30 December 2002

Addendum: Dorn

Probably one of the reasons I'm attracted to the figure of Dorn as poet is that he comes from the middle regions of the USA, and not from an urban area, and for the most part of his life he did not live in major urban areas. Coming from Oklahoma, spending just a few college years in the Bay Area, then living in Oklahoma (Norman), Wisconsin (Madison), Arizona (Tucson), Minnesota (Minneapolis), and again Tucson, I share that sense of difference from what still seems to be a more common experience of poets, either to come from urban places or to go to such places (primarily New York or San Francisco) at a fairly young age and stay there. Of course, academic job hunting is changing that to some extent, and a general sense that one can do one's cultural work anywhere is changing that (the internet helps as well), too, yet still it seems that poets who primarily stay away from a very few urban centers are the exception. Dorn also the exception in his economic circumstances, his family history considerably less than middle class, and a big part of his own early working history that of a migrant laborer in various northwestern places. My own family history is of poor farmers in western Oklahoma who mostly escaped that life in my parents' generation by becoming teachers and/or joining the military, but most of whom did not leave Oklahoma for long periods of time.

Dorn's attitudes about poetry, though in part received from Charles Olson and others at Black Mountain, are still largely his own and escape the tendencies of the academy and of urban cultural practitioners to privelege art over life, theory over experience, and the imaginary over the actual (not that Dorn isn't aware that every one of those terms is highly problematic). Still, there was a comment on the Poetics list-serve from Buffalo recently that implied, for graduate students, that "knowing squat" was pretty much the same thing as not knowing "theory." I wanted to laugh out loud at the notion that knowing theory made anyone more intelligent than not knowing theory. That's like saying knowing how the camera lens works is more important than knowing the subject of the photograph. Or that knowing the complications of interpreting one's relationship to the world is more important than knowledge of the world -- and I say this knowing full well that taken to its extreme, privileging direct experience over knowledge of theory can also be naive and problematic -- but privileging theory in such an unconsidered way just strikes me as ludicrous. A particular lunacy that is not shared by Dorn in what he calls "the geography of my lunacy."

A World of Difference

Yesterday finished reading Tom Clark's biography of Ed Dorn, titled Edward Dorn: A World of Difference. I've already loaned it to a young friend who probably needs a model of someone who steadfastly did not fit in to any academic setting, at least until he was forty or so years old (Dorn).

It's a very odd biography, beginning in the late 1960's with Dorn (and Clark) in England at the Univ. of Essex, both there in some way through the vision of Donald Davie, both at a time of life change — for Dorn, the breakup of a fairly long marriage and the beginning of the relationship with Jenny that would last the rest of his lifetime (he died in December 1999). This time provides a reminder of how Dorn did not fit into an academic setting, as well as a siting of a radical agenda on campuses in France, where he went to see what was going on, returning to Essex to take side with radicals there, a decision that put him at odds with Davie.

Clark's life of Dorn then begins again at Dorn's beginning, continuing forward, but it mostly provides glimpses of specific instances that it connects to themes or methodologies in Dorn's writing, particularly beginning from landscape, which to Dorn, following Carl Sauer's "The Morphology of Landscape," is always the totality of what is present in the landscape, thus includes the land, the people and life thereon, its history, geology, economics, and much more. Clark provides a continuing series of such moments, paralleling, as he argues, what is a primary methodology of Dorn's writing, i.e. locating in place, and moving concentrically out and back in from that location, something that can be done in a very physical sense, as well as in social, economic, psychological, or other senses.

By doing so, Clark gives us a pretty good sense of what Dorn is about in an overall way, yet it feels like details are missing. Poems are looked at as evidence of Dorn's take on the landscape, not often in a more total sense of the evidence the poem itself presents. And much of the biography, its details, Dorn's relationships with others, etc., is missing. Also, except for that beginning period of 1966-67, the book's chronology stops in 1959 (except for the epilogue), leaving out nearly forty years of Dorn's life, including the writing of *Gunslinger* and the late poetry. Speaking as one who knew Dorn, although not as well as I would have liked, I don't feel the gracious and determined presence of Dorn in this book, not as I remember speaking to him, or reading his few welcome notes to me over the years. The one exception to this is the Epilogue, which treats the last two and a half years of Dorn's life, when he was dying of cancer. Here Clark mostly lets Dorn himself speak through journal entries, poems, and letters. Here Clark as organizer of the material is at his most generous and enabling.

I don't mean to knock the book too much. It's fascinating to read this poet's life, and the immense difficulties of its first three decades, a hard-scrabble life well below middle or working class. It's a good book, and its subject is fascinating, a poet like no other I've ever read. I just hope an even better and more complete biography comes out somewhere down the proverbial road.

28 December 2002

Poetry: a Physical Thing

Two gifts this season. First, a duo of books by bpNichol: *Comix,* and *Meanwhile: The Critical Writings.* Then, another duo, including a book by Ashley Kahn on the making of John Coltrane's *A Love Supreme,* and the newly released deluxe edition of *A Love Supreme* (first issued 1965, recorded 1964), including the original recording, some alternate takes, and the only live performance of the entire suite, at the Antibes Festival in France in 1965, some 6 months or more after the original recording.

These gifts have me thinking about a topic I haven't considered in awhile, yet which is an important part of how I think about poetry and language, that is, as physical substance. Nichol always saw it as such, an embodiment that included sonic properties, vibrations that could be physically felt, and even in visual poetry, a rhythmic use of space that had a physical substance. In the Comix, quite commonly a letter is represented as a physical body, and language itself is a substance, constantly morphing, constantly *present.* In a way, this keeps his work real, real as a substance, in a way that works that take themselves as texts without physical embodiments, don't experience.

In the first essay of *Meanwhile* the text of the essay is a voice speaking to us, as though the content of the book has developed a voice to speak to the reader. Much of Nichol's work explores the possibility of poetry as physical substance in a variety of ways, and takes its cues from Stein, Dada, letter forms, music, and much more. As both a poet concerned with such matters, and a maker of books (literature become physical), I am drawn to this work.

So much of our criticism of poetry, our poetics as well, seems in recent decades to have assumed text as lacking body, and that seems unfortunate to me. Nichol's work is a necessary point of departure, and is still largely untapped, particularly in the USA, in terms of where it might lead.

And Coltrane? Music of course has its sonic vibrations, rather it IS sonic vibration, so that it touches our body in a real way, not just through the ears but as a sensation felt in the body. But to me Coltrane's work has been a metaphor for ongoing poetic exploration, always impeccably presented as devotion, intellect, passion, unceasing exploration. And while it's as *smart* as any music I know, it never relies strictly on its musical intelligence. It has to work as felt experience.

Further, the description of Coltrane's music as "sheets of sound" has specifically offered a kind of possibility for a poetry that might present a wall of language through which meaning breaks. When I first was considering that phrase, "sheets of sound," some 25 years ago, I remember sitting outdoors near a fountain where water overflowed a flat edged surface, flowing over in thin unceasing sheets, and that has stayed in my mind as a physical depiction of "sheets of sound" ever since. It has also, indirectly provided a title for an ongoing poem I have been writing for several years, several parts of which have been published in journals and two chapbooks, "Pushing Water," where I imagine languaging pushing through experience to become poetry.

I am still working through (and possibly always will be) ideas about poetry, embodiment, physicality, sound, poetic space, the space of the page, the space of the book, poetry as landscape, poetry as relating to landscape, and more.

19 December 2002

On ) locus TIDES ((, by Mary Rising Higgins

due out very soon from Potes & Poets Press

In certain activities one thing gives way to another that is, in some ways, derived from the first, but seems nevertheless unexpected. Think of cooking something until suddenly, it caramelizes; think of sex, where effort gives in to absolute numbness that is truly the simultaneity of unfathomable sensations; think of linear acceleration, where precise calculation, specificity, and speed lead to what is open and unpredictable. This is the poetry of Mary Higgins — its subject, its process, its being. In poem after poem (most from 8 to 10 pages in length) of ) locus TIDES (( Higgins accumulates words, notations, sensations, objects, with a specificity that makes us consider them as hard-edged artifacts,

lotus hook weight rail
shuttle stone wave pole (from “forest detail / fire points”)

made into language with a speed and skill that astonishes throughout. But nearly always, this processual, sometimes mathematical acceleration reaches a point, not of conclusion, but of release.

reverse swash
charmed quarks
practicing why (from “forest detail / fire points”)

The exacting logos disperses into a spacious undefined infinity. The procedure of exactitude unto breaking, of inevitable release into negative capability, occurs whether looking outward into world or inward into self.

mask resonance dictee build the
interrupting I ,charnel voice black dress stack tower
a becoming struggle (from “an index of i”)

Yet self and world ultimately collapse into the same dispersed essence. This essence, however, is never still or stable; it can not be contained in a “heart chained pentameter collar,” but it can be enunciated, it can speak, specify, twist, build, not quite randomly, “until the entire body releases to parallel blur contradiction accommodates” (from “parentheses / after”).

What Higgins’s quantum process provides for readers is an edge-of-seat excitement that simultaneously holds one enthralled in the myriad details of experience, and frees one to soar into a bigger picture with a personal release of mind that the reading allows, even makes necessary.

I treasure certain experiences that leave me dazed and confused, but knowing or feeling more than I had previously — first attempt to hold a breath toward impossibility; first experience of love, sex, death; first attempt to understand relativity theory; arrival at a new and creative geometric proof of a theorem; the reading of Mary Rising Higgins’s ) locus TIDES ((.

Creeley and Aging

In a reading here two weeks ago, Robert Creeley primarily read works having to do with being 76 years old, with feeling that age quite literally as physical fact, and with having those years of experience, memories, that are another kind of weight, although one allowing entry, filtering, exploration, in short, another kind of experience with time. Much of the work from this reading has been published in a new chax press chapbook by Creeley, titled Yesterdays.

Some people commented to me afterwards that they found the reading depressing, yet as I have gone over and over the poems, I don't see any hint of depression, unless depression is simply the dropping of chipper optimism, but I don't think it is. I think, rather, that these poems of Creeley's, and their physical presentation in a reading, provide a mirror to the audience. If someone brings an attitude of depression to the experience of advanced age, then one will be depressed by the reading, the work. But there is no such depression in the work.

In a similar vein, many of Emily Dickinson's poems are about death, and many student readers in classes I have taught speak of these poems as morbid, yet I find no sense of morbidity whatsoever in Dickinson's attitudes in the poems ("Because I Could Not Stop For Death," "I Heard a Fly Buzz," and others). Again, the reader finds her/his own attitudes about death returned to her/him. Is this simply "bad reading," or is this what reading is all about, and possibly what all poems do?

Some Thoughts On a Book and its Boundaries

to make a book that blurs the boundary between book and outside the book. what would this be? would it have pages? would it need, in order to be effective, to appear to readers as a recognizable book? can it be a matter of content only, or is there a way of blurring content and book form so that they are one thing. or clarifying rather than blurring? would such a book be an intervention, an entry into the territorial act of reading?