Pierre Joris: On Literary Dedications

  Pierre Joris (Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, September 2013)

  On Literary Dedications:

  The Better Craftsman and
  the Figure of Outward

First published in catalogue for exhibition of book dedications
at the Centre national de Litterature, Mersch, Luxembourg).

Paragraph One follows: 1:

In an idle moment a long time ago, I thought up a project for a book that would consist of all the first sentences of all the books I had ever read, strung together to make a strange text of beginnings, starts, dawns, openings, hopes, first creations. Thinking this through I all of a sudden realized that this conceit was too pat, that the first line of a book was not really its first line, or was that only for a young inexperienced reader. Yes, that’s where the text starts, but the book has already started way before.


Reflecting on this I saw that indeed in illo tempore, in that by now near mythic age of childhood into boyhood, during the first ten years of reading, that activity was a breathless rush of youthful desire & eagerness to discover unknown worlds, to penetrate into unfamiliar & new land- & mind-scapes. A rush that made fingers and eyes skip any so-called ‘front matter’ — introductions, prefaces, dedications, warnings, etc. — in order to locate as quickly as possible the first paragraph of the first chapter.


In fact often the very title & author could be skipped, because the proof of the pudding was the opening paragraph, that first sentence. What mattered was to embark instantly on unveiling, discovering the meat of the book, the foreign planet to be explored greedily into the night.


An eagerness, it now comes to me, probably not unlike the eagerness of young men discovering the new pleasures of the body and hurrying to get over the preliminaries, fumbling hastily to get the clothes off & go straight to the dark mysterious parts of the partner’s body. In time one learns the ‘prelims’ of sex, how to appreciate foreplay as more than just something to be gotten through as fast as possible, how to read & flirt with clothes that may indeed hide the core but already point to the hidden heat.


The same applies to reading: eventually we learn how to read, as they say, ‘from cover to cover.’ Thus we will move from the cover, where an image or a colorful design & its typography may hold our attention for a moment, on to the bastard title to be hovered over for a brief moment without interference from the publisher’s & the author’s name & the inevitable ego underlying the latter (or at times both), & on to the title page, by now already a simple recurrence of what had been found on the cover, though usually more sober in simple if larger, bold black print.


We may even find pleasure when, on the verso of the title page, we meet the colophon, learning to savor for a moment the abstruse formulations of the copyright, typographical & other information it holds. And now we come to that in-between moment, that piece of writing which, though by the author & not by the publisher as the rest of the front matter usually is, is however not yet part of the book, but is an exergue, a link, an outside statement that points inside, though simultaneously an inside that, more & differently from the book-text itself, points outside. Its status is ambiguous, if, for example you believe as Jacques Derrida does, that ‘il n’a pas de hors-texte’ — that everything is part of the text, even if appended, added, even if the reader or the author think of it as just an inessential supplement.


I am of course speaking of the dedication — today most often located on a page on its own, called the dedication page, usually the recto (right-hand) page after the main title page, though also often found after the table of contents just before the very opening of the text. It, the dedication, is thus meant as that which opens the text by offering it up to someone else.


This is not the place, nor do I have the space, to speak of the history of dedications. Of the latter I would remember anyway only the tedium of translating Horace’s dedication to Maecenas in Latin class. It opens with the lines ‘Maecenas, descendant of royal ancestors, O my protector, and my sweet glory…’ & to us in high school seemed to go on endlessly in what we called then — & I still call it that today — pure ass-licking mode. In fact, that seems to have been the mode of most dedications for centuries, i.e. their single aim was to curry favor, thank for money received &-or beg for more money.


Maybe understandable in a time when writers had to get their moneys from princes & other rich backers, benefactors, sponsors. This would change once publishers started to pay authors, at least to the extent that it opened up the genre of the dedication allowing authors to address their work to whoever they felt fitting, intellectually, sexually or in some other way.


But before going there, a quick word on one of the ancient dedications: I do much admire the way Lucretius gently imbeds the dedication of his De rerum naturae to his friend Gaius Memmius inside the work & repeatedly addresses Memmius throughout the poem, saying that it is the pleasure of this friendship that helps him across the dark difficulties of bringing Greek discoveries over into a much poorer Latin, forced to create neologisms, given the newness of much of what he tries to bring across. Yet, Lucretius goes on, the joy of their friendship allows him ‘to calmly search at night for the right word or line that helps shed light on the darkness of the unseen.’ We don’t know the exact relationship between Lucretius & Memmius, or even if the latter ever got to read De rerum naturae, still, the dedication rhymes more closely with our contemporary mode than with the classic Horatian type.


For me there are two dedications that immediately come to mind in that they are not only brilliant in themselves, but also opened up the work of their authors, functioning in effect not only as a bridge from author to specific dedicatee, but also allowing the reader to approach the (at first glance forbidding) opus from a less intimidating point of view, while leading beyond the private reference to a wider field of literary discovery.


The first of these is the dedication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It is preceded by a Latin epigraph with Greek insertions — a learned, poetic & yet somewhat high-brow — epigraph from Petronius’ Satyricon, which reads: ‘I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die.’ Then comes the dedication that reads ‘For Ezra Pound: il miglior fabbro,’ which is a double quotation, first citing verse 117 of Canto XXVI of Dante’s Purgatorio, where Dante says of the troubadour Arnaut Daniel that he ‘fu miglior fabbro del parlar materno – was the better maker in the mother tongue,’ & also linking to the title of chapter 2 of Pound’s The Spirit of Romance (1910) where EP translated the phrase as ‘the better craftsman.’ As I found out later, this dedication did not appear in the original 1922 Boni & Liveright edition of the poem, but was first handwritten in the copy of the book Eliot presented to Pound, to be subsequently added to the 1925 republication & reprinted in all future editions.


I came across all this in Shakespeare & Co., the Paris bookshop, in 1965, where I bought the then current 1963 edition of Eliot’s Collected Poems, sat myself down in one of the scrappy armchairs around the little non-functioning fountain & immediately started into ‘The Waste Land.’ I already knew & loved ‘Prufrock’ but also knew that this was supposed to be the Big One.


Its ‘hors-texte’ stopped me short, & after savoring the poem I came back to it: reflecting on it led me to Ezra Pound & Pound sent me to Dante & both of these on to the troubadours & Arnaut Daniel. Thus, what had been the personal, hand-written inscription of the poet thanking another poet, who, I learned later, had indeed been the editor of Eliot’s materials when it still had it’s Monty Pythonesque title ‘He do the Police in Different Voices,’ & had turned it into the modern classic it became, that thank you note, now set in print, & pondered over by this young reader opened up enormous realms of poetry I am still exploring today.


The second dedication that has stayed with me over the years I came to three or four years later, in America this time, when I was introduced to the work of the one American poet with a project large enough to be seen as a worthy successor of Pound’s epic ambitions, namely Charles Olson (1910-1970). It stands at the head of the first volume of his masterwork, The Maximus Poems, & reads: ‘for ROBERT CREELEY — the Figure of Outward.’


It is set slightly off-center right about 1/3 down the dedication page, while at the bottom of this page, centered under the dedication, you find a mysterious line in a smaller font: ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many.’


The dedication is no surprise as such: the poet Robert Creeley (1926- 2005) was a life-long friend & associate of Olson’s, as the ten-volume correspondence between the two men shows. In the Maximus, Olson in fact names Creeley as the man who gave him ‘the world.’ More intriguing is the description of Creeley as ‘the figure of outward.’ I understood instinctively that Olson saw in Creeley the person — or figure — that linked him to the wider outside world & demanded intercourse with that world through him. It is only years later, with the publication of George Butterick’s Guide to the Maximus Poems, that the actual source revealed itself to be a dream Olson had at Black Mountain (the small experimental college in North Carolina he was rector of in the early 50s). Olson refers to it in a notepad from May 1969: ‘the Figure of Outward means way out way out / there: the / ‘World’, I’m sure, otherwise / why was the pt. then to write to Creeley / daily? to make that whole thing / double, to / objectify the existence of an / ‘Outward’?…’


In a letter to Creeley Olson mentions how the epithet was written upon awakening ‘on the wall of my bedroom at the end of South Lodge, black mt.’ So, the figure of outward, a guide given in or by a dream, to help & further intercourse with the world as man, as poet. Cousin to the ‘fabbro?’


This still leaves us with the even more mysterious small-type sentence at the bottom of the page: ‘All my life I’ve heard / one makes many.’ Knowing Olson’s profound interest in the pre-Socratic philosophers (the opening line of ‘The Kingfishers,’ his best-known single poem is a translation/interpretation of a well-known thought by Heraclitus as ‘what does not change / is the will to change.’), I sensed an ancient politico-philosophical or even scientific thought at work here, namely the perennial problem of the one & the many.


For years I looked through my Diels & Kirk anthologies of pre-Socratic fragments, hoping to find the line in one of these — could it be by Anaximander, Heraclitus, or was it possibly by Parmenides of Empedocles? Or maybe Epicurus? To no avail — I could not find the source. Once more I had to await the publication in 1978 of Butterick’s Guide to solve the enigma. Here is how that diligent scholar glosses the sentence on page 4 of his oh so essential guide: ‘Actually exclaimed by a cook at Black Mountain, Cornelia Williams, while working in the kitchen of the college, and overheard by the poet. … In his copy of Whitehead’s Process and Reality, p. 28, next to the statement, ‘the term one presupposed the term many,’ Olson has added in the margin: ‘exactly Cornelia Williams, Black Mt kitchen, 1953.’’


And it comes to me now, as I think over these few pages: isn’t this ‘figure of outward’ of Olson’s dedication of the Maximus Poems, isn’t this the exact definition of what a dedication is?


Isn’t it what I had blindly groped towards at the beginning of the essay when I tried to circumscribe the dedication as ‘an outside statement that points inside, though simultaneously an inside that, more & differently from the book-text itself, points outside?’


Be it via philosopher or cook, poet or friend (I had wanted to investigate if there were books ‘dedicated’ to the enemy — but that will have to wait for another occasion), the dedication is the book’s link to the world outside itself, it is the tiniest incline (Lucretius’ clinamen) on which the text, hatched & birthed, configured & confit, in the private kitchen of the writer, slips towards & hopefully into the outside world.


A tiny lock, a tiny key to open up one world to the other.



Pierre Joris most recently published The Agony of I.B. (a play commissioned & produced in June 2016 by the Théatre National du Luxembourg; Editions PHI); An American Suite (early poems; inpatient press 2016); Barzakh: Poems 2000-2012 (Black Widow Press 2014); & Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan (FSG 2014). When not on the road, he lives in Sorrentinostan, a.k.a. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, with his wife, multimedia performance artist and writer Nicole Peyrafitte. Photo of Pierre Joris copyright © by Faiza Sultan.


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