Friday, January 1, 2010

Be us resolved…

"Poetry and criticism thrive not just upon the size of their readership, but upon the degree of their readership’s intensity and sophistication."

It’s that time of year when we resolve to make ourselves better people. We all got a head start three weeks ago when two of our ablest critics attempted a correction of taste intended to make us not only better writers of poetry, but better readers, too (See The Great Cage Match: Starnino vs Bok in right hand column). I’ll say it straight up that I felt the subsequent assessments of the contest were weighted unfairly in one direction. Despite the entertaining histrionics, Christian Bok was far too glib and pleased with himself for us to take too seriously his grievance over the avant-garde's relative anonymity. Carmine Starnino’s performance got stronger as the debate progressed and he did us a favour by reminding us of a few home truths: syntax really is an extension of emotion, vowels and consonants are fundamental to sense and a poem's audio effects are vital to the creation of meaning.

Bok’s main assertion is that Canadian poetry isn’t doing its job, which should be, he says, “to provide an aesthetic of critique and surprise” and to generate knowledge “in the same way scientists do…through discovery”. A rallying cry for younger poets, then, and a plausible one, but for the fact poetry trades in more than just “information” and that it’s potential as a body of knowledge comparable to science was part of an initially seductive, finally discredited distraction from the last century (see my interview with Timothy Steele, December 18). The theory subsequently dusted off by Chris Dewdney and others has yet to produce a single poem comparable in impact to the discovery of calamine lotion, let alone Einstein’s theory of relativity or quantum physics.

Bok counterpointed his equally overworked assertion about the “mediocrity” of Canadian poetry with the success of his own book in Canada and the UK, but stumbled over other indisputable successes, among them some world class poetry by Birney, Atwood, Carson. Starnino’s rejoinder that Canadian poetry has gotten a bad wrap is not new either, of course, and his further contention that “the stories we tell about Canadian poetry don’t fit the facts” is also likely true. To say that poetry “from Pratt to Babstock” is distinguished by a “protean diversity and variety” is still subject to debate, it seems to me, and to a considerable amount of legwork by those still willing to hazard a reassessment.

Off the dime, please…

Can it be that both were right? That most Canadian poetry is deadly dull stuff, requiring an injection of new energy, fresh innovation, but also that much Canadian poetry is of the highest calibre but for our willingness to talk about it, to examine it and to observe its felicities? If so, then disagreement about the quality of Canadian poetry seems pointless. Because whether you agree or disagree a bigger problem presents itself. Both Bok and Starnino base their assertions, and by extension their agendas, upon a single, continually recycled observation: that not enough people in Canada are reading poetry, Canadian or otherwise.

Here is a truism, to put it simply, that has outworn its welcome or usefulness and that has ceased to be the impetus for change we imagined it to be decades ago. Just how irrelevant the observation has become was underscored for me recently when I read about the scores of poetry magazines in the U.S. and U.K. that lived and, yes, died in the last century on the basis of readerships not much larger than those which patronize existing Canadian poetry magazines. Despite the ups and downs, poetry in these countries went on being written and talked about in magazines that survived or started up anew. The readership though small appeared to be vibrant enough to generate continued interest and debate and to foster the production of new poetry.

How could this be possible? Perhaps poetry and criticism thrive not just upon the size of their readership, but upon the degree of their readership’s intensity and sophistication. Are readers not better served by a painstaking assessment of poems by articulate, knowledgeable critics anxious to unravel the wonderful intricacies of well written poetry instead of generalized laments about the buying habits of a larger potential audience? Is it asking too much of our poets and critics to focus on the people who already read poetry instead of fruitlessly searching for more readers from the legions of pulp novel readers that swell the nation’s transit systems? Do current readers of poetry count for nothing?

Be us resolved…

Whatever you may think of Bok and Starnino, there is little question that both are able critics. I have yet to make up my mind about their poetry, however. Bok's experiment in Eunoia, much worked up and occasionally brilliant, eventually serves to remind us how truly rich a poem can be when all five vowels are brought together to work in concert with all the other properties of language. Starnino has twice won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and this year was nominated for the GG award for This Way Out, so obviously someone is paying attention. But what would also be helpful to understand is how they view their readers. Are Bok’s readers as stupid and lazy as he says Canadian poets are (thereby calling into question their decision to buy his book)? Or are readers simply undernourished, as Starnino seems to suggest, by a cadre of critics and reviewers given to spoon feeding us exegetical pabulum instead of providing sensitive, unalloyed analysis and hard headed judgements?

My answer for a brand new year: Perhaps all of us – poets, critics, readers - could work just a little bit harder.


Conrad DiDiodato said...

Congratulations on a wonderful (insightful) article on the state of poetry/poetics in Canada! I'd like to offer some observations of my own.

Whether you like his work or not (& I'm in two minds about him myself)Bok lives a distinctively 'experimentalist' tradition of working in the materials of language only (whether they be lego bricks, sounds, vowels), drawing attention to the painstaking, time-consuming research and composition that all too many poets ignore, and for that I applaud him because it certainly makes him stand out from a lot of dull, mediocre artists in this country.

We have to understand that Bok is a spokesperson for a view of interdisciplinary work made popular by the advent of postructuralist studies in the 80s: Bok is a student of that tradition of crossing disciplinary borders, tools & methodologies of other disciplines (like say 'genetics')used wholesale as part of the creative process.

I think he also knows how to 'play' the bad-boy 'avant-gardist' game to his advantage: his anti-CanLit (anti-poet) rants shouldn't be taken as anything more than a way to draw attention to what he considers to be a refreshingly different, unique approach to poetry/poetics and, of course, to himself. I also think the fascination with "Euonia" (as fine a work as it is) will wear off making it almost imperative that Bok (like all the experimentalists before and with him)attempt something radically new and interesting. Experimentalist (conceptualist) artists are always forced this way to do it differently: trying to rearrangle materials of their trade in interesting new ways.His 'xenotech' project (hope I got the spelling right) looks to do just that.

Starnino, however boring his delivery as a debater, is a meticulous, well-read practitioner of a more neo-classical poetry, attuned to tradition, prosody and the long lost lyrical voice & who I represented competently enough his anti-avant garde views. But, remember, his associations with an experimentalist "Vehicule" movement in Quebec can't make him too unsympathetic with Bok: perhaps there's a little professional jealousy at work here.

Who's side am I on? Both. Bok's right: we do need to address the mediocrity of work in Canada, looking for causes and offering different models; and Starnino, perhaps under the influence of Dudek,is right also to reacquaint us with 'forms' of writing that poets like Dudek, Souster, Avison, Page, et al once weren't afraid to use, and that have tended to be overlooked (& even dismissed) with the prevalence of radical 'Tish' poetics.

I applaud them both for keeping the vital poetry debate alive in this country (something the Americans & Europeans always do exceedingly well, as my travels in the blogosphere have made abundantly clear to me)

Harold Rhenisch said...

Because Pound's modernist view of poetry as science has been discredited as the period stance that it was does not mean that the idea of poetry as an enterprise in the same field as science is also discredited. Similarly, if there are errors in Bök's or Starnino's reasoning, and there are, that does not mean that the idea of poetry as either a scientific or aesthetic enterprise is discredited. The tradition is larger than all of these writers, and poetry and science do have the same root, after all. Yup, we can do better. Here's to a year of doing just that.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I agree that we not set barriers to literary intentions (or design): poets may see science as a legitimate area to work in. I don't know in what sense Pound was scientific except perhaps as a strict'collagist' who handled his materials as raw verse data; on the other hand, Olson, who thought we should literally begin from a very primitive Neolithic stage of writing, and was also greatly influenced by the scientific-mathematical writings of Whitehead, was probably more empirical than Pound.

But is giving scope to literary intention the same thing as 'poetry'? Visual artists & sculptors, more hands-on, technical sort of workers, can afford to be more open-minded in their conceptions of Art since their productions interface more directly with raw stuff. But poets, even with radically redefined notions of their art (a la John Cage,Duchamp, Bök)are, I believe, necessarily restricted to a primary 'linguistic' mode of literary expression and must abide by the only available codes of transmission & comprehension it provides.

Nothing short of a complete (or maybe just virtual)metamorphosis of both work & even artist into the created'other'is perhaps being envisaged here. Cyborg poetics? Bök's written a "Cyborg Opera" published in "The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound". But the "cyborg" idea has been around at least as early as the 70s in such work such as analytical philosopher Donna Jean Haraway's "Cyborgs and Women: Reinvention of Women". And her recent work on human-animal "interspecies" relationships is a move in the same direction toward a complete morphing of artist, thinker into the "other". I like that use of the term "reinvention". And to hear Bök go on about his "xenotech" project you'd think he really believed he could make 'poetry' a permanently ingrained feature of the oldest DNA structures out there.

Is this the direction 'experimentalist poetics' everywhere in the world is taking us? Is it legitimate? Is it art or fanciful foray into academic fantasmagoria?

David Kosub said...

Thanks to you both. Good points all around and good questions, too. My recollection of post-structuralist studies in the 80s and 90s, Conrad, was that both scholars and experimentalists focussed on fiction and poetry as cultural artefacts rather than as literary works per se. What we ended up with was a radically depersonalized attitude toward fiction and poetry and the diminishment of both writing and reading as interior or subjective experiences. Hence the ease (dare we say joy) with which Bok dismissed the inner feelings of his students, and his disparagement of the intellectual capacity of poets.

Harold, I’m unclear about this “root” you say that poetry and science share. I know that it is commonplace to say that mathematics sits at the heart of music and that imagination and exploration are key components in both science and poetry. But things start to break down, it seems to me, when the actual practices of science and art are examined. A scientist is presented with a problem, hypothesizes a solution, puts that potential solution to a test in the lab or the field and watches for the result. If the solution works, she then repeats the experiment many times to make sure that it works in all cases.

Getting predictable results while essential to success in science is anything but in the arts. And while it was true at one point that generalizing from particulars was as important to poetic statement as it was to establishing scientific truth, the difference always seems to rest for me in science’s preoccupation with the physical universe, poetry’s with the spiritual and emotional realms. Not much has changed. Bok repeatedly defined his new aesthetic in terms of assembly line Lamborghinis, rockets to the moon, computerized technologies and the like. Starnino’s focus was almost exclusively on “interiority”.

At the same time we know that even very great poets have occasionally aspired to the prestige that science has won for itself. I’ve just finished reading W.H. Auden who was caught up in both the engineering and psychological sciences, disciplines which came to play less of a determining factor as his career progressed. I’m now reading Wallace Stevens. In addition to the Dadaists, he was influenced by the theories of Jung and by the early 20th century futurists “who were in love with the mechanical” (Janet McCann, Wallace Stevens Revisted, Tawyne, 1995). For all that, I cannot think of a poet more personally experimental and less influenced by science than Stevens.

So here’s my challenge to you: give me one example of an experimental poem using science as its genesis, its root or organizing principle to rival Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” or Stevens’s “Sunday Morning”. To use Bok’s word “amaze” me (perhaps employing a little commentary explaining the “science” of it and why it works) and I shall concede the field. Seriously, I am interested to know if such a beast exists.

Alice Major said...

David, why does your challenge have to be an experimental poem? And what exactly do you envision as 'using science as its genesis?'

I don't quite agree that the actual practices of science and art are so very different. The brain's underlying process of creativity is remarkably similar across different fields of human endeavour. There's always an element of working with existing concepts and recombining them into something new. Science at its best is like poetry at its best -- an attempt to revision the world. It does not proceed by predictable results -- the most important pieces of any theorum are the places where it does NOT fit with the expected outcomes. There is a training period where you duplicate the experiments that have been tried before, but you don't do that over and over.

And I don't agree that poetry is preoccupied by interiority while science is preoccupied with the physical world. Poetry that's restricted to the interior becomes very boring indeed, and cognitive science is as interested in how the interior world looks and feels and operates as any poet is.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, Alice. I agree. Discovery of the benzene ring, for example, was the result of one of the “brain’s underlying processes”, dreaming, and a great many other scientific discoveries have been the result of the imagination and the re-working or re-visioning of existing concepts. So your general parallel between science and poetry is correct.

In very practical terms, though, science is about solving problems. Simply put, it is not sufficient for a scientific theory to solve a problem once; for it to be useful, it must produce the same solution many more times, that is, the result must be predictable; otherwise the theory is useless and must be discarded. You seem to suggest (and again I agree with you) that wonderful discoveries sometimes occur when expected outcomes don’t match up with our initial idea or theory. But while this makes for the wonderful serendipity that often occurs in poetry and is easily absorbed into the poet’s way of working, a scientist who worked in this way would be banned from the lab. And that’s what we’re really asking here, it seems to me: how in a very practical way would a poet use science as way of making poetic discoveries?

You are right on another front, too: a great deal of “interior” poetry is boring, though the fault lies less with our desire to write about interior experience than with the talent of the poet. It’s true, too, that cognitive science is interested in the interior world and that this has opened up many doors for poets such as Stevens and Auden. My sense, though, is that over the lifetime of these and a great many other poets’ careers, the lustre of science fades, finally making way for a poet’s experience and his or her capacity to exploit the endless richness of language.

So in reply to your first question, enormous claims are being made by Christian Bok and others about a kind of experimental poetry that uses science as its model. The result, according to Bok in the debate, should be the discovery of “new information, new knowledge”. My challenge is fairly straightforward: show me a poem that uses science as its model and produces new information, new knowledge to rival the best of other experimental or formal poetry.



Anonymous said...

Hi David,

I recall a local mathematician / physicist discussing creativity involved in his work. He compared it to other kinds of creativity. Mathematics and physics are different than, say chemistry, or genetics, where results can be repeated and are usually tangible (I'm no scientist, so someone might correct me here).

Different sciences invite different kinds of creativity. All creativity works with the intangible and the tangible, I suspect. If that is the extent of the link between science and art, I'd agree.

Adequate poems might operate like scientific experiments, where the same lyric ribbon is achieved in the closing lines, built with variable detail, a passable eloquence, etc.

But new data? Poetry's achievement might be entry into mystery--into the hollow places where data is meaningless and meaning shifts.

Interesting challenge! I hope someone takes you up on it.


Conrad DiDiodato said...

The closest I can come to "experimentalist poetry, using science as its genesis" (or rather a methodology that's scientific in nature) is perhaps John Cage: Cage the poet for I'm not qualified to speak about his atonal musical experiments. And I'm also tempted to regard the radical concrete poetries of Creeley and Zukofsky (and, of course, our Christian Bök) as among the group of 'scientific'poets whose works produce a type of 'new and enlightening knowledge'

Firstly, I think of a work like Cage's "Empty Words", a verbal pastiche based on a reading of Thoreau and a reworking of the "I Ching" (what Richard Kostelanetz called "text-sound art"), the two disassembled and then put back together again to form a new linguistically designed poetry. The object of his work was to effect a transition from music to literature, two entirely different 'genres', a compositional desire easy to articulate but procedurally very complex .

Cage methodically subjected words, letters & syllables from Thoreau's work "Journal" to the "I Ching" in a clearly experimentalist vein, assiduously recording (as raw data) all the references to 'music' in Thoreau's text and then subjecting them to purely fortuitous recombinations through the use of an ancient text What makes it scientific is its technical design and tentative "chance-determined" product as a legitimate form of expression.

Secondly, Robert Creeley and Louis Zukofsky, through strict ( & almost canonical) adherence to "repetition" and "variation" techniques, still managed to write the most radical (poststructuralist), experimental works of their day, creating new poetries from almost randomly predetermined rules of composition and design. By subjecting a traditional form (such as a sestina, pantoum,lyric and the musical fugue) to the most fortuitous twistings & rearrangements of the parts of poetic language, something surprisingly new is always created. Roland Barthes said that "the work of art is what man [sic]wrests from chance."

There may be experimentalist writings like this in Europe today but I'm not aware of them.

David Kosub said...

Thanks, guys. Fascinating. There's lots to think about here. Let's ponder and chat some more.

Harold Rhenisch said...

Among the alchemists, poetry and science were very close.

Science took 1/2 the material, and left the rest for the kooks and the poets.

Goethe tangled with it.

Pound saw myth as primitive science. Dumb.

He saw the method of the Cantos as scientific method, as well as a political one.

Goethe saw his science and his poetry as one.

We call what we do with poetry aesthetic, linguistic, etc, but that's only 'cuz we've ceded to the scientists territory that doesn't fully belong to them, and they've ceded to us territory that doesn't fully belong to us.

If we're going to discuss poetry solely as an intellectual/linguistic/aesthetic exercise, w're going to lock ourselves into a discussion that bites its own tail, 'cuz the terms needed to move the discussion forward aren't within the circle.

Still, Celan did some amazing things with consciousness, as just 1 eg, breaking it down in a method as precise and exact as science and which, if the boundaries of the discussion weren't skewed, could easily be called science. Dissecting and reanimating the ghosts of the lyric voice, creating gollum/frankenstein/cyborg creatures of para-consciousness, little virtual reality machines, back in the 50s and the 60s. You can take his later poems and see the ghosts, in negative, of the lyric poems he has moved beyond, in his howl of grief over Auschwitz. Quantum poetry. Forget Joris's translation. Joris was translating for an 'experimentalist' and Steinian reading. Forget all the translations. But, perhaps, if one knows what to look for, one can see the ghost poems within the linguistic cribs Celan left, even in translation.

Not so different from contemporary art movements in Germany, which extend Goethe's science of plants and colour, step by step, in a process as rigorous as scientific method.


Harold Rhenisch said...

To continue

Methods which physicists in the Newtonian tradition discredited over a century ago, but which some scientific theorists are turning to: embedding human perceptual experience into the method; the observer observing the observer, etc.

It used to be that Marxism held a lot of this material, but with its abandonment it has to be refound.

Handke and Enzensberger, for example. Even Brecht, although his poetry, as distinct from his drama, was pretty romantic and mainstream.

But in the European context, where are the boundaries? Duerrenmatt turned his life into plays and detective novels, turned them into maps of his 'madness' in weird, iconic paintings, and left his money, on his death, to turning his villa into a museum, which the architect turned into a living stage set for his play The Minotaur, and which contains European society in a microcosm. A living poem. One walks into it. One becomes the minotaur. And Theseus. Mad.

No, sane.

Not a poem as commonly defined. I use it as an illustration of the fact that if we're going to define poems as discrete linguistic & aesthetic objects, we're going to be locked into discussions that lead nowhere real, ie that between Starnino and Bök, who're referencing tiny parts of tradition and unsuccessfully trying to make them stand in for the whole.

They can't.

Poetry, & all that we talk about when we talk about it, is science. Dee's conversations with angels are science. And religion. And madness. And poetry. So is talk about all kinds of linguistic & metrical effects.

Poetry is the whole shebang.

The Descartians just walked away from all that.

We can't afford to.

Poetry is an alternate science.

In the same way, one cd. say that science is an alternate poetry, one that, perhaps, has been more co-opted by mechanistic social processes... or maybe not.

Aren't the narrow boundaries being put on discussion of poetry also a sign of being coopted by narrow, mechanistic social processes?

Sure, that's life in a bureaucratic society.

Some people are happy to live within that box.

Me, I want a better box.

The boundaries of what is called poetry in Canada, or in the English language, or in the written tradition, are not the boundaries of poetry.

Furthermore, our sense of language and words and even handwriting have strong monastic and hebraic roots.

Genesis. Magic. Dee knew this. That we have forgotten it, collectively, or compartmentalized it, doesn't negate it.

Ignoring it is not so different from Descartes saying he'll look at certain kinds of information and strands of the tradition, but not at others, cuz he can't measure 'em.

Isn't what we are doing w. the measurement of this ineffable material? We have precise tools, and use them precisely, whether as formalist or non-formalist poets.

These things have a habit of becoming cultural, becoming mythologies of their own. Becoming content. Compartmentalized.

And that, too, is human. So too is reassessment.

I think the whole discussion needs to be re-framed.



David Kosub said...

Thanks, Harold. You bring a poetic, encyclopedic richness to the discussion and several areas worth exploring. I also agree we need a "new box", a new way of framing the debate. Somehow, I think Conrad and others would agree with you, too.


John Pass said...

I've often thought, not entirely faceciously, that science is sophisticated description posing as explanation, ie. it is at best metaphor. Poetry at least acknowledges its partiality, its pathetic imprecision; science acknowledges only the limitations of its method.

Jake Brown said...

Thanks for the link! Just watched the video. Ouch, this "Cage Match" was a bit of a blood bath.

Certainly one of the two contestants was out of his weight-class--Starnino was KO'd at the first fore-arm smack. A little painful to watch his defeat, surprising really, considering the written bile he has directed at many poets of all stripes--I would have hoped for at least one or two original, well-formed, and clearly stated ideas from him that didn't have to be pre-written and delivered from the safety of his office. After many years picking this fight, I CAN NOT believe he came in so unprepared! It looked like even he was tired of his own cliche-driven, "hard-boiled" one liner- responses, culled: "Pays its way... "Elephant in the room...Dry as dust...Stack the Deck...Free Rides"? Regardless, not pretty.

Also surprising was Bok's recurring points on the market as goal, inspiration and legitimization. I soon guessed that this debate wouldn't be much about passion and potential of poetry, its promise, but rather a battle about how the two see poetry, rightly or wrongly, in terms of how it is perceived by the public as well as the the taste-makers of their own respective camps.

Inevitably some interesting opportunities for both more passion--as well as the shedding of more of the competitor's blood--were missed.

Some ironic overlaps and similarities arise:

While Starnino may seem to have ideas about what *kind* of poetry we should be reading ("Good Poetry" says the Good Platonist), but he is unable to offer a reason *why* we should be reading it. First, he presents no sociological importance for poetry here (he says from the beginning of the lecture that social context is of no importance to him, as if, perhaps, Celan's "Death Fugue" can be judged as "good or bad" outside of context or setting of the poem, outside of the conditions of it own creation). But, interestingly, Starnino doesn't even give what might be considered a conservative defense poetry: it's potential for emotional or intellectual insight or pleasure, its gift of music or delight. Nothing. "Good is somehow good," is his underlying message, and therefor should be read. Empty. Oddly too, he didn't even fight for his own side; he seemed strangely supportive of Bok's program, the gate-keeper and protector of something he longer believes in or perhaps can no longer aesthetically or ideologically stand behind. Where was his fight?

For Bok--partly to do with his recurring emphasis on the relative financial and popular successes of Eunoia--it seemed ironic that often his own avant-gardist agenda came across as so populist, centrist, liberal: his likening of poetry to Twitter, advertising, science, the cultural syntax of social phenomena, book sales. While I agree with and support the idea that cultural phenomena is integral to contemporary poetry (and that the poet's job is to extend what's most vital in the poetic gesture, the evolution of the imagination, into other realms, social discourses and cultural fields--unseen aspects of contemporary life), I was still, like, "Man, where's your edge, your criticality?"--certainly there are some reasons to challenge these phenomenon and structures, and not just by "fucking shit up from the inside." I don't know; I didn't buy it. Sounded at times like passive acceptance.

J. Brown

David Kosub said...

Thanks Jake. Frankly, I continue to lament how much the debate between Bok and Starnino has been framed around the notion of ”winners and losers” supported by an endless stream of pugilistic metaphors. Still Starnino is a grown-up, he agreed to participate and I’m not sure he was entirely surprised in the end by what others made of the encounter, though I suspect his greatest regret would be how badly his own stance on poetry was misunderstood or distorted.

One thing I am certain of is that Starnino has ever advocated a certain “kind” of poetry, only that poems in whatever style they’re written should avail themselves of the full richness of the language, fuelled from beneath by the pressure and demands of the poet’s talent. Nor do I think he said that social context is of no importance to him, only that poetry rather than poetics is his main preoccupation (He may have, as I recall, stressed the limitations of historical context, something that hardly requires extensive debate, it seems to me). Certainly he is saying more than “Good is somehow good.” As I think you’ve already suggested, Starnino has never pulled any punches about what he thinks is good poetry and why it is good, and conversely why the bad is bad.

What I like about Starnino is that he readily acknowledges his biases, not just as a caveat in how we should judge him, but as the only real way any of us has of responding in a true way to poems. Everything else is received wisdom one way or the other. This is not to say, of course, that our biases won’t or can’t change. They will, given enough room to breathe and to imbibe other viewpoints and of course, great poems, great criticism.

To get a real sense of where Starnino stands, I recommend a piece that has just been published in Poetry Foundation’s magazine.

You may not agree with everything there, but it certainly shows why Starnino continues to be viewed, at home and abroad, as one of this country’s best critics.


Conrad DiDiodato said...


I'm all for reframing the debate: with your kind permission, perhaps I could post a more theory-dependent (Deleuzian) analysis of poetry/poetics that in outline, at least,looks a little scientific. I've been a fan of this great philosopher's views for a long time.

David Kosub said...

Sure, Conrad. I'll have a heck of a time collating all the material you and others have provided, but I am curious to see the result.

At the same time, I'd like to keep the focus on actual poems. For instance, I did a quick google on Creeley and Zukofsky's collaboration, but didn't come up with anything. Do you have a poem that illustrates their experment?


Conrad DiDiodato said...


My comments on Creeley and Zukofsky were based on personal observation and ideas, especially where the more technical experimentalist details of their work are concerned, I got from Joseph Conti's very influential text on postmodern poetries, "Unending Design".I don't know if the two collaborated in any sense: I only meant to suggest that they were both what I considered to be 'scientific' poets in they way they handled the poem's structural elements.

Yes, I will narrow it down to actual poems, making theory subservient to the fact of poems themselves.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Reading Wallace Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I"


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Some procedural principles of my own:

(a) a reading shouldn't exceed 500 words;

(b) I randomly chose the following passage from Deleuze-Guattari's "A Thousand Plateaus" to serve as a general 'paratext' for my reading of Stevens's opening verse:

"But to break the becoming-animal all that is needed is to extract a segment from it, to abstract one of its moments, to fail to take into account its internal speeds and slownesses, to arrest the circulation of affects. (p. 260 from Chapter 10. 1730: "Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible...");

(c) I don't like to talk about linguistic units but rather more interesting lines of flight or deterritorialization;

(d) I view the poem (and its first verse) as a map "with multiple entryways and exits";

(e) I regard the critic's language as always "acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying"; and

(f) I offer my first reading of Stevens's "Thirteen Ways: I" as a general description only.

Part 1

Twenty mountains and thirteen ways. Snowy habitat and a solitary blackbird distinguishable not by wing, tail but eye only. The poet's first verse is a bird's moving eye. The significant question is whether the poem's a true "program" for transformative viewing.

It's clear we don't ever dare to take from the bird's true motion a single identifiable (read codifiable) moment and treat it as Stevens's true poem (haecceity): we continue the rêve, transported by the object's physicality and potential to move freely over the white plane of true flight. It's potential to mix flight and feeling at the same time is something which will be eventually regarded as its primary "becoming-animal" experience.

Snowy mountains don't form a backdrop for flying blackbirds as much as simple speeds do, & rates of descent and slow-moving flight formations across the sky. An interiorized type of flight, in particular, that can't be expressed initially as anything but a synecdoche. But more than that. Landscapes over which the eye of flight roams can't (as in aerial photography) really be plotted as points, depressions or peaks for a bird's eye in flight is a total of "speeds and affects". Stevens's first way is then an assemblage and not a set of decipherable coordinates.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

Reading Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: I"

Part 2

Furthermore, it's a question of eye for eye: the slowing, transformative power of bird-vision in place of an authoritative (which in the case of humans may even become voyeuristic) viewing that's always centered, always full of meanings. Eye does not co-opt eye. Slowing with the blackbird in mid-flight over snowy valleys is not a type of arrested activity, tracked on the viewer's sensory radar And since this type of moving has been interiorized, the only way to distinguish the "moving thing" from its environment is to see the bird's body as a smooth planar surface over which the viewer and viewed pass as flights towards a new deterritorialized 'site' .

Stevens's bodiless eye is permissible only because of a truer body of which it is part. The moving eye belongs to a more general Body, organless, smooth and always tied to flows, a site for traces of flights rather than a knowledge grid. Lines in Stevens's opening verse are striations ("schizzes"). The flying eye is where one among many entryways into (and exits out of) the essentially heterogeneous Body of flight can be envisaged: with space always for one more ( n+1) Viewing the blackbird's flying eye is a becoming-animal.

What does "the eye of the blackbird" signify? Nothing that frees us this easily from the rooted strictures of 'text' need fear stoppage of bird flight (poem's primary flow) or the threat of lexical units supplanting flights and entryways altogether. Or even twenty mountains and thirteen ways.


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