Saturday, June 30, 2007

Death in New York (2)

Ashbery's A Wave and elegy

“A Wave,” like “Seasons on Earth,” utilises a non-elegiac central trope to deal self-consciously with the presence of the elegiac at the heart of writing poetry. Just as Koch’s choice of the cycles of the seasons disallows any breaks per se, so the endless oscillations of wave motions don’t automatically guarantee Ashbery access to either the opening or closing edges that serve physically to delimit, and so define, a poem’s textual body. However, unlike perhaps the majority of his poems, “A Wave” does have clearly definable opening and closing semantic edges, as well as a rational relationship between the title and the poem proper.

The title, as has been noted, not only conveys the central trope of the poem, which also occurs usefully in its middle, it also describes the structure of the poem which, John Shoptaw shows, consists of a tripartite process: the wait or anticipation of the wave, the maximum rise of the wave typified by the crest, and the wake or aftermath sometimes dealt with in biblical/mythical terms as a kind of deluge.[i]

This works on both meta- and local levels. Shoptaw describes, for example, how the opening trizain conveys ideas of passage “to pass through pain,” closure “A car door slamming,” and emergence “To emerge on an invisible terrain,” which act as a coda for the poem as a whole. He then goes on to show how this before/event/after structure organises the following sections. Shoptaw is convincing, but the trizain has a much more paradoxical status than he seems willing to investigate:

To pass through pain and not know it,
A car door slamming in the night.
To emerge on an invisible terrain. (Ashbery 68)

The opening trope is less a part of the anticipatory pre-wave moment than of Derrida’s concept of “nonpassage.” The passage here both does and does not take place, in as much as the passage through pain seems actual, relating to a life-threatening spinal problem Ashbery suffered from previous to writing the poem, and yet is also negated with the pain being immediately erased by a lack of cognition. This passage/nonpassage logic, an example of Derrida’s “conceptual thinking at its limit,” is not the same as the rise and fall of the wavic motion, but is rather a much flatter, more horizontal trope. Within this the “it,” always a source of semantic slippage in the New York School, forms a clear edge referring to the act of non-knowing, and yet it also refers to an unknowable anaphoric process; an “it” without an originary referent to secure it semantically.[ii]

Instead “it” operates functionally, a notifier of anaphora or of unstable, and therefore threatening, repetitions to come. The second part of the coda has a finitude about it which immediately actuates a nonpassage within the poem’s continuum, an unconscious passage followed by an emphatic closure. Again its referent is not hidden, pain slams just as much as any car door, but any scholar of Ashbery will note the shift from his traditional domestic doors, usually indicating private sexual freedom, to this more transitional and problematic portal. The car, American symbol of free passage, is potentially both entered and exited with the night shrouding it in a impenetrable mystery.

Again we don’t know “it” but it’s still there, the deicitic impulses pointing poignantly into the infinite realm of the what-is-not-there. And so the final image falls into place, forming a cluster of three opening poetic gambits of movement: to pass through, to close, to arrive. Yet in each case Ashbery makes the paradox clear, that here he is beginning a poem that attempts to exist on the edge of thinking about presence through the conceptualisation of a radical absence. So the passage also does not take place; the closure occurs at the onset with the ambiguous slam suggesting getting into and out of a car-journey at the same time; and the emergence is shrouded in three tropes of absence: “not know it,” “night,” and “invisible.” It is as if this opening of the poem is a version of the grotesquely warped space one sees in Ashbery’s famous “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” only here the distortion is a contraction so extreme it resembles an amputation.

The opening of a long poem ought to force one to think in a four-directional fashion. Not only is its stressed linearity a threat to its poeticity, tempting one to read the poem as a causal narrative, but the localised sublimity of length which disallows the retention of the whole poem in the mind, means one must always be going forwards and backwards over the poem to understand how such a large texture can be seen to cohere. Yet this is also the origin of its elegiac paradox. Such a four-directional mode of thinking, up and down as well as left and right, is cut off in the poem at the upper and far left limits. Essentially we are already in the realm of death, the other side of the edge, the whatever came after the end of the last thing, in this case the poem. Therefore, the anaphora of the “it” is also a cataphora. “It” is the beginning of one form of referential repetition and the end of another, only it exists in a double death in this instance as we do not know what came before only that it is over now, and we do not know what comes next either.

All poetic openings are uncanny in this manner, they always seem like a form of in medias res, because of all the absence that precedes them, as well as a premature end. No sooner do we begin to pass through pain, to move across the uncrossable gap between poetic absence and presence, along comes the first line break and we are already at the end of something. Ashbery’s wave trope capitalises on this. One must remember that the wave also moves in four directions, and while it appears vertical, the wave rises up and then falls, this is a false image. The wave is a force moving through an environment: waves don’t go up; they go across. Similarly, the opening of “A Wave” takes us across the surface of Ashbery’s imagery line by line, while forcing us to seek out actual meaning through the distribution of these opening tropes throughout the poem as a whole, requiring the reader to be always moving and thinking in four-directional patterns. It emphasises that the top of a poem is both the “bottom” of a another poem, and the middle of a linearity with the previous phrases absented but compensated for by the more emphatic semantic presence of the title. The difference between rational and nonrational poetics being that in a rational poem this paradoxical relationship with absence is suppressed, while in the nonrational it is exploited in every phrase forming the basis of the poem.

[i] See Shoptaw 275-285.
[ii] Anaphora is the rhetorical method of repeating the same word in different phrases, and originates from the Greek sense of to “carry back.” It has subsequently been used by linguistics, text linguistics in particular, as a primary term for explaining the cohesion possible in units larger than the phrase or the “sentence.” The definitions of anaphora are not standardised but essentially it is the repetition of a word in a subsequent phrase. However, it has wider implications than this for this “repetition” of a “word” can take the form of pronominal repetition, the word can be replaced by a pronoun; it can be subsequently missed out altogether through ellipsis, therefore it is present as a trace; and it can be replaced in ellipsis by a substitution or holding device in place of a lexical item. Further, anaphora can “repeat” the “word” by a variety of synonyms for the original word which, themselves, can be subject to reorganisation, ellipsis and so on. Anaphora is, then, the perceived repetition of a primary word, distributed throughout the text as a form of cohesion made accessible by the primary referential capacity of lexical items. The best example of this being “it,” which is the anaphoric indicator supreme, as it refers back without specifying within itself what it refers to. It bears the trace of all words. This is a capacity much abused by the New York School.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Death in New York: The Edges of Elegy in New York School Poetry

This article stems from an unused chapter in my first book, In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell 2001). It was made into an article but it was too long for submission and I got distracted by life. The work then fed into my second book, On Mourning: Theories of Loss in Modern Literature (Edinburgh 2004). Yet in fact none of the article was used in either book so that it remains both central and supplemental to everything I have done thus far. So hey here it is for the first time. A bit naive now but in the end even back then I was not so stupid. Oh, when I use the term nonrational I am using a Kristevan term that I now longer care for. I don't mean irrational or made but work which exceeds the generic dictates of thetic, so-called rational thought. The avant-garde in other words.

Death in New York: The Edges of Elegy in New York School Poetry

Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its death and finitude. (Derrida, The Gift of Death 68)

In one case the nonpassage resembles an impermeability; it would stem from the opaque existence of an uncrossable border: a door that does not open...In another case, the nonpassage, the impasse or aporia, stems from the fact that there is no limit. There is not yet or there is no longer a border to cross, no opposition between two sides: the limit is too porous, and indeterminate. (Derrida, Aporias 20)

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death...No, as in true theatre, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver. (Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror 3)

Elegy is an edge

Elegy is an edge.

The art of an inscribed loss, elegy presents an edge between itself and its own impossible nonpassage into a realm of paradox. The very sense of elegy as an “inscribed loss” is quite clearly paradoxical: one cannot really write absence, and this is the direct relationship between elegy and poetry. Poetic language is in the first instance elegiac. It is committed to the giving of presence to absence, making manifest the dead or the gods, while simultaneously investigating the absence of presence in language due to poetry’s inversions, omissions, and detours. Poetic language thus effectively becomes the significant other of language as such, the former’s purpose being to communicate absence and the latter’s to communicate presence, as well as being rational language’s lost beloved or dead best friend.

Elegy, which aims at the reification of elegiac impulses in poetic language, is revealed to be the ancient site of the logic of the horror of the presence of death in life, and, because of the double logic of presence, that of life in death. Poetic language is, therefore, dominated by a confounding combination of sickness and consolation which I will unpack at this point. Rational language communicates presence, nonrational or poetic language communicates absence, although “communicates” can only be used in its more general sense of being in touch with. Elegy seems placed between these two linguistic functions. Its purpose is to communicate absence in a rational format which is, as we shall see, the process of mourning, and yet its permanent dalliance with absence makes this purpose problematic.

The elegiac aspect of poetic language inherits this double function: to set up a process of interaction between the sickness of loss and the cure of language’s ability to stand in for what is lost. The result is an irresolvable aporia, or dead-end, for logic, especially in nonrational poetry that is still openly elegiac.

Elegy is the edge. Not the line or limit between life and death and between presence and absence in language, but a point of cutting off one thing in preparation for the next.

The thing is a life lived through language. In this sense elegy is never the end of something but rather the process of the ending of something so that something else can begin. In the classic Freudian version this is usually assumed to be the end of mourning and the beginning of a new libidinal attachment. But this is not necessarily the case, as elegy comes about between melancholia, which is the endless process of mourning leading to illness, and mourning, which, in its successful resolution of loss, negates itself and the elegiac. Because of this dynamic between radical failure and a compromised success, perhaps it was disingenuous of me to say that elegy is the art of an inscribed loss when it would be more accurate to call it the process of the inscription of loss. It is processual paradox that interests me here, as it bisects the radical poetics of the “New York School,” specifically John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Taking two central concepts from the New York School, those of “surface” and “going on,” I want to reconcile these seemingly very positive tropes with the more negative connotations of elegy and the elegiac.

Before moving on to discuss the two compositional tropes and elegy, however, it seems apt to consider the edges in two of the New York School’s most impressive elegies, Ashbery’s “A Wave” and Koch’s “Seasons on Earth.” Within hermeneutics not enough attention is paid to the edge of the poem, especially when considering that it is the radical breaks in poetic language that define the majority of poems. These edges, breaks between lines and stanzas, the beginning and end of the poem, the gaps between titles and poem bodies and between one poem and the next, and finally the internal edge of radical poetics which I will return to shortly, are all graphic examples of the predominance of the elegiac in poetic language. They both vouchsafe poetic presence saying, look, this is a poem, and undermine it by erasing the causal conceptual links of continuous linear prose.

For radical, or what can be called nonrational, poetics, this edge-reliance is exacerbated by a number of semantic edges between one phrase and another which generally do not follow on coherently, except by imposing the most violent associative patterns. And so nonrational poetics seems defined, primarily, by an extra edge, what one might call the internal edge; an elegiac absence at the heart of the textual continuum to posit against the more usual edges around it. Added into this one must contend with an extra relationship, in the nonrational, with the graphic breaks of the poem which traditionally serve to articulate a poem into a hierarchical linearity: poem follows title, line follows line, stanza follows stanza, all to convey an overall organic semantic presence.

In the nonrational this hierarchy is not normally dispensed with, although Ashbery’s Three Poems or Ron Silliman’s The New Sentence are examples of attempts to do this, but abused and, in a paradoxical sense, rationalised to make the semantic causal links of the poem actually tabular, in four directions, rather than merely visually so.[i] To put it simply, there is no guarantee that the break between one phrase and the next in nonrational poetry will provide an opportunity for a causal or associative semantic link, it may be there instead to express the absence, rather than the presence, of meaning. The nonrational seems to have, in a very basic sense, the most rational view as to what edges are: the imposition of an absence. All edges are elegiac.

[i] In Kristeva’s very early, and still untranslated, Shmeiwtich [Semiotike]: Recherches pour une Sémanalyse she posits the idea of tabular poetry as the essence of nonrational, what she calls paragrammatic, poetic language. Both she and Lacan have subsequently been criticised for using mathematical models incorrectly so here I will take such a term as tabular as metaphoric and descriptive. Nonrational poetry is tabular in as much as one cannot move through it serially without paying attention to the infinite semantic possibilities which lie beyond the code strings. Such possibilities exist because, rather than tie meaning down to expression as we find in rational poetics, the nonrational poet writes in order to negate semantic closure at each moment of expression. This could be through the aural and visual marking of the signifier into a basic materiality before or beyond expression, very much the case with the New York School and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, or through wilful semantic obfuscation. Thus Kristeva typifies rationality as 0-1, and the nonrational as 0-2, in other words always in excess of possible semantic closure. Away from the terminology it is a crucial point, and while I will not be using her ideas to the point of the inclusion of the infinite possibilities of limited code, I will rely on the idea of two interactive axes of semantic production that work together to undermine presence and express absence, in contrast to the rational model which attempts to flatten these axes into a single, somewhat organic unit.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

You do the Math (end)


In the process of adding up the diverse phrases of these two very different poetic units, The Tennis Court Oath and Writing is an Aid to Memory, one gets then a sense of how a certain structural similarity, the predominance of parataxis as mode of combination, can produce different text-ideology. Ashbery’s chosen title emphasises a self-conscious exploitation of erasure, leaving all out, and the myth of national politics. Written during a self-imposed exile the poem conveys in its two extremes, “America,” and the much analysed “Europe,” not only two very different modes of combination, parataxis and collage, producing two very different text units, but also two myths of nationhood predicated on the revolutionary fervour of the late eighteenth century that David’s painting depicts. And the to and fro of the game of tennis matches the to and fro of the poetic consciousness between a myth of America as free and Europe as horrific, which is cut across by the paradox of the sexual freedom the poet enjoys in Europe as opposed to the suppression of sexuality under McCarthyism. The negotiation between the style of “Europe,” and “America” is then also a negotiation between European modernism and American postmodernism, whilst the doubly ideological “you” of the poem is produced by being encapsulated in this moving paradoxical textual climate.

Hejinian’s concerns are less overtly political. However the slippage trope provides a fascinating alternative frame ideology. The assistance writing gives to memory is to make it slip, to fall from a mythic certainty into a realm of subjectivity which one must call the subject of uncertainty. Causing the mask of autobiography to slip produces an intersubjectivity between two key mythic subjects of modernity, the archival and the instantaneous, a kind of mix between Freud and Nietszche.

The opening of Ashbery’s “The Ascetic Sensualists” asks “All... All these numbers easily... Why...,”[i] in both Ashbery and Hejinian the answer is found in the movement up to the discursive level, but the means by which these levels are structured through the radical de-structuring effect of parataxis produces two ways of doing the math of postmodern poetry. The result of the addition of a moving climate to slippage is the production of an articulated and permanently double postmodern poetic subject as mediated through the postmodern poetic unit. The endless going on in the moving climate which produces the tendency of the combination of units to leap from the mathematical to the dynamic sublime, is coupled with the perpetual slippage from this ideological level back down into the syntax of the poem itself and its piling up of phrase upon phrase upon infinitum. The deconstructive motility of this process results in a phrase-subject, held between infinite and mathematical realms of being, or the mine/nine of Hejinian’s conclusion to section 22: “list of mine nervous / more more than nine.” The mine/nine subject is a “you” which does the math of poetry so as to be done by the math into a limited but not closed phrasal subjectivity. This is its why, or as Ashbery states in the implied answer of “The Ticket:” “I was near you where you want to be / down in the little house writing you.”[ii]

[i]Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath 51.
[ii]Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath 43.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

You do the Math (6)

Hejinian's Slippage

This musical “back and forth” movement is a myth of intersubjectivity which is directly opposed to the more disjunct sense that Hejinian describes in the preface to Writing is an Aid to Memory:
I am always conscious of the disquieting runs of life slipping by, that the message remains undelivered, opposed to me. Memory cannot, through the future return, and proffer raw conclusions...Abridgement is foolish, like lopping off among miracles; yet times is not enough. Necessity is the limit with forgetfulness, but it remains undefined. Memory is the girth, or again.[i]

The main difference between Ashbery and Hejinian is that Hejinian does not presuppose the interaction between subjectivity and writing to be an easy passage, a musical to and fro productive of the poem unit with the aim of “going on.” For what happens when one cannot go on any more? Paratactic syntax is not endless, it is proscribed by number and thus by size, and whilst we all now know abridgement is foolish in relation to postmodern poetry, the poem must always be girthed and so a form of abridgement. The implications of this logic for the double “you” of thought and process, or memory and writing, are considered in section 22 of Writing is an Aid to Memory:

compound is done mind
I do mind
in retrospect when I was watching it
focus tries a world stated simplified white year
I won’t forget you
I fell back
loud sign dices stuck
rip numbers the middle
a piece with middle of deliberate possibility
one under star
off a fork
list of mine nervous
more more than nine[ii]

Again reading this as a kind of allegory of composition one can note that “compound is done mind” is a massive overhaul of the trope of expressive autobiography that we have inherited from Romanticism, as it replaces the still pervasive concept of organic form with the much more post-modern sense of form as compound. And whilst it concedes the role of the poetic subject as the following lines show this “I” is in effect more akin to the “you” watching itself as an “it” in retrospect. The promise of memory, “I won’t forget you,” is then followed by a slippage, “I fell back” suggesting that memory is neither a matter of agency nor ascendancy into subjectivity as presence. The “loud sign” is the insistence of the materiality of language key to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry aesthetics, but the stuck dice indicates that at some point the “seemingly random” combination of signs must come to an end giving a double sense of coup de dés, the coup being both throw and cut. This necessary outer edge is coupled with the violence of ascertaining inner edges or limits within the poem, ripping numbers from the pile to place them as central, only to find that each piece in the middle is itself a compound, has its own need for a middle, whilst at the same time being the nexus of a number of trace possibilities which systematically undermine its thematic centrality. This is the violent manner by which America works as a theme in Ashbery’s “America.”

This leads to a basic duality of slippage from the monadic myth of presence indicated by the dynamic sublime, “one under a star,” to the endless forks and combinations, paratactic detours which constitute the postmodern poetic unit as I have described it here today. The fork does not “go on” as Ashbery sees it, but it goes off into a infinite number of possible phrasal combinations that lead ultimately to the mythic realm of the star, but the star itself is never complete in and of itself, there is always room for one more under the star. One cannot escape the deconstructive power of the supplemental unit.

In the following section, 23, Hejinian notes, “the total is an impudent frame around / the air”[iii] and I would now like to be equally impudent by closing this piece with a few suggested frames the main one being the relation between the frame and the phrases it encloses. The postmodern poetic unit is a framed rather than an enclosed form and the relation between the frame and the contents is mediated through the optimum unit of the phrase which is midway between two sublime discourses. Below it is the syntactic and above the ideological, and the means by which the phrase negotiates between these two heterogeneous realms, and I must stress they are not oppositional here merely incommensurable to each other, establishes what kind of text unit one is dealing with but also what kind of phrase. In the phrase the writer and reader meet as subjects of equal uncertainty and whilst writing is an aid to memory in allowing access to the archival subject, like the actual painting “The Tennis Court Oath,” by David, this will never be finished off.

[i]Lyn Hejinian, Writing is An Aid to Memory (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1996) Preface. Originally published in 1978.
[ii]Hejinian section 22.
[iii]Hejinian section 23.

Monday, June 25, 2007

You Do the Math (5)

John Ashbery's Moving Climate

The more you do the math of “America,” the more you find you are held within the optimal zone of Ashbery’s use of phrase-measure placed between the words in the poem and the poem proper. This is ambitious in that it tries to reduce the line to the size of the phrase, then reduce the phrase itself until in parts of the poem it becomes the size of the word, then subordinate the sentence to the phrase as basic semantic unit, without however dispensing of the sentence altogether. This contraction of phrases into the phrase “America,” is matched by the explosion out of this phrase in the opposite direction towards a vast ideological construction. Later in conversation he noted what he was trying to achieve during this period:

And my idea of isolating a word was: perhaps, after I have done this for a while I will get a whole line that gives me the same instantaneous pleasure that the single word now does; maybe then, I will get a whole poem that will have this new importance for me. And finally, this continuing urge of mine to put things back together resulted in my supposing there was a book where every page, or almost every page, would be totally covered with words and a very long poem completely filling up these pages that would give me the same pleasure that the one-word exercise did way back then.[i]

This astute appreciation of the role of the phrase as mediator between taxonomy, or the piling up of words, and parataxis, the piling up of phrases, is restated by Silliman in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book:

Word’s a sentence before it’s a word—I write sentences—When words are, meaning soon follows—Where words join, writing is—One’s writing is one writing—Not all letters are equal—2 phrases yield an angle...—Collage is a false democracy—Spelling’s choices—Line defined by its closure: the function is nostalgic—Nothing without necessity—By hand...—Structure is metaphor, content permission, syntax force—Don’t imitate yourself—We learned the language—Aesthetic consistency = voice—How does a work end?[ii]

These two statements given together produce a very definite sense of the process of mathematics in postmodern poetry. The duality of the word which is both a separate unit and yet, within the logic of taxonomy never to be encountered alone, gets combined into phrases which themselves cannot occur in isolation as parataxis also demands a basic duality of one phrase stacked upon or placed next to another. Combination adds up heterogeneous units pushing the limits of the poem into the realm of excess at which point the syntactic discursive level is abandoned in favour of an imposed ideological frame, for example nationhood and sexuality in “America.” However due to the non-coherent nature of the poem unit this meta-discursive level is continually undermined by the very phrases it has exploited and it therefore falls back into the poem unit, perhaps to gather more phrasal evidence of perhaps to seek a new distribution of phrases from which to construct an alternative ideology.

As Ashbery notes the power of the quasi-monadic poem of the single unit tends upwards to a totality of expansion (in this case that of America), yet as Silliman adds, whilst a word is a sentence that is, always expanding out to encompass the larger semantic units of a work, this does not help us to find out where a work ends, in fact it makes this impossible. It is an open and shut case that is however ongoing between the upward aspirations of mathematical combination of units of equal equivalence to a point of collapse into the infinite, followed by a systematic collapse of the infinite back into its particulate constitution.

What is interesting here is the effect of this on the “you,” or phrasal mediator and it is to the “you” in Ashbery and Hejinian that I would now like to turn, by considering two predominant tropes of preferred combination in their work, Ashbery’s sense of a “moving climate,” and Hejinian’s emphasis on “slippage.” In an interview explaining the importance of music to his work Ashbery notes: “The thing about music is that it’s always going on and reaching a conclusion and it helps me to be surrounded by this moving climate that it produces—moving in the sense of going on.”[iii] This is in accord with the kind of process of combination his poetry aims at as he notes in specific reference to The Tennis Court Oath:
my poems are frequently commenting on themselves as they’re getting written and therefore the methodology occasionally coincides with the subject. They are a record of a thought process—the process and the thought reflect back and forth on each other.[iv]

[i]Poitr Sommer, “An Interview in Warsaw” in Codes of Signals: Recent Writing in Poetics ed. Palmer Mitchell (Berkeley: North Atlantic, 1983) 302.
[ii]Ron Silliman, “For L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E,” The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book eds. Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984) 16.
[iii]William Packard ed. The Poet’s Craft (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1987) 81-2.
[iv]Packard 88.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

You do the Math (4)

Ashbery's America and the Taxonomy-Parataxis Copula

The duality of word-phrase is the origin of the copula of poetic syntax: taxonomy-parataxis. Ashbery seems almost painfully aware of this in the work of The Tennis Court Oath which tends to reduce the phrase towards the level of the word in a work such as “America”:

Piling upward
In fact the stars
In America the office hid
archives in his
Enormous stars on them
The cold anarchist standing
in his hat.
Arm along the rail
We were parked
Millions of us
The accident was terrible.
The way the door swept out
The stones piled up—
The ribbon—books. miracle. with moon and the stars.[i]

What we have in this opening stanza and in the poem as a whole is a particular type of motivated parataxis which, in actual fact, is more akin to an intertextual taxonomy of limited motifs. Each phrase is combined in exactly the same fashion as the example of “leave all out” poetry Ashbery talks about in the opening of his Three Poems.[ii] What is omitted, narrative and semantic coherence, is more than amply made up for by what is subsequently ushered in by the limited system of paratactic poetic language: the connotative impetus of gaps, the motivation to cohere motifs internally, the motivation to cohere motifs externally, the associative power of the word, the motility between word and phrase, between phrase and line, between phrase and sentence, and between phrase and phrase; and the overall desire both for narrative cohesion and coherence which is predicated on a method of phrasal combination, parataxis, which continually undermines this as a closed-off possibility.

Read allegorically, the “piling upward” of line one is equal to the paratactic method of composition used here, mimetically confirmed by the design of the poem which resembles increasingly piles of words. It also conveys the sense of vertige that the sublime mathematical mode of composition often results in without the dynamic causal relationships of normal narrative syntactic units. Yet whilst on a local level the phrases seem random, they are increasingly motivated towards the ideological level of the collection. The second line is part of an internal, ongoing association of “America” with the kind of rational discourse not used here, which is also in the collection, as a whole, the discourse of so-called normal sexuality. This rational authority-figuration recurs obsessively throughout the majority of the poems in the collection and here the juxtaposition of the fact with the stars is politically redolent. The stars symbolise the aspirational vertige of the paratactic textual body, always in the process of making that leap from the mathematical sublime to the dynamic sublime, from the syntactic discursive level of these words on this page to the ideological level of the meta-motifs I am imposing on the text here. However, they are also symbols of American authority, and stars, stripes and flags recur throughout.

The next two figures, the encrypted “office (r)” and the cold anarchist seem symbolic of two forces of threat in the collection, bureaucracy (American) and pure violence (the European influence of Artaud’s sense of horror which Ashbery concedes did influence this collection).[iii] Between them is interposed a magnified flag, but the open-ended nature of the pronominal “them”, leaves the stars as symbolic in the Mallarméan sense of a fixed system which is however unlimited in terms of connotative force. The arm along the rail is one of numerous linear images, again echoing the stripes of the flag suggesting the basic tension in the structure between narrative and parataxis. The next image of being parked in our millions is a direct reference to one of the sister poems in the collection, “They Dream Only of America”, a retelling of the American dream from the external, European, homosexual dream of the lovers being able to come out of the “barn” (a rural version of the closet in that work) and finally grow up openly and sexually in America. The final tropes of accidents, doorways, piles, ribbons, moons and so on all fall into place in relation to the larger discursive frame of the collection which deals with threats, sexual occlusion, and paratactic aspiration in contradistinction to the ribbon-like linearity of oppressive American post-war rationality.

[i]John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath (Middletown Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1962) 15.
[ii]”I though that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” John Ashbery, Three Poems (New York: Ecco Press, 1972) 3.
[iii]Both for the idea of “encryption” and these specific details I am indebted to John Shoptaw, On the Outside Looking Out: John Ashbery’s Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).

Saturday, June 23, 2007

You do the Math (3)

Hejinian's Writing is an Aid to Memory

Section 34 of Lyn Hejinian’s Writing is an Aid to Memory contains a self-conscious and self-referential catalogue of combinations which I have listed here in full in respect of the structure of taxonomy which does not respond well to paraphrasing or selection (Figure 1: Paratactic Combination of Combinatory Schemas--Note: can't find this figure at present will add when I do).

Within this taxonomy of combinations, internal cohesion in the section is based on the potentiality of the interaction of any number of these so that each moment of framing the phrase-strings into form is simply the onset of other binding hermeneutic potentialities which again open up the frame so as to then close it based along other lines. And what is true for the section is also true for the poem as a whole This movement is conveyed by the first and last phrases of my list: the anaphora implied by “making the body binding,” which suggests a closure of the anaphoric theme of combination running throughout the section, in interaction with the cataphora of the fall back into the text of “restating the reverse,” which makes the reader go back over the text reinscribing new themes. Alone these two phrases undermine the text unit, the anaphoric tendency coming paradoxically at the end, the cataphoric at the beginning, but coupled with the last phrase of the section the very idea of a closed unit becomes insupportable. “Rim bay loops the times right,” gives the exterior edge of the section an open space beyond the closed unit, a “bay,” but the bay loops the rim back to the beginning of the section which is why I have placed it afterthe first phrase in brackets on my list.

This section, due to its proliferation of possible combinatory schemas and all their possible inter-combinations, has no “rims” to speak of. It is not a bound body thus it is not really a unit at all due to the effect of combinatory motilities within it. This is complex enough but one must also come to terms with the means by which this law of combinatory motility is presented, which is in a specular paratactic format which thus privileges parataxis above all other schemas, yet by seeming to relegate it to a supplementary status. Parataxis is useful here because it allows the various tropes of combination to interact without imposing a controlling ideology of structure or form upon them. It has the same regulatory status then that I argued for the phrase as it is a median position in a structure between individual units and their combination into the closed semantic formats of section or poem.

If Bob Perelman is correct in saying in his essay “Parataxis and Narrative,” that “Parataxis of a more thorough and disorientating kind than anything the old handbooks could cite is the dominant if seemingly random mode of our time,”[i] it is because of this double dynamic of dominance falling back at each stage into the “seemingly random.” In section 34, because parataxis is the chosen combinatory schema for the presentation of combinatory schemas, this effects its dominance as the meta-combination of the poem unit. However because as a schema it is really at the base level of organisation, it is impossible for it to retain such a super-position. As a mode of combination it is double-handed, somewhat disingenuous and sly. In seeming to be random it combines the two basic forces of poetic language as Kristeva and numerous others have noted, the rupturing power of the semiotic (the random) coupled with the negating power of the thetic (the motivated).[ii] Parataxis is not significant in its motivations of signs or phrases, except in a very minimal motivation of phrase into lists of phrases working backwards from parataxis to taxonomy in a curious reversal. Yet nor is it insignificant for any combination of more than one will in accord with the basic laws of hermeneutics, produce an inter-phraseology from which significance will be produced. Silliman’s law of syllogism.

[i]Bob Perelman, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language, Writing and History (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996) 60.
[ii]Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language trans. Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984)

Thursday, June 21, 2007

You do the Math: Parataxis in John Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath and Lyn Hejinian’s Writing is an Aid to Memory (1 & 2)

This paper was originally presented at a conference on postmodern poetry in Plymouth in 1998. I was still rather young and had not yet finished my PhD. Hejinian was in the audience along with other people I really admired. Having given the paper the chair, a well-known experimental British poet, passed a comment suggesting the paper was simply deranged. Luckily the audience didn't think so and the paper become a mini cause-celebre during the conference on the back of which met Hejinian, John Kinsella and later Rachel Blau duPlessis. So thanks curmudgeonly British poet. Written in the technical, rather high-blown style I used back then, the terminology in parts is a bit off now but the observations are still valuable I think. The paper was never published.

You Do the Math
One might argue that the phrase is the optimum unit of poetic language. Whilst its limits are fairly flexible, it can be as small as a word or even a mark, and it can extend along beyond the semi-mythic pause of a line break, they are not infinite. The topography of the phrase between the smaller unit sometimes called the word and the larger units of say sentences, verse paragraphs, stanzas, sections and poem units as a whole, suggests perhaps a point of pause. In the phrase one might be spared at least briefly the rage of ideological discourse conducted at all points around it; one might be given a space for reverie. Yet in fact this median position, this optimal between-ness, locates the phrase in the centre of the double dynamism of poetic language. There can be no rest for the phrase.

Like all phrases the colloquial “you do the math,” has at the very least a double topographical dynamic. Along the vertical axis, my association of the phrase with a certain aggressively inclusive capitalism democratically inviting me into the process of an economy, indicates a myth which I would call “American.” This contracts the phrase to the status of a sign, it signifies a highly localised and personal ideology of nationality, which is however not one that has developed in me in isolation. Such vertical myth-making says something about nation and something about subjective interactions with such larger ideological constructs both of which are political.

Along the horizontal axis the phrase works away from the coherence of the sign and its larger contexts towards the level of its local syntactic contextualisations. It is after all still a phrase consisting of a string of four words articulated by three gaps and framed by an indefinite or possibly infinite field of non-writing. A field which is however overlaid or possibly undercut by a collection of trace signs and trace phrases.[1]

The “you” would seem to locate the work of postmodern poetry somehow within the realm of the second person. I want to make it clear immediately that I do not take for granted that this other person is the reader. Certainly the inter-subjective is a force to be reckoned with but the nature in which the other person is invited into the process of the poem is such that one can only speculate as to the identity of this subject: reader, critic, poetic self as other, other self as poet?

The “you” which concerns me here is not a particular identity but rather the means by which poetic identity has shifted from a model of first and third person interaction to that of a localised interaction contained within this mid-identity second person pronominal zone. The hermetic and somewhat despotic certainty of the poetic ego is to some degree disseminated and its organic self-sufficiency breached at least by a direct interpenetration with one other person. Whilst the unwieldy monster of the “them,” usually expanded out impossibly to include all of us, all humanity, is drastically reduced to produce a communal framing which at its minimal and maximal boundaries really consists of two people. This “you” then has the topographical status within ontology that the phrase holds within poetic language.

In this cosy intersubjectivity some work must be done. The “do” of the phrase suggests perhaps one defining feature of non-rational or so-called postmodern poetry, which is its emphasis on process. If identity and agency are held in a motility between the one and the all, indicated by the median regulation of the “you”, so too the poem unit seems subject to this dynamic. It is not that it is defined by its having or not having closure, but that its structure is defined not by being a work of art and all this requires in terms of tropes of limitation, but rather by it being art at work.

This work which keeps the poem open and closed in a seemingly endless motility, is predicated on the peculiarity of the “you” and so concomitantly the phrase. Essentially the “you” is a double self, at each point being both writer and reader but neither identity in full. The process of art at work is doubled up by its consisting seemingly simultaneously, in reading and writing the self through a complicated relation to the text, which requires that the writer be reduced to the level of the reader and the reader elevated to that of the writer in a chiasmatic economy. A complex double doubling, it is based on the interaction of two mediating faculties.

The first is the mediation in poetry between the heterogeneous realms of author and readership, and the second is the mediation between what these two identities do: writing and reading. The means by which this double process is conducted relies to a great degree on the phrase which, like the pronoun “you,” can regulate between two heterogeneous realms, (let’s say for now the word and the sentence) at no point becoming subordinate to either realm and yet also never attempting to elevate its status above these realms. The phrase then seems to take on its own mythic status, held between two powerful political/ideological aesthetic tendencies, that is the word as semantic plenitude, and the work as semantic plenitude.

[It is interesting to note that many years before I knew of Badiou's work, the interest in relation to poetry and the matheme, as he calls it, was somewhere on my mind. In fact, as one reads in Being and Even, the matheme and poetry are almost opposing forces in the development of ontology]

Parataxis and Taxonomy
Parataxis, the piling up of phrase upon phrase without any apparent telos is “the math.” By definition it is the opposite of organic form and at an ideological discursive level it seems to convey a sense of meaningless fragmentation or perhaps even mindless glossolia. However at the syntactic discursive realm it is in fact as relevant a mode of combining phrases within larger units, perhaps called sentences and paragraphs than say the form of traditional syllogism which suggests a basic paradigm for the integration of two phrases into a third higher phrase which, as Ron Silliman notes in his “The New Sentence,” is often then suppressed in literature.[i]

One of the problems of parataxis is that it is a form of combining which in itself is somehow more simple than the complex phrase-units that it comprises of. Any theory of concatenation must simultaneously be a theory of articulation, meaning that postmodern form is by definition based on an aporia. Thus the adding up of phrases is problematic in that phrases themselves in non-rational poetry are often combinations of word clusters which I call taxonomy or, word selection based on metonymic /contiguous precepts rather than metaphoric/associative ones. Parataxis works in a similar fashion to syntax in that it moves between two totally determinant systems: that of the taxonomeme and its restricted cluster of trace phrases, and that of grammar and meaning. However the method of paratactic combination is not that of creating a unity between the local discourse of word strings and the ideological discourse of meaning as a whole which is the aim of syntax. Instead its restlessness between individual units and the whole produces a synthetic deconstructive motility the result of which is the postmodern poetic unit.

Taxonomy and parataxis then form the basic copula of post-rational poetic syntax. This copula is dominated by two aspects of the sublime both of which tend out from the local to an infinite totality. The first means of expansion is very familiar it being the leap from the local to the general that one might call ideological. However what I would like to consider is the other, less analysed side of the sublime which in a sense is often relegated to the status of being the precursor to the dynamical sublime, that of the mathematical sublime. The mathematical sublime is the addition of small individual units into an ever expanding string with no discernible telos, best represented by the mathematical sentence 1+1+1+1+1.... The effect of this accumulation of units of equal equivalence is to push the local to a point of expansion wherein it can no longer be conceived of in a localised fashion at which point the reflective faculty makes the terrifying leap from syntactic discursive levels, which it can conceive of, to ideological discursive levels which it cannot paradoxically proving that they at least exist. Thus the dynamical sublime seems to come at the moment when the sum 1+1+1+1+1... becomes equal to infinity. In other words when it breaks out of a frame of conception. This mathematical process is very much in evidence in the relation of each phrase or paratax to the total mythical system we call the poem. But the leap from the local frame into the general frame is, due to the duality of the phrase, immediately to be followed by a falling back down into localisation. This is then how discourse works by being double discourse. My phrase “you do the math,” means both on a mythical level of discourse, Americans in the eyes of the English say, and yet also at the local level of discourse, the actual words in the phrase. What I would now like to do is turn my attention first to the local realm of parataxis, and then consider the ideological realm by way of conclusion.[ii]

[i]Ron Silliman, “The New Sentence,” The New Sentence (New York: Roof, 1987) 63-93.
[ii]In my work on the sublime here I use extensively Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1994)

[1]The idea of the frame in relation to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry comes from George Hartley, Textual Politics and the Language Poets (Bloomington Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1989). My preferred version of text closure in relation to non-rational poetic units is “decollation” which is an idea I have developed elsewhere, however Hartley’s sense of framing is in this context simpler and apt in that is was developed in specific relation to the poetry in question here.

Sunday, June 03, 2007


Hi everyone

apologies if you are regular reader of this blog, have not been able to post due to work and other commitments and am away now at a conference until June 10th. Normal service will resume soon after that.