm happy that things turned out the way they did. Publishing my own book taught me much more than I would ever have learned by trying to fit myself into the mold of an ambitious young poet meekly shopping around for a willing publisher. My attempt to imagine myself into the role of poet was a more honest approach to the process of learning what it might mean to write deliberately, as Thoreau said, than of passively adapting my work to another definition of writing, in obedience to a false necessity.

   

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

LZ Catullus Raw & Cooked

Louis Zukofsky's Catullus [New York-London, Cape Goliard Press in Association with Grossman, 1969], stands as one of the major works of literature of the 20th Century, right alongside Ulysses, The Waste Land, Mrs. Dalloway, Spring & All, Harmonium, The Naked Lunch, Light in August; in other words, in the company of those works which propose revolutionary, new paradigmatic conceptions of form and method.  Of that company, it's the only one which is a work of translation, and as such, occupies a nearly unique place as an act of innovation.  In his very brief Preface to Catullus, Zukofsky says "This translation of Catullus follows the sound, rhythm, and syntax of his Latin--tries, as is said, to breathe [my italic] the "literal" meaning with him."  

Translations of "ancient" classical languages (Greek, Latin, Arabic), have traditionally followed the assumption that the "meaning" of a work lies somewhere exterior to the actual text, a presumption that supports the belief that translations of works from one language to another are permissible (or only possible), given the distance between/or inherent unlikeness of, the two languages, by completely transforming the original work, carrying its "sense" but nothing of its grammar, sound, or look.  This is what traditional translation does, has been.  

Our sense of what Vallejo or Apollinaire or Akhmatova might be like to native speakers in their original respective languages, is largely confined to what we imagine, based on versions we have in our own language (English).  It is often said, as Frost did, that poetry is what cannot be translated.  Pound thought that to work, good translations had to be "re-imagined" by the translator in the new language, assuming that the translator was sensitive enough to those qualities in the original tongue, to be able to carry this feat off.  

In addressing the issue of how to "re-imagine" a poem from another language, we must try to define what the "untranslatable" alembic--its "poetic" content--might consist of.  Our deepest sense of language, of the characteristic quality of how things sound and mean, are associated, occurs in early training, in childhood.  Some individuals  retain greater degrees of receptivity to linguistic qualities, well into adulthood.  Polyglots learn other languages more easily, and may be better able to feel "inside" of the qualities of another language than others.  (I once heard it remarked that Creeley's early work derived much of its antique power from his having carefully read in classical Latin. Whether or not you believe that, it does seem that poets who have the experience of poetry in another tongue, are better able to re-imagine it in their original tongue, than if they simply worked from cribs (simple translations of words)).  

It occurred to Zukofsky at some point, that translations based on the formality of verse current in his youth (1920's) were hackneyed versions of contemporary styles, which did not, in any significant way, create a "sense" of the root qualities of feeling of the originals upon which they were based.  Rather than "re-imagined" versions, they were nothing more than new poems about (or based on) the content of the originals.  If the essence of a poem's deeper meaning is not just in the paraphrased content, then where is it?  It must lie in the intimate, particular connections between its assigned signifiers (words, and their constituent parts) and the objects, sensations and senses to which they refer, in other words, the somewhat arbitrary mental associations from the defined uses of language. 

How to get at these associations, without creating, willy-nilly, a new arbitrary set of relationships?  

Zukofsky proposed making a translation of Catullus's original Latin texts by following, as closely as might be possible, the sequence of vowel sounds inherent in the Latin words of the poems.  Why?  In other words, is there any necessary relationship between the sequence of vowel sounds in an original poem composed in Latin, in the 1st Century BC, and the possible imitated sequence of similar (not identical) vowel sounds in 20th Century English, and the inherent linguistic meanings which might be common to both?


Let's look at an example of one of Catullus's poems, one which, conveniently enough, Zukofsky had translated in an earlier, (Poundian) "imagined" style, then compare the two methods.  Here is a translation LZ made of Carmina VIII, the 22nd poem in his separate collection Anew published in 1946:


Miserable Catullus, stop being foolish
And admit it's over,
The sun shone on you those days
When your girl had you
When you gave it to her
              like nobody else ever will.
Everywhere together then, always at it
And you liked it and she can't say 
                                                she didn't
Yes, those days glowed.
Now she doesn't want it: why
                       should you, washed out
Want to. Don't trail her,
Don't eat yourself up alive,
Show some spunk, stand up
                                               and take it.  
So long, girl. Catullus
                                               can take it.
He won't bother you, he won't
                                               be bothered.
But you'll be, nights.
What do you want to live for?
Whom will you see?
Who'll say you're pretty?
Who'll give it to you now?
Whose name will you have?
Kiss what guy? bite whose
                                               lips?      
Come on Catullus, you can
                                               take it.   

In almost every respect, this is a poem composed in the usual style common to every "adapted" version.  A free verse monologue set as dramatic speech, it could be the "complaint" of any love-sick hero, attempting to console himself with false courage and resignation.


Now let's see how Zukofsky does it in his "breathed" version:

Miss her, Catullus? don't be so inept to rail
at what you see perish when perished is the case.
Full, sure once, candid the sunny days glowed, solace,
when you went about it as your girl would have it.
you loved her as no one else shall ever be loved.
Billowed in tumultuous joys and affianced,
why you would but will it, and your girl would have it.
Full, sure, very candid the sun's rays glowed solace.
Now she won't love you: you, too, don't be weak, tense, null,
squirming after she runs off to miss her for life.
Said as if you meant it: obsinate, obdurate.
Vale! puling girl. I'm Catullus, obdurate,
I don't require it and don't beg uninvited:
won't you be doleful when no one, no one! begs you,
scalded, every night. Why do you want to live now?
Now who will be with you?  Who'll see that you're lovely?
Whom will you love now and who will say that you're his?
Whom will you kiss? Whose morsel of lips will you bite?
But you, Catullus, your destiny's obdurate.

Here is the original Latin:

Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
ibi illa multa tum iocosa fiebant,
quae tu volebas nec puella nolebat.
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles.
nunc iam illa non vult: tu quoque, impotens, noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser vive,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
vale, puella. iam Catullus obsdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit invitam:
at tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla
scelesta, nocte, quae tibi manet vita?
quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?
quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis?
at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.

I took one year of Latin in grade-school, perhaps just enough to be able to sound out the syllables properly, but without much conviction.  From a pragmatic point of view, what purpose might we put to an attempted version, like LZ's abstract, syllabic one--which relies on the concatenation of syllables from the other language?  It's immediately apparent that the common sound phonemes and syllabic units between Latin and English are predictably exploited, i.e., "miserable" and "miss her." The different versions "say" the same thing, though in much different ways--


Come on, Catullus, you can

                                                 take it.

and 


But you, Catullus, your destiny's obdurate.        

Looking at the Latin and English versions, line by line, you can see the imitation isn't slavish, or precise. It's an exercise in finding English equivalents which might be coined out of what is--in effect--an arbitrary sequence of sounds, rather like a composer taking a chance progression of notes and attempting to construct a sensible melodic line out of it.  Perhaps not completely, since English is close enough to its (partial) Romance language ancestry to echo--albeit distantly--the familiar "sounds" (or sound roots) of two thousand years ago.  The process is an exercise in mediated invention.  I can think of no other example in the arts which requires as much interpretative genius to bring off, as Zukofsky's Catullus.

Translation, as an exercise, can force inventions and accommodations.  Rhyme, in fact, is often used in just this way, to enable and prompt potentially unsuspected or fresh combinations. These new combinations may indeed sound like inspired nonsense:  

Latin: Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo


LZ version: Piping, beaus, I'll go whoosh and I'll rumble you


The literal translation of which, for those of stout mien, is "I will bugger you and face-fuck you." 

Children may derive giddy delight in word games, which make of repetition and absurd rhyme a celebration of innocent play in possibility.  At base, our pleasure in language is greatest when we are attuned to the dance of syllables making sense out of air.  The habitual is familiar, but in art, the unfamiliar is a gift.  The seemingly random quality of syllables in a language we don't understand--or are at the least unfamiliar enough with to not hear it as empty quotidian--may inspire creative uses of language.  
     
         

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Minimalism as the Ultimate Conceit (Part 1)

When I went to high school, in the early 1960's, girls used to accuse boys, as a sort of ultimate criticism, of being "conceited."  I don't know the etymology of that usage of the word, but its original, and correct meaning, is as a literary term, referring to an extended metaphor, often carried to absurd lengths, in a work of poetry.  The Metaphysicals, particularly John Donne, were fond of it, as it was a convenient manner of ironizing and building expedient structures without being wholly explicit or obvious.
  
Poems of great brevity have a long and honorable history in English poetry. Examples such as Alexander Pope's Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness,

I am his Highness' dog at Kew;
Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Or Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro,

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Or Louis Zukofsky's

THE

The
desire
of 
towing.

--each is an interesting and entertaining example of how a poet can imply or infer large concepts or ideas through a very few, carefully chosen words.  "Found" poems, which usually are comprised of just a couple of words, occupy a whole anteroom to the larger warehouse of poetic genres.  

How far may we go in compressing meaning into language?  Is it possible to make poems so small and ingenious that no elaboration is necessary?  Can a small poem evoke a context of possible meanings broad enough to rival that which is possible through complex, elegant structures, like sonnets?  Can profundity be abbreviated?  

In mathematics, we know that small, neat formulas can summarize universal concepts. Einstein's famous E=MC2 is often regarded as the ultimate equation describing the elemental force trapped inside the structure of matter.  Mankind's eventual success or failure as a species may well depend on how we are able to utilize the wisdom contained in that kernal of mathematical description.

Against the legitimacy of this potential compression is the charge of pretense or fakery. Indeed, the tendency towards a reductio may reflect a desire for over-simplification.  Modernism, in its early and most famous crucial texts (The Waste Land, Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Spring & All, Harmonium, The Cantos, Discrete Series, A, etc.), was explicitly generative, attracting a nimbus of interpretation and contextual responses which buttressed the texts, lending an adjunct legitimacy to what frequently seemed opaque surfaces, at least to the general reading public.  

In the post-War period, the possibilities of compression and concision were explored at length by Robert Creeley, starting near the end of Words [1967], reaching a crescendo in Pieces [1969], and lingering some into the 1970's, after which he resumed a less stringent aesthetic.  Anyone who knows Creeley's work is familiar with Pieces.  Somewhat less well-known, though just as important to the minimalist tendency, is his short collection Thirty Things [Black Sparrow, 1974], which is in many respects the quintessential statement of his commitment to the uncompromisingly short lyric, which is intended to carry the weight of occasion and meaning normally assigned to seemingly more ambitious formal efforts.  Taking, for instance, an example, this--

A Loop

No
one
thing

anyone does

--or this--

But

if we go back to where
we never were we'll
be there [REPEAT] But

--the quality of riddle or of a meaning encoded is expressed with so few words that a sort of ultimate truncation opens up between expectation and method.  Poems such as these have, for me, the same quality of moving large concepts around, efficiently, as do mathematical formulas. In each of these two poems, a circularity or redundancy is used to express an obsessive mental "tic" or time hang-up.  Each uses a common vulgar phraseology, turned back upon itself through a discrete musical setting, revealing a logical "loop" or hitch.  

Are such little gadgets really poems?  Do they belong beside the considerable works of Marvell, Donne, Blake, or Hopkins?  Can ease of apprehension be offered as justification for their apparent accessibility?  Or does their lack of evident presumption and pretense guarantee that they will never be accorded the seriousness which people normally associate with Literature?

If our notion of conceit in the "metaphysical" sense can apply to elaborately conceived poetic structures, such as those typical of Donne, then highly compressed or abbreviated ones might also be considered such, through subtraction and great ingenuity.  An ultimate simplicity may accomplish the ultimate summarization of fact, or feeling.  This is certainly one of Minimalism's great attractions. 

We will have more to say in coming posts about Minimalism, and its various manifestations in post-Modern verse.                      

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Iraq, Afghanistan & Pakistan

I am not an expert on the Middle East, but I think I have read enough about it over the years to form a useful opinion about America's aims and involvements there over the last quarter century.

The predominant view of the Bush II Administration was that American military intervention in semi-developed countries could bring about favorable changes which would enhance and augment our political and economic interests, while ushering in Western style regimes.

This view now seems discredited, if indeed it ever had any validity. From an historical perspective, the nations of the Near East, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Iran, as well as those in the areas known as Afghanistan and Pakistan, were late arrivals to the family of world nations. They did not have a "tradition" of a unified government, nor of any practical sense of institutionalized democratic processes. During the 20th Century, much of the undeveloped Third World leap-frogged intermediate stages of nationalistic evolution and blossomed into florid monarchies or brutal dictatorships; this process continues today.  

The notion that populations, often living in relatively backward conditions, heavily informed with religious doctrine, divided by sectarian and ethnic fragmentation, could be brutally forced into the modern Western parliamentary paradigm of parties, elections, term limits and voluntary participation, is one that ignores centuries of continuity. Equatorial societies historically have not shown much predisposition towards open institutions. Attempts to foster the creation of such systems have typically failed.  

George Bush II was often quoted as saying that he saw no reason why Iraq couldn't be transformed easily into a "democracy"--once America had gutted their existing political framework, and "persuaded" the population with high-tech fire-power to adopt our suggested model. I suspect that the chances of anything like that occurring within the next century and a half, on the outside, to be non-existent.  

Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, are not fertile breeding-ground for democracy. They have no tradition of it, and all their religious and social institutions are inimical to it. Each has a long history of periodic violent conflict, and there is little evidence that they are capable of abandoning this pattern.

It is unlikely that Iraq will coalesce into an organized, civilized, peaceful nation, once American military presence is removed. I believe this would be true, no matter how much longer we maintain a significant presence there. In other words, I do not believe that Iraq would have any greater likelihood of a peaceful future, if America were to maintain a military presence there for another year, or five years, or ten years. Within 6 months of our departure--whenever that finally occurs--Iraq will inevitably fall into sectarian/civilian strife, resulting in open warfare, and the likely installation of an autocratic religious regime.  

Afghanistan and Pakistan have somewhat different histories, but I see no greater chance that democracy will "flourish" there than in Iraq. Moreover, these nations present vastly more challenging tactical military complications, which would make the prosecution of a stalemated state of temporary truce even more difficult to achieve than in Iraq. Even if we were able to reach this fragile condition, the likelihood that it could be "set up" to run on its own, after we had left, seems nil.  

Vietnam taught us, or should have, that we cannot suppress an indigenous population indefinitely, without eventually wearing out our welcome, no matter how altruistic our aims, or how determined we are to prevail.  Neither "surgical" military adventures, nor all-out campaigns, have proven to be effective in furthering our political or diplomatic objectives.  

In the long run, it is better to avoid intervening militarily in these countries.  It is no proof of our will or valor to insist that the measure of our commitment must always be a show of force. It is often more difficult NOT to act, than to act with insolence and arrogance, touting patriotism and difficult necessity as justification. As chaotic and cruel as these societies often seem to us, we are not in a position to alter the course of their development without inflicting undue harm on them, and ourselves in the process. The final outcome of our Iraq adventure may turn out to have been catastrophic, if as I expect (and may possibly even live to see) that nation will experience decades more of civil war and tens of thousands of needless casualties, as a direct result of our having forcefully removed their profane dictator.

America now stands on the verge of re-committing a large force to Afghanistan and/or the "tribal areas" of Northwest Pakistan (with, or without apparently the consent of our proxy regime there), in order to "stabilize" or "neutralize" the regional factions which threaten to retake control of those areas. This would compound our problems in all three of these nations, and would be unlikely to succeed. Further, it would likely encourage more terrorist sentiment among those populations, than already exists there.  

I would like to see a complete withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia at the earliest possible opportunity. When we left Vietnam, "with honor" as the Nixon regime claimed, no one had the audacity then to assert that we had accomplished anything there after 10 years of struggle and 58000 lives lost and 350,000 casualties. Whatever the losses are when we do withdraw militarily from the Middle East, these losses will all have been in vain, just as they were in Vietnam. 

Our leaders have learned nothing from history, and continue to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.                     

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kit Robinson in the News


Kit Robinson's new Selected Poems has hit the bookstalls.  It's a beautiful book, a paperback original from Adventures in Poetry.  

I was in at the beginning of this news, so to speak, having obtained a copy of Kit's first book, Chinatown of Cheyenne, soon after it was published in 1974 by Whalecloth, and The Dolch Stanzas (1976) published by Barry Watten's This Press (a copy of which Kit sent to me at the time).  

Over the years, Kit has published collections with some regularity, every two years or so, while holding down a full-time position as a public relations specialist in the computer industry.  

Kit has always written with confidence and a sense of the synthetic technocracy of language; he's totally at home with the dry ironies and bizarre formalities of the post-Modern world.  

This book offers me the opportunity to celebrate and deconstruct one of my favorite poems of his, from his book Ice Cubes [Roof Books, New York, 1987].  

It's actually a part of a short sequence entitled "Thought"--a poem in five sections, of which this is the second.  For me, it functions discretely and is completely self-sufficient as a descriptive, analytical movement; though the title, Thought, subtitled "contains/non-contiguous/blocks" suggests something of the slant of the intention.  The poems in this sequence are all set one word to the line.  This linear monotony is certainly not an original form, having been used freely by dozens of writers over the years.  But in Robinson's hands, it lengthens out the time of the unfolding of the drama of each poem, and gives the sense of a kind of weird dislocation for sensory data, a mechanical quality.  

Here's the poem:

wind
knocks
paper
cup

off
edge
of
ledge

it
bounces
and
rolls

in
a
wide
arc

scudding
against
the 
concrete

_____

Superficially, this is nothing more than the most simplistic description of an event, not in the least mysterious or unfamiliar.  Sitting out in the open, on a breezy Spring or Fall day--the poem's casual, opportunistic, accidental, relaxed, attentive positioning puts the narrative voice at a vicarious remove, contemplative, patient and exacting.  It's a meditative poem, albeit in a minimalist mode, sans commentary, sans any interjected editorial additives.  If the poem works, it must function at the level of implication, or irony.  It will signify through the kinetic ricochets of its changes.

I like to think of such poems as this in terms of the game of pool.  Angles and forces, relative weights of collisions at defined speeds, intermediate transfers of energy, reflection.  Crisp enactments set into motion with confident propulsion.  

We're watching an empty, or near empty, white paper (or styrofoam?) cup, blown off a surface (ledge), light as a feather (or a kite), nearly valueless (since it's now become trash, having been used?).  An industrial object, one more in a countless, innumerable knock-off (the template of uniformity).  

I read two kinds of contrary motion in this poem:  Delight...and frustration.  Delight, in the clarity and deliberateness of its unrestrained eventness.  And frustration, in the sense of the viewer's (speaker's) impotence (inability) to effect an alteration of reality.  Observation is a passive act, limited by the ground-rules of the game.  Description, in this instance, implies a kind of inevitability, an inevitability reinforced by our assent:  Through shared assent:  We've all seen this kind of thing, experienced a similar kind of dramatic banality.  

One of the experiments you always find in kids' science and hobby books is pulling a string taut between two paper cups.  By speaking into the open cup "phone" the person at the other end can hear the "transmission" of sound through the string conduit.  A paper cup has a characteristic audible tone, when tapped or tumbled. The "scudding" of the cup against the concrete is a literal sound, familiar and distinct.

Conceptually, the poem is framed by a progression, starting with "wind" and ending with "concrete." For me, it's sort of like an updated "red wheelbarrow" poem, a benchmark re-statement of principle, depending totally on naked fact.          

The predominant sentiment is one of distraction; an event precipitated by chance, as defined by Duchamp, commands our attention as an unique accident of fate, whose meaning is assigned by the absence of intention, but which is privileged by our recognition of it, our annotation of a disparate occurrence with the focus of artistic regard.  

The cup is a toy of destiny, blown about by a capricious wind, neither providential nor pathetic. The cup doesn't care what happens to it; and neither do we.  There is no deeper eventuality to which we can assign it than oblivion; it is destined for the trash bin.  This seeming superfluity, obsolescence, triviality, is a dominant thread running all through modern life.  Mountains of detritus, expended of meaning and use, piled up or tossed aside in the relentless inertia of industrial mass production: Existence demeaned, devalued, discarded.  

The human poignance of isolate disregard is ironized in the static spastic motion of the paper cup as it rolls, skids, tumbles towards its pointless end, its wide slipping arc precisely equal to the circumference of its two circular planes, plus the scudding distance of its abrasion.  

There would be a calcular equation precisely defining the degree of resistance and distance travelled by the cup in its passage across the pavement.  Variance as the surface friction, expressed as a value.

I'm not sure what inspired me to meditate on this poem as a mathematical formula, unless it's the precision and inexorability of its technique.  I must admit to a weakness for highly reductive poems.  Not the tiresome fascination some people experience with word games, or crossword puzzles, or rubix cubes; though I might metaphorize the poem as a kind of formula built out of words.  Syntax itself is a kind of formulation of relationships, defined and expressed as meanings assigned to different kinds of signifiers.  The poem refers to phenomena the way our constructed mental narrative of the poem's event mimics reality.  It's exacting, and poignant, and real.  It echoes in eternity.  
      

Monday, February 16, 2009

More Nuisance - Misuse of Language

Split infinitives.  Classic grammarians insist that we shouldn't put adverbs between the "to" and the verb form.  "To actually think" or "to necessarily respond" etc.  This is an example of a sin that has crossed over into questionable virtue:  Even talented and informed users now employ this construction with impunity.  But I advocate respecting the rule.  If it's comfortable not to split an infinitive, I try not to.     

"One of the ones."  One of those.

"Kind'a"  "Could'a"   "I could'a been a contender."  Kind of.  Could have.  

"Eck cetera."  It's et cetera, stupid!

"Ex-presso"  It's an Italian word, caffe espresso; there's nothing "express" about it.      

"I axed you"  This one makes my teeth ache.  

"...which I did that."  This bad grammatical error has crept into conversations throughout the media.  Even college-educated moderators will attach this pronoun to begin a dependent clause in a sentence, then will proceed as if the pronoun were a conjunction.  "A-Rod has said he didn't use the stuff after 2003, which the league has said it believes his decision."  What results is two predicate objects in the same clause.   "Which" should receive the action of the verb in any phrase it precedes.  This is a stubborn misuse, which we'll have to be vigilant to stamp out.  I don't see any excuse for it.  

"Had I of had it, I wouldn't have had to get one."  "If I had of done it...."   Had of isn't English.  Most educated people don't make this mistake, but it's almost an accepted form among the common legumes. 

"He has got to be nuts!"  This is a lazy use of the verb to get.  The proper usage would be "he must be nuts!"  To get doesn't mean to prefer; nor as an imprecation.  Its proper use is to obtain, to acquire or to arrive at.  "I gotta go" or "I've got to get going."  You need to go!  

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Taser Controversy - Timely Update

"Man dies after Taser jolt from S.J. Police"
--San Francisco Chronicle online (SFGate) for February 12, 2009

Today the San Francisco Chronicle online reported the following incident:

A man in his 20's died after a struggle with San Jose police during which he was jolted with a Taser.  The man died in the backyard of a home in San Jose after being jolted with the stun gun. The man resisted being arrested, and the officers Tasered him following a struggle. The man lost consciousness, and died at the scene. The man's death is being investigated by the police as a possible homicide. The incident is the sixth, involving Tasers, to result in death, since officers of the San Jose police started using Tasers in 2004. Earlier fatal incidents involving Tasers have resulted in large cash settlements by the City.  
_____

Police officers using Tasers is a recipe for tragic incidents like this.  No police officer is in a position to know before-hand, what kinds of medical conditions a suspect may have, in considering the advisability of Tasering him.  The suspect himself may not know!  Do you know how likely you would be to suffer a heart attack if Tasered?  

All my adult life, I've suffered from irregular heart beat, or what is called "cardiac arythmia."  This, like many other kinds of mild heart abnormality, is not necessarily life-threatening, provided I don't become too stressed or physically exhausted (or both).  But severe electric shock is among the most potent triggers of cardiac and neurological dysfunction.  In fact, medical science isn't very well informed along these lines, and the manufacturers of these devices certainly know that.  

Promoting Taser use among police departments--or among the general population--as a form of protection or subduing individuals, is irresponsible.  
There is a growing movement to outlaw these terrible weapons.  Write to your Congressperson or state representative about it.  We can get rid of these things if we make enough noise.      

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Hall of Fame & The Steroids Era


Should major league baseball care about the drinking and drug habits of its players?  

What is the significance, or importance, of "image" in relation to the Great American Game?


People have been drinking and smoking for hundreds of years.  Doping and juicing have been widely acknowledged in horse- and dog-racing, and among "Olympic" event contestants, as well as in professional football and basketball, and baseball, for many decades.  This has all gone on with the full knowledge of administrators and owners and players, as well as by media insiders.

Over the last decade, major league baseball has instituted a public relations campaign, posing, in false indignation, as the moral arbiter of substance abuse among its contracted players.  The commissioner's office, not to speak of the owners of respective teams are "shocked! shocked!!" that some major league players, even some big name stars, have been secretly taking steroids and other banned substances to enhance their performance!  Even the Little Lady from Dubuque must have heard about it, by now!

Tainted records!  Tarnished images!  

Were the owners of teams worried about the effect these drugs might have on the health and careers of their players?  You can bet they weren't!

Do you think these owners were ignorant of what was taking place in their clubhouses, of what these "personal trainers" were actually doing in there?  You can bet they weren't!

The circle-jerk of hypocrisy involves virtually every part of the sport, and brings into question the moral standard of all who pretended to look the other way.  

Should Americans be concerned about doping in professional sports?  Does it really matter, for instance, whether or not half, or three-quarters of the players you see cavorting on the green are "high" or "low" or somewhere in between?  

Perhaps we need to conduct a public burning of the effigies of drug abusers among famous sports heroes, as an exercise in ritual self-immolation.  There, does that feel better?  Now we can get back to that can of beer and the recliner in front of the TV.

Meanwhile, back at the courtroom, Barry Bonds is being tried for perjury in refusing to acknowledge his steroid use.  No one doubts that Barry used "the Clear" or that he probably benefited from its use in his performance.  It's sort of like convicting Al Capone for tax evasion. Can't convict him of illegal substance abuse, so we'll get him for lying under oath about it.  Why not go after Alex Rodriguez--is it because Alex is such a nice guy?  

I think the whole drug scandal scandal is a scandal manufactured for public consumption.  Sic. How about we leave the sex habits of Presidents and the legal pharmaceutical usage of individuals to the privacy they deserve?

         


 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Pet Peeves / Misuse of Language

Language is a living thing.

Our language is constantly undergoing change. Since the first reliable English Dictionary, compiled by Samuel Johnson and published in 1755, there has been a constant tension between strict "prescriptivists" and "permissivists." Are "ain't" and "irregardless" real words?

In truth, dictionaries are reactive and largely passive repositories. Once a definition of meaning and usage is established, however, it takes the force of persuasive use to bring about a change. Some words simply die for want of usage.

Language is slippery. The implications and "spin" of certain words or phrases change over time.

Is this a good thing? Would we all be better off if our language was always fixed, if no one was ever "allowed" to break the rules?

New words come into being to describe new objects, or new processes and relationships. New technologies breed special vocabularies.

For communication requiring greater precision, mathematics furnishes another kind of language.

Does common discourse suffer as a result of the decay of proper usage?

I often feel that common misuse of words or phrases, which may occur as a result of laziness, or haste, or simple ignorance, is probably not a legitimate generator of useful, meaningful language.

Lazy thinking generates poor speaking and writing, and it works the other way around. The more we all misuse our language, the less effective our speaking and thinking become.

From time to time, the Compass Rose will note examples of bad English, in the never-ending fight for Truth, Coherence and Literacy!

1. A "whole n'other". This is a false contraction of "a whole other" or "another whole" but it's ungrammatical. It's a stupid mistake which has begun to take root in common speech.

2. "Mischievious". This is not a word. The correct word is "mischievous". There's no "i" after the "v.". Probably people think the word works like devious, but they're wrong.

3. "Massive" as meaning large in size or extent. Massive means DENSE, not large. Lead is massive. Teakwood is massive. A mountain or a large crowd or a glacier are not examples of massive phenomena.

4. "Little, tiny" as a compound adjectival phrase. This, or "small, little" is naively redundant; yet perfectly intelligent people will consistently use these phrases, when they know they're wrong. Why?

5. "In regards to". This phrase simply isn't English. "With regard to" or "in regard to" are perfectly acceptable, but "regards" is only appropriate as the plural form of regard for a thing or person. "Warmest regards." "Give my regards to Broadway." Smart people use "in regards to" all the time, but they should stop.

Variations For Two Pianos


On Donald Justice's Variations For Two Pianos

A villanelle is a poetic form in which the first and third lines of the first stanza are alternately repeated as the third line in each succeeding stanza, and then are repeated together in the last stanza. A villanelle is 19 lines long, five tercets and a concluding quatrain. But augmented villanelle forms use the same principle, and can be just as satisfying. The example below consists of 15 lines; you could call it an abbreviated villanelle. I find it even more powerful for its relative brevity, in relation to its classical antecedent.

Here is Justice's villanelle:


Variation for Two Pianos

for Thomas Higgins, pianist


There is no music now in all of Arkansas.
Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.

Movers dismantled the instruments, away
Sped the vans. The first detour untuned the strings.

There is no music now in all of Arkansas.

Up Main Street, past the cold shopfronts of Conway,
The brash, self-important brick of the college,

Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.

Warm evenings, the windows open, he would play
Something of Mozart's for his pupils, the birds.

There is no music now in all of Arkansas.

How shall the mockingbird mend her trill, the jay
His eccentric attack, lacking a teacher?

Higgins is gone, taking both his pianos.
There is no music now in all of Arkansas.


There are several things to talk about with this ingenious poem.  Characteristically, Justice's subject is a real person, not an idealized presence of one, or a personified, mythological being from classical literature.  Justice will often play classical themes against Modern situations, using the irony of high art to throw ordinary phenomena into stark relief, or for humor. 

Another nicety is that there is nothing "outside" the poem which our curiosity requires to make the poem work.  We don't need to know, really, any more about Higgins, than that he is a classical pianist, certainly a professional, as well as an academic (whose appointment may have ended, necessitating his departure from Conway [home to no less than three colleges, including the University of Central Arkansas]), and that he takes his pianos with him.  

Why Variations for two pianos?  Perhaps this is a joke.  Pianists have played two pianos before; Liberace used to do it on his television show in the 1950's.  To be more precise, the poem is indeed a verbal "variation" for, since it is "about" Higgins's pianos.  Obviously it's a poem, not a musical composition, though in a very real sense, as a villanelle, the poem is superficially not much more than a set of banal musical phrases.  We are tantalized by the notion of a poem for two pianos, even if it is just a little joke.  Not the kind of "lyrics" one could set to music, though, since their tone is conversational, what Robert Frost often referred to (in his own work) as "the sound of sentences."  By which he meant, I've always assumed, the way people naturally speak, as opposed to the artificial language of "poetry."  And naturalness is very much a part of Justice's approach.  

Is it possible to write highly complex, finished poems, even in classical, traditional forms, in the language of common speech?  Since the early Modernists, in the 1920's, that's been a preoccupation.  William Carlos Williams believed that poetry should not only be about common people, but should, in effect, speak through them.  This tendency, to want to bring poetry down to the level of the everyday, now has a clear history, at least in America. Imagine Frank O'Hara without his "deep gossip."  Think about the Confessionalists, who wanted to work out private, psychological issues, in their lives, as if they were relating directly to a therapist (the reader).  

Justice certainly didn't believe in confessing in his poetry.  His poems often seem like the work of a master tinkerer, perhaps a watch-maker.  The little gears and levers spin and click and mark time, ingenious meters of our mortality.  

Is the poem a joke about Arkansas?  Is Higgins the only man in the state to make real music? Without him, playing Mozart through the open windows on a peaceful Sunday afternoon, as the birds outside chirp in unison, is the whole State an empty wasteland of quiet, or cacaphony?  

Even in going, "the first detour untuned the strings," the pitch, the tone, is distorted.  But what does he mean by detour?   Does the poem take a detour?  If his only real pupils were "the birds" was he not appreciated, for his teaching?  

But nature's music is not perfect, either.  The jay and the mockingbird need instruction too, to mend their trill, their "eccentric attack."  

The first line is repeated four times, the second line, three times.  Between these (musical) refrains, there are four couplets of description.  This is very like a first movement of a Mozart sonata or sonatina, the statement of thematic element introduced, "trifled" with briefly, then repeated primly at the end.  Light, pure, limpid, lapidary, seemingly simple-minded, easy.  

This purity of song is contrasted with the "brash, self-important brick" of the college.  This last reminds me of a snatch of dialogue from John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [1974], where George Smiley is talking to Roddy Martindale who says "just a red brick don...a few bits of sandstone..." to satirize the pretensions of a lower class academic.  Brick being, in the history of English architecture, a decidedly "lower class" building material, perhaps suitable for flats and full service banks, but not nearly sophisticated enough for gentry!

Higgins is probably too good for Conway, and its little pretentious college.  They didn't appreciate him, and now he's leaving, has left.  Does anyone mark his passing, other than the birds?  Justice does.  

We should all be so lucky to have a poet as talented and inspired as Justice write a poem about us.                

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cutting Taxes

In negotiations over the desirability of putting tax cuts into the Democratic Administration's so-called Economic Stimulus Bill, the Republican minority has resumed its party's traditional, familiar refrain of advocating tax cuts as the best method of creating economic incentives for the growth of employment, the freeing up of investment capital, and the general health of free enterprise.

The Stimulus Bill is in its specific parts, essentially a huge spending bill emphasizing public works and government programs, along with a large dose of tax cuts. During the Bush Administrations, the rich and the corporations benefited mightily from tax cuts, designed to stimulate investment and job growth. But those tax cuts did not have that effect.

Domestic investment and employment in this country have been steadily decreasing for the last two decades. American capital has turned its back on American workers, transferring hundreds of thousands of manufacturing and semi-technical positions overseas. These jobs were once the backbone of American prosperity.

Apologists for the Right argue that American workers, with their unreasonable demands for high wages, favorable conditions, health care and pension benefits, can't compete on the new "global market." They tell us that Americans need to "gear up" for the future technological era, when everyone will need to be skilled and flexible and "work smart."

Bullshit.

At any given time, there are relatively few professional and technical positions in the general economy. If you put all the skilled jobs from science, management, law, and technical fields together, even those imagined by the dreamers of tomorrow-land, they wouldn't employ more than 15% of the able workforce. Despite what people say about the technological revolution, our electronic gadgets and the computer age, unskilled or semi-skilled labor still is the basis for the great majority of employment in the world. Sending "everyone" to college, even if that were feasible, isn't going to "produce" jobs or maintain a strong middle class. The factory system and the mass employment it requires is the real engine of prosperity in the modern world.

China now dominates the manufacturing field. It has transformed itself from a primarily agrarian society, to a fully industrialized one in less than two generations. And it now out-earns and out produces the United States by a significant margin. It also maintains effective trade barriers (de facto tariff), and currency policies, to insure that that advantage continues.

This trend has led to the wholesale destruction of our American middle class. The social and political implications are staggering.

Until or unless we are willing to address this destructive paradigm in our economic policies and practices, our position in the world, and the welfare of our nation, will continue to decline.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tatiana in Heaven


Few events in the history of zoo-keeping have generated as much publicity (and controversy) as the "tiger attack" which occurred on December 25th, 2007, at the San Francisco Zoo. Tatiana, a female tiger, was born, in captivity, in Denver on June 27th, 2003, and was brought to San Francisco Zoo, to provide the resident male with a mate. Tatiana had been involved in a minor mauling incident during a public feeding in December 2006; she was not blamed for that incident, because there had been inadequate precautions and training, and the tiger was, in the words of the zoo director Manuel Mollinedo, "acting as a normal tiger does."


What occurred in December 2007 was as follows: According to eyewitness accounts of patrons in the SF Zoo in the late afternoon of 12/25/07, three young men loitering just outside the tiger compound were taunting Tatiana, throwing things over the fence into the cage, yelling and growling, generally attempting to incite the tiger to anger. The tiger compound was surrounded by a deep concrete moat, which is ordinarily designed to function as filled with water, but had been allowed to go dry. Tatiana suddenly leaped over the interior barrier, bounding into the moat and up the steep wall, and over the exterior fence, and proceeded to attack the startled youths. Tatiana killed 17-year old Carlos Souza, Jr. immediately, then chased Paul Dhaliwal (age 19) to just outside the zoo's Terrace Cafe. When police arrived, Tatiana had Dhaliwal at bay, and was "toying" with him. Police managed to distract the tiger, which then ran towards the officers, who proceeded to pump seven rounds into its body and head, killing it at once.  

The three youths, it later was reported, had criminal records. Not long after the incident, the two Dhaliwal brothers hired a lawyer, and have filed suit against the City of San Francisco and the Zoo for negligence and huge damages.

Wikipedia provides a neat summary of developments in the case subsequent to the incident:

"The zoo remained closed until January 3, 2008. On January 15, 2008, the transcripts and the recordings of the 911 calls were released. In the days immediately following the attack, the director of the zoo stated that Tatiana was probably provoked. He said, "Somebody created a situation that really agitated her and gave he some sort of a method to break out.  There is no possible way the cat could have made it out of there in a single leap. I would surmise that there was help. A couple of feet dangling over the edge could possibly have done it." Sources told the San Francisco Chronicle that pinecones and sticks were found which might have been thrown at Tatiana, and which could not have landed there naturally. Amrital (Paul) Dhaliwal would later admit to the deceased victim's father that the three had yelled and waved at the tiger. Kulbir Dhaliwal stated to police that the three had smoked marijuana and had drunk vodka on the day of the attack, which toxicology tests confirmed. A partially-filled vodka bottle and marijuana were also found in the 2002 BMW car used by the Dhaliwal brothers on the day of the mauling. According to early news sources, the Dhaliwal brothers had slingshots on them at the time. The discoveries reinforced suggestions that the brothers might have recklessly teased the 253-pound Siberian tiger before she leapt from her grotto. Zoo visitor Jennifer Miller and her familiy allegedly saw the group of young men, including an unidentified fourth person, taunting lions less than an hour before the tiger attack. She later identified Sousa as being part of the group, but said Sousa did not join in the taunting. The Dhaliwal brothers' lawyer, Mark Geragos, denied that the brother teased the animals, but later testimony by another park visitor corroborated Miller's story by saying the four men were taunting the animals.  The Dhaliwal brothers were reportedly 'hostile" to the police following the attack. They initially refused to identify themselves or Carlos Sousa to the police, and they refused to give interviews to the police until two days after the attack. Initially, the brothers would not speak publicly about the details of what happened to them. On January 1, 2008, the Dhaliwal brothers hired Geragos, planning to sue the zoo for their "utter disregard for safety".  

Despite what you believe about what precisely occurred at the zoo on Christmas Day 2007, there is little doubt that the tiger is not to blame for what occurred.  

Today, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the four uniformed officers who answered the emergency call and killed Tatiana, were receiving gold medals of valor, for bravery.  

It's hard not to feel disgust at almost every aspect of the case. Almost no one escapes fault, except, of course, the poor tiger Tatiana.

The zoo deserves condemnation for not providing adequate barriers against the possibility of escape. They admitted that the mote was designed to work when filled with water, not empty. They seemed to have no contingency plans for dealing with animal escapes. There seemed to be no monitoring of visitor behavior, allowing almost any kind of activity to occur, including people climbing over fences directly into animal compounds.     

The youths acted irresponsibly, with malice, mischievously inciting naturally aggressive predators to go on the offensive. They were bingeing on drugs and alcohol, abusing themselves, making a public nuisance at a public attraction, and ultimately playing chicken with wild animals in an artificial situation. Finally, to top it all off, they have the audacity to blame the zoo and the city for their own immoral and grossly irresponsible behavior.

Rather than blaming the zoo, the city, and the tiger, it is rather these men who should themselves be prosecuted as the vandals and low-lifers they are, for having caused the whole thing.  


In a larger sense, my sympathies go to the animals. Zoos have a long tradition in Western Europe and America. Most people have at some point, usually as children, taken pleasure in the casual, vicarious appreciation of "wild" animals, captured from nature, caged and sustained in completely artificial conditions. Most of these animals are miserably frustrated, and eventually become autistic or otherwise profoundly disturbed by their captivity. 

Tatiana was a beautiful, natural, creature, whose true destiny was stolen from her. She was not responsible for her actions, which were the result of hormonal/chemical reactions in her nervous system over which she had absolutely no control.  

Man continues to bring misery and harm to wild animals across the globe. Our unbridled overpopulation and expansion into wild habitat is causing the wholesale extinction of thousands of species every year. Those we find attractive or aesthetically inspiring we pluck from their world and make them do duty as playthings, pets, public attractions, circus or carnival animals. It's disgusting.

The whole concept of zoos needs to be re-thought. It may be that instead of zoos, humankind should consider establishing and maintaining animal rehabilitation centers, designed to assist endangered species from harm or extinction. That's the least we should be doing, given our appalling history of exploitation and cruelty to nature's creatures.         

 
      

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Tribute to Ronald Johnson (1935-1998): Part Two

Cows in Pasture, Arthur Dove, 1935.

This is the second post on the work of Ronald Johnson's poetry.  It continues with a consideration of our favorite poem of Johnson's, Three Paintings By Arthur Dove, which was published in his first book, A Line of Poetry, A Row of Trees.


I might mention in passing that the title of that book, which was published by Jonathan Williams and his Jargon Press, suggests preoccupations that would become increasingly important to Johnson during his writing career.  The sense of writing as having a graphic resemblance or link to abstract form, is central to the concept of Concrete Poetry.  Not everyone knows this, but Johnson kept up a steady interest in concrete poetry, or word-in-image composition, throughout his "straight" writing life, and published several livres d'artist booklets in this genre or mode.

The second section of the poem under discussion, Three Paintings by Arthur Dove, is Cows in Pasture (pictured above).

II

What is wanted
is someone who can open the chestnut-burr
with his bare heel,

& bark, hide, the bull-calf's eye, 
as forms.

Once open, form is wind, 'water in an old hoof-print',

but must branch an eye,
the bull's or buck-eye,
as if--

it grew bark. Give it hair, turf,
willow.


'Raw sienna, black & green'.


Form has no 
size.
The burn-out log
is not a whale.

Nor is it

'silver burnt brown
wood 
color dark'.

And there are no cows.

We walk,
careful not to step on snails.
The grass is very
green.


'That the mountainside
looks like a face

is accidental'. 

    

Do I hear the encyclopedist's clerical air in these lines, especially in the quotations, which sends me back to Marianne Moore?  I do.  The interest in specificity, the taxonomic delight in inspired definition, which is the scientist's mettle, confirmation of origin(s), birth of naming, assumption of external authority.  Could any tendency be less poetic?

And yet what we hear--and feel--is delight!  Here is pastoral engaging directly with textures, essences, through the vivid and tactile sounds and frictions among syllables and consonants--we're walking, there is grass, mud, bark, twigs, even snails!  Ever stepped on a snail?  

Our feet are bare, the "bare heel" of the first stanza.  You'd have to have a tough heel to crack a chestnut, especially if it was still encased in its gnarly green casing.  

Doubtless cows, in their meanderings, lowing as they go, step on countless such burrs, or nuts (or snails!). Nature could be said to count on such events, for the proliferation of her kinds, the natural hybridization of species.  Aesthetically, "form has no size" and resemblances between mountains and heads are purely gratuitous. But resemblances are the stuff of art, whether through anthropomorphism or metaphoric vision.  

Behind this impulse to deduce meaning from structure lies the figure of Blake, the symbolic Visionary deluxe.  

Ultimately, Johnson's writing succeeds by way of the pleasure it affords through the happy percolation of its prosody:

the second stanza running

- /, /, - / - /    (and BARK, HIDE, the BULL-Calf's EYE

Then there's the lovely concatenation spread across the first stanzas--

burr, bare, bark

the buck-eye's (lashes!) 
as if...grew...hair...turf 

and then the delicate turn to

willow

You can almost feel the language--syllables--straining to become what they are describing, as if words could be the things they were signs of.  The quality of immanence, or " the divine as existing and acting within the mind or the world" as a means to transcendence, is characteristic of Johnson's verse.  Over and over, in various ways, you feel the urge to pass through the forms of matter into a higher reality of being or awareness.  At no point do we abandon the physical fact of our bodies, or of our apprehension things, but we acquire a higher awareness of their nature, their qualities, their function, and beauty, through the process of imagining them through words, in words (inwards). 

Coming in Part III, an examination of Arthur Dove, and the third part of Johnson's poem.      

     

Malthus & The Elephant

Over the last several years, a great deal of attention has been paid to the phenomenon of Global Warming, of its causes, of the (sometimes) dire predictions of its probable eventual measurable long-range effects, and of various methods by which humanity may avoid catastrophe.  


Of the many large scale problems facing humanity, in terms of its probable limits to growth, we may count the natural limitations of sustenance:  Limitation of water, limitation of food, limitation of habitable land-mass, limitation of sources of energy.  


For two centuries, people have argued about the cautionary theories of Thomas Robert Malthus [1766-1834], as espoused in Essay on the Principle of Population [1798 and subsequent editions].  Malthus's basic tenets are:  That there is a tendency towards a constant increase in population; and that the rate of increase of population is far greater, by a geometric factor, than the capacity of humankind to increase the rate of supply itself with adequate sustenance. Malthus went further, claiming that poverty, disease and other kinds of social distress were directly attributable to this paradigm, and that only through the efficient reduction in populations--either through catastrophes such as wars, plagues, mass starvation--or through more peaceful, voluntary means of limitation, was a natural balance achieved between population and environment.

Malthus could not have foreseen various future developments---scientific agriculture, fossil fuel (petroleum), atomic energy, Darwinian theory, and so forth--but it's certainly safe to say that, with minor augmentations, his theoretical predictions regarding the effects of overpopulation have nearly all been proven true.  The modern industrial paradigm, with its emphasis on constant growth, both of (industrial) production, and of rapid population expansion, is a construct virtually guaranteed to produce the unfortunate consequences first postulated by Malthus.  

The consequences of the rapid expansion of the means of production have had another unforeseen effect.  Thinkers of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries could not have imagined that the unrestrained use of fossil fuel energy would lead to a catastrophic change in the mean temperature of the globe, with serious, perhaps irreversible, secondary effects.  The contemporary model of constant expansion is based on a continuously increasing population of consumers, balanced by a continuously increasing machine of production.  

The problem of Global Warming can be seen, now, as an inevitable result of our misguided faith in the growth paradigm.  Both factors--over-exploitation of resource (with its attendant evil of pollution), and excessive, unchecked population growth--are leading us towards a major world-wide catastrophe, perhaps of Biblical proportions.

Until we are willing to address the riddle of population growth, and of mankind's selfish tendency to exploit the earth to feed that growth, most of the world's problems will not be solved.  It's the elephant in the room which no one acknowledges.  

"The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.  The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.  They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves.  But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands.  Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world."  -Malthus

We would do well to heed that warning.