Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Notes on the Paragram: Poetry and Comedy 2

When I first went to Paterson about a year ago, I was struck by the absence of any trace of William Carlos Williams. No monument, no mention in the various “Visitor’s Guides to Paterson” outside the Cultural Center (it was 6 AM on a weekend, so I must admit that I didn’t go in the Cultural Center, but my guess was that inside there was no undue reference to the doctor.) The best I evidence I could find was a place called “Doctor’s Cave Lounge Go-Go Girls.”
What I did come upon was bronze statue of Lou Costello. The statue seemed to be language’s bronze cheer to poetry. The star of films like Buck Privates, Pardon My Sarong, Here Come the Co-Eds, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein would have more cultural importance to Paterson than the man who wrote a modernist epic poem about it. Not that the readers of this poem haven’t returned the favor. After all, most poets I have talked to have either never visited the actual place, or if they have, they have not expressed any desire to return, since the poem itself provides better returns on revisiting. But the question that immediately comes to mind is, what really was the better poem . . . Paterson or Who’s On First?? Or maybe, we should instead ask, what was the most influential. Was Who’s On First? a gateway drug for poets like Charles Bernstein, the Henny Youngman of Language Poetry, who wrote “Who’s on first? . . . Only the real is real” (“Whose Language”)?
Or take this passage (please), from Paterson, which seems to deconstruct the question and the pronoun, oscillating between it and I, in ways that are not foreign to Costello’s abuse of “who,” “what,” and “I don’t know”:

Who is younger than I?
The contemptible twig?
that I was? stale in mind
whom the dirt
recently gave up?
. . .
A mere stick that has
twenty leaves
against my convolutions.
What shall it become,

Snot nose, that I have
not been?
I enclose it and
persist, go on.

Let it rot, at my center.
Whose center?
I stand and surpass
youth’s leanness.

My surface is myself.
Under which
to witness, youth is
buried. Roots? (30-31)

[12/2/06 correction: however, later I did find Williams made it onto the timeline inside the Cultural Center, along with Allen Ginsberg, and Al Tangora, "World's Champion Typist."]

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Notes on the Paragram: Poetry and Comedy

Sometimes the best insights come while watching television in hotel rooms. I had a minor Raymond Williams moment the other night in Ardmore, PA, watching Family Guy after coming across the word “paragram” used to describe certain poetic effects (see Perloff, McCaffery, Kristeva, Roudiez, Marsh.) The episode begins with Peter playing Wheel of Fortune and it’s clear that he is so oblivious to the basic rules and generic conventions of the show that he calls the host “Regis,” rattles off a string of hilariously useless “letters,” and doesn’t understand that the “fat man in the circle” is a keyed-in video image of himself. If you look up paragram, you’ll see that it merely means a “pun.” But, I think it is used in the context of poetic theory to imply more broadly what happens when the meaning of a word oscillates because of the unstable rules by which we are to understand it. We appraise the word through a montage of contexts, rather than a montage of words themselves. Compare, for example, the use of a word in Futurism and one in Language Poetry. The Futurist word is a verbal piece of shrapnel, an object-in-itself, flung; whereas the Language Poetry word radiates in multiple dimensions precisely because we are not sure how to take it. Lytle Shaw talks about this dynamic in the Williams-inspired work of Robert Smithson, whose word pile we saw in the last entry. Shaw says that Smithson engages multiple genres such as “science fiction, geology, travel narrative, philosophy, poetry, art criticism, pulp drug novel, cartography, and film treatment” (124) to force the extreme dislocation of his non-sites, his various concrete poems (“concrete” in various dimensions; “poem” in various dimensions). So it is that, for Williams' Paterson, we are immediately given directions how to “take” the book; those directions are just as immediately thwarted. At the beginning of Book I, Williams sets out a kind of subtitle to Paterson:

“: a local pride; spring, summer, fall and the sea; a confession; a basket; a column; a reply to Greek and Latin with the bare hands; a gathering up; a celebration;
in distinctive terms; by multiplication a reduction to one; daring; a fall; the clouds resolved into a sandy sluice; an enforced pause;
hard to put to it; an identification and a plan for action to supplant a plan for action; a taking up of slack; a dispersal and a metamorphosis.” (2)

Subtitles tend to place and frame the work, but this list of genera is more like Borges’ example of the Chinese encyclopedia. What is Paterson? Some of the answers veer towards the surreal (Paterson is a basket) some defy the basic grammatical premise (Paterson is in distinctive terms). Rather than an exploration of the materiality of the signifier, this type of humor banks on the immateriality of the premises which give sense to the signifier. After all, Paterson can be spring, summer, fall and the sea, the batman symbol and Alex Karras in Webster.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

On the Keystone

new york trenton philadelphia ardmore
Does the site, Paterson, matter? If it's a nonsite, and the matter is the sight of the word, is it sound that fills the nonsight, or if the matter of Paterson is not sound, nor sight, it is (is it?) not non-sight, but site itself in the inexplicable matter of the situation (?) (citation?)