Monday, May 19, 2008

Black Painting Divided by a White Painting

Presented in a different form as part of Newlipo: Bringing Proceduralism and Chance-Poetics into the 21st Century. AWP panel, Thursday, January, 31, 2008. Other panelists: Christian Bök, Joan Retallack, Jena Osman, Patricia Carlin. Moderator: Sharon Dolin. Art work by Kasimir Malevich: Suprematist composition. Black with White Rectangle, 1915.

In an Oulipo feature on the website, Drunken Boat, I am listed as “Toward Oulipo,” rather than Para-Oulipo or Oulipo. In three books, 1997-2002, I wrote a lot of poems using counted verse, meaning a determined number of words rather than syllables to the line. With the exception of the first one, “The Orphanage Florist,” circa 1985, four words to the line, three-line stanzas, I have insisted on a squared stanza: two words, two lines; three words, three lines. When the math is right, so are the architecture, concept, and momentum. A squared form offers containment, therefore terseness, and terseness leads immediately to what Jack Spicer called the Outside (expression). You don’t speak to the Outside; it speaks through you. Our metaphors for the poetry are generally those of packing and unpacking: Clark Kent pressing coal down to diamonds (Emily Dickinson) or Mallarmé distributing words over a chosen field. The question of poetics is how extensive or intensive the distribution should be. All poetic form is arbitrary, strategic, and emotional. The task of the author is to decide, how much “jack” to pack into or out of the given box. The heroic couplet and Ron Silliman’s “new sentence” gaze out differently at the same rainy day.

In our decade, the romantic tide is out, and the constructivist, materialist, and formalist tides are in. One would rather find and assemble than mine or dredge up. Originality in the old sense of a “soul-making” activity is replaced by invention, constraint, and gamesmanship. We are not at play in the fields of the lord, but the static, self-interrupting planes of the internet. In Heidegger’s terminology of facticity overwhelming poesis, this is a bad thing. It means there are no shadows at play in the Lichtung, or clearing. (The Rilkean formula might be: Achtung + Lichtung = Dichtung.) In Constructivism, everything is unconcealed, in the open, and obvious. We can see this difference more clearly, perhaps, if we limit our attention to the black on black and white on white paintings of Malevich and Rodchenko. Both were intent on a new society’s new art by way of mathematics and surface. Malevich: “I have transformed myself in the zero of form” (Lavrentiev 15); Rodchenko: “Art is one of the branches of mathematics” (Lavrentiev 15). But almost immediately there was a bifurcation. Malevich was more interested in the finished work of art, a geometry that is inscribed by style, aesthetics, and, according to Alexander Lavrentiev, the “emblematic identification of black with iconic power and white with eternity” (15). What’s the quotient of a black painting divided by a white painting?

Like the New York School and language poets, I’m interested in the varieties of meaning made possible by Oulipo and proceduralism, especially through their playfulness. John Ashbery is our major poet; his work is an extraordinary balance of gravity and levity, artifice and sincerity; sobriety and play. What do Rilke and Kenny Goldsmith have in common? They begin their pursuit “at play,” a provisional search that leads to gravity and volume. Kenny Goldsmith’s gravity is his determination to carry out his exhaustive plan. In The Weather, for instance, actual weather reports are quoted verbatim, day by day, season by season. By the fourth page, our amusement with the concept fades; we have begun to experience the grain of lived time, not exactly the “egotistical sublime” of Wordsworth or Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” but not without such implications. Nothing is lonelier than a radio or TV playing in an empty room. Because, as an anagrammatic poem, Christian Bök’s “Vowels” is “at play,” our recognition that it is a rather profound love poem is delayed. The poem begins:

loveless vessels

we vow
solo love

we see
love solve loss

else we see
love sow woe

selves we woo
we lose

losses we levee
we owe

Relating to proceduralism, I did a “thinking through” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, in which I made my own propositions of his propositions, then retained only the propositions that a poem, not philosophy, would desire. I produced a manuscript consisting of 56 versions of Shakespeare’s sonnet 56. The project began when I stripped the bard’s work of all but its end words and asked my students to fill in the blanks, but with the admonition not to write a sonnet. The student results were magnificent, so I tried it myself. The results were ordinary. But then I applied other procedures and forms such as homosyntactic translation, haikuisation, villanelle, the blues, noun plus seven, lounge singer, chat group, word ladder, and answering machine. In this respect, the anticipatory plagiary was Raymond Queneau’s Exercises de style, published by Gallimard in 1947. The book will be published by Les Figues Press of Los Angeles.

Recently, I wrote a three page poem consisting entirely of palindromes; it is also an abecedarium. It’s part of “The Windows,” a series:

The Windows (A War in Tawara)

Add “A,”
A nut for a jar of tuna,
A Santa at NASA.

Borrow or rob,
Boston did not sob.
But sad Eva saved a stub.

Cigar? Toss it in a can. It is so tragic.

Don did nod,
“Dogma, I am God;
Devil never even lived.”

Evil Olive,
Ed is on no side.
Ed is a trader, cast sacred art aside.

Flesh saw Mom wash self.
Flee to me, remote elf!

God lived as an evil dog.
Go, do, dog!

Harass Sarah!

I prefer pi.
I, a man, am regal; a German am I.
If I had a hi-fi . . .

Jar a toga, rag not a raj.
Jar bar crab, raj.

Kayak salad, Alaska yak.
Key lime, Emily—ek!

Late, fetal,
Leon sees Noel.
Live, devil,
Laid on no dial.

Ma is a nun, as I am,
Mirror rim
Murder for a jar of red rum;
Must sell at tallest sum.

No lemons, no melon,
Never even
No sign, in evening, is on.
No slang is a signal, son.
Nurses run—

Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo.
Oh, who was it I saw? Oh, who?

Poor Dan is in a droop.
Pull up if I pull up.

“Q,” said Dias, “Q.”

Rise to live, sir.
Rats live on no evil star.

Stack cats,
Solo gigolos.
Swap paws,
Step on no pets.
Sexes, exes,

Too hot to hoot,
Tug at a gut.
Tell a ballet
Tulsa night life: filth, gin, a slut.

U.F.O., tofu,
Vanna, wanna V?

Was it a bar or a bat I saw?
Won’t lovers revolt now?
We panic in a pew.

Xerox orex,
Yawn a more Roman way!
You bat one in, resign in evening. Is Ernie not a buoy?

Zeus was deified, saw Suez.

Lavrentiev, Alexander N., editor. Alexsandr Rodchenko: Experiments for the Future: Diaries, Essays, Letters, and Other Writings. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005.


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