Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wittgenstein's Door - Part I

Lyn Hejinian published my pamphlet, Wittgenstein's Door, in her Tuumba Press series, in September 1980. I can't remember now whether this manuscript was unsolicited. I think someone--was it Ron Silliman?--may have suggested that Lyn was favorably disposed towards new material just then. So when the possibility occurred, I thought of putting together a group of recent prose poems, based on reading I had been doing in Marxist philosophy and political theory. Ostensibly, this was a period when I was beginning to focus on architectural design--an interest that would eventually flower in other ways. But my interest had strayed, and I was reading Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson, Derrida, etc. I had been dipping into Wittgenstein's work for years--someone that seemed compatible with the radical neo-Hegelian trends that had unfolded over the previous 50 years. Though I had always been fairly liberal as a youth, I wasn't a Marxist, and wasn't sympathetic to anything that was happening in the Soviet Bloc, or in Communist China. Yet I found Adorno's metaphorical elaborations of the "dance of the commodities" thoroughly stimulating, and a brilliant analysis of the phenomena of capitalist culture. You didn't have to be a Marxist to appreciate what he was describing. You might disagree about how things "ought to be" but you could hardly deny his diagnosis of the disturbing symptoms.         

In any case, I was very grateful that Lyn had granted me this privilege, and still am to this day, though I suspect she might not feel as positive about it in retrospect.  

After self-publishing Stanzas For an Evening Out: Poems 1968-1977, I felt the need to explore other areas of writing. Stanzas was largely a processing (or re-processing) of the lyric impulse which had grown out of my reading of early 20th Century American poetry. My heroes were Creeley, Williams, O'Hara, Ashbery, Schuyler, Stevens. I wanted to create a poetry of emotion, song, immediate verifiable particulars, rhetorical flourish. In a sense, I felt I had done that. 

I felt then a new sense of ironic distance from the thrust of that earlier work, and my reading of philosophy convinced me that contemporary writers could no longer invest in the direct speech of dramatic expression. It no longer felt genuine. 

Perhaps I can explain this change of heart this way: Lyrical poetry, in English, is based on the principle of inspiration as expressed through the musical qualities of language, or as evocative, harmonious and convincing sound patterns in persuasive grammatical/syntactical constructions. An inspired speaker or writer feels language intimately, and in turn is able to conjure original expression into effective and unique examples. This is what I would call language from the inside out. Language as experienced from the birth and early development of conscious thought and expression, is language from from the inside out. Language from the outside in is language observed or studied, or learned as a second tongue. You can never "un-learn" a first language, just as you can never unlearn the memory of any experience templated on your brain, unless you suffer brain damage. 

But from a practical point of view, you can objectify your apprehension of your own language, at least to the degree than you can understand it and analyze it as if it were an external phenomenon. You may never be able to unlearn your intimate sense of it, but it is possible to perceive it ironically, even scientifically, in the same way that you can study behavior, or the movement of physical objects in space. This objectivity is a kind of self-consciousness, the self-consciousness of being aware of the implications of your own thinking, your own speech. Objectifying language is one step towards higher levels of awareness, both of our own limitations, as well as the deeper meanings of existence, above and beyond the contexts of our immediate daily lives and concerns. The ability to understand the immediate rhythms and presumptions and habits which underlie our intimate linguistic behavior(s) is a like a window on the processes which govern our very lives. It may be human to speak, and the ability to see this function in its workings and tendencies can be a crucial step in a better understanding of ourselves.   

In any event, what happened to me in 1978-79, was that I was beginning to see some of the faults in the structural assumptions of my understanding of the lyrical impulse in poetry. Coleridge believed in the inspiration of the mind, enhanced by the influence of chemical stimulants. He wrote some of his best poetry (Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan) while "under the influence" of opium. What this meant to me, was that the notion of a "divine" inspiration was nothing more than a failure of description. The linguistic skill found in poets of high calling was not something miraculous, but a condition of mental acuity, unequally distributed among the population at large. One might be born with greater or lesser degrees of lyrical ability (or capacity or aptitude), which could be exploited, opportunistically. There was nothing purely "rational" about the ability to write good poetry, and it could only be "learned" if the capacity were first present. In addition, attempts to enhance this capacity through interventions (such as administering of psycho-active drugs) were unlikely to create results without the preconditions. In other words, a writer like Allen Ginsberg would never be a better poet on drugs, than he was without them, so the idea that one could achieve a higher lyricism through effort, or artificial "encouragements" was purely bogus. The lyrical skill was an innate predisposition, of measurable degree, though susceptible of only modest, at best, improvement. 

I calculated that I possessed only a minor degree of lyric skill, no matter how well trained I might be, or become. I had arrived at that point in my linguistic training, a threshold, beyond which I could either continue to produce new versions of the same skill I'd already achieved, or try different approaches. Another way of saying it is that I'd become uncomfortable inside the skin of my familiar poetic contexts, such as they were, and needed to get out from under them, like a reptile shedding its skin. I suspect that Ezra Pound probably went through a similar kind of reckoning, one which enabled  him to move away from the confined English lyric (of the Personae) to the more expansive, and modern Cantos. Which is not to say that the earlier poems are better, or not better, than the Cantos. Only that the difference--the alteration--is the progressive evidence of a transposition of consciousness, from being "inside" language (or inside the tradition of lyric poetry as known) to an "external" view in which ideas and events are confronted directly, instead of through the original mental apprehensions (templates of language experience). 

But my interest was less in confronting actual events directly, than in seeing them in an ironic, or perhaps a satiric, way, as kinds of entertainments--which might, in turn, throw light on the presumptions not just of linguistic experience, but on the assumptions of aesthetic regard which underlie so much of accepted artistic practice. 

Formally, I had been impressed with a group of prose poems in Charles Wright's first trade collection The Grave of the Right Hand [Wesleyan, 1970]; and the stories and poems of Jorge Luis Borges. This was work, it seemed then, which did not depend upon a high degree of lyrical force, but was meditative, mood-evocative, alert to mystery and atmosphere. It was a prose, primarily, sensitive to metaphor, surface, place. Rather than enacting a performance, it sought to see and to understand phenomena, or to recreate the frame within which that experience could be objectified. To do so, it needed a little distance, a calm space. It wanted to recollect in tranquillity, but not through any timidity or fear of discovery. 

If mine were ironic meditations, they were also performances in the sense that I wasn't speaking in my "own" voice. The "voice" belonged to . . . another presence. Through imitation of the prose of descriptive habit, I imagined I might create the ghost of a character more persuasive than the lyrical cry of my early attempts at poetic expression. I would no longer be confined to the personal identity of the lyrically committed voice. That was of my youth, slipping quietly away. 


This was the entry into the space in which I might be able to objectify my writing (self) as a distinct entity, to approach that degree of separateness which would allow me to see my own activities and consciousness at arm's length. Though written in prose, it wasn't stylishly formal; it was deliberately flat. 

As a meditation on language works off Adorno both as an ironic take on his way of seeing reality, as well as the "flat" uninflected prose that isn't conscious of itself, it's almost "automatic." 

I wanted the writing to be "out there" so it could function on its own, be autonomous, free of effort and vanity and embarrassment. I wanted to make something more durable than passionate gesture, perhaps more permanent than my own immaturity.

I wanted the objective sense of works "out there" (outside of my immediate circle of desires and frustrations and concerns), to be static, to have a permanent, probably even futile, lack of development. If a work of lyric poetry tells you anything, it first of all is a dated event, constantly decaying within the context of its epoch. The desire to get "outside" of free will has been, I think, the secret desire of thinkers since the beginning of time.


It seemed to me then, and perhaps it still does, that all writing is, at least to some degree, autobiographical. One of the illusions of autobiography, is that one risks disclosure, that the degree of disclosure is a measure of the illusion of self-knowledge. People only rarely understand their own motives, so their choice of disclosure usually becomes an expression of insecurity or ambition or error, rather than the actual truth of their experience, recollected in later time. Bulgaria was the most alien circumstance I could imagine then, a place of primitive isolation, despairingly so, and hence an analogue for my own sense of profound alienation, working inside a government job for which I had no feeling, no overt qualification, and no interest. My dream couldn't be "of" poetry, so architectural design would suffice. On a deeper level of irony, I would soon enter the design field for real, returning to grad school to get a degree in Landscape Architecture. And yet, that too would crumble under the heel of necessity, of abandoned interest.


The sense of liberation I felt then, to be free of the arc of striving which had its seeds in my middle-class childhood, school, the yearning of my generation for release from the icons of that time (WWII, the Bomb, the Cold War, religious pieties, the presumptions of sex, ethnicity, and role), characteristically was focused on a European model, the British architect of the late 18th/ early 19th Century, whose quaint and weirdly claustrophobic library at Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, of spaces fashioned as an adjunct to a classically trained mind, felt the perfect containment for the ideal locus of meditation. 


Charles Shere said...

Have I asked you how you feel about the poetry of Francis Ponge? He was very much in my mind for a number of years, but -- ashamed to face it -- I've ignored him recently. Some of your writing quoted in Wittgenstein brought him to mind.

For my take on him, see here.

Curtis Faville said...


Yes, I read Soap, too.

And then there were another couple of titles which I had around, but didn't finish. Ponge was definitely an inspiration for me as well.

I did, however, feel his approach a bit, how shall I say?, clinical. Like a lab tech dissecting an insect.

But the determination to fix on an object and to circle it with language, weave a web or nimbus of attention--that had widespread influence. I thought it at the time a rather 19th century thing to want to do. Skepticism would have killed off most tendencies like this, whereas in the 19th century it would have seemed "merely" irreligious.

Charles Shere said...

Yes. Well, Ponge was French, of course; it's in the French mentalit√© to be, as you say, clinical. The language is precise, and invites dissection. I like your formula: "to fix on an object and to circle it with language, weave a web or nimbus of attention." I'm not sure I agree that it's a 19th-century thing; I think of that century as more, well, romantic — cf. Nerval. Ponge had the luck and genius to come along on the cusp of the centuries, to be present at the invention (or at least the refinement) of Modernism.

Ponge relates immediately, I think, to Objectivism, and as such embodies, rather than is threatned, by skepticism.

I met him once. It's a dim memory now, but I treasure it.