In Praise of Random Reading
Beginning in the summer of 2010, in the tiny town of Hudson, Wisconsin, a global revolution was launched by a not-for-profit organization whose formal name is the Little Free Library. Its website proudly boasts of its current numbers: 60,000+ libraries, in 80+ of the world’s nations, and “Millions of Books Exchanged Annually”. (For a map of the local “chapters” near you, click here.) A beautiful photo album may well by now be assembled of the plain rectangular shelf boxes and the bird book houses that dot the urban landscape. For veracity’s sake, I would like to reproduce here a photo of the one that graces the organization’s website, and of the one outside of the two-three Starbucks in my neighborhood in Upper Manhattan (Washington Heights/Inwood) which I inhabit on many a day in order to break the monotony of working from sun-up till sundown on my computer alone at home.
I have an embarrassing admission to make here: in the decade since I have nearly abandoned my own poetry to work full-time in translation (from Russian,) I have not been able to find any extra hours in the day to read, other than the voluminous primary sources of my scores of translation projects, both the paid and the, mostly, unpaid. Also, I had long ago ran out of room for books at home, have two closet-sized lockers in the basement mostly filled with books, and have by now lost (to flooding, moves, abandonment, etc.) two full libraries in the various basements of aunts, mothers-in-law, etc., etc. Perhaps more shamefully revealing is that, with the rising New York rents, I have had little money left over for books. And one last raison d’être: this facilitates how I have always preferred to proceed, aleatorically, by feel and intuition.
What better way is there to determine what it is I need to read next than to have the choice of my reading material constrained, forcing me to engage with the element of chance, pervaded as it is by a sense that what has been at least in part chosen for me must carry some hidden intention, that it is in some mystical way intended for me, and so requires of me that I uncover that intention, by paying attention to timing and pattern, by being attuned to the parallels between the circumstances of my life and work and the randomness of the choices available to me. But in fact, this is precisely how we make our choices for what to read and what film to see next, by intuition, in a conversation between texts and by being attuned to what it is we need on any particular day. With the unending stream and plethora of choices at these little kiosks, the significance of the element of selection is raised rather than lowered: many books are willing to come home with me, but only a very very few can be Chosen. Taking hourly breaks from my work, I may plumb a dozen books and objects every day for what it is I need, but a keeper is a rare subject indeed.
Before I proceed with the review portion of this, among the keepers are “things” that in some way reactivate my engagement with my own “materials,” and so I would like to first offer only a couple of recent examples. Here is a book, a beautiful object in itself, but also one that was immediately reactant with one of my own projects, perhaps the most fruitful one in my latter stages of composition – homophonic poetry. In Louis Zukovsky’s prescription for poetry as object, “Lower limit speech/ Upper limit music”, it is the latter, the nearly pure sound-sense of the vocables, perhaps as a product of my early childhood training in music, that had lately engaged me the most. The sheer oral pleasure of the sounds being shaped in the mouth by the penetrating tongue, with the message, as it were, merely shimmering below the surface, its meaning and significance itself perhaps only an expression of the beauty and truth of randomness, shaped as it were by purely personal interests, and the negative capability involved in the process, the activation of our open-ended engagement with our natural sense of excitement and wonder – in finding, discovery, and, deciphering….
The object was Oda A Un Alfarero (poema) by Manuel Joglar Cacho, a “primera edición, 1982” (San Juan, Puerto Rico,) a soft yet bright orange cover, on beautifully creamy and textured paper, with a black, etching-like ink drawing taking up its entire lower left corner, an image of a set of hands cradling a fruit-like figure, somewhat reminiscent of a Santeria doll, with an enlarged fetus fully taking up the entire cavity of its body. The inscription on the frontpiece is from 1983, from “Tu amiga, Lydia,” “Para Patricia,” “Par su sensibilidad y humanismo. Par sus ideas existenciales hacia la vida. I excepcional per humano!” Now, I do not speak a word of Spanish, but these expressions of high ideas and sentiments are perfectly legible and lucid, to all of us, I think. And so, in my homophonic work, it has always been poetry from the French, which I had briefly studied in high school, and the Spanish, the language of my absolutely favorite poetry, specifically for its music, that have been my own sources (Apollinaire and Neruda foremost among them).
The book’s inscription is from Jorge Louis Borges: “Quería soñar un hombre:quería soñarlo con integridad minuciosa e imponerlo a la realidad” (“Las Ruinas Circulares,” Ficciones). And I would only make this an example of how this feeds the content of my process of performing a kind of reading. The first lines of the book-length poem in my hands were immediately transformed into something like the following in my English head (I will intentionally not reproduce here the palimpsest, the erasure of the original, and, most importantly, I will not “trans-late,” or even try to “under-stand,” any thing):
Alfarero, how queer you are!
This is the miasma of the causes that you have –
the entrances of the human bar us
from the extraneous of the flower,
that is tinged with the tingling and jarring
lacking from the other peculiarities of causes –
how many hobbies, and habits, and habitations
man possesses that fan the fogs and create
that seriousness of humanity’s grayness.
I will admit here that there is only the transparent ghost of an original left in any of my homophonics, and that in such work, I champion the maximum of degrees of freedom, by channeling my macaronic knowledge of other languages (primarily Russian, and a smattering of Hebrew and French): while sorting and straining the original through a kind of application of multiple filters, alongside the occasional partial and intentional (mis)translation, I make use of the syntactic matrix of the original, both as rhetorical structure and as a tonal arrangement, in constructing a socially and politically engaged, and thus a significant reading (meaning). The point I wished to make here is this: that my intent behind this essay and exercise was to illustrate the kind of inner freedom – a liberation from the constraints of purpose, and meaning, and, especially, work and time – that I have felt clear, and necessary, and sufficient to be able to truly create.
And this find, at the same time and in the same book deposit box as the preceding: a Walt Disney World postcard booklet circa 1970 (“WDW is a completely new kind of vacation experience.”) Of course, these objects, messages from the ether of the collective unconscious as it were, have only gained in significance since their discovery and adoption by me, and may yet continue to percolate under the surface of my day-to-day consciousness (I paraphrase Louise Nevelson here, I think, on the subject of her own assemblages: “How can one know in advance what one object will tell another object?”) The recent devastation wrecked on both Florida and, a week later, on Puerto Rico, by hurricanes Irma and Maria, lending even greater contrast between the two, set off and highlight certain sets of values essential to both to every creative writer and to the creative reader: mass appeal vs. authenticity, passive entertainment vs. engaged learning, the acquisition of wealth vs. the immersion of experience, the transitory vs. the eternal, etc.
And one last confession, this one in a more light-hearted tone (all good things must come in threes). As I think is true for many of us, far more than we are likely to admit, most of my free reading time takes place on the toilet seat. Hence, what could be more representative of the deep and lasting impact and significance of a new stash of recent New Yorker and National Geographic magazines I temporarily acquired, simultaneously with the above, during my most recent raid on my local Little Free Library? I make this point in order to emphasize another central tenet: as much as I may be embarrassed to admit it, what has always been most important to me in my reading, education, and creative practice as a poet, is not the work of other poets, as valuable as it may be, nor even what we have generally defined to be literature (though at different times in my life I had read more deeply), but broader, primary sources of use to me in my own writing – from the fields of the natural sciences, history, political science, ethnography, linguistics, psychology, biography, philosophy – and, perhaps even more importantly, the influences of other aesthetic experiences – of film, art, and music – each in turn a valid form of literacy and, more or less passive or active, a record of our daily and ongoing engagement with these.
Spinoza: Practical Philosophy [PDF] by Gilles Deleuze (trans. Robert Hurley). (San Francisco: City Lights. 1988). My first book of note has the added advantage that a free PDF of it happens to be available (click on link above to download). The wonderfully succinct preface by the translator is followed by Deleuze’s own concise “Life of Spinoza” (Ch. 1), followed by two brief chapters on his Ethics (“On the Difference between the Ethics and a Morality” and “The Letters on Evil”), followed by the body of the book (Ch. 4), which is organized in the form of an alphabetical index of Spinoza’s own key terms. From the preface, I would simply quote two related parts I think should make Spinoza (along with Nietzsche) essential to every working poet:
“In scientific ecology, what passes between ‘things’ is information (as in Bateson); in poetry, it is affects (as in Spinoza), but poetry tends naturally to form inadequate ideas of affections: through it we are acted upon. Deleuze offers a model in this regard: the unit of understanding is not the form or function or organism but the composition of affective relations …. Deleuze opens us to the idea (which I take as a contribution to ecological thought) that the elements of the different individuals we compose may be nonhuman within us. What we are capable of may partake of the wolf, the river, the stone in the river. One wonders, finally, whether Man is anything more than a territory, a set of boundaries, a limit on existence….”
Though difficult it may be for me to communicate to you in this brief space and time, this was the same notion (though from other sources) that was central to the project I was in the midst of when I filed away my own poetry, at the beginning of this decade. It was very much grounded in the writings of the environmental artist Robert Smithson and I was calling it The Distributed Self. In a single sentence from my rationale, the gist of it is: It is my strongly held believe that, through the “primitive” human psychic mechanisms of projection and introjection, the poet strives to reassemble the dismembered body politic within his or her own psyche, so that the notion of personhood itself may thus be resurrected and expanded.
My own attraction to Spinoza preceded any knowledge of his ideas, and was predicated on the very simple fact of what interested me about him as a person: how might a man endeavor to become, in his case, among the first modern, secular, and independent individuals, and what of his own ideas may still hold relevance in precisely the same struggle of every creative artist today? And Deleuze does not disappoint in this respect. The distinction between social morality and personal ethics, despite the dictionary definitions perhaps confusing the two (and here we enter the realm of both semantics and ethology, and along with Freud and say Robert Coles, may hopelessly try to unravel the chicken and the egg argument of whether morality is inborn or a sociocultural construct,) is not what is most relevant to us. A practical philosophy dictates a matter of choice, always relative and constrained, of living as though one is able to distinguish the right belief and right action past the illusions (according to Spinoza, of finality, freedom, and theology,) with the conviction that we are the best arbiters of what is right for our own selves.
I cannot say that I have gained anything like a clear understanding of the whole of Spinoza’s thinking, only that I will be returning again and again to the parts I have marked as important to myself. In that spirit, here is a small selection from Deleuze’s texts for a number of the entries: FREEDOM: “The whole effort of the Ethics is aimed at breaking the traditional link between freedom and will – whether freedom is conceived as the ability of a will to choose or even create (freedom of indifference), or as the ability to adjust oneself to a model and to carry the model into effect (enlightened freedom)…. Freedom is a fundamental illusion of consciousness to the extent that the latter is blind to causes, imagines possibilities and contingencies, and believes in the willful action of the mind on the body.” “What defines freedom is an ‘interior’ and a ‘self’ determined by necessity. One is never free through one’s will and through that on which it patterns itself, but through one’s essence and through that which follows from it.”
CONSCIOUSNESS: “Consciousness is completely immersed in the unconscious. That is: 1. We are conscious only of the ideas that we have, under the conditions in which we have them. All the ideas that God has essentially elude us insofar as he does not just constitute our minds but bears an infinity of other ideas; thus we are not conscious of the ideas that compose our souls, nor even of ourselves and our duration; we are only conscious of the ideas that express the effect of external bodies on our own, ideas of affections; 2. Ideas are not the only modes of thinking; the conatus [“appetites”] and its various determinations or affects are also in the mind as modes of thinking.” And under POWER: “These affections that determine the conatus are a cause of consciousness: the conatus having become conscious of itself under this or that affect is called desire, desire always being a desire for something.” And so forth….
Footprints in Wet Cement by Peter Wortsman (Claremont, CA: Pelekinesis, 2017)
This one is the only book here that I did not “find” on the street. I justify this by the fact that, like the rest of my actual chance finds, the choice is a direct expression of my own affinities. I had become acquainted with Peter Wortsman’s work from his exquisite translations from the German (Robert Musil, Brothers Grimm, Kafka). If that list is not in itself at least partly indicative of what attracted me to his own work, I can only say for now that I had a sense that we were likely to share many tastes and interests in common. But I couldn’t possibly have known to what degree this might be almost eerily true. A quote is in order here from Marjorie Perloff’s blurb on the back of the cover: “Footprints in Wet Cement is a book to be kept on the bedside table: open anywhere at any time and you will be completely captivated.” Yes, how important again to me are these ideas: of randomness, consistency, the immersive qualities of style and experience. It would even seem that we share a taste in our favorite critics, and poets (for what is taste, if not a matter of common affinities). From Russell Edson’s blurb on the inside, initial pages: “Peter Wortsman, in the light of day, seems able to connect the power of dream narrative to conscious language to create unique works that walk a curious line between fiction and poetry.”
I cannot now fully do justice to the many and diverse qualities of the work in this book, other than to note that the number of similarities, of course entirely unknown to either of us, between it and my work on the Russian Absurdist writer of the 1920s and 30s, Daniil Kharms, is absolutely remarkable. One of these primary qualities is a willingness to defy boundaries of not only logic, but also genre, taste, and form. Another characteristic is maintaining a kind of consistency within the inconsistency, by exerting a loose control over the material, which is always threatening, but never quite manages, to escape the control of the narrator/author. That is, there is always very much a process of discovery at work, a kind of tension of never quite knowing, as likely the author didn’t in his process, where this is going or even where it might veer to next.
I will offer here only a few short samples for you to taste, all of them, just from the very beginning of the book which, being somewhat random, should give you a pretty good indication of the whole. Here is from the first piece, “Prehistoric,” that might be characterized as a prose poem: “I pluck thunder from the sky. The price of each storm is marked with a little sticker. The rain reeks of asparagus piss. If this were only a clean haiku.” And from the third piece, “Buster,” in which a comic book artist, bored with the usual superheroes, invents “The Destroyer, but everyone calls him Buster….” “Buster … send(s) seismic waves clear across creation to be read like Morse code…//. Couples reproduce or refrain from reproduction according to those seismic waves, though, of course, every would be breeder dreams of begetting a Buster. //All speeches and prayers begin and end with references to Buster’s destructive potential.// One day the cartoonist runs out of ink….” [N.B. The slashes are mine, and are intended to indicate paragraph breaks.]
And one last, from “1040,” the fifth piece: “’Albert dear,’ my father would warn me, ‘hide your calculator when the artists come, for they will surely take it from you and smash it to bits.’ ‘But why,’ I pleaded, ‘do they hate us so?’ My father shook his head and passed a weary hand over his glistening bald pate, where the dread digits 1040 were tattooed. ‘I don’t know, son. It could be,’ he paused to reflect, ‘that they are averse to numbers….’ And so forth…. As I hope you may by now imagine for yourself, one of the principle joys of this book is a sense of the unalloyed pleasure of the text, which is not in itself surprising. What elevates that simple pleasure is at least the following: in its best passages, the text achieves that upper limit of musicality, the pleasure of the sounds in our mouths, that Zukovsky spoke of. And: through reading these tall tales, I believe that I understood something about my own work on Kharms’s not dissimilar zaniness. Just beyond the reach of reason, and so never moralistic, there is quite often an impulse at play here: that of the parabolist.
My last notes for today return us to that Little Free Library kiosk, though perhaps on another day, when I decided to give a home to a selection, my own, of at least some of the books of poetry, many of them reviewer’s and proof copies, that I found there. (I am sure that all of us with books have wondered at how quickly lightly used copies of our books appear on Amazon, and whether any of the reviewer’s copies our publishers had sent had gotten any use at all.) The experience confirmed for me he reason why I have nearly stopped (except for the volumes of submissions, in my capacity as a journal editor for several publications) reading new poetry this decade: the sheer quantity, diversity, and remarkable quality of work being done today is what accounts for the paucity of readers, and for contemporary poetry’s lack in the material rewards department; like much of the rest of our society, and our lives in general, it suffers from the impoverishment of too many riches.
And so, in line with my beginning here, I can only make a selection of three books that, though chosen almost randomly, I hope collectively will become representative, particularly because of the variety in my reasons for highlighting each particular one of them. Among the pile of a dozen or so poetry books, I found Diann Blakely’s Farewell, My Lovelies (Univ. Georgia Press, 2017). Though I had noticed and noted with interest a number of her poems over the years, I only began to pay true attention recently, and learned that she had passed away in 2014, only through the chance occasion of my own translations sharing the pages of the same recent issue of Plume, just this past month in fact, shortly after I had found her book (September 2017). I can’t resist this instinctually human reaction we all have, to feel that there is no such thing as an accident. But it is nevertheless haunting, the search for a cause or a reason: what could it possibly mean, other than that the world is becoming a smaller and smaller place every day. I still have no answer why this particular coincidence, but I know that, if I continue to pay attention, more will be revealed
My primary attraction to Blakely’s work in this book were its formal qualities (for the benefit of full disclosure: I am of that generation whose youthful royalties where divided between the Neo-Formalists and the Language poets, and though I remain primarily a formal poet, I found my own way by choosing not to choose, and largely going back to the generation of the grandfathers. If it makes any sense to you, I consider myself a third generation Objectivist poet). However, I immediately discovered in the book’s dedication that we, Diann and I, had somehow shared a common source in William Matthews. Having studied with him in the late 80s, I also still consider myself “one of Bill’s orphans” (Matthews – richly human, and the most acute and generous poetry teacher I ever had – died early of a heart attack).
Of the work I admired the most, what stood out for me particularly where the poems with “staggered,” progressively indented, in a step-like manner, lines of tercets, and two longer poems, still in regular stanza forms, but with irregular line lengths and irregularly indented. I suppose I mainly read poetry new to me with an eye for what it is that I myself would like to one day attempt. While the narrative impulse of the work is not one I generally share, the craftsmanship of the music is apparent in the best of them. For illustration’s sake, lets say that the following first three lines of her irregular sonnet, “All Those Pretty Ones,” may be representative: “A girl’s been raped in the snowbound northwest/ By six grunge-clad assaulters who crooned Nirvana’s/ Early hit “Polly”: its victim’s flowered dress….”
The second poetry volume in my “random” selection is Julie Carr’s most recent and seventh book Think Tank (New York: Solid Object, 2015). I had met Julie in Cambridge, must have been 10 years ago, in any case, it was before her move to take her position at the University of Colorado-Boulder. And a “think tank” of a book it is, a serial work of fairly short poems that may be read as a book-length, single work. While in parts it is still disembodied, in the best sense that much post-modernist poetry tends towards, the most affective of the work is both highly concrete in its imagery and strongly charged with emotion. I will simply say that it felt good to catch up, a little bit, with someone whose early work I had followed with interest, and to reconnect, at least with the work. The rest, in her own words.
If I were to be a child again, sensing the earth spin beneath my back
condemned to plough
_____ the better part of myself into compost
_____ various happinesses filter through the trees
_____ my foot slips on a rock, my ankle bleeds
But now I have endeavored
to invent my own religion
_____ to no real relief, for still I am voided by my god and can induce
no cruel kiss and no salt
The Road in is Not the Same Road Out by Karen Solie (New York: FSG, 2015). Solie is a Canadian poet and a past winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize (for Pigeon, in 2009) whose work has been compared with that of the recently deceased, but still highly appreciated if not much beloved, John Ashbery. Once again, I had read numerous poems here and there and had already made a mental note of her, but of course, not until reading a whole book, can one form a genuine opinion, or for that matter, have anything stick. I do not wish to end my time here by sounding ungenerous, and yet I do wish to call upon all poets to seek “the better angels of their nature”.
It is not that the work does not attract attention and interest in far too numerous parts to mention, it most certainly does, but that disembodied, abstract nature I had referred to above makes it sometimes difficult for the whole to cohere, and to stick. But perhaps this is a measure of my less than full attention. My initial reaction suffered through that expected comparison. What I heard and found lacking is the absence of the same sinuousness of syntax, the long-pacing and extended rhetorical arc that we associate with Ashbery’s voice. More than the other two books of poetry I have sampled here, however, this was the one that kept giving through re-reading. Perhaps a more fitting comparison may be Wallace Stevens’s “poem of the mind”. In isolation that the choppiness of syntax confers, latinate, rational phrases like the following do not quite manage to impress: “Power without accuracy/ is a triumph of unreason” (“Birth of the Rifle”; yes, we get the Goya reference, but….) And yet, when she doesn’t try too hard to impress, and the units of thought genuinely cohere together, Solie manages a poignancy that is truly impressive. Here is the first stanza of “A Western” in its entirety.
Its origins are to this hour undetermined.
The free-floating found
its transformative agent. A third term
arose. It was a thing, it existed.
Note how that second and third line, with its latinate piece of terminology, yet succeeds in being set as a kind of cameo within the matrix of the rest. Note also how a truly impressive elevated sensibility is accomplished in that first line, by marshaling highly regular rhythm and meter. I have said it many a time, that this is the sort of music I have missed in contemporary American verse. And in this book it abounds, I would even say it predominates (a rare thing indeed). If one, like most of us, is sufficiently comfortable with admitting the languages of thought and science, but also of popular culture, into verse, and can appreciate the higher (lower?) pleasures of the qualities of sound, I can assure every reader that they will find much of interest to the mind here (it is perhaps Solie’s subjects – and I am not at all being facetious here – that are the biggest attractions!) The first lines of “Museum of the Thing II”:
And now the objects recur. Chief interests
of their divine secular lives no longer
idle. Thought anticipates them, but they aren’t
hindered by it. We have them
in common. They don’t aspire.