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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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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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