Thursday, May 21, 2009

Moore, Formalism & Post Avant [Part Four]


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
For myself,
to spread out
And advertize this camera
In place of orbs of the eyes. . . .

In public, you are invited to
Reinterpret this.
A wheel
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. 
Serial closures.
open sequences
Point at points in the mind
At which partitions connect.
. . .
To jump from a 13-story hotel
And assume a net,
as proof
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]


eddie watkins said...

This is for my own edification...

What is the difference between Watten's ellipses and open-endedness and Eigner's free-floating phenomenology?

Is it that Watten is using words, almost as playthings or tools, to make some cultural point (which he apparently never reveals), and that Eigner's words issue from a deeper place within his body of tangible perceptions and in that way embody some kind of "truth"?

Curtis Faville said...

Eigner's poems are meditations. The voice is in a stasis of empathy, open-ness to quotidian experience, intense listening to all spheres simultaneously. They are mostly linear, and easy to follow.

Watten's fragmentary assertions--as in Progress, under discussion--come from a complex discourse of multi-contextual planes. They do not exist in real time, but outside it. It is not one voice, but many.

Neither writer is after "truth." Truth is something you might apply to the affect of their efforts, not to what is "inside" the writing.

eddie watkins said...

By "truth" I meant personal authenticity. More subjective truth than objective.

You refer to Eigner's "voice" and Watten's "discourse". Maybe that's the distinction I was looking for. Voice being something that originates internally and proceeds outward, while discourse is something that only exists externally.

Andy Gricevich said...

These are really interesting analyses, Curtis. They make me want to reread Progress, for one thing (I loved it, and found it one of the most difficult books I'd read). I do wonder, though, what you have to say about the positive aspects of Watten's and Silliman's work. That is, you write a good deal about what they don't do (both as assertive negation and as simple lack), but little about what happens when form and material intersect in the ways you occasionally outline.

(From time to time you do discuss what it might mean that there is such a relation, but that, I'd argue, is a statement external to the work--a statement about it as, for instance, a symptom of or response to current sociolinguistic conditions. This is both interesting and relevant, but I also feel that it's the tack too often taken at the expense of analysis of the experience of reading the works themselves--not that the latter is entirely absent here).

I'd argue that Silliman's Ketjak (and Tjanting) attempts to mimic something of the process of making sense of the world--of synthesizing particulars through their juxtapositions, which may not involve inherently meaningful connections, into "experience." Things return, slightly or greatly altered, in rough parallel to the way they do in life. New things arise.

I think this works better in Tjanting, personally.

In any case, I see these works as constructive--building, from their often fragmented materials and their rigidly imposed form, highly individual reading experiences. I'd say this for Watten as well, though Progress is a work I find much more difficult to discuss. Though his emphasis is nearly always on negation, absence, and various forms of alienation, it's also about constructing a work in (or through) which particular experiences of absence can be constructed.

I find ideas about "enactment" and "what happens in the temporal experience of extended reading" to be most helpful in thinking about this stuff.

Write on!

wearily writing in a slow moment at work,


Curtis Faville said...


Thanks for reading.

I could probably go on for days (literally!) trying to describe what I think these two post avant poems Do do, but I'm really more interested, for the moment, to try to see them through "eclectic" eyes, as a reader unfamiliar with the antecedents and influences and secondary texts might see them.

Before trying to praise works like this, it's necessary to try to say what they're NOT. Watten's poem isn't "poetry" in any sense that fans of "poetry" might expect. I'm not attacking these poems as failures of imagination, or as dull, or simple (or simply impenetrable), but I think it's important to point out the contexts within which they seem to have been planted and taken root are not the usual ones.

There's a lot of psychological background that is not being addressed in these poems--a whole lot of stuff of all kinds--which is not explained. You could have a feast of footnotes; but, unlike with Olson or Pound, most of it would be despairingly vague and suppositional, because the poems (and the poets, too) aren't particularly forthcoming about these sources,* or the ways in which they connect to make...there's so much ellipsis and fragmentation....

Which makes them very difficult to speak about.

I read some Merleau-Ponty and Derrida before writing these brief essays--something I hadn't done for a years.

*On second thought, they have talked a lot about them, but I tend to think it's a smokescreen. It takes a third party, a critic-genius to perform that task.

Andy Gricevich said...

Hi, Curtis--

This all more or less makes sense to me. In case it wasn't clear, I didn't mean "positive" and "negative" to be evaluative terms, similes for praise and blame.

Context of all kinds is important, and this very basic one (the one by which most readings would be most powerfully determined--the context of literature and the definition of the poem) is less often addressed by "post-avant" writers them(our)selves.

I've thought for a long time that artists are rarely the most trustworthy interpreters of their own works. Though they can be interesting anyway.

Looking forward to more...