Archive for the ‘Swim or Sear’ Tag

Carmina non grata & divination

What prompts this post is a long-simmering irritation brought to a boil that prompts me to splash the following scalding aspersions on the naked Emperors and Empresses who preside as comptrollers of the means of literary (re)production.

What dialed up the heat was actually the lucky and all-too-rare chance of having been provided some insight into the responses of a publisher’s editorial board to a manuscript I submitted and that in the end it chose to refuse. Just to be clear that the spleen I’m venting here isn’t a dyspeptic symptom brought on by chewing on a bunch of bitterly sour grapes, I hold absolutely no resentment against the editors:  they’re liking or disliking the manuscript, their electing to accept or reject it is their prerogative and theirs alone. Rather, this occasion provides me with the opportunity to call out and call up a dogmatic, blinkered, squinting aesthetic that strikes me as being at odds with (in this case) the editors’ presiding over a press explicitly devoted to what today gets called innovative poetry, an attitude, if not universal, then met with more often than not, among members of the self-styled avant-garde. I find myself, therefore, weirdly, in the position of too many other “innovative” artists, who have had to don the pedagogue’s mortarboard and undertake to educate their potential audience. Happily, a quick survey reveals my fellow faculty members include William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage, among many, many others, living and dead.

The manuscript in question was composed of two texts, Swim or Sear and Seventh Column, samples of the first being readable here. In Summer 2001, a friend made me a gift of an anarchic text,  FEHHLEHHE (Magyar Műhely, 2001) by the Hungarian musician, archivist, editor, writer, and cultural worker Zsolt Sőrés. FEHHLEHHE deploys a wide, wild range of linguistic disruption: disjunctive syntax, polyglottism, collage, sampling, homophony, and a delirious lexicon of portmanteau words, among other means. I began writing what eventually became Swim or Sear in an attempt to engage Sőrés’ text in kind, wrighting an English that would imaginably answer his Hungarian, what Erin Moure might term a gesture of echolation.

I am told the board found, essentially, that these texts repulsed more than invited the reader. Serendipitously, earning, as I do, my bread as an English instructor at a Quebec Cegep, tomorrow I am teaching a class on structuralism; our text is the most basic and introductory, Raman Selden’s Practicing Theory and Reading Literature, and what do I read on page 50?

…throughout literary history … writers have produced works which have been regarded as nonsense by readers unfamiliar with the developed reading practices demanded by innovative texts. However, the assumption remains that all literary works should be readable in principle, and that, if a work resists the reader’s efforts to make sense of it, the writer is at fault. A more sophisticated response to this problem is to say that the readers have to be patient with innovative writings and try to discover the mode of reading which the texts demand.

Now, I’d hazard a guess that my imagined interlocutors are familiar with the more canonical engagements with the hermeneutic challenges posed by the modernist or innovative work, Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language, Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text,” The Pleasure of the Text, or S/Z, or even Charles Bernstein’s “Artifice of Absorption” or Steve McCaffrey’s “Diminished Reference and the Model Reader” among many other possibilities. All these works might be said to argue that those works that resist “the reader’s efforts to make sense of” them do so, paradoxically, as a way to invite or require the reader’s active participation in the production of sense rather than a passive reception along lines so well-known as to be subliminal or reflexive. What is required of the reader is what the German Romantic philosopher and theologian Schleiermacher called (in English translation) “divination,” that positing of meaning that is a kind of educated guess or salto mortale, precisely the playful risk the infant takes to learn its mother tongue or that conversation partners take constantly in the fluid, open-ended back-and-forth of their dialogue.

But, in all seriousness, how could anyone oriented in the tradition of literary innovation be stumped by the compositional gestures of Swim or Sear? Admittedly, the waters of the text are choppy, moving between crests of writerly opacity and troughs of readerly transparency. Compositional attention varies in focus, from the word to the sentence to the passage, these units joined along a paratactic vector, arguably an archaic mode of composition (c.f. many examples in Jerome Rothenberg’s assemblage Technicians of the Sacred). In other words, the reader is asked to “swim in language” (c.f. the imperative in the text’s title) as Kerouac so famously advised the writer of spontaneous prose to do, an image played on, often, metapoetically, throughout Swim or Sear. Does the reader get out of breath, fear drowning? A distorted echo of Beethoven answers this anxiety:  “You think I care about your lousy hermeneutic when the language is speaking to me?!” But Swim or Sear is no mere paddling on the surface of textual semiosis, but, like the sea or ocean constantly evoked, it possesses a depth—of reference, to both a personal and world history, overflowing the word into the world in a gambit to overwhelm the necessary but too-often perversely scrupulous vigilance of language characteristic of much innovative poetry of the past four decades for the sake of a poetry that without a loss of reflection comes to grip with, for lack of a better word, life, the dizzying maelstrom of experience where there is no bottom to plant our feet, where “All answers will be questioned…”.

That a reader might not find this writing to his or her taste is understandable and allowed for:  perhaps the reflexive acceptance or rejection of a piece of writing based in the first instance on taste is a reflex the very compositional gestures of the text might imaginably challenge. But that a text should be rejected by “the present knowers” because it indulges, explores, retools, and complicates, if not exceeds and escapes, precisely the compositional means developed since the early, heady days of literary Modernism (among others), means whose end is to challenge,  and demand the collaborative labour of, the reader out of  social, political, and, yes, even aesthetic concerns is, frankly, jaw-dropping.

9/11 in poeticompositional real time

Between 16 August 2001 and  1 February 2002, I was composing a sequence, one of whose constraints required I write every day, which I managed, more or less. Curiously, the events of 9/11 left no immediate impact, rather hearing of, I think, Billy Collins’ refusal to write of the event almost a week later spurred several days of response. What follows then is five consecutive parts of what was published as “Sewn Knot” in dANDelion, Number 28, Volume 2, 2002. The original version exploits different typefaces and point sizes to create a polyphony (here lost due to WordPress’ limitations…). Given that my new book March End Prill due out  next month was composed under the same constraint, except then coincident with the invasion of Iraq, it seems not apropos to reissue, however provisionally, these stanzas.

from Sewn Knot


Big Huff—Terrorism and the Western mind stops. wozu Dichter. It is 10:19 in Montreal a Sunday. Five six days after Tuée’s Day. “Will you ever write a poem about what happened…?” “No,” quickly and emphatically. Who has been stuck a tin wreath upon? die miserably every day for lack. A bard of each side watched the battle on high ground and after agreed on a version; the Ollave rich in rhythms and myth embroidered a coat for the moment; the Wit quips “Allah’s snuff.”; the Scop might scoop up the bard harping on Beowulf’s Slaying of Grendel (ISBN 0 14 04.4268 5) / a fellow of the kings whose head was a storehouse of the storied verse whose tongue gave gold to the language of the treasured repertory wrought a new lay made in the measure the man struck up found the phrase framed rightly the deed…drove the tale rang word changes / ; Petöfi and Radnóti scribbled. —Scribes scramble laptop clay dusty clumps; reeds good kindling; one library crumbles another burns or more slowly falls in dust; what towers over the words that raised them? & that a breath as easily stopped?


Foul meat eye coffer rage. Crock the wit. Deferent citation / winces / winds a trump bone. Sick utter coroners what dare lips. Better scrawls wall owed. Raw urge it hated revel elations. Jawin’ on pat most in axe aisle. Fore gut litter chewer. Letter cheer eye cop’s latter. Ich or us or th’us spay ache swimmer saw raw twos straw. Die imbecile! ‘domicile’ ‘haunt’’s synonym. Cryptic Coptic Gnostic a craw’s tick crossed stick a crow’s trick wing glick flick kwa! kwa!  Who facade in it. A/n assured / cheap chirp. Sublimated dinosaur sotto voce. Vollied simian takes to air like a fish to strand. Heart o’ gold hard off hear to go. Hour dust any in spays. In the bug grinning wash “WORD”. —“Ten year old schoolchildren in Hanover pressed posters against their classroom windows Now bin Laden will show you what he can do!” The nation that invented chess & zero has since the seventh century plotted the West’s end infiltrated a porous open society with assassin generations just waiting for the word when only one colour will be left on the board. Frank Rogue in cuffs calls out “I stand for America all the way!” who gunned down a turbaned bearded Sikh gas station attendant & took a shot at an employee of Ali Saad & Saad Saad & an Afghan-American home. A Moroccan gas station clerk’s attacked; someone guns a car at a Pakistani woman; mosques torched from Seattle to Montreal, a Hindu temple burned down in Hamilton.—Stale some tang missung. Philosopher Consort silent in Governor General’s shadow; our rich charred roar tea of the ’’gnored / too / quiet.


Strip mine. Striped mind. Loching through rods and koans. Trenchant thought’s trough. Pry sun break. no way to make a work of Art! Litter chewer swine. / high bred / Peary plum hype rid. Dreams rise like swells salted of earth. Numberless schools shoal never to surface, e.g., Billy /(/Collins or Jori/)/ Graham. Bored by the dilemma. Mycenaean vault over a cretin maze. Fin, sail, or wing. He stomped right over the hoods of cars stopped in the crosswalk. Riding clear of / illusive / mythification. Dawnward orange sun…sparrowsuite…traffic aleatoricsoundtrack / backgroundnoise /…ceilingpipe / upstair/tap ablutions…ubiquitous towerfan…nagahyde officechair squeak…jetroar…warming brick crack and wood creak…carhonk…explosive sneeze & apologetic sigh: awl a tread of scents. Timbre sap: xylobones flowin’; wet reed leaps / ; stickdivotted skins in a crashing jungle of simples (no cur—nay, cheer—throbs the temples); elephant and treefrog trumpet / : stiff breeze of applause. Classic cull cored tête; twin fugues can veer risabley. Percussion composition for precipitation and random venue. Heaving it out with the line in five-ten time / foot in mound / (i.e., the berth chord) / : ounce more into the breach! Empyreal tailor’s Adamic Fall line. Virtual atomae variable as elements. Pillow soporific all. Two the tangs dissolved! Hysterically roughly half of us carry fishegg seawater —[…]—Bending corners.—Dog-eared year. Serious sorry series.


Hypnopomp jabs fork up into tongue out.—Eye dull rhumour dozeled bi anoughter manic keen bindery: Eider yore wit us or agin‘em! Bale a cause spear rite jabs carries over and tosses another squirming body into Searcull of Blood ‘mid the vie yell lent. Mythed ague in….bearing cog ant raisins, a skuller is never sans loot: caught between warring camps, one week no food,  Kung played on his k’in the Odesentences bleed into each other, commas stage a comeback, the language in question dialects syntax? Nor more plurality of worlds on ‘errd.—core poor rate muddle ya one or ship mayas the boughty pullatick’s had; pub lick real late shuns avail gene yes….fied huntered chainnull causemost….


Disfrig meants shore up hour runes. Elude sieve mess memory’s mummeries. Leapin’ lacunae! The boredinerry rudder re-sent fool aversion of un’s self. Bach’s Magnificat D Major BWV 243 & BWV 1083 Autumn air cools sunlit room an occasional sparrow checks the emptied birdfeeder. Canned worms best left unopened after or before best before date. Fingers’ capers. You think I care about your lousy hermeneutic when the language is speaking to me?!–… “You must lie 53 years with the Bone Maiden.” She lies on blackredbrown mud against a stonebrick wall as dark, looking seven feet tall, heavy bone, shreds of flesh like on some hamshank after hungry dinner—What ? I can’t mourn Peace? Pax packs a punch? I’m running out of cheeks to turn.—What is the heaviest thing, you heroes? so asks the weight-bearing spirit, Is it not this: to desert our cause when it is celebrating its victory?—All answers will be questioned….