Sunday, February 8, 2009

Reginald and the Muses

by Robert Philen

In the few months since Reginald’s death, I’ve revisited and reread most all of his writing, poetry and prose, a time or two, mostly as a way of coping with his loss and staying in touch with his ideas, though also because in my capacity as his literary executor, I’ve also been collecting together and editing a variety of his works for publication. One piece I’ve recently returned to is his short essay, “Taking Dictation from a Martian Muse,” in which he treats the notion of poetry as derived from the muses in a variety of guises, though focusing especially on Jack Spicer’s notion of poetry as dictation.

Reginald was largely skeptical of the idea of poetry as dictation or as derived from Muses or as transmissions from the ghost radio:

“Interesting and even inspiring though Spicer’s notion of dictation is, with its promise of escaping what he calls "the big lie of the personal," I wonder if it’s not simply the mirror image of romantic inspiration. Instead of coming from deep within one, from one’s soul or innermost self, the poem comes from outside one, from the Martians or the spooks. In either case, the poet is passive, and abdicates thought and responsibility...Spicer’s Martians seem to be the Muses dressed up in space suits, another way to preserve the romantic (small “r”) notion of the poet as a specially inspired individual with access to the transcendent…”

This is not at all to say that Reginald rejected the notion of poetry as inspired through something like a muse (whether one thinks of that in terms of Martians dictating, ghost radios, the workings of the subconscious mind, or possession by muses):

“I like the idea of poetry as dictation, because writing does feel like that sometimes. I’ve had at least one poem that was literally dictated to me—I woke up and the poem was reciting itself in my head, though I had to come up with my own ending. Don't we all? In that sense Spicer conveys what it often feels like to do poetry.”

I’d say it’s more that Reginald felt that while muses may be involved in the process of writing poetry, they are not sufficient, for the poem requires the active working by the poet upon potentially poetic material, wherever that may have come from:

“The poem, when it is at its best, when we are at our best, is a kind of agon between the poet and the language, and the poet has to bring all his or her resources to bear, or it’s not a real struggle at all, just a performance.”

Reginald’s penultimate poem (if it may be called that – more on that below) is a good example of the relation between muses and poetry, both in the sense of its writing being clearly of something other than his fully conscious, cogent mind, and in the sense that it’s obviously not fully formed poetry.

As many who knew him or follow his writing know, in mid-April last year, several months before he did die in September, Reginald almost died as a result of a perforated intestine, followed by massive abdominal infection and blood poisoning. He was unconscious for ten days in the Intensive Care Unit, with a ventilator down his throat, alongside many other tubes, lines, and pieces of equipment. Even when he regained consciousness, he was completely unable to talk until the ventilator tube was removed, and barely able to talk after that because of lack of strength. For a few days after regaining consciousness and having the ventilator tube removed, he had frequent hallucinations (the result of both the sedatives he had been on and his sickness) and slipped easily in and out of fully cogent consciousness even when I don’t think he was hallucinating.

During the period of a few days during which he was in and out of consciousness but was largely unable to talk, Reginald communicated to me or to his ICU nurses by writing on a clipboard. Much of this writing is completely illegible, as he didn’t have good motor control in his arms at that point. Much of what is legible is lacking in cogency (he was frequently hallucinating at the time, after all). Most of what is legible and cogent is fairly prosaic – parts of simple conversations I remember having with him (or that he had with one of the nurses), such as a short list of food items (grapes, juice, peeled apples, plums, jello) he wanted after I had asked him if there was anything he wanted me to bring him.

But a few weeks ago, while looking through those papers (I hadn’t looked through them much before, because they were too painful), I encountered this, written sometime the day after he regained consciousness, but when he was still frequently suffering powerful hallucinations and was only fully cogent for short moments:


for month and years [,the?] […etary?] [fruits?]
[frails?]
and [to end?] her [battle?] many of other
[toward?] [b.. the?] [history?]
[into ...?]
the single step and [lags?] distance
every [curve follows, linking to above word]
between [L..mbe..g?] and


a palmful of Persian peaches

the world is[s] a work of wish and

human circumstance

this history of being rusted, being burned
rusting, being burned

the [alval?] [bag ?] of of years burned up ,not down

burned off [to?] the for night


The first part in particular is virtually impossible to decipher as a result of the quality of the handwriting, which improves over the course of the page – as if gaining strength and confidence as he wrote. (I would like to acknowledge the help of Brad Richard in attempts to fully decipher the text, to the extent that Reginald’s handwritten page can be deciphered.) Nonetheless, as fragmentary as the text is, as indecipherable as parts of it unfortunately are, the form and elements of a poem are there on the page, and if this isn’t dictation from a muse, I’m not sure what would be.

Overall, it’s clear from his body of work that Reginald was extraordinarily sensitive to potential poetic material. Some of the material of his poetry consisted of linguistic “found objects,” his noticing poetic uses of language whether they occurred in casual conversations or on roadside signs, but most of his material came to him as though from the muses, with the important notation that he constantly took note of poetic material that occurred to him, such that he was constantly jotting things down in one little notebook or another. Maybe that’s all that having a muse is – being attentive to powerful language as it occurs, or maybe Reginald was taking dictation from Martians, channeling transmissions from the ghost radio, or being periodically possessed by Muses. In any case, that was only the start. Regardless of the source of poetic material, he still had to engage in attentive work to create poems. In the process of creating his art, there really were multiple and largely distinct facets to Reginald Shepherd as poet – the medium channeling inspiration and/or careful observer of language (in some cases he had whole lines and more “dictated” from somewhere that he had to write down quickly or lose them forever; in other cases [and more with those linguistic “found objects”] he was more like a particularly astute detective of language), and the artisan or craftsman who skillfully transformed raw poetic material into finished poetry.

In any case, it’s difficult to figure out what to do with this penultimate poem of his (and as literary executor, it is something I have to figure out). It’s tempting to call it a poetic fragment and leave it as is, though with the caveat that this is a fragment in a different sense from textual fragments like Petronius’ Satyricon, a completed text of which only fragments remain, whereas these are fragments of potentiality, artifacts of a poem never made, and it’s precisely for that reason that I don’t think Reginald would ultimately want the fragment left as is. It’s also tempting to me to suppress it as an unfinished work (too late for that now, I suppose), but I don’t think Reginald would want that either. There were works of his that he had chosen not to publish. He had a file titled “Poems not suitable for publication.” Most of the poems in this file are quite good, just poems he didn’t consider his best and/or poems he intended to go back and work more with if he had time, such that it was really the case that he considered them poems not suitable for publication yet. Still, he didn’t want those poems suppressed (something I know because I asked him about this specifically and explicitly on several occasions) – only not published until such point as there was no possibility of his working on them more. This “poem,” written under such extraordinary circumstances, is more fragmentary than those other poems (which actually aren’t fragmentary at all), but I don’t think he’d want it suppressed, and in any case, I find it impossible to suppress lines like “a palmful of Persian peaches,” (hence part of the motivation for this post). Finally, it’s tempting to work these fragments, engage in the agon between poet and language – a prospect I find daunting to say the least, though at least in this case, there is a legible and coherent core to the fragmentary text that with only minor editing and excision (rather than addition coming from me rather than Reginald) functions as a poem in its own right. Something like:


A palmful of Persian peaches,
the world is a work of wish and
human circumstance,
this history of being rusted, being burned
rusting, being burned
years burned up ,not down
burned off to the night


I’m not sure what Reginald would have ultimately done with his fragmentary text, given the chance, but I am confident of what his approach would have been – to have recognized it as materia from the Muses that he would have further agonized with to create a poem.

19 comments:

seanag said...

That is very beautiful, and I agree totally with the approach you are taking to it. I think that giving us the fragments before giving us a kind of summing up of it is key.

I saw a very nice piece in the Bloomsbury Review today, which led me back to him. I am not, like so many here, a friend, or a student, or even an aspiring poet. I came upon his work and thought by chance, at the end of his life. Nevertheless, I feel a connection. And I feel that I want my life to be informed by his work and thought. I ordered Fata Morgana after reading that review. I'm glad that it includes his late poem to you, already posted here, Robert.

Robert Philen said...

Thank you for this comment. Enjoy reading Fata Morgana. Robert

seanag said...

Thank you, Robert. I think it will be a great lead in to National Poetry Month.

Deanna said...

Dear Robert, I'm not even sure if I should ask this question...but as a friend and previous student of Reginald's, how do you feel about poets using the fragments in order to create new poems in dedication to him?

I think there should be a requirement to state in each poem that it is based on this 'fragment' by Reginald.

I hope the notion isn't offensive, I see it as a way to honor and feel connected to his work...

All best,

Robert Philen said...

Deanna,

Thanks for your comment and question.

It’s taken me a few days to formulate a response for this question. I was initially struck with a mix of emotions and thoughts that took me a while to disentangle. I think my feelings on the issue of others working with this particular fragment or other poetic works of Reginald’s are related to two distinct sets of issues – the quality of the work produced and the nature of what’s being done with another’s material.

Regarding quality, in general I prefer good art to mediocre. Poets and artists of other sorts draw upon, allude to, or incorporate elements of the works of others all the time – it’s a normal part of artistic production, and there are a number of perfectly legitimate ways in which this can be done. Here, too, I’d prefer that the products of the use of the work of others be good art. (What constitutes “good art” is, of course, a thoroughly complicated matter – one that I’m not addressing here, because it would take me on a long tangential trajectory in a case where it’s been difficult enough for me to disentangle and articulate what I think on the issue. It’s an topic that Reginald addressed at great length in many of his posts on this blog or in his essay collections.)

In principle, I feel that my feelings about how others might draw upon Reginald’s work in their own poetry shouldn’t be any different from my feelings regarding the use of anyone else’s poetry. Realistically, though, that’s not the case, especially regarding this issue of quality. Part of the mixed bag of emotions I initially felt upon reading this question was fear and wariness. There’s a big part of me that for purely emotional but very strongly felt reasons doesn’t want anyone mucking around with Reginald’s work. What I’ve done with this fragment was uncomfortable enough, but I’m ultimately happy with the result and the process of producing it, where what I did was to distill what was legible in his fragment, but where all the content is his. I wouldn’t be comfortable adding significant content to it, and I’m certainly not comfortable with anyone else doing so.

That said, I also recognize art isn’t always comfortable.

There are a number of ways in which poets or other artists quote, allude to, borrow from, or otherwise use or incorporate the work of others. That’s normal, natural, and one of the things that creates vibrant connections between different artists and works. While I may be uncomfortable about the idea of others drawing upon Reginald’s work – which is frankly a worry that I won’t like what’s done, or that I’ll think the result inferior or unworthy of him – I also realize that one of the ways an artist’s work continues to live is through the refractions of it in the works of others. As such and despite my wariness, I’m not opposed in principle to work that utilizes Reginald’s work, though with some important caveats, which constitute much of the rest of this reply.

One basic way in which the work of others is utilized is through artistic quotation or allusion (where quotation and allusion are not the same thing, but where quotation may be seen as a specific form of allusion). In the case of quotation, in general, I’d prefer credit be given (especially with borrowings from my Reginald). At the same time, I realize that, so long as things stay within the spirit of fair use (or for that matter the letter of fair use, for there can be intellectual property issues at stake), there are many cases of legitimate quotation or drawings upon the works of others through allusion without explicit attribution – for example, Shostakovich’s quotation of the “Lone Ranger” phrase of Rossini’s William Tell Overture in his 15th symphony, or Reginald’s drawing upon the imagery of a Manet painting in his poem “Kinds of Camouflage” (which I commented on in “Comments on ‘Kinds of Camouflage’” a few posts ago on this blog). There are many examples of poets borrowing a few words, a phrase, a line from another’s poem. Again, so long as it stays within the realm of fair use, the main difference I see between this and drawing upon phrases one encounters on roadside signs or that simply pop into one’s head is that the practice of drawing upon the poetry of others contributes to the intertextuality of poems.

There are instances of drawing upon another’s work that are more systematic or extensive than allusion or quotation of a small part of the work, cases where there is utilization of a whole work, or significant portions thereof, with a reworking of the material and/or incorporation alongside added material. The most obvious example of this in contemporary art is remixing of music, where for lack of a better term, I think we could speak also of remixing in other artistic genres, including poetry. My perspective here is that remixing is acceptable if credit is given and permission gotten. (Since remixing involves reworking significant portions of another’s work, “fair use” doesn’t cut it. Remixing without credit or permission is in the territory of Vanilla-Ice-ripping-off-Davd-Bowie-and-Queen-for-lack-of-decent-material-of-one’s-own.) Beyond legal or moral acceptability, remixing, of music or poetry, can be done well or badly. A good remix is both an original work of art and something that forces a rethinking and brings a new appreciation of a familiar work. At best, a bad remix reminds one of how much better the original work is and makes one want to return to it.

While I’d be fine with (or at least not opposed to) someone quoting or alluding to this or other works of Reginald (preferably with explicit credit, definitely within the framework of fair use or with permission gotten), and while I’d be fine with a “remix” (preferably well done, and definitely with credit and permission given [with a further caveat that for poems published in collections, that even as literary executor, I may not be the sole person needing to give permission]), one thing I definitely would not want to see done with this fragment is for someone to add to it in an attempt to “finish” it, and certainly not to add to it and present it as a finished Reginald Shepherd poem. The reason I’m strongly opposed to that is because even if well intentioned, it strikes me as active misrepresentation, if not a lie. (It seems fairly clear to me that this is not what you’re suggesting. I’m more trying to head off any misunderstanding of what I’ve said here.)

Robert

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