Sunday, February 24, 2008

Passaic Under Paris

With poet-geologist Jonathan Wonham and cataphile-author Gilles Thomas, I took a 10-hr walk under Paris, in the quarries where the architects of Place François 1er perhaps mined the "gray stone cleanly cut and put together in complementary masses” that Williams admired during his Paris hangover. There, 20 meters under the surface of the city, we found German bunkers, bone piles from Montparnasse, punk crash pads, catacomb art, defunct phone cables, a scrabble game abandoned by gnomes, beer can lanterns, and inscriptions dating back to the French revolution . . . when they started to realize that the mining that was done under the city was making the city cave in. Accordingly, most of the tunnels consist of supports at regular intervals which serve to keep whole city blocks from collapsing. Jonathan thought it would be appropriate to read Williams’ geological-cross section passage down in the depths, and so, we staged a group performance with fellow travelers to liven things up. We later found a room with a geological cabinet of curiosities, where each step carved into the stone would have at one time displayed a sample from each geological level, in much the same way that Williams' arrays the strata of the Passaic.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Williams' Hangover

In his biography of Williams, Paul Mariani describes a trip Williams and Floss took to Paris, and a humbling evening out with the Parisian intelligentsia. The morning after, Williams must have felt like Pa Kettle and Andy Capp combined, and was perhaps confirmed in his commitment to the local environs of le Jersey. But that’s nothing that a little flaneurie and warm water won’t cure:
The next morning, suffering from a bad wine hangover, Williams downed six glasses of warm water and went out for a long walk. When he came to the Place François Ier, he was suddenly taken by the French austerity of design he saw in that medieval edifice, "gray stone cleanly cut and put together in complementary masses," unlike anything he'd seen before. That quiet moment of insight into that other France restored his sense of balance and he felt chastened. There was, after all, still much good in France.
It took me a while to map the Place François Ier, because the way it’s typeset in Mariani’s book, one would imagine Ier to be a word unto itself. But it was not until I realized it was 1er (i.e. François Premier) that I was able to zero in. After my own little hangover from two mini-bottles of cognac and no sleep after the flight over, and not before walking through Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter, the salles of the Louvre and the grounds of the Tuileries—all lively and radiant today—did I make it to this dismal little “place.” It was the only corner of Paris not sunny on this February day, and it seemed nothing more than the gallic version of a gated community. I was struck by the same thoughts gnostics must have had when then reflected upon the idiocy of the demiurge. Is the designer of Paterson just a complete imbecile, bent on his own contrarianism and unable to have a fine time exchanging ears with the surrealists? Looking back on the passage in Mariani again, I think I am still confused because while what is being described is one edifice, the reference is to the whole of Place François 1er. Nevertheless, while I was there, further attention revealed that perhaps the Place Francois 1er was once stunning and austere, but that it has been uglified over the years by more recent additions distracting from the symmetries and beauty of the buildings as they radiate from the center of the traffic circle. There may be, after all, still much good in Place François 1er.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Afternoon at the Ivanhoe

I have finally started organizing my growing database of Paterson fragments (I broke down and bought myself new hard drive) and found some recorded conversations from Paterson that I’d been looking for since I moved again last summer. You can get a sense of an afternoon hanging out at the Ivanhoe, near the falls—the philosophizing and the fighting (I never recorded the fist fight that almost exploded while discussing Jung’s concept of the anima). There’s not as much of the music, which was also a big part of the scene and we’ve heard it in previous entries (at least at the very end of this discussion clip).

Click here for today's Paterson mix.

Next week I’ll be on the road, showing some Paterson video and performing live audio (among other things) at the Artefact Festival in Brussels. The topic is “capture,” which seems an apt way to talk about the limits of approaching Paterson/Paterson by way of the blog.
In the meantime, Impossible Object’s “sister” blog The Paterson Project has posted their first new song in a long time, so check it out. Paterson never ceases to surprise me: so much in its corners! The Haitian president passage? I forgot that completely.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Dianoia: Big Destroyer?

Badiou’s essay “Language, Thought, Poetry” is interesting to think about in relation to Paterson, since Badiou dwells on Plato’s decision to banish poets from the ideal city. Why is poetry such a challenge to the healthy politics of the city? And why does philosophy instead become the municipal art? Additionally, does poetry’s quiddity–unsettling to Plato—give us some idea why Williams’ project of poeticizing the city is so fraught? Or is the problem merely a limitation to poetry not inherent but imposed?
Badiou is a proponent of clear disciplinary borders: he’s critical of when philosophy tries to be (bad) poetry (but not when it approximates mathematics) or when poetry moves towards philosophy (and becomes didactic). So, while he’s a fan of poetry, he maintains it in its difficulty and distinction: “The poem is an intransigent exercise. It is devoid of mediation and hostile to the media. . . The poem is first of all this unique fragment of speech subtracted from universal reporting. The poem is a halting point. It makes language halt within itself.”
Is the multimedia poem oxymoronic? Is poetry via the media a deleterious invasion of public discourse? Clearly, we cannot attribute fear-mongering and political hysteria in the public sphere to Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. It may be that media-poetry, instead of stepping up to the electronic plate on its own terms, is a poetry that is conciliatory, and no longer has the power to rival the need for clear communication and connection (Plato’s notion of “discourse”). But while I am all for maintaining the importance of the things that do not enter easily into the Punch-and-Judy show of common sense and public discussion, I am blogging Paterson, and thus must have some notion of the ways in which a pure notion of poetry is untenable. Even Pound-- remarkably ambivalent, I think, about his relation to this public patter--did at least assert that the poem, while not mediated per se, could compete with the media on its own terms when he claimed that “literature is news that stays news.”
Sometimes, it just seems that the need to make such borders is generally more about power and coterie, rather than some ideal about the “mighty quarrel” that should remain to keep us sharp. I was reading Ron Silliman’s “The Chinese Notebook” recently, where he investigates the various limits of what could be called poetry, in a list of 223 entries, perhaps written in the pages of a cramped or unconventional notebook, forcing a reflection on the material event of a poem:
7. This is not philosophy, it’s poetry. And if I say so, then it becomes painting, music or sculpture, judged as such. If there are variables to consider, they are at least partly economic—the question of distribution, etc. Also differing critical traditions. Could this be good poetry, yet bad music? But yet I do not believe I would, except in jest, posit this as dance or urban planning.
As in Badiou and Plato, philosophy and the city keep their distance from each other, even though we are not asked to take this statement about urban planning quite seriously. Its very status as a “statement” is under question . . . if indeed it is “poetry.” And I do get the sense that Silliman still holds to a pure notion of poetry or of the poet, in the same way that Badiou does. Silliman, however, gets to have his cake and blog it too . . . since the blog he keeps is a discourse machine (for Plato and Badiou, what philosophy maintains and poetry forbids is discourse or dianoia), piping the mediated jabber around poetry to your home.

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