Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Writing Is a Language Problem: A Bagatelle

Given the seriousness of recent events, including my diagnosis and surgery for colon cancer, my anticipation of my upcoming chemotherapy, and the death of my partner Robert's grandmother a couple of days ago, I thought that it might be appropriate to post something a bit light-hearted. As its subtitle indicates (the word bagatelle literally means "trifle," and refers to a short, light piece of music), this piece, modeled after some of William H. Gass's essays in his wonderful collection Fiction and the Figures of Life, is not meant wholly seriously, but I don't think that it's without substance. I hope that you enjoy it.

In his essay “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” Raymond Roussel tells us that books are made out of words, and we are shocked. As William H. Gass writes of one’s discovery that one’s favorite character is mere literature, it is as if one were to discover that his lover were made out of rubber. Yet one has spent all these years living with this man made out of words, just as the unfortunate lover has spent years living with his rubber-made man. And they were happy together, were they not? A literary character does not one day turn into mere words, one’s lover does not one day turn into rubber: he has always subsisted in this medium, and to know this need change nothing about the relationship, which has been going along so well under these conditions. (And of course it has been going well, or one would have closed the book, found another lover.) Why, new vistas of possibility for the relationship are opened up, if one is imaginative. (And we are all imaginative, are we not?)

Roussel writes as if, in certain of his books (hoping perhaps that the qualification will mitigate the audaciousness of the claim), he has invented a new kind of book: the book made out of words. He implicitly tells us (or his interpreters tell us on his behalf) that there is nothing in his books but words. (That is, in certain of his books, as if books could be divided into those made of words and those made out of Something Else, Something More Important: and if Roussel did not say that, you may be assured that someone did.) But words are all that any book contains: words, and the reader’s mind. Yet the mind of the reader is exterior and posterior to the work itself (which is what it is, like Yahweh), just as the mind of the author is exterior and anterior. Otherwise the author would be pestering one day and night with intentions, his intentions, as if readers had none, when the only intention the text itself recognizes is the intention of language to form phrases, sentences, paragraphs.

As Alain Robbe-Grillet writes, language is, it does not function. That is to say (maintaining a wary distance from totalization), language does not function as anything other than language: essence and existence are one and the same, neither preceding or following the other. Sentences do not emerge from the “creative mind,” they emerge from sentences: as anyone who has ever faced a blank page or screen with the intention of filling it with the riches of his “creative mind” well knows. Works of literature do not spring from the joys and sorrows of the artist, though these may serve as an extremely useful pretext and alibi, even as justification (why is one wasting one’s time playing with words?). Works of literature spring from other works of literature. How could one write a poem if one had never read a poem, if the idea of “the poem” had never been presented to one in the form of actually existing poems? (There are, hélas, fountain-penned, word-processing hordes attempting at this very moment to answer, all too prolifically, that very question.) For once Harold Bloom did not take a dictum far enough: it is true that the only proper response to poetry is more poetry, but poetry itself (the “original” poem, the one to which one responds by means of a poem) is only the proper response to other poetry. The literary art is the play with words; the literary pleasure is the pleasure of that play, of witnessing and participating (as a writer and as a reader/rewriter) in such play of and with words.

Roussel became for Robbe-Grillet and his compatriots at the Café Nouveau Roman the very type of the pure writer not because this knowledge was unique to him but because he claimed this linguistic play as the only motive of his writing, eschewing other pretexts. (Though he undoubtedly had other, less “pure,” motives—his “feeling of universal glory” sounds suspiciously like something Shelley might have rhapsodized about—they are of no concern to literary discourse, being part of that nothing which Derrida has helpfully informed us exists outside the text.) Roussel’s works were read as texts which, uniquely, said only what they said: writing as an intransitive verb, an example of Roland Barthes’ zero degree of writing. Viewed in the proper, clarifying but not harsh light, all texts, as texts, say only themselves. What the author “says” or the reader “hears” between, around, beneath, or above the lines need be of no concern to anyone besides the parties concerned. The text is an innocent bystander to such accidents.

There are those who would deny the seriousness of Roussel’s texts: he is simply playing linguistic games, “he does not deal with the Human Condition.” (Even Robbe-Grillet finds that phrase oozing from the tip of his pen, when he defends the nouveau roman as a more “true” reflection of la condition humaine.) Need it be said that there is no Human Condition? There is my condition and your condition and Robbe-Grillet’s condition and Roussel’s condition (no doubt rather decayed by now). To the extent that such an abstraction may be said to exist, it exists in the medium without which, like all abstractions, it could not have come into being: language. Man (as opposed to you and to me and to Robbe-Grillet: and presumably as opposed to any individual of the female gender) is not conceivable without language, though one can’t blame language for conceiving of him (or should I rather write, Him?). That is what language keeps itself busy at: making words, making phrases. What we make of those words and phrases is our own affair, though habitually neglected, attended to in a haphazard and slipshod fashion, as if we did not live (and, too often, die) in language.

Roussel plays language games: so do all true writers. It is the definition of the vocation, and even of the trade. Let us neither bury Roussel nor praise him. I don’t personally care to be a spectator to or participant in Roussel’s games, but either to condemn or to praise writing because it is a game of and in language would be like condemning baseball because one’s favorite team has lost every game this season or praising it because one’s favorite team always wins. In neither case is it to see the thing for what it is. Let those who dislike literature say so and be unashamed, just as those of us bored by baseball say so. There are other diversions in either case.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Giving Thanks

On this day on which we are traditionally expected to enumerate the things for which we are thankful, I'm thankful most of all for being alive and functional (physically and mentally) and able to write these words.

From my childhood in the tenements and housing projects of the Bronx, including the abuse (physical, verbal, and emotional) my mother and I endured at the hands of my stepfather, through my mother's death just before my fifteenth birthday, through dropping out of college at age twenty (I did eventually go back), through being diagnosed HIV positive in 1994, and most recently through being unexpectedly diagnosed with colon cancer, it sometimes feels as if my life has been an uninterrupted succession of blows. But I have weathered them and am still standing, and have realized that I am a much stronger person than I had ever imagined I could be. I have even achieved my adolescent dreams of being a writer and being loved, so I suppose I could even count myself lucky. I definitely count myself as grateful.

I'm also grateful to everyone who sent their good wishes for my speedy recovery and return to health, both privately and via this blog. The outpouring of support has been very heartening and moving. I still have a long road to travel--although the removal of the tumor from my colon was successful, the cancer has spread to my liver, so once I recover from my colon surgery (which they tell me I am doing much more quickly than expected), I will need to start chemotherapy, which is a very frightening prospect. But this ordeal has reminded me that many people care about me, and the knowledge that I am not alone will help me stay strong.

Thank you all, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Aaron Shurin and the Paradise of Forms

While I am in the hospital recovering from the removal of a tumor from my colon (along with a portion of the colon itself), I have asked my partner Robert Philen to post this excerpt from my forthcoming book of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx.

Aaron Shurin and the Paradise of Forms

Aaron Shurin’s poetry has been formed within the dual matrix of gay liberation culture and avant-garde poetry (as he writes, “I was born, as it were, into Projective Verse, theories of ‘organic form’ and ‘composition by field’”), with Robert Duncan as the crucial linking figure. Indeed, he and Duncan were close friends, a relationship, in Shurin’s words, “built around mutual poetic concerns: the vitality of lyric writing situated within a framework of postmodern investigations of form and language.” Love and language, sexuality and textuality, have been central themes and central modes in Aaron Shurin’s poetry since the beginning of his career, and for him these two things have been keys to liberation both personal and social. His has never been a poetry of uncomplicated self-expression, but a poetry that seeks both to embody and to incite transformation; the linguistic transformations of the poetry are the model (and hopefully the catalyst) for the larger transformations it proposes and points toward. (Denise Levertov was an early mentor for many years and, as a deeply lyric poet with strong political commitments, was a model for Shurin’s “emerging sense of lyric mission and social activism.”)

In this way he is very much the inheritor of poets like Shelley, and he has written that his goal has always been “to sustain and remake” the Romantic tradition. As he puts it, he has struggled to articulate a cultural political ethos with “an intuited position” on the Romantic continuum.

In the shape of his poetic career that becomes clear in his selections for his 1999 selected poems volume, The Paradise of Forms (a retrospective shape that begins with 1980’s Giving Up the Ghost, since he excludes selections from his previous books), questions of intersubjectivity, the barriers separating persons (and kinds of persons) and the possibility of overcoming those barriers—of different selves intertwining, interpenetrating, and even merging—have always been central to Shurin’s work. In “Raving #25, Vernal Equinox,” which even in its title evokes liminality, the equinox being the point at which winter and spring hinge on and melt into one another, he writes of the body lying down with the bicameral mind “in the split field of/darkness &light/half of each over blackland/half over white.” Even as he lays out the divisions, the poet leaps over them, starting with the image of the body reuniting with the split mind (enacting two unions in one, mind with mind and body with reintegrated mind), and continuing into the image of black and white overlapping, which may have not only a temporal and metaphysical but also a social valence, evoking an image of racial harmony and the dissolution of racial boundaries. The poem ends with an invocation to both god (Shiva, who in Hinduism is both destroyer and renewer) and goddess to “Let all things equal their fearful/opposites!,” to “let earth/be where Heaven & Hell give up!” (Paradise, 10).

Several pieces in the prose sequence “Multiple Heart” (from The Graces, a book which in Shurin’s words “charts a movement from verse, through ever-longer lines, into prose-poems”) enact the intercourse of sexuality and textuality that is so central to Shurin’s poetry, for example “O that river song came through again body beautiful,” which calls up the ghost of Spenser’s epithalamium in an image of song flowing through the body like a river (the poem is literally in the blood here), and of the speaker and his beloved swimming through this river as an analogue of sexual union, fluids flowing and merging: song is sex, the poem is a wedding of writer and reader. Similarly, in “foregone and in conclusion the most,” the page of the poem is the sheet of the bed where the lovers meet: “I leap upon you on the bed right now, pull up the page.” The meeting of minds becomes the meeting of bodies: “How I am lost and how adore the music of your sphere” (Paradise, 25).

In the early Nineteen Eighties, Shurin began working almost exclusively in the prose poem, a mode that by its nature straddles and crosses borders and definitions, of prose and verse, of narrative and lyric, a mode that undermines certainties of literary knowledge (“this is poetry,” “this is prose”). This formal in-betweeness embodies Shurin’s ambition of combining what he calls lyric interjection and narrative tension “in a way that reflects in its complexities and contradictions the tension between individual perception and social control; a poetry simultaneously of praise and dislocation.” Exploring assorted shapes and crossing prescribed boundaries of identity and self-hood have always been integral parts of Aaron Shurin’s poetry, so it is not surprising that, soon after beginning to work in the prose poem (anti-)genre, he took the incorporation of various voices and subject positions in his poetry to one logical extreme of composing poems made up entirely of borrowed or appropriated voices, constructing his texts out of other texts.

As Shurin has written, the collage technique “encouraged me to break away from a centralized lyric voice, and [to] radiate that lyricism through and among the narrative elements.” It breaks down the sense of language as the possession of any individual, foregrounding it as a collective creation, placing the author as a Foucauldian nexus of overlapping, colliding, and competing discourses that find tentative, contingent shape in the text itself, not in the presiding genius of the omnipotent author. Whereas in such Modernist predecessors as Eliot and Pound, montage is a way of mastering the fragmented, overwhelming flux of experience and history, for Shurin it is a mode of surrender to the play of discourses, an abandonment of the drive toward mastery. As he writes of the prose poem format, in words that apply equally well to the collage technique, such modes can “better hold the narrative of events…essential to depict social relations—the relationships among hierarchies of power, the authoritarian and the dispossessed, the desirer and desired—as well as the interweaving of conflicting perceptions [we understand] as personal or subjective experience.”

The long prose poem “City of Men,” from A’s Dream (a poem that the poet refers to as an “erotic rampage”), is one of Shurin’s major accomplishments, and an important addition to and revision of the canon of American poetry. The piece is made up entirely of phrases by Walt Whitman, culled from the Children of Adam and Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass, melding and interspersing the two to create a montage of what Whitman called adhesiveness with a more bodily (homo)sexuality. As Shurin writes, “Calamus is his collection of homoerotic love poems, emotional, tender, idealistic, radically political, prophetic, obliquely erotic, but—alas—not sexual. If you want sex, go to the grouping Children of Adam, Whitman’s putative heterosexual songs. They are filled with body and body parts, physical material catalogues, paeans to the sex act—but—alas—no love. The body is electric but it is not affectionate” (Unbound 11). In “City of Men,” Shurin turns to both sets of poems at once to retrieve a language and a world that unites sex and love, eros and agape, body and soul, intercourse and adhesiveness, to “write my eros out of spirit and body, shamelessly, and perhaps for the first time in history from a completely integrated viewpoint” (Unbound 12). The textual intercourse he sets in motion between these two sets of poems celebrating apparently polar opposite sexualities and eroticisms is an image and model of the sexual/spiritual intercourse the poem proposes as not only possible but realizable, on the page and in the world, sharing subjectivities and mingling subject positions: “all men carry men…I glow spontaneous, know what he is dreaming. the same content, airs intimate that fill my place with him” (A’s Dream, 40). The end of the poem is at once an injunction and an invocation of the union of man with man the poem both evokes and enacts, asking the reader to participate in this union and simultaneously asserting that (by the act of reading) the reader is already a participant: “full of you and become you. any number could be me. read these and become a comrade. with you I am one” (A’s Dream, 43). The lack of a period to close the final phrase can be taken as a gesture of the open-endedness of the poem’s project: it is still in process, no more fixed and finalized than the texts out of which Shurin has rewritten a new world and a new word.

All of the poems in his books A’s Dream, Into Distances, and A Door utilize what Shurin calls “derived language” in the prose poem format, but recently Shurin has shifted modes again, writing once more in lineated verse, while still exploring methods that undermine traditional notions of authorial ownership of the words of the poem, as the very title of his most recent book indicates. As Shurin writes, “After a saturated period of writing poetic prose, and fifteen years of prose poetry, I began to re-imagine the possibilities of the poetic line. In 1996 I began a book-length series of verse poems called Involuntary Lyrics. [These were published in book form in 2005.] These ‘line-heavy’ poems try to intensely utilize the torque of line-breaks just as those breaks fall across conventional syntax, to create an interruptive but suspended measure that is both notational, like shorthand, and also largely colloquial.” Shurin has written a poem corresponding to each of Shakespeare’s sonnets, although the book Involuntary Lyrics does not include all of them. (Shurin says that he had to decide whether to approach it as a project, including all 154 pieces, or as a book, including only those pieces that held up as poems in themselves.) Each numbered, untitled “semi-“ or “meta-sonnet” takes its end words from the numerically corresponding sonnet of Shakespeare’s, though the order of the words has been rearranged prior to composition “to test the ear’s ability to hear rhymes across odd distances in the poem and through widely varying line lengths.” Shurin also intends the serial nature of the project to, in his words, “privilege the daily….The right-hand words are fixed by Shakespeare, brought into new contexts by the preceding and following language that comes, as it were, from the left side, which is open to ‘my’ world: personal events, friends, lovers, negotiations of economic reality, social circumstance, restless eros, mortality, and age.” Here again we see the confrontation and overcoming of boundaries—of different times and places, of various discourses and modes of expression, of literary tradition and literary experimentation, of ‘literature’ and daily life, of fixity and contingency—that are so central to Shurin’s work. As he writes in the beautifully self-reflexive and proleptically retrospective Involuntary Lyric CLIV (corresponding to Shakespeare’s sonnet 154, the last of the sequence):

Attention’s the remedy
for what it attends,…
of pure syntax contiguity face to face on fire
to prove
each line warmed
by particulars fore and aft. Love
’s the art imagined by desire (Paradise 142).