Nathaniel Mackey

From “Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific…,” Mackey says, related to these :

Language’s ability to perform is variable and site-specific, mind, ear, eye, air, page, and other sites conducing to particular powers and effects. Ezra Pound’s “phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia,” echoed by Louis Zukofsky’s “sight, sound and intellection,” touches on this multisitedness to an extent, but by congeries of apprehension something more multiple and involved than a trinarism is gotten at. Taking not only eye, ear, and mind into consideration but acknowledging mind’s eye, mind’s ear, and, further, mind’s nose, mind’s tongue, and mind’s touch as well, to say nothing of synesthetic amalgams and exchanges, considerably complicates the mix.


I try to write poems whose words perform on multiple fronts. I’m as attentive, to speak only of two such fronts, to the placement of words on the page (the use of variable margins, intralinear spacing, page breaks, and such to advance a now swept, now swung, sculpted look, a visual dance down the page and from page to page) as I am to the rhythms and inflections with which they’re to be read when read aloud. It’s not that the former serves as a score for the latter, as Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, and others have insisted. Such placement, to the silent reader, can suggest the unfolding of thought or composition (its hesitancies, tenuities, accelerations, leaps, and so forth) while speaking, by way of the eye, to a mind’s ear that hears every line break as a caesura, every break between sections or pages as an amendment or an addendum or even a new beginning, additional space between words as a pause. This is the poem performing on the stage the page amounts to (and on the stage the reader’s mind amounts to by way of the page). I don’t, however, feel obligated to read the poem aloud in the manner such placement might suggest—obligated or even able. What, after all, do varied margins sound like? (What, for that matter, does an unvaried margin sound like?) To avail oneself to graphic amenities peculiar to the page is not to disallow the poem behaving differently when read aloud but to recognize that it does. The ultimate untransmissibility of vocal dynamics (timbre, accent, pace, volume, inflection, and so forth) by print—and vice versa—makes variance inevitable. The poem’s articulation is as various as its locations.

From Marvin Bell to Ozzy Osbourne?

I first came across Marvin Bell when I read his opening remarks to a conference on camouflage held five years ago. In some ways, his linking of camouflage to poetry was somewhat formative in my own thinking as well, how “poetry doesn’t easily reveal itself,” how “it can be the lie that tells the truth.”

At the bottom of that page was a Dead Man poem of his, which I felt was an interesting figure the first time I read it. That Bell’s Dead Man is both alive and dead seems to have inspired my Heidegger short story, I now realize.

But because of the HTML coding of the Web page and how it ended up looking, I misread an important formal characteristic of the structure of Bell’s Dead Man poems, namely, how “each line of poetry in a dead man poem is a compete sentence, long or short,” which means enjambment is set aside as a device. The impression the poem left on me then was based on a misreading: I admired what I thought were long lines dramatically enjambed into shorter chunks that seemed to be hanging on for dear life.

If one looks at “The Book of the Dead Man (#70)” as printed in the Introspections anthology, Bell’s formal choice becomes even more interesting as it happens on the printed (albeit virtual) page. With the leftmost margin reserved for the start of a new sentence, sentences too long for the width of the page end up indented in the next line. Here, enjambment seems (forced) to take place, even if Bell says, “[L]ong thought and practice lay behind my decision to let the sentence determine the poetic line.” He continues:

“Free verse” is not a form, nor an absence of form, but a method for inventing new forms. In the Dead Man poems, I redefined the free verse line by discarding many of its material particulars: the common emphasis on enjambment, for example. … I have always felt that the key to free verse is the sentence. That is, syntax provides the opportunities to enjamb or not, and syntax determines the character of the line. The free verse line without reference to syntax is like a train without reference to tracks.

While there may be quibbles about the definition of free verse as a method (metaphorical though it may be, it seems oddly more precise to borrow Umberto Eco’s notion of the novel as “a machine for generating meaning” and call free verse a machine for generating poetic form), Bell’s assertions are fascinating, especially given my love of enjambment, an amour fou that led to my mistake of reading the line ending as a yellow light to beat, rather than a place to pause for a beat.

For one thing, the importance of the sentence to Bell’s understanding of free verse is parallel–separate yet aligned–with Annie Finch and her defense of meter, which she sees as a ghost haunting (American) free verse. I’m still not sure how much I accept the idea, but there is a third parallel: James Longenbach presenting prose poetry in The Art of the Poetic Line as “suggesting that the very power of line asks us to wonder how it would feel to do without line.”

The other thing point of interest is Bell’s figure of the train. A train may be derailed from its tracks, and certainly the tracks it normally must move on become more emphasized when that happens, but it’s interesting trying to link this with Bell’s recognition of and hesitation towards the “well-wrought urn.” Bell says, “The very sanity of the polished lyric is its own reward,” but follows this with a caveat: “Though I came to writing through the lyric tradition, I am not wholly of it. For I came to understand that I was crazier than that.”

Poetry as a crazy train?

Standing in the Shower…Thinking

Unlike the Jane’s Addiction song, I don’t shower with water that’s “so piping hot.” (I don’t piss on myself either.) Still, shower thinking time is something I look forward to every morning I wake up early to go to work. Fueled by that first cup of coffee, I have a blast with, well, that double blast of wetness and whatness.

Yesterday morning, perhaps triggered by my extreme reading of, among others, Listening to Reading by Stephen Ratcliffe and Eleana Kim’s essay “Language Poetry: Dissident Practices and the Makings of a Movement,” I found myself thinking once more about what might be called the page-versus-stage debate in poetry.

Less glibly, it’s what Ann Lauterbach calls, in the “Note to the Reader” in Or To Begin Again, “the differences between spoken utterance and written text.”

  1. Experiment: write as if every word is onomatopoeic, rendering the existence of onomatopoeia moot. Every word is its sound, sound is sense, what is sensible is material.
  2. Proposal: the poem as sensorium, appealing to both sight and sound, must be readable in both senses, be readable from the page to become a poem sounded and readable as a page to become a poem seen.

Giving credit to William R. Howe for the word “pagednesse,” I will use it from now on to mean the position of the page in poetry, as opposed to say, the position of the poetry on the page. The latter is the conventional view of the poem being the words on the page, while the former considers the poem to be the words and the page on which it is set (usually but not always, according to the left-margin linearity of conventional typography).

To be continued. This needs further development. Or a quick forgetting if it proves untenable claptrap that fails to result in some kind of making.