Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Method is Public, Poetry Not So Much So (Perhaps)

Joe Harrington has been torturing himself (in a good way) over blogs for quite some time, making and re-making taxonomies of the "form." Joe's a reflective guy whose mind runs toward reflexivity. In his latest post, he notes, "The web log, like other logs, is written with time in mind - and marks time's passage. So do journals and letters. In that sense, these are all reflexive forms that invite reflection on their reflexivity. And the temporality is not just backwards (in the format), it's forward (new posts)." So far, so good, in my book. Or perhaps outside my book. For, he writes: "In a sense, a book is private - one has to physically have it; it is enclosed between covers. It costs money and a lot of time to make it. The blog opens out to a much wider audience, and invites that audience in. Immediately. Indeed, it might double-back against the Institutions of Art, or open towards activism against non-art institutions - which is what Mark Nowak's blog does, I think."

I have a quarrel with Joe about the distinctions he preserves between Art and the Public Life, although I understand why he keeps them in play; they're the walls of the squash court in which we pound our definitions and deal with the crazy bounces that ensue. But the question of what is public and what is private is more crucial now than it was in the pre-internet past. My Ph.D. student writes about celebrity in order to write about herself; she refuses to "go public," finds that she can use the odd public sphere of celebrity to get at issues that obsess her. The resistance I feel to using such masks (see Alfred Corn's recent post) is a resistance that surprises me, as I used to maintain a zone of privacy even in what I published. Dementia Blog finished off that notion for me, the most private work I've ever written--private not simply for me, but also for my mother, who is the subject of the work. It's her privacy I wonder about often, even as I think that making her Alzheimer's public will do someone else a private good. (The squash balls sure are bouncing now, aren't they?)

For some reason, I keep thinking about the alphabet as a way to get at the private/public ricochet. It's not that Ron Silliman's The Alphabet sits rotundly on my poetry shelves, among other S's. And it's not that I'm currently reading new books by Mary Jo Bang (The Bride of E) and John Ashbery (Planisphere), both of which organize their poems according to the alphabet, and that I return often to Tiare Picard's twin alphabet poems from Tinfish 18.5 for their richness, but also because I've always found the alphabet to be an odd way to organize the world (hence the chaos of my own paperwork?) The alphabet is a public form; a trip to any library will assure you of that. But to organize one's work alphabetically is to render it private. Or that's my hunch. This has something to do with the differences between method and practice, or that's my further hunch. The boundary between private and public in what we call "alphabetical order" blurs in both directions: the private becomes public, but the public also becomes private, which is the more radical direction, because less expected. The order the alphabet creates is arbitrary, paratactical. It's the kind of order that links "Nixon, Richard" with "non-absorptive writing," as in the index to my book of essays. There's surely something there, but its logic, while powerful, is accidental rather than considered. Yes, writing one's memoir takes one's private life and makes it available to a public one cannot see or even imagine. But there is a significant way in which the public is terribly private, too, not simply in the way we absorb public events, but in the way public events affect our language, our way of thinking. Our uses of language can illustrate the way privatization comes to make public/common spaces mysterious, and not always in ways beneficial to the community.

One of the few times I talked to John Ashbery, a few of us were sitting in a bar in a Washington, D.C. hotel in the mid-1980s. Behind me were bookshelves, the kind provided in bars as decor, not for the sake of knowledge. There was a line of books on the shelf behind me, so I pulled one out, and discovered that I held one letter of a children's encyclopedia. Ashbery's eyes grew even bigger than usual, as he told us that he'd memorized parts of that encyclopedia as a child. That Ashbery's new book is organized according to the alphabetical order of its titles should come as no surprise then, especially, as one of his earlier volumes was also organized in this way. My first encounter with Planisphere (this is not a review of the book!) reminded me of first encounters with other Ashbery books. Over and over I start out utterly baffled by his books, only to find ways of access later. (I'm not there yet.) So the book remains private to me, in code, and yet organized with the efficiency of a librarian or a shopkeeper. Mary Jo Bang's book is even more self-consciously an alphabet book, with titles like "B is for Beckett" and "E is Everywhere" and "I in a War," the last of these titles one of many that wanders away from its first principle. "For Freud" might be a subtitle of this book, as there are so many references to the ur-psychiatrist. Freud is called out by his letter as surely as is Mao Zedong in the "Z Stands for Zero Hour" poem that ends Part I of the book. History emerges out of a single letter, the private code (which is the alphabet for each of its users) rendered public. History as accidental passage.

Tiare Picard's two poems, "L'alphabet" and "Sans les Isles," make an opposing movement. Rather than summon history out of letters, Picard shows how history has privatized the very language we use, and in so doing, has rendered great parts of it into code. What was once history is now hidden, inaccessible, organized by letter only. Hence, "L'alphabet" begins with a colonial story told via the method of the alphabet poem:

All
bulldozers bully,
clank
down coral-crushed roads,
eunuchizing lingo, and
farting proper, dark smoke. (102)

The response, on the facing page, in "Sans les Isles," goes as follows:

b d z b y,
c
d c -c d d ,
c z , d
,d (103)
[layout below]




While terribly difficult to decipher, this is a very public move, from one poem to the next. In fact, that difficulty is part of the poem's (sharp) point, for the second poem is what happens to the first poem when the letters of the Polynesian alphabet are taken away from the English. That the English language embraces (or smothers) Polynesia comes clearest when Polynesia is taken out of it. When the bulldozers are done with Polynesian islands, when development has paved over the land, what the land is left with is scatter, the "coral-crushed roads" of the language itself. The book's design, which mimics word game puzzle books, accentuates the effect, as word games are those places where what has been kept secret is revealed as language.

In each of these instances, what is most public in the poem or the book of poems is the method. Alphabetical order is public; it's how we organize knowledge. Monks and google have used it, as it's a- or trans-historical. What is private is the poem's content, even if the significance of privacy is very different, depending on whether you look at Ashbery or at Picard, at a poem that includes Freud because his name starts with F or at a poem that gets bulldozed by development, for reasons greater than the letter D. If C was a Comedian, this D is not, even if the poem is itself extremely playful. If method is always a public activity, then what method enables is less so. But the real blurring of method and poem comes in these instances, like the one in Bang's poems that invoke Freud and Mao because their names begin with F and M, or as in Picard's poems, where what is most public (development, what one cannot not see) effaces history (renders it private, cryptic).

I will now post this blog entry. It will appear in order of the day it was composed and "published" (another private/public blurring). The way in which this day made this post possible is something only I know, or think I do. But when I hit the "button" at the bottom of the "page," its arbitrary order may become less arbitrary to its reader outside the blog box. Time offers an arbitrary order like the alphabet's. It too is a private space, crow-barred open by the completion of this method. There.

5 comments:

Alfred Corn said...

As always, thoughtful, Susan. But let me say that, after rereading my blog about coding, (which was introduced as being an argument against the opinion I've held for a long time), it seems to me that the new arguments are weak. So I've reverted to my first opinion, i.e., that "masking" isn't the best apoproach to writing poetry. As for the alphabet, I admit to being bored by the extent to which it's being used these days. In an earlier blog, the one listing contributors to the Sam Hamill fund, I listed them in reverse alphabetical order! No one noticed, of course.

Susan M. Schultz said...

The conversation continued on Facebook, between Mary Jo Bang, Alfred Corn, Joe Harrington, and myself:


Hi Susan! Thanks for talking about my book in your very interesting blog. I love the idea that the alphabet "organizes knowledge"—knowledge itself as opposed to parts of knowledge. Books also organize knowledge of course, and file folders do as well. But they are subsystems; they bracket small pieces of knowledge. The best art, it seems to me, takes private knowledge that can't otherwise be categorized and makes it public through indirection. If we didn't come at this area of knowledge (everything we know through private experience . . . which includes the making of art) tangentially, if we tried to come at it too directly, it would trivialize something enormous. Because the ineffable is always enormous. Isn't that what art is for? Momentarily (but only momentarily) taming, while not completely domesticating, the ineffable? Merry Christmas! xo Mary Jo

Susan M. Schultz said...

Thanks, Mary Jo, for letting me overhear this discussion. You may even want to leave a comment on my blog, where I took up the topic a few days ago. I take your point about ineffability. It's just that in vast majority of cases, what's being coded is =entirely= effable, the writer just doesn't want to go on record effing it. That is, does =and= doesn't want to go on record. S/he wants to go on record but in a way that puts him/her out of the reach of challenge or reproach. Which seems rather cowardly, doesn't it? But, sure, there are instances when a truth is unsayable because of its vastness and elusiveness; in those cases we'll use every means at our disposal--masks, coding, suggestion, even direct efforts at expression--to convey it.

Holly ad ivy to you, Alfred

Susan M. Schultz said...

Holly and ivy to you too, Alfred. And a Christmas gingerbread house (but no witches or Hansels in cages!). When you say that the writer "doesn't want to go on record" I get nervous because then we come to whether the reader is able to read what the writer has written. Let's take "The Waste Land" . . . which I think says a great deal. Some readers can't make sense of it so for them, it says nothing. It's evasive. For me, it says everything that needs to be said. So what do you do with that? I think the key is to talk about specific poems and not poetry in general. Or poets in general. And to understand that some art will work for some people and some for others. Some people will take the position that Beckett is a fraud with nothing to say. I say he speaks very clearly to me, but through indirection. I also think we readers have to wait until there's an entire body of work and then look back over it to find the writer's obsessions and preoccupations. Best wishes in the New Year. Mary Jo

Susan M. Schultz said...

I do wish this all were on my blog, but I love seeing it anywhere! Another question might be "what is effable?" Or, to what extent can language clearly convey what might be so? Because the ways in which language gets in the way are, in themselves, fascinating. In any case, good stuff, and happy Xmases to you both.

aloha, Susan

I just want to say I think it's so great that this discussion is happening (with these people) - on FB! I almost feel like, if it were on a blog, that would make it less ephemeral, and therefore less - well - pure. How's *that* for a neo-romantic sentiment?? Joe


Thanks, Mary Jo, for letting me overhear this discussion. You may even want to leave a comment on my blog, where I took up the topic a few days ago. I take your point about ineffability. It's just that in vast majority of cases, what's being coded is =entirely= effable, the writer just doesn't want to go on record effing it. That is, does =and= doesn't want to go on record. S/he wants to go on record but in a way that puts him/her out of the reach of challenge or reproach. Which seems rather cowardly, doesn't it? But, sure, there are instances when a truth is unsayable because of its vastness and elusiveness; in those cases we'll use every means at our disposal--masks, coding, suggestion, even direct efforts at expression--to convey it.

Holly ad ivy to you, Alfred

Holly and ivy to you too, Alfred. And a Christmas gingerbread house (but no witches or Hansels in cages!). When you say that the writer "doesn't want to go on record" I get nervous because then we come to whether the reader is able to read what the writer has written. Let's take "The Waste Land" . . . which I think says a great deal. Some readers can't make sense of it so for them, it says nothing. It's evasive. For me, it says everything that needs to be said. So what do you do with that? I think the key is to talk about specific poems and not poetry in general. Or poets in general. And to understand that some art will work for some people and some for others. Some people will take the position that Beckett is a fraud with nothing to say. I say he speaks very clearly to me, but through indirection. I also think we readers have to wait until there's an entire body of work and then look back over it to find the writer's obsessions and preoccupations. Best wishes in the New Year. Mary Jo

I do wish this all were on my blog, but I love seeing it anywhere! Another question might be "what is effable?" Or, to what extent can language clearly convey what might be so? Because the ways in which language gets in the way are, in themselves, fascinating. In any case, good stuff, and happy Xmases to you both.

aloha, Susan

I just want to say I think it's so great that this discussion is happening (with these people) - on FB! I almost feel like, if it were on a blog, that would make it less ephemeral, and therefore less - well - pure. How's *that* for a neo-romantic sentiment?? Joe