Friday, December 26, 2008

Poetry Books, Published in 2008

Twenty Great Ones

A top ten list just won’t do it, given my enthusiasm for the prodigious production of poets in 2008. Here are twenty poetry books published this year that I bought, read, read again, and then again and again (etcetera). These poets, I do believe, drank deep from Hippocrene waters (and thus the Pegasus above), and I thank them. The books are listed in no particular order. Books I’ve written about previously here in the glade have a link back to those posts (scroll cursor over text); all book titles link to sites where you can buy ’em. So here we go, twenty great poetry books, published in 2008:

John Olson, Backscatter
(Boston: Black Widow Press)

A collection of new and selected poems – mostly prose-poems – by the extraordinary poet from Seattle. I’m an enthusiast of the first order. I wrote about this book’s creative energy a few weeks ago (click thru, if you please). And it’s not just me. See here what Travis Nichols had to say about the book in The Believer (“[w]ith every word and part of speech, nothing is commonplace and everything is loud and out of school”) or what the great writer Norman Lock had to say in elimae (“One can only be astonished at John Olson's apparently limitless invention”).

Lisa Jarnot, Night Scenes
(Chicago: Flood Editions)

This book has three sections. Many poems in the first section have numerous end rhymes, which is quite a jolt (it’s a long way from the decidely experimental prose of Jarnot’s first book, Some Other Kind of Mission, is what I mean to say). The rhymes aren’t overdone, and come off as entirely up-to-date, though of course part of the fun is that they seem partly of another era. The second section’s poems, generally speaking, are more casual: a list poem or two, a self-portrait that’s a charmer, the transcendent wonder of an ostrich farm, a couple of odes (again, the old-fashioned becomes au courant) and the marvelous “Whole Hog,” said to be “after Barrett Watten” (it’s in the style of his 1985 poem “Complete Thought”): fifty pairs of short, sort of gnomic sentences, with each pair capable of inducing reveries for a day or two, or more. For example,
Cultivation orders the task at hand.
Foliation is cut into squares.
The book’s final section seems a kind of potpourri of poems. I especially love “The Real,” about (to me) a William Carlos Williams no ideas but in things mind-thought-dream, if there is such a thing, and of course there is, and it’s this poem. And especially the perfect, sweet “Bee Ode.” Who says unabashed wear-it-on-yr-sleeve passion is out-of-style, or hokey? Well, it ain’t, at least not when done as well as this.

Ron Silliman, the Alphabet
(Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press)

Wonderful accretions of words, mostly in sentences, of “be here now” realism, superbly done, including sharp perceptions and a willingness to accept that mistakes are a part writing (of our lives). Calibrate your mind to take in Silliman’s almost non-stop mighty parade of particulars, and reading the book’s 1,000 plus pages becomes easy, even addicting. These poems, written over a 30 year period, should once and for all put an end to claims that Silliman’s work (often termed L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing) is difficult, non-referential, and non-subjective. Anyone can read and understand the Alphabet, and the poems are dominated by the poet and his life. I wrote about the puns in the book a few weeks back (click through, if you please)

Lamantia perhaps would have liked the order of this book’s sections flipped, so that the Hoffman came first, but it’s great nevertheless. The Hoffman poems are mostly sparse but mysterious and powerful; some of them were were read by Lamantia at the epoch-making 6 Gallery reading in 1955 (an excellent account of why Lamantia read Hoffman’s poems that night, based on a long talk with Lamantia by John Suiter, can be read by clicking through this parenthetical comment). Among a number of good reviews this book received, I especially enjoyed the one written by Joseph Donahue in The Brooklyn Rail. This publication of these two collections brought to light a heretofore little known sub-chapter of the late 1940s / early 1950s San Francisco Renaissance. Here’s another thought: per what Lamantia told me several years ago, when he talked about having the Hoffman collection published, there are at least three other little known or forgotten books of poems from that era that ought to be re-published: Sanders Russell, The Chemical Image (Ark Press: San Francisco, CA, 1947), Christopher Maclaine, The Automatic Wound (Columbus : Golden Goose Press, 1949), and Gogo Nesbit, Graffiti (San Francisco: Bern Porter Books, 1955). Maybe some publisher can do this?

Jordan Scott, blert
(Toronto: Coach House Press)

From the publisher: “The bright, taut, explosive poems in Jordan Scott’s Blert represent a spelunk into the mouth of the stutterer.” I enthused about this book’s explosive marvelousness about two months ago (click through, if you please).

Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler
(Minneapolis: Coffee House Press)

Slam energy harnessed to lineated verse, vivid language, and a heck of a subject: Katrina. Shifting imagined perspectives, including of those who lived in New Orleans, Bush and minions, and most mysteriously and powerfully, of the ‘cane itself. Very effective, and very memorable. A National Book Award finalist.

Craig Dworkin, Parse
(Berkeley: Atelos Press)

A high concept out there prose poem, page-after-page of the skeleton of grammar. I love this book, lots, as previously explained.

Jack Spicer, my vocabulary did this to me
(Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press)

Here are all of Spicer’s books from After Lorca forward, plus many (though not all) of the early poems and several previously unpublished. After a long stretch out-of-print, Spicer’s poems are again and finally readily available to readers, hoo-ray, hoo-ray. When the book was released, I both raved about it and ranted about an unfortunate mistake by the editors (click through to read).

Christopher Rizzo, Naturalistless
(Jamaica Plain, MA: The Greying Ghost Press)

A tiny chapbook of newword poems, imaginative and elegant. See further discussion (click through, please) here.

A chapbook that presents newwords that any of us could make. Fun, clever, and a noble attempt to generate a bit of new life for our language. See further discussion (click through, please) here.

Jackson Mac Low, Thing of Beauty
(Berkeley: University of California Press)

Let’s see: you’ll find traditional poems here, as well aleatoric, deterministic, diastic, liminal, gathered, intuitive, spontaneous, intentionally composed and god knows, even more. This collection of selected and previously unpublished poems by the great experimentalist is lots of fun. The book includes the four pager about the guy who plucks down an asper for a quiet date, a perfectly pitched and paced, not a word out of place, erotic fantasia of a prose poem.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Sports
(Los Angeles: Make Now Press)

Poetic transcribed baseball. I liked it so much, I wrote about twice, first (click through, please) here, then here.

A gorgeous fold-out book. From the publisher’s website: “This is the first full-color, full-size (79 by 15 in.) facsimile of the original 1913 collaboration between the poet Blaise Cendrars and the artist Sonia Delaunay that came to define the modern artist’s book and stands as one of the most beautiful books ever created.” An English translation of the poem is provided in an accompanying booklet.

Malcolm de Chazal, Sens-Plastique
(Los Angeles: Green Integer)

A little brick of a book, the first complete translation of the Mauritian writer’s 1948 masterwork. Prose poem-y aphoristic observational and/or speculative meditative nuggets. As such: “The eye is the loveliest of all places to have an encounter in.” And: “The cerebrum of the poet is a lyre played by his cerebellum.” And: “Red. A circular flaming. Light in a continuous hoop. An engagement ring endlessly circling the finger of the sun.” And so on, for more than 750 pages!!!

Andre Breton, Martinique / Snake Charmer
(Austin: University of Texas Press)

A translation of a collection first published in France in 1948. The book is thin: the actual text, including contributions (written and visual) by Andre Masson is only about 60 pages long (introductory and end note material almost doubles that number). That part of the book I keep reading is even less substantial, size-wise: eight single paragraph prose poems collectively titled (in English) “Some Trembling Pins.” These short poems were written by Breton on the back of picture postcards, the size of which limited the length of each poem. These poems comprise only a few or several sentences, and one simply lists place names. But oh how they evoke and inspire. Here, big reveries come in small poems. There’s an excellent essay on the book as a whole by poet George Kalamaras, in the current (Winter 2008-2009) print edition of Rain Taxi.

How possibly can we reconcile the quotidian in our lives with the increasingly dire environmental destruction? Ignore it? Climb a tree and sit? How about mediating between these seemingly disjunctive realities via prose poems involving both extinct species and daily life, written directly and with utmost sincerity? Sometimes poetry hitched to something bigger is not only necessary but a success, and this book’s an example. Hamill has a keen way with words and emotions. The sense of loss and her relationship to it seems very, very true.

These are “homolinguistic” translations of the poems of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. I can’t say I fully understand “homolinguistic” as applied here, and the resulting poems are as inpenetrable as Stein’s buttons. And that’s exactly why I keep returning to McCaffery’s poems published here thirty years after the first, mimeographed edition of 100 copies. As the ol’ radio show was titled, I Love A Mystery.

Andrew Joron, The Sound Mirror
(Chicago: Flood Editions)

Although Small Press Distribution lists this book as having a January 1, 2009 publication date, the book has a 2008 copyright date, and has been for sale for about a month. Imagine listening to a phonetics wizard deploy, in an echo chamber, huge numbers of diphthongs, fricatives, phonemes and other sounds of language, all for your edification and pleasure.

An extremely well-done selection and thus an unbeatable introduction to the poetry and writing of a mighty, and deep, thinker (and one of the best magazine editors and translators of our time). Ron Silliman posted a great review of this book (click through to read) in mid-November.

Truong Tran, four letter words
(Berkeley: Apogee Press)

Mostly but not entirely blocked texts of prose. Mysterious. Off-putting but irresistible. A great one on page 64, with a few recognizable words jammed between seemingly random letters, with no spaces, like this (actual quotation):
. . . wbnlwewoundscmleofihourwordssowiehdknksyourskjld . . .
Another poem, immediately preceding the one quoted above, has the letters of the poet’s name arrayed in a square grid, separated by spaces, including once in the correct order but otherwise jumbled. Similar inventiveness appears evident when words are more traditionally arranged. Other folks have been similarly beguiled (click here for Claire Light’s well-put thoughts on the book).

And that’s the list of twenty!
Thanks for taking a look!
Think maybe I've forgotten something?
Please (please) add a comment.
I’m all eyes and ears.

Friday, December 19, 2008


New words have been around forever. Since word one, every word when first said or written has been new, and it’s never stopped. The accumulated mass of all our words goes and grows everywhere all the time, no less than the universe.

And while it’s hard enough to keep a handle on our day-to-day vocabulary (which apparently involves between 12,000 and 17,000 or more word families in one’s native language), all this new verbiage is good. A really good thing. Allow me to repeat the H.L Mencken line (which I quoted here about a month ago): “Stability in language is synonymous with rigor mortis.” The American Language (Fourth Edition, 1962), page 607. New words are life blood, a force of language-nature as necessary as birth, April showers, and that look in the eye of the one you love.

As such, a celebratory hip-hip-hooray should be heard for Christopher Rizzo’s Naturalistless, a tiny (twelve or so pages, four by four and one-half inches in size) and beautiful chapbook of nothing but neologisms, and Aaron Tieger’s The Collected Typos of Aaron Tieger, a slightly larger but still small chapbook of nothing but (you can see this coming no matter how far you are from your computer screen) tpyos. As such, both books are full of fresh, mint condition, made-up words, and nothing but made-up words.

In Naturalistless, Rizzo with some type of divine madness conjoins words, sometimes puzzlingly (“Cedarkle”), sometimes funnily (allush), sometimes somewhat profoundly (silencenturies), sometimes alliteratively (“birchirrup”), and in one case (and this is cool) palindromically (“doorood’). There appear to be seven poems, each with eight words, a single (new, conjoined) word to a line. Rizzo has elsewhere provided the background for the book, involving a naturalist impulse (and, I must add, a lot of imagination and combinatory elegance, in that every word-pair shares combinatory letters). The epigraph is a quotation from Ronald Johnson’s Shrubberies, “yet delight in the spectacle.” Great advice. I did that for this book, and it was impressive and fun.

Rizzo dedicates his little book to Aaron Tieger. I don’t know if its coincidence or not that Tieger’s Collected Typos is out at about the same time, but there you go. Collected Typos, from the title alone, obviously has more than a bit of spoofiness to it, and Tieger has written to me that the project started as a joke. Yet the epigraph (“accidents are not omissions”) suggests a more serious mission evolved too, and the results confirm that the fun here, even if a bit frivolous, is important too. The book has thirteen pages, each with about 15 words (one to a line), and its just about guaranteed that you haven’t read any of them before, at least not too many times. There’s typos with inverted inner letters (“jion”), dropped letters (“rigt”), the single letter minimalist typo (“d”), and the seemingly totally botched (“burleqaseu”).

Or did those typos come about as I’ve described? Perhaps not. Instead of aiming for “join” but inverting the inner letters to get “jion,” Tieger may have been trying for “lion” and scrwed up the first letter, hitting the “j” key instead of the “l”. Similarly, the minimalist “d” might not have been intended as the single-letter word “a” but rather “do” or “id.” And so the fun begins, as possibilities multiply.

More fun still is how both Rizzo’s and Tieger’s books -- the words in them when seen by the eyes -- s-l-o-w r-e-a-d-i-n-g d-o-w-n, w-a-y d-o-w-n s-l-o-w. If internet popularity is any indication (and the article has all the marks of a bona fide study) the best hypothesis in the science of word recognition is that we readers recognize and respond not to word shapes, but to letters within each word on a page. The new words in Naturalistless and Collected Typos take markedly more time to read than words that you know. While reading these books, the brain takes several extra several beats on each word, as the eyes saccade about and around the letters of the unfamiliar words. As a result of this slowing down of reading, the unending curve of space-time gets just a bit more noticeable. It’s a very nice alteration of consciousness. Just don’t try to drive a car too soon after tripping through these poems.

Also fun is using the new words found in these books. Or imagining how they might be used by others. Such creative speculating is beyond this humble blog, at least today. But the point is, Rizzo and Tieger have given the world a heck of a gift here. I wish their new words a long life, full of polite definitions and rude poeticizings and everything in between.

Of course and unfortunately, probably few if any of Rizzo’s or Tieger’s words will make it. It’s a hard road if you’re a new word. Words such as “glasnost” (from the mid-1980s) or “carpocalypse” (from, like, last month) which go from invention to cliche in nothing flat are the exception. Most new words are read or heard a first time and then rarely if ever written or spoken again.

Not that poets haven’t been laying out new words for just about forever, trying to give our language a kick or bit of fresh life. Turn the pages back about 25 or 30 or so years and you have David Melnick’s PCOET (G.A.W.K., 1975) and P. Inman’s Platin (Sun & Moon Press, 1979) and Ocker (Tuumba Press, 1982), for example, and there you are: pages of new words such as “gctob,” “brocle,” and “sleech.” Alas, not many live today outside those marvelous books.

Ditto for the wondrous word-inventions from circa 70 years ago by James Joyce in Finnegans Wake, (e.g., “alltolonely,” “flabelled,” and “horthoducts,” to cite but three newwords from but one of thousands of paragraphs in that book’s 600 plus pages), Eugene Jolas in any number of poems, or, in the same era, the out-there verbiage of Abraham Lincoln Gillespie (“keylusion” and “synexdocrowth,” for instance), and the lexi-mashups of the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (such as “sunpestled” and “sexfestooned”).

Heck, you can even turn the pages back several centuries and read many invented words, strong intriguing words, which could or should have some place in our lives, but that although birthed in poetry have never caught on, at least not yet. Take for example:
. . . affined, cadent, bubukles, crants, enactures, fracted, immoment, mirable, propugnation, relume, rigol, unsisting . . .
These words could have no finer parentage, but though still regularly uttered in their place today, haven’t yet had a heyday much anywhere else. Life’s short, people: use a new word today, please, or better yet, by accident or design, go out and make one of your own.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Inaugural Poet

We have an inaugural poet, and it’s Elizabeth Alexander. Alexander is an academic, an Ivy Leaguer. She presents on the web with a neatly organized, generously stocked site: it has some of her poetry, a few essays and interviews, and plenty of other details.

The essays and interviews posted at that site suggest a kind heart, a sharp mind, a long history of intense scholarship, a particular familiarity with African American poetry and art, and a sincere and deep appreciation of words. With regard to her poetics, the following answer to an interview question seems a fair enough starting point:
“Usually, as far as writers who have influenced me, I talk about my work as kind of child of Gwendolyn Books and Walt Whitman. Lately I’ve been thinking about the Lewis Untermeyer Modern American Poetry anthology, which I studied in high school. I read it over and over again, and I particularly loved the imagist poets. I loved H.D.; I loved Amy Lowell. Moving out of imagism. T. S. Eliot was very important to me in that kind of high school period. What I hope I’ve held onto is the real belief that the powerful, distilled, vital image unto itself is somehow enough.”
Anyone who reads poetry should thank the lucky stars that there is an inaugural poet at all. There’s been such a thing only four times in history, apparently. In our era of “video introductions,” power-point presentations larded with over-done graphics, and text-messaging, it’s heartening that a voice uttering a few well-chosen words still has a place in a grand public event, right up there with the oath, the address, the prayer, the bands, and the bible.

So for that reason alone I send out a best wish to Alexander and her poem. It can’t be easy. Just think: in addition to worrying about what to say and how to say it, Alexander might be wondering whether there are successors to Clark Coolidge and Larry Fagin out here, just waiting to do with her poem what those two did with Maya Angelou’s.

And while I wish Alexander the best, I don’t like the choice here, not at all. Not that I was expecting much. For all the the talk of change and hope the inauguration is but the coronation of the next phase of incremental slip-sliding status quo-ism. That’s not to diminish its importance – at the very least, the Supreme Court appointments make our next President crucial – but simply to emphasize the fundamentally conservative bent of this thing. In this way, Elizabeth Alexander, poet, is a good fit. For all the good that can be said about her and her poems, she is not an experimentalist. It’s academic, workshop style writing. The poems (and excerpts from poems) on her website are well done, very well done. Very well done, and very careful. Too much so, at least to my sensibility.

Let me put it another way: if the inaugural program wanted a poet that really represents CHANGE, they could have done a lot better. They could have done a lot a lot better even if they’d limited their choice to African-American poets or even African-American poets with the last name Alexander. Yep, it’s Will Alexander that should have been picked. What a scene that would be! Scorching wild imagination and lexical holy-talmudic-tamale-tesla coils streamed via LA from the same universe-pools as Aime Cesaire, Bob Kaufman, Lautreamont, and Artaud.

But such a scene is unfathomable in the heads of the power elite. This is politics, and power, and privileges preserved. The mid-term elections are just around the corner.

So too bad and so sad. Will Alexander, per the stories that Philip Lamantia told me, has a dedication to writing, the ability to sit down and just go, that the newly elected ought to revere. And come January 20th, they ought to hear, as I’d love to hear, a poem or two from The Stratospheric Canticles or Above the Human Nerve Domain. Or even just hear the title of Alexander’s untameable novel, Sunrise In Armageddon.

Now that would be something. That would truly be “change we can believe in.”

Monday, December 15, 2008

Exuberant Interjection Exclamation Point Exclamation Point

Parse is a 284 page book of parsed sentences. I’ll bet you haven’t read any books like that lately. Even if you have, you ought to read this one.

Poet Craig Dworkin explains in an end note – one of the very few parts of this book which isn’t presented only in parsed form – that Parse is a “translation” of a nineteenth century grammar textbook. By “translation,” Dworkin means that for each sentence in the book he analyzed its grammatical constituents, and then wrote out (to present in Parse) each word’s or sentence component’s grammatical function, including the applicable part of speech/writing and, if applicable, inflectional form and/or syntactic function.

Remember grammar from school? Diagramming sentences? Dull and impossible freight, you say? Well, here’s almost three hundred pages of it. And to me, it ain’t dull at all.

It took Dworkin more than five years to work through what must have seemed an endless number of sentences in the book (I don’t know the exact number involved, but the total surely is at least a few if not several thousand). In an e-mail reply he kindly provided when I asked him about it, Dworkin described the work as “EXCRUCIATINGLY slow” (emphasis his) at the beginning, but also said that by the end he could sit down with the source text and parse-type at “full speed.” At either end of this spectrum, it’s pretty amazing, as is all the work – particularly the attention to detail – done in between.

On the Ceptuetics radio show about two months ago, Dworkin stated that did not write Parse for any audience (though of course it has one, or potentially does, now). That sort of authorial decision to not have a primary interest in potential readers is not only okay by me, but a big, big plus. To use two non-literary examples, Simon Rodia didn’t build his towers for anybody but himself, and the same’s true of the Facteur Cheval and his Le Palais idéal. People who pursue a creative vision attuned to their own neccesities regardless of audience, especially when the quest persists through time (Rodia worked for 33 years in Watts, Cheval for about the same amount of time in Hauterives), can come up with some mighty interesting work.

Dworkin also said on Ceptuetics radio that he wrote Parse it to see what might happen “inside the skeleton of grammar.” I like that metaphor. In each parsed sentence, Dworkin shows the skeleton of that sentence. The poet here (Dworkin) becomes a kind of x-ray machine. And if that’s so, the reader then becomes a sort of radiologist.

What do you see, doctor?

Well, the first thing that’s apparent – readily apparent – are the marvelous complications of our language. For all but the very simplest of sentences, the identification and description of the grammatical units reveals the sentence to be a very complex thing. Just as one should be humbled by seeing an x-ray of the hand with its two dozen or so inter-related bones, reading Dworkin’s parsed sentences for page after page creates awe and respect for the high level of processing that we humans routinely, mostly automatically and almost instantly undertake when we read, speak, hear, or write. Read Parse and you must conclude, over and over and over: our ordering of words in relation to one another, consistent with generally accepted rules (“grammar”), is a miracle.

The other thing that’s readily apparent is that no different than a human skeleton, the skeleton of language is by itself a mostly lifeless thing. There are a few instances in the book where Dworkin lets the original words of his source text stand, or in the midst of his parsing editorializes a bit about the word choice or grammaritical significance. Those non-parsed moments, after pages and pages of parsed sentences, seem sensual and exciting as a first kiss.

The relative barreness of the parsed sentences can also kick-start the imagination, if you look at them right, or maybe simply if you read enough of them for long enough. At certain points, I couldn't resist trying to put flesh on and blood (words conveying meaning aside from the parsing concepts) on the skeletal grammatical descriptions of the sentences. This impulse is extremely liberating. It also underscores the vastness of language, since there are multitudes of possibilities for any particular parsed sentence. Even the simplest such sentence is a skeleton for who knows how many – hundreds, thousands, millions and millions? – of word groupings and relations that might come alive to dance or strut or even die on the page and in our heads. Here’s a parsed sentence of my own making:
quotation marks Definite article adjective noun transitive present simple verb preposition definite article noun period quotation marks
Despite the limitations imposed by certain elements of the grammar of this sentence (the punctuation is immutable, there is but a single definite article in our language, and the specified verb tense obliterates the past and denies the future), the possibilities seem endless: One might start with, “The addled apple appears in the attic.” And then go through all kinds of other possibilties, including: “The zealous abecedarian alphabetizes among the zebu.” And then perhaps end with: “The zany zebra zooms to the zinnias.” Etcetera, etcetera & etcetera.

Another thing that happens when reading Parse is a renewed appreciation for the actual terms of grammar. This is trippy shit, almost alchemical. “Locative Preposition adjective of inclusion plural deitic adjective plural noun comma adjective of exception . . . ” (page 157), is but one of many wild and lovely examples that can be found in the book. I’m not sure, but I understand that a “locative preposition” and a “plural deitic adjective,” if added at the same time as the “Adder’s fork” and “blind-worm’s sting,” will add tremendous zing to the charmed cauldron of Macbeth’s witches.

The grammatical term in Parse that really sends me – and I’m not sure where Dworkin got this, but he got it, and I love it – is “marks of quotation.” Not “quotation marks,” as me and you and a dog named Boo almost always say these days, but instead, “marks of quotation.” It seems to be an archaic lexical construct, but it seems so dignified and special that way, doesn’t it? Flipping the usual word order, and inserting the preposition, somehow gives ther term a poetic twist.

Dworkin has said that Parse is an example of “non-expressive” writing. On one level, he’s right. There ain’t much personal feeling or subjectivity or traditional narrative in the book.

On the other hand, if it’s so “non-expressive,” why did the book make me feel so good about the complexity and possibilities of our language, the crazed terms used in grammar, and the poetry of “marks of quotation”? Parse may be non-expressive, but it’s damn inspiring, an out there high concept prose poem of the most unusual kind. To use a word that’s consistent with the parsed title at the head of this here blog post: Wow!!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Poetry of Olivier Messiaen, on his Centennial

“ionized laughter fury of a clock”

The Olivier Messiaen (born: December 10, 1908) Centennial is here!

Blast the church organs!

Let the birds sing!

Roll out the massive box set (14 CDs)
, and the REALLY MASSIVE (32 CDs) box set!

And – my focus here – let’s salute Messiaen’s poetry!

Messiaen’s poetry? Yes, his poetry. I refer specifically to the lyrics in two vocal works that Messiaen composed in the 1940s: Harawi: Chant d’amour et de mort (Harawi: Song of Love and Death) (1948) and Cinq rechants (Five Refrains) (1949). The words in these songs are wild, inventive, and by any measure, poetry.

Poetry is a key part of Messiaen’s nature, nurturing, and thus his musical temperament. While pregnant with him, his mother wrote and published a book of poems, titled L’Ame en bourgeon (The Budding Soul), that Messiaen believed were an auger or even a cause of certain of his core interests, including music, birds, and the culture of India and Japan. Messiaen’s father was the pre-eminent translator in France of, among others, Whitman and Shakespeare.

Messiaen himself read widely in poetry, including – to judge only by those he mentioned in interviews and his musical theory writings – Aloysius Bertrand, Rilke, the surrealists, and many others. During interviews, he said he was a great reader and admirer of Pierre Reverdy and Paul Eluard, and it’s also known he read and liked the work of Andre Breton.

Of course, the great majority of Messiaen’s works are purely instrumental, though who would deny the poetic power of that music? In addition, most of the relatively small number of compositions that have words are either somewhat staid (e.g., Chants de terre et de ciel (Songs of earth and heaven) (1938)), or not particularly noteworthy (the sometimes wooden libretto of the magnificent opera, Saint Francois d’Assise (1983)).

The words of Harawi and Cinq Rechants, however, are jeweled exceptions. These songs feature experimental non-narrative amalgams or accretions of, among other things, surrealistic imagery, Quechua (Peruvian Indian) and/or Sanskrit words, Tristan and Iseult concepts, made-up words, jarring juxtapositions, phonemic sounds, and the like.

Harawi is an hour-long suite of a dozen songs for a solo woman’s voice (a large soprano voice) and piano. Despite many moments of sublime melodic and beauty, none of the tunes will ever make the hit parade, or even universally embraced by fans of classical or “art” songs. Dissonance is a key composing principle, as are well as what Messiaen called “non-retrogradable rhythms,” which to my layperson’s understanding are symmetrical patterns of a kind not conducive to toe-tapping. I love these songs, but many people – forgive my presumptuousness – may not.

Harawi, of course, was written in French, so translation can only approximate the poetry, and presenting – as I am going to do here – only parts does not do justice to the whole. Still, a taste of Messiaen’s achievement with words is possible. The words of the first three songs of Harawi, for example, include such non-rational imagery as “The double of violet, to you” and “Mountain, listen to the solar confusion of dizziness.” These lyrics are poetic, obviously, but in context are but a warm up for what happens next, in the fourth song.

“Doundou tchil,” the song begins, an onomatopoeic expression that Messiaen lifted from a Quechua song that mimics the sounds made by the ankle bells of dancers. Messiaen has his singer rhythmically repeat this phrase twenty times, for about 45 seconds: very, very softly at the start, such that it is barely heard over the low octave piano notes, and then louder until it reaches an insistent gusto with the last three repetition. It’s subtle and hypnotic then riveting and jarring, similar (I hope) to how it looks right here:

doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil ----- doundou tchil-doundou tchil-doundou tchil

The “doundou tchil” phrase is then used throughout the song as a sort of counterpoint to poetic images, including “Dance of the stars” and “Mirror of familiar birds.” Near the song’s middle, Messiaen drops in a phrase, which is repeated three times, that combines syllables or words from Quechua and Sanskrit words, apparently chosen more for sound than sense: Toun-gou - ma - pa - na - ma - ma - pa - ka-hi-pi-pas (or ma-hi-pi-pas). The song then ends with another twenty or so repeats of the “doundou tchil” chant, this time accompanied by a wild cascade of mixed low and high octave piano notes.

Hey, they don’t write ‘em like that anymore!

Many other songs of Harawi have lyrics that are similarly “out there.” The sixth song begins with a series of five almost shouted cries of “Ahi”(accompanied by wild bird-chatter high register piano) followed by the far calmer incantatory phrase “O mapa nama mapa nama lila, tchil repeated five times, accompanied by an almost drummed low octave piano melody. The whole set is then repeated. There then follow a number of stand-alone phrases or single words – images, really, that often are almost just whispered: “straddle a black cry, “black echo of time,” “winding staircase,” “whirlpool,” and “red star,” for example, along with sounds or single words, including “tchil,” all of which are set within driving piano runs. A series of cries, similar to those heard at the start, end the song.

The eighth song of the cycle is titled “Syllables” and that reflects the main thrust of its verbal component: onomatopoeic words and syllables are repeated again and again. This song also has a line, “The double of the violet will double,” in which Messiaen draws back an image (the doubled violet) and then expands it, suggesting the exponential growth of both a flower and a color. The eleventh song features a repeated adapted Quechua word, “katchikatchi” plus wonderful non-rational lines such as “nebulae spiral, hands of my hair,” “electrons, ants, arrows , the silence in two,” and (my favorite) “ionized laughter fury of a clock.” It’s all pretty spectacular.

The words of Cinq rechants, written for an unaccompanied twelve person mixed vocal chorus, are also compellingly poetic. One song is made up almost entirely synthetic words, seemingly made up of Sanskrit and Peruvian components but perhaps entirely invented too. One line, for example, goes, for example, “roma tama ssouka rava kâli vâli ssouka nahame kassou. Believe it or not, these words are downright catchy when paired with Messiaen’s melody and rhythms. I hear them in my head in the shower, or at grocery store, just like I hear Aretha for days when I hear her “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.”

Speaking of poetry by letters alone, the last song of Cinq rechants has three brief sections in which only the letters “t” and “k” are spoken-sung (Messaien's score calls for the letters to be voiced (in French) “teu / keu,” which to my ears gives the passages an ornithological tint, with the sounds something like that of a bush-tit). The first section of letters, softly voiced by three bass voices, goes like this (dashes used to connote the approximate rhythm and rests):


The last such section is sung in an arrangement of counterpoint and harmony by the tenors and basses. The lines, one atop the other, can be approximated as follows (again, dashes are used to connote the approximate rhythm and rests):


These lines are an abecedarian rhythmic delight, another example of the lexical (here, phonemic) experiments in these songs.

Happy 100, Messiaen!

Sources and further resources:

Numerous recordings of Harawi and Cinq Rechants can be had, although not on a single CD, from the usual sources.

All translations quoted above are from, or largely derived from, Audrey Ekdahl Davidson, Olivier Messiaen and the Tristan Myth (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2001).

The words to Cinq Rechants, in French and English (though without the alphabetic sections), can be found here.

A most excellent Messiaen biography is: Peter Hill and Nigel Simeone, Messiaen (Yale University Press, 2005).

The best Messiaen site on the web is maintained by Malcolm Ball -- check out the wondrous synaesthesia-inspired fractal image that's posted there now!

L’Ame en bourgeon (The Budding Soul), the book of poetry that Cecile Sauvage, Messiaen’s mother, wrote and published while pregnant with Olivier, can be found in French and English in: Christopher Dingle and Nigel Simeone, editors, Olivier Messiaen: Music, Art and Literature (Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007). This book also includes a great essay on Messiaen the bibliophile.

“They don’t write ‘em like that anymore” is a line from The Breakup Song, by the Greg Kihn Band (Beserkley Records, 1981).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Poetic Transcribed Baseball -- Hot Stove League Action !!!

Sports, by Kenneth Goldsmith (Make Now Press, 2008)

The Hot Stove League : (slang) : a baseball-related term, referring to the off-season, including in particular the off-season transactions (trades, re-signings, free agency, etc.) that occur between seasons.

About two months ago, just as the baseball season was winding down, I wrote about Kenneth Goldsmith’s book/concept-poem Sports (scroll cursor over this sentence for a link to the essay, if you please). The book’s a transcription of a radio broadcast of a record-making baseball game, and dang wonderful. I described it as a line drive off the top of the wall, almost a home run, but not quite. What stopped it from being a home run, in my view, was that the transcript presented the radio broadcasters as more or less continuously talking, not indicating the pauses that regularly transpire during broadcasts. I specifically mentioned not understanding why the silences hadn’t been indicated in the text, particularly since the silences between the spoken words are an important part of any broadcast and that there are ways (white space and ellipses, for example) to suggest silence and pauses on the printed page. Sports, as published, is available as a hard copy book (link at the book’s title, at the head of this post). Sports as published is also available as a PDF on the web (click here to go).

Well, there is now further information, courtesy of Kenneth Goldsmith himself. Goldsmith wrote me last week after I’d sent him a link to my essay on poetry and puns, which included a few paragraphs about Head Citations, another of his books. He said he had read what I’d wrote about Sports, and then graciously provided an explanation of why his book’s transcription of the ball game radio broadcast did not indicate when the announcers were silent. Here’s what Goldsmith wrote:
“I did leave all the silences in the piece in its first iteration. Whilst transcribing it, during the silences / roar of the crowd / ambient nosie, I held my hand down on the spacebar. I wanted the whole thing to look like a David Antin talk piece. But when it came time to typeset, it all fell apart somehow. The super-long silences refused to line break; the whole thing just looked like a mess. So, I removed all the silences and kept it as a block of text. I agree with you, I would’ve liked it better with spaces but then I would have had to “invent” spaces which is something I refuse to do (invent, that is). It made me realize that David Antin works really hard to make those talk poems look as good as they do; they're really very heavily aestheticized pieces and that sort of decoration is something I have no interest in. So, rather than design the piece to look nice, I just stripped ‘em all out.”
I appreciate knowing this additional information (and I thank Goldsmith for allowing me to share it here). Even more, I appreciate knowing that the absence, in Sports, of white spaces indicating silence is a consequence of Goldsmith staying true to his core or overarching creative principle, which – paradoxical as it sounds – is not to invent. The dedication to his vision of how it should -- or should not -- be done, is admirable. Maybe the publishers of Sports could have included a short note explaining the typesetting gremlins, but then again that may have itself required some sort of creative act by Goldsmith, and thus was not possible.

But there’s more! Here’s the real Hot Stove League Action: Goldsmith has now – hold onto your ball caps, Sports fans – placed his original typewritten transcript of the book, with spaces indicating silence, on the web as a PDF. Click on the title immediately below to read it:

Kenneth Goldsmith, Sports, first transcript (with silences indicated)

I hope you agree: it’s a real sensation: a grand slam, if you please.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A Most Unfortunate Howler, in the Otherwise Tremendous "my vocabulary did this to me : The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer"

Let me first say that I’m one of the lucky ones. Lucky in the sense that my vocabulary did this to me : The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, just out from Wesleyan University Press, is for me necessary only for the twenty or so previously unpublished poems that it includes among its 400 plus pages. All the rest of Spicer’s work – at least as contained in this book – is known and loved by me through the original small press editions, the 1975 Black Sparrow Press Collected Books of Jack Spicer, and various periodicals.

But I am lucky, very lucky, in this regard. For years now, most who wanted to read Spicer’s poetry essentially had no options. The original editions of his books are out-of-reach, as in expensive or unavailable (the White Rabbit Press 1957 After Lorca, for example, ranges from $250 up to $1,500). Even the Black Sparrow Collected Books is out of reach for most. Paperback copies, when found, commonly sell for $50 or more, and the hardcover edition goes for considerably more.

As such, the Wesleyan Spicer Collected (that’s my shorthand title for the book) is big and happy news. Truly big and happy news. Although it ain’t cheap at 35 bucks (retail price, Amazon’s price is less), it is by far the cheapest fullest collection available, and hopefully will permit many more to read Spicer’s great poems. I wish this book multiple printings, and, better yet, multiple readings by multiple readers. That’s probably a fantasy, I know, but still, I do wish it. Please do your part, dear reader of this humble glade: buy the book, and read it, again and again.

So now let’s get to the “howler.” One of the poems published for the first time – and thus which I read first – is titled, “They Murdered You: An Elegy on the Death Of Kenneth Rexroth.” The poem was written in late 1956, according to the chronological ordering given by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian, the editors of the Wesleyan volume.

In a prefatory note the editors describe “They Murdered You . . .” as “a premature elegy on the death of Kenneth Rexroth” (page xxix). The further describe the poem, in the “Notes to the Poems” section at the end of the book (page 444), as “parodic of Ginsberg’s Howl” and further state that although titled an elegy Rexroth “was quite healthy at the time; he lived until 1982.”

The editors don’t explain how they came to conclude that Spicer was parodying Howl. Spicer’s poem, it is true, uses the phrase “best minds of his generation” (although not anywhere near the top of the poem) and a few other words (e.g., “busted”) that are close to or actually in Ginsberg’s poem. But those are very minor similarities. Spicer’s poem has neither the paragraphic prose stanzas, the overall length, or the searing tone of protest of Howl.

The first howler, then, is that the Spicer poem ain’t parodic of Howl, not in the least. The poem it parodies is in fact one of Rexroth’s own, a famous one, a very famous one, called “Thou Shalt Not Kill (A Memorial for Dylan Thomas).” Spicer’s “Elegy” for Rexroth has the same overblown tone, the same name-dropping tendencies, and definitely the same rhythmic repetition of Rexroth’s memorial for Thomas. As if all that weren’t enough, there’s the title of Spicer’s poem: “They Murdered You” obviously riffs on similar lines in Rexroth’s poem about the death of Dylan Thomas, such as “You killed him” or “They murdered him.” That Spicer was parodying the Rexroth poem is easily figured out after even a skimming of Spicer’s “Elegy,” at least for those familiar with Rexroth’s work. Apparently, Gizzi and Killian don't have that familiarity or, if they did, it was somehow forgot. Either way, shame on them.

The editors’ mistake about which poem was being parodied makes me wonder if they understand what the heck Spicer was up to in the poem. Their comments in the notes suggest they simply see the poem as, in their words, “a premature elegy” for Rexroth. In addition, their further note that “Rexroth was quite healthy at the time” betrays that the two either have a bit to learn about Rexroth, or had an unfortunate lapse of memory.

Spicer’s poem is in fact a kick-him-when he’s down overtly sarcastic or, at turns, devastatingly wry put down of Rexroth. Spicer’s poem skewers Rexorth’s ego, his poetry, his poetic concerns, his values and ideals, his fantastic exaggerating, and even those many in the San Francisco poetry world who admired him. You gotta buy the book to read the entire poem here, but folks, believe me, this ain’t even close: Spicer’s poem not only skewers Rexroth, it reams him. It’s executed brilliantly, and it’d make me laugh really, really hard but for the very uncomfortable feelings I have about the poem. First, Spicer had a deep self-hate – as Gizzi and Killian directly imply in their introduction (page xx) – and reading the poem I get a sense that he’s projecting a lot of that hate onto Rexroth. That gives the whole thing a very yucky feel.

But the biggest yuck, ick, and shame of this poem comes from remembering – as the Spicer editors apparently do not – that Rexroth was far from “healthy” at the time the poem was written, and in fact was struggling with a profound crisis that appeared to threaten his life.

The basic story is that Rexroth’s wife fell in love with the poet Robert Creeley then left Kenneth, taking their two daughters. Rexroth, who in the best of times had what we today might call anger management issues, went nuts. It was more than anger. The terms his biographer uses – and the many anecdotes she tells leave no doubt that the terms are accurate – are “irrational” and a “state of hysterical paranoia” that then “deteriorated to the point where his friends actually feared for his life.” (See Linda Hamilian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (W.W. Norton and Co., 1991),pages 262 and 265). His wife then returned, at least temporarily.

Rexroth’s crisis was well known in the poetry community, including by those outside San Francisco. (See Hamilian, page 265.) Indeed, Killian in his and Lew Elingham’s Spicer biography, Poet Be Like God (Wesleyan University Press, 1998) has himself written about Spicer’s knowledge of the situation, and also wrote that Spicer sympathized with Creeley and Rexroth’s wife (see page 128 therein).

In this light, Spicer’s “They Murdered You” comes across as an ugly kick to the balls of a poet who was already devastatingly down. The poem, that way, is really friggin’ ugly. Spicer, to his credit, didn’t publish the damn thing.

Gizzi and Killian, however, decided to put the thing into print. Maybe they decided the poem’s parodic skill and humor outweighed the negative impact of showing Spicer’s mean-prick hate. That, or the two editors were ignorant of what the poem is all about. I think it’s the latter. That the two editors missed the mark both on which poem Spicer was parodying (one by Rexroth, not Ginsberg), and what the poem actually is about (a devastating put-down, an ugly one under the circumstances, not simply a premature elegy), qualifies hands down as the biggest poetic howler (howler (noun): Slang – A laughably stupid blunder) of 2008. And that’s a shame.

What’s the significance of the editors’ mistake? One reader of this here rant states I’ve focused on just a single mini-detail, suggesting that the matter isn’t that important.

True enough, the error is but one detail in a very large book, and as I made clear at the top here, everybody should buy and read this book. However, let’s remember that just about anybody could have edited the vast bulk of the Wesleyan Spicer Collected. About 300 of its pages simply republish the poetry found in the Black Sparrow Press Collected Books of Jack Spicer. Putting that together was relatively easy. The editors’ skills, then, were most important for the 100 or so pages in which they present newly discovered texts and a selection of Spicer’s early poems (circa 1945 to 1956), plus the additional 40 pages of prefaces, introductions, and notes.

With regard to the early poems, the editors of the Wesleyan Spicer Collected “de-selected” (did not print) about one-third of Spicer’s early poems, which previously had been published in the now out-of-print One Night Stand & Other Poems (Grey Fox Press, 1980). That’s a good number of poems left on the cutting room floor. Given how they missed the mark with the Rexroth poem, the knowledge and values the editors used when they deleted all those other poems should give pause, or at least give rise to questions. The editors offer no specific explanations for what they took out or kept in, only asserting they attempted to make a “judicious selection” to provide “something more than an adequate selection” of Spicer's early work (page xxx). Forgive me, but that’s a boilerplate mealy-mouthed editorial line. Although editors usually aren’t required to explain why each poem wasn't included in a selected edition, the howler on “They Murdered You” raises questions about the de-selection process used here.

In addition, the editors “Acknowledgments” section lists dozens of people who helped in their project, including the presumably savvy editorial folks at Wesleyan University Press. There can be no doubt: both the editors, who should have known, and the publisher’s editorial staff, whose job it was to check everything, completely missed the mark on Spicer’s “They Murdered You.” They missed the mark even though the poem directly involves an iconic Bay Area poet (Rexroth), one of that poet’s most well-known poems (“Thou Shalt Not Kill”), and one of the more sensational episodes in the history of Bay Area poetry. A detail of significance or not, the ignorance and institutional breakdown here is shocking.