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Poetry and Collage

Keith Waldrop; drawing by Irving Petlin, originally published in Sulfur 42 (1998)


To begin again…


I was reading through a book I received from the wonderful Siglio Press, now located in the Hudson River Valley, but first established in Los Angeles in 2008. That book is Several Gravities, a book of collages, with interpolated poetry, by Keith Waldrop, the well-known, highly regarded poet and founder, with Rosemarie Waldrop, of Burning Deck Press, a significant publisher of poetry chapbooks. I may want to say more about Burning Deck and other small presses later on, since it connects to an earlier post on this website. But meanwhile I want to look briefly at Waldrop's book. While I've been aware of his poetry and his publishing activity for some time, I hadn't known anything of his artistic work -- until I received that book from Siglio.


In a brief introductory essay, "A Matter of Collage", Waldrop describes his collage-making practice, and its significance to his poetical practice. In describing how he developed the poems for Transcendental Studies (2009), he notes that he lifted lines from three or four books by other authors and made them into poetry. Waldrop recalls that:


The words from these books were chosen, so not absolutely random, but chosen quickly, paying as little attention as possible to content or context, much attention to sound. Once the words had become lines and stanzas, I felt at liberty to change words, to throw out stanzas or lines – in short, to revise – since my purpose was not to demonstrate possibilities of collage, but simply to find poems.


Sound! (See my blog post on this website dated 7 May). The passage is interesting for associating poetry with collage in Waldrop's work (collage forming as it does the core of Several Gravities), but also because in his accounting, Waldrop seems to assign words to supportive or secondary status in his poetry. (Sound again!)  In an essay written for this book, Robert Seydel evokes the complexities of Waldrop's artistic practice:


A multiple ground rises there as an originary confusion between the word and the mark, the song and the gesture, sounds and colors. This is not necessarily turmoil, but an opening rather, often ecstatic, into spaces of a perhaps primary coalescence of mind in its high vision and density of response to world.


This "opening", according to Seydel, may provide a key to Waldrop's art, suggesting a productive "originary confusion", with the two forms – poetry and collage – nourishing (influencing) one another:


What is enunciated and what is withheld in one medium rhymes with the enunciations and absences in the other.


Yes. But then he adds:


I don't know that Waldrop would necessarily agree with this, or with the general tenor of

these remarks. I have heard him say, for instance, "I turn to collage to get away from words."


In the first number of a chapbook series titled Inscape, published Spring 1998 by Instress/Leonard Brink, there's a poem by Waldrop titled "An Unknown Tree", which contains some verses relating to words. In fact, the poem begins as follows:


I look for the

word worth a thousand

pictures, perhaps akin

to OHG botahha

the form of the root

unknown, origin

human or divine


And a little later:


A word does not come to mind.


Maybe not yet a word.


And finally, to close the poem:


beware (I

say –

and here, with all these

words, I

make no sound-be-


ware spring breezes


The following year Waldrop published a chapbook titled "The Eighth Day", again with allusions "words":


But suspecting speech in noises, I listen for ambient

signals, the ground from which words figure.


And later,


Countless worlds.


Advantages of an alphabet.


In closing I feel I want to include the following, which appears toward the end of the poem:


I do not think the shadows in the cave are any less

real than the opaque bodies which cast them or, for that

matter, the source of light, the sun.


Perhaps Waldrop was able to find refuge, of a sort, in collage.


By the way, there's no indication that Leonard Brink was involved in any way with "The Eighth Day"; he's not credited in the colophon. Brink was at that time publisher of Instress, the small press which published the Inscape chapbooks featuring Waldrop's work (and the work of other poets too).


At about the same time these two chapbooks appeared, Brink put out his own work in a chapbook called "Secrets of the Universe", published by HOPHOPHOP Press in New York (1999). It may be of interest that Brink also touches on the issue of words, or semantics. In his story, a fieldworker, possibly a student, is describing his experience among the "Lushondurobo" people, who live in "Rhondesia" and speak a language called "Rhondesian". Brink gives a humorous depiction of the misunderstandings that can arise in translation. Here's an example:


My Rhondesian was so bad at first that I invariably heard Jeff to say either, obsequiously, "I am thrilled to melt into an orange road, master," or irritably, "It'll be a dry day when I'm through licking the envelope."


Brink's Lushondurobo story offers a return to "sound". In previous posts I wrote about Charles Olson, and about epic poetry -- which had been composed/performed as oral poetry prior to the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet by the Greeks. But there are other ramifications to oral poetry which I think should be separated and distinguished from my usage in these posts. For instance, Edward Hirsch devotes an entry to "sound poetry" in his A Poet's Glossary, where he writes that,


Sound poetry generally refers to a type of poetry that aggressively foregrounds the sounds of words. It is performance oriented and seeks to override conventional denotative and syntatical [sic] values. It goes beyond the page, beyond logocentrism, so that sound alone dominates. Sound poetry has its roots in preliterate oral traditions, in tribal chants and magic spells. The more extreme that nonsense poetry becomes, repressing sense, the more it tends toward sound poetry.  


I don't think this is what Charles Olson, or Ed Dorn, or Dennis Tedlock meant by suppressing word sense in order to foreground "sound", though Hirsch touches on issues that may broadly correspond with the intentions of those writers. Other entries of interest in Hirsch's glossary are "Wordless Poetry", "Drum Poetry", and "Oral Poetry". I may want to address these parallel poetry universes at some other time...


Meanwhile, check out the Siglio Press website at www.sigliopress.com.

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Homer (with a note on Sour Beer)

Ibro Basic, Stolac, Hercegovina
Lord, Albert Bates, 1912-1991, American [photographer] Parry, Milman, 1902-1935, American [photographer] between 1933 and 1935. Image downloaded from Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature, Harvard University



Reading through this blog over the weekend it occurred to me that the post I published on Friday 7 May could function in tandem with the post I put up in August 2019, which was devoted to the craft beer project I'd been working on. At that time I was beginning to record oral history interviews with various people I'd talked to during fieldwork. These interviews form the oral component of the project. Fast forward to April and May of this year, when I've begun transcribing the interviews I conducted immediately prior to the Pandemic shutdown. That process is highly involving, and immersive. I routinely transcribe my interviews with headphones on, which produces an intimate association and engagement with the voices on the audio file – mine, as well as that of the interviewee. The process also takes me back to the time of the interview itself, and gets me back in touch with the person on the other side of the microphone.


Thinking of the two blog posts – this one and the previous one – it hardly needs pointing out that oral interviews differ in many ways from poetry, and oral poetry. That said, there are moments of a more heightened sort of performance during interviews that raise the recorded discourse above simple, mundane reporting. As noted in that previous post, I'm deeply interested in oral performance and its relation to poetry. I recently read Stanley Lombardo's translation of the Iliad, which is remarkably like a verbal performance of that foundational epic. In fact, Lombardo performed parts of his translation before live audiences prior to publication of the book. As he notes in his Translator's Preface:


This translation of the Iliad began as scripts for solo performances I began giving ten years ago. In this respect, the production of the translation mirrors that period in the evolution of the Iliad when writing began to shape the body of poetry that had until then existed only in the mind of the composer and in live performance. (ix)


The grand epic poems attributed to Homer have come down through the centuries in written form, but they were likely performed orally for hundreds of years prior to the 8th century BCE, when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet and set the poems down in writing. In The East Face of Helicon, his book tracing the influence of West Asiatic culture on the culture of the Greeks, A.N. West points out the significance of the alphabet:


A more immediately obvious benefit of writing, perhaps, was the ability to exchange messages with absent persons, verbatim messages that would not be distorted in transmission and could be sealed for complete privacy. Phoenicians could be seen to send and receive letters. They could be seen to preserve the memory of the dead from oblivion, apparently indefinitely, by inscribing memorials; to label dedications to the gods, so that there could be no doubt about the identity of the dedicator or the status of the object deposited; and in all probability, to possess books containing poems or other valued compositions from earlier generations. No doubt the Greeks did not follow up every lead at once. But within a century or two of learning the alphabet they were using it for all these purposes and others besides. (25)


Thoughts of oral poetry can quickly lead to thoughts of Albert Lord's extension of Milman Parry's work with Slavic singer-poets, which built in turn upon previous work by Mathias Murko, a Slav and scholar who first recognized that the technique of the South Slavic singers was iterative and patterned, improvisatory and cumulative. While the epic poems drew upon the obvious mythical, legendary, or quasi-historical materials and sources, some performances could be tailored to reflect recent or contemporary events. A.B. Lord's classic work The Singer of Tales is now available in a third edition, supplemented with new materials, and with a link to the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature at Harvard. That site can be accessed at https://mpc.chs.harvard.edu. 


I'll continue to use this blog explore these two interests – orality and its relation to written poetry, as well as the use of the spoken word in reporting and performing historical and cultural experience through the oral history process. And once I've finished transcribing all the interviews I conducted for the craft beer project (which will take weeks if not a few months), I'll explore how to post some of that material, with discussions that would reflect on the significance of those interviews in illuminating the work of the many fine artisan brewers and their suppliers in Vermont.


Before closing this post, however, and in the interest of allotting equal time to the two topics mentioned here, I want to provide a glimpse of this material, in this case drawn from an interview with Nate Scull, head brewer at Hermit Thrush Brewery in Brattleboro. During our interview, I'd asked Nate about procuring and cultivating native yeasts, since Hermit Thrush is notable for focusing exclusively on sour beers, and for using ambient yeast to culture their products. Here's a snippet of that conversation. I've made very light edits to the transcript for clarity:


NS: And we absolutely do have a native host of strains in our brew house. And in our brewery entirely.


TC: They're swimming all around!


NS: Yeah, right now! If we were sugar we'd be fermenting into sour beer right now! I guarantee it! I think that we treat our yeast as our invading army. You know? We have inoculated this brew house with native yeast strains that we've found from the surrounding area, and have brought into the brew house. And because we've made it so comfortable, it has now become the native strain of the woodwork in our brewery. Like, this wood table that we're up against right now, guarantee has our house strain in it.  And we trust that. You know? That gives us a certain level of trust that it's outcompeting other things that might be introduced. Because it's a pretty hardy yeast. It's been in this area a lot longer than we have, and knows how to handle Brattleboro, all its weather and everything, because it developed here.


I cite this passage because it touches on the issue of terroir, an important subject for not only beer, but perhaps especially for mead and wine. In fact, there's an argument that sour beers such as those produced at Hermit Thrush may be more akin to mead or wine, than to beer per se. This may be a stretch, but I'll make an effort to address and develop these and other ideas in future posts. Meanwhile, I recognize that the separate components of this post don't fit together especially well – beginning with Homer and concluding with sour beers -- which may provide for a jarring reading experience. But it's only a blog post, after all! And my immediate purpose is simply to lay things out, and to report, returning to them at some other time.


More later…

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Diving back in...


I tend to begin writing by writing about the process of writing; let's see how well I can avoid that here. Even so I don't intend to write here about writing in the way that I usually engage with that topic, but am nevertheless thinking about how to go about contriving a blog post that would link the most "recent" post (August 2019!) with a new one. I doubt that's possible, or desirable. I do however want to make a tentative effort to assay the practice of writing poetry. So here are some random (or not entirely random) thoughts, along with some effort to tie (or not tie) it all together.


I've been pondering Charles Olson's insight that the typewriter enables the writer to set print, more or less, for their own writing. The typewriter is a mechanical device that moves the printing process along, providing the poet with the tools to see in advance how the poem will appear on the printed page. And it may also help the poet to manage the technics of poiesis.


(As an aside, I wonder whether Olson's insight, which has influenced any number of poets, may also have encouraged the contemporary small press movement, and the independent printer/publisher of chapbooks -- recognizing that broadsides, chapbooks, etc. have been printed and distributed for hundreds of years. But I tend to think of the small independent press, as we know it, arising sometime during the 1950s or 1960s -- which was, NOT coincidentally, a time of social, cultural, and political transformation.)


Olson's argument was deployed by Dennis Tedlock in the preface to what may have been Tedlock's last book: The Olson Codex: Projective Verse and the Problem of Mayan Glyphs (Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press, 2017; Tedlock died in June, 2016). The book opens an interesting window into Olson's work on Mayan glyphs, which Olson undertook during a visit to Lerma, Mexico in 1951. Tedlock writes:


The typewriter, says Olson, "leads directly on toward projective verse". He finds the use of the machine ironic, since the primary instruments for the production of the syllables and lines of projective verse are the ear and the voice of the poet. But as he sees it, the typewriter gives poets the stave and bar of the musician. They no longer have to wait for the typewriter and printer to see what the poem will look like on the page. By tapping keys, pushing carriage return levers, and twisting paten knobs, they can record the poem as they hear it and breathe it, producing a score that shows "any reader" how they would want their lines to be reproduced, whether silently or audibly. (pp. xv-xvi)


In the original essay, Olson exposes the role of the typewriter in poetry, and Tedlock reproduces some of that in his preface. But the key element in this argument, for Tedlock as well as for Olson, is the role played by voice and breath in poetry; the challenge of rendering breath on what is ostensibly a silent, squarish, snow-white surface. (Assuming that words are not themselves the repository of meaning.) Tedlock cites Edward Dorn, a poet who spent time with Northern Paiute tribal people in Nevada, where he witnessed a tribal elder perform a death chant. Dorn afterwards described his experience to Olson:


You get caught in the voice. I find myself not even listening, except to the voice, so I can't at that time think of language.


Tedlock elaborates, recalling his early fieldwork experience when he recorded oral poetry among Zuni speakers in Western New Mexico:


What I heard in the early recording sessions was all of the sound and almost none of the sense. It is not necessary to understand a language in order to become absorbed in the intricacies and resonances of a speaker's voice.


This is complicated; I can't say whether Tedlock is reprising Olson's argument for clarity, or to help readers grasp the implications of Olson's work on Mayan glyphs — which by the way Olson undertook so very long ago — way back in the 1950s! The issue is that Olson's work, and Tedlock's thoughtful exposition, have important implications for anyone engaging with oral materials today — or perhaps especially with POETRY — assuming we can agree with Olson (and with Tedlock, and with Dorn) that poetry has mostly to do with "breath".


This is indeed my view — you can't breathe paper, wet or dry, can't be a fish, gilled up, able to pull oxygen out of the slurry of paper pulp, before it's sheeted and dried into paginal form, a form that can then be adapted to writing (or for making paper airplanes!). Olson (and Dorn) appear to be suggesting that no matter where or at what point you engage with paper, (or the printed page), on entering the domain of poetry the main task is to convey BREATH itself. This is important, because meaning may inhere in breath rather in words per se. Tout court — with poetry.


By the way, Dorn wrote about his experience with the Northern Paiute in The Shoshoneans, The People of the Basin-Plateau, with photos by Leroy Lucas, originally published in 1966. The University of New Mexico Press republished the book in an "expanded edition", in 2013. (The new edition features a new preface, and an appendix consisting of archival materials, including some of Dorn's correspondence, some of his poetry, a transcribed lecture Dorn gave in 1976, and an interview, which happens to be the transcript of a conversation between Dorn and Olson; needless to say, Olson is a towering presence in this volume, as he is throughout 20th century American poetry, and into the present century.)


Here's another version, with Dorn telling Olson about his nonverbal experience, as he heard (rather than listened?) to the Paiute elder's verbal performance that long ago day in the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, elaborating on what Tedlock has already reported of Dorn's experience:


And I heard it literally; I mean, understanding is really beside the point. And I heard it as a death chant. It was piercing, I mean, you know, the thing just went through your body. It was a really beautiful song. I never saw that before, feeling an immediate response from something outside myself. And then, you know, the possibility of its being initial, without cultural reference.


To which Olson responds, "Right, I gotcha…" and then a riposte:


And he and I distinguish

between chanting

and letting the song lie

in the thing itself.


I can't identify this verse; was it lifted from a poem by Olson? By Dorn? From context I believe Olson had taken this from his own work, and reading at a gathering the previous evening.  By the way, a collection of Olson's lectures and readings and other orally given performances, is cited in The Shoshoneans, and is also included in Tedlock's bibliography. That book is, Muthologos: Charles Olson Lectures and Interviews, Revised Second Edition, Edited by Ralph Maud, Vancouver, BC: Talonbooks, 2010. The website charlesolson.org has a page on this book, where "muthologos" is helpfully defined, amidst discussion of the book's reissue:


George Butterick did not divulge in print why he chose Muthologos as the title for this volume. I think it was because Olson once defined the word muthologos as "what is said about what is said," which has a breadth that would recommend it for a volume that stands as the range of where the poet's mind went in a lifetime's intent to go places. The three volumes of Athenaeus's Banquet were among Olson's favorite books; Muthologos is like the expansive table-talk of the deipnosophists, those called to the feast of the learned. The poems are allowed in as part of the banquet, but the totality is in the life, which was chiefly talk. It is in this compilation of transcribed tapes that we get what is preserved of Olson's life of talk; hence the claim, as close as it gets, to totality. (https://charlesolson.org/Files/Muthologos.htm; accessed 7 May 2021)


I cite this partly on account of the emphasis there on TALK, though there is much else of interest, including the proximate reason for my providing this reference in the first place — for its helpful (and suggestive) definition of "muthologos".


Hearing? Listening? I heard the rain pattering on the roof last night, but any meaning in that sound of falling rain would have been imputed by myself to the rain, or the sound, based on whatever association may have arisen then. Meanwhile I listened to a recording of Morton Feldman's For Samuel Beckett (although, depending on my level of attention, or inattention, I may have merely been hearing that music). But this, one might say, is mere twaddle.


More on this matter of writing, and perhaps something more on the ontological status of poetry, later…



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