Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Rigor of Beauty

Book I of Paterson starts with what seems like an epigraph:
“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance” (3). But who is speaking this? As Lexi pointed out earlier, Paterson is a multivocal text. Yet Williams signals different voices with quotations only rarely. Strangely, the note to the text tells us that this is Williams himself speaking: “WCW’s own prose. On the 1945 KS galleys WCW cut two additional sentences that were also contained within the quotation marks: ‘It is not in the things nearest us unless transposed there by our employment? Make it free, then, by the art you have, to enter these starved and broken pieces’” (253). So, it is perhaps not an epigraph as much as it is an invitation, but it is still unclear why Williams would want to set it off like he does, since he does not use quotes normally in this way; is it merely to create a physical, graphic separation, to literally signify the “locked in the mind past all remonstrance”?
I’m hesitant to buy the explanation of pure graphism here. I still wonder about the way in which these quotes elicit the voice, especially in such a crucial place, the place of beginnings (however much a readerly desire for a beginning is thwarted by Williams), the place of “arma virumque cano” [“of arms and a man I sing”: Vergil]. A reply to the Greek and Latin with the bare hands would get rid of the arma (maybe replacing it with the silk factory or writing itself), but to a certain extent Williams gets rid of the virum and the cano too. What’s left? Que? I think there is definitely some singing left in the midst of the play of things, in the mist of the Passaic falls. After all, the famous line “no ideas but in things” is actually “say it: no ideas but in things.” Not that saying is singing, but saying might be enough of a song in the face of the brute materiality of Paterson (he mentions in his 1951 statement about the poem that it will only be with Book III that the poem will attain language; ironically, this is the book with the mute geological cross-section.)
So is it Williams that suppresses sound in his text or, as Garrett Stewart claims, is it the critics who have suppressed the phonotext of modernist poetry? Perhaps both. For Williams, the white noise of the falls overcomes sound and song, even as they emerge from its cosmogonic chaos. Whatever the song of Paterson is, it is not as easy to hear as in the other modernist epics, where “sounds cut in, rise, then fade away as other sounds intrude, as if we were tapping into a party line on a municipal phone exchange, spinning down a radio dial, or sampling a stack of records.” (Adelaide Morris)
If anything, the quotes here—as citations go—imply the already-said of past and memory. Whatever is said or sung of the “starved and broken pieces” to come is a function of the present-tense activity of reading (or singing, if you wish to interpret his concretisms lyrically.) The rest lacks citation as if—and this goes even for the archival passages—it hasn’t even been said yet.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Thousand Automatons

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

From One Old Coconut to Another

I checked out Ezra Pound’s Cantos the other day. I had read excerpts a long time ago, and didn’t understand them and didn’t like them. Mind you, I did not not like them because I didn’t understand them. I both did not like and did not understand. I thought, however, that age might have changed things. I had recently had dinner with a retired English professor who talked lovingly of Williams’ relation to Pound and H. D. at Penn, and had had coffee with a critic with a more peevish claim that Paterson was just a watered down attempt at the Cantos. After giving the Cantos another go, however, it seemed to me a high-class form of Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t like it for the same reason I don’t like Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Roddenbery’s Star Trek.
In his autobiography, Williams is generous with Pound (even though Williams’ descriptions, contrary to his assertions, give us the sense that his dear buddy Ez was a bit of a nightmare). Yet, Williams' assessment of Eliot’s The Wasteland—“the great catastrophe to our letters” (146)—is more to the general point: “There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of a rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art, in the local conditions. Our work staggered to a halt for a moment under the blast of Eliot’s genius which gave the poem back to the academics” (146). I would like someone to school me as to Pound’s place in this description: part of the work that staggered to a halt, or a return to the academic, Eurocentric tradition that Eliot saved from the trash heap? Perhaps both. In the Cantos, there are some interesting sea and sailing images, which I always like; spars against the vast blankness of the ocean remind us what poetry does, degree zero. Williams chooses the river, instead. And he gravitates towards the close at hand:

[T]he critics would have it that I, the poet, am not profound and go on with their profundities, sometimes affecting to write poems in their very zeal as thinkers. It all depends on what you call profound. For I acknowledge it would, in dealing with man and city, require one to go to some depth in the form for the purpose.
The thinkers, the scholars, thereupon propound questions upon the nature of verse, answering themselves or at least creating tension between thoughts. They think, and to think, they believe, is to be profound. A curious idea, if what they think is profitable to their thinking they are rewarded—as thinkers.
But who, if he chose, could not touch the bottom of thought? The poet does not, however, permit himself to go beyond the thought to be discovered in the context of that with which he is dealing: no ideas but in things. The poet thinks with his poem, in that lies his thought, and that in itself is the profundity. The thought is Paterson, to be discovered there. (Autobiography of WCW 390-91)

(Pound’s pet-names for Williams: My Old Coconut, Bull, Bullll, My Dear Old Sawbukk von Grump, Ole Son, WillYam, Willyum the Wumpus.)

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Welcome, Patersonians

Well, you finally made it (some of you). Now the impossible object can really party. Since you may be here because of Jean Stevens' story in the Herald this morning, a word on navigating the site. Like the poem Paterson, but even more so, the vlog you are reading invites open-ended readings and encounters. Throw out your sense of a stable Paterson, even if it is right below your feet. Before it was only me, now there are six of us, but even six people will have trouble figuring out exactly where they are at any one moment. Maybe it's a too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen type of thing. Nevertheless, I invite your communiques and participation. I am especially interested in songs based on the poem (see entries at 9/16/2006 & 6/23/06) and poets who know the poem and the city equally well. But I'm not limiting this all to poetry: after all, you will probably get a sense of the limitations of literary alchemy on even the idea of New Jersey, let alone the substance of a small corner of it. If getting a good start is all you want to do right now, go to the video entry on 6/19/2006 and the sound clip on 8/11/06. But hey, since you are closer to the real thing than I am: raise the sashes and look upon the night. Word.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

There is No Direction. Whither?

I spent Thursday exploring Paterson. This time, I set off in the way Robert Smithson suggested in his "Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey" (1967): starting from gate 223 atop New York's Port Authority bus terminal, accoutred with a cheap still camera. Accessible thru labyrinthine warrens of glass and escalator, the bus makes the journey every 20 minutes, at all hours. It was a much more leisurely option than driving in, except for the shrillness of the bus's brakes at every stop, which I guess you might be able to listen for before you get on, and wait for the next if it is too deafening. By taking the bus, I would be able to see an ingress to the city that I had not mapped myself, and be forced to walk once there. The bus goes through the Secaucus swamp lands, then through Williams' Rutherford ("Borough of Trees"), through Clifton, past the Middle Eastern enclave in South Paterson, and finally to the downtown area (the bus stop at Broadway has a snack shop where the drivers hang out and everybody seemed happy). After having my picture taken in front of the falls for tomorrow's Paterson Herald, and recording some material for future vlog entries, I had a bowl of fish soup in one of the many Peruvian restaurants on Market, and then took a long walk south down Main Street. I tried to find a way to climb up Garret Mountain, since it looked inviting, but since it is almost winter (even though it was about 70 degrees), the day was over before it could begin. Instead I walked until I found a Turkish pastry shop, had an arabic coffee, and hopped on the local bus back to New York.

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