Sunday, April 15, 2012
“WITHNESS” & “ILLUSTRATIVITY”: DOING JUSTICE IN THE BODY OF THE WORK
“WITHNESS” & “ILLUSTRATIVITY”:
DOING JUSTICE IN THE BODY OF THE WORK
Picture a poem with a picture, and think of what you make of that when you look. Whether it’s a woodcut with Longfellow’s Hiawatha or Ben Shahn with Ted Hughes’ Crow or even Larry Rivers with Frank O’Hara, the two are usually taken as separate elements and their relation is some kind of illustration. Even when George Schneeman writes the poem to go with his own Italian paintings, illustration is what we see. Maybe with Ted Berrigan writing onto the same page that George Schneeman draws on in his turn, the word illustrates its own object status and referentiality just the way the drawn lines do. But still it seems that that is just that––an illustration of an equivalent relationship. There is a sense of adequacy, a sense of equivalence, involved in illustration; you might call it a sense of justice.
The urge to do justice to an image with words or, vice versa, to illustrate meaning or feeling with a picture becomes an effort usually to create congruent wholes. When part-to-part relations within those wholes are made parallel as well, we also have what we call analogy. The justice involved in that is a kind of rightness, a mastery displayed. This is like the justice of everything being in its place: what liberals call for as the rightness of people’s rights, or that which conservatives call for in saying you’ll get what you deserve––good or bad. Both concepts are controlled by a greater whole. When we apply this to poetry, we may be setting aside an important remainder in the illustration equation. Even within poetry itself when we make the requisite image with words, the desire for a whole match is never fully requited. There is something that falls short or hangs over or both. The way we have, what we have let ourselves have, of reading as though images come through to us simply and fully from words is illustrated by our desire to have an illustration fit what it illustrates. We like to think we get it and get it all.
There is, however, another kind of justice we know from the great narrative romances, and from Twain and the movies, that simply springs the prisoner out of the system. In the terms of illustration, this outside chance would be created by something like the “illustrativity” described in the prelim to these Post Language poems:
The guiding concept in the poetics is a use of the word "illustrativity" to extend beyond and around the term "illustration." This is developed through the way that the suffix "-ative" forms an adjective describing "the habit of performing an action" rather than the simple noun form of an action ("illustration" as a thing which "illustrates"), and then becomes a descriptive noun through the suffix "-ity" expressing state or condition. That is to say: [we are working with] the state and condition of a habitual sense of comprehending illustration.
What is at issue here is the form of reading and, of course, thereby a form for writing. The point of working with this at all is to let ourselves experience another shape that can raise our consciousness about the shape we’re working in. Charles Olson, starting out in a world of multiple metrics, reached for an analogy in physics and philosophy to shift the handle we could have on measure in poetry. There is a path to trace here that leaps through that effort regarding the ear to the one we’re making here for the mind’s eye.
What Alfred North Whitehead went at in the late 1920s and Charles Olson engaged in mid-century in his effort to open up a sense of measure for a post-Poundian poetics forms an analogous model for this work. Whitehead very scientifically in the language of formal philosophy showed that measurement depends upon a rather arbitrary sense of congruity and an ignorance of the fact that “there are no infinitesimals” (332-3). Olson took this in hand to get freedom from justified syllable counts and to get at “impetus,” Whitehead’s word for length seen through “presentational immediacy” in its impact on the body through “withness” (333). By putting such terms between the thing and its measurement, the philosopher sought to be more exact about what we do when we measure a whole as if we can see the contiguous congruent segments we would number as “extensive quantity.” The feet, though, are never perfectly straight, the inches neither, and “there are no infinitesimals” (as Olson liked to repeat); so, we must count out the contortions (Whitehead 328). Olson overcomes this by grasping the body-oriented “withness” factor and emphasizing vector, strain, and impetus as in a particle physics within measurement. The poet scoots with a Brownian motion right along past the analogy of analogy problem.
Olson wanted to get away from feet. We are working now in the wake of this in a poetry of grammar beyond such quantities as even Olson used in his great heave. However, we have not yet investigated all of the three elements of poetry that Olson laid out for us in his Greek: “topos / typos / tropos.” He is answering Elaine Feinstein’s seminal question about “Image” when he comes up with that tripartite analysis of what a poet goes on and goes on about (96-97). I would unfold it thus: topos = where the poet is at; typos = what strikes the poet; and tropos = the turn or spin the poet puts on things. Olson is trying to answer: “where does the Image come from?” without resorting to spooks or science to bring it to him. How is the Image to be equal to the task? is more like the question he would ask. The answer he gives in those Greek terms is matched by another he gave in his article about Shakespeare when he writes about “attention” (93). Being the poet Charles Olson and not the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, he never quite nails it down in either place. The poet here begins to insert the extra elements of stance and impetus within the trope of an image given. Olson takes Whitehead’s sense of measure for a model of a sense of image that is—as he likes to say—“equal, that is, to the real itself” (Olson 177-122).
Now, if Whitehead were not part of this equation, we might be back at the flat sense of “le mot juste” that Pound’s dicta were reduced to by the professors. But Olson goes beyond “the exact word to match what you mean” or “to bring the object before the mind’s eye.” When he says Shakespeare worked at “going in further to the word as meaning and thing,” and not so much at music and image, Olson is pushing into a critique of the way poetry has relied on those two machineries (93). When Anselm Berrigan recently wrote on FaceBook “image is lame,” I had to laugh and think of his mother’s heavy reliance on image in her great works. It is this “can’t write with it; can’t write without it” dilemma of feeling image’s limits and its necessity that Olson was trying to push past by asserting how The Bard had. In his discussion of The Bard’s art, Olson focuses his attention on the poet’s attention: “what it is on” and “how it is on” (93). He comes to the declaration that with Shakespeare we are “in the presence of the only truth which the real can have, its own undisclosed because not apparent character” (94). That might sound like an old transcendental romantic truth if it were not for that focus of attention that set up Olson’s claim for the great one. Both “what it is on” and “how it is on” are said there to be the action of going “further into the word as meaning and thing” (93). The tension there lies in that concept of equivalence, of full adequacy, that Olson is attempting to get beyond when he writes about a truth that is “not apparent.” This truth is the locus of a non-equivalency like the immeasurable distance between the thing and measurement of it that was pointed out by Whitehead. If we experience somehow the mis-measure and get free-er within our metrics, we can also experience the mis-match of image and concept in the twist of each trope. This is more than to say that all measure or all image is approximate; the point is that there is a discrepancy and there lies the point of our search. This is where we dig into the X that we have used to mark the undisclosed.
And that makes Poe appear for me because of a couple of famous stories that he gave us about just this. Melville was Olson’s guy from that time when American Lit was assembling its root threads, but he said he trusted my teacher Robin Blaser on Image––and Blaser’s guy was Poe. Poe should be already with us as we talk about the “undisclosed” and the “apparent”; his story of “The Purloined Letter” is the classic reference point on that. “The Gold Bug” is his story about reasoning and where to dig. Both stories work through not-quite-equivalent equivalencies: a cipher, a letter turned inside out, an ambiguous map, coincidence, or mirror-image backwardness. Poe’s non-Euclidean bent is more obvious in his great long essay “Eureka” but is there in those tales of mystery and imagination too. In that long essay, which he asked the future to see as a “poem,” he undertakes a logical analysis of both the spiritual and the physical senses of a unity of being. At one point, his proof relies upon a demonstration of inequability and discontinuity in radiation from a center (243-5). Poe’s science and logic may not be up to the level of Whitehead’s, but more important for us is the fact that these concepts were there a century and a half ago. They have been part of American Literature since its emergence. Poe, in fact, refers to his story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” at just that point in “Eureka.” His detective Dupin there refers to his “facility” for solving mysteries as being based on “deviations from the plane of the ordinary” (407 n. 26).
These are not simply deviations but serious critiques of commonly accepted logic. In “The Purloined Letter,” Dupin sees what everyone else is seeing and then allows himself a different look that includes the way that the letter is there where it is not. It seems to me that this is what we need to undertake regarding image; to just see image as approximate is to maintain the myth of a value in equivalencies, but to move to another plane of relations between image and meaning is to allow another measure of what we might call “comprehensivity” rather than just “comprehension.” To make room within image for the inversion or deviation that makes for the kind of open relation that was for awhile called over-determined, that might be possible with a little re-training of our sense of illustration. If it were not overly but also not under-determined by references, the habit might be not broken but unhinged a bit.
The logic here following Whitehead, Olson, and Poe is this: If the Image that poetry presents is too simply thought to be equivalent to some picture in the mind’s eye adequate to some meaning, then we have a space of discrepancy that is denied. To get this extra space back in, to make new use of it, I have tried putting pictures in the poems as a “withness” other than illustration’s way of being with words. This strategy offers another “if, then” proposition. If the picture here is not equal to the task we ordinarily assign to illustration in pictured image or worded one, then it may open to the kind of reading we have learned to give a good line. Charles Fillmore’s “Parsimony Principle,” borrowed by Ron Silliman in 1982 to discuss “Migratory Meaning” in poetry, explains how we add extra new information to an adjusted sense of the whole in a continual shift of what we think we know in a poem or anything (115). To do this with the new in image’s domain, a space where ordinarily we would be matching a whole to something already there (whether it is through words alone or, by strategic choice, a picture), is to have an opportunity for re-imagining the extra (the de trop) in any image—pictorial or poetic.
The critical thinking in this area of “referentiality” has come lately mostly from the LangPo gang as though it were wholly new. But look back; something has been gaining on us: Olson was there; Poe was there; Olson’s Shakespeare may have been there, too. It is Post Language as you’ll see it here, but it was pre-Language too. In what Mallarmé called “le poème critique,” the poet would want “to mobilize around a thought all the diverse flashes of the mind” (372). The key word there is diverses, one key sense of which is “varying.” The discussion of what the poet meant by this concept of a “critical poem” has mostly run around worry about which of his works demonstrated the concept, but maybe every good poem does in the way it is not too anxious to close down as a whole.
To put a picture in a poem as part of the poem somehow, to not reflect as whole to whole or as whole to part in parallel apart and explaining from outside, to open out as from within the poem as a lively line does by adding something that changes the whole, this is what became the object of this search. It was Ted Berrigan, Alice’s husband and Anselm’s father among the many other things he was, who, as my teacher at Naropa, said to the class that that was the work of a lively line.
So, one day, naturally, not thinking of Ted at all, just trying to post a picture on FaceBook, I saw how that machinery asked me to “say something about this photo” and got it that I was naturally expected to follow the ordinary relation between picture and words. Being always working at poetry, I thought, “What if I put a poem here instead? What if I mess with that relation in the word ‘about’ just a little? What if Poe’s sense of something beyond illustration, something outside reference, of disclosure by means other than the apparent, were to appear here?” And this little strategy was born. It is imperfect, bound to the uses readers make of it, caught in an open possibility of misunderstanding. You can just look at the pictures as imperfect illustrations, oblique angles on the poems. On FaceBook, many people tend to ignore the “something” said (the poem) and comment on the pictures or just to “like” the photo and let it go at that. The way things are structured there, they can. Here, I am saying something about this to allow that imperfect rendition to work in another way. I am asking your mind to gather something more from the oblique relation going both ways, by not asking the picture to be the whole. I am here suggesting that your mind/body of experience let what it sees go further, as maybe it was doing always already anyway. Go back and check out the pieces from that angle, and let me know what you see.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. Divagations. Paris: Bibliothèque Charpentier, 1949.
Olson, Charles. Human Universe and other essays. Ed. Donald Allen. NY:
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold
Beaver. NY: Penguin, 1976.
Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. NY: Roof, 1987.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Corrected ed. David R.
Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne. NY: MacMillan/Free Press, 1978.