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Traveling By Hand

Robert Walser, "A Will to Shake That Refined Individual", in Robert Walser Microscripts, Translated by Susan Bernofsky



I like to employ diverse technologies in composing poems and other texts (including blog posts), a writing practice that's loosely organized around the separate workspaces I've set up in my office — a sit-down writing table, a standup desk, and a shelf extension where I consult printed reference materials. These workspaces are interchangeable in practice, with the exception of an oakwood library chair, reserved for sitting and reading. All of these workstations are situated within a totalizing space of about a hundred square feet! — and where the majority of wall space is committed to shelving for books. Whenever possible, as I say, I diversify my writing qua writing practice, using either the computer, pencil on paper, or ink (fountain pen or quill), on paper. There's drawing paper on hand too, along with a variety of inks, pencils and pens, charcoal, and other tools such as compass, rulers, protractor.


At home in Philadelphia between field trips, I would routinely walk through the city neighborhoods, visiting especially the many small, independent galleries and bookshops. In Old City one day I walked into a small gallery and began looking at the paintings hung there. Very soon the owner — an artist — emerged from an adjacent room. We talked. At the time I was actively doing fieldwork, traveling wherever that took me, and when I mentioned my work, he became interested and made a leap, encouraging me to begin drawing to capture whatever insight -- esoteric, hermetic -- resulting from my relinquishing the familiar spaces/places, to approach the distant the unfamiliar the unknown (opposite/oppositional-spaces/places) — not mirrors — spaces/places closed or veiled — typically available to those on the inside, unavailable to those on the outside. Such was the nature of our conversation that day.


I wrote the following to a local artist in December 2009, relating to a project I was working on at the time:


Beyond all that, I also agree that we need to make more contact in the neighborhood itself, with new people. Remember the Lao monk that rainy Saturday when we visited Koune? [This was a recent visit to a Lao Buddhist temple in Philadelphia.] He was so expansive and expressive, but we really couldn't 'understand' much of what he was saying. But he talked, and we listened, and it worked. Fieldwork is like that in general. But more particularly, we need to explore that sort of communicative potential at large in the neighborhood and find social spaces where we really don't know what's going on or what people are saying, but we are anyway involved in some sort of deep engagement whether with English speakers or others that will produce something authentic, uncontrived. Interesting how that something could just as well be babble rather than words, or that it begins with babble, in any case, language notwithstanding.


And several years later, a note to myself:


"Discovery" on BBC this morning 9 September [2016] aired in the 3am hour sounded interesting -- about risk in scientific research and related issues in the context of the historical development of certain lines of inquiry and also I think and perhaps especially the idea of error as part of the shaping and production of knowledge and ultimately the political dimension of science and its applicability. At the moment I tuned in and began to absorb what I was hearing I'd been thinking about writing about fieldwork and all the indeterminacies associated with that. There was something on the program about "setting the meter" incorrectly, perhaps in an experimental process, with that error being carried through and shaping the outcome importantly, which dovetailed somehow with my own thought process at that moment, fieldwork such as it is being fraught with "error". For example, my idea of note taking and listening within a time rift that inhibits or restricts perception of the actual information being provided while simultaneously opening doors or windows of perception onto realms of intuitive -- or counterintuitive -- "meanings" not otherwise available in everyday discourse. So we do fieldwork not fundamentally in order to document and record information or manufacture data, but to set up conditions to achieve or gain access to these other realms.


Standing and talking in that storefront gallery space in Philadelphia, I realized that the artist had intuited something fundamental and important. I agreed that, yes, I've long felt that drawing could be a way to free my hand, which held a position at the threshold of those intimated worlds. The artist suggested I contact a friend who was (at that time) an instructor at the Slought Foundation in Philadelphia, suggested I explain that he was commending me to him, that I join the friend's drawing class at Slought. I did write to him, and was invited to join the class — but didn't follow through — probably because I had to leave town for the next fieldwork gig.


Cultivation of drawing skills aside, I do work with fountain pen, with inkwell and quill, with pencil and paper, which I believe are significant affordances of drawing. With this in mind, I looked through a book called Untitled Passages by Henri Michaux, having just re-read Michaux's essay on the Chinese written character, while awaiting arrival of a replacement copy of Fenollosa's essay, thinking to do some writing on the subject. Of course, the Fenollosa essay had been influential for Ezra Pound, and consequently for later generations of American poets.


So I picked up this other book by Michaux, which as it happens is the catalog for a museum exhibit of Michaux's drawings, and right away found a prefatory note titled "To Draw the Flow of Time" — where he writes that he had been drawing 'the consciousness of existing and the flow of time' but was producing 'scarcely more than one or two or three lines meeting up here and there with a few others…' Until a publisher wanting to reproduce some of the drawings said, 'All you have to do is make them bigger.' HM protested, seizing hold of a brush to demonstrate that "bigger" was impossible — but —


   As I drew the first lines I felt, to my extreme surprise, that something that had always been closed had opened up in me, and that this breach was to afford an outlet for a mass of movements.
   The fulness of the gesture necessitated by the characters that were supposed to come out bigger had changed the spirit of the drawing. Instead of characters, instead of notations of an undefinable 'something,' they became propulsion, participation, released torrent.


Michaux sometimes made drawings after ingesting mescaline or lysergic acid (mescalin especially). A selection of the mescaline drawings is included in the catalog, along with others of interest — there is a number of "alphabet" drawings — figures arrayed in a tabular format on the page. Interestingly, there are also several "movements" drawings, some also with figures arranged in more or less tabular format. These drawings open vistas too expansive for my purposes here, but I'll return to them in a future post.


In contrast to Michaux, the great Swiss writer Robert Walser spent the closing years of his life in a sanitarium — his everyday outer experience was one of confinement. And he too turned to writing "strange" — adopting what appeared to be an esoteric script, or code —producing a number of "microscripts." Susan Bernofsky, Walser's translator, describes them as "narrow strips of paper covered with tiny, antlike markings ranging in height from one to two millimeters," which were assumed to be indecipherable scribbles. But two scholars, looking more closely, identified them as writing per se, a "radically miniaturized" German script called Kurrent — "the form of handwriting favored in German-speaking countries until the mid-twentieth century, when it was replaced by a Latinate form similar to that used in English." As Bernofsky explains:


Kurrent is medieval in its origins, all up-and-down slanting angles. It is a form of script better suited to compression than modern handwriting, though its graphic simplicity — an e is represented by a simple pair of vertical ticks like a quotation mark, an s by a mere slash — means that shrinking it down results in a dramatic loss of detail and comprehensibility.


It seems that Kurrent may be likened to a "secret" code after all! Bernofsky's description is strikingly like Michaux's account of his drawings prior to being asked to "make them larger," which helped Michaux to free his hand. Walser too had issues with his hand. Bernofsky quotes from a letter Walser wrote to a publisher —


I can assure you (this all began in Berlin) I suffered a real breakdown in my hand on account of the pen, a sort of cramp from whose clutches I slowly, laboriously freed myself by means of the pencil… So I experienced a period of disruption that was mirrored, as it were, in my handwriting and its domination, and when I copied out the texts from this pencil assignment, I learned again, like a little boy, to write.


Bernofsky concludes: "By his own account, then, Walser began writing in a tiny pencil script to combat a sort of writer's cramp." There seem to be unmistakable parallels between the very diverse experience of Walser and Michaux -- both confronting limitations posed by the hand, both finding freedom by using the hand differently, eclipsing the writing/drawing they'd previously done to open new vistas of outlook and expression.

I'll close by citing an interesting little book by the Italian architect Paolo Belardi titled, Why Architects Still Draw. Having quoted Leonardo on "the rivalry between pen and pencil" Belardi offers a sort of rapprochement that may be apposite here:


Though if we look closely, there isn't any real competition or conflict between writing and drawing…I've always been charmed by the rhetorical finesse with which the great poet Marino Moretti attributes the fragility of the written word to the ephemeral nature of the pencil.


More later…

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Notes on My Library

Paperback copy of The Bridge of San Luis Rey, ebay.com


Alan Loney, one-time poet, longtime printer, and theorist of the book, participated in the Threads Talk Series, given between 2009 and 2012, and later co-published by Granary Books and Cuneiform Press in 2016 (I cited Loney's essay in an earlier post on the "undifferentiated poem"). In his essay Loney assesses his library, and reflects on his retirement from printing -- which leads to thoughts about reading. (I preserve Loney's orthography in these excerpts):


But I am about to cease making books, and my thought turns to the books about the house, most of which are unread in any normal sense, tho I have glanced at a page or two, here & there, in each of them. In some. I have looked only at their paratexts: titlepage, epigraph, endnotes, bibliography, index and so on.


Loney continues:


my library, for want of a better term, is not large. It has approximately one thousand volumes, and at my reading speed it would probably take me about forty years to read each volume once only, by which time I would be 110 years old. If I have actually twenty years left to me, you can see the problem.


Even so, he says,


liberated from printing books, maybe now I can learn to read them


Loney's essay had already been published in The books to come, a collection of his own writings  (Cuneiform Press, 2012), which collectively form a provocative meditation on "books" — objects that Loney understands expansively to include "other modes of textual transmission", such as bus tickets, magazines, and street signs.


Walter Benjamin has a brief essay on his personal library, or rather his "collection" — offered as a rumination on the occasion of "unpacking" his library, which, he writes, had languished in storage for the prevoius two years. In that essay, which is complex and which I adapt to my own purpose here, Benjamin sounds a similar theme to Loney's, suggesting that owning books but leaving them unread is routine among collectors. Benjamin develops his essay by outlining the several ways that individuals acquire books, such as borrowing, where he suggests that,


The book borrower of real stature whom we envisage here proves himself to be an inveterate collector of books not so much by the fervor with which he guards his borrowed treasures and by the deaf ear which he turns to all reminders from the everyday world of legality as by his failure to read these books. If my experience may serve as evidence, a man is more likely to return a borrowed book upon occasion than to read it. And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, "And you have read all these books,. Monsieur France?" "Not one-tenth of them. I don't suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?"


The original impetus for this post was my reading a collection of letters that John Ashbery had written to Mark Ford, which the latter published in the English literary magazine PN Review after the poet's death. In one of these, Ashbery wrote:


I've been trying to supplement my usual reading of the Times, LRB and TLS with something more nourishing, and decided to crack open some of the hundreds of unread books I own. A friend just gave me P.G. Wodehouse's Damsel in Distress, which was made into a thirties musical starring Fred Astaire and someone other than Ginger Rogers, as well as harebrained Gracie Allen. There's a rather nice scene in an amusement park fun-house, but I can't seem to revive my 12-year-old passion for P.G., maybe because of all of those broadcasts during the as yet unthought-of war. So I decided to crack the work of George Meredith. I thought of trying Diana of the Crossways or The Tragic Comedians, but David said the type was too small and brought me instead Lord Ormont and His Aminta. I see that his most salient characteristic is oddness, which I, surely, have nothing against. Frank O used to like a poem of his called 'Jump for Glory Jane', it seems to me, and of course 'Modern Love' is peachy, don't you agree?
(5 June, 2015)


This reference to "the hundreds of unread books I own" likely rings true with many collectors. As a lifelong bibliophile, collector, (and reader) of books, I too have been confronted with the "standard question", as reported by Anatole France via Walter Benjamin. When I lived in Morristown, New Jersey in the late 1970s, our combined living-dining room had a long, high wall, where after moving in I right away built and installed a bookcase made of pine boards that were 1" thick and 12" deep. I cut them to size, stained them a dark brown, screwed the boards together, braced the corners, and set the whole thing against the wall, propping up the long shelves at evenly spaced intervals to minimize sagging.


I've forgotten the exact dimensions of that bookcase, but memory suggests it was roughly seven feet high and twelve feet long — with nearly all of that space taken up with books. Some months later, after we'd settled into that apartment, a dinner guest popped the big question — had I actually read them all? At that time, I could answer with a qualified yes, but that would change on relocating to Philadelphia to enroll in graduate school -- where I learned that graduate students have a special way of "reading" books.


I began purchasing books as a kid in my home town of Paterson, New Jersey, where I could walk down Mary Street to Main Street, towards the local pharmacy (which bore the name "Apteka", the Polish word for "pharmacy", on a sign set above the door), and where there was a small revolving book rack standing off to one side of the entrance. There were other neighborhood sources of books as well — there was the small lunch counter/ice cream parlor right across Barclay Street from the Apteka. St. Joseph's Hospital, where I was born, was directly across Main Street, while a small distance uphill on Barclay Street there was a small church, whose members were Syrian Christians from Aleppo (which last time I looked had transitioned to a Pentecostal church for Latinos).


Growing up, I felt that the Syrian church, along with the Polish Apteka, cast a special aura over the neighborhood. Indeed, there was an established and growing community of Arab peoples just a few blocks south along Main Street, with bakeries and small eateries offering breads and foods from the various home countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Turkey) of residents and merchants of that neighborhood. There were also a number of bodegas nearby, owned by Puerto Ricans who had settled there in the post-war period. My old South Paterson neighborhood has changed quite a lot since then, with newcomers arriving from Turkey and nearby countries, gravitating toward that same area along South Main Street, the Puerto Rican community later giving way to Dominicans. I believe that they or some other Latino communitiy now worship at that erstwhile Syrian church on Barclay Street.


By the time I'd turned eight or nine years old, I was a steady consumer of books. Apart from an interest in their contents, I was probably attracted by the cover art or design, by simply picking up and holding the book, or by the descriptive blurb on the back cover. I visited the public library on Grand Street too, but even at that relatively young age I wanted to own books. The books filling the neighborhood racks back then cost as little as 25 or 35 cents, and I had "income" of my own, mainly from scavenging soda bottles and returning them to local stores for the deposit, or from "junking" — collecting discarded newspapers, or stripping parts from abandoned cars left on the street or in empty lots (starters, generators, alternators, etc.) and hauling them to the local junkyard for a payout. I was often on hand, too, to run errands for elderly people in the neighborhood, who would tip with a nickel, or have me keep the carefully calculated change from whatever purchases I'd made for them. And of course, in winter I shoveled snow for those same neighbors.


Looking back, some of those book titles are surprising, others not — I especially remember The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, and Lost Horizon by James Hilton. But there was also Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, books by Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and The Black Arrow), or Rudyard Kipling (Kim and The Jungle Book), and books by Jules Verne. I began reading contemporary science fiction at that time too — Lester Del Rey, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Andre Norton. I recall liking Norton especially much (though I don't believe I read any of the books she wrote for young people). There were other writers and other books as well, too numerous to be named here.


I held onto those early purchases for many years, fetishizing them as mementos or, less prosaically, valuing them as starry messengers from my childhood. Whichever it was, they formed at first the embryonic and then the continually evolving substrate of my being — a bookish, though not scholarly individual, with a lifelong affinity for books and an abiding urge to acquire them. Those very early books gradually fell away, some left behind at my parents' house following the decisive breakaway from my birth family, some later misplaced or discarded while moving or relocating. There have been several iterations of culling, up to the most recent version — downsizing. I've given away many hundreds, amounting to thousands of books — to local libraries, to used booksellers, and most recently to a neighborhood typewriter repair shop, whose proprietor is setting books out for display around the storefront and sidewalks, in an effort at community building.


In his Threads Talk essay, Alan Loney discusses the many things I myself have wondered about – whether or not to continue adding to my existing library (at my age), the dual nature of books (book as codex vs. book as text), and so on. This gets at the argument Walter Benjamin was making, that books, in certain hands, can exceed or transcend their texts; they are indeed a magic conjuncture. Meanwhile, I expect that this post will engender a further post, where I plan to look more closely at Benjamin's essay, and explore Alan Loney's writings in more detail.

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The "Undifferentiated" Poem

Yin-Yang, McKenzie Lloyd-Smith, Getty Images


I'm intrigued by comments made by Alan Loney in Threads Talks, published in 2016 by Granary Books and Cuneiform Press. Loney says/writes:


Louis Zukofsky famously avowed that all one's life one only wrote one poem. It allows the possibility that all poems from a single context, all L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems, for example, (let's allow for the moment that such things do exist), are a single poem, parts of which are distributed among various, divers, even conflictual writers. It reminds me of a Terry Riley composition in "Cadenza on the Night Plain" where a Dream Collector has a specific and finite number of dreams to distribute and redistribute thruout the populace after collecting them from the dreamers in the morning. So the library at large, that collection of books scattered yet gathered over the planet, is itself a single book, containing a unitary text, the variety and complexity of which is unencompassable by any individual, any tribe, any nation, any book, even the entire populace, those millions who every day die and are born, dropping as a species, as it were, into & out of the text ("What Book Does My Library Make")


This stirred a memory, something I'd read only a day or two before, and racking my brains over what that was or where I'd seen it, I thought of a book I'd been reading online at the Punctum Books website. That book is Li Bo Unkempt by Kidder Smith (with translations by Kidder Smith and Mike Zhai). So -- I went through that book again, and think I may have found what I was looking for -- mention of the "undifferentiated wholeness", or Dao -- and reading further came to a chapter on the origins of writing or script, with illustrations.


For the moment, here's what I was able to find in Li Bo Unkempt that may touch on this subject of "the one poem", as invoked by Alan Loney in Threads Talks:


Chapter 14. "Lines of a Short Song"


How short, short this bright sun —

our hundred years fill so easily with sorrow.

The vaulted blue-green sky floods on and on,

for ten-thousand eons reality flows on.

The goddess lets down two locks of hair,

already half frost-white.

The Lord of Heaven plays at darts with her

and laughs through a million thousand spaces.

I want to rein in the sun's six dragons,

turn round their chariot, and tether them at world's end.

The Northern Dipper pours fine wine —

I'll persuade each dragon to drink a goblet.

Wealth and honor aren't what we want

to halt the ruination of our brightness.











This may be clarified via Smith's glossing of this poem, incorporating an alternate translation, or retranslation:


If you have time now for a longer conversation, we'll translate

this poem a bit differently. At the fourth line we've said, "for ten thousand

eons, reality flows on." "Reality" is a loose translation

of Taiji 太極, the Great Ultimate, that undifferentiated circumstance

that is just prior to form — just prior to Yin and Yang.

How long can it go on? The Indians measure big time in kalpas,

a word that the Chinese, like us, couldn't translate, so they preserved

its sound, "kiap-pua" 劫波. It means the life span of a

world realm, from when it was created to when it is destroyed

and then created once again. In the time of modern physics, this

might be some six or seven billion years. So Li Bo actually tells

us the Great Ultimate will go on for ten-thousand kalpas. (pp. 48-49)


Recognizing that I'm on well-trodden ground here, I nevertheless want to suggest that the "form" emerging from the "undifferentiated circumstance" may be the poem itself, the ongoing practice of poetry by the poet.  


Kidder Smith approvingly cites an essay by William Boltz that may be of interest here. Here's the opening argument of the Boltz essay:


It is a commonplace in the study of pre-Han texts to acknowledge that the received version of a given text cannot be assumed to reflect with any significant degree of fidelity its original form.1 A text is, as the literal sense of the English word implies, something woven, something stitched together (cf. Skt. siitra, Ch. ching), and once woven, it may ravel. It would then be subject re-weaving, either in its entirety alone, or together with other, originally distinct texts. In the former case individual phrases or lines might be introduced throughout the piece for reasons for euphony, stylistic balance, or perhaps because of a misunderstanding of the original sense on the part of a later scribe. In the latter case wholly independent accounts might become inter- woven, begetting a new, hybrid document. Such re-weaving with its gratuitous additions of new material might occur several times, further distorting the primary content on each occurrence. The end result of such a process of textual alterations would be a composite and thoroughly heterogeneous work of diverse provenances, and of uncertain internal uniformity.


This adds an interesting perspective to the general thrust of this post – I especially like the reference to weaving, or stitching, and the explicit focus on text.  [BTW: Here's the complete citation for this article as provided by JSTOR:The Structure and Interpretation of "Chuang tzŭ": Two Notes on "Hsiao yao yu" Author(s): William G. Boltz Source: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London , 1980, Vol. 43, No. 3 (1980), pp. 532-543 Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of School of Oriental and African Studies Stable URL: http://www.jstor.com/stable/615740]


Reading the Boltz essay I remembered a book I'd read years ago, Unravelling Words and the Weaving of the Water, an early publication by the Chilean poet, weaver, sculptor, and activist Cecilia Vicuña. The book was translated by Eliot Weinberger and Suzanne Jill Levine, with an introduction by Weinberger. Here's a segment of a longer poem, titled "The Origin of Weaving", where Vicuña gathers various defining words from an array of cultures:


sutra: Buddhist text

thread (Sanskrit)


tantra: sacred text derived from the Vedas: thread


ching: as in Tao Te Ching or I Ching

sacred book: warp

wei: its commentaries: weft


Quechua: the sacred language

derived from q'eswa:

rope or cord made of straw


to weave a new form of thought:


bring together in one


Afterwards I thought to look up "sutra" in Macdonnel's Practical Sanskrit Dictionary; here are some entries for the word "sutra", and related words (with apologies for quoting so extensively):


57) सूत्र sūtra

सूत्र sūtra सूत्र sũ-tra n. [√sîv] V., C.: thread, string, cord (ord. mg.); C.: sacred cord (worn over the left shoulder by the three upper castes); measuring line; fibre; line; sketch, plan; (thread running through and holding together=) concise rule or...

   58) सूत्रय sūtraya

सूत्रय sūtraya सूत्रय sûtra-ya den. P. Â. string or put together; contrive, effect, produce; compose or teach in the form of a Sûtra. â, contrive, effect. sam-â, id. vi, drive away, dispel, remove; throw into confusion.

   59) सूत्रयितव्य sūtrayitavya

सूत्रयितव्य sūtrayitavya सूत्रयितव्य sûtray-itavya fp. to be composed in the form of a Sûtra.

   60) सूत्रात्मन् sūtrātman

सूत्रात्मन् sūtrātman सूत्रात्मन् sûtra̮âtman m. thread-soul, i. e. intellect conditioned by the aggregate and therefore passing through all things like a thread (ph.).

   61) सूत्रिका sūtrikā

सूत्रिका sūtrikā सूत्रिका sûtr-ikâ f. macaroni; -ita, pp. (of sûtraya): -tva, n. fact of being stated in a Sûtra; -in, a. provided with threads; m. stage-manager.

   62) सूना sūnā

सूना sūnā सूना sû-nã f. [√sîv: cp. sûtra] V.: woven basket or dish (V.); C.: slaughter-house, shambles; means of producing death: -kakra- dhvaga-vat, m. pl.

   63) सौत्र sautra

सौत्र sautra सौत्र sautra a. (î) consisting or made of threads; belonging to a Sûtra: w. dhâtu, m. (etymological) root mentioned in a Sûtra only.


And tantra:


7) तन्त्र tantra

तन्त्र tantra तन्त्र tán-tra n. loom; warp; groundwork, underlying principle, essence; system; standard; main point; rule, doctrine; manual; section in a manual; a class of magical and mystical treatises; spell; physic, specific; government; –˚, line, rank, troop; a. chiefly concerned with, dependent on (–˚).

   8) तन्त्रक tantraka

तन्त्रक tantraka तन्त्रक tantra-ka a. coming from the loom, quite new; –˚ a. doctrine, manual.

   9) तन्त्रकार tantrakāra

तन्त्रकार tantrakāra तन्त्रकार tantra-kâra m. composer of a manual.

   10) तन्त्रय tantraya

तन्त्रय tantraya तन्त्रय tantra-ya den. P. follow; perform; provide for (ac.): pp. tantrita, dependent on (–˚).

   11) तन्त्रवाय tantravāya

तन्त्रवाय tantravāya तन्त्रवाय tantra-vâya m. weaver.

   12) तान्त्र tāntra

तान्त्र tāntra तान्त्र tântra n. (stringed) instrumental music.

   13) तान्त्रिक tāntrika

तान्त्रिक tāntrika तान्त्रिक tântrika a. (â, î) completely versed in a system, specialist; taught in a Tantra.

   14) तार tāra

...n. loud, high, or shrill sound; m. pearl of pure water; putting across (–˚); sacred syllable om or other mystic monosyllable in a Tantra; â, f. N.


These entries are suggestive, and I may return to them at some future time. Meanwhile, I'll close with Eliot Weinberger. In his introduction to Vicuña's book, he writes:


Trouser buttons may have turned to zippers, but both, like stars and wood, became recognized as merely varying configurations of the same subatomic particles. People were discovered to have the same dreams, tell the same stories, construct variants of the same societies. The same genetic rules were applied to clams and conquerors.


And then:


Thread, universally, is what ties people to the gods; its arrangement into warp and woof, cloth and the act of weaving, remains a perennial metaphor for both the complexities and the seamlessness of the world.


...ahí está!

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Was Homer Blind?

Cover image for Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West (Viking Press, 1941)


On Ismail Kadare, who was awarded the Neustadt Prize in 2020, on the 50th anniversary of that prize…


There's an interesting passage in The File on H., where Ismail Kadare considers the question of Homer's blindness. In this largely comic novel, two Irish scholars travel to Albania to record and study the oral poetry tradition and determine its relationship to Homeric epic. Portions of their (fictive) notes are incorporated into the text, set in italics. Other passages are cast in the voice of a narrator, possibly reflecting the thinking of the author. The passage quoted here is in the narrator/authorial mode:


Homer probably suffered some major physical defect, but rather than blindness, his disability was more likely to have been deafness. Deafness brought on by listening to tens of thousands of hexameters? Actually, deafness suited Homer rather well. Blindness was more suitable for later times, when books had been invented. All the same, statues did usually portray Homer as eyeless. But maybe deafness was just impossible to represent in marble? Maybe the sculptors had solved the problem by substituting one disability for another? In the last analysis, haven't eyes and ears always been associated with each other as the two most characteristic, visible organs of humankind?


A blind Homer may well have dictated his work to an expert scribe; a deaf Homer may have written the texts down himself. In any case, the irony in this passage is palpable. In fact, the book is replete with irony, is broadly comical, and is laced with satire. Employing that narrative frame, Kadare is free to comment on epic poetry, on Homeric scholarship, and on the related subject of nationalism. The book ultimately turns on the complex, longstanding argument in the Balkans over precedence in relation to epic poetry. Where did the epic tradition originate? Who copied whom? I think it's precisely because Kadare chose to dramatize these issues in his novel, as a pretext for commenting on oral epic and related matters, that some critics and readers have been dismissive of this book.


In a review published in the New York Times (March 1, 1998), Ken Kalfus writes that,


''The File on H.'' ranks among the least successful of Kadare's works. Lazily plotted, stylelessly written (at least in David Bellos's translation of the French translation of the original), the novel fails to turn Kadare's conjectures about Homer into drama.


Of course, Kalfus can't be faulted for seeking the literary value of the novel. But he concludes with this:


Later, he [Kadare] laments ''eternal Albania, bearing its tragic destiny with dignity.'' But why tragic? Is Albania's destiny more tragic than that of the Serbs or the Croats or for that matter the destiny of the Irish? And are their destinies tragic, or simply their pasts? Their destinies lie ahead of them, in the unknowable future, subject to human agency. And what's so dignified about a country mired in poverty and blood feuds? In the end, Kadare's celebration of the Albanian contribution to Homeric verse subsides into a gratingly familiar nationalist whine.


Much ink has been spilled over the subject of nationalism. Kalfus seems to adopt a tendentious position, in keeping with the thrust and tenor of his review. But I want to bring another voice into this discussion, as a rejoinder to Kalfus. In her classic Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West makes a passing comment on nationalism in her chapter on Old Serbia (Vol. 2 p. 842-3), inspired by a patriotic recitation she'd witnessed at Kosovo, put on by a group of school children:


Here was the nationalism which the intellectuals of my age agreed to consider a vice and the origin of the world's misfortunes. I cannot imagine why. Every human being is of sublime value, because his experience, which must be in some measure unique, gives him a unique view of reality, and the sum of such views should go far to giving us a complete picture of reality, which the human race must attain if it is ever to comprehend its destiny. Therefore every human being must be encouraged to cultivate his consciousness to the fullest degree. It follows that every nation, being an association of human beings who have been drawn together by common experience, has also its unique view of reality, which may contribute to our deliverance, and should therefore be allowed a like encouragement to its consciousness. Let people, then, hold to their own language, their own customs, their own beliefs, even if this inconveniences the tourist. There is not the smallest reason for confounding nationalism, which is the desire for a people to be itself, with imperialism, which is the desire of a people to prevent other peoples from being themselves. Intense nationalist spirit is often, indeed, an effort by a people to rebuild its character when an imperialist power has worked hard to destroy it.


Rebecca West's book was published in 1941. I've quoted her at length, partly for the elegance of her prose, but also to mark a broader frame around the issue at hand. Kadare's Albania had once been a part of the Ottoman Empire, and following that had been ruled by an authoritarian king, then afterwards coming under Soviet control. Given this history, and for other reasons as well, Kadare may be entitled to his nationalism. Even so, the issue is fraught. Within and beyond the historical sweep of any hegemonic empire, there's likely a reactionary nationalism ready to step up to facilitate its own version --  oppression of minorities or "others" not anciently sprung from that soil, "others" not members of that language community.


Kadare addresses this, in a fictional diary entry by the two Homeric scholars:


The bilingualism of these epic poems makes every one of the issues concerning them infinitely more difficult, and we have no clue at the moment to how to cope with this aspect of the subject. These epics seem to constitute the only art form in the world that exists, so to speak, in duplicate. But to say they are bilingual or duplicate is to underestimate the acuteness of the problem: they exist in the languages of two nations that are enemies. And both sides, the Serbs and the Albanians, use the epic in exactly the same way, as a weapon in a tragic duel that is unique.


The two fictional scholars continue:


It would be childish to imagine that each of these nations invented epic poetry independently. One of them must be the originator and the other the borrower. We are personally convinced that, as they are the most ancient inhabitants of the peninsula, the Albanians must have been the originators of oral epic. (The fact that their versions are much closer to Homeric models tends to confirm this view.) But we will not get ourselves involved in this polemic, or in anything that takes us away from our main aim, which is to lay bare the techniques of Homeric poetry.


They might have reconsidered, and paid greater attention to local conditions, had they known that their scholarly sojourn in Albania would eventuate in the demolition of their tape recorder, and destruction of their tapes. Kadare invents an account of the incident, as published in the local newspaper:


'This is not the first time that Slav chauvinists have brutally attacked scholars working on Albania's classical roots. Any mention of the Illyrian origins of the Albanians, in particular, arouses in them barbaric and murderous jealousy, which is, alas, just as widespread here, in the Balkans'.


The reference to the "Illyrian" language is apposite. As Kadare notes in the Paris Review interview, the linguistic status of Albanian exceeds the conventional cartographic boundaries:

Half of the Albanian population lives next door, in Yugoslavia, in the region of Kosovo. In all, ten million people in the world speak Albanian, which is one of the basic European languages. I'm not saying this out of national pride-it is a fact. Linguistically speaking, there are six or seven fundamental families of languages in Europe: Latin, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic (spoken in Latvia and Estonia) and three languages without families, so to speak: Greek, Armenian and Albanian. Therefore, the Albanian language is more considerable than the little country where it is spoken, since it occupies an important place in Europe's linguistic cartography…


Albanian is also important  for being the only descendant of the ancient Illyrians' language. In antiquity there were three regions in southern Europe: Greece, Rome and Illyria. Albanian is the only survivor of the Illyrian  languages. That is why it has always intrigued the great linguists of the past.


In his review of the book, Kalfus suggests that Kadare has a "nostalgia for preliteracy". This seems much too narrow a view. Kadare's Paris Review interview with Shusha Guppy (Summer 1998) argues persuasively against the more dismissive comments of Kalfus. Discussing the Albanian language, Kadare says,

For me as a writer, Albanian is simply an extraordinary means of expression-rich, malleable,  adaptable.  As I have said in my latest novel, Spiritus, it has modalities that exist only in classical Greek, which puts one in touch with the mentality of antiquity. For example, there are Albanian verbs that can have both a beneficent or a malevolent  meaning, just as in ancient  Greek, and  this facilitates the  translation of Greek tragedies, as well as of Shakespeare, the latter being the closest European author to the Greek tragedians. When Nietzsche says that Greek tragedy committed suicide young because  it  only lived  one hundred  years, he is right. But in  a global vision it has endured up to Shakespeare, and continues to  this day. On the other hand, I believe that the era of epic poetry is over. As for the novel: it is still very young. It has hardly begun.


Kalfus notwithstanding, Kadare argues that epic poetry (an oral genre) has been superseded (though perhaps not entirely supplanted) by the novel (a print genre). There's no inkling here of a nostalgia for preliteracy. Here's Kadare again, in dialog with Guppy:



Yet the death of the novel has been foretold for fifty years!



There are always people who talk a lot of nonsense! But in a universal perspective, if the novel is to replace the two important  genres of epic  poetry-which has disappeared­ and of  tragedy-which continues-then it has barely begun, and has still two thousand years of life left.  


Hmm. Still no nostalgia for preliteracy!


Finally, here is Kadare's more thoughtful view of the relation between orality and literacy:


Listen, I think that in the history of literature there has been only one decisive change: the passage from orality to writing. For a long time literature was only spoken, and then suddenly with the Babylonians and the Greeks came writing. That changed everything, because before, when the poet recited or sang his poem and could change it at every performance as he pleased, he was free. By the same token he was ephemeral, as his poem changed into oral transmission from one generation to the next. Once written, the text becomes fixed. The author gains something by being read, but he also loses something-freedom. That is a great change in the history of literature.


It might be argued that there can be no fixity of texts, whether oral or written, but that discussion will have to wait, till later…






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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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