Friday, January 28, 2011


Sunshine in winter signals dry bitter cold in some regions. The long awaited fourth issue of Mimeo Mimeo, the British Poetry number, is in. Kyle Schlesinger and the reclusive Matt Chambers in conversation with Tom Raworth. A long out-of-print essay, the only essay ever published, by Asa Benveniste. Alan Halsey on Bill Griffiths and Pirate Press. Alastair Johnston in conversation with David Meltzer. Ken Edwards on UK small press publishing since 1960. Miles Champion talking with Trevor Winkfield. Richard Price on CAT-scanning the little magazine. This issue, edited by Schlesinger and Jed Birmingham, is one of the most exciting excavations of post-WWII British small press poetry since David Miller and Richard Price's British Poetry Magazines, 1914-2000 (British Library 2006). And I don't think my excitement yields any sort of overstatement.

Eric Mottram and Jeff Nuttall, 1984

The number contains several letters from Eric Mottram to Jeff Nuttall which alone are worth the price of admission. This, Feb 14, 1966 from NYU:

Don't let them edit you. Distrust all ambits and baxes and don't be badgered, buggered or otherwise fucked. And if you see Tom McGrath tell him I've started a universal hate-McGrath campaign which is revenge ... Ginsberg hasn't the foggiest idea what Angor Wat is or was, I mean a classic tyranny with those Buddhas he loves so much really the godking's repeated face ...

Astoundingly lucid. Spot on. And another mentioning Bunting, from Buffalo, July 12, 1966:

Basil Bunting's here, and I'm growing to respect and like him — we are in and out of each other's pockets, rooming next door, and offices next door, he talking endlessly about his long experiences and friendships. He gave his first reading in the USA here the other day — and the kids are beginning to dig : he is something, solid and clear.

There is no indication as to who procured, transcribed and edited the letters and no context offered for them. They just sort of drop from the sky, situated at the center of the issue, somewhat pleasantly and appropriately, following Halsey's comment on Griffiths (viz. Griffiths was first published by Mottram in Poetry Review in 1971; he went on to catalog the Mottram archive at Kings College.

The Winkfield interview with Miles Champion, too, is riveting, particularly Winkfield's comments on his early development as an artist:

MC: Your childhood interests in heraldry and medieval pageantry are well documented, and clearly manifest in your work. How did you get from these early preoccupations with flatness and ceremony to wanting, as a fifteen-year-old in late 1950s Leeds, to visit Kurt Schwitters' Merzbarn in the Lake District and Francis Bacon's "Figure Study II" at Batley Art Gallery?

TW: I've just been hit by a thunderbolt! I now realize after all these years that both represented escapes from Leeds -- the first of my long pilgrimages to see single works of art. I must have had a wanderlust even when I was fifteen. I'd already seen a Bacon painting of a man in a shower at Leeds Art Gallery, and the other nearest Bacon was only a twelve-mile bike ride away ... What was even more exciting -- and inconceivable, now that I think of it -- was my pilgrimage to Schwitters' Merzbarn in the middle of a snowy winter ... The farmer who owned the barn, a kind of gentleman farmer called Mr. Pierce, just gave me the key and let me stay inside the barn for as long as I wanted. It was pretty much as Schwitters had left it ten years before ...

From Bacon to Schwitters, Samuel Palmer to Marcel Duchamp, Arthur Cravan to Giuseppe Ungaretti, Winkfield thoughtfully trolls through some of the early sources that informed his distinct approach to the visual before bouncing to the US. Essential reading, like the whole of Mimeo Mimeo 4. Well designed, meticulously edited, thrilling contributions all around. Seriously, from cover to cover, no disappointments.



Schlesinger's been doing quite a lot of work around Benveniste's Trigram Press — and I recall Michael Cross saying the 1977 Trigram edition of Zukofsky's "A" 22&23 was one of the books he most adored. The Benveniste essay reproduced in Mimeo Mimeo is Language: Enemy, Pursuit, a short essay produced as a slim volume by Alastair Johnston's Poltroon Press in an edition of 100. The essay is an explosive statement that offers Benveniste's view of language as something at once mystical and material:

Gematria. A fierce confrontation with word, one of the best ways to barricade oneself against the confused inlay. Linguistics is not language. No one "understands" language. Communication is the last word to use to describe its purpose. Though to every poet, as to every Kabbalist, there must be more to those words than their beauty. That their meaninglessness itself is part of the divine (linguistic) fabric.

Early in the summer, during a short spell in Vancouver, I had the good fortune of stumbling upon Benveniste's Atoz Formula, a book built around the juxtaposition of Roman and Hebrew alphabets. Benveniste designed, constructed and brought the book out as a Trigram publication in 1969. And it's a haunting book dedicated to five poets, Louis Zukofsky (LZ) and David Meltzer (DM) among them. I am not sure what to make of the book just yet, but Benveniste notes in a "Backword," "These poems ... are extensions of Tarot and other divination images ... but they are also 'alphabet' poems in the way that Cabalists interpret the alphabet."

Oddly, too, a chance encounter with Roy Fisher's "At the Grave of Asa Benveniste" earlier today while skimming for A Furnace: "publisher; not paid-up for a burial |with the Jews, nor wanting || to have your bones burned, | ground up and thrown, you're here || in the churchyard annexe, somebody's | hilltop field walled round, a place | like the vegetable garden of an old asylum ..."

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Michael Boughn — who, with Victor Coleman, recently published his careful edition of Duncan's HD Book through U of C Press — has pulled together in a single volume three lectures given at Charles Olson centenary events in Buffalo and Vancouver (shuffaloff monograph #3 | 11 Conrad Ave | Toronto ON | M6G 3G4).

With, say, Ralph Maud and Kenneth Warren, Michael Boughn is one of the few who refuses to cherry-pick from the chaotically complex poetics developed by Olson; he angles instead to think Olson's poetics on its own terms, without, for example, abandoning Olson's drive to stitch together so many contradictory and otherwise incompatible philosophical systems: Jung, Corbin, Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead, etc.

Some passages:

If words are the bearers of sense well before they are manipulated into combinations of meaning which some idea controls, then the landscape itself becomes a kind of word and also a kind of body. This is cosmos that arises in an instantaneous knowing that is not relational, not based on proliferation of connections, but on the instantaneous presentation of a world. Always the sense of different knowings, of knowing differences, but knowing them here, as they array themselves around us, hard against the fact of what can be seen in one glance. Beyond that lie only stabilities of relation determined in abstraction.


Olson's notion of a secularization that loses nothing of the divine seems to begin with the recognition of a duplicity to both terms. Secular, then, not as a world divorced from the spiritual, a world of matter without sense, a world from which all vestiges of mind have been stripped other than as they are contained in some idea of the human. What Olson wants to hold on to here has to do with maintaining the, say, ordinariness of the world without some further reference.

Boughn mentions Jean-Luc Nancy here and there, appealing at times to Nancy, Deleuze and others to splay Olson open to a twenty-first century sensibility (viz. sense / perception), but I think Nancy's presence in his approach to Olson are writ a little larger than even he lets on — particularly Nancy's debt to Bataille. Nancy from Inoperative Community:

Divine places, without gods, with no god, are spread out everywhere around us, open and offered to our coming, to our going or to our presence, given up or promised to our visitation, to frequentation by those who are not men either, but who are there, in these places: ourselves, alone, out to meet that which we are not, and which the gods for their part have never been. These places, spread out everywhere, yield up and orient new spaces: they are no longer temples, but rather the opening up and the spacing out of the temples themselves, a dis-location with no reserve henceforth, with no more sacred enclosures — other tracks, other ways, other place for all who are their.

And I sense the secularization of the divine implies (or impels) its own inversion: the sacral character of the secular; gods exalted as men and men reduced to the puniness of gods (recall too Eli's aphoristic remark in Cormac McCarthy's Road: "There is no god and we are his prophets.").

I trust Boughn's reading of Olson in particular ways; there's a fidelity to Olson I find in Boughn, a refusal to instrumentalize Olson. His desire, like Maud's or Warren's or Chuck Stein's, is to take up Olson with a measure of care that keeps one from straining their own concerns, however small or large, through a nearly incomprehensible web of texts.

Boughn's monograph closes with an affirming manifesto-like postscript, a searing critique of careerism and professionalization. Titling the postscript "Major and minor bullshit in the new (old) literary discourse" he writes:

Given all the pressures toward success in the market of today's neo-liberal cultural grotesqueries, it probably should not come as surprise to find those old staid measures of literary excellence, major and minor, resurfacing. This, after all, is a time when the president of something called The Poetry Foundation can publicly declare that "the mind is a marketplace" and not be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail by raging poets. On the contrary, they line up in front of him with their hands out. It is a bit surprising, though, to find them popping up and circulating in the writing of poets who claim some historical relation to those poetries which sprang up in the 50's and 60's precisely as alternatives to the elegant formal constructions then dominating the academic imagination of what poetry's limits were.

The postscript rhymes well with Olson's lineated letter to the Gloucester Times, "A Scream to the Editor": "Bemoan a people who spend | beyond themselves, to flourish | and to further themselves." Here Olson speaks to citizens-not-poets. And, however one regards Olson's accomplishment, Boughn is correct to slug away at the deeper cultural tendencies, the everyday ways of moving, that create the conditions that allow an institution committed to the arts to regard minds as financial markets.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

MILTON ROGOVIN (1909 - 2011)

Buffalo-based social documentary photographer and HUAC survivor Milton Rogovin died today. While his extraordinary diptychs and triptychs of miners across the globe are quite well known, I suspect the thousands of photographs he snapped of Buffalo's Lower West Side might be a little less familiar. Many of them are incredibly moving, debilitatingly so, whatever difficulties one might have with documentary photography. Taken largely during the 1970s, Rogovin's photographs of Buffalo register well the topos of a major industrial city at a crucial historical juncture, through the beginning stages of deindustrialization and radical cultural change.

Here a trailer for the short film The Rich Have Their Own Photographers. Thanks to Tina Zigon for alerting me to the sad news of Rogovin's passing — and here an obit in the New York Times — and here a brief comment on Rogovin in NYT's Lens.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


A few days ago Pierre Joris posted a link at Nomadics to Double Change, an astounding video and audio archive devoted exclusively to contemporary poetry. Most of the clips were, I believe, recorded in France and feature an impressive range of largely Anglophone poets that include Claudia Rankine, Cole Swensen, Susan Howe, Steve McCaffery, Karen Mac Cormack, Jena Osman, Rob Halpern, David Antin, Lyn Hejinian and others. But the video footage that most caught my attention was a February 11, 2009 reading by J.H. Prynne, a poet famously unavailable outside of published writing and textual communiqués. While viewing the video I couldn't resist transcribing some of Prynne's prefatory remarks explaining why he so often refuses public readings:

When I come to Paris (too infrequently) I make an exception about my attitude to reading publicly on an occasion like this. Very often I don’t do that. Not because I don’t enjoy it, but because I think it creates a wrong expectation in the audience. When an audience hears reading of work in the poet’s own voice they believe so readily that some special insight has been communicated to them because the poet’s voice is authentic and true and inward and so the whole mystery of the poem is presented directly to the ear of the audience. This belief is completely false; in my impression, totally misguided, misleading, untrue and false. Many poets read very badly. Most poets read their work quite differently on different occasions. There is no fixed way of delivering in acoustic form the text of a poem. And there is no truth about such performances. Only just the occasional choices made on the occasion in particular. And these auditory memories when an audience hears a poet read can stay with you for a lifetime. You open the text of a work that you know and admire and immediately you hear the memory of the poet’s voice and it’s an insuperable obstacle to reencountering this poem in a new way for yourself—a really serious obstacle—and I detest to create obstacles for the freedom of the reader. But Paris is a different place. Paris has a sophisticated culture. Paris understands these things. And so, I am reasonably safe in your hands.

Perhaps, as Rod Stewart says, Paris was a place you could hide away. It certainly was in the Modernist imaginary. And one thing I vividly recall about my earliest encounters with so many Modernist poets — Pound, HD, Joyce, Yeats, WCW et al — as well as any number of other poets is that I didn't hear them, I didn't hear them. So much so that when I first heard a recording of Williams reading from "Asphodel" I was crestfallen; I recognized immediately that something of the poem and, more broadly, something of Williams himself, or his body of work, was irretrievably lost to me. All the poems I so admired as a young man were, in a sense, ruined.

It wouldn't come as a surprise if, like the video footage of his 2009 Chicago lecture on "mental ears" uploaded to the web last year, Prynne insisted that the clips of his performance in France be removed from the Double Change archive. But I hope they are not if, for nothing else, because the first of these clips offers one of the clearest statements available on his reluctance to read publicly. He encourages us, kindly I think, to attend to the work of our own mental ears.

But regardless of how one may or may not feel about the public performance of text-based work, what I find most affirming in Prynne's personal decision to refuse public readings is that, in conjunction with his essay "Mental Ears and Poetic Work," this refusal does not refuse the primacy of music — or, more specifically, sound — in the construction of poetry. Even in silence, Prynne insists, one always already composes aloud, unable to disentangle thought from the sounds associated with language, written or otherwise.

"Mental Ears" is one of those rare essays I find it difficult to extract isolatable quotes from without carefully summarizing it in its entirety and, like a Montaigne essay, extracting passages from it does little more than instrumentalize the work and crush its architecture. But the following passage is worth wrenching from its cradle since it articulates so well with Prynne's reservations regarding public readings:

The poet works with mental ears. Via this specialized audition the real-time sounds of speech and vocalized utterance are disintegrated into sub-lexical acoustic noise by analogy with the striking clatter of real work in the material world. Plus also bird-song, weather sounds, and the cognates. From this first reduction the array of voice-sounds can then be transposed into a textual constellation in which compositional purpose begins to remake the anecdotal variety of actual speech. By this means the sociology of utterance-occasions is part-replaced by the textuality of a language domain.

Earlier, in the paragraph preceding this passage, Prynne writes:

It's widely believed that to read deeply and with enhanced attention the sedimented products of an earlier poetic history is to encounter the meaning of a cultural process, the intricate play of ethical agency and imaginative conjecture as composing a pedigree for full present-tense creative empowerment. But for an emergent poet to read the output of precursory eras is a complex and recursive activity, because what in the record is output must for the poet-reader also be input, dismantled from its bounded emplacement as re-fluidized for soluble modularity.

For some time now I've wanted to read this essay not necessarily against but in conjunction with Bunting's Newcastle lectures, particularly the lecture titled "Ears" and a few of Bunting's comments on Wordsworth. The driving issue concerns presence, availability and authenticity — the notion that one can, by way of listening closely or reading widely, render legible or gain fuller access to a radically unavailable object or event. Indeed, it is precisely the distance between Bunting's moment and that of Wordsworth's — the utter unavailability of both Wordsworth's historical milieu and Wordsworth himself — which allows Bunting to make the following claim:

Nobody had thought of 'standard English' in Wordsworth's time. He spoke as a Northerner, in spite of the years he spent in Cambridge, London and Somerset; in such a Northern way that Keats and Hazlitt found it hard to follow his conversation. And though he did not compose in dialect, he composed in his own voice, aloud. His music is lost if his poems are read in Southern English, and no doubt that is why so many critics imagine he had none.

Even if Wordsworth were himself available it is unlikely that measuring a recorded performance of his work against the texts he performed would disclose anything too meaningful about those texts. Further, the willful confusion of Wordsworth the figure with the texts attached to his name would mask all manner of gaps and contradictions. But in the face of this somewhat recent recognition — a recognition that Bunting himself would have been unaware of — it is clear that Bunting's claim is oriented toward a reclamation of Wordsworth that attempts to redirect the centripetal force of canonicity away from its privileged space in the southeast and outward toward other points of encounter. In fact, for years now I have read the whole of the Newcastle lectures as a modest gesture which insists on the internationality of an Anglophone canon. Not only is Bunting's Wordsworth a Northerner, but he is a poet situated not against Keats or Coleridge or Shelley but against Whitman, suggesting Bunting's primary interest was given to a consideration of regionally specific forms of differntiation within much broader and fundamentally transatlantic developments in poetry.

In any event, I sense that Bunting's "Ears" and Prynne's "Mental Ears" are at times not so different. We see this continuity not so much in the lecture "Ears," where Bunting offers a largely linear narrative that laments the (imagined) separation of poetic practice from the real-time music of lute and lyre, but in his discussion of Spenser:

Much decoration is hardly possible in verse written to be sung. The words must not compete with the notes. But Spenser handled words so as to make them their own music. Even the earliest scraps of his verse, written at school, make use of the sounds of words so fully that they leave no room for the musician to add anything to them. There is no such economy of means as Wyat had used. This abundance of decoration was Spenser's way all his life, and it has been the most persistent of his legacies to English poetry.

For Bunting decoration is the inverse of economy and there are few poets as distant from Bunting than Spenser, something Bunting himself acknowledges. But what is clear for Bunting as for Prynne is the primacy of sound in the construction of otherwise silent texts; for both Bunting and Prynne sound is never (or at least scarcely ever) subordinate to the larger abstract or conceptual architecture of a poetic work. The privileging of sound in this particular way is at once slavishly traditional and surprisingly radical, especially now when the ungainly, overambitious architectures of so many hastily produced textual projects (most willfully engineered to fail from the outset) foreclose on any serious interest in sound a poet might have. And perhaps the greatest irony, and one I think Prynne implicitly acknowledges in "Mental Ears," is the outrageously absurd expectation that poets publicly perform the very texts that refuse a close attention to sound.