{The following is part of a talk that I delivered last January at a conference in San Diego on "illisibilité(illegibility) in contemporary French and American poetry. Among those present were Michel Deguy, Jean-Marie Gleize, Christian Prigent, & Nathalie Quintane from France, & it is principally to them that these remarks were addressed. A French translation is scheduled to appear later this year in a proceedings of the conference (Actes du Colloque) to be published by les Presses de l'ENS-LSH de Lyon (Ecole Normale Supérieure).]

In The Lorca Variations, a series of poems from the early 1990s, I took a step beyond translation by writing with Lorca (or my translation of Lorca’s book-length poem series called “The Suites”) as my source – isolating his nouns and other words (which were by then my own in English) and systematically recasting them into new compositions. In another series of poems, Gematria, I used a traditional Jewish form of connecting words by numerological methods and a word list of numerically arranged words and phrases from the Hebrew Bible, to make a poetry – as with the Lorca Variations – that I thought was both personal to me and was created by means that shared in what Blake saw as “the most sublime act ... [:] to set another before you.” And in more recent work, while continuing to make translations from Picasso and from the great Czech modernist Vitezslav Nezval, I have interspersed appropriations from their work with my own – composing three series of a hundred numbered verses each that I have called Autobiography. Still more recently – in A Book of Witness, my first work in the emerging century – I used the first person voice, the pronoun “I,” to explore whatever it is that we can say for ourselves – not only my personal self but that of all others – and I have intercalated in those poems short first person fragments from a number of my contemporaries. It was my hope in so doing that I could find new freedom (liberté) in my work as an artist and could even and meaningfully put identity into question.
. . . . . . .

Here in fact the account might end, but I will allow it to go just a little further.

Moving on from A Book of Witness, I have turned my attention to a new work, A Book of Concealments, a series or cycle like its predecessor and now approaching 75 poems, in which I have deliberately dropped [concealed] the first person pronoun but have continued the intercalations with small fragments from my own earlier work and from a mystical Jewish text, Sifra di Seni’uta, the source in fact of the series title. In the context of the present gathering, the idea of concealment might be seen to be a central issue. For this occasion, anyway, I can propose that in composing poetry what is said is balanced always by what is left unsaid. It is different in that sense from the discursive language in which I’m writing the present talk and in which I try to leave no gaps, while it corresponds in its concealments (its dark matter, so to speak) to a world of which our fellow poet Clayton Eshleman once wrote: “Since the hidden is bottomless, totality is more invisible than visible.”

I do not believe that this is true for every poem and every poet, but on the whole the language of poetry, even where it appears to be demotic, is a language that posits the unspoken, the unrevealed that gives to the revealed its mystery and power. In addition – whether it’s Poe’s attack on “the long poem” in favor of “brief poetical effects,” or Ezra Pound’s condensare, or the emphasis by some Romantics and some postmodernists on the fragment – poetry is rarely allowed the discursive spread that we grant to genres like the novel or the extended essay. For myself and others growing up in the shadow of the second world war, the lure of such a language and of modes of thinking and living that might extricate us from the brutalities of power and the banal and bloated forms of expression that reinforced them, was what drove many of us to poetry. (Nor is it much different today – the cold war gone, the time of the assassins ever renewed.)

The work that resulted was necessarily contrarian, not only in its overtly stated attitudes but in its creation of forms of languaging that overthrew or negated the anticipated and more familiar modes. With that came both the risk and the challenge of illisibilité – often charged and often denied – as when Gertrude Stein wrote, addressing that issue eighty years ago as I would now: “It is wonderful how a handwriting which is illegible can be read, yes it can.”

Stein’s comment is playful, as such comments have often been, and the charge to which it responds goes back (say) to Friedrich Schlegel’s defense in his essay, On Incomprehensibility, circa 1800: “Verily, it would fare badly with you if, as you demand, the whole world were ever to become wholly comprehensible in earnest. And isn’t this entire, unending world constructed by the understanding out of incomprehensibility or chaos?” Or again: “Of all things that have to do with communicating ideas, what could be more fascinating than the question of whether such communication is actually possible?” It is a curious defense of poetry, but an important one as well, from Schlegel’s time – at least – up to the post-Steinian present.

To put the communication of ideas in doubt is not to deny ideas and meaning but to set up another basis for poetry and a contrary notion of communication. (In the Mischgedicht – the poetry of mixed means – that Schlegel and the Jena romantics proposed for poetry and of which Michel Deguy is one of our current masters, all forms of communication and meaning were in fact called into play.) And beyond meaning as such. it’s obvious that the poem relies on other means (other powers), like those in Jean-Marie Gleize’s quotation from Deguy’s “definition” of poetry: “The poem is made of sequences in which images, figures of speech and rhythm are undivided.” And yet any of these (reminiscent of Pound’s sorting of poetic acts into phanopoeia, logopoeia and melopoeia) may appear to take pride of place in the work of any particular poet or in the field of any particular poem. We are in that sense not far from the time, post World War Two, when many of the poets among us returned poetry to performance and in doing so called new attention to its rhythmic and oral qualities and simultaneously seemed to bring poetry out of the margins and into a new if transitory visibility. There was a moment then – and renewed again and again in the interim – in which the most hermetic (apparently hermetic) poetry found new hearers (if not readers) in the poetry reading or the concert performance. I remember my own first experience of this – in 1958 – when I interviewed Kenneth Rexroth (25 years my senior) in performance at the Five Spot (nightclub) in New York, reading works of French modernists and avantgardists (among others) to the jazz of the Art Pepper Quintet, exploring the side of that poetry that came across directly or that his reading and the attendant music helped bring home. (And this was something that all of us have experienced at one time or another – from then to now.)

A few other points and then I’m finished.

To say first what might be unnecessary to say by now: when rhythm and sound are foregrounded – as in the case of oral poetry and poetry performed – image and meaning aren’t excluded and may in fact be enhanced and carried forward.

Second: The language of poetry – some of it stunningly complex – has existed across millennia at the center of cultures without writing but with qualities shared with poets in our own time – and perhaps forever. (This has been a crucial part of my own poetics and ethnopoetics since the late 1960s.)

Third: over the last hundred years (at least) we have seen the appearance of poetries and other forms of writing and art in which incomprehensibility (Schlegel”s Unverständlichkeit) is absolutely favored, and where it is, as in music, no impediment to communication [except of course for its strangeness – its unwillingness to make sense]. Sound poetry (poésie sonore) had its origins as art in early Futurism and Dada, was carried forward by poet-artists such as Kurt Schwitters in his great Ur Sonata, reached new heights in contemporary poets such as Henri Chopin and (sometimes) Jackson Mac Low, and still has resonance and cachet into the present. By the same token a work like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons is no less (or more) comprehensible than Picasso’s Ma Jolie, though the road to great prestige in poetry lacks the reinforcement (the interest and monetary interest) that the market gives to painting or to sculpture. In short the poem of a Stein or a Schwitters communicates precisely its incomprehensibility, for which no paraphrase or transformation into comprehensibility is needed, or if achieved, is inferior to what was there to start with. [And there is also of course poetry that is difficult to grasp in its syntax and meaning – often deliberately opaque and dark – like yours in any instance or like mine.]

Aside from that however – all of which seems obvious to me – I would call into question some of the premises about readability and unreadability that seem to underlie this conference. If what is meant by illisibilité is merely the presence or absence of an audience for poetry or for a poetry of some complexity or range, I find that situation a little more complicated, a little less obvious than it may seem. From the time I first came into poetry – a half century ago – the work of poets I have most admired has in varying degrees been open or closed to access The situation in the fifties and sixties – here in the United States but not necessarily elsewhere – seemed to involve the outcropping of a public poetry with characteristics that linked it not to the banal poetries of our childhood but to the most radical poetry and art of the several preceding generations. In that way this new poetry functioned for a while at least as part of an emerging vanguard, its language symptomatic of a changing consciousness (irrational and rational by turns) – political, social, ecological, oneiric, even (let me just say it and quickly back away) psychedelic. As the most obvious example, a work like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl had a greater than expected public surface and appeal, both for those of us who read a lot and for those who only read a little, and many other writings were a part of the same wave. In some sense of course it was the figure of the poet that was revived and brought forward (and the poems often neglected), but some of the poetry that rode that wave was as ambitious and complex as any then being written. For a time this was amplified by the reading and performance of poetry in public places, many of them outside of the familiar literary arena. In the rebellions and demonstrations of the 1960s and 70s, poets played an initially central role before those in the truly popular arts caught up and then surpassed them. There and in the sometimes massive public festivals that have continued to the present, we saw – we see – a curious play between complexity and populism (poetry on the page and poetry on the stage, if we want to rhyme it into English), and the growth of the internet has brought further elements into the picture. It has possibly been easier to balance these here in North America, or possibly not, but it’s the multiplicity and the range of poetry that continues to incite me – lisible and illisible, readable and unreadable, comprehensible and incomprehensible, rational and irrational, voiced or read in silence, mine or yours.

. . . . . .

I will end with a poem of my own, which is in part about poetry and may be simultaneously lisible and illisible.


for Scott McLean

He will keep writing,
will he not,
as you will.
A pressure like a finger
builds inside
his chest
& travels upward,
somewhere between
the trachea
& glottis,
pushes the fold aside
& breaks.
Imagined speech.
It is the same for everything
we say we think we know
the speaker but the speaker
escapes our observation.
It is this concealment
that reveals
the truth of poetry
no less authoritative
than the other
in full gusto.
From the direction of his voice,
an absence & a grief,
his profile is a kind of blue.

The footfall of a wanderer
crosses the open field
in daylight.
Let the spirit rise
until it’s mind,
the untranslated,
in which the lyric voice
resides mind’s matter
& its coming forth
by day.

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