A Personal Note on Japanese Poetry, for Hiromi Ito

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:10 AM 0 comments
[Written for publication along with other materials in the Japanese poetry magazine, Gendai-shi Techo]

I would have to go back to the 1950s at least, to recall how Japanese poetry and culture began to enter our consciousness. It had something to do with the aftermath of the war and the possibility for some of us of travel to Japan, but that was not my own case, since I was still settled in New York and my only real possibilities for travel were eastward (to Europe) and southward (to Mexico). I had however begun to read and to be startled by some of what I was reading. Notably at that time it was translations of Japanese Noh theater that I think had the greatest impact on me. Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound were the dominant translators, and what came through in their wake was not only a dynamic dramatic and poetic form, but a poetics associated with ancient figures such as Seami and Kwanami Motokiyo. Their concept of yugen, which LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) took for the title of his early poetry magazine, stood alongside Lorca’s duende, Koranic ta’wil, Hebraic kabbala, and ancient Australian alcheringa, as touchstones for the emergence of a radically new/old poetry.

From such beginnings other openings soon followed, assisted notably by a remarkable increase in works translated from Japanese, poetry and fiction both old and new and, for some of us, religious and philosophical texts newly uncovered and set into readable English prose. By the early 1960s works as old as Kojiki and Manyoshu or as classical as the fictions of Murasaki and the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon were a part of our own private and global anthologies. Along with these came new works of poetry assembled by translators such as Donald Keene and Thomas Fitzsimmons, as well as novels by Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, Yasunaru Kawabata, and others, and the new cinema of directors such as Akira Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima. In Mishima’s case too his experimental noh plays were a further indication of how old forms could be adapted to contemporary circumstances – a matter of some concern to many of us both then and now.

Some of my contemporaries, whom I did not know until later, spent extended time in Japan during the 1950s and 60s – Gary Snyder, Cid Corman, Philip Whalen, and Clayton Eshleman, to name those who come most easily to mind. For myself, with no over all sense of purpose, I used available GI Bill money to spend most of a year at Columbia University studying Japanese language and literature. While I’ve retained very little of the actual language, my sense of some of its underlying strategies was of great importance to me; but not only that. By the end of that year I was able to translate a few poems by Fuyuhiko Kitagawa and a part of Mishima’s Mizu no Oto [Sound of Water] – something that greatly surprises me in retrospect. I also attended a class of Donald Keene’s and for a while I was scheduled to publish his translation of Basho’s Narrow Road of Oku for an independent press that I was then directing. The press’s name was Hawk’s Well Press – after Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, its structure derived from his early fascination with Noh theater. An accompanying little magazine of mine, Poems from the Floating World, also had a Japanese-derived title, not in the familiar ukiyo-e sense (though something of that too) but as it turns up in an old Japanese Buddhist text that I only came across recently: “The [floating] world [ukiyo] is one in which happening gives way to happening, illusion follows illusion, and all of it is nothing but a phenomenon void of substance.” To top it off a series of my poems from the early 1960s, The Seven Hells of the Jigoku Zoshi, had its source in the hell-scrolls of that name, but brought definitively, I would like to think, into the immediate and continuing present.

It was not until the 1990s, however, that I began to make actual contact with a number of my Japanese contemporaries. My first visit to Japan came in 1991, largely at the invitation of Hisao Kanaseki, who was using my books Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin as two of the underpinnings for his own American Indian no Uta. Through Kanaseki there was a reading and feast at a large restaurant in Tokyo, attended by a number of prominent Japanese poets. Most important for me it was there and at a small dinner in Kanaseki’s home that I first met Hiromi Ito, who would later move near to me and my wife in southern California. Hiromi became a dear friend and an important intermediary for me, as did several others over the next two decades and five subsequent visits to Japan. In 1997 at the annual Nakahara Chuya festival in Yamaguchi I came together not only with Hiromi but with a number of other active poets: Gozo Yoshimasu, Shuntaro Tanikawa, Mutsuo Takahashi, and Sasaki Mikiro. Several years later (in 2000 to be exact) Gozo arranged an extraordinary visit for me to Okinawa and from there to Hokkaido, where Ryutu Imafuku received me and arranged several years later for a memorable appearance at a conference and festival around the theme of “poets and tricksters.” In Okinawa too another close friend, Makoto Oda, arranged for a meeting and joint performance with singer and activist Sokichi Kina at Kina’s nightclub in Naha. And it was with Oda, on a very different occasion, that I performed in a musical happening composed by Charlie Morrow and presented at the Bread & Puppet Theater’s grounds in Vermont: a joint work based on Oda’s novel, Hiroshima, and my series of poems, Khurbn [Holocaust]. Needless to say some of my visits to Japan also resulted in a number of poems that I wrote and that have remained of considerable importance to me.

For me, finally, the culminating work in Japan has been the recent renshi event [March 2010] in Kumamoto, in which I participated alongside Hiromi, Tanikawa, Wakako Kaku, and Yasuhiro Yotsumoto, with the last of whom (along with the American translator Jeffrey Angles) I have been collaborating on a translation of the poems of Nakahara Chuya. That the five of us could work, as we did in Kumamoto, across languages and cultures, vindicated for me the sense I’ve long had of poetry, for all its particularities of culture and language, as an international enterprise at its deepest and even sometimes at its most superficial levels. This is something that I’ve written about elsewhere but that may still be worthwhile saying even here.

P.S. Another aspect of my pursuit of a transcultural approach to poetry is my long-standing interest in translation – my own and that of others – as in a recent publication in a University of California Press series of which I’m the co-editor, of Hiroaki Sato’s selections and translations from the poetry of Kenji Miyazawa. Needless to say too that Sato’s presence in New York as a translator and a friend has been another major factor in bringing me into some small comprehension of Japanese poetry as a whole.

Jerome Rothenberg
Encinitas, California
May 2010

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Poems & prose from D.W., The Diamond Dog (Poems), Anhinga Press, Tallahassee, 2010

The Diamond Dog

He hasn’t jumped yet; his square-cut
body like a calving glacier
hasn’t glitter-struck you, hasn’t
revealed its malachite striations,
its contradictions of
Once I walked
on the Mendenhall Glacier or maybe
I dreamt it? Fear clothed me –
rubber boots, yellow slicker, over
wool hooded sweatshirt, all
made of fear’s cloth, as I looked
down into the water, fathomless as
my anger about the past, water I had to
step over, from the boat
to glacier shelf.

Little Dog, you were not there, or I could have
stepped on your back naked,
shedding the clothes of trepidation
I could have ridden you, Diamond Dog –
over, past, and away –
leaving behind all the blame
and regret of betrayals, the house in the orange grove, the ash heap
from which we both came.

Blue Ice Wolf

I. The Visitation

Like a paper with a bent corner, haphazardly
stuffed in an accordion file, I was lying
at midnight in a hospital room. It was cold enough
to keep a yellow rose in a Styrofoam cup
fresh for 10 days
without new water.
There was only a film
between waking or sleeping, nothing
opaque. Eyes open or closed
absorbed the same images.

Thus whether it was
a waking sight, or one from sleep, is
only surmise. But with quick
solidity, it was there, standing
oblique to the corner of my bed.

Tall as a man’s shoulder,
and motionless, his eyes looking straight ahead,
rather than at me. I myself was shivering, as I often did there at night,
but seeing this presence, I forgot my
discomfort and murmured, as those who are ill
speak without sound,
“the blue ice wolf”.
His coat, as Stevens says of junipers,
was “shagged
with ice”.

Even though friends have told me that my apparition was
benevolent, that wolves are protectors, companions,
kindly escorts, some part of me
thought I saw one of death’s messengers. It
felt Egyptian to me, yet neither a jackal
nor Anubis of the desert.

No, the ice was there, like the chips of it that were my
only sustenance that week, shaping
or glinting his coat until it was
crusted and bejeweled. The Blue Ice Wolf
was there to accompany me as I trod
underground paths. Now, when I peek out
from that place I was a few weeks ago,
I see his shadow still alert,
watching, not
me, but everything that
comes near, listening
I think
to my papery breath
that moves and rustles, even in recovery.
He is watching over me,
as if he is a father.

II. Incomplete Dawn

I didn’t know until now that
he was my Diamond Dog,
once born of the ash heap near the orange grove.
In this morning’s incomplete dawn, the creature lopes next
to my invisible King of Spain.

Like feet, soft feet, bare,
sponging into the carpet, there is light,
outside the window, from all
the planets, the cosmos,
in the blue house
where students live. I see
open pages of the geometry text
and hear Sarah’s coated syllables
explain the dancer’s foot pointing out.
It’s the bird wing in the arch,
though even its extension is pliable
and the fractalled knee, all
movements shaded, rather than crisp.

Hilary saw
pillars in her mouth, and Adrien said “Architecture is power.” Fragments
cling to my palate, wisps or rags
left on hangers. Cavafy saw the boy’s
yielding face, but I look in a mirror
and see the bent foot/I want to hold it
in my hand, his foot, the padded muscles of Robert’s arms
around me/what longing/what is there
but touch?

Inside, I place one foot over
the other, know we always have our own
flesh to accept and reassure us
in the morning
when everything looks ready
to – what? –
wrap us up in a quilt,
keep us warm,
notice the toes wiggling out?
Teasing air,
taking for granted each breath,
remembering the softness,

even in the blast from the icy polish
and shine off my father’s military shoe,
transformed into the shimmer of the dog’s diamond paw,
then the Ice Wolf’s blue one,
finally the King of Spain’s luscious royal foot
gloved, glinting gold; and I know
that at last he/they’ve come back,
and are waiting till it’s time for me to follow them.
Any morning, if I glance up quickly,
when facing the wood of a Norwegian Maple’s branches,
across the street,
I can make out their shadows:

*The Father of My Country, George Washington,
His Diamond Dog,
The King of Spain,
my Blue Ice Wolf.

(*note: I’ve added this litany to the original text, which in the book ends with the phrase, “make out their shadows.”)

From “Creating a Personal Mythology” (an excerpt)

Over the years, I have invented [various] mythic figures to stud my poems: the King of Spain, that figure from fairy tale, of the desirable man, who in my case, is invisible and always follows me for protection and love. He’s imaginary, thus even though I create him as a man constantly following, watching me, he is also a man missing and without substance. I also have peopled my poems with The Pony Express Rider, The Blue Moon Cowboy, and most notably, I invented a figure who I called “the motorcycle betrayer.” There have been others. Perhaps there will be more.

Last year, I re-discovered an image in the George Washington poem, “The Father of My Country,” which has me working elaborately again with personal myth. It is the image of the “Diamond Dog”. The Diamond Dog is a figure from a dream I had when I was about 6 years old when my mother and sister and I lived in East Whittier, California, in a little shack that was next door to a big house where the owner of the surrounding orange groves lived.

In those days, there was no trash collection; trash and garbage were burned in back of the houses, where there were large metal drums for the burning. When the drums filled with accumulated ash, the ash was dumped nearby on the ground. In my dream, it was out of one of those ash heaps that this dog --- it was a little Scottie-shaped dog – made out of a huge diamond, leapt and ran away. In my dream, the Diamond Dog was following my father as he left us. I am sure I remembered the dream all those years because the dog somehow symbolized the masculinity in my life departing, running away from me -- such a personal subject and theme for me. In the dream, the dog was following my father away from me, perhaps forever.

In these Diamond Dog poems, I continue the quest for some kind of balance, not only of anima and animus, but also a duality they represent – spirit and body. Especially, as I age I need to find acceptable ways to think about death, that seemingly final destroyer of balance and pattern.

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[Prepared for an all-day E. E. Cummings symposium at the American Literature Association meetings on June 5, 1994, while I was working with Pierre Joris on Poems for the Millennium, but never published thereafter.]

Every time I prepare a new anthology or go over the writings of the twentieth century from the perspective of the present, I wonder where (and how) it was that we lost E. E. Cummings. In my own coming into poetry at all – but that was long ago – his was a central presence. I knew his poems, could recite a good number of them by (almost) heart, was on to all of his tricks, had Cummings lines and phrases (always) at my fingertips, and found his voice entwined with mine in writing. If my own punctuation or upper cases fell away it was with reference to him; if my margins trembled, turned to rags, it was with his as early model; if my adverbs shifted into verbs or my conjunctions turned to nouns, it was clearly him behind it. At sixteen I had no other guides but him and Stein (and shortly Joyce) into new ways of language. By a decade later, the works of others lingered or came newly into mind, but Cummings (for all intents and purposes) had disappeared.

It baffles me – not only because his poems still resonate for me (and I have always been careful to include him in the assemblages, the gatherings I’ve made) but because one would have expected him to hold for the generations of latterday modernist (later called postmodernist) poets. Think back to the roots of my own generation. In his great initiatory essay, “Projective Verse” (that was in 1950) Charles Olson presented not only a new way to make the poem but found that there existed older (American) poets who had already (“each after his way”) moved in that direction, who had established (he wrote of them) “the already projective nature of verse.” From that identifying statement, to which I was already late in coming, the two poets who come inevitably to mind are Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, and yet, when Olson comes to name them, it is a third one – Cummings – whom he mentions and credits first.

There is no question of an inequality here, no lower ranking or disfavor shown to Cummings, and no hedging about his place beside the others. Olson in fact is strikingly particular in what he attributes to Cummings as a lesson for poets then emerging. The discussion is of notation via typewriter as it relates to breath. “If a contemporary poet,” Olson writes, “suspends a word or syllable at the end of a line” (and here he adds: “this was Cummings’ addition”) “he means that time to pass that it takes the eye – that hair of time suspended – to pick up the next line.”

“[Mostly] Cummings’ addition” he means, not only or uniquely his – for it was shared even then with Williams and would be later with countless others as well, but listen, e.g., how clear it sounds in something like Cummings’ tribute, circa 1925, directed to Picasso:


you give us Things
bulge:grunting lungs pumped full of sharp thick mind

you make us shrill
presents always
shut in the sumptuous speech of

(out of the
black unbunged
Something gushes vaguely a squeak of planes

between squeals of
Nothing grabbed with circular shrieking tightness
solid screams whisper)
Lumberman of the Distinct

your brain’s
axe only chops hugest inherent
Trees of Ego, from
whose living and biggest

bodies lopped
of every

you hew form truly

Or again, in one that we all know, and that I used to (and still do) carry in my head or heart:


Buffalo Bill’s
vvvvvvvwho used to
vvvvvvvride a watersmooth-silver
vvvvvvvand break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
vvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvand what I want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

It is, looking back at it now, a beautifully paced and articulated short poem – as spoken and as seen – and a key to what became increasingly possible for others after Cummings’ own works.


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Translated from Japanese by Yoko Danno

Izanami Dies

When Izanami was delivered of the fire deity Kagu-tsuchi, her genitals were severely burnt and she was seriously ill in bed. She vomited and in her vomit a pair of ore deities came into being. In her excrement arose a pair of clay deities, and in her urine the female deity who controls irrigation water and the young deity full of procreative force whose daughter is the food goddess Toyo-uke.

Then, at last, Izanami, who had given birth to the fire deity Kagu-tsuchi, passed away.

“I have exchanged the life of my beloved wife for just one child!” Izanaki greatly lamented. Crawling around the head and feet of his wife, he wailed. From his tears arose the female weeping deity Naki-sawame, who dwells at the foot of the trees on the hill of the holy Kagu Mountain. Izanaki buried his wife on Mount Hiba at the border between the land of Izumo and the land of Hahaki.

Izanaki Kills the Fire Child

Then, Izanaki, with his ten-fist-long sword wearing at his waist, cut off the head of the fire child Kagu-tsuchi. The blood gushed out and flowed over the surrounding rocks. From the blood at the tip of the sword arose three rock-splitting thunder deities, from the blood at the guard on the sword, a pair of lightning deities, and then, the bold thunderbolt deity Take-mikazuchi. The blood collected at the hilt of the sword, dripping through Izanaki’s fingers, became a pair of water deities who preside over deep valleys and control the water. (The eight deities above were born of the sword.)

From the head, chest, belly, genitals, left hand, right hand, left foot and right foot of the slain fire deity were born eight mountain deities. The sword with which Izanaki slew the fire deity is called the Sharp-Edged Sword.

Izanaki Visits the Land of the Dead

After slaying the fire deity, Izanaki strongly wished to see again his wife, and went after her to the Land of Yomi(2) where the dead reside. Arriving at the Hall of Yomi, he stood at the closed gate, from which Izanami came out to greet him.

“Oh, my beloved wife,” Izanaki talked to her pleadingly, “the land that you and I were making has not yet been completed. You must come back to our land of the living.”

“How deeply I regret that you have not come sooner!” replied Izanami. “I cannot return to the land of the living because I have already eaten food cooked with the fire of Yomi. But, my beloved husband, I am grateful and filled with awe that you have come all the way to the Land of Yomi and visited this place. So I will tell the Master Deity of Yomi about my wish to return and discuss the matter with him. Wait till I come back, and please do not try to look in on me!”

After speaking thus, Izanami went into the Hall and did not come out. Izanaki was kept waiting so long that he could not bear it any more. He tore off one of the end teeth of his bamboo comb which he was wearing in the left bun of his hair, lit it and entered the Hall.

There he saw maggots squirming and rolling in the corpse of Izanami. In her head was Grand Thunder, in her breast Fire Thunder, in her belly Black Thunder, in her genitals Splitting Thunder, in her left hand Young Thunder, in her right hand Earth Thunder, in her left foot Roaring Thunder, and in her right foot Lying Thunder. There were eight kinds of thunder deities in all.

Frightened by the horrible sight and filled with awe, Izanaki turned back and fled, while Izanami cried out, “You have shamed me!” She sent at once an army of defiled women of Yomi to capture her husband.

Izanaki, removing his hair ornament woven with black vine, hurled it back. Immediately it took root and bore grapes. While the women of Yomi were picking and eating the grapes, he fled farther. When they started to pursue him again, he drew out the bamboo comb he was wearing in his right hair-bun and threw it back. Immediately bamboo shoots sprouted. While the women of Yomi were pulling out and eating the bamboo shoots, he fled further.

Then Izanami sent out her eight thunder deities with an army of one thousand five hundred evil spirits of Yomi to capture her husband. Izanaki drew his ten-fist-long sword and waved it behind his back to put them under a spell. But they continued the pursuit. When Izanaki arrived at the bottom of the Hill of Yomi on the boundary between the land of the dead and the land of the living, he picked three peaches from the peach trees there. He lay in ambush for the thunder deities and the army of evil spirits and then attacked, throwing the peaches at them. Because peaches have power to dispel evil, the pursuers all turned and fled back into the Land of Yomi.

In gratitude, Izanaki said to the peaches: “Just in the way you have saved me, save all humans growing like green grass in my land, the Central Land of Reed Plains, when any one of them is in distress or in pain.”

He honored the peaches by giving them the name, the Great Fruit Spirit.

Finally, Izanami herself came out in pursuit of her husband. Then Izanaki hauled a huge rock to the Hill of Yomi and blocked the pass. They stood at each side of the huge rock between them. Izanaki announced the end of their marriage. Izanami retorted: “My beloved husband, if you do such a thing, every day I will strangle to death one thousand grass-like humans in your land.”

“My beloved wife,” Izanaki replied, “if you do so, I will put up every day a thousand and five hundred huts for childbirth in my land.”

This is why a thousand humans inevitably die every day and a thousand and five hundred humans are inevitably born every day.

Izanami is called the Grand Deity of Yomi. She is also called the Grand Deity of Pursuit because she overtook her husband. The huge rock with which Izanaki blocked the pass is called the Grand Deity of Repelling who drove back the evil. The Hill of Yomi is now called the Hill of Ifuya in the land of Izumo.

Izanaki Purifies Himself

After Izanaki parted from his wife, he said: “Since I have been to a most detestable, ugly and defiled land, I have to purify myself.”

When he came to the evergreen plain of Awaki by the river mouth of Tachibana where oranges were growing, in the land of Tsukushi, at a place called Himuka, he purified himself. Facing the morning sun, he removed everything he was wearing and washed his body in the water.

Wishing to drive evil away, Izanaki cast off his cane, his sash, his bag, his cloak, his trousers, his headdress, the bracelets on his left hand, the bracelets on his right hand, and there arose twelve deities who protect roads and sea routes.

Then Izanaki said, “The current of the upper stream is too swift, while the current of the lower stream is too weak.”

Therefore he went first to the middle stream, dived and bathed there. When he washed his body, the pollution cringing to him from the defiled land of Yomi came off and there arose two evil-causing deities. In order to bring good out of the evil of Yomi, there arose three rectifying deities. Next he dived to the sea bottom and bathed, and there arose a pair of bottom-sea deities. When he bathed halfway in the water, there arose another pair of halfway-sea deities. When he bathed on the surface of the water, there arose yet another pair of surface-sea deities.

When Izanaki washed his left eye, there came into being Amaterasu the Sun Goddess illuminating the heavens. When he washed his right eye, there arose Tsukuyomi the moon deity, and when he washed his nose, Susanowo the turbulent storm deity came forth.

Izanaki Is Blessed with Three Noble Deities

Greatly rejoicing, Izanaki said: “I have brought forth child after child, and in the end of my childbearing, I am blessed with three noble children!”

Then removing his necklace of stringed jade beads from his neck, he bestowed it, shaking and jingling, on Amaterasu, saying, “My noble child, you shall govern the Heavenly High Plains.”

Next he said to Tsukuyomi, “You shall govern the Night World, my noble child.”

Then he entrusted Susanowo with his mission, saying, “My noble child, you shall govern the Ocean.”

N.B. Yoko Danno’s Songs and Stories of the Kojiki (Ahadada Books, 2008) is the first English translation to capture the full sweep & ferocity of the Japanese original. The earlier part of this section of the Kojiki appeared in a previous posting on Poems & Poetics.

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[Continued from posting on June 29]

The Arabic folktale that may have inspired Calderon's great play La Vida es SueƱo is based precisely on the paradoxical insignificance of plot in narrative, and may be offered as a poet's refutation of Aristotle. Its plot makes nothing experientially intelligible. Calderon's beggar is turned into a king by an absurd act and turned back into a beggar by a similar and equally absurd act. And the pieces will never come together again, except in some kind of dream. But then, the absurd chain of circumstances that constitute the plot of Oedipus Rex do nothing to make intelligible the relations between Oedipus' innocence and guilt. And it is the powerful recognition of their absolute incommensurability and unintelligibility that is the strength of the tragedy. Which is why I would like to suggest that we do not derive our narrative competence from story telling, but from dreams. Because the goal of narrative is to make present, not to make intelligible, and a dream is nothing if it is not a making present of an anticipated future and a remembered past in which we always have a definite stake, because they are always anticipated and remembered in the light of desire.

I am supposing here that dreams are the narratives we construct for ourselves at night. There are, of course, many people who do not believe dreams are narrative -- some because dreams are often "absurd" or "illogical," others because they are apparently fragmentary. But there are also many dreams that are not especially illogical if somewhat fantastical or absurd; and there are many powerful, absurd and apparently illogical waking narratives, and the fragmentariness of some dreams may be the consequence of either an extreme ellipticality of the dream -- we are "telling" these narratives to ourselves and do not require as much context as narratives constructed for others -- or the result of imperfect recall. Dreams are accessible only through recall, our own or reported by others; and the neurological evidence of the fairly regular temporal patterns of rapid eye movement that seem to correlate with dreaming suggest a kind of fullness of the dream cycle that rarely corresponds to the dream reports. So it is probably reasonable to assume that dream recall is often only a partial representation of the dream experience. Still, I've recorded perfectly coherent narrative dreams. Here is one from a young woman:

I'm quickly getting ready for school. My mother is then standing at the front door and I'm outside. I realize that I had in all my rush forgotten to put on my shoes. I was standing there on the cold brick and I knew I couldn't go back into the house to get my shoes. I had to go to school without them. So then I went to school very nervously. No one notices that I am barefoot at school. But I am almost sick with anxiety. How could they not notice? I really want to go home and just get my shoes but I know it is not a possibility. I had to just accept the fact that I was barefoot and suffer the consequence.

Whatever the significance of the dream to the dreamer, it is a perfectly coherent narrative. It happens also to be a coherent story, because the sequence of events is absolutely clear and forms an intelligible temporal whole, though it may seem to lack an ending, because the anticipated consequences of appearing barefoot in school are not represented. But the emphasis of the dream is upon the dreamer's anxiety to get to school on time, the haste that produces, which causes her to forget to put on her shoes and will not allow her to go back to correct her mistake. The consequence is the suffering she feels at being shoeless in the classroom. This little dream narrative is somewhat more logical and inevitable than the career of Oedipus, as it has the advantage of not depending upon a great chain of unlikely coincidences.

Freud, the great pioneer of dream interpretation would, of course, be among the foremost to deny the narrative significance of dreams, though most of the dreams he reports in Traumdeutung are apparently narratives. Even though he often uses some of their narrative properties to interpret them, he persistently characterizes dreams in a static vocabulary, referring to them as "rebuses," "puzzle pictures" or "hieroglyphs," or what we might call collages. But he is not interested in interpreting the dream as a form of narrative communication. He sees the dream itself as merely the contingent outcome of a struggle between a communicational impulse and a censoring impulse in a presentational mental medium based heavily on iconicization, and his task is to unscramble a coded transmission for a concealed message. His work is not so much an interpretation as a deconstruction.
Nevertheless, The Interpretation of Dreams is a work of great significance for all narrative theory, not least because of Freud's situation of desire at its center. It is true that he grossly oversimplifies the relation of desire to dream in his hypothesis of the dream as wish fulfillment and in his remarkable suggestion that the desire underlying any dream is a simple vector that could be expressed discursively in something like a declarative sentence. But he also had the great virtue of reporting a vast array of dream narratives that offer much richer and greater complexities than the theory he offered to explain them. And if his theory of censorship appears to be redundant and probably irrelevant, his hypotheses of condensation and displacement under the constraints of a presentational medium, are still rich with meaning for any student of narrative. Still, the great mechanisms of distortion that Freud hypothesizes in Chapter VI of The Interpretion of Dreams to explain the deformation of the dream message by the dream seem hardly relevant to a dream as simple and lucid as the dream of the barefoot student, at least if we wish to consider it as narrative. They may be more useful in a more literarily complex dream like this dream of my own:

I was a guest among many at some pleasure ground that was as large as Prospect Park, and people had been feasting, bathing, drinking wine, etc., wandering off freely from room to room of this large villa, where some were sleeping, others lying about; and I remember at one point taking off my shoes and bathing my feet in a pool and then making my way to some northern point of the estate, where I found Elly (my wife), who pointed out that I had lost my shoes. So I said I would find them and set out looking from room to room, passing people and searching through all kinds of shoes. One man I encountered in my search grasped my arm in a friendly way and asked "What are you doing?" and when I answered "Looking for my shoes." he said, "Oh, I was thinking of going to the movies." I continued my search, passing out of one villa into an adjoining one, where a young woman with a notebook was recording responses on a video monitor. She seemed so studious and professional that it was hard to see her relation to the sybarite who owned the villa. "What's your con nection to him?" I asked. "Hogs," she said. Hog rustling had made the fortune that had acquired the villa and made her research possible. She was analyzing subject/object relations in a behavioristic manner, watching to see what the subject did and trying always to eliminate the ideas of choice or experience or anything that was not directly observable. "We are not trying to describe the experience of shame, but what people do in straightforward terms." But I answered that all terms have several meanings in natural languages and we slide from one meaning to another without even noticing it. "Give me an example," she said. "Subject and object," I answered.

There is surely an elaborate play of subject/object relations between the dreamer and the other figures of the dream. He begins as an observer of the scene and becomes in turn an object of advice from his wife, the subject of a search for his shoes, the object of a genteel pass from the man he encounters in the room full of shoes, and the object, along with everyone else, of the video observation of the young woman psychologist, who is in turn subjected to his observation and becomes the object of his final response, all the while that the dream observer maintains his subject position and watches it challenged as his surrogate traverses the terrain of the dream. But this network of signifiers, however it may be enriched by an analysis of possible condensations and displacements, is woven into the narrative structure. Whatever the narrative might be said to "mean", it is the presentational force of each of the successive states that count. Wandering about pleasantly, being called to account and finding oneself shoeless, searching, misunderstanding an invitation, and realizing one has been spied upon all the while in the name of pseudoscience by a pedant subsidized by a sleazy criminal. At the same time, the plot has no obvious logic.

In Ricoeur's sense this is perhaps not a narrative, or not a good one, though I would prefer to say it is not a story, or not a good one. If it is a gathering together of a series of diverse events to form a configurational unity, the ending is by no means an inevitable or even particularly logical outcome of the succession of previous incidents. If its last scene has the feeling of conclusion, it is only because the enigmatic final utterance suggests a self-referential reading that reverberates through all the previous incidents and perhaps challenges the security of the dream observer's subject position. This turns it into a kind of allegory, which to function has to be a somewhat defective story but not a defective narrative.


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[Talk prepared for the Modern Language Association, December 1995, combined with interview by Michael Rodriguez published in Samizdat 2002 and reprinted in part on Poems and Poetics. Presented in this form at Naropa University, Summer 2003. The final comments -- on "outsider poetry" bring it up to the present.]

I would like to go back over my own relationship to anthologies & to contrast it to a general discomfort I have with anthologies as such, before entering into a discussion (however it falls out) of this anthology & of “the anthology as manifesto” or, as I had it in an earlier version, "the anthology as an instrument of change." In 1979 I had done five anthologies, the most recent of which (A Big Jewish Book) had been published by Doubleday the year before. It was with relation to this that Charles Bernstein, who was then editing the important (poets-centered) journal of poetics, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, asked me to write a piece on my own work &/or "on anthologies." I began it with a quote from Gertrude Stein about the new & the old, since the anthologies I had then made were a conjunction of modernist poems with ancient or culturally distant works of near-poetry that I wanted (in Robert Duncan's words) to "bring into their comparisons." What Stein wrote (words that I've quoted a number of times since, as I have a way of doing with quotations) was: "As it is old it is new and as it is new it is old, but now we have come to be in our own way which is a completely different way."

With that as epigraph, I went on to recollect (from early childhood) an affinity I had for copying or collecting poems that I wanted to compare — not really that, to see them as they sat beside each other. Let me read three short paragraphs of opening & then take off from there:

[Reads from "On Anthologies" in PRE-FACES.]

There are, then, two kinds of anthologies (a point that seems to me self evident): those that deceive me/us by a false sense of closure & authority (of the this-is-all-you-have-to-know kind) & those that I had hoped to do with regard to the past or those rare & useful ones that opened up the present (perhaps both being instances of the same). The canonical ones we all know as the great conservatizing force in our literature(s), against which — as artists of an avant-garde — many of us have had to struggle. As gatherings of acceptable/accepted poets their conservatizing thrust is evident; as gatherings of contemporary poets the thrust is to rein in or exclude those moves that challenge too overtly the boundaries of form & meaning or that call into question the boundaries (genre boundaries) of poetry itself.

The other possibility of anthologies is to use the form as a kind of manifesto-assemblage: to present, bring to light, or create works that have been excluded or that collectively present a challenge to the dominant system-makers or to the world at large. In my time – or in my early time – the great American work of this kind was Donald Allen's (1960) New American Poetry (replete with its appended section of poetic statements/manifestos), but also LaMonte Young & Jackson Mac Low's An Anthology (as a manifesto of the 1950s/60s Fluxus movement) or Emmett Williams' Concrete Poetry as a first summary & presentation of the movement of that name. Still earlier works were Pound's Imagiste gathering & later Active Anthology or (better yet) Louis Zukofsky's "Objectivists" anthology of the early 1930s (a prime example, that, of the construction of a movement through a book — & little else by way of publication).

From these I sensed the possibility of the anthology as (1) a manifesto; (2) a way of laying out an active poetics — by example & by commentary; & (3) as a grand assemblage: a kind of art form in its own right. My first anthology, Technicians of the Sacred, grew from premises (theory) within experimental modernism, rather than from critical authority situated outside it — what Tristan Tzara implies in his (1918) postmodern divergence, that “Dada is ... not a modern school ... [nor] a reaction against the schools of today ... [but] more in the nature of an almost Buddhist religion of indifference.” Beginning in that general area I was able to explore an open-ended range of deep cultures, of culturally embedded poetries & related language works, many of them subsumed as poetry by resemblance to contemporary work & in that comparison also opening the range & giving a new depth to the experimentally modern. So too I used the back of the book to include a section of commentaries that not only gave some ethnographic context to the traditional pieces but allowed the entry & comparison (for better or worse) of a number of more contemporary works (an early revival of Gertrude Stein & a mix of new & old voices, of the modern & the postmodern:: Breton, Wakoski, Tzara, Snyder, Waldman, Ginsberg, Finlay, Ortiz, Weiner). This was of course the hidden (secret) heart of the collection, what made it (I hope) not a book of antiquities or orientalisms or primitivisms, but a manifesto for our time: each commentary a pointed statement of a way of poetry long overlooked.

All of the anthologies I’ve assembled since then — by myself or with others — have shared in this; or, to use a key word of the 1960s European Situationists, who helped so much in the development of a strikingly “appropriative” postmodernism, they have been a detournement (a turning or a twist) on the structures & presumptions of those fixed anthologies that continue (like the darkness) to surround us. After claiming it as a right, I have somehow gotten leverage to continue & expand this work & (with Pierre Joris as a powerful co-worker) to construct an assemblage of the twentieth-century that would bring together (on a global scale) works entirely of this time that had been too often kept beyond the pale or, if present, had been kept from those comparisons, those co-existences that were so real to our generation of poets throughout the world.

This later work with Pierre Joris is, as I see it, a culmination for me of what came before & an indication of how fruitful collaboration can be in the kind of world we share. For all of that I’m a little hard pressed to remember the steps by which we came to work together. I had known Pierre since the late 1960s, when he was a student at Bard College & was living in New York City for a year or two after graduation. After he moved back to Europe we saw each other on & off in London & Paris, & in 1986, when I started a brief tenure at SUNY-Binghamton, we got the bright idea of bringing him over as a graduate student. I had already floated a proposal for a big twentieth-century book but was very uncertain about it as a one-man proposition. Once into conversation with Pierre, however, it became clear that we were both close enough & different enough to consider this as, simultaneously, a singular & dual venture. The key in fact was in the interplay that it allowed us – the possibility, as with other collaborations, of opening it up beyond what either of us was capable of doing on his own. And right from the start – & over the years that followed – the work proceeded, minus all acrimony, as a process that energized us in the work at hand & in our other workings.

Of the things we had common the two most obvious were that both of us had made anthologies before & that both of us were devoted to the idea of the anthology as a kind of manifesto. We were also, both of us, devoted to the idea of poetry – the kind of poetry we needed – as a radical enterprise that cut across nations & cultures, & we both felt the absence of a gathering reflecting the history of modern (& “post”modern) poetry as we knew it.

Pierre’s background & intentions, then, were in most ways very similar to my own. At the very least we felt a kinship as poets that made the work of collaboration a consistently meaningful process & reinforced a sense that our dual input strengthened our ability to create an image of poetic worlds more diverse (& therefore “truer”) than what either of us might have done in isolation. We could also call on a significant number of others to add to that diversity & to the necessary sense of creating a big work in common. In doing this we were aware that the immediate model for what we were doing was the otherwise debased form of the university anthology. We willingly accepted the subtitle “The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry” as a kind of riposte to Oxford- and Harvard-sponsored compendia (among others) that perpetuated a tediously canonical poetry & poetics of which we (a larger “we” than just the two of us) no longer chose to be a part. We supplied commentaries – sometimes as mini-manifestos – in much the way I had done in the earlier assemblages (themselves a send-up on academic practices), & we enlisted a distinguished board of “advisors” that spoke to our overriding sense of kinships & alliances. We were careful in doing so that such a board would be dominated by poets rather than academics & would be international in scope.

The structure of the book was otherwise of our own devising & different in kind & intention from more conventional assemblages. We chose in the first volume to highlight a number of the movements that characterized the early twentieth-century & had been ignored or diminished in most academic gatherings. Accordingly we gave a separate section of the book to each of six of them – Futurism, Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism, Negritude, & the American “Objectivist” poets. The rest of the poets were grouped in three large “galleries” following a rather loose chronological sequence, & we opened the book with a section of nineteenth-century “forerunners” & ended with a section (“A Book of Origins”) that gave a glimpse into historical & ethnopoetic recoveries across the whole preceding century. In the second volume we limited ourselves to two galleries and incorporated a number of movements or quasi-movements as “corridors” within the galleries – many of them still more local or regional than those in the previous volume. And – as a kind of musical or compositional gesture – we began with a section that was pure prelude (“In the Dark”) & closed with a short coda-like section (“At the Turning”) in which we joined two of our own poems with Robert Duncan’s final, altenstil poem, “After a Long Illness.”

In all of this we were trying to present a range of realized possibilities while hoping that the work wouldn’t be read canonically in terms only of its inclusions & exclusions. To avoid that, I suppose, we also put what was probably a greater than needed emphasis on the personal nature of what we were doing – in Charles Olson’s words, our “special view of history.” Going still further, I would describe the book as a construct or even, if it comes to it, a fiction – but the kind of fiction (“supreme” or otherwise) that all such works must surely be.

With that said,. however, Poems for the Millennium remains for me a meaningful if not necessarily “true” accounting of an adventure in poetry in which we ourselves were small but for the moment active, and in our minds coequal, players.

A FINAL NOTE. After the first two volumes of Poems for the Millennium, I didn’t entirely abandon anthologies, but worked with Steve Clay as co-editor and publisher on A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections About the Book & Writing. Here, through Clay’s generosity as a publisher, we accomplished the work without recourse to larger publishers or institutions – indeed without financial backing from any outside source. I don’t know if a book like that will ever pay its way or reach the audience that we would like to reach, but it is, like all the books I’ve mentioned, a project that we thought was needed – for both ourselves & others. The desire to fill such gaps or absences has been the driving force – in one way or another – for all the poets & the artists to whom I’ve felt the closest.

In addition to this, of course, I had a more recent chance to work with Jeffrey Robinson on the third volume of Poems for the Millennium (2009), about which much is presently available on Poems and Poetics. Here the movement was aggressively backwards: a work conceived as a gathering of romantic and postromantic (nineteenth-century) poetry with germinal links to the modernist and postmodernist present. There have been suggestions since then that I continue on a retrospective path, moving backwards from century to century and period to period. I would rather leave that to others with a more academic inclination than my own and have instead been exploring the possibilities of an anthology of outsider poetry, a concept in its different forms that might provide a link to, and a reassessment of, those earlier ethnopoetic gatherings that first got me going. The idea that poetry, a necessary human activity, exists outside of literature as such, even and perhaps most meaningfully outside the boundaries of public or published discourse, is the final step needed to make my witnessing complete. (J.R., 2003, 2010)

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Translated from Japanese by Yoko Danno


The Deities on the Heavenly High Plains said to Izanaki the Inviting Male Deity and Izanami the Inviting Female Deity, “This land is still floating like a jellyfish. Give shape to it and solidify it.”

The Heavenly Deities sent out the two, giving them the Heavenly Jeweled Spear. Entrusted with this mission, the young Deities departed and stood on the Heavenly Floating Bridge between heaven and earth. They lowered the Spear and stirred the muddy seawater with a churning sound, ko-o-ro, ko-o-ro, and lifted it up. The thick salt water dripping from the tip of the holy Spear piled up and became an island. This island is called Onogoro-jima. The two went down there and brought into being the Heavenly Pillar and a spacious palace for their wedding.

At this time Izanaki the Inviting Male Deity asked Izanami the Inviting Female Deity, “How is your body made?”

“My body is finely made,” the Female Deity answered, “but has one place which is insufficiently made.”

“My body is finely made, too,” the Male Deity said, “but has one place which is excessively made. Therefore I would like to produce land by inserting the place which is excessive in my body into the place which is insufficient in your body. What do you think of giving birth to the land like this?”

“That sounds good to me,” the Female Deity answered.

“Well, shall we,” said the Male Deity, “you and I, walk around this Heavenly Pillar, and mate with each other where we meet? Do you agree?”

The Female Deity consented. After the two promised thus, the Male Deity said, “Then you walk around from the right, and I will walk around from the left to meet you.”

They agreed and each walked around the Heavenly Pillar, and then the Female Deity spoke first: “What a handsome man you are!”

Then afterwards the Male Deity said, “What a beautiful woman you are!”

After each spoke thus, the Male Deity said to the Female Deity, “It is not right that the woman spoke first.”

The Male and Female Deities, however, mated in the holy bed. The Female Deity gave birth to a leech-like, boneless child. They placed the child in a boat woven with reed and cast it off shore. Next, she gave birth to a weakling island, Awa-shima, which was not recognized as their proper child, either.

The two Deities consulted each other and said, “Our children who have just been born are deficient. We’d better return to heaven and report this to the Heavenly Deities.”

Immediately they returned together to heaven and asked for advice. The Deities in heaven performed a grand divination by heating the blade-bone of a deer. Observing the cracks, they said, “The children were born deficient because the woman spoke first. Descend again, and say it once more.”

Therefore the Male Deity Izanaki and the Female Deity Izanami descended again and circled round the Heavenly Pillar as they had done before.

Then the Male Deity Izanaki spoke first: “What a beautiful woman you are!” The Female Deity Izanami said afterward, “What a handsome man you are!”

After each spoke thus they wedded again.

Izanaki and Izanami Give Birth to Fourteen Islands

After that time Izanaki and Izanami bore many fine islands. The first island born was Awaji. Next was Iyo. This island has one body and four faces, each with a name: E-hime, a fine woman; Ihiyori-hiko, a man possessed by a food spirit; Oho-getsu-hime, a woman in charge of food; and Takeyori-wake, a brave-spirited man. Then the couple bore the triple island of Oki, and next, the island of Tsukushi. This island also has one body and four faces, each with a name describing the brilliance of the sunshine. Then they bore the island of Iki, the island of Tsushima and the island of Sado, and next, the main island thick with grain plants, the Great Yamato Island. These eight islands which were born first are called collectively the Great Land of the Eight Islands.

After giving birth to these islands, Izanaki and Izanami returned to the island of Onogoro. On their way home they bore six more islands including twin islands.

Izanaki and Izanami Give Birth to Thirty-Five Deities

After Izanaki and Izanami had finished giving birth to the various islands, they started bearing deities. The first deity born was the great-task-carrying-out deity. Next born were the male deity of rock and soil and the female deity of stone and sand. Then the deity of great doors, the roof-thatching deity, the deity in charge of the safety of houses and the deity who protects houses from storms were born. Next they bore the sea deity Oho-watatsumi and a couple of river-mouth deities, Akitsu-hiko and Akitsu-hime.

Akitsu-hiko and Akitsu-hime rule respectively rivers and seas. They joined forces and gave birth to the bubble-sinking male deity Awa-nagi and the bubble-rising female deity Awa-nami. Next were born the surface-calming male deity Tsuru-nagi and the surface-rippling female deity Tsuru-nami. They bore next a pair of deities who distribute water at the watershed and a pair of deities holding ladles to draw water.

In the meantime, Izanaki and Izanami continued their labor. They gave birth to the wind deity Shinatsu-hiko, the tree deity Kukunochi, the mountain deity Oho-yamatsumi and the female plain deity Kayano-hime.

The coupled deities Oho-yamatsumi and Kayano-hime, who rule respectively mountains and plains, gave birth to a pair of soil deities, a pair of fog-and-mist deities, a pair of valley deities and a couple of deities who protect strays in the mountains.

Izanaki and Izanami still continued their labor. They gave birth to Tori-fune, the deity of the heavenly ship as fast as a bird and made of camphor wood as hard as rock. Next they bore the female deity Oho-getsu-hime who is in charge of food. Next was born the burning deity Kagu-tsuchi.


[N.B. As the oldest surviving Japanese book, the Kojiki, or “Record of Ancient Things,” completed on “the twenty-eighth day of the first month of the fifth year of Wado” (A.D. 722) is an attempt to keep a grip on matters already at some distance from the compilers & to establish the “origins” of the Japanese court & nation on (roughly) native grounds. It is, at the same time, “a compilation of myths, historical & pseudo-historical narratives and legends, songs, anecdotes, folk etymologies, and genealogies.” (Thus: Donald L. Philippi, the composer of a previous translation.) Like other such works it begins with the generations of the gods & follows their creation of -- & descent into – this-place-here. The fecundity & sexuality of those early gods – like Izanaki and Izanami in the present instance –is an example of surreality (= poesis) as an attempt to comprehend & thereby to possess the world.]

Yoko Danno’s Songs and Stories of the Kojiki (Ahadada Books, 2008) is the first translation to capture the full sweep & ferocity of the Japanese original. Born, raised & educated in Japan, Danno has been writing solely in English for almost forty years. She continues to live & work in Kobe.]

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Bruce Stater: [On Clare and Artaud and Related Matters]

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:49 AM 0 comments

How Do Fools Fall in Love and Why Can’t They Do things with Words?

I. "Then Their Existance"

“... what a fool must I be to preach so profoundly knowing about things that I know nothing more of then their existance.” -- John Clare

Already we discover ourselves in a world rift by gaps. Gaps constituted by the transposition of vowels, by the indeterminacy of the sincere & the ingenuous, by indecidability between direct & indirect discourse. Nothing has quite yet been said; the rhemes are poor, the phemes destitute, making the locutions ill. We expected nothing more or less. To have expected something different might have shed doubt on the legitimacy of our own speech, on the immanent power of language to describe & alter the conditions of world. After all, isn’t it reassuring to know that when the president declares war it is so, that our legitimated couplings are authorized by states, clergy, & ships’ captains? That our madmen are properly recognized by institutions capable of marking difference between the one & the other? That our sturdy symbolic is discreet from our curious imaginary & our unfathomable real? That our sentences present themselves in rows. Our nouns play the parts of nouns, our verbs act as verbs, & our articles agree with this, that, or the other.

We ordinary citizens of language are satisfied with our performative capacities to name those objects which constitute our property, to make promises & swear oaths, to accuse others of crimes we are fairly certain we have not committed ourselves. To constitute meaning in a sane & sensible manner, according to the customs of our syntaxes & grammars. & since differences between things are necessary to make them so, we are most grateful for our fools. Those who speak backwards & at slant angles remind us of who we are & ensure the standard of our truths. It’s impossible to imagine a world in which our humanity could continue to exist without the possession of its sanity, without such a conceptualization. It was therefore our first categorical imperative to create the condition of madness in order to authorize the necessary separation. For this purpose, we invented the performative speech act, which has proved to be useful in other dimensions as well (see above.) So, once again, we are grateful for our fools, those whose speech we have made meaningless with the power our words have to name what we do not understand & cannot accept as hollow, empty, & nonsensical. With the power our words have to rob others of their own power with words.

II. Repeating, Remembering, Hearing the Fool
“Is there repetition or is there insistence. I am inclined to believe there is no such thing as repetition.” -- Gertrude Stein

It is precisely because the fool’s language was regarded as meaningless that the king’s fool, the jester, could be allowed utterances none other could make with impunity. Thus, nonsense, which was never singularly nonsensical, the linguistic domain of the socially disenfranchised, could reemerge as a force to be reckoned with. Because who other than the fool could announce the nakedness of the king? Certainly not his councilors, whose positions of power always placed them in jeopardy. Foolishness could become the only truly significant vessel for social transformation, however marginal it might appear. In fact, such liminality is essential to its function-- a liminality sharing the indeterminacy of quarks possessed with strangeness & charm, essentially elusive & calculatedly deceptive. The fool’s performance constitutes a complex exchange of knowing & unknowing, masking & unmasking, lying through truths & truth-telling through the fabrication of lies.

The story of the fool opens our understanding to the fact that, already within the order of the system of language, in fact at the very heart of the king’s domain, the whisperings of the fool, the language of nonsense, plays not a peripheral but an essential role in the lightning flashes of insight, transformation, & discovery or revelation. Lear’s fool accompanies him through the storm on the heath. All third acts reside in such storms: even Aristotle realized this.

Gertrude Stein’s observation, which questions the possibility of repetition, entails the necessity of opening ontological certainty, order, & stasis to the alterity of doubt & discrepancy. From a radical perspective, it hints at the imperative for discovering difference within the same. Identity is not one with itself. The king (symbolic archetype of authority & control) is always already accompanied by his fool. Stands upon his back & shoulders, encysted by him from within. His identity is the product of an internal, not an external, rift...probably more than one since he & the fool are both already many others. To ignore or dismiss this rift at the core of being is to become the proponent of repetition in each of its myriad forms: our casual repetition of incompletely understood words, our solicitous repetition of conventional forms & structures, our comforting repetition of favorite anecdotes, recipes, & jokes, & our more serious repetitions of cycles of despair & eternal return, of traumas & endlessly repeated attempts to elude or fulfill our manufactured desires.

What does it mean that the most famous example of “nonsense” verse in the English language begins & ends with the self-same stanza? Stasis, closure, eternal return (either in the philosophical or the Eliadean sense)? What Alice makes of the poem on her own, without future assistance from Humpty Dumpty (obviously a fool, & arguably the figure of a king), is simply that “somebody killed something.” But what exactly? Precision escapes us here. Do we trust the reliability of the first quoted witness-- a nameless & disembodied voice which most probably chimes again in our hero’s recall in that instant in which decisions are made which cannot be undone? Or must we look elsewhere-- within the tangled woulds of the creature’s name? In jabber & woce, onomatopoiesis, hiss & skri, squark, neologlossia, & glug-glug? One wonders, seriously, if the Jabberwock might have had something important to say.

In my own poetry I recognize this entity as that sort of guide Virgil constitutes for Dante. Monomythos turning to polymythos through the surge & noise which issues from within. One has to listen carefully to begin to comprehend such “speech.” But if, indeed, the stakes are as significant as those perceived by the author of the Comedy, which I believe that they are, this is the work that must be done, the invitation to voyage which one cannot refuse. The great epics of our madmen have never looked anything much like epics at all. & typically we have looked for them in all of the wrong places-- looked for masterpieces & successes in the two failed theaters of Artaud, looked for grand schemas & examples of poetic genius in the Shepherd’s Calendar of John Clare-- when the real brilliance & heroism (if one can use such a term seriously today) of each lay not in the artifacts resulting from their production, but in the enduring performance of an alchemy of words in which one’s life, one’s meaning, the possibility of retaining thought itself as one’s own were all at stake. Denied access to the inner sense, robbed of the innocence of language de jure, such madmen reenact the quest for this missing fleece, for this doublietful & dubius existance de facto, in lives lived literally (litterally, litorally) within letters & the sense which escapes from them. So for Artaud, the great performance takes place across the pages of his handwritten notebooks, in the curious formation of magical spellings, &-- even more incomprehensible-- the transcription of glossolalia-- that language so outsider to writing that it must also be stranger to language itself. For Clare, or so I would like to attempt to argue here, this performance takes place in the letters (as well as the threaded connections & the disjunctive gaps between them) sent to family & friends across the span of years which constitute his time (if not career) as a writer.

III. Third Act Problems.
"The square of the orbital period of a planet is directly proportional to the cube of the semi-major axis of its orbit." -- Johannes Kepler

I want to return to the first part of the question presented as the title of this “meditation” as a means for moving toward an explanation of three coded letters written by John Clare. It will perhaps seem somewhat outside the concerns of what has already been said, but I think really that it is not only relevant to Clare’s particular speech-acts, but to a larger theater of those performances of struggle within language that I have attempted to comprehend, describe, imagine, & engage with here.

Within the philosophy & psychology of Erich Fromm, one discovers a very simple & wonderfully compelling definition of sanity-- sanity is that truly human capacity to love. At the outset of The Art of Loving, however, he is careful to distinguish what he means by love-- the care, respect, understanding (knowledge), & responsibility demonstrated toward another-- from perhaps more familiar conceptions of need, desire, & “pleasant sensation.” For those of us who have been “touched by madness” this definition poses both a bitter & difficult necessity of self-examination, & the prospect of potentiality still alien & unfamiliar to the current medical model of mental illness. & if love is indeed an art, a practice, a discipline, in the sense in which Fromm defines it, then is it not possible for those who have felt the void of its absence so powerfully within our madness (folie), to recover that belonging to both language & world? & again, if this is so, then is not the practice of love the essential telos which must replace our desires for the rewards & recognitions awarded to the attainment of such golden fleeces?

From the outset of his career Artaud engages in this struggle in reverse. What he asks from Jacques Riviere, an assurance of absolute acceptability of his literary existence, cannot be given. He will not find it in the approval of another. Neither will he bring it into existence through that rage addressed to the conditions which have robbed him of the right to speak. Artaud’s dilemma, & that of Clare as well, the unsolvable problem which impedes & confounds both of their struggles toward sanity & survival, is that the condition of madness is, by social definition & design, so absolutely unacceptable, that it cannot find a place inside the circle drawn to discriminate those to whom love can be given from those to whom it cannot be.

In both Artaud & Clare (perhaps in Nerval as well?) we find an obsessive longing for approval & reassurance which spills outwards & over from the literary into almost every other aspect of their lives. It is possible to interpret Artaud’s disturbingly sexualized delusions concerning his “six daughters” as a means of engendering from his own existence, that unsatisfiable hunger to be loved, that essential void which he so desperately sought to fill with yet more & more substance created from the stuff of void. Artaud himself writes that he “thought a lot about love at the asylum of Rodez,” & that it was there that he first intially dreamed about these relationships.” It is almost difficult to imagine a more confused & tormented misdirection of love as Artaud presents it, & it is remarkable that he reveals it so matter of factly in a letter to Gilbert Lely, himself a literary biographer.

Throughout his letters, John Clare expresses similar concerns regarding the “absolute acceptability” of his literary existence. From a letter to John Taylor in which he expresses some great distress concerning the fact that a published work seems to share ideas of his own design, he writes: “I will write out the verses for your opinion-- the coincidences as such things are called might be construed into imitations by many & as mine was first published I like to be correct on that point tho in trifles-- for Mr Southey seems to hold uneducated poets in very little estimation & talks about the march of mind in a sneering way...” Elsewhere, however, in letters to his wife Patty & his son Charles, to family & friends, he seems quite capable of the practice of love, concerning himself with the welfare & happiness of others & regretting his inability to participate more fully in their lives. & yet still, as the examples which follow demonstrate, the delusions & confusions persist, with Clare performing amorous solicitations most certainly unfounded, uninvited, & undesired. In a letter to Mary Collingwood, Clare writes:

Drst Mr r fthfll r d thnk f m knw wht w sd tgthr-- dd vst m n hll sm tm bck bt dnt cm hr gn fr t s nts bd plc wrs nd w r ll trnd Frnchmn flsh ppl tll m hv gt n hm n ths wrld nd s dnt believe n th thr nrt t mk mslf hvn wth m drst Mr nd sbscrb mslf rs

Elsewhere, to Mary Ludgate, Clare expresses: “& thsnd thr lv whsprs f th n th scrlt & grn Gwn whl l lstng & grtfd t hr thm sngng th prs’s” From the last of these letters we have:M drst Hlln Mr hw lng t pt m rm rnd r btfl nck nd r chk nd lps-- ‘Thn drst Hlln ll lv n mr’-- M dr hlln hw shld lk t wlk wth n th bnks f th rvr & gthr wld flwrs nd hnt brds Nsts-- bt hv bn tn rs n prsn-- nd cnnt s n thng f plsr r pstm

The fact that these three letters, all curious expressions of amorous love to women doubtfully receptive to such, are written in code suggests that on some level Clare himself is aware of the social impropriety of his expressions. Yet the fact that this “code” simply involves the removal of vowels from these words, the fact that Clare assumes their addressees to be capable of deciphering them without the device of a key, equally suggests that Clare, incapable of constraining such desire, also wishes to reveal & perhaps confess to it-- to pay the price for his folly, his madness, his inability to honor the duties of love.

& again, perhaps ironically as in the case of Artaud, here is where we discover the awesome tragedy of Clare’s humanity-- in that very place in which it fails him so completely-- not in the passages themselves, in the words, or here even in these letters from which the words are formed-- but in the gaps between them-- in those vowels we ourselves must supply to the page-- there we discover our capacity to believe in the sincerity of his epic.


Artaud quotes from Stephen Barber, Blows and Bombs (Faber and Faber, 1993), p. 116; as cited in Clayton Eshleman, Watchfiends & Rack Screams (Exact Change, 1995).

Clare letters quoted from Mark Storey, ed., John Clare: Selected Letters (Oxford, 1990).

[Previous postings from Bruce Stater appeared in Poems & Poetics on February 15, 2009, February 17, 2009, and November 20, 2009.]

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