Thursday, August 14, 2008

I got my copy of Active Boundaries, Michael Palmer's book of selected essays and talks, in the mail yesterday. Looks like it's going to be a good read. And that I'll probably feel the urge to go back and reread everything he's written.

Here are a few quotations from his talk, "Counter-Poetics and Current Practice:"

"In a poem you can be perfectly in a logic where a thing is both A and not-A [...]. This is not simply frivolity--it's the announcement of another area of knowing. [...] This is a poem that is not simply there to reinscribe something already experienced, but is actually a mode of experience in and of itself. [...] What are the interrelations? It's always a question. Who are we in relation? Who am I? Am I doing the speaking? Are you doing the listening? [...] A refusal, also of the reader as a passive consumer. Speaking to a passive audience is much more a HItlerian form of discourse where the passivity of the audience is assumed, where they are not involved in an active exchange of meaning. [...] the poem only occurs, is only there, in the event of the poem, which is in its engagement with the reader. Except in some platonic sense, the poem is not present when the book is closed. What I mean is that the poem is an even, temporally and historically conditioned. And so I am interested in acts of composition that emphasize this without becoming simply buckets into which anyone can drop whatever they want. The poem is not simply an aleatory event." (245-47)

Ok, so this is all stuff I've thought about for some time--but Palmer says it with great elegance. "Another area of knowing." The poem as event and the whole way of thinking that moves in terms of events (as distinguished from, and enveloping in dialectical fashion, the "object/process" dichotomy). The distinction between a work's context always being part of its events--the determinateness of any given context--and the very different notion of the work as "meaning whatever you want it to mean."

In the course of discussing Jack Spicer, Palmer poses a critique of the Wright/Bly "Deep Image" school, claiming that those poets simply appropriated a kind of image, with a particular feel, from its original Spanish/Moorish cultures, and then dropped examples of it into their poems from the outside, assuming that they'd just serve as expressive devices there, without internal motivation.

"There's enough reference [in Spicer's "lemon" letter to Lorca] obliquely to that misappropriation that I suspect he had it in mind. So much of Spicer, and other poets, is directed against anything that could be taken as a constructive or creative device around which you could build a poetics. And in this respect one can see a Spicer as having a relationship of critical negativity to the culture as a whole, I suppose, but also to the models of poetic making that became so standard." (251)

"There is a certain arbitrairiness outside a given language system, so that the possibility of reference and signification rests on an agreement we make in community, and once community begins to disintegrate that agreement begins to break down." (253)

Again, not really a new idea--but somehow, in this context, it struck me in a big way. If the possibility of reference, of using language to talk about things, is a communal matter, then the question of how much of our language is being given to us, for instance, by corporations (including the news and the federal government in its current state, but also the language of advertising, the language text-messaging and various kinds of internet discourse allow for and encourage by virtue of their form), becomes really crucial. If a great deal of our language, from its most instrumental to its most fanciful uses, is being given to us not by our daily forms of practice, but by language networks in which we're enmeshed, but which are outside any of our fields of choice, then reference is truly in trouble. It's a real danger: that one will only be understood if one employs the terms that no speaker chooses, but simply inherits. Given that danger, what is poetry to do? There are, of course, a number of proposals floating around. Palmer sees poetry as a taking-back of the meanings of things by enacting the processes of making sense, rather than allowing them to be taken for granted. Dale Smith calls for poetry that helps enact new platforms of communication. Some Flarf treats imposed discourse ironically by appropriating and recycling it, trying for an implicit critique. Barrett Watten asserts that no-one can understand anyone else, and that poetry needs to place itself directly in that situation. Though each of these proposals raises its own concrete questions and has its own specific shortcomings, their generally problematic nature, the difficulty of making a convincing proposal at all, is one sign of just how serious a problem this is.

"In Jabes' case, if you do not allow for silence--silence being the place where you reply to the question, where you reply to the other--[...] then you are appropriating the discourse and entering, then, yourself, into an authoritarian mode. [...] He constructs exactly out of what is considered the nondiscursive, the spaces between things, the junctures, the breaks and fragments." (255)

I have to finally get around to Jabes one of these days. The drastic cover price of his books has slowed my approach so far.

[Here he's been talking about Latin American poets]:
"It's interesting to relate this to the problem of political poetry in the United States, which tends to become doctrinal or an occasion for self-display. You take, let's say, the poets' Nicaragua shuttle and go down for ten days,then you return and become a hero of the Revolution. For those who are interested, to come to the deeper responsibility of the political is every bit as demanding and difficult as coming to the deeper responsibility of the emotional. It's instructive to go to the poets for whom the political is not a 'topic'." (257)

It's that last sentence I want to highlight here. I'll be thinking about that for a while. I'll point out again, as extra food for that thought, Palmer's claim that "deep image" didn't work because it was taken from its place in a long-developing cultural context. So the thought of the political as "not a 'topic,'" as an assumed aspect of one's culture, can't, for a North American poet, just mean lifting ways of writing from Peru or Chile.

"[...] I was drawn to [Robert Creeley's] sense of staying away from one aspect of revision, which is the normative sense of revising to conform to certain expectations. And so, I turned to de Kooning, who in an interview talked about returning and returning to the first moment of the canvas, and the layering process, the process of accretion and the process of emergence. In other words, you return into the act of the thing until the thing is complete." (263)

There's plenty more there.


  • At August 21, 2008 at 1:04 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…

    I think James Wright came by his "deep imaging" honestly, and it's not fair to critique his work as if it were all an appropriation of duende and/or German late romantic angst. Wright's language became really, crudely, interesting with Shall We Gather at the River. After he learned he had cancer, there was a stern resignation which rather abbreviated his researches, hence his last two or three books are more fatalistic that curious. Like Lowell before him, he "thawed out" in early middle age and began to write directly out of deep feeling and "personal" experience.

    You can lump Wright with Bly/Kinnell/Simpson/Justice during the 1960's, but he's so much bigger a talent than just a casual movement. Had he not died early, I think he'd have become an even more moving writer than he did. We'll never know.

  • At August 21, 2008 at 1:25 PM, Blogger Curtis Faville said…

    "There is a certain arbitrairiness outside a given language system, so that the possibility of reference and signification rests on an agreement we make in community, and once community begins to disintegrate that agreement begins to break down."

    This quote from the Palmer contains several riddles. There is, as Wittgenstein would remind us, nothing arbitrary "outside" a given language system, since language IS THE GIVEN LANGUAGE SYSTEM. You could even use mathematical symbology as your "language," for instance, but the language isn't "beside" meaning--it IS meaning. I positively disagree about the "accepted" "agreement" "in community." Perception (neurology) and the behavior of the universe (physics) cannot either be described or explained except through a language. This idea that we can "agree" without language is absurd--how would we do that, with winks and shrugs and dancing? Since the codification of language in history, the development of meaning has been a mediative process between approximate definitions and the mutations of usage. The irony is that language is all we have to describe language with. It's an ultimate form of contamination; once you touch it you're infected forever with that duality.


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