March 31, 2022

"In Order to Be Nothing" | essay by Allan Graubard (on Picabia's I Am a Beautiful Monster)

in order to be nothing

by Allan Graubard 

Francis Picabia I Am a Beautiful Monster: Poetry, Prose, and Provocation , translated from the French by Marc Lowenthal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Pres, 2007)

Mention the name Francis Picabia today and what do you find? A man from a particularly redolent time blasted with war and mayhem; or, by his own moniker: a painter, poet, pick pocket, alcoholic, imbecile, comedian, failure, provocateur; a fellow whose hand, whether by brush or pen, gave back, and rarely failed to give back, an irreverence derived from the richest wit: a wit, more than not, rooted in disinterest; the kind we have little feel for today as causes burst over us one at a time.

     In these circumstances, how to approach Picabia free of the mannerisms he hated but which fill our cultural ghettoes – all this marketing, buying and selling -- which, in the end, is little more than a defanging mechanism? Well, the question remains.

     Or is it best to leave that where it lays and talk, talk till talk fills the air, drowning out much else, save how to grasp what’s available and, better yet, how to keep it. Are the horizons you felt or might have felt, glimmering there because they were yours and yours alone, simply passé? And culture, the kind of culture we conflate with sophistication (these films, that art, this music, those dances, and so on; an endless parade paid for the price of a ticket): Is all that so different from when Picabia ignited a nascent Dada with mechanical drawings done to perfect a state of boredom? Or is boredom also passé because there’s too much of it; boredom, that is, not what it reveals?

     And is it enough to say that finally we have Picabia in English: the poems, aphorisms, manifestos, letters, screenplays, asides, and all the rest he wrote to sustain a sensibility, as his friend, Andre Breton, put it in 1922: “at the highest rung on the ladder of creation.”

     Picabia, without whom Dada never could have evolved as it did, stands alone. He is Picabia; “a desperate case,” as Jean Arp described him, with that scent of umor that burns when you touch it. And what of Appollinaire, so much in Picabia’s debt “for having been the first to wind up the mechanism which set in motion that power of surprise which…dashes all expectation,” as Breton relates. Duchamp played with equal finesse, of course. Aragon and Tzara, before their politics led them astray, sheep to the moral slaughterhouse, also found in Picabia an exceptional presence, with enough trumps to evade consecration. Closer to us there’s Guy Debord, who certainly put Picabia to use. And someone yet unknown who’ll take a cue from the words Picabia left, witness to the world he faced.


“I disguise myself

as a man

in order to be nothing.”


“A man’s mouth is an unconscious sexual organ.”


“A dangerous and enticing wind of nihilism

pursued us with incredible exhilaration.”


     Even automatic writing, commonly cited as Breton and Souppault’s triumph in Magnetic Fields, becomes for Picabia a vehement means of avoiding poetic values some time prior. There is little doubt that the surrealist use of automatism is also a response to, and refusal of, its Dada face, which Picabia did so much to mold.

     What happens to Picabia as Dada deflates, and he waves good-bye with surrealism in the wings, is another aspect of the man. That he sustains through the cinema, with Hans Richter, in Entr’acte, and all but publicly drops poetry for a decade and more while producing paintings that seduce, then as now, is all the more reason to read him.

     Picabia’s first writings find their public in 391, the magazine he publishes in Barcelona, Zurich, New York and Paris, before and through Dada. His initial collection of poems, Fifty-Two Mirrors, appears in 1917; the title derived from Nietzsche, a perennial source till Picabia dies in 1953. Effervescence, eroticism, cubism and attack collide here with exuberance. In the poem, “Smile,” he tells us this:


“to try to reflect

On my indecent gibberish

Is not a monk’s duty

Genitals in hand”


And in “Feet” there’s a glimpse of what’s to come:


“I’m afraid

Your fingers tremble

And the smell of broken glass

Near the table the obese pipe


Like a crack in the

Superterrestrial brain”


Poems and Drawings of a Daughter Born without a Mother follows in 1918; the title referring to a machine drawing of Picabia’s three years earlier. Several events interweave here: an affair with Germaine Everling, his recovery from opium addiction, a neurasthenic crisis, WWI, and fascination with sexual scandal. Perhaps the translator, Marc Lowenthal, is correct in assuming that the meta-metaphor, in mechanico-sexual terms, is an “Immaculate Copulation” – the woman who can copulate without conceiving, and does so to repletion. Wherever such reflections may lead, this is poetry on the cusp of revelation -- an irreducible distillate of present life. The machine drawings that accompany the poems also carry a similar sense: Current Views in Love Machine, Dragonfly, Hermaphroditism, Impatience Art, Pointless Machines, Narcotic.

     From Picabia’s next book, The Mortician’s Athlete (November 1918), composed of poems joined together into five Cantos, the stage unfolds, contorts, spurts wings and wild weeds, as he writes:


“Music reflects the external

reality of the guide hungry for horror.”


“in one of my invisible

and unique daydreams”


“The eyes of sleepwalkers

are scented

with the madness

of centrifugal



     Other books and poems in Dada magazines foliate. “American Spit,” (in Dada No. 3, Zurich), whispers that the “The mechanical domino stomach of fog potbellies/gossips at a dust run…”

     Purring Poetry, at 843 lines, also from 1918, combusts a vertiginous meander through patinas of excusable boredom and daring insouciance, styled with fables of sexual conquest. In the end, it makes mince meat of the poem as a fulcrum for subjective transmutation and raises another, “Isotropic” possibility: A poem without beginning or end, which presents equal to any angle of reading, and for which signification, by losing its habitual logic, gains an irrepressible farcical liberty, there at the edge of the world.

     Between 1919-1921 Dada launches against the cultural bulwarks and Thoughts Without Language appears. This is not a book without words but rather a book whose author has left literary culture behind, or believes he has, which is almost as good. He writes what he wishes when he wishes on “a whirling stage/for scenery” where “beautiful courtesans under the avalanche/of ambitions” seek “astonished love.” Nor does Picabia forgo what he finds in the street, evoking Daumier strewn with car dust:


“a poor wretch released from prison

walks in silence along the ditch

of bohemian pipe dreams”


     Books, manifestations, manifestos, broadsides, scandals and performances -- Paris Dada in its heyday, with beauty on the chopping block along with political revolutionaries, gallery owners, stock market traders, military goons, mothers, marriage – the lot.

     Then, in 1920, it’s Jesus Christ Rastaquouere, Picabia’s most important text in eight brief chapters. I cannot recommend this novel “novel” more, and will refer to it in years to come in the same way I refer to Lautremont and Rimbaud; for the spice of inspiration, laughter, mystification and adventure: the roads blown wide open for anyone wanting to leap; a true marvel and, in its way, the Dada equivalent to the surrealist Paysan Paris that will follow in several years, but with Paris transformed into an inscape of touché ripostes to stupidity, manners, morals, hyperbole and political amnesia.

     Where else does Picabia tell us that, as far as religion is concerned: “One should take communion with chewing gum. That way God will strengthen the jaws.”

     Or, as far as artists are concerned: “The world is divided into two categories…failures and those unknown.”


Or that masturbation is pleasure, pure and simple.


Or that “Politicians grow on the human dunghill”


Or that “The Five-Minute Interval” is a premiere text on mad love, with its Sadean glee still shunting through me...


     By 1923 everything is in flux, with Dada a memory first framed by Picabia the previous year. In Litterature, the last magazine edited by Breton prior to the surrealist manifesto, Picabia illustrates covers and publishes poems. When he “lights his cigarette,” it is chance that makes him hungry, waiting, as he does, at a “door” to the “bottom of the earth.” From general to attendant, Picabia has kept his ear to the ground, charting hoof prints of the approaching storm, which carries within it marvelous lightning strikes. But by 1924, he wishes Breton luck and then, some time later, leaves Paris. The collective experiment is over.

     In 1939-1940, Picabia re-emerges with two collections: Poems of Dingalari and Thalassa in the Desert. The former is poignant enough, at least in terms of the kind of “melancholy lyricism” Picabia so much disrupted as Dada flourished, but which now has become his. From the latter comes the title to the present book of translations: “I am a beautiful monster/ who shares his secrets with the wind.” The accent is lighter here, as images of love and desire tip the scales in favor of hope as war advances to crush it.

     Chi-Lo-Sa, which translates from the Italian as “Who knows?” is Picabia’s last major work, published in an edition of 100 copies in 1950. This lengthy collage of passages from Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, subtly or clearly detourned, is spliced with Picabia’s own poems, some quite charming and erotic, others more contestive. More intriguing is the author’s assumption of a mask, whether speaking through an echo of Nietzsche or as a woman in love. The theatrical device carries the point quite well and makes of this book something unique.

     Here, then, is Francis Picabia, in his own texts for his own time. It is not our time but times have a way of shadowing each other and, now and then, of picking up the pace, locking arms and dancing.


But remember: “All beliefs are bald ideas.”


I can hear that music…


Can you?


New York, January 20, 2008

Copyright (c) 2011 by Allan Graubard

March 30, 2022

Frank Samperi | three books (The Prefiguration, 1971; Lumen Gloriae, 1973; Day, 1998) [links]

For three books by the poet Frank Samperi, visit the site here:

The Prefiguration (1971)
Lumen Gloriae (1973)
Day (1998) (transcribed posthumously from 1970 notebook)

"Spotlight on...Liliane Giraudon Fur 1992" | commentary by Gilbert Alter Gilbert, interview by Serge Gavronsky (short essays, videos, and interview with Giraudon) [link]

 "Spotlight on...Liliane Giraudon Fur 1992," Gilbert Alter Gilbert's short essay and Serge Gavronsky's interview on Dennis Cooper's site about her Giraudon's fiction Fur published by Sun & Moon Press and an interview with and several videos Giraudon. Go here:

March 26, 2022

Sarah Kirsch (GDR / Germany) 1935-2013

Sarah Kirsch (GDR / Germany) 1935-2013

Born Ingrid Bernstein in the small town of Limlingerode at the edge of the Harz Mountains, the young poet spent most of her childhood in Halberstadt in central Germany. At the end of World War II, that city came under the control of the East German government. Bernstein's father was a socialist and a strong supporter of the new communist government. In defiance of her father's viewpoints, Ingrid changed her name, choosing the first name of Sarah as a symbolic statement of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
     Upon completion of her secondary education, Bernstein majored in biology at the University of Halle, receiving her degree in 1959. While attending the university she met the writer Rainer Kirsch, whom she married the year before her graduation, changing her last name to his.
     After graduation she and her husband joined a writing group headed by Gerhard Wolf, allowing her entry into the GDR Writer's Association. During this same period she committed herself to socialist activities, working in factories and on collective farms.
     From 1963 to 1965 she took courses in literature at the Johannes R. Becher Institute in Leipzig, her first works, as for many German poets, being radio plays, publishing the volume Die betrunkene Sonne/Der Stäkste in 1963. Her volume of poetry, Gespräch mit dem Saurier appeared in 1965. Both books were written in collaboration with her husband.
     In 1968 the couple divorced, Kirsch moving to East Berlin where she bore a son by the avant-garde writer Karl Michel. A few years later she was ousted from the Socialist Party and the GDR Writer's Association for signing a petition in support of Wolf Biermann, a poet whose GDR citizenship had been revoked.
     In August of 1997, her petition to leave East Germany was granted, and she moved to West Berlin, traveling also to Italy, France, and the US. She settled finally in Tielenhemme in the north German province of Schleswig-Holstein.
     With over 12 books of poetry and numerous prose writings, short stories, plays, and children's works to her name, Kirsch today is regarded as one of the most outstanding of late 20th century German poets. Her lyrical subjectivism and fantastical material, often played out in an almost idyllic natural world, has attracted a large number of readers, and she has been awarded almost every major German literary award, inclduing the Heinrich Heine Prize (1973), the Petrarca Prize (1976), and the Friedrich Hölderlin Prize (1984).
     Kirsch died on May 5, 2013.


Gespräch mit dem Saurier [by Sarah and Rainer Kirsch] (Berlin, DDR: Verlag Neues Leben, 1965); Landaufenthalt (Berlin, DDR: Aufbau, 1967); Anna Achmatova: Eine niedagwesener Herbst [by Sarah und Rainer Kirsch] Berlin: DDR: Volk und Welt, 1967); Novella Matwejewa: Poesiealbum 6 (Halle, DDR: Mitteldeutscher Verg, 1968); Zaubersprüche (Berlin, DDR: Aufbau, 1973); Rückenwind (Berlin, DDR: Aufbau, 1976); Musik auf dem Wasser (Leipzig, DDR: Reklam, 1977); Katzenkopfpflaster (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1978); Drachensteigen (Ebenhausen, DDR; Langewiesche-Brandt, 1979); La Pagerie (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1983); Katzenleben (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1984); Schneewärme (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1989); Die Flut (Berliln: Aufbau, 1989);  Erlkönigs Tochter (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1992); Ich Crusoe: sechzig Gedichte und sechs Aquarelle (Stuttgart: Duetsche Verlagsanstalt, 1995); Bodenlos (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1996); Luftspringerin: gesammelte Gedichte und Prosa (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 1997); Werke (1999); Katzen sprangen am Rande und lachten (poems and prose) (Zürich: Manesse Verlag, 2000); Sommerhütchen (2008); Krähengeschwätz (München: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt,  2010); Märzveilchen (München: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2012); Juninovember (München: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, 2014); Freie Verse: 99 Gedichte (Zürich: Manesse Verlag, 2020)


Poems (Santa Cruz, California: Alcatraz Editions, 1983); Conjurations: The Poems of Sarah Kirsch (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985); The Brontës' Hats (Cambridge, England: Street Editions, 1991); Captives: Sarah Kirsch's Katzenleben (Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1991); Ice Roses: Selected Poems (translated by Anne Stokes) (Carcanet, 2014)

Félix Morisseau-Leroy (Haiti) 1912-1998

Félix Morisseau-Leroy (Haiti)

Morisseau-Leory was born in Grand-Gosier, Haiti on March 13, 1912. He spent most of his childhoon in Jacmel where at Condorcet Lerooy’s school, later transferring to the Lycée Pinchinat. He completed his education in Port-au-Prince, graduating from the Faculty of Law.
     For a while he taught at Lycée Pinchinat, but was ultimately named chef de division at the Ministery of Public Instruction in 1941. After a period of study of education at Columbia University in New York City, Morisseu-Leroy became Director General of Education in Haiti.
     Along with his position, the author also worked in journalist, becoming chief editor of the local paper of Jacmel, Sud-Quest, as well as contributing to several other newpapers and serving as editor of Le Matin.
    His creative writing separated him from many of the French Haitian writers in that he chose to write for the masses, who primarily spoke the Creole language rather than standard French. In connection with that decision, he subjects, particularly in his fiction, were rustic, every day scenes, embracing colloquial languages. His careful analysis of the Haitian dialect of French, indeed, convinced him that it should be “dignified” as a national language. Particularly in Dyakout (a collection of poems) and his noted play Antigone, performed in Port-au-Prince in 1953, he demonstrated the richness of the Creole dialect, while reclaiming, altong with the efforts of Price-Mars and Jacques Roumain, the Haitian’s African roots.
     That same year, he went into exile with his family, working for six years in Ghana for a UNESCO mission before establishing himself in Miami in the US, where he lived for the rest of his life. Despite increasingly blindness, the poet continued to write a weekly column in Haiti en Marche, and completed an epic novel Les Djons d'Haiti Tom. When the Haitian dictator Duvalier fell from power in 1986, Morisseau-Leroy briefly returned to Haiti for the inauguration of Aristide.
     Besides writing several books of poetry, Morisseau-Leroy wrote several other plays and works of fiction, as well as numerous essays and other works. Three tales have been collected, translated by Peter Constantine, and published in the US.
     Morisseau-Leroy died in 1958.


Pléntitude (Port-au-Prince: N. Telhomme, 1940); Natif-Natal (Port-au-Prince: Ed. Hatienne, 1948); Diacoute 1 (Port-au-Prince: H. Deschamps, 1953); Diacoute 2 (Montreal: Nouvelle Optique, 1972); Kasamanza (Dakar, Ghana: Nouvelles Editions Africaines, 1977); Dyakout 1, 2, 3, 4 (New York, 1990)


Haitiad & Oddities , trans. by Jeffrey Knapp (Miami: Pantaléon Guilbaud, 1991)

I’m Taking a Little Trip to the Moon

I’m taking a little trip to the moon
I’ve had it with life down here
Around here everything’s sure hard
I’m on my way to the moon
They tell me up there there’s no such thing
As good and bad people
There’s no stupid guys or wise guys
No city or mountain people
All people are people on the moon
All people speak one language
I can’t hack it on earth anymore
Civilization’s exhausting me
Civilization’s scaring me
Wherever I turn I see
People killing people
Civilization has finished a long time ago
People there have forgotten that awful time
I’m taking a little trip to the moon
They tell me there’s no king there
No county sheriff
No justice of the peace
No baliff
No monseignor
I just gotta make that voyage to the moon
They tell me it’s beautiful there, just beautiful
Nights are clearer than daytime
There’s no time for a guy to sleep
No days for work of for play
Nights you watch the earth aglow
Brighter than the sun
And stars so Close as fireflies on trees
There’s no heat
No cold
No misery
No mud
Everyone’s forgotten about war
Forgotten about civilization
The way the old forget colic
Measles and teething
I’m gonna live on the moon
Evenings I’ll tell the kids stories
I’ll tell them that the whole time the earth turns
There’s a huge woman
An immense female werewolf
They call civilization
Crushing young men like ants.

—Translated from the Haitian Creole by Jack Hirschman and Boadiba

March 20, 2022

"Christian Ide Hintze 1953-2012" | short obituary by Anne Waldman [link]

For a short obituary on Austrian poet and performer, Christian Ide Hintze, click below:

"The Rhythms of the 'Language' Poets" | essay by Douglas Messerli (on works by Charles Bernstein and Ted Greenwald)

Beginning with my 1980 essay on Charles Bernstein’s Controlling Interests (see My Year 2004: Under Our Skin), I focused a number of essays and reviews on what was then referred to as “Language” poetry—poetry and poetics written by a community of friends and acquaintances on both sides of the country—that, taking its lead from various comments in Bernstein’s and Bruce Andrews’s New York-based magazine, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E and Lyn Hejinian’s and Barrett Watten’s San Francisco-based Poetics Journal, centered on issues, formal, social, and political, surrounding the use of language in poetry.

    In retrospect, I now perceive these “Language” poets, in the context of this volume, as not so much being “without a voice,” as they were “without a singular voice.” And, in that sense, like so many of the artists and others figures upon whom I focus in this volume, they often went unheard and were sometimes even silenced.   

by Douglas Messerli

There is a recurring and near-prevailing attitude in contemporary poetics—especially in the academy—that a harmful disjuncture between prosody and American poetry has occurred. Writing in a recent issue of Paideuma on Ezra Pound’s metrics, Sally M. Gall exemplifies this attitude when she claims:

Over the course of a few generations we have arrived at a dis-
embodied realm where students, professors, scholars, critics, and,
I fear, some “poets” seem unable to hear the rhythms of the spoken
word. Part of the blame must be laid on an educational system that
has forgotten how to teach poetry as an art. And part must be laid
on the proliferation of poets who are completely uninterested in
musical values, and…practice a fundamentally non-musical free
verse. (Paideuma, VII [Spring 1979])

As early as 1961 John Crowe Ransom took a position very similar to Gall’s when he wrote, “It is strange that a generation of critics so sensitive and ingenious as ours should have turned out very backward, indeed phlegmatic, when it comes to hearing the music of poetry, or at least, to avoid misunderstanding, to hearing its meters. The only way to escape the sense of a public scandal is to assume that the authority of the meters is passing, or is passed, because we have become jaded by the meters…. (“The Strange Music of English Verse,” in Hemphill, ed., Discussions of Poetry: Rhythm and Sound, 1969). And more recently, Donald Hall has argued that “It is a characteristic flaw among young Americans, however accomplished and innovative, to lack resourceful sound. Tin ears make bad alloy with golden metaphors” (“Reading the English: The Continental Drift of the Poetics,” in Parnassus, Spring/Summer 1979). John Hollander has gone so far as to describe our age, in terms of metrics, as being so stylistically anarchic that “one almost feels that a poem need be defined as any utterance that purports to be one” (“The Metrical Frame,” in Gross, ed., The Structure of Modern Verse: Modern Essays on Prosody, 1979).

     Whether or not one agrees with these attitudes—and I should imagine that any reader of contemporary (or, for that matter, of modern) poetry can point to one or more examples of poets who have little sense of whatever one defines as rhythm—what underlies statements such as these is the idea that prosody is a dying art, and that critics interested in it have little choice but to turn their attentions upon those few poets still writing in traditional metrics or upon poets of the past.

     This sense of contemporary American poetry having abandoned prosody is reinforced, it seems to me, by the fact that when there have been attempts to bridge the perceived “gap,” the tendency, as Michael Davidson has observed, has been “to read contemporary verse in terms of what can be counted” (“Advancing Measures: Conceptual Quantities and Open Forms,” a manuscript read at the Modern Language Annual Convention, 1979). Paul Fussell, for instance, argues that the best of contemporary American and British poets “have returned to a more or less stable sort of Yeatsian accentual-syllabism,” which makes “the metrical radicalism of the 1920s” look “every day more naïve aesthetically….” (“The Historical Dimension,” in Gross, 1979). In The Book of Forms, Lewis Turco even defines English-language free verse as “more often than not…iambic, or iambic-anapestic.” However, while such notions of metrics may be applicable to a number of contemporary American poets working in a kind of vaguely conceived free verse, these statements shed no light upon the works of a large number of poets writing since 1950 who, taking their cue from Pound, have sought not only to “break the pentameter,’’ but to break other metical patterns as well. In fact, an “extreme” of this poetic tendency, represented by the “Language” group (a broad gathering of poets such as Charles Bernstein, Ted Greenwald, Bruce Andrews, Ray DiPalma, Ron Silliman, Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, James Sherry, and myself), has struggled in its poetry against the whole notion of counting, against any fixed metrical measure or structure. Bernstein, one of the most vocal advocates of “Language” concerns, explained recently in a telephone conversation of October 7, 1980: “I am not interested in counting, but losing count. I want to so involve the reader in the reading experience that he or she will lose all count.”

     As an alternative to “counting,” Davidson argues that in contemporary poetry one must look at prosody not as a concept of measure, but as a concept of “number,” “A play of ratios which occurs not at the level of the counted foot or even line, but, as Donald Wesling points out, at the level of the ‘whole poem!” I think Davidson’s thinking here is basically correct; but in arguing this, he really moves away from Melopoeia—the traditional focus of prosody—into broader issues of genre and Logopoeia (what Pound described as the “dance of the intellect among the words,” akin to Aristotle’s lexis), and through these concerns into issues of meaning. Davidson admits that such elements “may fall more properly within the domain of the linguist or literary theorist than that of the prosodist….”

     Poets of the “Language” group, in fact, do take poetry in a direction away from melos into logos. Bernstein even describes “the music of poetry” as “the music of meaning” (“Semblance,” later collected in Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984, 1986), a music of content. For Bernstein, as Don Byrd has said of the poetry of Louis Zukofsky, “the music of the poetry is just the experience of sound coming to mean something” (“Getting Ready to Read ‘A,’” a paper delivered at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention, 1979). Accordingly, issues of prosody are seen as being inseparable from the overall structure of the poems. This is not to suggest, however, that writers such as Bernstein or Ted Greenwald are disinterested in prosodic values. It is only that, because no one prosodic device is given primacy, it is impossible in some “Language’ poems to isolate any one or series as such. To speak of prosodic “devices” belies an attitude contrary to that of such “Language” works. Prosody in a typical Bernstein or Greenwald poem does not support or even contribute to the meaning, but makes up the meaning, is meaning itself; it is less a device than the very process by which the poem comes into being.

     The following selections from Bernstein’s first book Parsing (1976), and from Greenwald’s influential volume Licorice Chronicles (1979) may better help one to understand how prosody functions in such works.

   the snow,


     this parsing of the world

               to make worlds & worlds

        like atmospheres

                         a substance, of gravity

                                             that pulls apart

                                  or back on

      i slept then, i bathed on wednesdays also

                                                  the feta cheese

                                                  the mozzarella marzipan

                                                  the seedless eye brow pencils

                        was waiting for the bust &

                                     was on the telephone

                                                         gyroscope, sleeping binge

                                        was hiding in a rock,

                                                                             crystal, postcard

                                                                was a blue flame,

                                                                  a grammar booklet, an azure



coordinating cities gulls still gull, and, arms binged with wine, as wine

pin roars in galeforce over lines,

horizon on gum letting loose a brack

of crickets by the door

near lowering eyes of a schooled quench

begging for a glass of water, and I sit watching

a jar of water with grass

in it watching amoebas swimming around and, I conclude

everything far as jar or jars is concerned is

plain dough        staring to be known      by a bad smell

heading bearing out conclusion         airy as seams

that where there’s smoke there’s          and, whichever way you burn

one, both, or one foot is still

flat on the ground

and, sunrising further in the east             wherever that is, each day

leading to conclusions   :


                 (from Licorice Chronicles)

One perceives almost immediately that this poetry does not really benefit from scansion.* Certainly several of the lines might be scanned; as evidenced in the series of imabs in the three lines in the middle of the first selection (“the feta cheese / the mozzarella marzipan / the seedless eye brow pencils”), the Bernstein work might even be characterized as being dominated by the iamb. Nearly every iambic grouping, however, is broken by radical shifts in metrical patterns. The iambic “was on the telephone” is interrupted by the anapestic “gyroscope, sleeping binge”; and the following iambic trimester gives way to two dactyls (“crystal, postcard”). This irregularity of rhythm is even more apparent in the Greenwald selection, where one observes a breakdown of the iamb even at the level of the line. The first five words of line one, for example, set up expectations for an iambic line, which are immediately thwarted by a kind of caesura (indicated by the commas surrounding “,and,”) and by the following spondee (“arms binged”). Although this first line returns to an iambic meter that is carried into the second line, it is soon broken again in line three by the shift from the iamb to the trochee; and the poem rarely returns to the iamb for more than a half-line at a time. In other words, even though one can find groupings of standard metrical patterns throughout both of these selections, they are so irregular—they are so continually interrupted—that it seems almost pointless to speak of measure or rhythm in these works in the way one might discuss it in a poem by Yeats or even by Pound.**

     It is just as obvious that these selections, however, contain a great number of what are generally described as prosodic devices. In fact, it is impossible to miss such obvious patterns at work in these poems like alliteration (“mozzarella marzipan” and “an azure azalea” in the Bernstein poem, and the s and w repetitions in lines 6-8 in the Greenwald selection); assonance (the short e sounds of “seedless eye brow pencils” in Bernstein, and the ä in the “water…watching amoebas…around” sequence in Greenwald); as well as word repetitions (the “world/worlds & Worlds” group and the series of “was” constructions in Bernstein, and the “gulls/gull,” “wine/wine,” and “water/water” repetitions in Greenwald). In the context of such erratic rhythms, the existence of these more basic prosodic devices may be puzzling. If these poets, as they claim, are “attempting to avoid systematic prosody,” then why, one wonders, do they employ so many language patterns that one associates with Melopoeia?

     The answer, perhaps, depends not as much on the rationale of these particular writers as it does on the way in which modern and contemporary critics and theorists have defined Melopoeia and, in particular, rhythm. In his study of the roots of the lyric, Andrew Walsh suggests that in the past couple of centuries there have been basically “two…versions of the roots of poetic meter” (Roots of the Lyric: Primitive Poetry and Modern Poetics, 1978). One approach, rooted in the ideas expressed by Wordsworth and the poets before him, and argued in this century by critics such as John Thompson, “traces meter back to the rhythms of speech” (Walsh, p. 191); as Thompson observes, “Meter is made by abstracting from speech one of [the] essential features (phonomeic qualities of segmental phonemes, stress, pitch, and juncture) and ordering this into a pattern” (Thompson, The Founding of English Metre, 1961). The other version of poetic meter traces its roots back to the rhythms of song, to the measures of music. M. W. Croll, who represents this viewpoint, argues “Dancing and music are the arts of rhythm; they have nothing to learn about their business from poetry; poetry, on the other hand, has derived all it knows about rhythm from them” (Croll, “The Rhythm of English Verse,” in Patrick and Evans, eds., Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm, 1966). The prosodists with whom I began this essay have either implicitly or explicitly aligned themselves with one or the other of these approaches.

      Building on Northrup Frye’s discussion in Anatomy of Criticism of “babble,” Welsh posits the idea that, while both of these approaches are legitimate, there is a third version for the roots of poetic meter:

The third root—less well recognized, perhaps, but no less funda-
mental—lies in the mysterious actions of the closed, internal rhythms
of language, the echoing of sound…called charm-melos. It is the
irregular rhythm of special, hidden powers in language, quite distinct
from the commerce of everyday speech and equally distinct from the
more regular rhythms of music and song. (Welsh, p. 195)

To demonstrate this, Welsh points to examples from Wyatt, Skelton, Shakespeare, Dryden, Blake, Poe, Pound, and other poets.

     What is most pertinent is Walsh’s discussion of the way in which charm-melos or carmen functions. Focusing on primate charms and magic incantations, Walsh, with the help of linguists and anthropologists, characterizes the rhythms of the charm-songs as being highly irregular and depending heavily upon assonances, alliterations, rhymes (internal as opposed to end rhymes), and word repetitions in the language of the poem (Walsh, p. 136). Such devices, Walsh explains, produce an incantatory effect, behind which stands the intention of the charm-song—enchantment. In charm, language does not represent mental concepts, but is a physical action and process. “Charms are meant to make things happen, to cause action”; and, in connection with this, the charm-song consists of a language apart from that of ordinary speech, a language wherein special powers reside. “To produce an effect, the charms must use, along with ritual actions, words capable of acting, words felt to be themselves actions…” (Walsh, p. 151). As W quotes Bronislaw Malinowski (from Coral Gardens and Their Magic): the vocabulary, grammar, and prosody of charm-songs

 fall into line with the deeply ingrained belief that magical speech must be
 cast in another mold, because it is derived from other sources and pro-
 duces different effects from ordinary speech.

     These “different effects” are concerned with power. The language of the charm-song, in its potential to enchant, to cause action, is derived, as Welsh puts it, from “the old powers of sound and rhythm flowing into and shaping the language…. The language of charms is a language of power, and that power comes primarily not from lexical meanings, …but from other meanings hidden deep in the sounds and rhythms” (Walsh, p. 153). The control of such powers, finally, depends “not upon clear vision, but on obscure, esoteric knowledge, traditional or personal, which no amount of vision alone can uncover” (Walsh, p. 160).

     The parallels between the charm-melos that Walsh describes and the contemporary experiments in “Language” poetry are striking. I have already indicated the irregularity of rhythm in the Bernstein and Greenwald selections; and I have pointed to how dependent these works are upon devices such as assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and word repetitions. The effects of such devices in these poems, if properly analyzed through more formal studies of such works, I suggest, would be perceived as very close to what Walsh has described as charm-songs.

     Poets such as Bernstein and Greenwald, more importantly, are less interested in the lexical meanings of their words than in how these words function, in how they act or, as Bernstein has argued again and again, how the words syntactically behave in a series of “leaps, jumps, fissures, repetitions, bridges, schisms, colloquialisms, trains of associations, and memories” to which they are subjected and/or from which they are themselves generated (see “Thought’s Measure,” in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, no. 4 [1981], collected in Content’s Dream, 1986). Such words are not the medium of some message, but are the message itself.

     To say this is not to completely deny referentiality, is not to ignore the fact that “marzipan” is a confection made from a paste of almond and sugar, or that “gulls” are aquatic birds. After all, both of these selections generate ideas of sorts: the Parsing passage speaks of the notion of “parsing” the world, of creating linguistic relationships of experiences and things, of a “seedless” grape, an “eye,” and an “eye brow pencil,” of a “bus” and a “bust.” Similarly, the selection from Licorice Chronicles suggests the possibility of “coordinating” reality, of shaping reality like “dough” into coordinates such as those implied by the relations of words like “glass” and “grass,” of a “glass of water” and “a jar of water with grass / in it.” The ideological content of these passages, however, is not where the vitality of these poems lies. Rather, it is the process of these works that most matters. That process, in turn, produces meanings that, like the charm-songs, depend less upon the dictionary than upon the rhythms and sounds of the language, and upon the author/reader’s private memories of, experiences, and associations with them.

     Even more compelling is the way these and related poets describe their works. In notes from a series of eleven workshops Bernstein headed at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the winter of 1980, he argues that he and Greenwald are indeed interested in music and rhythm, but less in the music of  the rhythm of speech and song than in the rhythms of the mind, “the music and rhythm of contemplation” which, through the act of writing (or speaking words to paper) becomes the form of the life, “a life as it is being lived in the body” (“Thought’s Measure”). Such a poetry of activism carries with it, Bernstein argues, a language which, in its self-conscious generation of the world—of words as objects—is necessarily opaque, dense, and private because the order of the poem is the order that comes from one’s “private listening, hearing.”

     The very fact that this language is private connects it, in Bernstein’s ideology, with issues of power.

One power of the concept of privacy for writing is that of an address
of intimacy (“truthfulness” rather than “truth,” to use Wittgenstein’s
distinction) that allows the formal requirements of clarity and ex-
position to drop away. “At home, one does not speak so that people
will understand but because they understand” (Fuchs). Confusion,
contradiction, obsessiveness, associative reasoning, etc., are given
free(er) play. A semblance of coherence—of strength or control—
drops away. In contrast to this, or taking the idea further, the private
can also seem to be the incommunicable.

Elsewhere, he speaks of his interest in using words which “cast a spell,” an interest in words which are powerful enough to bring the mind into their grip. Such words, such a language creates an “intense experience of separation that is a part of the continuing power of privacy in writing [which] can make tangible what otherwise seemed invisible.” As Mac Wellman, another poet/playwright connected with “Language” writing, has expressed it, there is behind these kinds of statements almost a “religiosity,” “a religion of the word” (“Some L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Outlaws”), which reminds one of the charm-poets who saw their words not as a literary work, but as a verbal act “by which a specific force is let loose.” For the speaker of the charm, Malinowski reminds us, language was believed to exercise “the most powerful influence on the course of nature and on human behavior.” Measure for the ancients, as for Bernstein, is not something to be counted, but something to be “counted on” (Bernstein, letter to Michael Davidson, September 30, 1979), a powerful force which lies in the rhythm and sound of the mind revealing itself in the phoneme, morpheme, word, phrase, or sentence.

     Bernstein and others, in short, describe their poetry in terms that are remarkably similar to the way in which Welsh characterizes the charm-song. I am not claiming necessarily that “Language” poets such as Charles Bernstein or Ted Greenwald are consciously (or even unconsciously) writing charm-songs; their work is a complex of many contemporary issues of poetics. I am only speculating that the rhythms of such poets may have prosodic roots in traditions other than speech and song. The notion that most of contemporary poetry has abandoned issues of prosody, accordingly, may be not only mistaken, but fails to recognize the narrow way in which modern and contemporary critics and poets define prosody—a narrowness that often ends in the dismissal of “Language” poetry and other chance-generated works by poets as diverse as John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and David Antin. Robert Bertholf recently found fault with “Language” poets, for example, because “contiguity predominates over image, breath, and music” (“The Polity of the Neutral,” Montemora, no. 5 [1979]). Rather, I argue, breath and music (image we must save for a later discussion) are in fact central to “Language” writers such as Bernstein and Greenwald; it is only that the music and breath they hear is from a source as old as language itself.

Philadephia, 1981
Reprinted from Green Integer Blog (September 2008).
*I might add that this poem is a more conservative example of Bernstein’s rhythms. Poems of his more recent volumes, Shade, Poetic Justice, and Controlling Interests, are more difficult or even impossible to scan.
**That is not to say that Pound’s Cantos, for example, can be spoken of in terms of traditional metrics; to do so misses the point of how Pound’s prosody functions.