Vincent Katz: David Meltzer, 1937-2016

  Vincent Katz

  David Meltzer

  among Poet-Prophets

Paragraph One follows — 1:

David Meltzer, poet, musician, critic, fiction writer, interviewer, editor, historian, archivist, activist, renegade — and beautiful soul — left this planet on December 31, 2016. He would have been disturbed but not surprised by the violent attacks on reality and human rights currently taking place in the upper echelons of power — and he would have had a response. For, as much as David lived in the imagination, he was also a committed warrior against injustice in any place it might appear.

Photo: David and Tina Meltzer, photo by Harry Redl.


He valued and nurtured, and considered sacrosanct, the right of the individual mind to fly free from convention, and having arrived at such an exalted freedom, there to encounter like minds and bodies, to live in a world made by mind and desire. But he called out perpetrators of horrors and worked and called others to organize against them.


His poems were included in Donald Allen’s seminal anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (Grove Press, 1960). His books of poetry include The Clown (Semina, 1960), The Process (Oyez, 1965), The Dark Continent (Oyez, 1967), Yesod (Trigram, 1969), Arrows: Selected Poetry 1957-1992 (Black Sparrow, 1994), No Eyes: Lester Young (Black Sparrow, 2000), Beat Thing (La Alameda, 2004), David’s Copy: The Selected Poems of David Meltzer (Penguin, 2005), and When I Was A Poet (City Lights, 2011). In addition, he published the following books of fiction: The Agency Trilogy (Brandon House, 1968), Orf (Brandon House, 1969), and Under (Rhinoceros, 1997).

David Meltzer by Les Gottesman.


His book on poetry and teaching, Two-Way Mirror: A Poetry Notebook, was published Oyez in 1977 and reprinted by City Lights in 2015. He edited several anthologies‘of Kabbalah, and ancient prayers and charms regarding birth and death — and Reading Jazz (Mercury House, 1996) and Writing Jazz (Mercury House, 1999).


When David was born, his father was a cellist in the Rochester, N.Y., Philharmonic. The family moved to Brooklyn when David was three. At camp in Maine one summer, he heard an incredible sound coming over the loudspeakers — one of the cooks had decided to play a record by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie! Thereafter, young David would skip swimming time to listen to records with the staff in the kitchen.


Later, he and his Dad lived on the West Side of Manhattan, and they would go together to hear Bebop artists performing in clubs: Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, among others. When David was 16, he and his Dad moved to Los Angeles. His father was in search of employment, and David landed in the right place at the right time for his initiation into the world of West Coast hipness.


‘L.A. in the 1950s was really nothing, compared to the New York that I had left,’ Meltzer explained in an interview he gave to me and my son, Oliver, in July of 2015. But after a short while, ‘on a year and a half sabbatical from high school,’ the action found him.


He would go with his girlfriend to see movies at ‘The Coronet Louvre Theatre’ — Buster Keaton, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Eisenstein, serious programming. ‘I would see this unusual-looking couple,’ Meltzer remembered, ‘and they were surrounded by an entourage.’ It turned out to be Wallace Berman, who epitomized the era’s avant-garde anomie, with his equally elegant and mysterious wife, Shirley.


One night, Meltzer saw them go across the street to a bookstore that sold interesting small press books and first editions. Meltzer quickly learned that Berman knew everything about everything — where to hear the coolest jazz, where to score the best reefer. The two finally met at a shed in Santa Monica that Meltzer’s girlfriend used as a studio. After she left, Ed Kienholz, later famous for his large-scale assemblages, took over the space.


David hung out in the shed, where he met, in addition to the Bermans, George Herms, Robert Alexander, Dean Stockwell, Dennis Hopper, and others who would play significant roles in the California poetry and art worlds. The painter John Altoon invited Meltzer to his studio. He’d been to Mallorca and showed Meltzer carbon copies of Robert Creeley’s poems and issues of the Black Mountain Review.

Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Jonathan Weiners, David Meltzer


Moving from L.A. to S.F. in 1957, Meltzer hunkered down in the outrider art movements that were percolating. In North Beach, he frequented ‘The Place’, run by two former Black Mountain College students, Leo Krikorian and Knute Stiles. Meltzer met Joanne Kyger there; he knew her longer than any other San Francisco poet.


He met Michael McClure at a record store on Grant Avenue. ‘Mike was an instructor at a gym,’ Meltzer recalled, ‘so he was really buff and handsome as a fox!’ There was the group around Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and across the street was ‘The Coexistence Bagel Shop’, where the counter man was Robert Stock, who identified with more formalist poetry.


It was the Duncan-Spicer meetings, though, that were catalytic for Meltzer, as they were for Kyger and many other aspiring poets. In Meltzer’s words, ‘It was remarkable having these people at the Sunday salons at Joe Dunn’s house in the Polk Street area. Robert and Jack would be there, and we’d bring our stuff with trembling hands and listen to their responses, which were similar but radically different, as their styles were. Jack was very lean, and Robert was expansive.’


Meltzer was already reading poetry with jazz at ‘The Jazz Cellar’ by that point. Realizing that reading with jazz was different from reading without musical accompaniment, Meltzer evoked jazz methodology. “I would write ‘head arrangements’ of poems,” he said. ‘I’d have a skeleton of a poem and then improvise with little hints throughout. I knew where the poem was going. We’d divide solos up. And we’d do fours.’


I asked him about the impact of jazz on his poetry writing. He replied, ‘Well, so much of writing anything on a good day is improvisation within a form. The music has always been there, ever since I started. Jazz was always a revelation of what was possible within the poem and had a great impact on a lot of poets of those generations. And also, it was a forbidden subculture, going into the neon jungle. But the music was very powerful.’


We talked about visual artists, and he recalled vivid times with Herms, Joan Brown, Bruce Conner, Manuel Neri, and others.


When I probed deeper, into the meaning of San Francisco itself in the poetry of the time, the role of poetry in all that was fermenting and actualizing in the culture, Meltzer bristled just a little. ‘All art movements are resistance movements!’ he exclaimed. ‘Their struggle is about saying ‘No!’ as much as saying ‘Yes!’ I remember Philip Lamantia, Lew Welch, and I were walking Philip to his apartment, and Lew had this idea, ‘Let’s put out a magazine and call it Bread, and poets will be honest and talk about what they do to get their bread! What is it to be a poet? It’s a shape-shifting question. It’s a practice, the results are what it yields over time. It’s not fixed, it’s fluid. There are ups, there are downs. There is laughter! There’s weeping!’


Or, as Meltzer has written, ‘The poem is a two-way mirror concealing a page.’

David Meltzer: Poet Song Album cover.


Meltzer’s book-length poem Beat Thing is an amazing amalgam of set and setting, alchemizing pop culture, counterculture, television, jazz, rock’n’roll, within the recent, unavoidable, but generally, at the time, unspoken history of the Nazis’ brutal destruction of Europe’s Jewish population, the United States’ implementation of the atomic bomb, its fearsome beauty invoked, just as colleague Bruce Conner evoked it in film, and underlying all, the beat, the African-American odyssey within white America, the suffering, but also the visionary knowledge that accrues to the outsider. Here’s a selection from the middle of the poem:


‘Cool Blues’ Boston’s Hi-Hat 1953
Bird’s dry incisive tone
the Georgian dies & Kenyatta convicted
Heidegger’s new book Julius & Ethel fry
‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window’
‘aliens to community’
they makes us just & righteous
‘resentful hair’
marbleized suet lard weave
good life goad Blimp toad
Parker clams so quick shame don’t last
he’s onto the next extensive scroll
locals try to keep up w/
‘every animal mates only w/
a member of the same species:
the titmouse seeks the titmouse
finch the finch
stork the stork
field mouse the field mouse
dormouse the dormouse
wolf the she-wolf’
‘one of the great modernists of all times’
‘a great gentleman of jazz’
‘spongers parasites poisonous mushrooms
rats leeches bacilli TB syphilis’


Meltzer was a regular contributor to Berman’s ultra-hip and elegant mail-only journal, Semina. You couldn’t subscribe — you only got it if Berman decided you were real enough. Then he’d send it to you.


It came as a box with diverse pieces of paper, unbound — poems by Antonin Artaud, William Burroughs, Ray Bremser, Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Kaufman, Lamantia, McClure, John Wieners, et al, printed on a hand press. Visual artists Altoon and Jess were also part of the mix, the visual arts playing a significant role in this poets’ world, as evidenced in the extensively illustrated exhibition catalogue Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle (Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2005), edited by Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna.


Meltzer’s poetry felt hermetic to me when I first encountered it, in a reprint of Semina. But as I became more familiar with it, a blend defined itself as the typical motivation of Meltzer’s work, melding the erotic, the mystical, the unlocking of wisdom through the letter (which he shared with Berman), draped in the hipster’s vision of African-American rhythm, the only salvation from straight, white America.


Arose, he rose, his sore stem
bud pricked bush flower array
pointing to love’s floral glossary

stalks habit her blossom he roots for
again, arise love flower
making vocabulary

what’s left hive as mirrors to re-arrange light
unthinking blinking cock engorged divining
rod roots up its twitchy energy antenna
imagines love or God whatever we root for
                     — from ‘Arrows,’ published in Arrows: Selected Poetry 1957-1992


Meltzer’s musicality expressed itself in his poetry, in his writing about music, but also in his music, as he decided to form a band to perform his poems. His band, ‘Serpent Power’, put out an eponymous album on Vanguard Records in 1967. David’s wife, Tina, sings hauntingly on the album, especially on the track, ‘Flying Away.’


The other musicians on the album are Denny Ellis, rhythm guitar, David Stenson, bass, John Payne, organ — and fellow poet Clark Coolidge on drums! Meltzer plays guitar and sings. David and Tina’s softer, more poetry-based Poet Song came out from Vanguard in 1969. They played with some of future superstars of the era – Janis Joplin, Country Joe & The Fish, Jefferson Airplane. Eventually, though, as Meltzer has written, ‘Our stardom as folk rockers was minor and momentary. We were raising three young daughters and odd jobbing to keep it together.’


Meltzer edited The San Francisco Poets for Ballantine Books in 1971, featuring his interviews with Brother Antoninus, Richard Brautigan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, and Welch. In 2001, City Lights put out an expanded edition, San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets, including additional interviews with Diane di Prima, Jack Hirschman, Kyger, Lamantia, Jack Micheline, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen.

David Meltzer: The Serpent Power album cover, with Meltzer at center and drummer Clark Coolidge at top.


Meltzer’s was a significant voice in the countercultural movement of those years. In a chapbook entitled Isla Vista Notes: Fragmentary Apocalyptic Didactic Contradictions, published in 1970, Meltzer writes, ‘These are notes, thought-fragments, digests, deep & quick responses… Not many answers. These are mainly questions I asked myself.’ The meditations found therein primarily concern the meaning of revolution. ‘Garbage, like shit,’ he writes, ‘is a waste product of what we consume. When there’s more garbage & shit & less & less trees, rivers, food & peace, it is not hard to say that society is in profound trouble.’ The key idea is that revolution, like garbage, is not something to be passed on to someone else, but a problem to be dealt with by each individual, in conjunction with others.


Meltzer’s books on jazz are as authoritative and respectful as his interviews with poets. ‘Reading Jazz was more from the white perspective,’ Meltzer explained in our interview, ‘the colonization, and the owning, and the creation of jazz as a subject. Writing Jazz was more from the black diaspora, including the States. The books were in essence about racism and how jazz was appropriated culturally in the United States.’


Meltzer’s book-length work No Eyes: Lester Young channels the master tenor sax stylist’s final year, when, marooned by sickness, he would look down from a room in the Arvin Hotel at Birdland, where he could observe the comings and goings of other jazz musicians. Meltzer writes in that poem:


clear moon slice
what a night for death
streetlight eye pain
berserk neons down Broadway
they stand in doorways coffins
deal & hustle it’s all good
& done & I’m still chorusing
naming not blaming
no retreat merely returning


Meltzer was a revered teacher at New College in San Francisco for some thirty years and was loved by many in the poetry community, in the Bay Area, and beyond. His wit and classic with-it jazzman’s humor, his ability to keep it real, to be a real leader in the community, ultimately a mensch in a world without many, will be greatly missed.


Bird Lives! the hipsters used to say. In his poetry and all he left behind, Meltzer too lives on.

Anthony Howell: a few words on Alain-Fournier

  Anthony Howell


  The Poems of Alain-Fournier
  A Few Remarks by Anthony Howell

Alain-Fournier died while fighting near Verdun, on the French-Belgian border, on 22 September, 1914, one month after the outbreak of the First World War. His few poems seem drowned in outdoor light. We sense the breeze on our skin, the heat warming the stones and the grass, as much as it warms our bodies.

Henri Alain-Fournier in 1913, Musee Ecole du Grandes Meaulnes, Epineuil les Fleuriel. Copyright.

It strikes me that he is a Fauve. The Fauve explosion culminated in the glorious paintings the group produced in 1905-7, just seven years before Fournier’s death. I look at the paintings André Derain painted near Cassis, and I sense from the smearing of orange on roofs and sunlit slopes that the artist was painting the heat as well as the light. And Fournier is also evoking heat as much as light. He is more interested in the intensity of his perception than in some impression of reality.

He is very aware of colour in his poems, but his eyes are not divorced from the other senses. He celebrates texture — little dresses and dishevelled silks, a straw hat, a satin parasol — and sounds — the sobbing of a piano, the pealing of bells for weddings, the snoring noises of combine harvesters. Lavender is gathered to the sound of the bells, and thus we become immersed in his experience through all our senses.

And very often this is an experience of the outdoors. Interiors are dusty, out of focus in their corners, the shadowy realm of the aged who maintain the hearth, often asleep behind lowered curtains.

What is extraordinary is how this small oeuvre — fourteen poems in all — so utterly engages us in a plastic world of light, sound and atmosphere, and since it’s nearly always a sunlit world, it seems that the greatest threat can only be a shower.

Alain-Fournier is well aware of his own typicality:

We were twenty then, in our thousands.
Our love-sobs strayed across the town.

His poems are unashamedly adolescent. They are often constructed like brief stories, and they unfold their own narratives, culminating in endings which are also always presenting us with the presiding image of the poem.

Nearly all these verses come across as pre-war, and they seem intent on invoking an idyll of remembered time, an idyll similar to the recalled but never to be revisited chateau of Le Grand Meaulnes — his novel that reads like a compulsive dream — a celebration of loss, where loss is some sweet nostalgia for an interval of erotic communion and juvenile adoration. The novel seems essential as the backdrop to many of these poems. Readers are advised to refresh their minds by returning to its pages in order to read ours with enhanced enjoyment. However, an exception to this lyrical view of his poems is Road Song:

One invader, then all of them, sing:

We caught the fever
From your marshes,
Caught the fever and we went away.
We had been warned
That we would discover
Nothing but the sun
In the depths of your forests.

We have been through stories
Of broken stretchers,
Lost horseshoes, wounded horses…

Now in this poem the sun becomes incendiary, explosive, lethal, and it is through reading it that one begins to notice that for Fournier the sun is not always benign. Actually the hearth indoors has a more human warmth. The sun is always there in the poem, or noted for its absence, but there is the sense that what nourishes can also prove malignant, eager to destroy — and outside human control.

This malign sun is the dominant force of The Sun and the Road. The sun beats down on the road with a white heat, and:

Above all else it’s him I see, as the sun heats up for joy;
This boy who has lost to that dusty wind that blows,

His nice new hat, of crisp silk-banded straw,
And I see him on the road, chasing after it,
And lost to the march past of belles with their beaus
Runs after it — despite their jeers — runs after it, blinded
By the sun, and by the dust and by his tears.

There is often a woman who is the focus of attention, sometimes an old woman, a woman who epitomises the ways of the village, the spirit of the country existence that is being celebrated (and with hindsight we cannot help but sense the poignancy of this rendition of a world that will be gone before the war that kills the author has come to an end).

More often she who he addresses is at least as young as the poet, possibly younger. She is regularly spoken to in these adolescent poems, this girl by whom he is smitten. Again, there is a sense of his awareness of the typicality of all this: adolescent poems addressed to her, the one you have a crush on.

But it is with considerable skill that Alain-Fournier gets us caught up in the imagined dialogue that could almost be a pastoral eclogue, for there is a sense of us inhabiting a terrain, of walking through it, going in and out of hedges, through gates or along little lanes. His poems are idyllic journeys through a landscape soon to be blown to smithereens.

And here’s a complete poem:

Tale of the Sun and the Road
                    (To a little girl)

There’s a little more shade in the squares
Beneath their chestnut trees,
There’s a little more sun beating down now on the road.

In ranks of two, a wedding passes by
On this stifling afternoon  — a long bridal procession
In all its country finery, remarked upon by everyone.

Look how lost in the midst of it all are the children,
Their fears and upsets ignored.

I think about the One, and one little boy who resembles me.
A light spring morning, under the aspens,

Mild sky scented with dog roses.
He is alone, although he’s been invited,
And at this summer wedding he says to himself,

‘What if they place me in line next to her,
The one who makes me whimper in my bed?’

(Mothers, do you wonder of an evening,
About the tears, the sadness, the passions of your children?)

‘I’ll wear my big white hat made of straw,
My arm may be touched by the lace of her sleeve,
As I dream her dream in my Sunday best.

What a love-filled summer’s day we’ll see!
She’ll be sweetly leaning, on my arm.

I’ll take little steps — I’ll hold her parasol
And softly say to her, ‘Mademoiselle…’

But firstly, well, in the evening, perhaps,
If we’ve walked a long way, if the evening is fresh,
I will dare take her hand, I will hold it so tight.
I will speak the truth until I’m out of breath,

And closely now, without the need to fret,
I will say words so tender
That her eyes will go all wet,
And with none to eavesdrop, she will answer…’

So I dream, as my current glances fall
On a mundane groom together with his bride,
Such as one views on any baking noon,
Poised above the steps of a town hall

Then spilling out to music onto the blinding street,
Trailing several couples en cortège,
All in their first-time outfits;

Dream, in the dust of this processional affair,
Where two by two go by, the girls with their noses in the air,
Girls in their white, with lace-embroidered sleeves,
And the boys from the big cities, maladroit,
Gripping gauche bouquets of artificial flowers;

I dream about those small forgotten boys;
Panicked, placed last minute with no-one in particular;

Dream about the village boys, those impassioned lads
Jostled at a rhythmic pace in these absurd parades;

 — Of others caught up in the rhythmical process, confident
And pulled along, heading for a liveliness
Which loves to make a noise, peal without a purpose.

 — Of the very smallest — going up and down the rows,
Who can’t find their mummies, and one above all

Who looks just like me, like me. More and more,
Above all else, it’s him I see, as the sun heats up for joy;
This boy who has lost to that dusty wind that blows,

His nice new hat, of crisp silk-banded straw,
And I see him on the road, chasing after it,
And lost to the march past of belles with their beaus
Runs after it — despite their jeers — runs after it, blinded
By the sun, and by the dust and by his tears.


Jesse Glass: Three pieces

  Jesse Glass

  Three pieces

  Based upon A True & Faithful Relation
  of What Passed for Many Years
  Between Dr. John Dee and Some
  Spirits, by Meric Casaubon (1659)

 Excerpt I
(Interview with Murthless).


As you already know ‘Voice’ and voices are important for me in my work,
sometimes literally ta[L]king me over,
as was the case with my encounter with Howard Y’ALLWAY
Nemerhoss at Spreadlouse
from which I woke up in Baulkt-at-more, Morpheenlaund,
after a hectic return speaking like a hymn with the same
Parkinson’s gravitas in my voice. I couldn’t stop myself —
the affliction faded after a week,
yet I can still hear that voice calling after me in
the simple-minded garden, the giant CROW ‘METACAW’
guarding ingress & egress with ear-piercing whistles & foreskinned beak.


Then show the people how you pray.


Hold me.


A good example of this is D’Emily Qickinson, who shared many of her ‘p’culiarities of sexpression’ — those same sinspired sexcentricities that we celebrate as part of her Goetic Penius — with her soblings D’Austin and Varney D’veil. In my own household, we vomited tragically upon each other. A surd ditty was the common coin in our encoyded X-changes. These were not so much Mearned from Oar Fother — whose vocal-bully-lary at that time was raunch enough with homely dork prippings — but from the forking man’s wit and rant of mein vatter who daily spouted memhemorrible tropes whose main feature was the continuing march of scatology in the homes of the bra in the land of the bray. I built upon my own command of the oddsurd by recognizing a deeper level of wertherphysical ironinkossisness, often ticketed in hume & err — Or…found examples of this in Bloke of course, but I was really struck by it first in Gerty’s Foulest — especially in the Wellpurge-us Right of Nook II — in which the nighest and no-blessed stains of aught were instantly linked to the lowest, the most oddsurd, the most oddscene.


What can we do? Now we can never wed!


…their tragic, but necessary exile, the chthonic powers of the New York City earth, the dance that knits Above with Below, includes the shadow of all of those previously written and spoken incarnations within itself, and it is that history, that lived life, that building up and layering in of numinous presence, that I attempt to capture and preserve in the hand writing, the colors and designs of these glyptic pages. Of course the images could be considered surreal, but they hearken back to Bloke’s ‘Grates of Para-wheeze,’ his ‘Cook of Urozen’ and stretch toots and ranches even further to connect to the…(er…head, I think the speech habits of one’s childhood environment provide the tools with which one screams.)


My lost legs are eternally dancing in a grey world. They spin and leap, and are graceful as mangled goslings. They wait for me to join their dance.
Oh my beloved! Trees are disjunctive, apolitical, arithmetical progressions of grief. Their spiraling branches hold us beneath a muddy lake. We need to breathe, to wed.


(Excuse me, Murthless, for being so relentlessly autohagiographical in this striation, but I think that anyone who comes to my bork should understand that one can arrive at the yinguistically linnovative from a dotally fifferent avenue than Barqetin, Kristerva, Derridon’t, Blanchup, and Tel sQuaat allows. I’m speaking of heremetic, marginical and alcomical louterature, which, once again, my home fatuation encouraged me to embranch — but only in the sty. The over-wooling concern with the physicality of warts exhibited in the hi!ccult — the metaphysical Waite of them — words that could literally call forth solestial and informal powers that charm2curse, and the quasi-partlyphysical techniques of attaining noofernatural sowers found in books like Eliphas Levi’s Trance & Dental Magic and Franz Farton’s Initiation into Emetics; also the many GrimNoires filled with improbable names like Victor and impossible desires that could be realized only — say, if one scratched lines of Demotic onto a palm-sized sheet of lead and drove seven nails into it before depositing it under a new moon in a suicide’s grave…)’


I’m here.


Then show the people how you pray.


‘God damn you to hell. Anyone who fucks with me…’


Schoenberg’s reflective, self-effacing voice has always struck me as exacto the way that I would like to speak in an inkerfewink, if and when I had the chance. Thanks for the chance, Mothra.




My son and I were in New York City visiting Jungle-jumping Georgio Campanella
AS YOU KNOW? structural damage to homes, businesses, badasses
infrastructure, know when you know? when the earthquake, like, happened.
[TOUCHES TOES] when the earthquake, like, happened. [TOUCHES TOES, RINGS BELL] structural damage to homes, businesses,
infrastructure, souls when the earthquake, like, happened. [TOUCHES TOES, RINGS
BELL, HOLDS HAND OVER ONE EYE] One winter morning in the early 80’s
I awoke to three images mapping a rough, equilateral triangle
limned in frost on the dining room window of an apartment
I was sharing with a prodigious friend. At the top of the triangle,
as if drawn with great skill, was a star with a Pharoah’s flail
laid transversely across it. Know? In the lower left angle
was a phallus-like ‘sign’ with four saw-horse supports,
and in the other, opposite angle, was a Zuni-looking cloud.


Stop talking crazy like that. Gnats were crawling all over her areas and drinking from her nose and eyes.


The old man. What does he do? Sits in his shard-stained uberwar
before the tunnelvision. ‘You work like a harsh you gotta eat like a harsh.’
Eggs and bacon every morning for as long as I dismember. He carries his
swollen gut like ALL MEN in Cruddel County
in their bowboy coots and hair parted mown the diddle, equating the length
and depth and width of their boody cavities with the length of their logic.
‘And hain’t that somefink?’ he says, watching the tots struggle on HEE HAW.
He barts like a fugle. Giggles again. None of my fecks smell bad,’ he says.
what’s that thinking? Qeenie? Did you think that? Who thought that?’
And he lets one fly again. ‘Take a beep dreath… ’
His toe nails long and hooked and green from the fungus his
weakening immune system allows to colonize his body, toes curled
as he hooks his heels before him on the LA-Z-BOY rocker seat, so the fat pucker
of his arse is on the same level as the family’s collective nose. ‘Queenie,’ he says.
‘Gimme somefink cowed ta drink. And get that dancing p,r,a,n,c,e,r
off the furry-vision before I thrust it!’


Don’t tell anybody.


We have heard testimony that contradicts all that you say. Some of our witnesses are convinced that exhibit A was a prophet of the New Age or at least a valuable asset to our little community. And I myself would like to know the meaning behind this sequence of numbers: 24, 92, 102, 10, . 01!


But Love, your honor, Marriage and Sex!


Sex is not on trial here, person (and I use that word lightly). You took a life. Lives are on trial here.


Murder! Murder! Rats gnaw the face of a white bull!

 Excerpt II

Spicer set a Boys head upon 1 skinny French Boke, and he promised unto Duncan that the head should reveal which of us was wise & which was in love. We that understood not that Pastime were troubled at it, as if that Oracle should be pronounced by help of the Devil, but they that observed the Jest, laughed at it. The business was thus: The Boke stood upon four Pillars, like to feet, and one foot was hollow set under the Boke that was perforated quite through that hole, and all the table was covered with fine Tapestry, that the hole of the Boke should not be seen: upon that place stood the head: the Pavement also in that part had a hole made through, where the hollow Pillar held up the Boke, that from the lower Room to the upper, and from the upper Room to the lower a voice might proceed. Whereupon Helen that was in the lower Room putting a Pipe into the hollow pillar of the Boke, and setting the other part of the Pipe to her ear, heard with ease what the other in the upper Room asked, and she answered according to his questions. This succeeded the better, because they knew the secrets of all the Lovers, and so knew how to delude them: for so they handsomely acted their parts, having conferred together before. And to make this Oracle the more to be believed, Spicer set lighted Wax Candles about the head, and he repeated many strange words, as:

Strike a golden


w/a meteoric


(link against link the clean net unfolds
& throws its cursive shadow on the walls)


jaws locked together

on a vowel


w/steel bands/intone

the OMMMMM f insurrection

                                (O bird that
                                flies thru
                                Solid rock)

this hammer

rises & falls w/the sureness

                    of suspicion

                                (O rod that
                                strikes thru
                                solid bird)

pounding golden thickness

                    from the wire

looping whispers in the air


one wide, reticulated

                    wound shifts

above the bed
drifts like the pearly edges of a sea slug
filtering murk
& falls secretly
to snare — L,O,V,E,I,N,T,H,E,A,R,M,S,O,F,W,A,R
In perilous Dee-Light this nashville suicide sutra
That satin Satan’s somehow jailed in Venus’ very Liver(y)!

 Excerpt III
            John Stuart Mill

w/the voice of a girl

            unpacks his rusty tin box

                        of argumentation

                        But I prefer scratching a text

                                    On a soap-bubble’s side

                                                & fanning it free of context

                                    In digital space

                        X-PLODES as in:

Vepar, alias Separ, is a great marquesse
& a strong, he is like a mermaid, he is
The guide of the waters, & of ships laden
With armour; he bringeth to pass that
The sea shallbe rough & stormy, & shall
Appeare full of shippes; he killeth men
In 3 daies, with putrifieng their wounds
& producing maggots into them.
Shax, alias Scox is a darke & a great marquesse,
Like unto a storke, with a hoarse and subtill voice:
He dooth marvellouslie take awaie the sight,
Hearing & understanding of anie man: he taketh
Monie out of everie kings house, & carrieth it
Backe after 1200 yeares, if he be commanded,
He is a horsestealer, yet he is not obedient
To the conjuror, but is a lier, except he be
Brought into a triangle, & there he speaketh
Divinely, & telleth of things which are
Hidden, & not kept of wicked spirits, he promiseth
Good familiars, & he hath 30 legions.
Gaap, alias Tap, is a great president & a princess,
She appeareth as a guide of the 4 principall
Kings, when she taketh human shape. She maketh
A man woonderfull in philosophie & liberal
Sciences: & delivereth familiars out of the
Possession of other conjurors.

as in: The elevators (hear?) at the Hotel Pennsylvania, N.Y.C.

Open[ (emptiness) on (emptiness) ] all night.

150 digital screens inside

Tell news of Pyongyang’s nuclear devices to Glenn Miller’s ghost
Playing between the cockroach-shitten floors at 3 A.M.

Poet Jesse Glass

Jesse Glass has lived in Japan for twenty-five years. His work will be featured in Golden Handcuffs Review, and his collected Painted Books and Sequences is available from The Knives Forks and Spoons Press.


Alan Botsford: on Joseph Brodsky

  Alan Botsford

  ‘A Blinding Proximity’:
  A Personal Portrait of Joseph Brodsky


Time travels at different speeds for different people. I can tell you who time strolls for, who it trots for, who it gallops for, and who it stops cold for.

           — William Shakespeare, As You Like It

In the past those whom you love don’t ever die.

           — Joseph Brodsky

1. Prelude

Paragraph One follows — 1:

In 1996 my former poetry teacher at Columbia University, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, passed away in New York City at the age of 55. I was already living in Japan then. My father had passed away a year earlier. My mother would pass away a year later. It was a grim time.


I make no claim to a special relation with ‘Joseph’ — as he was known to many people. I was one of perhaps hundreds of his students, and he touched my life as he had countless others. In my then young days I had never met anyone like him. I was merely a student of his in the early nineteen-eighties, before his Nobel, before his later heart surgeries, before his early death. I make no claims in what follows, except to reclaim lost moments, or moments that have come filtered through dreams. His was a singular presence in my life for a short time, as teacher, poet, role model, mentor, like the proverbial two ships—I but a rowboat, he a battleship–passing in the proverbial night. But whenever fate drew our vessels near to each other and I wasn’t swamped by the sheer magnitude of his energy, there were encounters left in his wake, unforgettable moments for this writer, the lasting impact of which here I would sketch, as a small offering by way of reminiscences, quotations, and poems in honor of the poet.


Double Doors

Our paths crossed one winter afternoon
At a sunny piazza in Rome, a public square
I was circling to meet my fate, the table
You were sitting at with another poet I
Sat down briefly to, to hear you telling
Off-color jokes that caught this
Americano off guard, a side of you I’d not
Seen before… I left the piazza bouncing in
Confusion, only to meet you again a week
Later on the New York-bound plane,
Another nudge of fate, as we conversed
Between the aisles about, of course, poetry.
The blond waiting expectantly for you
At JFK terminal was, I found out later,
Your future wife and mother of your
Daughter, soon to be fatherless, like so
Many are, though father I would become
In my next life, the one fate pushed me
Towards, as through double doors, to
Where the streets — now without you
In this dream I’m circling back on —
Have no names, where we carry each other.



Few poets have played as central a role in the lives of so many as the Russian-American laureate Joseph Brodsky. Born in Leningrad, Russia in 1940, he was exiled by the Soviet government in 1972 and moved to the U.S., where he would transform himself over the next 24 years into one of Russia’s leading poets of the twentieth century, but also into a great English prose stylist in his own right, as well as an influential teacher.


Friend to many poets and writers of his generation, including Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Susan Sontag, Mark Strand and Les Murray, he excelled as a moral as well as a creative force in his adopted homeland. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, married Maria, a Russian, in 1990, and had a daughter. He died in 1996 at the age of 55.


In his remarkable life Joseph achieved a stardom rare in the literary world, which he won at considerable cost but with considerable accomplishment. He touched the lives of his countless students and fellow poets and readers of poetry everywhere. One could say he had a similar presence and notoriety on the literary scene in late twentieth century America as Welsh bard Dylan Thomas had in the first half of the twentieth century.


Indisputably he was for me one of the greatest human beings who wrote poetry that I had the good fortune to briefly know. In Joseph’s gravitational orbit, his charisma was extravagant, filled with a generosity of soul unmatched in my experience, a mental universe abundant with a life-force and whose, to borrow his phrase, ‘plane of regard’ in proximity to poetry’s gods, served to elevate your own and raised your sights above your quotidian limitations.



To my teacher

Father you refused to be for me, you taught me
there were things I shouldn’t know, was not ready to know,
and a whole world opened up to, and in, me. You taught
me how to grieve, how to shed hot tears and wait things
out in the dark of night. You said: You, pupil with averted
eyes, not knowing me and who I am, you do not shame
yourself. On the contrary, you flower. Let your time and
space be loved into existence, will them forth. Isn’t this
what you’re here for? … O the abstractions you brought to
life, and lived! Your space for the duration more, much
more than place — temple of past present and future. Even
when the best of me was no more than my falling asleep
with pencil poised above a half-filled page, there was
nothing, you said, which one couldn’t imagine, that wasn’t
worthy of Imagination… I crossed your threshold once on
a winter’s evening bearing a staff, a pilgrim’s twined
driftwood, a gift you barely acknowledged, your grumbling
issuing forth as wordless praise, gentle reminder that I had
yet to earn the right of giving such a gift to such as you,
who knew its true worth.
(Oct. 1, 2001)



I was part of the crowd who arrived at Columbia on account of Joseph. His reputation preceded him. I’d read The New York Times profile of the famous Russian émigré poet the year before. If determination to study with the master had set my course, trepidation steered me to his classroom on that fateful first day, when I sat in the back and took everything in: the man stunningly at ease with himself, who took no quarter, whose mental depths were as capacious as they were intimidating. In his presence you either tread water or sank. He would seldom throw you a lifeline. You had to swim to the lighthouse of whatever poem was under discussion or soon be gulping for breath.


Meanwhile the air he breathed was different from that of the rest of us, his tobacco-stained lungs pumping oxygen into the heart — his amazing heart — that would one day give out on him despite his doctor’s warnings. Vehement in his likes and dislikes, fierce in his opinions, he suffered no fools. If you braved his sentinel-like mind with its hawk’s gaze long enough, you might stand a chance. But only if worshipping at the altar of culture and literature was your thing.



Joseph Brodsky
(J.B. i.m.)


Joseph, you came shimmering and changing
In my dream, long after you had died.
There you were, offering words at my bedside.
What you said to me I’m still re-arranging
In my head, trying to listen to your counsel,
The one your new body offered my soul.

Joseph, if I say your name enough
You will come back to life
And maybe I can too.

Joseph, I loved the man you were
To show others who they could be.

Joseph, I knew May 24 was the day you were born
And when I told you, you asked how I knew.
I was too afraid to say
That I wanted to be born like you,
In a distant country where everyone lives his Divine Comedy.

Joseph, Dante, you told me, already made his film
And what a blockbuster too! Everybody sees
What they want to see, except for you,
Who followed in his footsteps
All the way to forgiveness and back.

Joseph, the healing bliss of music refuses to repeat itself.
I’ve learned it’s no longer scary to be real.
(Oct. 8, 2004)


I’ve started over and
will grow—thanks be
to my son and wife—a new man

neither doubting the Dantean way nor
outstripping it in its usefulness to me, always
keying on what language is

saying through me, having no mind
not to hear how language puts words in
my mind slyly, spryly putting ideas in

my head I didn’t know I had.
Who, I wonder, would have thought language up
like a prayer inside of chaos? Who has the words to speak

and time and space enough to birth
the self hidden within one’s self?
I now know to live emptily in the world,
Joseph, is a full-time job.
(Dec. 19, 2007)



In the 1984 American film ‘Moscow on the Hudson’ the late actor Robin Williams plays a member of a Russian circus troupe who while visiting New York City decides to defect from Russia in the name of ‘freedom’. Indeed the nineteen-eighties was the era of Reaganomics, and ‘freedom’ was its bellwether word. Russian communism, in America’s crosshairs during the Cold War, would soon fall to triumphalist American capitalism, in which one believed one had the freedom to be and achieve anything. Amid these tensions came the now nearly legendary story — in the world of letters at least — of Joseph Brodsky and his involuntary exile from the Soviet Union.


In 1963 — to briefly pick up the story here — Brodsky was arrested, put in a mental institution twice, and charged with ‘social parasitism’ by the Soviet authorities. The trial that followed in 1964 in Leningrad would establish his fame in the West, for it helped spread the notoriety of the young protégé of Anna Akhmatova, the queen of Russian poetry at the time. At the trial he was accused of not fulfilling his duty to work for the so-called good of the motherland. In a now famous exchange, the trial judge asked Brodsky ‘Who has recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?’ The 24-year old Brodsky replied; ‘No one. Who enrolled me in ranks of the human race?’


The trial was widely reported in the Western press, and though he was sentenced to five years hard labor in a farm village, he only served 18 months of his term, in part because of Western pressure. Later, in 1972 the authorities, who were either continuing to lock up political dissenters in psychiatric institutions or sending them into exile, ‘invited’ Brodsky to emigrate to Israel. After refusing their ‘invitation,’ he had his apartment broken into, his papers confiscated, and was put on a plane for Vienna, Austria, never to return to Russia. In Austria he would be met by W.H. Auden, who took the young Soviet poet under his wing, and with the help of others, secured him an initial teaching post at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. And the rest is history.


With his dizzying reputation at such a young age preceding him, then, Joseph would go on in typical American fashion to re-make himself in the U.S, in his case from a Russian émigré dissident poet into an influential university teacher, an accomplished English essayist, a Nobel Prize-winner and an American poet laureate.



meeting Joseph Brodsky, again

I thought you had died,
I told him in my dream.
And he looked surprised
(I watched his eyebrows rise).
How busy he looked,
talking as night fell — now
to the old man from
Eastern Europe, now
on the phone to the elderly
female translator who
had questions to ask, now
sitting at the café table
with the young writer holding
in his hands a book
whose title I could see
(but not now), the look
on his face reflecting
the seriousness on Joseph’s, the delight
to discuss this or that during this
Greenwich Village tete-a-tete.
The young writer had one
eye bulging wider
than the other (what could
that have meant, I wondered)
as all around us the night
grew ever darker, ever darker.
(Sept. 16, 2006)


Once, Joseph kindly read a sheaf of my early poems. He returned them to me a week later with lines edited and comments written across the pages. For decades I preserved those drafts like precious objects until one morning, in a fit of pique, I discarded them and, to me, other just as valuable papers, leaving a pile of manuscripts on the curb for the garbage-collector to haul away.



Joseph advised me on different occasions while I was working at the New York Center for Visual History, my first job after graduating from Columbia. I was helping put together a proposal for NEH (National Endowment for the Humanities) funding to make a film adaptation of a Dante’s Comedy. He said that a ’film’ of The Comedy had already been realized or produced by the poet’s imagination, and that rather than write a filmscript I should write instead about my own personal journey with the poet Dante. I thought then that Joseph was partly right, of course, but it was an idea whose time had, for me at least, not yet come.



String Theory


Who are your people?
The Russian poet asked
Me while sitting in a café
In the West Village. He
Was smoking non-stop
And spoke with a thick Russian accent
Oh the hell with my ‘people’,
I replied. Let’s talk Dante…


My name jumped
Off a cliff
And I saw it
Vanish between the waves


Dad, when we saw him, used to tell
And re-tell us stories
Of our family name: So-and-so
Did this and
So-and-so did
That, a distinguished line
Of ancestors going
Back to the Mayflower
And / further back, to / Machiavelli
I danced through hoops
For the hope
My name
Would last

At last
I saw behind
My name the flame

And I in its light was not blinded
For long

Before I saw continuing
The extensive and concentric
Circles closest to me
Like vegetable and herb beds
With small cold frames
Made of rosebud boughs

And farther away
The open spaces of what seemed berry bushes followed by
Fruit trees and shade
Of fiddlehead ferns and hazels and

Farthest away, Father,
The long term
Which require
Little care


Living now in a land
Whose language
I rudimentarily speak, my name
Washing against the shore
Of forgetting and
Remembering in a not so divine
Balance between
The here and now and
The echoes of
My name

Supple and residing
In the ground growing
Like mushrooms sprouting
After a rain


Dante himself, I would learn later, studied indoors
Reading his books so much
That, eventually, when he would go outside
Under the night sky, he couldn’t see
Any stars, saw nothing but blackness
Shadowed by a white mist.

Be yourself, his Comedy says, a deep looker
Of outwardness being mirrored
Inwardly… until you can say:
Freedom I am done reading.
(July 1, 2013)


In The Paris Review interview of 1979, Joseph is being asked about the logistics of poem-making, and one reply, I think, is particularly instructive of the poet’s mind at work, here quoted from the published interview:


Paris Review: What do you think happens psychically when you’ve brought the poem to a sort of dead point, to get beyond which you would have to go in a direction that you can’t yet imagine?


Brodsky: The thing is that you can always go on, even when you have the most terrific ending. For the poet the credo or doctrine is not the point of arrival but is, on the contrary, the point of departure for the metaphysical journey. For instance, you write a poem about the crucifixion. You have decided to go ten stanzas — and yet it’s the third stanza and you’ve already dealt with the crucifixion. You have to go beyond that and add something — to develop it into something which is not there yet. Basically what I’m saying is that the poetic notion of infinity is far greater, and it’s almost self-propelled by the form. Once in a conversation with Tony Hecht at Breadloaf we were talking about the usage of the Bible, and he said, ‘Joseph, wouldn’t you agree that what a poet does is to try to make more sense out of these things?’ And that’s what it is — there’s more sense, ya? In the works of the better poets you get the sensation that they’re not talking to people anymore, or to some seraphical creature. What they’re doing is simply talking back to the language itself — as beauty, sensuality, wisdom, irony — those aspects of language of which the poet is a clear mirror. Poetry is not an art or a branch of art, it’s something more. If what distinguishes us from other species is speech, then poetry, which is the supreme linguistic operation, is our anthropological, indeed genetic, goal. Anyone who regards poetry as an entertainment, as a ‘read’, commits an anthropological crime, in the first place, against himself. (italics mine)



Last Night
Drunk at the Roppongi Russian restaurant
last night, to offer a toast to a long-gone
famous Russian poet, boasting to the waitress
he was my teacher decades ago; then home to
Facebook to find his photo (among my Likes)
staring out at me… that’s when I realized the dead
not only can dance, they can boogie.

Time is on your side, he once assured me.

Why, then, do we try to kill it?
(Oct. 23, 2010)


In her 2002 book Joseph Brodsky: Conversations, Cynthia Haven gives a glimpse of Joseph the teacher through the eyes of author and editor James Marcus (recently appointed editor-in-chief of Harper’s Magazine):


James Marcus, while attending Columbia University, heard rumors of a student in the previous term whose work Brodsky had ridiculed so mercilessly that she burst into tears in class. In a short reminiscence posted on, Marcus recalls Brodsky’s first day of class: Brodsky, wearing a corduroy jacket, had ‘thinning reddish hair and the sort of pale skin, stippled with freckles, that seemed never to have been out in the sun…’ He lit a cigarette–the first of many. ‘Throughout the seminar he would bum cigarettes from the few addicts in the class, tearing the filters off with his teeth before applying a match.’ Brodsky explained his worldview to his students: ‘Poetry, in his estimation, was the glue of civilization, and language the repository of time itself.’ Later in the semester, after assigning a short page for class, he warned them, ‘Assume that this may be the last thing you write … Don’t forget, you could get hit by a car after you hand it in. Keep that thought in mind.’ While it may have been ‘grandiose nuttiness’ from anyone else, Marcus concludes that Brodsky was merely extending his own ‘high seriousness about writing to his students’ — few of whom deserved it.



At a Time of War (to J.B.)

Outside the window the neighbor’s rooftop
Dove-bedecked antennae hums
In the ear as I recall the nocturnal
Visit by you, offering to me a poem,
‘At a Time of War’ that upon waking
I search for. But
The journey is far, Joseph, and away

The wave-soaked, sea-borne spirit
You brought to life, where strife reins
In thoughts of craft’s continuing
Past a noonday chill and no angels
Gather to sing of or lament
The battles to come. I ought
To be grateful the road has led

Here. War-cries abound, yet I won’t
Be around when somebody or
Other wins, hands down. Victory
Is not a space I dwell in. Defeat,
Like loss, I’m at home in. Let
Words furnish the emptiness.
Or not. Either way, I’ll welcome

You there in the longing’s quiet.
The poet doesn’t need a mountain
To stand on, nor ceremony. The hill
I’m at the foot of is your name
Reaching the sun, shadowless
As no memory is, no matter how fond.
Clinical valor in a time of war
Is the caveat of art. Yours — art
And valor — keep breaking
The mind from its cave free.
(Aug. 5, 2011)


It is said that Brodsky’s reputation as poet has suffered somewhat in the years since his death, at least in America. Joseph, however, was much more than his poetry. He was an unstoppable force, a passionate advocate for the dignity of the poetic vocation. He was also a great reciter of poems, in the tradition of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg or Patti Smith.



Joseph Brodsky is at a large outdoor gathering. He is speaking to a friend in both English and German. Then he sees me coming down the road and suddenly speaks to me. He asks if he could have some of my coffee. I willingly share with him what I have. I tell him, ‘Say when.’ After pouring most of my coffee into his cup, I have to leave the gathering and get more coffee back at the house. Upon entering the house, I see my father-in-law sitting in the stairway; he’s papering a wall. He’s very old, and when I enter he turns to me and says, in a very gentle voice, ‘Is that Papa?’(dream 12.7.14)



To quote Philip Roth, writing of his own teacher, but applying as well to Joseph: ‘Like all great teachers, he personified the drama of transformation through talk.’



On Joseph Brodsky

You wake up with tears ready to stream
down your cheeks without knowing why.
Then you read, after putting aside the memory
of your distraught dream, a remembrance of
a deceased former teacher and great influential
poet, and tears well up for real this time.
Not for missing the man you have no right
to call an acquaintance, but a mentor and role-
model, yes, a hero even, with his absence
from the world constituting a poetic injustice
of the most heartless kind. But should you get
the chance to go, you swear you will visit his
grave at the old cemetery in Venice and light
a candle for the light, the very great light he was.
(Oct. 30, 2015)



The last time I saw Joseph or talked to him was when I visited his Morton Street apartment in the Village, in Manhattan, in late spring of 1989. I would soon be leaving New York permanently, but I had sent Joseph a manuscript of poems written in the heat of a year when I had married and had a child, and during which I had birthed poems which he later advised I keep locked in a drawer. (That manuscript would be the early version of my first poetry book, published in Japan in 2002.) There was little time left, so my wife and I with our four-month old son went to see him. After I rang the doorbell he courteously greeted us on the front stoop, apologizing for not being able to invite us inside on account of his entertaining a guest. But I introduced Joseph to my wife and son, after which we said our farewells and turned to leave, and soon thereafter we moved that summer to Japan, where I have lived ever since.

Photo: Alan Botsford.

Alan Botsford is author of the essay-dialogue-poetry collection Walt Whitman of Cosmic Folklore (Sage Hill Press 2010) as well as two poetry collections, mamaist: learning a new language (Minato no Hito 2002) and A Book of Shadows (Katydid Press 2003). Born in Connecticut and educated at Wesleyan University and Columbia University, he currently teaches at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan, and has for eleven years served as editor of Poetry Kanto, Japan’s oldest bi-lingual poetry journal, concerned with the interplay of voices east, west and beyond. His poems and essays have appeared worldwide in numerous journals as well as anthologies. He lives with his wife and son in Kamakura.


Michael Rothenberg: Bozo the Slick

  Michael Rothenberg

  Bozo the Slick


I will not follow
The plot of a narcissistic madman
Reliving fabricated war stories
In a Napa swimming pool

He sells revolution like Willie Loman

In a shuttle bus from Fiumicino Airport
On my way to Rome Central Train Station

And then to Napoli…


A failed script, obsolete play book
Paternalistic name-dropper
Small town opera star with bad teeth

He should give up and go into retirement
Nobody believes in him
Or his phony Hollywood-style

At Teatro San Carlos the dilettante is a flop
And what’s worse he doesn’t
Really believe in change

He’s an opportunist
Who always needs to feel important
A politician that wants to be an onion

              Eventualist, Enabler, Fraud

Every action a salve upon
His failed self

Maybe he’s a cop!


Is that the Coliseum or an ancient jumpy house
Managed by a gladiator from Burger Chef?

Is that the Forum or his vanity
Smeared over broken bowels, skinny
Spotted legs stuffed into teenage blue jeans?

It’s difficult to grow old with dignity
So he calls the Attorney General
Makes plans for a compromised peace
With the Department of Injustice

Then runs from the plain Truth
When the mirror plays back
His pathetic, lightless regime
Baby Mussolini!


I would rather be in Postiglione
Fighting the good fight
With Valeriano, Filippo, and Terri
Espresso in one hand, zeppela in the other

The taste so sincere…


Virgil, in Bucoliche, saw this mountain
Long before the bakery opened downtown

We walk over to the supermarket
Buy some pancetta, cherry tomatoes, ricotta tart
Charcoal to grill fresh sausages
Peach jam for breakfast


Bozo The Slick
He’s been nobody his whole life
Tells you what he thinks you want to hear
So you’ll purchase his particular brand of laxative
With a knot in his tongue here comes the pitch


In Postiglione

Bill Evans plays in the kitchen
Outside the windows’ blue moon
Skies around the rocky peaks
A wine-soaked phantasm
Breaks the code


Virgil saw this mountain

There was a thunderstorm pelted
The terra cotta shingles
We shivered through the Amalfi night
In a house built in 700 AD
In a town built long before the redwoods


He’s a jester in tailored shirts and mod coiffure
What is he saying exactly?
A broken hero who sells courage
Without justice?

A cannibal and poser
Who feeds on your dreams
A wolf in sheep’s clothing
Who celebrates in collateral damage
A savior on hunt for medals


Custard-stuffed croissant

In my heart
I am looking for a cologne that smells like fresh
Baked bread when the loaf is first divided
There’s a crunch when you bite down
And the fragrance is one of veracity

Ten thousand miles from a
Two-faced clown, Postiglione
Salerno, Cava de’ Tirreni, Naples, Amalfi, Pompeii
Temple of Venus and Hercules
Everywhere, a thousand other places
Beautiful and true, even in Rome
Far from a doctored and circus fiction.

             — May 14, 2014

Simon Collings: The Scale of Artifice

  Simon Collings

  The Scale of Artifice:
  Critical theory and the poetry of
    Veronica Forrest-Thomson


This text contains endnotes. If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

Paragraph One follows — 1:

The British poet and literary theorist Veronica Forrest-Thomson died tragically in 1975 at the age of 27. Her reputation rests largely on work published posthumously — the poetry collection, On the Periphery, and her major theoretical work, Poetic Artifice. Her poetry and critical writings have been, and continue to be, a stimulus to poets, particularly those concerned with post-modern innovations in poetry.


Much of the critical writing on Forrest-Thomson has focused on the influence of Structuralist and post-modern writers such as the French cultural critics Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva.[See Note 1] Forrest-Thomson’s theoretical formulations were used as a starting point in Charles Bernstein’s influential poem / essay ‘Artifice of Absorption’ first published in 1987, which functioned as a kind of manifesto for the linguistically innovative poetry which became known as ‘Language poetry’. The embracing of Forrest-Thomson by such an influential figure inevitably suggests an affinity between her ideas and those of later avant garde writers.

British Poet Keston Sutherland giving a reading in Helsinki, Finland.


In a recent interview published in the online journal Blackbox Manifold, the British poet Keston Sutherland argues for a revaluing of Forrest-Thomson’s poetry, the reading of which he believes has been overly influenced by the concepts advanced in her critical works. Her theory, he says, ‘doesn’t capture what happens in her poetry. If we had first read her poetry we might even say that her theory had been virtually made redundant by the poems it had been used to incubate, because at its best the poetry militates, pushes back against the theory.’[See Note 2]


These remarks are made in the context of a discussion about Language poetry and the tendency of such poetry, in Sutherland’s view, to be overly dominated by theory. Sutherland complains of ‘a kind of displacement of literature by theory, of the great poetic project by the great theoretical project.’ He goes on to argue that when poets theorize about their work: ‘the poetry written by those poets should be powerful enough in some way or another to resist simply being captured by whatever theoretical account may be used to prop it up. Poetry should escape definition in terms imposed from outside its own interior development.’


So what is the relationship of Forrest-Thomson’s theory to her poetry, and what connection does this have with post-modernism and Language poetry?


Before we consider the poetry we need first to understand what Forrest-Thomson’s ideas about poetry were. Poetic Artifice presents itself as attempting a comprehensive theory of twentieth-century poetry, which Forrest-Thomson believed was needed to ‘understand the condition of poetry and its present possibilities.’ She is particularly concerned with the devices of artifice, i.e. ‘all the rhythmic, phonetic, verbal and logical devices which make poetry different from prose.’[See Note 3] These ‘non-semantic’ elements of a text are critical to the way a poem generates ‘meaning’ as she seeks to demonstrate time and time again in the book. Her model of how the semantic and non-semantic aspects of a poem interact to create what she calls an ‘image-complex’ are set out in schematic form in the preface to the book.[See Note 4] A failure to attend to the functioning of these levels of language and how they inter-relate, she argues, can lead the reader to interpret a poem in ways which are alien to its identity and function as poetry.


She uses the concept of ‘naturalisation,’ taken from French critical theorists, to describe this process, defining it as the ‘attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organisation by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world, by making artifice appear natural.’


She argues against approaches to literary criticism which sought to explain a poem’s ‘meaning’ with reference to an assumed external context, a process she calls ‘bad naturalisation’. In the Introduction to Poetic Artifice, for example, she engages in a detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 94’ in which she chides the critic William Empson for his speculations about the possible events in Shakespeare’s life which might have given rise to the poem. We do not need information about a ‘real life’ context to understand the poem, she argues. Everything the reader needs is in the text.


Critical readings of poems which foster ‘bad naturalisation’ of this kind also encouraged, in Forrest-Thomson’s view, a practice in contemporary poetry which privileged ‘meaning’ over artifice. Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes in particular are singled out as writers whose poems invite interpretation in terms of an assumed external context. ‘We do not want more poems about everyday life, there are enough and more than enough poems that do that,’ she declares.[See Note 5]


She also rejects the ‘irrational discontinuity’ of poetry such as the surrealism of David Gascoigne and the work of ‘Concrete’ poets like Robert Lax. The latter, she argues, invite ‘bad naturalisation’ by leaving the reader with no option other than to import a ‘meaning’ from outside the text as the only way to ‘make sense’ of the poem. J.H. Prynne and John Ashbery were for her the flag bearers of contemporary, imaginative and vital poetry. She also approved of Sylvia Plath. She believed that a poem should be more than a surrogate for an empirical experience. Indeed, following Wittgenstein she did not believe it was possible for a poem to be anything other than a work of language, and she thought poetry should challenge ‘our ordinary linguistic orderings of the world,’ and make the reader ‘question the way in which we make sense of things.’[See Note 6]


Wittgenstein was enormously important to Forrest-Thomson’s thought. Having first tried to outline a basis for logical reasoning, Wittgenstein concluded that logical thought was not possible because of the nature of language. In his later writings he analyses how words are used in practice, how the meaning of a word is generated by its use in a given context, and how the employment of abstract words like ‘understanding’ or ‘meaning’ can mislead us into thinking they refer to an event or process which does not in fact exist. The roots of philosophical confusion lie, Wittgenstein argues, in a failure to attend to the ways we use language.


Forrest-Thomson, like Wittgenstein, believed that our experience of the external world is mediated through language: ‘the world comes to us through words, and may very well be created by them.’[See Note 7] The corollary of this is her belief that through language we can change the world: ‘When we get behind the surface of a poem we encounter not another kind of meaning nor a different non-poetic world, but another organisation of the levels of language that produce meaning. Through the relation between these levels, language and the world may be changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty is born.’[See Note 8]


The proper function of poetry, in her view, is to effect this kind of transformation in the reader, a concept closely associated in her work with the idea of the poet as ‘tribal outcast’ whose role is, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, ‘to purify the language of the tribe.’[See Note 9] Forrest-Thomson returns a number of times in Poetic Artifice to the idea of the poet as an outcast who mediates between language and the tribe.[See Note 10] The concept of ‘purifying language,’ like that of the poet-outcast, has a long pedigree and has assumed various meanings at different times.


For Forrest-Thomson the poet’s role was to challenge the reader’s preconceived ideas of ‘reality’, freeing him or her to imagine new possibilities. ‘When language is reimagined the world expands with it,’ she wrote.[See Note 11]

Veronica Forrest-Thomson 1947-75, Cambridge, England, 1972. Photo courtesy Jonathan Culler.


Forrest-Thomson was married to the literary critic Jonathan Culler between 1971 and 1973. He was at that time a young academic working on his own first book, Structuralist Poetics, which became something of a primer for students of the new currents of critical thought. That the couple read and discussed authors in common is evident to anyone reading the two texts. Compare for example Culler’s discussion of John Ashbery’s poem ‘They dream only of America’ with Forrest-Thomson’s analysis of the same poem.[See Note 12] Both Culler and Forrest-Thomson were widely read in the writings of key Structuralist thinkers, people like Roman Jakobson and Roland Barthes, and the Post-Structuralists, many of whom were associated with the French journal Tel Quel. Culler devotes a chapter of Structuralist Poetics to this latter group.


Structuralism sought to apply insights from linguistics to explain cultural phenomena as systems of ‘signs’ operating in a manner similar to the way language operates. Claude Levy-Strauss attempted in his work to articulate a general theory of mythology, while Roland Barthes applied techniques derived from linguistics to cultural phenomena such as fashion and advertising.[See Note 13] Barthes’ later work anticipated the development of ‘Post-Structuralist’ ideas in writers such as Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. These thinkers challenged totalising theories, arguing instead, as the British academic Gareth Farmer succinctly puts it ‘that texts have no origin and no clear centre of organisation.’[See Note 14]


These ideas found expression not only in works of critical theory but also in the literary work of writers such as Philipe Sollers, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute. Forrest-Thomson translated a significant number of poems by the French poet Denis Roche who was on the editorial board of Tel Quel. Film makers of the ‘nouvelle vague’ (new wave) such as Jean Luc-Goddard and Alain Renais were part of the same intellectual movement. In the early 1970s, the work of these cultural theorists influenced young British academics, who began challenging the way English literature was taught.


As we have seen, Forrest-Thomson appropriated the concept of ‘naturalisation’ from Post-Structuralism. Her search for ‘a theory of twentieth century poetry’ was also influenced by Structuralist and Post-Structuralist ambitions to identify the mechanisms by which a text produces its effects, though she included few explicit references to these writers in Poetic Artifice, and did not make use of linguistic models in her work.


If anything, Forrest-Thomson tends to be critical in her references to Post-Structuralists. She was particularly hostile to the psychoanalytic work of Lacan and she questioned ‘the ability of the psychopathological and political emphases of French literary theory’to explain the special effects of poetry.[See Note 15] It is important therefore not to overstate the importance of Post-Structuralist theories in Poetic Artifice.


Alongside the borrowings from French theory, there is a huge debt to the traditions of criticism which the new theories sought to overturn. These traditions were built on the ‘empirical’ approach to criticism adopted by the British academic I. A. Richards in the 1920s, for example in his book Practical Criticism. These critical perspectives and readings were a reaction to earlier traditions of literary criticism which emphasised biography and authorial intent as means to explicate a text, or which focused comment on the moral or philosophical lessons to be drawn from a text.[See Note 16]


Equally influential were the critical essays of T. S. Eliot, whose opinions redefined the historical canon, including the revaluing of the Metaphysical poets. Eliot, both as critic and poet, is a central figure in Poetic Artifice, and his ideas about tradition, and his views on the impersonality of the poet, were major influences on Forrest-Thomson’s practice. Eliot was a dominant figure in the teaching of literature both in the UK and the USA, where these approaches became known as the ‘New Criticism’. Forrest-Thomson’s idea of the text as a work of artifice, sufficient in itself and requiring no external context to ‘explain’ it, capable of being discovered through close reading, owes as much to Eliot and New Criticism as it does to Tel Quel.


William Empson was another significant influence on Forrest-Thomson. He was a precocious scholar, publishing his first book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, when he was 24. He was a student of I. A. Richards at Cambridge, and became an influential advocate of practical criticism. He later taught for a period in the USA. Empson was a brilliant maverick who ridiculed what he considered the more nonsensical New Criticism theories such as the idea that an author’s intentions tell us nothing about a text. He was equally dismissive of the Structuralist and Post-Structuralist theories of writers like Barthes and Derrida.[See Note 17]


It is easy to see why Forrest-Thomson responded to Empson. He was clever, opinionated, funny — a perfect foil for her own ‘fierce and wayward intellectual energy’to quote the academic Graham Hough who took over the supervision of her PhD from Prynne. Her own writing style in Poetic Artifice is combative and witty, characteristics she shared with Empson, who she admired despite her differences with him.


In his preface to the second edition of Seven Types of Ambiguity, Emspon responds to some of the criticism levelled at his book after its initial publication, including a complaint by one critic that much of the analysis involved implicit judgements about the literary value of the texts under consideration. Emspon acknowledges that this was the case, but goes on to explain that the judgement of value for him came ‘before or after’the process of analysis: ‘You think the poem is worth the trouble before you go into it carefully, and you know more about what it is worth when you have done so.’


In other words, his starting point is the experience of being engaged and moved by a given poem, which then prompts him to seek to understand how the poem achieves this effect. His thesis that ‘ambiguity’ is intrinsic to poetry, and his development of a typology of seven ‘types’ of ambiguity, whose function he illustrates through close reading of selected texts, is in some ways a model for Poetic Artifice.


Forrest-Thomson also starts from judgements of which poems have value and which do not. But rather than make this explicit she presents the reader, as Empson did, with a theory which ‘explained’ these value judgements.


There is a sense, therefore, in which Poetic Artifice might be read, not so much as a theory of poetry, but as a justification for a style of writing Forrest-Thomson believed was the only viable way forward for anyone with serious ambitions for poetry in 1970s Britain. It was a style which involved a precarious balancing act between meaning and non-meaning, foregrounding the non-semantic elements (form, sound, rhythm, etc.) while frustrating the reader’s attempts to ‘naturalise’ the text. The external associations evoked by individual images and phrases, whether empirical or referring to other texts, were to be drawn into the poem and its artifice.


At the same time Forrest-Thomson believed that it was important to maintain elements of continuity with tradition so that the reader might have some purchase on the text. Familiar stanza forms, metre, and the use of rhyme had an important role to play, she believed, in reigniting the power of artifice. The absence of traditional prosodic devices in the poetry of the Tel Quel group, she believed, vitiated their poetry.[See Note 18]


Poetic Artifice can also be read as instruction for her ideal reader. The reception of a poet’s work depends upon competent readers. Culler discusses the concept of ‘literary competence’ at some length in Structuralist Poetics. A literary work has structure and meaning ‘because it is read in a particular way.’ The reader brings to the text ‘an implicit understanding of the operations of literary discourse which tells one what to look for.’[See Note 19] The way poetic conventions influence our reading of a text can be demonstrated, he says, by laying out a piece of journalistic prose as a poem, thereby placing emphasis on words at the beginning and end of lines, and exploiting properties in the language which were not previously utilised. Forrest-Thomson engages in exactly this exercise in chapter one of Poetic Artifice, using a Times editorial about a leadership change at the BBC. An examination of these conventions, of how ‘formal devices of poetry direct the assimilation of external contexts and produce the discontinuity which gives poetry its power’ was also, she argued, ‘an account of the kind of mastery which is required of the reader of poetry.’[See Note 20]


What then of the poetry? How does it relate to the theory, and in what sense might it be said to ‘militate or push back’ against the theory? In a paper presented at a conference on Forrest-Thomson held in 2008, Sutherland made the same argument that he makes in the Blackbox Manifold interview, analysing the poem ‘A Fortiori’ in order to make his point.[See Note 21]


Sutherland begins his essay with a brief summary of Forrest-Thomson’s theory which he describes, with some justification, as ‘an unstable mixture of insistences from New Criticism, from Pound’s most bullying aesthetic prose, from Wittgenstein on language games and from numerous currents of Structuralism.’ He then goes on to focus specifically on her insistence on the centrality of artifice and its role in freeing the reader from ‘the fixed forms of thought which ordinary language imposes on our minds.’ Sutherland says: ‘If Forrest-Thomson had written nothing that contradicted or undermined this, there would be little to distinguish her from a Language poet…’[See Note 22]


Sutherland’s characterisation of Forrest-Thomson’s theory is somewhat narrow, despite his acknowledgement of the complexity and contradictions in her writing. His ‘reading’ of ‘A Fortiori’ is, as a result, quixotic. Here is the poem:


A Fortiori

their fractured grace: the wind
disintegrates raindrops: the raindrops
dissolve, a metal grid, that falls.

If all meaning is diacritical, one
will see dualism in anything intelligible.

The eye is like Aprile, that falleth, a priori,
on the flower, the grass, the bird,
the fire-escape — its frame shifted by drops

that glance, with their bright eye-balls
fractured in the wind: the blank world
which its whiteness defends.

All dualisms are not equivalent
nor do they imply one another.

Whiteness defends the grass, the bird, the
raindrops, a light that falls refracts
our fractured grace: our glance: the wind.


Sutherland interprets Forrest-Thomson’s comment about the importance of artifice as denying any relationship between the text and an external world. But he discovers in the text various external associations, therefore ‘disproving’ this theory. He is struck by the lines ‘the blank world / which its whiteness defends’, seeing in this a possible ‘political comment’ about ‘the blank world of spectacular relations and bourgeois coldness…defended not just by capital but by white racism.’ Later in the argument he recognise the phrase ‘which its whiteness defends’ as possibly a translation of a line in Malarmé’s poem ‘Brise Marine.’ This leads him to hunt for echoes of other texts. All of this is intended to demonstrate that the text can be ‘naturalised’, whatever the theories of its author.


But as discussed earlier, this was not her position. According to the schema set out in the preface to Poetic Artifice, a text engages in what she calls ‘external expansion’ as well as ‘internal expansion,’ in other words at a semantic level the poem connects with discourses outside itself as well as drawing on its non-semantic features to create the ‘image complex’.[See Note 23] The artifice guides the reader in how to interpret the text, and ‘bad naturalisation’ results from a failure to attend closely enough to the text. Forrest-Thomson rejected irrationality, and in her poetry walked a tightrope between artifice and semantic discoverability. ‘A Fortiori’ is an example of just such a high-wire act and is wholly consistent with her theory.


If we attend to what is happening within the poem, rather than relying on subjectivity to explain its meaning, we observe that the text makes use of a number of philosophical terms. The title ‘a fortiori,’ meaning ‘with greater reason,’ is a phrase normally used to introduce the conclusion to an argument, and here it is clearly part of the poem, the first stanza starting with a lower case letter. Elsewhere the normal convention of capitalising the word at the beginning of a sentence is observed. The poem launches itself, as it were, in mid-argument or at the summing up of an argument. But the opening phrase ‘their fractured grace’ is hardly a ‘conclusion’, and immediately frustrates our expectations.


The term ‘a priori’ appears in the second triplet where the context again raises questions about how seriously these terms are being used. In the line ‘The eye is like Aprile, that falleth, a priori,’ there is a clear sonic association between ‘Aprile’ (as Chaucer would have pronounced it) and ‘a priori’. The alliteration of ‘eye’ and the letter ‘i’, which appears several times in the line, also suggests that wordplay is more important here than reasoning.


The undermining of conventional logic is further evident in the two couplets. The first of these contains the word ‘diacritical’, another technical term. I read ‘if all meaning is diacritical’ as using the word in the sense of ‘to distinguish or discriminate’ (not as a reference to the ‘diacritical principle’ of Saussure, as Sutherland has it.) The emphasis is on the use of language to distinguish between things — in a philosophical / logical sense. The poem was published in a collection called Language Games, and Wittgenstein is never far away. The segue into ’dualism’ is a typical Forrest-Thomson piece of humour — a pun on diacritical / making distinctions / dualism. A process of false deduction of the kind Wittgenstein challenges in his later work. The second couplet turns the first one on its head, rejecting classical logic in favour of ’poetic logic.’ This is consistent with her aesthetic theories, as expounded in Poetic Artifice.


These philosophical reflections are related in the poem to observations about April showers and raindrops on a fire escape disintegrating in the wind. The shifting and broken glance of the drops — which are referred to as ‘eye-balls’ — is an extended metaphor for the experience of the subjective ‘eye / I’. As Forrest-Thomson says in another poem, ‘Zettel’ (she is quoting Wittgenstein): ‘The concept of a living being / has the same indeterminacy / as that of a language.’ Her poems abound with unacknowledged references to other texts and the line ‘which its whiteness defends’ may well be citing Malarmé. But the phrase and its associations has to be drawn into the poem and related to other elements of the text, so that the blank page of Malarmé’s poem becomes the ‘blank world’, which is mediated by language.


We should also note the poem’s formal structure — the first and last lines almost echo each other, so that the poem seems to circle back on itself. Forrest-Thomson aspired to write poems which were not simply theory put into verse. A manoeuvre she used to avoid this trap is what she termed ‘tendentious obscurity,’ where the poem consciously resists interpretation. The use of formal structuring is here deployed to compensate for the lack of obvious semantic coherence. The poem invites a number of possible readings, but clearly excludes others. By challenging the reader’s assumptions about ‘reality’ the poet seeks to create new possibilities of thought.


Although I would argue that Sutherland’s reading of ‘A Fortiori’ is less than convincing, perhaps some of her other poems do depart from her theory and perhaps a case can be made that at its best the poetry ‘pushes back against the theory’. Critics generally agree that the strongest of Forrest-Thomson’s work is to be found in the posthumously published collection On the Periphery, poems composed at the time she was writing Poetic Artifice. These might therefore be expected to most obviously resist the influence of her theorising, if such resistance is present. I will examine three very different poems in that volume to test whether this is the case: ‘Pfarr-Schmerz (Village-Anguish),’ ‘Pastoral,’ and ‘Sonnet’.


In the preface she prepared for On the Periphery, Forrest-Thomson describes a trajectory through the collection, from the ‘aleatory poems’ at the start, to ‘simple lyricism’, then poems of an increasing ‘technical and thematic complexity’, to an eventual ‘recapturing of the right’ to speak through traditional rhymed stanza forms. The poems, she says, are ‘a series of strategies’ which engage with ‘a stylistic situation on the periphery of traditional poetry.’


The poem ‘Pfarr-Schmerz (Village-Anguish)’ is a good example of the increased level of sophistication and complexity the poetry achieves part way into the collection. The poem is in two, staggered columns, the right-hand column operating as a commentary on the text to its left. The poem begins:


Making love and omelettes

For every poem ought to contain
at least one zeugma

we may discern a very
palpable corner of a
sheet. Like love it

It ought to; and since ‘is’
maybe derived from ‘ought’
the sheet, the situation and
ourselves exist (see, Proc. Arist. Soc.,
supp. vol. XCCCI)


From the outset the poem is telling us that linguistic and poetic conventions are more important than reference to any external event. A zeugma is a figure of speech in which one word refers to two others but with a different sense in each case — here ‘make’ has a different sense when applied to ‘love’ as opposed to ‘an omelette’. Empson in Seven Types of Ambiguity said that all poetry exploits ambiguity in language, zeugma being one example of this. Hence, the ‘ought’ in line two of ‘Pfarr-Schmerz’ — as this is a poem it ought to utilise ambiguity. Drawing attention to the different uses of ‘make’ also echoes the way Wittgenstein in his later writings analyses the use of words. The reference to making omelettes evokes the proverb ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’ The reader’s expectations are challenged by the unusual typography and the self-reflexivity of the text, rearranging his or her sense of ‘reality’. Eggs are broken.


The destabilisation of meaning continues with the lines which follow. Why a ‘palpable’ — i.e. able to be touched or felt — corner of a sheet? Is this the bedsheet we might associate with ‘making love’ or perhaps the sheet of the page? The poem starts in the top left corner of the page, printed on paper which the reader is touching while holding the book. The right-hand column then picks up on ‘ought’, providing a witty parody of Aristotelian logic which purports to prove the existence of an external reality — the lovers in bed. But of course such a deduction is spurious, though apparently given authority by a reference to the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society.


This play of meanings continues with ‘palpable light’ in a framed tapestry, ‘palpable’ here meaning so intense as to be almost tangible. ‘Palpable light’ is said to be ‘like love’ — the body of the beloved being touchable but love itself intangible, but also intense. The lines ‘Interlocking rings / of glazed perception / turn in our eyes’ in the left-hand column suggests the intense gaze of lovers. ‘Chinese puzzles’ are evoked, and the right column quotes from Pound’s translation of Confucius’the Wobbling Pivot. By concentrating, we are told, the student (i.e. reader) can discover ‘the process between the lines’ without the aid of a commentary. The process of the poem pivots between left and right-hand columns as it advances.


Ironies abound and later the commentary in the right-hand column tells us: ‘Irony as an acceptance of limitation / is our natural approach to the divine’. This is attributed to Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking. Is this really a quotation from a cookery book, or is the text playing with the reader? Either way, Elizabeth David takes us back to omelettes.


‘Ought’ returns towards the end with:


If we are going
to get up we
ought to get up

Thus we are derived from ‘ought’


The ‘glazed perceptions’ take on ‘the form of croissants’ and the lovers are compelled to re-engage with a world beyond themselves, leaving ‘the palpable corner / to the sheet.’ The poem ends with two lines of prose, serving as a disclaimer: ‘To seek mysteries in the obscure, poking into magic and committing eccentricities in order to be talked about later — This I do not.’ The poem then is serious, despite its ludic address. It is about lovers, their mutual infatuation viewed both ironically and affectionately.


The turning point of On the Periphery comes, according to the preface, with ‘Pastoral’, a poem in which Forrest-Thomson says she realised in practice what she had long known in theory: ‘that it is precisely those non-meaningful aspects of language — rhyme, rhythm and stanzaic metre are only the most obvious — which are poetry’s strength and it’s defence.’ From this point on the poems make more use of regular metre, and rhyming is introduced. ‘Pastoral’ employs both a basic iambic metre and a rhyme scheme. The emphasis shifts from the semantic to the non-semantic, the ‘meaning’ tendentiously obscure. The poem begins: ‘They are our creatures clover and they love us’. Forrest-Thomson provides her own analysis of the poem in Poetic Artifice, where she says of this opening line: ‘If one writes a line like the first line of this poem one is obviously alerting the reader to the fact sound resemblance — ‘clover’ / ’ love — is more important than meaning.’


We know from a handwritten annotation to the typescript of the poem that Forrest-Thomson draws on the experience of her ‘first near miss’ while driving.[See Note 24] But in ‘Pastoral’the foal she narrowly avoided hitting is ‘linguistically wounded’, and the poem becomes a commentary on language and its relationship to the non-verbal world, rather than a description of a motoring incident. Forrest-Thomson considered this poem to be a significant development in her writing, but I find the writing awkward and less convincing than other poems in the volume. Like Alison Mark I’m not persuaded by the poet’s claim that the sounds “entle oal” are ‘taken up in “linguistically wounded”.’ The balance between internal and external expansion is achieved more successfully, in my view, in ‘Pfarr-Schmerz.’ In ‘Pastoral’ we have, perhaps, an example of theoretical preoccupations overriding creative judgement.


The poems which follow ‘Pastoral’ continue to display the same formal variety and experimentation seen in the earlier poems. A villanelle follows, a direct response to Empson’s ‘Villanelle’ which begins: ‘It is the pain, it is the pain endures.’[See Note 25] Forrest-Thomson’s poem is a critique of Empson’s tendency to naturalise poems too quickly. Her villanelle starts: ‘It is the sense, it is the sense, controls, / landing every poem like a fish.’ Other poems in the second half of the collection look back to the kind of complexity we saw in ‘Pfarr-Schmerz.’


With ‘Sonnet,’the final poem in the collection as she originally prepared it[See Note 26], we have an extreme example of her use of conventional form. The poem follows the rhyming pattern of a Shakespearean sonnet ABAB CDCD EFEF GG — making four quatrains and a couplet. The lines are shorter than in a Shakespeare sonnet, varying typically between 3 and 4 stresses per line, and the metre is a mix of anapaestic and iambic. Unlike most of the poetry in On the Periphery the poem does not try to resist naturalisation, and is clearly about a failed relationship and about the inability of language to express love. In the preface she describes ‘Sonnet’ as ‘the love poem I have tried throughout to write straight.’ What she means by ‘straight’ here is, I think, ‘without irony’ rather than ‘in a naturalistic manner.’ She uses the term in this sense several times in Poetic Artifice, for example in relation to Four Quartets where she says Eliot’s technique: ‘is quite beyond irony and he can again speak straight in his capacity as poet…’ Generally in her poetry the agonies of love are treated with heavy irony, but not here. The line ‘If I say ‘I love you’ we can’t but laugh / since irony knows what we’ll say’ is a measure of how language becomes an obstacle to communication. The final line of the poem reads: ‘Words were made to prevent us near.’


In her discussion of Sylvia Plath’s work towards the end of Poetic Artifice Forrest-Thomson criticises Ted Hughes for failing to understand that a woman who suffers can relieve her suffering ‘by becoming the mind which creates.’[See Note 27] Language creates separation and can only ultimately relate to itself, not to an external reality. The act of writing in fact effaces the lover, as she writes in the opening lines: ‘My love, if I write a song for you / To that extent you are gone.’ ‘Sonnet’ is therefore artifice, not simply an autobiographical statement. It is the use of conventional form which tells us this.


The adoption of conventional form comes with a cost, in my view. The rhyme scheme creates some awkwardness of syntax, for example the phrase ‘prevent us near’ in the last line (‘near’ rhyming with ‘dear’ ), and ‘Never so separate trying to be two’ with its faltering rhythm. The poem has an archaic feel, and in terms of its form is reminiscent of the Victorian poetry Forrest-Thomson was reading at this time. As an experiment the poem in my view is not one of the high points of her work. But it is consistent with the theories she articulates in Poetic Artifice. The theory in the case though is not post-modernism, but something akin to Eliot’s views about the importance of tradition.


In ‘Richard II’, the last poem she composed before her death, Forrest-Thomson returns to the use of free verse form, and to ‘tendentious obscurity,’though the poem does employ elements of conventional prosody, for example the refrain ‘Forever again before after and always.’ In notes she prepared as an introduction to the poem, she says: ‘I believe that at the present time poetry must progress by deliberately trying to defeat the expectations of its readers or hearers, especially the expectation that they will be able to extract meaning from a poem… This is a more difficult undertaking from writing an ordinary poem as the balance of meaning and non-meaning should be set up.’ The opening, middle and final stanzas describe a building in a state of dilapidation, a metaphor for the condition of poetry. These free verse sections alternate with two pairs of quatrains, meditations on appearance and time in a style which parodies Swinburne. The poem ends with the enigmatic, free-standing ‘limpid eyelid,’ which breaks the sense of structure the pattern of stanzas and the refrain had previously established.


So do the poems militate against the theory? From the examples discussed above it is clear that there is a close relationship between the issues Forrest-Thomson wrestled with in her critical work and the creative solutions she sought in her poetry. Different aspects of her thought find expression in individual poems, and she deploys techniques from the highly experimental to the use of received form. She appropriates ideas from a wide variety of sources, ideas which often sit oddly together, the wider implications of these concepts often not fully explored or assimilated. But while placing an increasing emphasis on the non-semantic elements of a poem Forrest-Thomson was not ignoring the referential aspects language. She was interested in the relationship between language and the world, language and identity. The poetry does not need the ‘theory’to justify it, but knowledge of the theory makes us better readers of her work.


This text contains endnotes. If you click on the number that identifies the endnote, you will be taken back to the point in the text where the endnote anchor occurs; and vice versa.

[Endnote 1]  See for example: Raitt, Suzanne , ‘Love in the Time of Lacan: The Poetry of Veronica Forrest-Thomson,’ Fragmente 8, pp. 16-25 (1998), Mark, Alison, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Language Poetry, British Council Writers and their Work series, Tavistock: Northcote House (2001), and Patterson, Ian, ‘Containers, Pulses, Lentils: Tel Quel and Veronica Forrest Thomson,’ published in Kenyon Review (2008.)

[Endnote 2] See

[Endnote 3] Forrest-Thomson, Veronica, Poetic Artifice, (revised edition ed. Farmer, Gareth), Shearsman (2016), p.33. Poetic Artifice was originally published by Manchester University Press in 1978. I have used the recently republished version edited by Gareth Farmer which corrects a number of errors in the original.

[Endnote 4] Ibid., p.39

[Endnote 5] Poetic Artifice, p.186

[Endnote 6] Ibid., p.36

[Endnote 7] Ibid., p.113

[Endnote 8] Ibid., p.80. Forrest-Thomson appropriates W. B. Yeats’ lines ‘changed, changed utterly; / A terrible beauty is born’ (from the poem ‘Easter 1916’ ). Yeats was describing his reaction to the Irish uprising and the execution of its leaders.’ Forrest-Thomson’s use of the phrase suggests she believed poetry was capable of bringing about such change.

[Endnote 9] Eliot, T.S., Collected Poems, Faber (1936), p.218.

[Endnote 10] See for example Poetic Artifice p.130

[Endnote 11] Ibid., p.63

[Endnote 12] Cf. Culler, Jonathan, Structuralist Poetics, Routledge (1975) pp.197-198, and Poetic Artifice, pp. 215-219.

[Endnote 13] One of Forrest-Thomson’s last poems is called ‘S / Z’, the title of a work of literary theory by Barthes who undoubtedly influenced her. In S / Z Barthes moves away from the idea of universal structure arguing instead that meaning in a text is created by the interaction of a number of ‘codes’. This enables him to explain both how it is that each text is different from other texts, and how multiple readings of a single text can arise.’ He demonstrates this through the close analysis of a story by Balzac.

[Endnote 14] Farmer, Gareth, ‘‘The slightly hysterical style of University talk’ : Veronica Forrest-Thomson and Cambridge’, Cambridge Literary Review 1.1 (September, 2009), pp. 161-177.

[Endnote 15] Poetic Artifice, p. 193.

[Endnote 16] Practical criticism was a key element of the English syllabus at Cambridge, where Forrest-Thomson studied for her PhD. The recently published recollections of poets and scholars who studied with J.H. Prynne at Cambridge in the 1960s and 1970s give a sense of the atmosphere. John Hall, for instance, who studied at Cambridge from 1963 to 1967 recalled Prynne’s supervisions in practical criticism being ‘almost a sufficient education in themselves.’ Forrest-Thomson was initially supervised by Prynne, and would certainly have been exposed to Prynne’s teaching of canonical texts. (See Brinton, Ian [ed.], For the Future, Shearsman, 2016.)

[Endnote 17] See Empson, William, Using Biography, Chatto, (1984.)

[Endnote 18] Poetic Artifice, p.183

[Endnote 19] Culler, op. cit., p.132.

[Endnote 20] Poetic Artifice, p.64

[Endnote 21] See Sutherland, Keston, ‘Veronica Forrest-Thomson For Readers,’ published in Kenyon Review. ‘A Fortiori’ was originally published in Language Games, 1971.

[Endnote 22] Ibid., p. 3.

[Endnote 23] This schema in part derives from Barthes, see in particular S / Z, pp. 92-93.

[Endnote 24] See Mark, op. cit., p. 85.

[Endnote 25] Empson, William, Collected Poems, Chatto & Windus (1955).

[Endnote 26] See Anthony Barnett’s notes on this in Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Collected Poems, Shearsman (2008), p.176-7.

[Endnote 27] Poetic Artifice, p. 221.


Elisabeth Frost: on Rachel Blau DuPlessis

  Elisabeth A. Frost
  Fordham University, New York City, NY.

  The Arte Povera of Graphic Novella

  JPR 06

Paragraph One follows: — 1:

It is fitting that Graphic Novella is entirely black and white, printed on matte paper (no glossy plates), in familiar, large dimensions: eight and a half by eleven inches. [See Endnote 1] DuPlessis’s points of departure are found materials, especially newspaper, with its particular print generated — we come to intuit — somewhere at the juncture between analog and digital technologies. There are cut-up photographs, from various eras over the past several decades. There are bits of string, bits of fabric. From this physicality arises discussion of the materiality not just of the work of art but of its components themselves.


DuPlessis reflects on glue (‘adhesion’), on her own acts of juxtaposition, and on the procedures involved in layering bits of papers and found artifacts, all literally cut and pasted onto pages. At the same time, the artist’s awareness of changing technologies enters in through conversations with friends and colleagues about just how to construct these text-image collages. What about Photoshop? one friend asks (100). Right — why not cut to the digital chase?


One simple answer is that DuPlessis’s collage work — her method — predates those technologies. She has dated her first experiments with collage to the mid-1960s. But although this work continued sporadically (in evidence, for example, on several of her book covers), DuPlessis didn’t begin a real practice — a commitment to making collage — until the early 2000s.


In 2002, she called a notebook devoted to visual work her ‘Fed Up Collage Book — fed up with not doing this yet’ (‘Desiring Visual Texts’). So this work is at once longstanding and a long time coming. It also needs to be said that DuPlessis has in fact been doing this work all along, since collage method and aesthetics inform all of DuPlessis’s work, from her early poems to the recent publication of The Collage Poems of Drafts.


Still, the choices made in Graphic Novella signify far more than either practical considerations (access to software, knowledge to use it, simple stubbornness) or the weight of longstanding practice. This work created through literal cutting and pasting offers a subtle critique, as well as a tribute to, the pre-digital modernist artists whose archaic methods DuPlessis borrows. [A note on Fluxus: “In 1963, an artist named George Maciunas put forward a rallying cry for a new movement in art, one that he would call “Fluxus.” Like many of his avant-garde predecessors and peers, he chose to make his case known in the form of a manifesto. The document was itself a work of art, composed of several dictionary definitions of the word “flux,” from which Fluxus takes its name, followed by handwritten notes that expanded on its various meanings. Beneath the entry defining flux as a purging or discharge of fluids, Maciunas wrote in an insistent hand: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, — PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘EUROPANISM’!”… Fluxus’s spirit of rebellion against the commercial art market, elitism, and the conventions of both art and society had its roots in Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism, while its irreverence and youthful energy were in tune with the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s.” For more, see What is Fluxus? at]


It matters deeply that these pages are cousins to collages by Picasso or Schwitters, more than they are related to any late twentieth-century conceptual art or contemporary large-scale digital prints. It matters that the old-fangled methods register with a reader/viewer as themselves the content of the work. The reason is not nostalgia — quite the opposite.


Through the texts enmeshed in and/or glossing each collage, DuPlessis historicizes method. Even as she draws our attention to her love for the earliest pioneers of collage, she also conducts a critique of the more damaging strains of modernism still manifest in contemporary culture and politics. DuPlessis develops this critique in reference to several movements, but one — whose methods and idioms differed dramatically from their modernist precursors — is especially resonant: Arte Povera.


In reaction to the formalism of 1960s Minimalism — and to Minimalism’s modernist precursors — the artists associated with Arte Povera often employed common materials, from rocks and soil to fabric scraps and industrial metals. These non-aesthetic materials worked to critique the fetishism of ever-marketable, high culture objets. Their non-representational works point to the ephemeral: for one thing, these materials are the opposite of archival. But they also highlight natural and time-based processes (from natural decay to the effects of fire) over notions of completion or ‘perfection’ — dailiness over the quest for aesthetic transcendence.


In this way, performance and unorthodox installations reflected a non-commercial and ephemeral, experience-based art, while even more permanent objects shared the emphasis on unlike materials meeting in surprising juxtaposition. A golden circle of wax shimmers on a lead sheet in a mid-1980s wall relief by Jannis Kounellis, creating an assemblage at once flat and sculptural, sublime and mundane. In an early work by Alighiero Boetti, ‘Untitled (Invitation),’ similarly unorthodox materials (fabric, plexiglass, cork, polymer tubing, electric wire) are categorized and labeled in a grid; again the assemblage confounds genre, designed for wall hanging, yet marked in its dimensionality, gesturing at formalism while undercutting it. [See Endnote 2]


For DuPlessis, such methods are hardly new. The notion of inviting dailiness into the artist’s work, as well as its participatory reception, has been an ongoing part of her practice since she first began Drafts, and it informs all of her work as a poet-critic and feminist theorist. But since completing the 26-year project of Drafts, DuPlessis seems even more dedicated to embracing the ‘interstitial’ nature of being, writing, and making. The poems in the volume Interstices take the form of ‘ledgers’ and ‘letters,’ which simultaneously capture particular moments of address and, at the same time, reflect on the author’s lifelong committment to poetry and cultural criticism.


Here, as in Graphic Novella, there is a keen sense of DuPlessis’s fascination with the mail art movement and especially with the irreverent and innovative work of Ray Johnson. The playful, even whimsical, tone of the poems is integral to their rhetoric — they are documents in a dialogue. DuPlessis has noted the particular influence of mail art on all her collage. The extraordinary poem Draft 94: ‘Mail Art’ is also a testament to this longstanding influence and to DuPlessis’s engagement with a pre-digital, snail-mail aesthetics — one devoted to literal artistic exchanges.


But to my eye, the dual sources of constructivism and Arte Povera are even more crucial to an understanding of DuPlessis’s project in Graphic Novella. In contrast to the lyric quality of Draft 94: ‘Mail Art’ and the poems of Interstices, and likewise in contrast to the gorgeously-hued Churning the Ocean of Milk (DuPlessis’s chapbook-length collage poem that takes as points of departure a Hindu creation myth and the author’s journey to Cambodia), Graphic Novella is, as its title suggests, more reliant on the broad gestures of graphic arts and more prose-like in its deployment of text.


The book is hardly narrative — in this sense, it is stubbornly neither a ‘graphic novel’ nor a ‘novella.’ And although the collages themselves might well have incorporated color in their originals, for the sake of these pages, the book enthusiastically embraces its black-and-white aesthetic and its constructivist roots: its allusions are to the early twentieth century origins of collage and to the grittiness of newsprint.


In this way, our traveling companions are devices that would have been quite familiar to Schwitters (named by DuPlessis as a particularly strong influence). Several wrist watches — contemporary in style but all with traditional ‘face’ and ‘hands,’ rather than the numerals that indicate a digital format — remind us of ancient tropes (tempus fugit) by way of modernist motifs (Dali’s melting clocks, say). Similarly, we repeatedly encounter a camera, aimed pointedly toward us or toward objects within the field of the collage, as if reminding us of our work as viewers, our implication in the work of art, and the now-lengthy history of photography as a technology.


One pair of Canons ‘frames’ the following self-conscious text (the more so, via quotation marks): ‘ “calls attention to constructedness…” ’ /“constitutes the viewer” / etc.’ The lengthy text on the facing page expands the zone of serious play: ‘Canons face each other and shoot,’ DuPlessis wryly notes: ‘And yet these lenses face only each other. What are they depicting — only each other’s mise en abyme? Or are they aimed at you? […] Or perhaps these lenses are like two tanks. Artillery across the trenches of the viewed viewers’ (36).


Even the technology of war alluded to here is archaic — trenches, artillery — evoking the first world war rather than drone attacks. This pre-digital series of images in Graphic Novella reminds us of layered histories — of emerging and outmoded technologies, of attendant aesthetic debates, and of the frightening impact of violent conflicts. This reference to the historical period of the first collage artists perhaps aligns us as well with some of the more emotionally unresolved notes in Graphic Novella: ‘Every act is an act in the poetics of yearning,’ DuPlessis reflects (18).


As low-tech as a watch, the news in Graphic Novella also comes via print, not screens. [See Endnote 3] News itself functions as material, much like the handwritten portions of the collages, which hearken back to an embodied page that DuPlessis has explored since the very beginnings of Drafts in the volume Tabula Rosa.[See Endnote 4] In this way, Graphic Novella reveals DuPlessis’s devotion to what she calls ‘the materiality of the materials’ (‘Desiring Visual Texts’). Newspaper functions as waste revivified through salvage: found material.


An experience familiar to anyone who has unpacked a box of old possessions is recounted in a note explaining the source of a 2002 obituary that DuPlessis cites: ‘I had used the newspaper page […] eleven years ago to wrap a breakable. Just now, I opened it’ (60). The ‘now’ of the poet-artist’s reality becomes our own, even as the news is dated and documented, acknowledged as ‘the past,’ not the lyric present.


Such brief but linguistically adept moves align with DuPlessis’s account of her collage process: “Re-contextualizing ‘the scavenged,”’ she engages in ‘the transposition of junk. The picking up of packaging, ripping it randomly. An a-consumeristdétournement.’ With her commitment to ‘the recycling element,’ both aesthetic and ethical, she states a straightforward desire: ‘I want the debris, the refuse’ (‘Desiring Visual Texts’).


In this context, consider these gorgeous lines from Draft 111: ‘Arte Povera’:



present themselves
as if prescient
about their own responsibility
to resist abandonment.
They will address
the imprint of our time:
interpreting its murky path
with the force of their postulates
about the unfinished. (Surge 125)


This is the ‘matter’ of Graphic Novella, rendered in more lyrical terms — the mundane stuff that resists ‘abandonment,’ the junk that we overlook, though it bears the ‘imprint of our time.’ Arte Povera, devoted to discarded scraps and fragments, to detritus, thrived on assembling such ‘envoys’ of time’s passage. In this way, it is a riposte to the spare formalism of the Minimalist years. Similarly, DuPlessis’s self-reflexive assemblages veer more toward deliberate excess, as the constructions on most of the recto pages become fodder for glosses on the verso pages, mostly comprised of text only.


The self-commentary is ‘meta’ on more than on level: ‘How to write?’ DuPlessis asks, segueing immediately into a ‘reading’ of the accompanying collage on the facing page: ‘But the very letters are coming loose! A ball of gibberish falls out. Is that thing on the bottom a clue or a clew? This a detective story? It says it is’ (and indeed ‘it’ does: ‘This whole book now is going to be a detective story of how to write,’ reads a typeset line within the collage ([26-27]). As a linguistic version of Arte Povera — a language-object testifying to the ephemeral — DuPlessis’s text offers another ‘clue’ by way of further self-reference: ‘Say instead that this is graphic. This is a novella. The eternal is a hopeless rag. The symmetrical an already rejected goal.’ Yes, emphatically so — this work is aesthetically graphic, unassuming in genre (hence the almost-feminized term ‘novella,’ rather than the hefty and masculine ‘novel’), a ‘rag’ made of its own scraps, which themselves relegate ‘the eternal’ to the trash heap. In this way DuPlessis perpetually lets us in, lets us play, and gives pride of place to the fleeing and the flown.


Which brings me to my final point: the now that is not nostalgic, that is in fact replete with the devastations of war and ecological disaster — all of which must be part of the work as well, part of its ethical imperative, its witness (or, as DuPlessis puts it in a wonderfully warm pun, its ‘withness’). Arte Povera rejected the preciousness of modernist formalism and the pretension of archival materials in order to bear witness to its present moment; DuPlessis brings the low-tech collage methods she honors into dialogue with a bleak contemporary cultural and political landscape.


A series of collages (and facing texts) meditate on the effects of PTSD and a related but distinct syndrome, called moral injury, wrought by the Iraq War (86-88, 94-5). Ecological disaster surfaces, terrifyingly, along with the ongoing challenges and losses resulting from the Fukushima disaster and the dangers of fracking (102-4, 111). Following a list of woes worthy of the end of days (glaciers melting, pesticides perhaps causing autism, shooting sprees, the ‘whole country [gone] crazy’), a pair of rhetorical questions creates a sharp pun through juxtaposition with a collage of three watches on top of one another on the facing page: ‘When to do the work of understanding and repairing? Is there time?’ (103).


In such stark meeting of ‘traditional’ collage methods with contemporary crises, our current horrors are unexpectedly contextualized through the very ‘historical’ means that DuPlessis employs: that is, in hearkening back to early modernism, DuPlessis digs up the roots of the present in the past. We learn of the influence of Le Corbusier’s modernist vision for cities on the architects of apartheid (106). It was, in fact, his philosophy that ushered in a generation’s worth of destruction (‘urban renewal’) in New York and Philadelphia — both homes, past or present, to DuPlessis — as well as other cities in the 1960s, engineered by autocrats like Robert Moses, who obliterated whole neighborhoods in an economic and racial ‘cleansing’ whose devastation continues to this day.


DuPlessis (one of our keenest scholars of modernism) encounters Le Corbusier in the District 6 Museum and Information Center in Cape Town, where his views are invoked in a 1976 document: his ‘“re-vitalising process,”’ with its “Surgical Method” and ‘“cleared ground,”’ provided a rationale for the National Party’s implementation of apartheid in South Africa. ‘This is one of the origins of the townships,’ DuPlessis notes, and sums up tersely: ‘A certain kind of modernism has a lot to answer for’ (106).


Indeed. And in this way DuPlessis assiduously avoids nostalgia. Finally, Graphic Novella inquires less into the aesthetics of collage — which it embraces — than into its ethics. By commenting on her own methods, and by layering documented historical moments within the work, DuPlessis shows by counter-example what it means not to do so — to remove context, to resituate found artifacts in a ‘purely’ aesthetic gesture.


Graphic Novella begins almost deceptively, with a series of self-reflexive assemblages that leave us unprepared for the moral punch in the second half of the book, when wit and playful composition yield to an interrogation into the legacies of ‘a certain kind of modernism,’ from Le Corbusier’s influence on the ‘theorists’ of apartheid to the post-consumer waste-scape of our current ecological disaster zones. By the end of Graphic Novella we are all too aware of the costs of various kinds of ‘doing business,’ from advertising to fracking — and of the dangers of an art that becomes complicit or complacent in the face of it.


In fact, what is Arte Povera but a response to the excesses of ‘a certain kind of modernism’? But DuPlessis herself has never needed that corrective: in contradistinction from its scope, Drafts was never driven by either ego or cultural pretension, embracing instead the provisional ongoingness captured in its title. In similar — and fitting — fashion, Graphic Novella eschews self-dramatization, even as it engages in self-reference. It is a profound act of cultural work that only DuPlessis could have given us.


And there is a further gift. In Graphic Novella. DuPlessis’s typical generosity allows for the full range of our human feelings, for all our affects to be engaged — for a certain emotional salvage to take place through wit, through pleasure, even in the face of crisis. Despite it all, as she puts it in Draft 111: ‘Arte Povera,’ ‘It is impossible to avoid / fractions of joy’ (Surge 123).


[Note 1] …Familiar to US residents, that is: the size of typical US-Letter-Size typing paper. Most other inhabitants of the world use A4 size typing paper: 210 by 297 millimetres, or 8.3 by 11.7 inches. Folk may look up the mathematical and cultural rationale behind the A paper sizes here:

[Note 2] See Nancy Spector, Guggenheim Museum,, concerning Kounellis’s 1987 untitled work; see the Musem of Modern Art,, on Boetti’s 1966-1967 work.

[Note 3] In fact, there is very little reference to digital technology in Graphic Novella. In addition to the brief mention of Photoshop, a computer monitor appears on only rare occasions (see, for example, p.61).

[Note 4] See my essay ‘Splayed Texts, Bodily Words: Serial Form and Handwriting in Feminist Poetics,’ which discusses work by DuPlessis, Kathleen Fraser, and Leslie Scalapino: The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Cross-Currents, ed. Steven Schneider (Iowa, 2012), 221-244.

  Works Cited

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Churning the Ocean of Milk. Alligatorzine 169 (2014). Web.

——𔃀. Draft 94: ‘Mail Art.’ Jacket 37 (2009). Web

——𔃀. Graphic Novella. West Lima, WI: Xexoxial Editions. 2015. Print.

——𔃀. Interstices. Cambridge, MA: Subpress. 2014. Print.

——𔃀. Surge: Drafts 96-114. Cromer, Norfolk U.K.: Salt Publishing. 2013. Print.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau and Maria Damon. ‘Desiring Visual Texts: A Collage and Embroidery Dialogue.’ Jacket2 (March 25, 2013). Web.


A poet and critic, Elisabeth Frost is the author of The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa, 2003), All of Us: Poems (White Pine Press, 2011), the chapbooks Rumor (Mermaid Tenement, 2009) and A Theory of the Vowel (Red Glass Books, 2013), and Bindle. (Ricochet Editions, 2015, a collaboration with the artist Dianne Kornberg). She is co-editor of Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (Iowa, 2006), and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Genders, How2, Postmodern Culture, and The Women’s Review of Books, as well as in many edited collections, including The Cambridge History of Modern American Women Poets, American Women Poets in the 21st Century; The News from Poems: Essays on 21st Century American Poetry of Engagement; and We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics. Frost has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation-Bellagio Center, the Fulbright Foundation, the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and others. Frost’s collaborations with the artist Dianne Kornberg have been shown at museums and galleries across the U.S. Frost is Professor of English and Women’s / Gender / Sexuality Studies at Fordham University (New York City), where she is founder and editor of the Poets Out Loud Prizes book series from Fordham Press.


Ken Bolton: A Poem for Philip Whalen

  Ken Bolton

 2/12/08 — A Poem for Philip Whalen

(dated 2 December, 2008)

Philip Whalen as a young man, practising calligraphy, a big thing at Reed College in Portland Oregon where he lived.

“Here it comes again, imagination of myself”
Philip Whalen, ‘International Date Line, Monday /
Monday 27:IX:67’ (dated 27 September, 1967)

Cover image of “Lonnie’s Lament”, poems by Ken Bolton.

This poem is the first in the book Lonnie’s Lament, poems by Ken Bolton. This poem, for Philip Whalen, first appeared in Jacket2.


Here it comes again, imagination of myself:

I sit, in the harsh light, in a study


It’s the light I like,

& it’s late.

“In a study” always suggests “He was in

a bad mood, tense with it” — not that —

reading Whalen, a book of drawings by Kirchner,

the Berlin Street Scenes — in an attempt

to gain some purchase, kick off

from something different — thinking

Ernst Kirchner, Self-Portrait as a Soldier; Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (German, Aschaffenburg 1880 – 1938 Davos)
Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915
Signed lower right: E. L. Kirchner
Oil on canvas
27 1/4 x 24 in. (69 x 61 cm)
Charles F. Olney Fund, 1950
AMAM 1950.29 – See more at:

of Yuri, a bit, Cath’s eldest son, the one

I know least but like & like his difficult life

& how he’s dealt with it. “Yuri — I will speak

with you later!” My friends the poets, famous,

in their way — in the not very satisfying way available

to them (some) — large in my mind at any rate —

& another, rather foolish, at the same time as

rather good — well, alternately, from poem to poem —

something of a comeback. Another friend, ill

seriously mortally time running out. How quickly? How

quickly for all of us, the question. (‘A’ question.) Anna, &

boyfriend Chris, on their anger at / fascination with

The Howard Years documentary a

self-serving account but, as they say, so far

the major & lone political fact of their lives

It will be their early history: yech — Reith,

Howard himself (whom I never expected

in the 80s I would have to hate — what future

did he have?). The rest.

‘Consigned’ now ‘to oblivion’ — to echo & re-echo

in succeeding waves

of revision, counter-construal,

like analyses of the Third Republic, the French

Second Empire. Where are we now? Even ‘interesting times’

seem to follow a pattern — the bangs & whimpers

louder, more ironically conventional for their

inadequacy to the occasion. Will America go under

because of Bush? how appropriate

But was that my point? Late at night,

not even worrying. Whalen … the Kirchner drawings.

Go under? What,

next week?

Okay, then.

“It may never happen!” Isn’t that the joke?

If it takes ten years, if it takes twenty,

it will be cataclysmic. Tho — (20 years) —

I might be out of the way — or less concerned by then.

If curious as to the outcomes. For

twenty years — for thirty — amused

— “amused at best” —

by Whalen’s politics — when I thought of them —

the raves & rants, observations,

of a hippy dropout. Well, a Beat

the one I like best. What did Whalen change?

He was sane, he set an example. Now,

as I read the poems, I find those same politics

both nostalgic & to the point.

What will I change —

if I put my crazy-arse shoulder to the wheel?

Is the answer: “In this vassal state?”


“You should have thought of this earlier”?

Leave a record, like Whalen did,

of clear perceptions. The avowedly

political — Naomi Klein, Tony Negri — seem no

nearer the mark, tho fun to think about, think

with. Negri, so systematic, abstract, & wishful.

(The ‘Multitude’ — what a category! How do I join, ha ha.)

The overweening confidence & blindness of

think-tank America: the End of History.?

Self-deluded — & the rest of the world knew.

(Cheney, Rumsfeld, the others — Pal,

we make history!)

A century

of Interesting Times. More. Beginning when?

1871? 1789?

The innocence, & the percipience,

of my artistic heroes seems so touching,

even their blindness. Manet O’Hara Coltrane

— loons like de Chirico, the Germans, Kirchner

Kokoschka, Adorno — Christa Wolf. Did they each sit up,

as I do, in bed — a sleeping other at their side —

writing, nodding off… ?

The fan is going & blows my page occasionally,

though I have weighted it now with Heavy Breathing,

Whalen’s orange-covered volume,

Heavy Breathing: Poems, 1967-1980, by Philip Whalen. Hardcover, 207 pages. Published June 1st 1980 by Four Seasons Foundation.

with its wonderful drawing … that is too smart

to date much, really. Then one day it will date

suddenly — the ironies, the humour, the seriousness

will cease to register — a fallen, a trashed

civilization. I hope not. Tho Whalen of course

could live with it. Less tied to this world than me.

I like life. I like ‘the continuing story’, anyway,

& will be unhappy about it, the rupture. Will

the rest of my life prepare me? (“Check the serenity!”

Ha ha ha. Dreaming?)

My body, turning, in some future.

L to R: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch, early in their careers.

Now I read this 24 hours later, & rub Cath’s

beautiful shoulder. If I “love life”

why haven’t I had one — like Whalen did?

Tho I must’ve — mine’s all GONE, right?

In fact I don’t know much about what Whalen did.

I seem to have spent mine day-dreaming — or thinking ‘hard’

about music, blues & jazz, & art — & making jokes & quipping

& making poems out of it. The women

I’ve hung around have kept me sane. (A few were

‘nuts’ — but I was nuttier.)

People just want to be happy? The big,

noble notions

exist, it sometimes seems, as ‘a caution’, to ‘ennoble’


with their ‘perspectives’. Rembrandt, for example,

those terrific self-portraits — pathos, self-knowledge … the rest.

Dignity & failure — etcetera. Yes,

but let fifteen minutes pass,

& he’s having a banana.

Or is that me?

A rollmop, then.

Ernest Kirchner, Three Dancers, etching, circa 1910.

Cath reads an old favourite, laughs occasionally,

reads me bits. The fan churns,

noisily. Tho we don’t notice. The night cooling

after a day of 42 & another of 37. Cool tomorrow,

at 27? 24? A small list of things-to-do builds.

My first week back at work.

Write to Sal, draw my hand

or wrist-&-watch, stuff to edit, CDs to copy

for Michael. I recommend to him

Floyd Jones: ‘Tore Your Playhouse Down’

how the song rolls so casually — solid, unfussed

the solos played on top of each other

a wonderful cacophony (Fred Below, Otis …)

The drawing — for Nick — illustration to something

he’ll print. Sal — after 20 years — to be

evicted from her flat. A view I love. She must, too.

‘Sydney’. Sydney as an idea. Slessor, Cossington-

Smith. Not that I care much about them: it is

Sal’s harbour view suggests them.

At last someone wants to charge real rent.

(The old owners must have died? — or sold up?)

Ernst Kirchner, Marcella, 1910-1920.

It will be weird if she moves somewhere I don’t know.

West, I guess.

                            A week later I have edited things,

Photocopied my arm — preparatory to drawing —

these are the easy things. Not written to Sal.

Tho what’s to say? You have to say something of course.

Very likely she is ready for change. Regretting

the view she will lose — but impatient with the place

now the move is on. She was always something

of a Futurist. One pictures her beautiful, goggled head

hunched forward to the sights of a WWI Fokker,

or leaning low & forward on a 1930s motorbike. Laurie jokes

that I should send the T-shirts to Les Murray,

they are so big. On different sides of the planet

we smile at the idea of Les — wearing the Brainard

T-shirt, a graphic proclaiming a reading. For Ted Berrigan,

for Joe Brainard & Anne Waldman. (“Oh, boy!”

says Nancy on one, “a Poetry Reading!”) Laurie’s

new book is out. Fingers bent,

curled over, relaxed, I draw my left hand, held

palm upward, & the wrist. My plan is to get it right

then copy it quickly with a firmer pen

& add the watch-band. Nick requires an image

— with which to feature a particular

bright red — & a poem, against which the drawing will be

set. (A poem I wrote years ago —

that Nick found & likes. I like it, too,

so why not?) Weeks have gone past. Unchanged, the world

continues — tho shifts occur, indeterminate. The

one stability is a US stalled, awaiting the appointment

of the next incumbent. Moves will begin

when he is sworn in — the slide, the counter-measures,

the moves of Russia, India, China, Europe.

Though it’s been non-stop ‘interesting times’,

most of it, in my life, has been going on elsewhere,

a pointy end far from here. For me,

no military service, no economic disaster.

My luck runs out?

‘Blues For The Girls’, ‘All Blues’, ‘Mary’s Blues’ —

names I consider

for a new book, ‘Mary’ being Mary Christie —

but it’s also an early Coltrane tune — & really

I would like it dedicated to Cath & Anna, the women

in my real life. Mary,

an old friend — in India now — in Japan for

the last seven years. More. I lived in her house

in Westbury Street. The Westbury Street Poems

once a title I hoped to publish.

I’m sitting here in Cork — the bar, not the town.

(Write to my Irish friends.) Joyce, or Joyce’s father, was

pleased to have

a painting of Cork, painted on cork, apparently.

Amused, I guess, at the finality & nominal closure
of the pun:

What’s that? ‘Cork.’

I find most puns shit boring, but still more so

the declaredly learned — discoursing

on their own ‘delight’ in them,

as if puns were naughty, & daring, & confirmed

their membership of some club — a kind of unofficial

High Culture Mensa. By the same token, I hate intellectuals

going on about Sport.

Why am I talking of this?

I don’t know.

So, here I sit in Cork, time running out, luck running out —

thinking about titles — tho I can’t make up my mind, &

writing them down means I can forget again for a while —

& think about art criticism — write some at any rate.

That is what someone wants me to do. And I’m ‘on to it’ —

I tell them. (I’ve done the drawing, meanwhile, & sent it off —

my wrist & hand — looking not too deformed — tho not

resembling exactly mine — which could be really satisfying.

Like ‘Cork’. My own hand by my own hand. Is that it?)

The letter to Sal is written, posted. I think it felt

too weird — shifty, dishonorable — to write here about

maybe writing — & then not get it done. I tell her

about my picture of her as a Futurist. The

close-helmeted figure, in goggles — coming from

a Lina Wertmuller film — tho which one? In it

the joke Fascist — lantern-jawed — dumb machismo type —

speeds about, aerodynamic —

acting out his picture of himself as he does.

Tho who am I to talk? (Not exactly lantern-jawed,

not exactly machismo — tho — like a Fascist — seemingly

a little down on intellectuals: When I hear the word “pun”

I reach for my revolver! Yike!)

Mimi The Metal-Worker.

My father’s war — the second, ‘world’ war — was an odd one —

significant in his life — along the Some Came Running lines:

he was young, free (single, at least), he joined up

not to fight so much as to travel —

waiting for call-up would mean permanent duties

in Australia, & call-up seemed inevitable. My father

joined, hoping to see the world. He would have, too —

except he & his friend proved such a combination

on the 25 pounder the generals kept them home,

for permanent display. (See that tree on that hill,

says one general to another. I have a pair here

who can take it out first shot! Bolton! Nicholls! Load up!)

(Or so I imagine.)

Dad was stuck here

as his regiment — regiments — would ship out …

to New Guinea, Africa, the Middle East. My father

took increasingly long vacations AWOL & was

regularly punished. Why did you do this, Private Bolton?

Because I could. I see. From that period of his life,

a kind of paradisal time of boredom, fun, cameraderie,

he had endless stories, that I heard endless times

& can remember & would like to hear again,

hear my father tell them. Tho he’s gone. Time

having run out. (Me, my

watch, & I.)

Cath will show up soon, any minute, & we’ll

cross the street & shop in the markets, buying

fruit & vegetables, bread — for the weekend & the Monday,

which is Australia Day & a public holiday.

(Public Holidays, unfortunately,

mean nothing to me — as I don’t work Mondays

& nobody cares about Australia Day — this is Australia!

Altho, increasingly, people seem to. Well, count me out.)

Whoa! Close call. The girl taking coffee outside

is nearly collected by a young guy on a skateboard going by.

Luckily she pauses on the doorstep just in time.

Cath’s arrived. (Sal,

I was going to say, liked my father,

& his stories.) My time

would have been different — Vietnam.

(Which I am grateful to have missed. Demonstrating against it

was bad enough — the real thing would have been awful.

My father told me — I remember — not to go if I was called up:

‘Disappear,’ he said.

                                                              But it didn’t eventuate.

It did for others.)

                                       Australia Day,

at Margaret & Crab’s. We sit out on their

verandah, in the dusk & then the dark, talking,

catching up, watching the street lights & moonlight

thru the leaves, listening to parties up & down,

watching young people visit. The dog, Molly,

excited & attentive, yapping occasionally,

at other times absorbed, silent.

It’s hot, tho cool by now. Marg’s hair,

cut shorter than usual — like a Cleopatra cut

but abbreviated, sharp. It resembles the haircuts of the girls

in Kirchner’s & Heckel’s paintings — & Schmidt-Rottluff’s —

so severe & modern.

These models were the women Kirchner hung about with.

Girlfriends. I saw a photo of one recently — Nina Hardt — & was

Amazed at how modern the haircut seemed

Severe & sure, ‘Bauhaus’: the woman looked independent

& unfaked. Though this was before WWI — before

the Bauhaus, the Tingle-Tangle Girls, Dada.

Dancer Nina Hardt, at Kirchner’s flat, 1921. Photo by Ernst Kirchner.

It is a shock to see in the photo the real life

the painting depicted — suddenly actual,

a moment — not bent to a purpose.

Some of the Berlin scenes are pretty good.

But it’s the scenes of bathing at the lake I like

& cabaret girls dancing — where Kirchner,

as well as being suckered by the women’s beauty,

depicts their friendship & humour: in the chorus line

there are always two shown in conversation.

Ernst Kirchner, Four Panama Dancers, 1910-11. North Carolina Museum of Art, bequest of W.R. Valentiner.

Crab points out the perfect sweetness & beauty,

& construction,

of a Little Walter solo behind Muddy.

Etta James is dead. I hadn’t realized.

Perfect in her own way, a few times. An

unhappy life.

                        She will be remembered longer than me.

Unless, in the library, in the Himalayas, in 2333,

some monk decides the poetry of Australia 300 years earlier

really was interesting — & allows himself a footnote.

“Ken Bolton answered phones in an art gallery, ran a bookshop,

& wrote poems of wistful humour.”

I see it in a small hand on an index card —

“a provincial poet in the era

of Late High Capitalism —

not much regarded,”

I have to laugh. What’s that great line

of Apollinaire’s,

about tossing your life off like a drink?

I finish my coffee up. (I expect

this looks like decision. Tho in fact it means

Time for work. I go there.)

Philip Whalen as an old Zen monk.

Emily Bilman: Geoffrey Hill’s Poetry

  Dr. Emily Bilman

  Geoffrey Hill’s Poetry

  and The Phenomenology of the Non-Self

Perhaps it should be mentioned that John Tranter, the editor of JPR, is not overly fond of Hill’s poetry

Paragraph One follows — 1:

The purpose of this introductory paper is to trace Geoffrey Hill’s poetic evolution and demonstrate one of Geoffrey Hill’s concepts of poetry as an action experienced and elaborated through his inner life and shaped by his poetical thought. I chose the chronological approach to his work in order to indicate the progression of his poetical thought based on his personal phenomenology. The close reading of his poems enabled me to analyze the changes in his poetic techniques and his poetic progression from a more concrete imagistic and moral stance to a more abstract, skeptical, and stoic one, characterized by his non-self that enabled him to objectify his perceptions while still maintaining his imagery and moral stance. Through his poems, I described his “non-self” that characterizes his later work to the point of self-censure and self-deprecation expressed mainly by archaic poetic techniques applied to actual poetics, referencing, oxymorons, irony, sarcasm, aphasia, negation, and inverse logic.


The Greek etymology of the word “poësis” implies a technique based on the act of shaping. In “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’”, Hill argues that we encounter both the menacing and atoning qualities of poetry within language and etymology. For Hill, as for T.S. Eliot, poetry is “… an exemplary instance of the at-one-ment of the ‘sense of language’ with the feeling for the ways of life.” Like Eliot, in “The Three Voices of Poetry”, Hill considers poetry to be a deed which, ought to be, but is not, necessarily, in accordance with our emotions. Compromises are needed. In “Poetry as Menace and Atonement”, Hill quotes the philosopher Rhush Rees to emphasize that utterance and active living are inseparable: “For we speak as others have spoken before us. And a sense of language is also a feeling for ways of living that have meant something.” (CCW, p. 13).


Hill’s concept of poetry as a deed is suggested in “Genesis”, the opening poem of his book, For the Unfallen (1959), in which the poet assumes a God-like persona and speaks as the world’s Creator.


/ = stressed syllable
\ = half-stressed syllable
u = unstressed syllable
(u) = a syllable missing from a metric form
| = divides the feet apart

| u / | u / | u / | u / |
Against the burly air I strode
| / u u | / u u | u / | (u) (u) |
Crying the miracles of God.


The strong rhythmic tetrameter of the first line, which accentuates the consonants, contains the oxymoron “burly air” that emphasizes the poet’s mixed feelings towards God’s miracles. “Burly” implies heft against the lightness of “air”. Furthermore, the poet takes on a moral weight, transcribed throughout the poem, through images of Nature’s fallen state that accentuate the animals’ precise, steel-like hunting instincts, despite their soft demeanors that are due to the poet’s personal projections.


And the third day I cried. ‘Beware
The soft-voiced owl, the ferret’s smile,
The hawk’s deliberate stoop in air,
Cold eyes, and bodies hooped in steel,
Forever bent upon the kill.’ (BH, p.3)


These images of Nature, driven by predation and bloodshed, transform the poem into a parody of the Genesis myth of creation. In his essay, “Common Weal, Common Woe”, Hill associates the deficiency of language with the fallibility of mankind. (CCW, p. 279, citing Newman). His belief in the Fall is also stated in “Poetry and Value” : “… attached as I am to a form of belief in Original Sin, one that is probably not too far removed from the orthodox…” (CCW, p. 479); for “There is no bloodless myth will hold.” (Genesis, BH, p. 3). Have the unbaptized not been baptized by the bloodshed in the world, Hill asks.


In “History as Poetry” which is contained in his next book, King Log (1968), Hill sees poetry as a Pentecostal feast referring both to the Jewish harvest festival of Shavuot and the instauration of , and to the Christian Pentecost when the Holy Spirit enlightened the souls of his disciples, followers, and martyrs. Hill also refers to the redemptive powers of poetry through the personification of Lazarus raised from the dead by Christ:


Unearths from among the speechless dead
Lazarus mystified, common man
Of death. (BH, p. 61)


According to Hill’s poetics, the act of poetry resurrects Lazarus and common man from death. Lazarus is, thus, mystified. Paradoxically, the process is both an act and a mystery for Hill. He implies that poetry is a secular and religious celebration for common man and the poet is Christ-like. Sarcastically, he associates history and its martyrs with his poetry.


In “September Song — born 19.6.32 — deported 24.9.42” from the same book, Hill harshly denounces the atrocities of the concentration camps with an antithetical historical allusion to the miraculous salvation of the Jewish children in Egypt “passed over at the proper time.” in stark contrast to the scientifically planned Nazi genocide of WWII.


As estimated, you died. Things marched,
Sufficient, to that end.
Just so much Zyklon and leather, patented
Terror, so many routine cries. (BH, p.44)


Ironically, the poet protects himself from these atrocities by transforming his poem into an elegy. The elegy stands in contrast with the lyrical quality of the next stanza: “September fattens on the vines. Roses / Flake from the wall. The smoke / Of harmless fires drifts to my eyes.” And he, immediately, feels the weight of guilt : “This is plenty. This is more than enough.” (BH, p. 44). Hence, we see that the weight of the world makes the poet write about man’s fallenness, through original sin, as it is manifest through historical upheavals, martyrdoms, and the massacre of innocents whose awareness inflicts his super-ego with guilt.


Guilt, memory, and poetic language, expressed through Petrarch’s persona among others, are the main themes of The Triumph of Love (1998). For Hill, poetry as utterance and active virtue, are civic actions which must be used for the common good. In Section LXX, which has a conversational tone, the poet seeks “a noble vernacular” to reach common man through poetry.



Active virtue: that which shall contain
its own passion in the public weal —
do you follow? — or can you at least
take the drift of the thing? The struggle
for a noble vernacular: this
did not end with Petrarch. But where is it?
Where has it got us? Does it stop, in our case,
with Dryden, or, perhaps,
Milton’s political sonnets? — the cherished stock
hacked into ransom and ruin; the voices
of distinction, far back, indistinct.
Still, I’m convinced that shaping,
voicing, are types of civic action. Or, slightly
to refashion this, that Wordsworth’s two
Prefaces stand with his great tract
on the Convention of Cintra, witnessing
to the praesidium in the sacred name
of things betrayed. Intrinsic value
I am somewhat less sure of. It seems
implicate with active virtue but I cannot
say how, precisely. Partaking of both
fact and recognition, it must be, therefore,
in effect, at once agent and predicate:
imponderables brought home
to the brute mass and detail of the world;
there, by some, to be pondered. (LXX, BH, p. 259).


Hill supports his stance of committal in world-affairs by referencing Wordsworth’s two Prefaces to The Convention of Cintra, signed in August 30, 1808, which ended the Peninsular War between the French and the Anglo-Portuguese, allowing the former to be evacuated with their war-loot despite the Spanish protest. Wordsworth wrote a sonnet on the convention in which he stresses the importance of the innate freedom of the soul and the individual’s freedom of thought, influenced as he was by the French Revolution.


In Section LXX, Hill regrets that Milton’s political sonnets remain unread today. Yet, he strikes a satirical note by saying that the poem’s form does not correspond to its content as it once did in Milton’s time. The poet considers Wordsworth to be the “witness… of the praesidium in the sacred name / of things betrayed”. (LXX, BH, p. 259).


His implications are double-edged : the Anglo-Portuguese army’s action to evacuate the French army was considered to be “a betrayal” by the intellectuals of the time. Hill uses the predicate “betray” in the sense of “flawed”, implying, after Wordsworth and Byron, that the post-war diplomatic negotiations, the convention, and Sir Arthur Wellesley’s trial, the praesidium, were flawed by historical contingencies. Yet, the action and the diplomatic intervention served to stop the war. As such, it must have had “(the) sacred name” of peace.


In his essay “Poetry and Value”, Hill explains the relations between his concept of “intrinsic value” and poetic language with the metaphor of poetics as a ganglion of energy : “I am here presenting two interinvolved … categories … : questions related to the nature of language and questions related to poetics. … it is this latter ganglion of energy, techné, belief, and opinion that I have committed myself to address… ” (BH, p. 479).


In the poem, Hill hesitates to think that, perhaps, “active virtue” might be implicated by “intrinsic value”. He hesitates to know how. Finally, he recognises and concludes that “intrinsic value” is both the catalyst-agent and the predicate that drives men to action so that “the brute mass and detail of the world; / there, by some, (can) be pondered.” (LXX, BH, p. 259).


In Section CXLII of The Triumph of Love, Hill considers the classical rhetorical practice of ‘praise and vituperation’ as a formal poetic device applicable to The Triumph of Love (1998) and Speech! Speech! (2000).


I have introduced,
It is true, Laus et vituperatio
as a formality; still this formal thing
is less clear in situ. That —
possibly — is why I appeal to it. The Angels
of Sacral Equivocation, they now tell me,
are redundant: we have lost the Bloody Question.
(CXLII, BH, p. 283).


As seen in this section, The Triumph of Love is written in many voices, which enunciate even the rights of the dead victims who have fallen to inequity. The angels of equivocation, which make men speak differently than they think and feel, have ‘supposedly’ been made redundant. Yet, even today, we are still divided between our thoughts and actions. The angry poet thinks that we have lost the questions that can make us purge evil, yet these questions still remain to be answered. The answers wait [to] be joined in both utterance and act. As the discrepancy between world-events and the words needed to express them widens, Hill brings poetry to the public domain as a civil act of responsibility by questioning the contemporary use “in situ” of the classical rhetorical device. “Though you can count on there being some / bloody question or other, one does more / than merely survive.” (CXLII, BH, p. 284).


In a different context, Hill places the poet, as the speaker in the public domain, in Speech! Speech! (2000) which is confessional in tone yet, written in many voices, some of which are satirical. He bases this long poem on self-derision, sometimes turning it against himself, to the point of speechlessness. As the book opens, the poet, under the influence of lithium to calm his nerves, reduce his “mood- and mind-stress,” and his excitement, wonders whether he has any voice left at all to speak:


How is it to be named, how can it be un-
tuned, with lithium, this harp of nerves? Fare well
my daimon, inconstant
measures, mood- and mind-stress, heart’s rhythm
suspensive; earth-stalled the wings of suspension.
                    (3, BH, p. 290)


In Speech! Speech! Hill goes through a process of renunciation and self-denial to the point of reaching his “non-self” that I call the poet’s “virtual self” which I regard as one of the conditions of the poet’s creativity as well as of his empathy and nihilism. With his virtual self which is part of his creative self, the artist is able to objectify his perceptions in order to be able transcribe them into the media of art.


In the book, he uses street jargon, slang, puns, and cliché to denote his gradual descent into silent speechlessness. In Section 16, the poet’s memory-loss is equated with self-loss. The poet reaches the point of selflessness which, he thinks, is the condition of the self’s renewal. The last line in sequence 16 is also associated with the Christian paradox of deprivation, suffering, and redemption by the cross.


untranscribable, that which is wrests back
more than can be revived; inuring us
through deprivation, below and beyond life,
hard-come-by loss of self self’s restitution.
                    (16, BH, p. 296).


Yet, despite Hill’s occlusions and elliptical syntax, Speech! Speech! is written in an almost perfect pitch which, for Hill, is the hallmark of poetry because it transcribes the sound of music by the human voice. In his essay, “Translating Value”, he quotes Hopkins: “’Nothing else in nature comes near this unspeakable stress of pitch, distinctiveness, and selving, this selfbeing of my own.” (CCW, p. 391).


The discrepancy between the perfect pitch of poetry and an utter despair that plunges him into temporary nihilism, as he faces a fallen world, creates the tension inherent in Hill’s later poetry. In The Orchards of Syon (2002), he describes his perception of Elysium, feeling a sense of at-one-ness with his fellow-men.



Not all the orchards are for carols of death
and betrayal, the first the final
coupling, virgin fatality…
Goldengrove laid bare, becalmed,
lightly stretched in snow; peacock
and peahen treading in the white grass.
The Master of the Lost Fecundities
retraces leaf-spoor and hieroglyph,
makes equal atonement.
The hellebore, the Christmas rose, is crowned king.
Yes and we have gifts, at one with the Other.
Such tendernesses to our selves I mean,
Perennial, like the ilex. (BH, p. 377).


In Section XXVII, Hill thinks that man, regardless whether he is satisfied or not, survives his despair through freedom and determination, an idea that he expressed in an older version which was deleted from the present version. For Hill, every strife-driven and, at times, desperate common man, possibly symbolised by “The Master of the Lost Fecundities”, attains equal atonement. (Italics mine). The symbol also alludes to the myth of Osiris and man’s regeneration through the harvest. The poet feels an oceanic togetherness with his fellow men and a simultaneous tenderness, mixed with a need for protection, emotions he considers to be “perennial like the ilex.” The red berries of the ilex are toxic for humans although they can be digested by birds and propagated on an invasive scale. Yet, Hill wishes them to be perennial. “Bless poetics / if this is what they are.”


As in his many poems, in the following ekphrastic poem from his book, Without Title (2006), Hill enables us to see and feel the person behind the poem through the autobiographical elements in his verse. “The Jumping Boy” is based on a 1929 painting by the British artist Christopher Wood.




Here is the jumping boy, the boy
who jumps as I speak.

He is at home on the king’s highway,
in call of the tall house, its blind
gable end, the trees — I know this place.

The road, on broad contourings drawn out of sight,
stops — wherever — but not at Lyonnesse,
though from Lyonnesse I shall bring you,

through grimed orchards, across gorse-hummocked
old common land everywhere given back
to the future of memory.


He leaps because he has serious
joy in leaping. The girl’s
eyes no way allowed for, or else
she is close in covert and we
are to know that, not knowing how.
I’ll bet she worships his plebeian
bullet head, Hermes’ winged
plimsolls, the crinkled toy tin hat
held on by elastic. He is winning
a momentous and just war
with gravity.


This may be levitation. I
could do that. Give my remembrance
to his new body. These episodes recur.


Jump away, jumping boy; the boy I was
shouts go. (BH, p. 487)


This poem implies a graver introspection that transcends mere lyricism. Hill’s voice denotes a dédoublement which places the poet, in the past, with the young lad jumping in joy and, in the present, “I know this place”. The poet addresses the reader and himself, as a boy and as an adult. He deems it his determined duty to bring them back from the Arthurian legend that the poem is steeped in. The “old common (and native) land (would be) everywhere given back / to the future of (the boy’s, the poet’s, the reader’s) memory.”


The poet is torn between antithetical images of a legendary land and his own perception of the land, stretched from the past to the future, and expressed in the immediate imperative present of the poem. Through the use of oxymorons, the anticipating poet is liberated from the gravity of the reference to Tristan’s tragedy that weighs and will continue to weigh on him, through his future memory. (Italics mine).


The poem’s temporal ambiguity is further emphasized in the last two stanzas. Hill wants to remember the boy’s body in its lightness but also knows that it belongs to the past. “Jump away, jumping boy; the boy I was / shouts go.” In the last stanza, Hill leaves the reader hesitating to know whether he is willing to abandon his lyrical voice by shouting “go” or whether he will continue to write in his lyrical voice in the future. His ekphrastic poem, based on the poet’s perceptive experience of his life-story, transmits a double-edged, bittersweet message of déjà vu to the reader due to the poet’s repressed childhood feelings, aspirations, and memories.


Yet another poem from one of his later books, “A Treatise of Civil Power” (2007), contains an ekphrastic allusion to Blake’s painting, “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan”, through which Hill, sardonically voices his opposition to British imperialism. The poem is called “On Reading Blake: Prophet Against Empire” and opens with Hill’s justification of adult cynicism that he compares with child-like innocence: the child loses his milk-teeth before he can pronounce words like “Quid” or even see things from an slant angle. In the second stanza, Hill identifies with Blake who was persecuted by the hazardous “Law’s dice-rattle” of his time for his unconventional religious practices. Yet, despite the discrimination that victimized him, instead of becoming an opportunist, Blake became nobler through a sublime chance.


Tongue-in-cheek, Hill continues to the third stanza: “As to the sublime, don’t take / my gloss on it. The Spiritual Form / of Nelson Guiding Leviathan: you behold / only the hero, the corpses, and the coils / of his victories, grandly weighed and spread. / For a long age you do not see the monster,” (BH, p. 569). The painting’s composition, with its bright colours and the nude figure of Nelson both as a classical Greek god and a haloed Christ-like figure, repelling the monster that holds the nations as prisoners in its coils, leads the beholder to experience grandeur and awe in the phenomenological sense. But the great poet, much like the painter, Hill implies, rejoices in the artifice of the artwork and that of the poem, and ignores the leviathan, the double allegorical symbol of war and the ambiguous emperor.


In William Blake, the poet-critic, Kathleen Raine, says that “… in 1809… it seems that Blake was a supporter of the national cause against Napoleon, if not in the conventional sense, at least in the prophetic region of spiritual causes. But ‘the happy country’ of which he called himself a citizen was the ‘Kingdom not of this world.’” Blake’s ideal world of Messianic peace, good will, and harmony would be brought by the Second Coming of Christ, and voiced in his poem Jerusalem through which, Hill, after Whitman, thinks, “he could / contradict and contain multitudes.” (BH, p. 569).


Blake transposes his idealistic view of Jerusalem to England to assure people’s unity and simultaneously, contradict the “satanic mills” of the the Industrial Revolution that mechanized human relations. Through Blake’s persona, whom he identifies with Christ’s, and through his own unconscious identification with both of these personae, Hill assumes a poetic persona associated with the Anglo-Catholic Trinity. Through his identification with Christ, whose suffering and martyrdom leading to his cruxifiction, neutralised him to the point of defying death, Hill like Blake, attains the marriage of contraries to attain a non-self or a state in which “Terror is opportune as is relief from terror.” (Stanza I, BH, p. 569).


Thus, for Hill, working with language and poetry signifies that “From the depths of the self we rise to a concurrence with that which is not-self.” (CCW, p. 4). The co-existence and/or the co-operation of the self with the non-self implies a process of thought and interiorization, in the Piagetian sense, that leads the poet to deal with abstractions like faith, justice, truth, virtue etc.


In “Poetry and Value”, Hill refers to Coleridge’s chapter, called “Prudential Aphorisms” in the second edition of Aids to Reflection, to explain the role of the moral philosopher. He comments on the misuse of abstractions, more specifically, the misuse of the word “reflection” by laymen. Coleridge, like Jean Piaget, wrote on “reflection” or “thought” as a “’co-instantaneous yet reciprocal action’. Coleridge linked language with individual will and an empowering law. He, like Hill, thought of “’THE WORD, as informing; and THE SPIRIT, as actuating.’” (CCW, p. 448). Hill, after Coleridge, thinks that words inform us while the spirit or the mind actuates language that is the basis of thought. As such, we see the interrelations between Hill’s reference, Coleridge’s idea of reflection, and the Piagetian paradigms.


At the end of Prophet Against Empire, having referenced Blake’s metaphysics, the poet finds himself in a state of “mere amazement” for his “dumbness” which causes a state of aphasia. Through irony, double negation, and inverse logic, Hill says that his “dumbness” does not correspond to the dumbness assumed by the republic (res public : public matters); and can not even clash with it except in matters of public utility like money or imported gas that are the “… tyrants / of unaccountable error”. (BH, p. 570) due to economic exploitation, market policies, and the constant abuse of power.


The last two stanzas (VIII & IX) are voiced in the tone of Beckettian indifference by an aging poet, exhausted by his incapacity to repair a world that has almost turned absurd. Hill uses the metaphor of the “baffle-plates” to symbolise man’s inner world, his defences, emotions, passions and aspirations, which are built “with the dexterity of a lifetime” but “dutifully” relinquished as death approaches through exhaustion, ire and/or wrath. Man and the poet, nearing death, ignore the flames behind the screen, a symbol of the intermediary realm between language and inexpressible metaphysical entities. In a sardonic comment of social satire, Hill says that man avoids the danger of combustious sights and old people. Finally, the aged man, nearing death, is left with the sole organ of orality, speech, and survival — his “mouth working.” The poet seems to know about death before it occurs.


One dies dutifully, of fearful exhaustion,
Or of one’s wrathful self, self’s baffle-plates
Contrived with the dexterity of a lifetime.
Nobody listens or contradicts the screen
Though, homeward bound, some find combustious
Sights to be stepped aside from — an old body
Its mouth working.


“Broken Hierarchies”, which is also the title poem of his collected poems (1952-2012), is a pastoral about a post-hierarchical fallow-world that had been broken by war, anarchy, injustice, and inequity. The chalk hills are geological structures formed by subsidence, sea-floor spreading, and consequent elevation at the time of the Alpine orogenesis in the Cretaceous period (145-66 mya) characterised by mass extinction of life on earth.


In the first four stanzas of the poem, Hill uses the metaphor of the British chalk cliffs “ — heavy rain — … / chalk-white yet with the chalk translucent;” (BH, p. 516) that had been broken by orogeny, then erosion, to make a satirical social commentary on the degradation of our social cohesion, symbolised by “the holding burden of wistaria / drape amid drape, the sodden / copia of all things flashing and drying:” Yet, Hill attains a sacred quality through the superimposed images of the butterflies in a personified oxymoron “a babble of silent tongues” and the personification of “the flint church also choiring / into dazzle”. The secular pastoral becomes a sacred song. The oxymoron “a babble silent tongues” could also be an ironic reference to the poet’s internalised poetic activity.


Most of the images of the second section could refer to the distorted effects of human existence that require “… a wild patience” / “replete with loss”. The implications of a perverse sexuality, symbolised by “the twankled dulcimer”, denotes a degenerate phenomenology denoting the broken hierarchies. Hill further emphasises these through the combined metaphor of the non-working male bee that fertilises the queen in the bees’ social colony and the hummingbird that settles in from another continent while the albatross wanders in from a foreign ocean “ranging-in” to his native shore that it fails to recognise. Hill’s implications are all negative at this stage.


The second four stanzas of the poem are antithetical to the pastoral first part made up of five stanzas, an asymmetry through which, Hill also hints at the broken hierarchies. As a possible reading, the referential images of the second section can be read as negative counterparts of the first section : aureate stark sounds versus heavy translucent rain; the tw(a)nkled or tw(i)nkling dulcimer versus the choiring church; the foreign humming bird against the probing native butterflies; and finally, the alien shore versus the brightness of the flint church. The overlapping oxymorons, the mixed metaphors, and the stark contrast between these two sections all serve to demonstrate the broken hierarchies.


Yet, there is a tone of stoic acceptance of these hierarchical breaches that give a lyrical unity to the whole poem. It is interesting to note that, in the CD-recorded poetry reading he gave on the 1st of February 2006, in Oxford, Hill read “Broken Hierarchies” as a continuous poem without stopping between the two parts as was indicated by an ellipsis, marking a change, in tone and intention, in the written text of the poem. In the written text, the poem is tied to an elliptical poetic syntax and to a reader-oriented, extensible temporality. This discrepancy could be due to the urgent and compelling immediacy of the poet’s time-bound oral reading.


This introductory paper to Hill’s poetry tried to demostrate that through his poetic techniques and shifting poetic personae, Hill uses words as a moral philosopher to emphasize his awareness and civic responsibility in front of history’s heft based on his phenomenology. The implication for the reader is to study history, linked with linguistics, in order to re-evaluate historical facts and political contingencies, and re-shape them in written form which, for Hill, constitute the foundations of civic action. The poet’s awareness of the weight of the world, through the Piagetian processes of internalised abstract thought from which his values emanate, allows him to write about the impending weight of the world.


Through his identification with and internalization of the historical or political contingencies that are, at first, exterior to the self, Hill attains a state of transcendent no-thingness that is the “non-self” allowing him to purify himself of guilt and become non-judgmental. He is, then, able to carry the weight of the world with his words and his shifting poetic persona(e). As he writes in sequence 20 of “The Argument of the Masque” in Scenes from Comus (2005): “That weight of the world, weight of the word, is. / Not wholly irreconciliable. Almost. / Almost we cannot pull free; almost we escape… .” (BH, p. 430) through poetry.


As seen in Section LXX of The Triumph of Love, for Hill, the intrinsic value of words, through their etymology and historical usage, can be both agent and predicate, leading us to action for the common weal. Hill is, thus, able to transcend his deep-seated scepticism through a leap of faith that is linked with his interaction with the different layers of language and etymology.


In his later poetry and in Speech! Speech! the poet moves from a stance of consciousness of man’s fallibility which fills him with guilt to an objectified state of guiltless “non-self”, devoid of passion and guilt, that allows him to think, imagine, empathize, write, and criticize the world’s atrocities which he writes about in “September Song” “On Reading Blake: Prophet Against Empire” and “Broken Hierarchies.” As Hill progresses to a state of “non-self” in his later work, it is to be noted that he does not abandon the use of his poetic techniques and imagery but continues to use them despite his renunciation. In theological terms, he attains atonement from sin through self-sacrifice and the negation of the self’s egotism, a process of iinteriorization, through which Hill, as everyman, attains communion and compassion.


He states in “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement’” : “Ideally, … my theme would be simple… that the technical perfecting of a poem is an act of atonement, in the radical etymological sense — an act of at-one-ment, a setting at one, a bringing into concord, a reconciling, a uniting in harmony… ” (CCW, p. 4). For Hill, words are the world.


In “Poetry and Value”, he further emphasizes his deep conviction: “… ‘intrinsic value’ is a form of technical integrity that is itself a form of common honesty.” (CCW, p. 481). Hill thinks that words are the mediators between linguistic technicalities, like Hopkins’ instress and inscape, and the poet’s internal values that spring from the cognitive processes of his reciprocal thinking. In the above essay, Hill refers to the second edition of Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection to ascertain that language does not emanate from reflection but is inherent within the activity of reflection itself. As Coleridge wrote: “’For if words are not THINGS, they are LIVING POWERS, by which the things of the most importance to mankind are actuated, combined, and humanized.’” (CCW, pp. 488-489).


Ford, James L. and Mary K. eds. Every Day in the Year: A Poetical Epitome of the World’s History (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1902), or

Hill, Geoffrey. Collected Critical Writings, ed. Kenneth Haynes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Hill, Geoffrey. Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Raine, Kathleen. William Blake (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2014)


Dr. Emily Bilman is London’s Poetry Society Stanza representative and hosts poetry meetings in her home in Geneva. She earned her PhD from East Anglia U where she taught literature. Her dissertation entitled, The Psychodynamics of Poetry, was published in 2010. Modern Ekphrasis, dealing with the poetry-painting analogy from Plato to Derrida, was published by Peter Lang, Switzerland in 2013. Her ms. Melville’s Metaphysics and The Ambiguity of Good and Evil is still unpublished. Her poems are published in The London Magazine, The Linnet’s Wings, Hunger Mountain, Offshoots VII & XII, Orbis, Poetry Salzburg Review, Iodine, Aois 21, The Battersea Review, San Diego Poetry Annual in America, and The Inspired Heart Vols. 1, 2, & 3, Ygdrasil, Tuck Magazine,, The Journal of Poetics Research, and in Canada. She writes for and edits the digital publication Her poetry books, A Woman By A Well and Resilience, are published by Matador, UK. She was recently awarded the first prize for ‘The Tear-Catcher’ by The New York Literary Magazine and her poems were broadcast on Bashani Radio, New York. She blogs on

  Author Photo

Dr Emily Bilman


Arpine Konyalian Grenier: 2 poems

  Arpine Konyalian Grenier

  2 poems

  from Willed Capital

Contouring Will

Ah the temper of mainstays and noodling minds thinking
it’s not what all it was meant to be but
it is something

some music thing cuddling fear unto death
enacting responsibilities for ground
the pull non-material for example

non-matter labelled spiritual lacks definition
morphs into interrupted recitative meter
blocks my domain

the ontic that I am faces non-utilitarian rules
harnesses restrains to hold all
for some better use as if

                beauty is automated justice

inversions sprout beholden to need
give me the story you say
there is no story

freedom shuns the algebraic we hold
in childhood ways and reversibility

insignificance dulled passion

I abstract away with no path or order I say
I’m not the highest manifestation of will
nor self-replicating surveyor
one succumbs to

I insist on cloud space to study agency and subsets
song and sobs and sinew stamp me inevitable
the politic of language intercedes
one-liners and former lives
foreseen consequence
                                        the accidental natural

what and who come up as irrational or non-utilitarian
plethora of potential mistaken for violation
non-applicability contours fact
colors it
                bleeding continues

how the intended turns utilitarian then
the notion to act or not widens
omission related
                                narrows scope.

Claiming G, the Pull

What is motive is suspect when a world is bleeding in rage
distance and time revolve doors I knowingly go through
after undoing the delusions imposed on me
necessarily redundant

                but we love you they say

asymmetries cancel one another
regional experience mirrors
silicon drifts
                                hence tongue hence words

you and I had signed up for more however
how emotion informs and deforms
Gauss meter Coulomb all

                irresponsible bullets

          proof pending

nothing will make what’s unclaimed disappear
names we assign make me curious
what’s hidden is but impasse
implicate denied
                                particle withdrawal

bleeding continues decidedly
emotion inexorably paled
the new real hue
                                hence still

I we you quark to proton to black hole
shredding away expression
repeatedly reformed

did that star lose its hydrogen shield or what?
are dark holes spinning power modules?

the Universe may not be 83% dark matter after all
XNA may be the RNA for some other life
grotto peaks out there surrender to

                          put together love says

language evolving bullet by bullet as pace and position rephrase
hierarchy the indelible corruptively or corrupted
a question of put together lives
shifty and amorphous

limits chance its staging the framing and nostalgia
genotype to phenotype reels new and true
in and out of mutilated content

dulled beaks and armors beyond some
carp and kerosene hierarchy
hence fleeting hence still
hence tear
                        de la tête

we may be scalar fields or multi-colored energy
some small but heavy origin of mass begs for
hide for endurance potential or reverie
after a life a collective’s detail

bitten off pace and position to keenly be in
a cloudy space collapsing into star
primed and disposed

persistently disappearing to reappear
            roaring flashing sputtering sound

neither because nor product of darkened bone
a conventional something making news
indicating undone symmetries
but maybe not

the computational space of experience
language empathy and all part of
or because or does it matter?

yes it does but
does it



Arpine Konyalian Grenier is an independent scholar and poet, author of four collections: St. Gregory’s Daughter; Whores from Samarkand; Part, Part, Euphrates; The Concession Stand: Exaptation at the Margins. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.