Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Note on Translation

Alastair Reid [1926-] is a poet and essayist and translator, probably best known for his English language versions of Neruda, Borges etc. In his book Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (North Point Press, 1987), he writes about his native Scotland, and his periods of living in Spain and Dominican Republic. In the course of which, he makes the following statement(s) regarding the learning of foreign tongues, and, because it's something I've thought and said myself in the past, I believe it worth quoting: 

"To come late to another language means that even after it is learned well some of its dimensions are lacking. One is that of its written past, its literature and mythology; and it takes a discouragingly slow trudge to catch up. But what remains always out of reach is the experience of having known a language as a child, when words were intuitively calculated rather than learned; that instinctive knowing is what underlies word-play, wit and word music, the sudden surprises that can happen in language, that extend language. A friend from Peru remarked on the same thing while he was learning English: 'I can read the nursery rhymes, discover what they mean, but I can never get to the state of feeling them before their meaning, when the words are acting like a spell. I can have no past in the English language.' Translating back and forth between the two languages [English and Spanish], I often find myself with a foot in each, conscious of how great the gap can sometimes be, how distinct the styles; but I accommodate them both, and am grateful for the Spanish extension." 

Which is to say, if I may paraphrase for my own purposes here, that it is impossible to duplicate the process which occurs in childhood, when one is first learning language, of adopting the sounds and rhythms and denotations thereof. One can never have the intuitive underlying layers of feeling and secret springs of emotion and knowledge that are formed from earliest consciousness in language. It is these qualities that are deepest and most profound, which inform the best writing, the most poetic, the most mysterious. 

Robert Frost said that poetry is that which is lost in translation; by which he meant that the crucial ingredient of poetry, its magic element or component, is the wellspring of intimate associations with the language, which reach far back into our earliest encounters with and experience of words. As one who studied Latin, French, Spanish and German in varying degrees of unsuccess as a child and young adult,  I was always struck by the strange rhythms and habits of phrase which exist in foreign languages. I think I knew then, as I am certain now, that I would never be able to fully grasp the native speaker's apprehension of what it felt like to speak those "foreign" languages as an original act. The more difficult any poem or piece of prose is to translate, the richer its degree of idiomatic content. We are closest to the springs of our language when it's at its most inscrutable, its most curious, its most enigmatic. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Princely Anxiety

"In my next life I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people's home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous., then you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then Voila! You finish off as an orgasm!" --Woody Allen

Friday, March 15, 2013

Wittgenstein's Door - Conclusion

The underlying local context of much of my aesthetic has always been landscape. I grew up mostly in Napa, California, at the lower edge of a west-facing mountain. Living on the coastal verge, against a parallel north-south ridge of mountains has always had a metaphysical dimension for me, "facing West" towards the Pacific, the western extent so important to American consciousness, not just of growth and possibility, but of terminus and boundary. Though it's seldom meant as much to me in my work, psychologically I always had "relied" on it for a sense of stable settledness, of positioned-in-place. Charles Olson wrote an essay, Proprioception, conceived around this idea of knowing where one is, its history, its context, its composition (in all senses). I've always believed that a proper respect for and consciousness of the ground under your feet makes the best sense. If you have no attachment to earth, to your region, your place in the world, you're literally lost, set adrift in time and place, with no home. And home is where the heart is, where we choose to be, or long to return to. My parents, coming west during the war years, were literally exiles, part of a vast diaspora of displaced persons set adrift during the Depression years, many of whom found work in the busy war materiel factories of the West Coast, and stayed. 

A panoramic photograph taken from a northern point overlooking the San Francisco Bay 

So my comfort in living in the Bay Area, as it's known, has had both a mountain and a marine aspect. Literally, being on a mountain overlooking a bay has been the context of my consciousness: To the East were the mountain ranges, and beyond them the "Great Central Valley." To the West was a great broad Bay with islands (Alcatraz and Alameda and Angel and Treasure Islands), crowned by the dramatic profile of the spanning Golden Gate Bridge, the "gateway" to the Pacific. So literally every day is a confirming vision of this western aspect from our perch on the slopes which overlook that view. An amphitheatric pan across a space first viewed by Europeans only a mere 500 years or so ago. A quiet place, by all accounts, for the centuries during which Amer-Indians settled progressively southward from the Northwestern-most reaches of the continent; it would blossom as a vast metropolis over the last century and a half, its natural port, clement weather, and adjacent water and proximate bounty of resources clinching the bargain. Who would not want to live among such splendor?        


How many times had I reprised this view, of sailboats and billowing cumulous plying within a barely contained plain of undulating surface? Thousands, no doubt. Reading, as Robert Duncan somewhere points out, is a "made place"--really for him a magical ensconcement defined by the lulling music of its syllables, weaving a delicate web of associations, apprehensions and shapes, a spell-binding process that leaves an indelible imprint in our boundless deep cognitive memory of experience. Again, my interest here was to make a sequence of language that was static, or barely moving. Reading implies a certain pace, a given clip. Reading is a narrational flow, but how to deny its relentless drive, its pointless getting from point to point. Time underlies everything we do, but it is also an illusion, a system by which we "measure" the separation of displacement, the dance of objects in the universal play of matter. Could writing posit a passivity that might reveal the isolation of stopped time?   

But the narrative was also a kind of metaphysical protest against the writer's block that at every point seemed to deny my entry. If writing was a room, I needed to be in that room as much as possible, no matter how claustrophobic it might seem. But once inside it, I found it just the passage to an infinite series of other rooms. Consciousness, after all, is nothing more than the awareness of containment. We are what we're in, where we find ourselves. Birth is, as Plato said, a kind of waking up, but from what? The miracle of animation. If we're asleep before we wake, then what is sleep? If we wake from dream, or wake to dream?   

Disembodiment means death, and the residue to a writer's life must contain all that it can, lest he leave but a shadow of his being behind. Each of us is a variation upon a genetic template, but with the felt presence of unique mortality; every individual feels his mortal limit, separated from a whole. Religion seeks to subsume us into a fantasized oneness that comforts us in our isolation; but we know it's a grand illusion. Our death will not release us into a gathered family of members. We bud off like flowers from the tree of life, never to return. We release our descendants into an unknown, with no assurance that anything we have passed on to them will survive. Plato believed that souls were immortal, that they passed from body to body, living successive lives through time, forgetting and relearning everything through repeated deaths and births. We know that his explanation of inheritance was wrong, because he knew nothing of DNA, or genetics, or the double helix. But there is a mysterious consciousness which coheres in the sense of being which each one of us perceives. Self-consciousness is that part of us which feels pain, and pleasure, and the inevitability of our own mortality. We know that we are. It's a terrible knowledge. 

The piece below has always made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Sex is weird. Like most people, I was never able to understand how my parents mated. I could never put them into the romantic scenario in which people of the opposite sex desire each other, and complete that mutual attraction through sexual performance. It was as if one lived inside love's body, as a stranger, and lived through the feelings and intentions of another. By the same token, the notion of the possession of another through physical intimacy, or the submission to a passion whose strangeness and intensity exceeded one's rational investment in the idea of love--it was all off the chart. I never understood how people could approach sex interaction as either a recreation, or as some casual, momentary commitment. Because it seemed so much larger than that, in the imagination. Were people just animals, moved by temporary impulses? 

George Orwell once lamented how demanding human sexuality was, and how much more sensible it would all be if humans, like dogs or birds or insects, might mount each other for a few agonistic moments, and then be done with the whole affair, free to pursue their separate priorities. The installation of the complicated business of romantic love, and the customs and duties which had been constructed around it, seemed telescoped into a crazy short-hand of the difficult dilemma of interaction between the sexes. Americans were free, but that freedom could be terrifying. One might chafe at the prospect of an arranged marriage, but how much more confusing the challenge of locating someone, anyone, out of the myriad plenty, with whom to establish the highest form of intimacy?                     

Poets rarely write about sex directly, which may be the courtly courtesy of official modesty, or because it's difficult to evoke in an interesting way through description. I suppose I imagined an image of carnival, or participants dancing anonymously from partner to partner, only to discover their true selves in the privacy of the boudoir. Seduction is both about disguise, and disclosure, deception, and nakedness, power and surrender.   

As a child, I had been given a gift by a parent's friend, of an oriental box, the kind that opens only through a series of secret levers built seamlessly into the design. The sense of secrecy, of something hidden, preserved through time, inside a carefully constructed enclosure, was like a riddle. What might anyone think to hide for posterity? And why hide it in the first place? Historians and archeologists hunt for clues to the cultures of the past; the residue of a people's daily life, their deities, their diets, their habits, which lie hidden in the relics of deposition. These clues are like secrets to a code. Writings can have the same quality, of something withheld, either by intention or oversight. What we may think to conceal may not be the crucial element in our personal code. So writing a poem, or group of poems, can become an act of will, bequeathed to the future.     

As I mentioned before, Wittgenstein's Door--the door--was a possible passage, symbolizing all the implications of an escape, or an entree, an access to a place, designed on purpose, as an emancipation from the husk on an earlier phase. But there was also a split, a separation from self that had always existed, between the belief in the possibility of an artistic enterprise, and the hidden self, plotting to conjure the pretext. Ghost-writing, oddly, had always seemed an attractive role, like the puppet-master behind the puppet, fashioning, from behind a projection, the public face. The man behind the green curtain, animating the Wizard of Oz with levers and buttons, artificial lightning and thunder, all bluster and bluff.            

So I posited a connection between these two segments of my personality, one in which the journey, from fragmented selfhood to integrated whole-ness, might occur, though like Theseus in the labyrinth, fraught with dangers and challenges, the most baffling of which might be that the Minotaur would turn out to be myself--and the ensuing confrontation result not in a victorious transformation, but a complete effacement of self. As I've said before, matter can't hold or preserve the essence of our intention--everything passes away, dissolves, decays, decomposes, disappears. The sense of a meaningful existence is atomized. We are temporary projections with no ulterior attainment. The only purpose we may have is that which we give to--make for--ourselves, reflexive, circular, encoded.      

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Wittgenstein's Door III

The question arises, what was the central theme of these pieces? The title, Wittgenstein's Door, was derived from a monograph on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Stonborough House (or Wittgenstein House) in Vienna, Austria. Designed by Paul Englemann, with the aid of Wittgenstein, who showed a great interest in the project and in Engelmann's plans, and poured himself into the project for over two years, focusing on windows, doors, door knobs, and radiators, demanding that every detail be exactly as he specified, to the point where everyone involved in the project was exhausted. 

I was fascinated by this project because it united several of my interests in a single object: Language, language as philosophy, architecture and design, the psychology of spatial definition. Wittgenstein the man was known to be a classic eccentric, exploring different modes of behavior. But my concern was to position myself in relation to the meaning of his work--so Wittgenstein's house became for me both a symbol of that work, and an analogue for the eccentric designer and occupant himself. Wittgenstein's application of philosophical principles to architectural design was an external translation of meaning into material form. Could that application be a useful demonstration of the possibility of carrying out a personal program of formal innovation, or realization? 

The title poem, Wittgenstein's House, is the setting for the title of the book, Wittgenstein's Door. The door was a metaphorical passage from one condition to another, one state of consciousness to a defined set of parameters. The door of the title is this entry into the house of a new kind of understanding, the passage a journey fraught with fascination and mystery and danger. Could a deeper self-knowledge accomplish anything more than a heightened sense of one's own mortality?         

The riddle of existence had for me then a distinctly geometric implication. These prose poems would be about the delineation of an ulterior extension, in which words would be the building of a controlled shape, with the resulting confinement the consequence of the process. So, from the door to the room in the house, the trajectory of spatial progression, the house of language fit to suit the occupant. During this period, I had initiated an interest that would flower into the taking of a graduate degree in landscape architecture.     

Later still, the experience of building a house would expand my understanding of the process of designing for oneself. Attempting to mediate between the architect's sense of who we were, what we wanted, and how that might be accommodated within the confines of a budget, was a mind-expanding experience--with the certainty that this would be our "last house" (in M.F.K. Fisher's phrase). "What are we in." In our bodies, our brains, our rooms, our houses. "Time is a room." Translucent, or opaque, large or small. 

If my place in the world might be a structure, where might that ultimately be, in the ultimate grid of the universe? My sense of locus had always been wayward, a dislocation from any connection to ground, history, ancestry, tradition. This alienation bore all the hallmarks of a Kafka-esque disorientation, an exile to some Eastern Bloc urban nightmare--a weird dream obsession of wandering without maps or familiar signs--a Piranesian structure of confusing streets, wrong turns, disjunct intersections. Consciousness in a body gone awry. 

History in the remnants of its residual artifacts. What evidence of our having existed, even, might be validated by the recorded events of past epochs? With the birth of photography, history took on an eerie verifiability, a confirmation of literal material presence of existence. How might the gothic truncation of the Victorian nightmare throw our difficult, stark present into relief? Persistent rays of light from around the edges of the door to the future penetrated backwards in time, illuminating objects, revealing closely guarded mysteries concealed under the veneer of fake histories.    

As confirmations of the dissolving present, I had once wanted poems to stand as bastions against impermanence, ephemerality, mediated obsolescence. Words were unstable things, slippery, wobbling, evanescent. How could they hold the immutable permanence of silver images? A glance at an early Middle English text could convince you of the mortality of the text in an instant. But photographs had an undeniable stopped presence. Images of the Civil War were like crime-scene snapshots, holding clues that language couldn't distort. If only they could be read.   

My contemporary reading had included a novel by a favorite author, Solo Faces, by James Salter. Salter, working for Hollywood as a screenwriter on the project Downhill Racer [1969], had been asked by that film's star, Robert Redford, to do a script for a knock-off based on a mountain climber. That failed effort led to the novel, published in 1979, just as I was beginning work on Wittgenstein's Door [1980]. Salter's description of scenes on mountain faces were harrowing. I saw in that desperate intensity a philosophical dimension that summoned all my intuitions of earth's power, the rumblings of change across the spectrum of difficult efforts to penetrate the complex densities of matter and meaning. 

Initially, my readings had suggested to me that the Cold War antinomies were in some ways mirrored dilemmas. Artists and writers might find their inspirations in radically different contexts, rendering their sincerest efforts relative and even irrelevent. Frank O'Hara could appreciate Pasternak and Mayakovsky as exemplars of a new kind of enthusiasm, which transcended barriers constructed to divide and insulate. Global constructs seemed too big to grasp. On the mental stage, symbols vied for traction. At sunset, Monet's haystacks took on proletarian significance.

The ceremonial cannibalization of the goddess of plenty in a frigid day in the dead of winter made all such acts seem like the expression of a faceless bureaucracy, locked in the rigor mortis of fixed positions. Opponents wrapped in space-suits "galloping terribly against each others' bodies" looked like a perfect cartoon of the way we were

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wittgenstein's Door II

I suspect that the "infernal music I was thinking of in my "Night Piece" to have been Alexander Scriabin's. Scriabin, an important figure in Russian music during the turn of the last century, composed in an eerily quasi-atonal vein. Primarily a keyboard composer, he also wrote orchestral pieces. He was a mystic, who believed in the metaphysical power of music, the relationship between visual phenomena (color) and sound (tones). This led him into eccentric notions of harmony, which can sound "off" to the untrained ear; I can also testify that his pieces are a "devil" to play, with countless minor augmentations which are difficult to make sound rounded and of a piece; nevertheless, they are quite beautiful once you get into the spirit of them. It's Russian late romanticism, decadent and "fatalistic" in mood. Too, his work often conjures up a feeling of possession, or other-worldly alchemical revelation. (Some day I shall have to write a blog about him. Here are some characteristic Preludes [Op. 11] which may serve as an introduction to his style.) 

In any case, whatever the underlying inspirations may have been for these prose-poems, I felt a liberating facility which lasted throughout the several weeks I wrote them. When you are drawn to an unfamiliar source, or an access of inspiration, you may feel yourself to be on uncertain ground. On a creative level, that uncertainty can be of great use, allowing a freshness and novelty whose strangeness is intriguing, which carries you along on a path of curiosity and discovery.       

John Soane's house - the sculpture room

Time in poetry is characteristically measured through the beats in the musical "line" created by a sequence of words. The harmony of the resulting syntax is what Robert Frost once called "the sound of sentences"--which for him was an amalgam of the accent of New England down home cracker-barrel speech and his meditative inner voice. But it is also a surprisingly accurate descriptive for what poetry actually is, and does. But in prose, the musicality becomes much more complex, a continuous thread unconfined by the length of a single line. A prose poem may have the same kind of argument of successive statements, leading to a conclusive synthesis, as a "poem" does, but there is a kind of stasis, a static poise which resists pauses and rests. Punctuation may demarcate, but prose is both a continuous thread--endless, by implication--as well as a repeated "starting again" from zero or "1" as each sentence or phrase reinitiates the voice. This is at least in part what I had in mind with "S T A T I C" which the spaced capitals was intended to suggest. 


Someone told me once, after reading this poem, that one of the symptoms of schizophrenia was the illusion of getting smaller, inside a larger containment. I don't know how much truth there is to that, or even if it's stock psychological theory, but I do know that I was thinking about Morandi's Etchings when I wrote this. Several of his still life studies suggest a condition of near total darkness, in which objects may appear to emit a ghostly "light" delineating their outlines, which then may seem to be "absent" rather than materially present. It's an odd phenomena which I've only experienced a couple of times. The essayist and auto-biographer Ved Mehta, who is totally blind, once described his ability to "sense" objects, perhaps suggesting a sixth sense. I'm not sure how far I'd want to take that. 

In the 1970's, all the men seemed to be wearing their hair long, with sideburns, and wore bell bottomed trousers in pastel shades. I think this was an aspect of the "British invasion" but in any case, it was a pertinent reminder of the predictable conformity of American cultural habit, one which I took as a symptom of its decadence.  

If prose poetry mimics the supposed sequential strategy of narrative, or logical argument, then, as an act of creative destruction, we may choose to question its assumptions by denying its objectives. Why must any story follow the usual illusion of chronology? We know that time in mind isn't the same as that we experience in "real" time. I remember that at the time I was reading one of Le CarrĂ©'s very well-plotted and crafted espionage thrillers, and it occurred to me that an interesting experiment might be to carve one up and turn it into a meta-fiction of misplaced events and clues and false leads. Of course, flashbacks and previews and time-jumps and interpolations of all kinds are used, and not just in crime fiction. What I meant to suggest here was that the act of the reader's participation was based on the actual dialectic between the reader's patience, curiosity and judgment posed against the author's intention, ability and choices. There's a degree if improbability about any fiction, that no amount of suspension of belief or patience can obviate. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

To the Ladies

Ordinarily, I'm not fond of cocktails "lite" or those which are so watered down with fruit juice or soda, or just plain diluted goods, that they taste like Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid is fine for kids, and I think I must have probably sold some at a card table on the side-walk at some point as a toddler--one of those little projects that kids used to do on summer days. Or at least I may have bought some, for 5 cents a glass. 

But some people don't like strong drinks, though they don't mind the "idea" of alcohol, as long as it doesn't taste too much like alcohol. Traditionally, women have tended to like weaker drinks. Drinks have often been one probable method of manipulating women's sensible resistance toward temptation, which partly accounts for their caution. In my experience, women's taste-buds are no more delicate than men's, and they often like spicy food just as much as, or more than, men do. So delicate taste may not be the thing--it may just be delicate sensibilities, or at least the impression of that. 

In any case, here's a cocktail which I find thoroughly seductive, at least in the taste sense. It doesn't use any distilled goods, but instead contains two kinds of what are referred to as aperitifs, or fortified wines.  In Europe, where they were invented, aperitifs are popular as pre-dinner drinks, or as sipping drinks taken during the day, as at lunch or tea. They may be drunk straight, chilled, or mixed with soda. In America, aperitifs tend to be used more for mixing with goods, than by themselves, though many such proprietary brands are drunk straight or with charged water, e.g., Pernod or Lillet.    

This one is perfect for an afternoon date, though of course it could be drunk pre-dinner as well. This would make one drink.

3 parts dry vermouth
1 part St. Germaine liqueur
1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
juice of one quarter wedge fresh lemon  

Swirled in ice and served up. I wouldn't recommend this on the rocks, for the simple reason that it's already such a relatively weak drink that any further dilution would tend to make it too much like fruit juice. St. Germaine is an elderflower liqueur, delicate and aromatic. The vermouth tends to dilute its intensity, though not complicating its purity. The addition of a little sweetness and citrus brings it subtly over the line as a cocktail, instead of an straight aperitif. I find it very tantalizing. And the ladies, one surmises, would be intrigued as well.    

Something to be taken in moderation, a sip at a time. Especially if you don't want much alcohol. Something sensible, something light, something easy, something bright. 


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.