Meditations on the Untimely: Thinking Through My Thesis

This morning: I checked out the newly-uploaded special issue of Screening the Past. It’s theme? “Untimely Cinema: Cinema Out of Time.”

Last Wednesday: I tweeted the following to get it out of my head and see how it grows:

Last weekend: I picked up my copy of Deleuze’s Wake: Tributes and Tributaries, this time to read the essay “Minor Writing and Minor Literature.” I’ve gone through bits of it before, enough to recall a remark near the beginning of the piece about how Deleuze’s “concept of minor literature has been of some use to students of postcolonial, ethnic, minority, and marginal literatures (63).”

I’m still reading it to see exactly what Bogue proposes as “some [of those] use[s]” in the hopes it can help me articulate my thoughts in response to some remarks made here. For now, I’m struck by Bogue’s description of how Deleuze writes his histories of philosophy almost like an extension of the spirit of Nietzchean Unzeitgemässe: 

Rather than offering a narrative of the development of ideas, arguments, positions, and so on, he describes the functioning of specific problems and sets them in resonance with one another through the unfolding of the problems proper to his own thought. In this manner, Deleuze creates his own precursors…and brings them into a kind of untimely, interactive coexistence within the problems he articulates. To the extent that Deleuze himself is successful in formulating genuine problems, his thought should disrupt conventional narratives of the history of philosophy, and his accounts of others’ thought should bring into existence an idiosyncratic, untimely network of precursors that constitutes an “antihistory” of his own thought.” (67-68, emphasis mine)

Because I haven’t read much by or even about Deleuze*, I can’t quite assess whether or not this is more Deleuzian than Bogueian, though I trust that it is and can be both. What’s more important for me right now is how, in many ways, this “antihistory” of “my own thought” is the approach I want/need to use for the critical essay of my thesis. As what should ultimately be a statement of poetics, I have fundamental difficulties getting there from my preoccupations with what can be called “discourses of newness.” Now, it seems clearer, if no less contentious or difficult:

What I need to do is an antihistory of my writing, at least those poems I’m including in my thesis.

* The only Deleuze I’ve read is “Literature and Life,” the essay Bogue cites as where “the larger theoretical assumptions that feed into the notion of minor literature…are neatly summarized” through its description of “the function of literature in terms of stuttering, becoming, fabulation, and visions/auditions (70).”

Also, though I’d like to say Ronald Bogue’s essays are engaging, I’m a little hesitant because this isn’t a book I’ve read straight from cover to cover. I leaf through it, going through its essay on death metal (!) or bumping into/against Bogue’s claim that “[a]ccording to Deleuze, the basic linguistic act is not the phoneme but the statement (énoncé), or speech act (110).”

Another time, I read “Deleuze, Foucault, and the Playful Fold of the Self” to give myself a chance to understand more than two pages of Deleuze’s book on Foucault, which I’ve owned for more than a decade already (excerpt here). I really want to understand the dynamic between Deleuze and Foucault. Maybe I can get another book, but I’m scared I might end up leaving that unread as well.

For now: thesis!

Advertisements

Tony Harrison

Browsing through a copy of his Selected Poems at a bookstore the other evening, my attention was drawn to one of the poems in Tony Harrison‘s sequence The School Of Eloquence. The title caught my eye, the opening lines my ear. I started reading the poem under my breath and became so entranced I took pictures of the two pages that held “The Rhubarbarians.” Here’s how it begins:

Those glottals glugged like poured pop, each
rebarbative syllable, remembrancer, raise
‘mob’ rhubarb-rhubarb to a tribune’s speech
crossing the crackle as the hayricks blaze.

Unfortunately, the poem seems to be unavailable online, but these ones are:

“Long Distance II” is the only poem of his on the Academy Of American Poets (Harrison’s English, by the way, Leeds-born); he has none on the Poetry Foundation’s site, despite a rather lengthy biographical essay. It’s a surprisingly “clear” piece, as opposed to “The Rhubarbarians” and some of Harrison’s other poems.

His Poetry Archive page hosts four poems, including audio clips of Harrison reading them. He’s quite good, as are these poems themselves:

“Timer” deals with a dead mother, just like “Long Distance II,” but this one is a little more disturbing. It’s grim subject matter, but I strangely find it darkly comic somehow, and that adds to the effect of the poem on me. Also, the use of dialogue here, unlike the strictly monological speaker of “Long Distance II,” certainly adds layers.

“National Trust” pushes the darkness and the comedy further and adds a dose of social critique, at least on the surface, in the situation it presents of bottomless pits that are measured by lowering people into them. Harrison feels a scholar would do better than a prisoner in that regard! Something else going on here, however, adds to the poem’s depth (pun intended, unfortunately): several words in the poem refer to speaking (“hush-hush,” “dumb,” “holler,” “silenced,” “tongueless”) and there’s even a bit of Cornish (one of the dead Celtic languages, if I remember right). It certainly bears further scrutiny though I feel I must look up the references, even while the poem is enjoyable as it is.

“Initial Illumination” is the longest piece and it seems denser, even before taking its length into account. The image of the cormorant is a constant, though I’m not yet sure I fully understand the image. The poem  begins with two saints (monks?) I’m unfamiliar with: “Eadfrith the Saxon scribe/illuminator” and “Bilfrith the anchorite.” It ends in the present day, excoriating “the word of God much bandied by George Bush / whose word illuminated the midnight sky” with bombs, presumably. There’s a direct didacticism in the latter part of the poem that’s not so bad given the historical depth provided:

Now with the noonday headlights in Kuwait
and the burial of the blackened in Baghdad
let them remember, all those who celebrate,
that their good news is someone else’s bad

I was struck by something Michael Lista wrote in his review of Michael Robbins‘ Alien vs. Predator:

A typical Robbins poem (if there even is such a thing) borrows from Frederick Seidel the moral terror that formal rigour and rhyme can inspire. [emphasis mine]

It was an intriguing statement to make, but I wasn’t quite sure I understood what Lista was trying to say. That bit from “Initial Illumination” is helping clarify things though. There’s something almost simplistic about what those lines are trying to say, but the use of perfect rhyme to express it does lend it force. I don’t know if THAT’S an example of “moral terror,” but it certainly lends a certain type of “moral authority” to make that kind of statement.

“Book Ends” book-ends the Poetry Archive selection, dealing as it does with the same dead-mother situation as “Timer” (and “Long Distance II”), but focusing more on the lack of communication between the husband and the son left behind. Again, I’m not sure I fully get it, but I think there’s something being said here about class (education and socio-economic strata). “The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay,” the son-speaker tells his father, and it ends with

Back in our silences and sullen looks,
for all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.

There’s a nice little bit in the poem, referring I’m imagining to the father’s habit of staring in silence at what seems to be a coal-fuelled grate heater, and the kitchen implied in the oven that “appears” when the poem begins with “Baked the day she suddenly dropped dead”:

Not as good for staring in, blue gas,
too regular each bud, each yellow spike.

This PDF contains three Harrison poems, “Timer” being one of them. The last poem, “Punchline” has a son speaking to a dead father. It’s a pretty striking piece. The first verse sets the social situation of limited options for “the Northern working class”:

No! Revolution never crossed your mind!
For the kids who never made it through the schools
the Northern working class escaped the grind
as boxers or comedians, or won the pools.

The second verse reveals the father “not lucky, no physique, too shy to joke” and so buying instead a second-hand ukelele, in the hopes of “escaping the grind.”  Unfortunately, hopes were dashed, only two chords were ever learned, and the father’s dreams of escape became a secret emblematized as a plectrum hidden awayin a “secret condom drawer.” When the son-speaker sees another old man playing a ukelele badly in the street at the end of the poem, on the very day he missed his father’s cremation, he simply holds on to his pocket change and looks away. Ah, the bitterness!

The other poem in that poem is a longer piece called Them and [uz].” I like this one for the way it alludes to “cockney Keats” through my favorite Keats poem (“Ode To A Nightingale”):

gob full of pebbles outshouting seas —

4 words only of mi ‘art aches and … ‘Mine’s broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!’ He was nicely spoken.
‘Can’t have our glorious heritage done to death!’

Poor kid. He gets his chance for payback though, with, well, Occupy Poetry:

So right, ye buggers, then! We’ll occupy
your lousy leasehold Poetry.

It’s hilarious, and apparently, I have more of his works to read. In The Harvill Book Of Twentieth-Century Poetry In English (reviewed here, with others), I have five Harrison poems. There’s “Timer” and “National Trust” but also an 8-part sequence called “Art And Extinction.” There are also two poems from “The School Of Eloquence”: one is called “On Not Being Milton,” which I should discuss with my adviser as he’s really into Milton, and a quatrain called “Heredity”:

How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles, Joe and Harry–
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.

In The Norton Anthology Of Modern And Contemporary Poetry, there’s are more poems from The School Of Eloquence: the complete “Book Ends” (it’s apparently a two-part poem like “The Rhubarbarians”), “Turns,” “Marked With D.,” “Self Justification,” “History Classes,” and once again, “Timer,” “Heredity,” and “On Not Being Milton.”

But the crux is a poetic sequence called v. that apparently generated a lot of controversy when a televised reading of the profanity-laden poem was aired twenty-five years ago. I haven’t started reading it, but apparently, the poem starts with the poet at the graveside of his parents and will involve the miners’ strikes during the Thatcher years, etc. Something to look forward to, indeed.

For now, though, an essay on Deleuze and Guattari explaining the rhizome through Harrison’s poem, and the rollicking “A Kumquat For John Keats.” WOW.

Finally: Jorie Graham

After years of reading whatever I can find online by and about Jorie Graham and making do with what few poems by her I have in this or that anthology, I finally bought a copy of her now-15-year-old collection The Errancy yesterday. I’m surprised it’s taken me this far, given how I echo her twin interests in philosophy and film studies.

Although I’m not sure how The Errancy ranks with her other books, I was won over by reviews that mention Lacan and Deleuze, that listen to Graham’s “heady, improvisational music” and “accretionary syntax,” and that cite bits from her “mutated love poems.” It also helped that I’m preoccupied with errors, secrets, and lies–all those different ways one swerves away from capital-T Truth–and the very title of The Errancy certainly points to that.

(I should also mention that Emily Galvin, Graham’s daughter with James Galvin, has published her own collection with a strong basis in mathematics, also an interest of mine, poetically speaking. I think I should read James Galvin’s work sometime, just to complete this little family circle.)

I’ve posted a link to this interview before, pointing out Graham’s remarks about Michael Palmer, but this time, I think I’d like to paste the relevant excerpt here, as a reminder to myself about the work I’m (supposed to be) doing (all emphases mine):

keeping the song alive is keeping alive a world in which song is possible. You have to keep hope alive. Any kind of truth you might arrive at that hasn’t contended with hope is going to be very partial. [pause] Michael Palmer is very interesting in that regard. He has extraordinary music. I think he’s learned better than anyone the Stevens trick of making the poem disintegrate on the surface but stay totally alive musically. To me he’s very important in that regard. The way he uses repetition. The particular way he will bring certain images back without that turning into structure. Pure desire kept alive in the act of writing by the way fragments recur.

I also like how Graham talking about silence (“Making the silence come awake in the poem is important to my process. The silence – or anything else that resists the impulse to imagine, own, transform.”) leads her to a really brilliant disquisition on her use of the poetic line, one where I’m hard-put to emphasize any idea as more important than another:

…lines of breath-length, say, lines that contain up to five stresses, sometimes feel to me like measures that make that silence feel safe. A silence that will stay at bay for as long as it takes to get the thing said. Writing in lines that are longer than that, because they are really unsayable or ungraspable in one breath unit for the most part (and since our desire is to grasp them in one breath unit) causes us to read the line very quickly. And the minute you have that kind of a rush in the line (emphasized perhaps by the absence of commas and other interpretive elements) what you have is a very different relationship with the silence: one that makes it aggressive – or at least oceanic – something that won’t stay at bay. You have fear in the rush that can perhaps cause you to hear the fearful in what is rushed against.

What you feel – this is Romantic of course – is the pressure of a silence that might not wait until the end of the line to override you. And so you have to rush those words into it. In this new book, I’m writing mostly in traditional lines again, with less counterpoint from such prose-length units. But the calm assurance of the standard English line has always interested and troubled me. In Erosion, the line-length tended to be much smaller than the norm. The voice in that book was, in fact, so aware of the overriding presence of the white space that it just tried to mash words into that space. With great pressure. To create the sensation of that gravitational weight. Sternness. Solemnity. As if to build cell by cell a fabric that could take the weight of eternity into it – like human tissue.

And here’s a bit from a poem that isn’t in The Errancy but in a later collection called Never. It moved me this morning when I read it, out of the context of the entire poem:

from the 2002 collection Never

from "The Taken-Down God" by Jorie Graham

The Recovery of Language: Michael Palmer in Conversation

SR: You do a lot with repetition and variation, within and between poems, and within and between books. You seem to be teasing out all of the different ways that that can add to and support your project.

MP: Recurrence and variation have fascinated me since I first read Gertrude Stein as a very young person. Or perhaps I should say: since I first heard nursery rhymes and incantations as an even younger person. Likeness and difference and their dance—isn’t that the ground of the poetic project and our signifying capacity? And metaphor: a thing in terms of another thing, a bearing across between a one and “an other,” or self and other.

SR: Or between the self that I am in this moment and the self that I am in the next moment. ….At different times repetition and variation seem to operate in your work as translation, jazz, conversation, and a stutter.

MP: It’s interesting that you bring up the stutter because my earlier work talks about the poet’s and the philosopher’s stutter: the stutter of the effort of articulation, which is part of the articulation. You hear it—the stutter or the hesitation, they’re part pf the same thing—if you listen to a Gilles Deleuze or a Jacques Derrida speaking—improvising philosophy. You may also see it in the improvisational steps Wittgenstein takes in his work toward whatever goal is there, letting the fly out of the bottle, let’s say.

via The Recovery of Language: Michael Palmer in Conversation

Stutterbug

From “He Stuttered,” an essay by Gilles Deleuze citing Watt and collected in Essays Critical and Clinical:

This means that a great writer is always like a foreigner in the language in which he expresses himself, even if this is his native tongue. At the limit, he draws his strength from a mute and unknown minority that belongs only to him. He is a foreigner in his own language: he does not mix another language with his own language, he carves out a nonpreexistent foreign language within his own language. He makes the language itself scream, stutter, stammer, or murmur. (109-100)

My attention was drawn to these remarks in the course of reading Deleuze’s Wake: Tributes and Tributaries by Ronald Bogue. Although some of the essays in this book are said to “presuppose some familiarity with Deleuzian texts,” which I don’t really have (apart from “Literature and Life”), I had few problems reading and understanding “Deleuze’s Style” and “Deleuze, Foucault, and the Playful Fold of the Self.” Fascinating, and even if this is just a secondary source, I think I’m falling in love with Deleuze.