Thursday, June 19, 2008

Et in Paterson Ego

Perhaps it is appropriate to talk about displacement after driving over 4000 miles and never once passing through our locus of inquiry. Along the way, I talked to some fellow-travelers of the Paterson poem in Philadelphia--tk in a future entry--and sat through a rousing 4.5 hours of Feldman's For Philip Guston in Charleston--which gave me some ideas for the progressing audio piece, or at least some insight into the true nature of stamina (the pianist endured a surreal wardrobe malfunction for close to 20 minutes, and I really don't know how they venture into such an undertaking without Depends.) I fear along the way, as Charlestons became Missoulas, that I might have forgotten some of the insights gained along the way, lost to an amnesia of miles. But that may be for the best, a letting-go which both astronauts and Morton Feldmans know something of. What would constitute a pastoral for our age of astronauts? Because it is Williams' use of the pastoral which I held-to as the next entry, since one of my conversants in Philadelphia, Randall Couch, brought up the genre in relation to the pastoral parody in Book 4, and sent on this link to a precursor. The pastoral is a genre of displacement: a way for mostly city folk to imagine their more authentic shepherd counterparts, like Rush Limbaugh conjuring Dakota. Williams places the pastoral conversation that begins Book 4 in New York City--it took me a couple reads to get this, given that one at least imagines the points-of-view, however fractured, to be limited by the poem's titular city. It could be that this pied-à-terre on the East River, inhabited by a lesbian poet (and this I totally missed, but thanks to Randall for pointing it out) is, in a pointed reversal, the Arcadian hinterland where one can escape the actual reality of the city or cities or "things" in their terrible intensity. No ideas but in things: et in NYC ego. "The whirring pterodactyl/ of a contrivance, to remind one of Da Vinci,/searches the Hellgate current for some corpse" and this helicopter is the snake in the grass, the shadow of death that haunts this "idyllic" escape. While Randall pointed out book four's relation to an 18th-century tradition, I think Williams maintains a discussion with poets much further back, especially Theocritus and Vergil. One thing that brought me back to Vergil was a passage that I kept recalling when thinking of Williams' use of numbers and the passage on page 18 of the two girls and their ribboned hair. This is from Eclogue 8, depicting the song-competition of Damon and Alphesiboeus "at whose rivalry the heifer marvelled and forgot to graze":
[64] “Bring out water, and wind soft wool round this altar; and burn rich herbs and male frankincense, that I may try with magic rites to turn to fire my lover’s coldness of mood. Naught is lacking here save songs.

Bring Daphnis home from town, bring him, my songs!

[69] Songs can even draw the moon down from heaven; by songs Circe transformed the comrades of Ulysses; with song the cold snake in the meadows is burst asunder.

Bring Daphnis home from town, bring him, my songs!

[73] Three threads here I first tie round you, marked with three different hues, and three times round this altar I draw your image. In an uneven number heaven delights. Weave, Amaryllis, three hues in three knots; weave them, Amaryllis, I beg, and say, ‘Chains of love I weave!’

Bring Daphnis home from town, bring him, my songs!

[80] As this clay hardens and as this wax melts in one and the same flame, so may Daphnis melt with love for me! Sprinkle meal, and kindle the crackling bays with pitch. Me cruel Daphnis burns; for Daphnis burn I this laurel.
Here is an early version of "no ideas but in things." While Damon frets over lost love and threatens to jump in the ocean, Alphesiboeus succeeds by busying himself with earth-magic and binding rituals. There also may be something to the relation between "in uneven number heaven delights" and Williams triadic line. Nevertheless, I think a look back into ancient pastoral points to a timeless struggle between vague lyricism and a materialist poetics, perhaps mistakenly limited to the innovations of the 20th century.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, June 06, 2008

It is the World Which is the Dwelling Place

"The province of the poem is the world.
When the sun rises, it rises in the poem
and when it sets darkness comes down
and the poem is darkxxxxxx." (100)

Labels: ,

Thursday, June 05, 2008

It is the Word Which is the Dwelling Place

I picked up a used copy of Barthes' Writing Degree Zero while in Rochester. Its descriptions of modern poetry are apt for reflecting on the referential dynamics of Paterson. For Barthes, the word in modern poetry is like a terrible, inscrutible monolith, "without environment." "It is the Word which is 'the dwelling place.'" (47) The Word has an "existential geology" rather than a social space. Throughout New Jersey as an Impossible Object, this type of purity has been under scrutiny, especially when the poem drags along with it an entire city, seducing us into imagining that it serves--however absurdly--as a kind of map that connects us to that city, or cities in general. But what seems a little more interesting than this familiar dilemma is that, the way Barthes describes it, classical language (which he contrasts with modern poetry) acts in many ways like the modern factory. Thus, the modern factory town of Paterson, with Alexander Hamilton as its creator, is a failed attempt to create classical poetry in the modern world. Barthes' description of the classical evokes the industrial manipulation of nature:

"The economy of classical language . . . is relational, which means that in it words are abstracted as much as possible in the interest of relationships. In it, no word has a density by itself, it is hardly the sign of a thing, but rather the means of conveying a connection."

"The classical flow is a succession of elements whose density is even; it is exposed to the same emotional pressure, and relieves those elements of any tendency towards an individual meaning appearing at all invented." [think: sluice, which may be an "invention" but doesn't mistake the invention for raw material.]

If we want to take Barthes' on his "word" here, then Paterson's relation to the city, and the connections we make to it and through it, is a kind of parody (or another favorite Barthesian word, "alibi" . . . but he uses parody here.) It's a way to trick the mind around a dark corner in the city leading one to the revelation of the word. "Connections [in modern poetry] are not properly speaking abolished, they are merely reserved areas, a parody of themselves, and this void is necessary for the density of the Word to rise out of a magic vacuum, like a sound and a sign devoid of background, like 'fury and mystery.'" (47) It's as if his approach to the city itself is like a culture-jammer picking up some crappy classical poem (like Thomas Ward's Passaic), and treating it to a variety of recontextualizations, mutations, and derangements in order to get at something more elemental.

However, beware of random tips from used books. Because even though a lot of poets have glommed onto this notion of the dwelling place of modern poetry, a few quick web searches make me think that maybe Barthes will challenge this strict division between classical and modern poetry later in the book. Or--given the self-canceling nature of web-opinion--not. Read on . . .

Labels: , , , , , , , ,