Sunday, November 15, 2015

John Cage’s Mesostics through The Sound and the Fury

image from:
The last ModPo assignment for 2015 is now complete and we’re in our final week on Conceptualism and Unoriginality. I’m particularly looking forward to some heady conversations about the morality of appropriation - something that has been concerning me for some time. Before going there, here is my attempt at producing a “Mesostic” using Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I then had to analyse the output.  If you’d like to try making one of your own - it’s kind of fun, you can do so here:
TPlease do feel free to post yours into the comments if you can, or put them up somewhere and link to them.  I’d love to see them.

After reading through many of John Cage’s mesostics, most notably his writings through Finnegan’s Wake it seemed to me that a large part of what makes these mesostics beautiful rather than random lay with the choice of source text. A good source text seems to create a powerful mesostic because the words it contains combine in ways that work in distillation.  To this effect, I chose a source text that I found to be both rich linguistically and moving, but not already reduced. I thought it might be fun, even though a bit outside the rules, to use a source text that was not poetry, since poetry generally is already condensed. I chose the first paragraph of the second chapter of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury because it seemed dense enough to distill, but I also wanted to remove the work from its plot, character, and the overarching ‘voice’, thereby changing it.  Since the Cagian process involved removing words by intention, I felt comfortable working  through the original mesostic to further simplify it, taking out words I felt hampered the rhythm and overall meaning of the work – in effect, further condensing it.  The end result was as follows:

I found the result of this process to be surprisingly moving and rhythmic, using the progression of the clock to enhance the motif of time and timelessness, with an interesting turn between the first and second stanzas.  The mesostic removes the subject. Instead of the pervasive voice of Quentin Compson, we have only this lower case i.  The narrative i is not only un-named, but un-defined, thereby becoming everyman: a more universal and godlike figure who invite the reader to take on the role of “you”, recipient of the mausoLeum. The appearance of the sash heralds a the arrival of seven o’clock.  The work moves within that hour - which could be a lifetime perhaps, as indicated by “the mausoleum of all hope and desire”: a classic Faulkner phrase that was left unchanged by the Mesostomatic.  This concentration of the essence or “intensity” of the passage focuses on this notion of being and out of time. The alliteration of the L sound slows the progression through the poem as we move from cLock to MasoLeum and then “excruciatingly”. This creates a gentle quiet, and a lolling quality that reminds us, with the mausoleum image, that death is the ultimate argument ad absurdum.

While the Faulkner passage itself ends with death and despair (and the fruitlessness of war), this mecrostic presents a more affirmative outcome in the second stanza as the poem ends with a kind of waking up, perhaps through hearing the continued ticking of the clock (“hearing”) into desire (hearing being "the father of desire").  The repetition of the adverb “then” in the two stanzas gives us a sense of change and connection, also forcing us to focus on the transition between the two passages as important.  In the first stanza time stopped, and we were out of time, and then in the second stanza, we’re reborn into time (“i was time again”), heaRing (perhaps the ticking) re-opening the desire that was lost in the first stanza.  The capitalization of the R in “heaRing” also calls attention to the ring in that word, so it’s almost as if we heard a gong, sounding the bell that woke us into time.  The three single words at the start of the second stanza slow the reading down dramatically. The death or stoppage of time only lasts an hour.  At eight o’clock we come back into time, and by association, life: reborn.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

New CR Newsletter is out

Hello fellow book lovers.  Just a quick note to say that the Compulsive Reader newsletter for November is now out.  This month’s issue contains, as usual, 10 fresh reviews including the latest Ishiguro, a bevy of fantastic new books, several literary films, and an interview. We’ve also provided our usual extensive overview of literary news around the world and 3 book giveaways.  If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, you can grab one here:
Compulsive Reader Newsletter Archive

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photo credit: PixeLegis_2008_0203 via photopin (license)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Poetry Monday: O’Hara’s Why I Am Not a Painter

Last week I wrote my third ModPo essay on Frank O’Hara’s phenomenal “Why I Am Not a Painter”.

You can read the full text of the poem here:

Following is my essay.  Please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.


Frank O’Hara’s “Why I Am Not a Painter” uses the “I-do-this-I-do-that mode” to create a narrative context where meaning is created through conjunction, and contrast.  Both of these notions play out with ironic power as O’Hara tricks the reader into the verbal through the visual. For correspondence we have the artistic process of two artists placed on an equal plane: one who creates through a visual medium and begins with the verbal or the word and the one who creates through a verbal medium and begins with the visual or the colour.   In both instances, the painting and the poem’s subjects are condensed into the work, from the visible origins to a highly distilled invisibility that is no less present or powerful for its absence.   The very proximity of these two different artists, friends, who move from “I drink” to “we drink”, becomes a catalyst for the work they create, in the explanations that charge the work through its negation.  The subject is “too much” in both instances, and it is through the artistic process that the subject is distilled beyond recognition.

Beyond the correspondence between the two artists, there is the contrast, which is presented almost as a competition.  Mike Goldberg’s work appears to develop through time in present tense linguistic repetition and conjugation of the verb “go”.  When the work, apparently in progress, is finally so abstract that SARDINES disappears, the only trace we have of the original idea is the label, which remains necessary to impose an organising principle: “it needed something there”.   O’Hara’s work, on the other hand, ends up with a label that is both visual and verbal, a clever bit of trickery that shows us the power of language. Goldberg’s SARDINES is already subverted into this poem, which encompasses the very thing it abstracts: “All that's left is just letters.”  All of this self-conscious irony goes hand in hand with the seeming natural prosaic quality of the work.  While it may, at first glance, appear to be a simple recount in present tense about the meeting of two artists and their mediums, it is, and O’Hara reminds us of this very clearly, actually a “real” poem. The narrative construct, like the progression of time (“the days go by”) is artifice.  This artifice is further emphasized by the line breaks and artificial sentence structures that create a stuttering quality that undermines the natural rhythm of the sentences: “he/says”; “days/go by”; “just/letters”; “be/so much more”.  Each of these word groups breaks at the least natural spot, further heightening the irony and undermining the conversational tone it sets out to parody.  At this point, the artistic process becomes obvious, the work becomes self-consciously meta-poetic, with a victorious twist at the end as the poem circles back to its origins and engulfs the painting.  This poem is autotelic: it transcends its referent - it needs nothing there.  “Why I am Not a Painter” manages to be simultaneous funny and serious, lighthearted but somber (orange is truly terrible, reminding us, in this poem, of death), superficial and deep.  This is a poem that succeeds brilliantly at illuminating everything it claims to elude, making itself the subject.


And just because this is a blog and not an academic site, I’m also appending a wonderful rendition of another Frank O’Hara poem, “Lana Turner Has Collapsed" from Lunch Poems. This song was my first exposure to Frank O’Hara, played for me by the composer, my dear uncle, who I’m fairly sure you can hear laughing at the end of the clip.  I had this song in my head the entire time I wrote that essay and it’s still there now.


Oranges - photo credit: Early morning sunshine via photopin (license)

Monday, October 26, 2015

Poetry Monday: Ouyang Yu’s Fainting with Freedom

One of the things I like to do when I get a new book is to get the measure of the thing.  I like to look the whole book over, skim through the pages, get a feel for its girth, its style, its feel.  This is particularly the case with poetry.  I like to orient myself to the book and have a few tasters before I go in again more slowly, taking each poem in turn.  That’s what Poetry Monday is all about: the initial reading before the reading.  I also like to think of it as my little own version of “gathering paradise”, to steal a phrase from my favourite poetry site PoemTalk, where it was nicked, of course, from Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility”.  It’s a little bit of poetry paradise into which I’m about to immerse myself.

As the author of some 75 (!) books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translation and criticism (the number continues to grow), Ouyang Yu’s literary influence is undisputed.

interviewed Ouyang Yu back in 2007, after he published his book On the Smell of an Oily Rag.  During that time, he told me that the wasn’t in  the habit of putting himself into pigeon holes: "I might as well call myself a poetnovelisttranslatoressayistcritic". I think that label, if one were required (of course it isn’t), could be applied to his new book Fainting with Freedom.  Many of the poems read like little stories or narratives, full of (often subversive) fun, dismay, intensity, longing, and Ouyang Yu’s characteristic word play that always breaks linguistic boundaries.

Here’s a very brief sample:
Hills flow in wavelets, brown-green, yellow-red, pink-dark.  Empty sticks of trees, through which glimpses of clouds topping the hills.  One lone tree, another, another, a shadow stretching across the tableland, darkening the feeding sheep.  Dots of grey.  Sudden water sky. (“Biography”)
Full review, as always, to follow.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Poetry Monday: Condensation and stillness: two versions of WCW’s Young Woman at a Window

Continuing on from the last Poetry Monday post, I thought I’d post up my second ModPo essay.  Again, this is is the second time I’ve written on this poem, but I haven’t pulled out my old essay (not sure I’ve kept it), and as it has been some years, I have come at this task with beginner’s mind.  I found this essay to be a relatively easy and enjoyable one to write (much easier, for example, than the poetry book review I’m working on - a wonderful but slow and complex read).  The process of writing this has helped me clarify not only the principals of Imagism which we’ve studied, but also allowed me to trace the transition of a poem from good to excellent.  Feel free to add in your own essays, responses and comments.  

There has been much written about William Carlos Williams’ “Young Woman at a Window”, and while we know that second version is the one that Williams ultimately published, it is fascinating to trace the condensation from the first poem to the second, and to explore why the second poem not only adheres better to the imagist manifesto, but is also objectively speaking, a more powerful poem. While both of the poems feature the same objects: a woman and a child at a window, and both have similar structures and the same number of stanzas, the second version has been reduced to 23 words from 29, with a more even cadence and couplets, beginning and ending with 3 words.  The first version is more narrative, leading the reader towards a sentimental conclusion.  The second version of the poem allows the reader to make his or her own inferences, leaving the image clear of inference. In version 1, specific words and sentence structures are used to evoke sentiment. The reader is told that the child has “robbed” the woman, and is unaware that he’s done this.  Also the child rubs his nose – an unappealing act linking the woman’s tears to the boy, and something about the demands of parenting.  That the boy needs his nose wiped becomes the denouement for the poem. In addition, the delicate early rhythm of the poem and its first word repetition is marred by words like “this”, “who,” and “knows” which break the cadence with sentence structure type inclusions that further progress a narrative. 

In the second version of the poem, Williams has condensed the image and removed extraneous words or “vague generalities” like ‘robbed’ and ‘knows nothing’, and actions like ‘wiped his nose’.  Instead the image is static—frozen in time like a statue, and is rather more beautiful as a result.  There are no runny noses here or self-pity.  The reader is confronted with, in the words of the imagists, an “exact visual image” which makes its statement completely. The reader is left free to make inferences about the nature of the tears, about the symbolism of the window which hints at inside versus outside without stating it overtly, and about the reason for the two sitting together in such a pose.

Though there is no expression of ‘robbery’, the image is suffused with sadness and longing, but only by virtue of the imagery. Ending the poem on the word “glass” creates a perception of being cloistered, without the need to state it.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the second poem not only uses the image itself to convey meaning, but it is structurally and rhythmically aligned, using repetition and alliteration of the words “her” at the start and “on” at the end of the first three stanzas, and the sibilance in “nose”, “pressed”, “glass” which convey both silence and tears.  This poem works perfectly when read out loud, encouraging the reader to just look, to just feel and just participate directly in the subtle longing and sense of cessation conveyed by the poem.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Poetry Monday: A liquor never brewed

Those of you who have followed this blog for a while (or who know me) know that I’m a massive fan of the annual event known as Modern and Contemporary American Poetry or ModPo run out of Coursera by the University of Pennsylvania.  The event masquerades as a course, run for 10 weeks by the amazing Al Filreis and his exceptional team of Teaching Assistants and Community Teaching Assistants. You can certainly attend, get your certificate of attainment (or just follow along), and go on your merry way at the end of it (with a totally new approach to reading and appreciating poetry that extends way beyond the syllabus) - that’s enough of course.

For me and many others, once is just not enough.  The course has become an annual excuse to revisit some of the most seminal poets of all time, to do close, but not too close, readings of some exceptional and challenging poetic work.  Al has encouraged former students to come back and keep playing every year, through new material, through mentorship opportunities, new live ‘meet-ups’, new opportunities for interaction, and new approaches.  Though the numbers get larger each year, the intimacy somehow seems to grow too.  This year, there’s a new section for those who either want something a little different or who want to go further and deeper into the work.  It’s called ModPo Plus and it features complementary poetry and its own discussion forum.  Since I’ve done ModPo before, I’m working through all of the normal ModPo material and all the poems in ModPo Plus but focusing most of my discussions around the ModPo Plus material at the ModPo Plus forums.  Most of my essays will have the same topic as they have in previous years, but I’m enjoying revisiting the work and coming to it with beginner’s mind - maybe going just a bit further as I explore my assignment topics.  I thought it might be fun to post those essays up here.  Please feel free to put your own thoughts or essays into the comments.  I like the idea of these discussions spreading outwards and repeat ModPoers are encouraged to facilitate that.  Oh, and if you want to join ModPo it actually isn’t too late.  You can’t get a certificate as the first assignment date is passed, but you can jump right in at Gertrude Stein and join in now.  The community is very warm and inclusive and nothing is mandatory.

Here’s the little essay I wrote on Emily Dickinson’s “I taste a liquor never brewed”.  The full poem can be found here:

Of all Emily Dickinson’s poetry, “I taste a liquor never brewed” is one of the most exuberant, piling image upon image in an extended metaphor.  This poem is somewhat less condensed than much of her other work, freed from constraints by the drunken slur of dash and the repetition of exclamation mark. The quatrains use a ballad form but only rhyme the second and last word of each stanza, and the initial rhyme (“Pearl” and “Alcohol”) is off, which adds to the slightly arrhythmic, wild feel as it flows from first taste to the full satiation of inebriation.

In the first stanza we we’re introduced to what the poet is drinking: a rarified drop, stronger than any produced in the famous Rhine wineries. This ‘drink’ is delivered from “Tankards scooped in pearl”, which is more evocative than specifically semantic, but suggests something like a large shell (mother-of-pearl lined), or perhaps a cloud formation with the sun shining behind.  This intoxication comes from the exquisite beauty of the natural world (eco-poetics at its best).

There’s a sense in the second stanza, through rhythm, image, and punctuation, of a little subversiveness.  The poet has become debauched and drunk, though not on brewed liquor, but on air, on dew, and on the blue sky of summer.  Each dash functions as a pause or even a hiccup, coupled with extensive alliteration to create the rhythms of drunkenness that invite the reader to also partake.  The multi-sensual impact of a blue sunlit sky captured with such precision in “Molten Blue”, provides both warmth and visual appeal, but it’s more than the flower, the sights and scents of a striking summer day. It’s the impact of that day on the poetic imagination that turns it from a moment of experience to something permanent. This is the creative flow or wellspring that the poet taps into (to keep the liquid metaphor going).  It is Emily’s meta-poetic implication that turns this otherwise heady pastoral poem into something quite post-modern.

The extended metaphor of a drunkard at the inn is stretched further in the third stanza, as day becomes night and the poet continues the creative spree.  The landlord might be the foxglove itself, closing petals so that the bee and butterfly, that have had their fill of sweet nectar, can drink no more.  For the poet, the “high on life” inebriation doesn’t end because there’s always more beauty in the endless creative flow in this figurative inn where the tap is always open.

The final stanza shifts from the nature metaphor into a more frigid heavenly one, away from the immediacy of sensual pleasure.  From these lofty heights, beyond the window, an angel (“Seraphs”) or teetotaler saint might look down from a frosty (“snowy Hats”) heaven and disapprove of such excesses of sensual joy. The reader too, who has been encouraged in the first three stanzas to partake, might disapprove of such poetic licentiousness. After all, this is the full sensual experience – sight, sound, smell, touch and taste are all evoked in a reeling swirl that is quite overwhelming.  Of course, we might just join in in this moment of creative power and shared delight and let ourselves be seduced.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Oct Compulsive Reader has gone out

The October Compulsive Reader newsletter has just left by owl, and should arrive in your inbox shortly.  By way of a preview, the newsletter contains the usual bevy of 10 fresh reviews and interviews, including my own long overdue review of Ali Alizadeh's Iran, My Grandfather and Fiona Wright's Small Acts of Disappearance.  We've also got Nicole Trope, Lee Holmes (it's all about the gut), Lars Gustafsson and Agneta Blomqvist, and much more.  If you haven't kept abreast of all the literary news this month, don't fear, because I've got a very thorough global round-up including the new Ritchell prize longlist, Mao Dun Literature Prize, The Scotiabank Giller Prize, and on it goes.  If that doesn't entice you, we've got 3 new giveaways, including the 200th limited edition anniversary version of Austin's Emma

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