Archive for the ‘poetics’ Tag

Concerning Cosmopolitan Poetics

The Véhicule Press blog recently highlighted one aspect of Daryl Hines’ poetry picked out for praise by James Pollock, who just edited The Essential Daryl Hines for Porcupine’s Quill here in Canada. Writing of what so impresses him, Pollock remarks that Hines’

knowledge of and engagement with such a wide range of poetic traditions—ancient Greek and Latin, Spanish baroque, Elizabethan, French, American—revealed him as a true cosmopolitan, a perfect antidote to the literary provincialism I’d winced at in so much Canadian poetry.

I share Pollock’s impatient dissatisfaction with artistic and critical parochialism, and Hines’ technique surely evidences a comprehensiveness worthy of respect, but I’d press for a more truly “cosmopolitan” poetics.

Poets have often looked beyond their own borders to refresh and expand their art. Examples are too many:  the importation of forms and themes from Moorish poetry into French and Italian in the Middle Ages, French and Italian forms into England in the Renaissance, etc. However, perhaps it was Goethe who first pronounced and praised that literary production is global, a realization later developed in the context of international trade by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.

Even the limited perspective of the academic history of poetic Modernism tells a story of complementary, temporal extension of poetic tradition and resources. Ezra Pound not only pawed after the ancients of his own Western tradition, but worked to import that of China and Japan. Charles Olson opened the back door of poetry and stepped back to the beginnings of writing and written literature, that of Sumer and the ancient Near East. Gary Snyder went a step further, to include not only the poetry and poetics of Indian, Japan, and China but that of the non-literate peoples of the earth, claiming a poetics that extends to the appearance of homo sapiens. In this project he is joined by among many others Canada’s Robert Bringhurst.

To show and explore concretely that poetry is as universal as language and that it opens itself to include other media, such as dance, painting, and theatre, has been the lifelong task of Jerome Rothenberg. His Technicians of the Sacred, first published in 1968, revised, expanded and reissued in 1984, and due to undergo the same process soon, expands our inherited poetic resources to include in principal all times and places on earth. Rothenberg’s consequent assemblages gather the poetry of the Jewish Diaspora (Big Jewish Book, 1978), American First Nations (Shaking the Pumpkin, 1986 & 2014), poetries of the Americas (America:  A Prophecy, 1975 & 2012), revisionings of modernist, postmodernist, and romantic poetries, and, most recently, outsider poetries.

Weltpoesie on this scale radically decentres and contextualizes literate, Eurocentric poetics. Disputes over “meter” are revealed to be only one small conversation within a wildly-diverse, species-wide symposium concerned with poetic technique. Questions about subject matter become laughable in view of everything that has inspired humankind to artfully shape language. Within such a Symposium of the Whole provincialisms that cause some to wince inspire little more than a bemused chuckle, a shake of the head, and a return to the real work.


Languages, the wild things they are, have always mixed it up, as the parentage and biography of that mongrel tongue, English, attests. And the literati, too, such as James Joyce or Russell Hoban (among many others) have reimagined and reconfigured the vulgar tongue. Now, to this list, Jonathan C Stalling must be added, with his Sinophonic poetry and poetics of Yíngēlìshī.

Click on the cover of Stalling’s new book for an introduction at Jerome Rothenberg’s inimitable Poetry and Poetics site.

Prophecy in Reverse: a notice of The Relevance of Romanticism: Essays on German Romantic Philosophy

The Relevance of Romanticism

Anyone who studied Philosophy or Literary Theory at a certain point will be all too familiar with the bitter and apparently insurmountable divisions between Anglo-Saxon and Continental developments in these disciplines, a conflict that extends to the literary world, where, in English-language Canadian poetry, the schools of latter-day Johnsonians and that of the Theory-inflected avant-garde eye each other warily and dismissively, when they bother to regard each other at all. Of late, some attempts at a synthesis have been attempted, under the rubrics “hybrid” or “steampunk” poetics, or the “post-Language” or “Conceptual lyric.” However, all these attempts suffer a lack of depth and conceptual resources prey as they are to the prejudices of their precursors.

Most immediately, a straw man Wordsworth has been the whipping-boy of the grad schooled avant-garde, while our latter-day practitioners of Nobelese owe their complacent modernity ultimately to the struggles of early Modernism to define itself over against its late British Romantic forerunners. Ironically, in both cases, though it seems generally unacknowledged, Romanticism was roundly defended by the Yale School, in both the Deconstructions of Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and the Aesthetic Criticism of Harold Bloom. The former showed English Romantic poetry to be as linguistically self-aware as any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, while, for the latter, a Romantic stance became synonymous with poetry-as-such. Nevertheless, the sentiment of trenchant materialist critiques, such as Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology, that Romanticism is firmly a thing of the past, seems the norm. Romantic poetry and poetics, in various guises, however, has given some small signs of resurgence, first, in Rothenberg’s and Robinson’s 2009 assemblage of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (Poems for the Millennium, Volume III), a welcome dilation and extension of Robert Duncan’s unapologetic if idiosyncratic High Romanticism, and in the exploration and development of kitsch carried out in the criticism and poetry of, for example, Daniel Tiffany.

In any case, past divisions or present attempts at synthesis have carried on ignorant of the groundbreaking research and thinking going in Germany. Patient scholars laboured at producing the first or new critical editions of Hölderlin and Novalis. Meanwhile, Dieter Henrich and his students pursued diligent and painstaking research in an attempt to reconstruct the post-Kantian maelstrom of literary, critical, and philosophical activity centred around Jena and the short-lived journal The Athenaeum. Henrich’s student Manfred Frank built on these studies, exploiting the conceptual and argumentative resources they provided to come to grips in new ways with questions around language and meaning, history, the subject, politics, society, and the environment. In France, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy brought the heritage of The Athenaeum to bear on contemporary thought in The Literary Absolute, published in France in 1978 and in English translation in 1988. Finally, 1990s England produced analogous work from Richard Eldridge and Andrew Bowie, whose 1997 From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  the Philosophy of German Literary Theory along with Frank’s now out-of-print What is Neostructuralism? (1989) are required reading for anyone eager to think apart from and beyond the staid, false dilemmas of present-day philosophical, literary culture. Not to be outdone, even Slavoj Žižek has contributed to the revival,development and exploitation of Schelling’s philosophical work.

It is within this horizon of preliminary scholarly and critical accomplishment that a strikingly welcome collection appears, The Relevance of Romanticism (ed. Dalia Nassar, Oxford University Press, 2014). The volume collects sixteen essays addressing history, language, sociability, poetry, painting, mythology, mathematics, and the environment within the context of the philosophy of early German Romanticism. Contributors include scholars well-known to anyone familiar with this field—Manfred Frank, Frederick Beiser, Karl Ameriks, Michael N Forster, and Richard Eldridge—as well as eleven others, all of whose work is informative, eye-opening and thought-provoking.

The first two essays by Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser frame the debate concerning the relative Realism or Idealism of early German (or Jena) Romanticism. Offhand, the debate certainly seems esoteric, but it has its finger on the pulse not only of the most current philosophical concerns, namely those that have inspired the various “new materalisms,” object oriented ontology or speculative realism, but also the controversies about how exactly the human being (or Subject) is to be conceived. As Bruce Mathews remarks in the course of his contribution, this problematic is one whose

consequences are far from academic. As Manfred Frank has repeatedly warned, to surrender our subjectivity and free will to the deterministic vocabulary of the natural sciences will not only undermine the personal accountability that supports moral action, but it will also lead to a “political fatalism” that will destroy the legitimacy of society’s defining institutions. (202)

The next four essays explore, as their section title declares, History, Hermeneutics, and Sociability. Karl Ameriks constructs a typology for philosophies of history—circular, linear, and chaotic—in order to illuminate Friedrich Schlegel’s famous definition of Romantic poetry as “progressive” and “universal.” Michael N Forster condenses his two studies of German philosophy of language (After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition (2010) and German Philosophy of Language:  from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (2013)) in a dense but less pointed chapter that, though informative, passes over the equally valuable if more obscure work of Novalis and more importantly fails to make as clear as need be how much de Saussure, structuralist linguistics, semiotics, and post-structuralist philosophy stem from and twist the more thorough-going and coherent contributions of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and von Humboldt (a point well-made in detail by Frank in his What is Neostructuralism? and Boris Gasparov’s Beyond Pure Reason (2013)). The pair of essays by Kristin Gjesdal and Jane Kneller address an aspect of Jena Romanticism not widely enough surveyed (to my limited knowledge), namely the social dimension and pertinence of the movement. The Jena circle was infamously cosmopolitan and egalitarian, not only in terms of class and religion but of gender, too, values absolutely essential to the Berlin salon society within which its members moved and to Schleiermacher’s idea of sociability in his Essay on a Theory of Social Behaviour.

The five contributions of the volume’s third part address literature, art, and mythology. Richard Eldridge reads Hölderlin’s fragment “Rousseau” with attention to what it says about subjectivity and finitude. Brady Bowman and Keren Gorodeisky explore the lively pertinence of Jena Romantic thinking to reflections on the truth of art in analytic philosophy and the fragmentary form and pragmatic content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s. A real eye-opener for me is Laure Cahen-Maurel’s study of the painting and art theory of David Caspar Friedrich and its influence on Abstract Expressionism and the art of Anish Kapoor. Surely the most gripping read, however, is Bruce Mathews’ “The New Mythology:  Romanticism Between Religion and Humanism” that takes up Schelling’s speculations concerning a mythology that would harmonize art and science, humankind and nature, a discourse that holds the promise of helping us avoid what Schelling already in 1804 foresaw as “the annihilation of nature.” No remark by Žižek on the environment or environmentalism or any tract on ecopoetics or ecopoetical work I can think of open such compelling vistas or place a higher or more urgent demand on the imaginative artist or thinker than these fifteen or so pages.

The book’s final section, Science and Nature, is no less surprisingly informative or pertinent to the present day. Anyone who believes the Romantic thinker is a wooly-brained dilettante will find that prejudice shattered here. One learns in the contributions from Paul Redding, John H Smith, and David W Wood that Novalis (a mining engineer by trade), Friedrich Schlegel, and Salomon Maimon (surely one of Kant’s most idiosyncratic interpreters and critics) were absolutely contemporary in their knowledge of the most advanced mathematics of the day, particularly that having to do with controversies over the then relatively new infinitesimal calculus and the nature of the infinite, notions that informed Schlegel’s definition of Romantic Poesie as “progressive.” Redding shows how Novalis’ fragmentary notes on computation remain relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and procedural, cyber- or Conceptual poetries. Regarding this aspect of Novalis’ thinking, Redding observes

We can see how the interests of the poet and the computationalist might converge…and a point of convergence can indeed be found in the strange case of the combinatorial poetics of Erycius Puteanus, a seventeenth-century humanist whose generation of multiple verses to the Virgin Mary from a single eight-word poem came to the attention of Liebniz…An eight-word, one-line Latin hexameter…formed the base from which Puteanus generated 1,022 verse permutations… (228)

Equally startling is the relation of geometry and algebra and calculus to the concepts of philosophy of Fichte and Novalis and the relevance of the former’s Wissenschaftslehre to such mathematical luminaries as Herman Weyl. Amanda Jo Goldstein’s contribution on Herder’s “irritable empiricism” complements Forster’s on Herder’s language philosophy, laying out as it does Herder’s peculiar theories concerning sensation, culture, and language and their unknottable intertwining that weaves poetic tropes into our very nerve fibres and their “irritations” two centuries in advance of similar proposals made by Canguilhem, Jacob, or Foucault and in a much more compelling way for poets and poetics. Likewise, the volume’s final piece, Dalia Nassar’s “Romantic Empiricism after the ‘End of Nature'” complements Mathews’ on Schelling’s New Mythology, setting out to clarify and legitimate Goethe’s concept of science and nature in the context of the contestations over the very idea of Nature itself.

Nassar’s collection should disturb the prejudice that Romanticism is dustily antique and that our absolute modernity is a quantum advance upon its quaint notions. As the philosophies of Kant and Hegel come to be seen to possess potentials to illuminate the present moment, so the thinking between theirs comes to the fore. Not only do we share the more general horizon with the Jena Romantics—developments in technoscience and its worldview and the attendant social and environmental predations of industrialism—but their terms define our own in advance. Indeed, the essays in this volume propose that it is our thinking that is a pale shadow of theirs and that the promise of their speculations resides in our future.

The Dance of the Syllables: some remarks on prosody

musesRecently, a friend shared a link to an interview with Australian poet Robert Adamson citing this remark on craft as a teaser:  “Poetry is song, every word in every line must work, each word transcribed like a note, each line connected to a breath.”

Whatever the merits of Adamson’s poetry, this observation on the art of poetry is just plain hokey. The identification of poetry with song is threadbare and, in a sense, disingenuous, unless he really is setting words to music. Likewise, that “every word in every line must work” (though clearly intended prescriptively) states little more than the principle of parsimony, an element of literary competence, the assumption that no element of a work of art is nonfunctional. When he goes on to equate words with notes in a song, he departs from the identification or metaphor he starts with (or, more charitably, develops it along his own lines for his own purposes) as songs notate, more or less, the syllables of their words. And to “connect” each line to a breath is belated at best, questionably phonocentric at worst. Sadly, such homespun poetics appear more the rule than the exception.

Instead of equating poetry with song one could as easily characterize the recitation of a poem as a dance, not of the whole laverbody but, at a minimum, the vocal apparatus. After all, reciting a poem demands the articulation of the phonemes that constitute its utterance by means of the complex but no less describable movement of the vocal organs and their parts. The written text of a poem imagined this way is not a musical score but a choreography. Of course, reciting a poem demands more than just speaking its words: posture (standing or sitting, for example), facial expression, and gesture, all bodily movements, are included, all aspects of the poem’s performance here conceived as dance.

The connection between poetry and dance is at least as time-honoured as that of poetry with song. The traditional manner of describing a poem’s prosody is scansion, the analysis of the line into its constituent feet and their stresses. The study of scansion is inherited from the days when education included the parsing of Greek and Latin verses both in terms of their grammar and their meter. The study of poetry in school finds an important precursor in the memorization of the Homeric epics in antique Athens, where schoolboys would learn the poems through a combination of stamping their feet and gesturing. This seated dance mimicked the more recognizable one of the tragic chorus whose dance steps were timed to its chanted lines, a performance descended from the ritualistic origins of classical drama. Those imitators of Greek culture, the Romans, not only adopted the pedagogical practices of their models, but also integrated it into their military training, wherein the legionnaires, wielding weapons and wearing armour twice the weight of the usual, drilled chanting and stepping in time, a performance in line with the diction of The Iliad that describes the fighting of its heroes as a war dance. This relation of scansion to archaic rite doubtless prompted Ezra Pound’s observation that “Music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance… poetry begins to atrophy when it gets too far from music.”

However illuminating these reflections on the poetic foot may be, that scansion past and present pupils sweated through and rolled their eyes over was already outmoded in the 1920s when the Russian Formalists began to apply the powerfully precise methods of modern linguistic analysis to the meter and rhythm of poetry, rising to the challenges of establishing a “science” of literary study and of finding a way to appreciate and meaningfully discuss the radically novel Zaum poetry their friends the Futurist poets had just started composing. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with an introductory linguistics textbook or the application of linguistic methodology to the acoustics of poetry will likely wince at well-meaning but ponderously quaint pronouncements on the poetic art, such as that by Adamson.

But even “scientifically” precise descriptions of a poem’s sound can never escape the abstractness that lends them their power of articulation. What opened my ears to poetic meter was hearing Yeats recite “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Regardless of the merits of Yeats’ performance, one can’t help but discern the “tune” (as Yeats called it) that orchestrates his recitation. Metrical systems are only the faintly waling ghosts of the melody a poem is sung to. When one combines this understanding with Carlyle’s observation that “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it: not a parish in the world but has its parish-accent;—the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say” then by a constant, arduous practice of “close listening” the music of poetry and even everyday speech fills the ear and refines and quickens the appreciation of poetry. As Pound admonishes in his Treatise on Metre:  “LISTEN to the sound it makes.”

(An application of the notions sketched here can be read in my appreciation of the sound of a short poem by Elaine Equi.)

What’s the ideogram for ‘sheer inertia’?

Normally, I’m given to giving more thought to what I post here and developing that thought at greater length and depth, but, sometimes, maybe, a blog is a place to allow oneself  to think out loud, to essay some positions, without the explication and footnoting a more rigorously writ out thesis would demand. To wit:

ideogramReading a random piece of praise from Charles Bernstein for Ron Silliman’s latest addition to what amounts to his lifelong long poem, Revelator, I can’t help but think that the paratactic poetic of Silliman’s New Sentence is in a way the afterlife of Pound’s Ideogram, so trenchantly studied in what should be widely-known as the classic study by Laszlo Gefin. This insight, however true, helps articulate a growing discomfort and dissatisfaction with what passes for the contemporary avant garde in English-language poetry, which seems increasingly, to me, at any rate, as a dead end of that literary High Modernism that flourished in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century as that ghost of Romanticism that haunted the end of the Nineteenth Century was a faint echo of the Spirit of the first and second generations of British Romanticism about a century before it. revelatorHowever much our practice must be (never mind can’t help but be) “absolutely modern” (a modernity whose horizon, arguably, includes what is academically termed Romanticism, Modernism, and Postmodernism), said modernity is also always relative to its precursors, demanding, at times, a gesture for the sake of sheer differentiation, precisely what inspired Pound’s return to meter and rhyme in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1915!). That is to say, however pertinent parataxis might be said to be to our moment, as a poetic practice it has become, if not merely reflexive, at least de rigueur, which is to say as dogmatic as any compositional value in any school of poetry, another hollow idol for the hammer to sound.

Psychomagically Beyond Appropriation

Psychomagically Beyond Appropriation

Over at the Montevidayo blog, Lucas de Lima calls our attention to the example of Gilvan Samico, an artist whose work links up with certain heretical dimensions of contemporary poetry and poetics. 

Does the imagination have limits?  Are we actually in the time of “uncreative writing”?  In the age of information overload, is appropriation–the resampling of other texts–the last reservoir of our creativity?  Is there really nothing new under the sun to be said or done?

When I look at the engravings of Gilvan Samico, the Brazilian artist who died yesterday at the age of 85, the answer to all these questions turns out to be a resounding no.

John Bloomberg-Rissman: From In The House of the Hangman, with a commentary on the work in progress

422006_3308566443616_978961831_nJohn Bloomberg-Rissman: From In The House of the Hangman, with a commentary on the work in progress

Despite my persistent efforts to make my own work singularly weird, it is sometimes gratifying to find other poets working along similar lines, ameliorating somewhat my sense of alienation from the poetic milieu. Here and in other texts, John Bloomberg-Rissman composes in a manner similar to the method I adopted in the triptych Swim or Sear, Seventh Column, and March End Prill, in this instance “written / composed /constructed in real time, daily, out of the materials presented by that day (whether via RSS feed, Facebook, books received in the mail, emails, tv, conversation, or anything else the day brings).” My own application of this method was perceptively appreciated in a recent review.

Universal Progressive Poesy: Reconfiguring Romanticism

For the too many who sneer contemptuously or sigh knowingly when they read or hear of ‘Romanticism’, here’s not a bad place to start your re-education:  Poems and Poetics: Reconfiguring Romanticism (54): Jeffrey C. Robinson, “Occupy Romanticism,” 27 May 2012.

Critical Paths: a meander through Meanwhile: The Critical Writings of bp Nichol

[Another orphan piece, the following review was commissioned by Vallum but eventually turned down because it “stepped on” on Roy Miki’s editorial toes, however lightly, at least from a scholarly point of view. Devotees of Nichol, as I note in the review, may well take exception to my evaluation of his critical writings gathered in Meanwhile. Let me be clear that I have nothing but the utmost respect for Nichol’s wildly vast and varied corpus, he wrote my favourite episode of Fraggle Rock, and, when cloning technology has been perfected, I intend to subcontract a book that would study The Martryology as a key site of conflict between the so-called humanist and posthumanist tendencies in postmodern poetry!]

The more writing on poetry by poets one reads, the more likely one is, I think, to agree with Socrates, that they know not what they do. Regardless, poets review and assay each other’s work; many, especially in North America, earn their keep passing their craft on to apprentices; others teach literature or work in what one scholar has named  “poetheory”.  In Meanwhile, editor Roy Miki has collected and collated nearly five hundred pages of bp Nichol’s critical writings. Whatever the ultimate worth of Nichol’s criticism, Meanwhile as a book is a curiously incoherent volume to have issued from the hands of a professional scholar. Its content is arranged neither generically nor even according to Nichol’s own criteria, but chronologically, from 1966 to the poet’s untimely death at 44 in 1988. Whatever the virtues or vices of such a presentation, the editorial notes mysteriously reclassify this material as interviews, visual texts, and critical writing, per se, rendering the editorial apparatus needlessly, frustratingly labour-intensive. The interviews, likely like all interviews, will delight or frustrate according to how closely a reader’s curiosities match the interviewer’s. A more serious problem is that more than a quarter of the book’s nearly two-dozen “visual texts” appeared almost a decade before in Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s bp Nichol reader An H in the Heart. Given Nichol’s profligate creative output, one regrets the redundancy and wonders how the visual pieces were chosen: certainly not because Nichol refers to them in the rest of the book. At the very least, an index would have facilitated a more hypertextual reading experience. Nevertheless, overriding all these faults is that happy truth of every book that  Socrates, again, relates to Phaedrus: readers make of a book what they will.

Fortuitously, Nichol himself suggests how one might get into and get something out of Meanwhile. In 1978, reflecting over six years’ collaboration with the Canadian journal of writing and theory Open Letter Nichol observes

But what has crept up on and surprised me is my own desire to articulate for myself a way of replying to other writing that honours my awareness of it. By this i mean […] an articulation of a particular (to this writer) understanding (and i’ll take that literally as standing under or subservient to the text) which may offer a way in for others if they choose to take it. That free choice option as opposed to critical dogma strikes me as crucial. (189 – 190)

Regardless of exactly how one might subject oneself to a text in the first place, the humble, civil generosity Nichol writes he aspires to here orients his critical approach. In any case, writing that honours will be honoured, but how? In the same editorial, Nichol goes on to distinguish two aspects in another’s work that call for a response:  “My response to another writer’s work must deal not only with a response to the content of his or her words, but a response to their gestures as I see them writ large on the page with the form the pieces take” (190). A glance at the forms of gestures Meanwhile collects reveals an impressive array of critical genres:  letters, statements, notes, reviews, critical introductions, appreciations, studies, readings, panegyrics, performances, and academic papers, among others. Notwithstanding this variety, each gesture’s ready familiarity frames the content, focussing attention on what is said. Nichol, again, guides our reading: the earliest piece in the book is a letter written 3 May 1966 to Open Letter editor Frank Davey castigating him for closing his eyes to the validity of visual poetry. In the process of pointing out the blind spots in Davey’s view, Nichol writes that in “any criticism there are always key statements around which the whole thing pivots” (16).  A key pivot of Nichol’s critical writing is the notion of the open. Nichol desires to open up the poem by removing obstacles to understanding and appreciation by rendering such obstacles absent; alternatively, Nichol seeks to bring the poem’s materiality out into the open by revealing aspects normally overlooked, making them present.

The economy that determines which texts Nichol addresses is essentially hedonistic, i.e., he writes about what “honours” or excites him. Therefore, the traditional exegetical gestures of close reading and appreciation combine. Nichol’s detailed scrutiny of work by Beckett, Marguerite Duras, Dashiell Hammet, Kerouac, Proust, Birney, and especially Gertrude Stein (to whom three major pieces are devoted) exposes the workings of their writing down to the punctuation. A vivid example of this approach is Nichol’s lecture “When the Time Came” wherein he explicates the opening paragraphs of Stein’s Ida a sentence at a time, literally drawing the reader’s attention to the writing’s workings by means of arrows and underlinings. Nichol’s presentation juggles playfulness with willfulness, reading ‘Ida’ as ‘Id/e/a’ (why not, for example, as a feminization of Id?). This unruly leap shows Nichol’s practice is closer to that of Marshall McCluhan’s “probes” (which he explicitly praises in Meanwhile) than old New Critical  explication de texte. The tour de force of these by turns lucid and ludic exegeses is Nichol’s page by page reading of Shant Basmajian’s 1978 Quote Unquote, which, along with his appreciation of Earl Birney’s Solemn Doodles and explanations of seven of his own visual poems, opens concrete or visual textuality, closed to more doctrinaire, less exploratory sensibilities. Nichol’s refined attention to poetry’s material possibilities concretizes the art — and, too, how he reads, how he replies to, other writing.  Such exemplary considered and considerate reading grants Nichol’s praise for the work of Frank Davey, David McFadden, bill bisset, and Coach House Books a solid, persuasive sincerity.

This focussed attention to the letter is matched by an equally acute grasp of language as such. An early, brief manifesto “statement, november 1966”, begins

now that we have reached the point where people have finally come to see that language means communication and that communication does not just mean language, we have come up against the problem, the actual fact, of diversification, of finding as many exits as possible from the self (language / communication) in order to form as many entrances as possible for the other

and ends “i place myself there, with them, whoever they are, wherever they are, who seek to reach themselves and the other thru the poem by as many exits and entrances as possible” (18). Nichol seeks to open channels of poetic communication outside of whatever the poem might intend to “say”. To open “as many exits and entrances as possible” Nichol manipulates the artistic material under hand:  the appearance of the written language, the vocal sounds that underwrite speech, even the workings of the book. To communicate extra-linguistically  Nichol opens the borders between poetry, painting, music, and sculpture. The poem, then, unfolded and spread out, reveals otherwise unseen sides, which become means of expression and reception. As a note from the same time says:  “i come out of the poem in as many ways as possible to get back into the person in as many ways as possible. Concrete poetry, kinetic poetry, poem sculptures, poem / objects, ideopomes, journeys, postkon, sound poetry, traditional poems…” (23)

Nichol’s desire to communicate by every means possible comes not so much from a need to express — to say — something as to make something poet and reader or audience can hold in common. In a 1974 discussion with, among others,  Pierre Coupey, Nichol remarks:

The whole reason I got into concrete […] was that I thought I was being too arrogant, that I was sitting down and I was writing and I was coming to the situation obsessed that I had something to say per se: a very didactic purpose as opposed to simply giving myself up to the process of writing. And as a result, I was not learning from the language. And the fact is, the language is there before me. I’m born into the language community. The language has a history of its own. I have things I can learn, if I sit down and let myself play with it — which is more or less the motivation behind getting into concrete, getting into sound. (154)

This interrogation of an art form and its material is in step with the avant-garde assault on inherited art, its tacit conventions,  habits, reflexes, and other automatisms. In the same interview, Nichol agrees with Daphne Marlatt who, taking stream-of-consciousness as an example, observes that techniques once novel to the point of outrageous obscurity lose their paradoxical power to reveal by alienating, as they themselves become commonplace, clichéd, worn out: “by that time it’s become a habit of thought rather than a new perception” (154). To open our eyes and ears to all poetry is, Nichol refuses to write or speak, but paints and sings in language instead. For Nichol, “language is a tool” whose nature transcends our use: to reveal that nature, he must remove language’s utility, so what it is over and above its use to our blind will stands out stark naked. The entrances and exits into and out of the poem are the ways the poem’s opaque materiality comes out into the open. After all, you can open only a door that is closed.

The palpability of language increases acutely for Nichol with his introduction to poststructuralism in the early Seventies. At first, single terms and conceptual expressions, then a whole discourse inspired by the French Theory so parodied in North America comes to accent Nichol’s critical view, which eventually comes under the sway of the paranoid critical-theoretical doctrine of the Prison House of Language. Nichol invokes this hermeneutic of suspicion in 1975 when he asks “isn’t the operative premise that a man is shaped finally by the language he uses the categories his thinking gets trapped into whatever the level of language those categories operate on” and when he targets “bourgeois notions of language as commodity” (166 -167). In 1987, he explains it this way:

We live in the midst of language, surrounded by books, and, as a result, the nature of both has become transparent to us. We look thru the books to the content inside them. We learn to speed read so that the words too can be strip mined for their information. Thus are we made more ignorant. And painting, sculpture, dance, photography, etc. ALL the so-called Fine Arts, suffer, because we look but don’t see. Once the surface of the world, of its objects, inhabitants, etc. becomes transparent to us, it quickly becomes unimportant to us as well, and things that should register — political, social, ecological — don’t. (429)

Habit and reflex spontaneously close the mind to what is or could be, in part veiling the machinations of the ideology that preys on our automatism. That we stop talking when we consider our words shows that speech flows over a bed of reflexes, thus implicating language, if not spontaneity as such, in an unconscious slavery. Ironically, then, a grave political urgency charges Nichol’s work, often ungenerously dismissed as merely amusingly playful.

In the foregoing, I’ve tried to follow Nichol’s example in his appreciation of the poetry of David McFadden:  “in truth I’ve tried not to analyze […] but to deal with my responses […], what it is […] that keeps me excitedly rereading” (415). One constant response (particular to this writer) that Meanwhile excites is a melancholy over its belatedness and consequent superfluity. My reading was marked — and often marred — by my memory’s constant spontaneous glossing of nearly every passage with the antecedent, canonical expression of its ideas. Aristotle notes in his Rhetoric, for example, that the poet has to pierce the minds of a corrupted audience, and that it is through the devices of style that such an audience can be brought to hear. The “devices” referred to in Meanwhile — including concrete, sound, and performance poetry—are provisionally mapped in the first edition of Rothenberg’s 1968 gathering Technicians of the Sacred (as much a textbook as anthology, published by the University of California Press), which places avant-garde poetics within a global context whose orbit includes the Neolithic. The endless richness and plasticity of the poem’s materiality, and a fortiori that of the world, has not gone unnoticed by phenomenologists or unremarked, for example, by Blake:  “If the doors of perception were to open the world would appear as it is Infinite.” Even the strongest pieces — the close readings and appreciations — are a sorry index of literary culture in Canada, often not transcending the level of the schoolboy exercises of an Auerbach or Curtius in Gymnasium or a George Steiner in the Lycée. Nichol’s literary theory as such is a pandemonium of howlers. One could go on: suffice to say, Meanwhile is not for the overfed.

I can hear derisive hoots and denunciations from a thousand anti-Oedipal Deleuzians rooted on their respective plateaus, that no repetition is ever of the same; at least since Rimbaud, some poets have known they are inescapably absolutely modern. Nichol concurs when, in a 1979 interview with Ken Norris, he quips concerning  charges of unoriginality: “some reviewers have said, ‘Hey that was done in Berlin in 1921’; I look at it and say ‘Yeah, well I guess it was done in Berlin in 1921, but this was done in Canada in 1965 without knowing what was done in Berlin in 1921’” (238). Books can be read too early or too late, but, luckily, often books find readers ripe. If our ready reader were a young poet, he or she would benefit from the pieces touched on here: Nichol’s 1966 “statement”, his Open Letter editorial, his excurses on notating lyric and sound poetry and on the book as a unit of composition, his close readings and appreciations. Most pertinent for a young Canadian poet are Nichol’s introduction to The Last Blew Ointment Anthology Volume 2, his reminiscences and reflections of Coach House Press “Primary Days”, and his interview with Geoff Hancock. These all recount Nichol’s experiences in composing and culturing poetry in Canada, a story in which he played no minor part. Miki and Talonbooks have therefore performed a service for young poets and Canadian letters, contributing to the more main-stream, institutional publication of bp Nichol’s corpus, which has already issued his collaboration with Steve McCaffrey Rational Geomancy, Ondaatje’s and Bowering’s reader, and a selection of his drawings.

The publication of Nichol’s oeuvre is part of the process of his canonization, a process that is discovering Nichol’s work escapes a too-ready formulaic summation. Sharon Thesen reported in the penultimate number of Sulfur (44) on the battle over whether Nichol will be represented by his more approachable if more ambivalently humanistic and courageous long poem The Martyrology or his more challenging posthumanist avante-garde and as yet largely uncollected work. That Nichol’s corpus is capable of  inciting just such pointed debate (albeit at a scholarly conference on his writing) between the two major sides of Canadian English-language poetry reveals not only a fault line in our poetic culture, but that, like a coin, Nichol’s work, when flipped, shows neither monarch nor beaver, but spins on edge and rolls between the sides competing to win the toss. As Charles Olson, an early influence, put it: the poem is a high energy construct, designed to get the charge from where the writer got it all the way over to the reader. Forgetting like a good Nietzschean for a moment the Theory I’ve read: who can, plug in & turn on.

Elaine Equi’s Sound “Prescription”

(A blog, I guess, is a good spot to place homeless texts:  and what follows certainly qualifies. I queried Arc about submitting it there, but the editors never responded, twice; then I submitted it to rob mclennan’s Seventeen Seconds, which apparently rejected it by (silently) not including it in the latest on-line issue. The piece, a study of the sounds in a six-line poem by Elaine Equi, is perverse, very seriously so, which goes to explain, I guess, its reception…)

In a recent review of James Langer’s Gun Dogs (Globe and Mail, Thursday 18 June 2009) Carmine Starnino lauds Langer’s work for being “musically alert, with marvellous rhythmic and tonal variety” and the poet himself for his “knack for finding words that, placed together, crackle and pop.” Starnino goes on to lament where Langer overdoes it, citing Langer as an example of “what Newfoundland poet Patrick Warner calls ‘the School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants'”. That poets are paying attention to their vowels and consonants, and other matters of what Starnino refers to in the same review as “poetic form”, he credits to “a group of tyros who have made it impossible to talk about anything else”. Starnino’s somewhat self-congratulatory tone concerning how “poetic form has become a hot button issue” thanks to that “group of tyros” to which he himself no doubt belongs is what prompts me to join in that talk. To be fair, let me say at the outset that I am very consciously using Starnino’s and Warner’s remarks here as stalking horses (not, hopefully, as straw men) for my argument with a critical tendency that strikes me as being as narrow as it is vocal.

Patrick Warner introduces his School of Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants in a review of Steven Price’s Anatomy of Keys (Books in Canada, December 2006), wherein he identifies Ken Babstock, Carmine Starnino, Joe Denham, and Zach Wells as members, a class-list to which I would add Tim Bowling, among others. Warner writes that “[a]ll of these writers, at various times and to varying degrees, can be said to have fallen under the spell of Seamus Heaney”; equally all might be said to write in what August Kleinzahler has dubbed “Nobel-ese”, the mannerisms of, precisely, Heaney and, for example, Derek Walcott. Among various features that mark this kind of poetry—the feature I want to focus on here—is how it sounds. Starnino cites Langer’s “sandstone grit that girders the barrens” as an example of “sense-heightening description”, a phrase that exemplifies how Nobelese sounds, as well, with its near-Anglo-Saxon alliteration of s’s and g’s, and the n’s, t’s, and r’s that, as it were, girder the phrase’s music. In his review, Starnino praises such “formal sophistication.”

What would the like-minded make of Elaine Equi’s poem “Prescription” published in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology?

Take Herrick

for melancholy



for clarity



for nerve

Here is a poem remarkably lacking in kennings, “sense-heightening descriptions”, overt metaphor, indeed, every mannerism of Nobelese. It is understated and wry, evoking the everyday context and instrumental language of the consulting room. Nor does it possess any of that sonority characteristic of the Englishes of a Heaney or Walcott. For all that, Equi’s poem is remarkably prosodically accomplished, all the more so for its limited means, a mere eight words. A reading of what and how the poem might mean, that would identify and develop the conceit that structures it, falls outside my concern here, which is merely the poem’s prosody, the discernible and demonstrable patterns of syllabic and phonemic elements, what is traditionally called schemes (figures of arrangement) as distinct from tropes (figures of replacement).

By prosody I mean “the articulation of the total sound of the poem” (Pound 421), a description, first, of the patterns of rhythm and rhyme, patterns of repetition at the level of the phoneme, the syllable, or even the word, line, or stanza, as these patterns occur throughout and structure and develop the poem. To facilitate my description, I have appended a transcription of the poem in the International Phonetic Alphabet. I have transcribed the poem as I hear it, following the conventions of pronunciation of Standard Canadian English. Other actualizations of the poem’s music are possible, including that of the poet herself, who resides in New York.

Equi’s poem exhibits a deft structure even before we attend to its sound. Lexically, of the eight words in the poem, only one is a finite verb, the imperative ‘take’, with six substantives (three proper and three common nouns), and the preposition ‘for’. The grammatical parallelism of the poem’s three prescriptive statements is reinforced by the poem’s versification: each statement is a couplet, each line of each couplet possessing a substantive according to a regular pattern, where the proper noun precedes the common, each on its own line. The parallelism is further reinforced by each second line’s beginning “for”. Nor should the function of the number three—three statements, three couplets, three proper and three common nouns, three instances of ‘for’—be overlooked as evidence of the poem’s rigorous if underplayed artifice.

Turning to the poem’s rhythm or metre, we note that the first line of each couplet is three (!) syllables and the second line of each decreases from five to four to two syllables. If we agree that the first lines of the first and last couplet are amphibrachic, i.e., of three syllables with the primary stress on the middle syllable, then one is tempted to hear in the relative weights of the syllables in ‘Niedecker’ a cretic rather than a dactyl, i.e., the middle of the name’s three syllables being unstressed balanced by two relatively stressed syllables, lending these three lines a metrical symmetry, i.e., a cretic bound by two amphibrachs. However debatable the rhythm of the couplets’ first lines (one might hear, for example, a dactyl framed by two palimbacchii), it seems more certain that each couplet’s second line invariably contains two stresses. The poem as whole, then, is rhythmically regular with stressed and unstressed syllables alternating on each line until the final spondee. From beginning to end, the metre becomes increasingly emphatic, with the ratio of stressed to unstressed syllables in the couplets’ second lines being two: three, two: two, and two: zero, respectively.

For such a short poem, “Prescription” is remarkably rich in syllables sharing (i.e., “rhyming”) one or more identical or similar phonemes. The second and fourth lines rhyme ‘melancholy’ and ‘clarity’, two words that share three phonemes over and above the end rhyme /li/ and /ti/, namely /ɛ/, /l/, and /k/ (melancholy, clarity), phonemes whose order is, moreover, reversed in each word. There are several internal rhymes, as well. ‘Herrick’, ‘clarity’, and ‘O’Hara’ all share the phonic cluster /ɛr/, with ‘Herrick’ and ‘O’Hara’ framing ‘clarity’, highlighted by the /h/ in each. The shared cluster /ɛr/ in these three words is echoed by the /ər/, an off-rhyme between ‘Niedecker‘ and ‘nerve’, which, in turn, share the initial phoneme /n/. Of the poem’s ten individual words, only one does not obviously rhyme with at least one other, ‘Take’, a word that, nevertheless, shares two of its three phonemes with at least one other word (/t/ with clarity and /k/ with Herrick, melancholy, Neidecker, and clarity) and whose vowel arguably off-rhymes with /ɛr/ in Herrick, clarity, and O’Hara, a trio linked also, with the pair ‘Niedecker’ and ‘nerve’, to the three instances of ‘for’ via the cluster /ɔr/, an off-rhyme with /ɛr/ and /әr/. In the progression from ‘take’ to ‘Herrick’, through ‘for’, ‘Niedecker’, ‘for’, ‘clarity’, ‘O’Hara’, ‘for’, and ‘nerve’ we might detect an instance of what Pound called “the tone leading of the vowels.” Such tonal virtuosity is underwritten by the poem’s phonic economy. Of twenty syllables, only one (/ow/ in ‘O‘Hara’) does not rhyme with at least one other phoneme in at least one other syllable; and of the remaining syllables, only one shares only one phoneme with only one other syllable, /dә/ in Niedecker, whose /ә/ rhymes with that in melancholy. All the remaining syllables share at least two phonemes with at least two other syllables.

The phonemes /f/, /n/, /r/, /ɛ/, and /ɔ/ are found in every couplet. The first two couplets share, in addition, the consonants /k/, /l/, /t/ and the vowels /i/, /ɪ/, and /ə/, i.e., in these first four lines, eleven of eighteen different phonemes  are repeated (or “rhyme”) at least once.  Strictly, of the whole poem’s total of nineteen different phonemes, seven are not repeated, /ei/ in ‘take’ (no orphan, either, as shown above), /m/ and /ɑ/ in ‘melancholy’, /d/ in ‘Niedecker’, /ow/ and /a/ in ‘O’Hara’, and /v/ in ‘nerve’ (arguably, however, a near-rhyme with its unvoiced labiodental other, /f/, in ‘for’). That is to say that the phonemes compose a densely complex pattern that at the same time constitutes a nearly subliminal euphony. One could trace the way these rhymes structure and develop the poem, relating its words, lines, and stanzas. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that the remarkable phonic parsimony discernible at the level of the syllables extends to the phonemes, too, though I would wager that connoisseurs of the prosody of Nobelese would be unlikely to bother attending to music as self-effacing as that of “Prescription”.

Equi’s formal sophistication continues the efforts of English-language Modernist poets to clarify poetic discourse by eschewing precisely that Victorian sonority that persists in the accents of Nobelese. This effort is at its best underwritten by what Louis Zukofsky called the test for poetry, namely, the quality discernible in a poem’s sound, sense, and intellection (vii). In the addendum to canto C in Pound’s Cantos, an unidentified voice says “A pity that poets have used symbol and metaphor / and no man learned anything from them / for their speaking in figures” (ll. 34-36). One hears a not unrelated sentiment in William Carlos Williams’ call for “No ideas but in things!” (55) or the epigraph to Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980 “Things are symbols of themselves!” This shift from the metaphorical to the metonymic at the level of the trope goes hand in hand with equal respect for the spontaneous genius of “the language really spoken,” its diction and its movement, a respect, ironically, with roots deep in nineteenth century philology and Romanticism, as anyone who recognizes the truncated quotation from Wordsworth will know (736). The notion is perhaps best expressed by Carlyle who exclaims “all speech, even the commonest speech, has something of song in it:  not a parish in the world but has its parish accent; —the rhythm or tune to which the people there sing what they have to say!” (10). The primacy of music to language is attested by disciplines from developmental and evolutionary linguistics to philosophy. Whatever difference there is between discerning (and exploiting) the music in everyday speech and appreciating or composing the more artificial prosody of a poem, an ear for the former is more sensitive to finesses in the latter. Equi’s poem does not “crackle and pop”, sung, as it is, to a melody at once more cultured and subtle, rising, as if spontaneously, from the language as it is really spoken. An old handbook of poetics puts it best:  “Here lies the skill, the genius of the poet; and no rules can take the place of a poetic ear” (163).

Prescription”: transcription

teik   hɛrɪk       

fɔr mɛlənkɑli



fɔr klɛrɪti



fɔr nərv


Carlyle, Thomas. Of Great Men. New York:  Penguin, 1995.

Equi, Elaine, “Prescription” in The 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology, ed. Michael Redhill. Toronto:  Anansi, 2008.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980. New York:  Harper and Row, 1984.

Gummere, Francis. Handbook of Poetics. New York:  Ginn and Company, 1895.

Pound, Ezra. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot. New York:  New Directions, 1968.

The Cantos of Ezra Pound. New York:  New Directions, 1970.

Starnino, Carmine. “A Spectacular Mouthful.” The Globe and Mail Daily Review, 18 June 2009.

Warner, Patrick. “Stacked Vowels and Clustered Consonants.” Books in Canada, December 2006.

Williams, Williams Carlos. The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume II. New York:  New Directions, 1991.

Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. London:  Oxford University Press, 1951.

Zukofsky, Louis. A Test of Poetry. New York:  Jargon, 1964.