Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Last week Cornell's English Department was visited by David Hinton, the poet and translator of classical Chinese poetry. I was going to blog about it but Julie Phillips Brown (an MFA/PhD student here who's read for SOON) has gone and beat me to it. Generally been slow on the trigger with blogging lately. The semester's winding down (or rather, up) and keeping me in a busy and distracted state. Normally busy-ness is an kind of aid to concentration, like the prospect of hanging, but not lately.

I am at least getting some work done on my Ronald Johnson chapter: right now I'm thinking about his engagement with Concrete Poetry, and I've been immersed in books on the subject, especially Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View, which the good people of UBUWEB have archived in its entirety along with a vast wealth of hard to find texts on experimental poetry—I never realized the depth of their collection before, it's an invaluable resource. I don't know why it didn't quite consciously occur to me before, but of course Concrete Poetry has obvious affinities with Objectivist writing, which in turn of course derives from Imagism and "No ideas but in things," etc. From another angle, Concrete Poetry (and I am mostly thinking of the texts I've found in Solt that are part of that 1950s-60s movement, not visual poetry more generally) is just a more radical form of the fundamental avant-garde art technique, montage: the constructivist syntax that determines connections between elements of a collage or constellation (Eugen Gomringer, the Swiss-Bolivian "founder" of CP, called his early work "constellations"—I don't know if he was aware of the Frankfurt School's concept of the same name) is magnified or refracted so as to break up the syntax on a level smaller even than that of the line—even the "syntax" of the individual word or phoneme. By these lights some of late Zukofsky has begun to appear to me as a kind of concrete poetry: 80 Flowers achieves its compressed and ambiguous syntax in part through the concentration of each "flower" into the space of five "words" (hyphenates permitted) and eight lines, claiming for itself something of the telegraphic immediacy of the concrete poem even as the syntax denies or rather radically slows access to whatever a "flower" might have to "say."

What has this got to do with pastoral? In part, I think it's the naivety deliberately assumed by the concrete/Objectivist/Imagist poet, and the naivety of the claim that one can transform something so slippery as language into an object as available as a billboard. This also points toward the problem all pastoral poetry has in drawing the line between critique and commodification: the image that puts us in the presence of "nature" may reject and negate capitalist exploitation or simply be another manifestation of it, like the Marlboro Man. Some form of rigor—mayhap the "slowing" I referred to in Zukofsky—is required to produce the valuable sort of pastoral. The plain-speech rebellion against rhetoric of Williams and Pound seems pretty much exhausted by now, and most plain-speech pastoral poems nowadays just read like miniature vacations, with little or no critical bite unless an oppositional context can be found for them (a chapbook of plain pastoral from a small press will seem more valid to me somehow than a perfect-bound one—but how legible is that shift, really?). Some kind of torque on the language is required. I guess this whole project has been an attempt to find a formal or constructivist affiliation for this mode of writing. It seems most likely that it would succeed when the naivety is tactical rather than genuine—when the poet is "foolish like a trout," in Richard Hugo's phrase. One may say these things about the immediate objectivity of the poem, just as one may put elegant language into the mouth of a shepherd—but in the service of some goal that goes beyond mere nostalgia for some imaginary pre-modern way of being. Nostalgia as a means, not an end—what good is it to say, with Emerson, that words are fossil poetry (and isn't that the sentiment that the desire to objectify the poem stems from)? What shall we do with these fossils, besides dig them up? Shall we use them to prove evolution? Or to claim that we haven't evolved at all? Shall these bones live? And what could that mean, what would that look like?
But no matter where the concrete poet stands with respect to semantics, he invariably came to concrete poetry holding the conviction that the old grammatical-syntactical structures are no longer adequate to advanced processes of thought and communication in our time. In other words the concrete poet seeks to relieve the poem of its centuries-old burden of ideas, symbolic reference, allusion and repetitious emotional content; of its servitude to disciplines outside itself as an object in its own right for its own sake. This, of course, asks a great deal of what used to be called the reader. He must now perceive the poem as an object and participate in the poet's act of creating it, for the concrete poem communicates first and foremost its structure. (Solt)

What, in short, to make of Johnson, whose pastoral is of the liveliest, most delightful sort—but who appears completely uninterested in critique or social engagement? What to make of someone so in love with surfaces? Do I force depth upon hiim by finding allusions and symbols and all the other "burdens" in his work that Solt claims the concrete poet wishes to discard? "Structure" is undoubtedly what interested the writer of ARK, who plainly states his desire to produce something non-discursive, an anti-Cantos. He communicates a structure. But what does this desire to communicate structure first and foremost itself communicate?

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