Paul Zukofsky is a small minded little jerk

28 10 2009

"A" By Louis Zukofsky

Ok. So, I’m a mellow kinda guy. I don’t get worked up very often, and when I do it’s usually because I’ve had far too little sleep, far too much coffee, and some ass-hat has just sat behind me on a peak-hour bus making loud conversations on his cell phone about how ‘Jonno, nah mate, Jonno. No, Jonno!!, no, not Mark, it’s Jonno. Yeah mate, nah, I’m on a BUS!!’ Put the goddam’ phone down you retarded douche-canoe! *pant pant*


 My zen-like calm was punctured yesterday after the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet pointed out , to the internet at large, a document written by Paul Zukofsky about his father’s work.

 PZ is the son of Louis Zukosky, the Objectivist poet. Louis is now sadly departed (1904-1978) and his copyright falls to his son, who has been making noises about copyright that Kenneth Goldsmith of the Harriet blog rightly describes as ‘draconian’.

All Louis and Celia Zukofsky is still copyright, and will remain so for many many years. I own all of these copyrights, and they are my property, and I insist upon deriving income from that property. For those of you convinced that LZ would find my stance abhorrent, the truth is that he kept all copyrights (initially in his name) as he had the rather absurd idea that said copyrights would be sufficient to allow for the economic survival of my mother, and their son. My stance is congruent with that hope.

Draconian and anachronistic? Yes, but this initial stance is, well, fair enough. He owns the estate, so he should get paid for it. Don’t steal copyrighted books, buy books legitimately. Paul Zukofsky’s attitude goes far beyond this, however, into something much more insidious, and, well, see for yourself:

Despite what you may have been told, you may not use LZ’s words as you see fit, as if you owned them, while you hide behind the rubric of “fair use”. “Fair use” is a very-broadly defined doctrine, of which I take a very narrow interpretation, and I expect my views to be respected. We can therefore either more or less amicably work out the fees that I demand; you can remove all quotation; or we can turn the matter over to lawyers, this last solution being the worst of the three, but one which I will use if I need to enforce my rights.

1– people who want to do their dissertation on LZ, or want to quote from him in their diss., must, if only as a common courtesy, inform me of their desire to use this material, and obtain my permission to do so. If you do that, and if I agree, the permission will be only for the purposes of the diss. and there will be no charge for limited use within the diss. You will not be allowed to distribute the diss. publicly. Distribution via on-line publication is not allowed. I urge you to keep quotation to a minimum, as the more quotation, the less likely I am to grant permission.

Paul Zukofsky is a small minded little douche-canoe who can kiss my postgraduate arse.

I can perhaps understand your misguided interest in literature, music, art, etc. I would be suspicious of your interest in Louis Zukofsky, but might eventually accept it. I can applaud your desire to obtain a job, any job, although why in your chosen so-called profession is quite beyond me; but one line you may not cross i.e. never never ever tell me that your work is to be valued by me because it promotes my father. Doing that will earn my life-long permanent enmity. Your self-interest(s) I may understand, perhaps even agree with; but beyond that, in the words of e.e.cummings quoting Olaf: “there is some s I will not eat”.


Paul Zukofsky is a Douche-Canoe

Paul Zukofks holds academia in obvious contempt. It’s a little boggling. I would be tempted to imagine that this is a hoax, some sort of satire. Hopefully this is the case, because otherwise PZ seeks to hold academic enquiry up for at least the duration of his own life. It is only by understanding the innovations of the past that we can forge the new culture of the future. I don’t care about promoting Louis Zukofsky. I DO care bout understanding him, but Paul ‘douche-canoe’ Zukofsky wants to throw a roadblock up to academic enquiry for the purpose of squeezing every last bloody penny out of his father’s corpse that he can. It’s sickening, if true.

 As the Harriet blog reported, the ‘digerati’ have already responded by putting Louis Zukofsky’s famous long work “A” online in full PDF format to be downloaded as a deliberate ‘screw you’ to PZ. I don’t agree, I’m not going to link to the file. I think you SHOULD go ahead and buy the work of the important poets. Poetry is hard enough to create a market for as it is, we need to maintain the viability of hardcopy publication for poetry. But if you get the chance to make a rude gesture at Paul Zukofsky any time, do it. It’ll feel SOOOOO good.



On ‘The Emperor of Ice-Cream’

19 10 2009

The Emperor of Ice-Cream *
by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

In a classical mimetic theory, the thing being imitated is meaningful, but it is meaningful only in the way that any object or event is inherently meaningful.  Steven’s poem here, however, is not classically mimetic, for while there is the image of an actual ice-cream maker evoked in the poem, it is not the literal connotations of the ice-cream man that Stevens is using, rather it is the symbolic connotations. These symbolic connotations, unlike, say ‘goldenness’ or ‘a dark and shadowy figure’, are not inherent in the object itself. Which is to say: the object doesn’t have an inherent symbolic meaning. Instead the symbolism of ‘the emperor of ice-cream’ is particular to Stevens, and thus the poem attempts to explain the image, while at the same time evoking the emotional sense that originally lead to the phrase being created.

The ice-cream maker in this poem is not a mere maker of ice-cream. The poem names him twice, as well as in the title, as the ‘Emperor’ of ice-cream.  He is lord over a dominion. In the first stanza the dominion he presides over is the one where ‘wenches dawdle’ and boys ‘bring flowers’ and when ‘be’ becomes ‘finale of seem’, and they wed, ‘the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.’ His dominion in the first stanza, in fact, is the natural process of ‘boy meets girl’; the process of falling in love. The making of ice-cream and its consumption becomes a metaphorical image representing the process of adolescent courtship, contained within the quotidian experience of ice-cream, dresses, and flowers. Thus the ‘emperor of ice-cream’ is that god, or natural force, which oversees such interactions.

In the final stanza, however, we have something else. The images are of battered ‘glass knobs’, and an embroidered sheet (embroidered sometime in the past), and the cold, horny feet of an old woman who has plainly died. The objects here, the knobs, the sheet, the feet and their coldness, the lamp, are all signals of the end of life, the stillness of death, and yet still here ‘the only emperor’ still ‘is the emperor of ice-cream.’ The same emperor who oversaw the beginning of relationships presides over the cold, still end of a single love. The image of the emperor is re-imagined, retrospectively, and the ice-cream imagined at the beginning is re-imagined at the end in the coldness of the feet and the warmth of the lamp. The ice-cream, then, becomes mortality itself, and time the lamp that shines to melt it. The emperor of ice-cream is the cold fact of life and death. As was said previously, however, this is not a universal metaphor. Instead the image is Stevens’ alone, a personal interpretation figured outwards through physical/visual metaphor.

The works of Imagism, then, are plainly not just mimetic in the classical sense. In classical mimetic theory the objects of the poem were written into the world, and their significance came from the associations of worldly objects and behaviour (Abrams, 1953). In Imagism the objects are written into the mind, with the Romantic colouring of ‘things’ by the poet, and they operate dynamically within the mind also. In this way it is possible to see Imagism as being a combination of Mimetic theories of the imitated object/action in poetry and the romantic attachment to the poet.


* STEVENS, W. 2001. Harmonium, London, Faber and Faber.

Whitman and Poetry as a Social Act

2 10 2009

              TO YOU.

STRANGER, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why
     should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you?

~Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass

I’m not Walt Whitman’s biggest fan. I’m probably going to get hate-mail from America now, but that’s the truth. I think he’s tediously self important, quite frankly. But this detriment in my mind is also the key to his power as a poet. There’s a sense of enormity in his voice, a sense of a world imagination that encompasses everything at once, and also all of the tiniest things individually. Each single leaf of grass.

Walt Whitman (not Gandalf)

Walt Whitman (not Gandalf)

What I most like about Whitman is the way his poetry engages with the world. His poems are often addressed to people or to groups, anticipating responses, making defences or suggestions. He is aware of the reader’s presence in the poems, and allows them space, talking directly to them sometimes. He is aware of poetry as a social act.

When a poem is written every word is a decision, and every decision is a social act. When you choose the word man instead of the word person, it has a meaning in society. When you write a poem about a war, it enters into the public discourse about war, and about poetry, and about poetry and war. Whitman was aware that the social act of poetry meant that he could not be solely in control of the meaning of the poem. Why should the reader not speak to him, and him to them? Why should the poem not be a place of dialogue where the writer and the reader collaborate on the meaning of the poem?

An Oral Compulsion: The Image

25 09 2009

The following is a copy of the talk I’ve been compelled into delivering for one of my  coursework subjects this semester.

Hello everyone.

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

Cicero (Who was a kick ass orator, just ask him.)

 I’m from the English, Media and Performing Arts school of UNSW and I’m going to talk to you very quickly about what is the central notion of my Masters Thesis.  We’ll look at two ideas that I’ll be considering further in the full thesis project, and we’ll also have a look at some examples that illustrate these concepts.

 The thesis itself is an examination of the ability of poetic language to make us see visually, or at least to make us experience poetic meaning through visual metaphor.

I tend to approach this idea as a cognitive, phenomenological concept, so that’s the filter I’ll be using for this particular discussion


 There are, ostensibly, two types of ways that images can operate on a basic level, which I refer to as internal and external genesis.  The internal genesis is where, rather than describing a visual sensation, the poet conjures a sense of seeing and experiencing by suggesting the arrangement of elements that are already within the reader’s understanding.

 A regular user of this type of imager was Wordsworth, and a couple of verses pulled from his much longer poem ‘The idiot Boy’ make a good example.

But Betty’s bent on her intent,
For her good neighbour, Susan Gale,
Old Susan, she who dwells alone,
Is sick, and makes a piteous moan,
As if her very life would fail.

There’s not a house within a mile,
No hand to help them in distress;
Old Susan lies a bed in pain,
And sorely puzzled are the twain,
For what she ails they cannot guess.

Wordsworth doesn’t draw the image for you, instead, in the way the Romantics adored, the image comes filtered through human experience, and so we are told ‘there’s not a house within a mile’ leaving us to conjure the lonely pastoral house from our own conceptions. Similarly, are told that Susan ‘is sick’, and ‘lies a bed in pain’ but the image of an ill woman isn’t painted for us, it comes from inside and presses outwards on the experience of the poem, the meaning moving from our knowledge towards the poem.

 The External genesis is where the image is ‘painted’ for us by the poet. This is a more easily understood form of image and has been readily described by the poets and critics for thousands of years. 

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

William Carlos Williams (kick ass poet)

The Roman poet ‘Horace’ called this ‘ut picture poesis’, paraphrased as ‘poetry is like painting’.  This form of imagery has been a favourite to many of the poetry movements over the years, the neo-classicists, romantics and modern poets had a lot of fun with it. It is probably most famous for its deliberate centralisation by the Imagists of the early 1900s. A number of very good examples can be found for this style, but I think William Carlos Williams is probably the most sophisticated but accessible poets of this type.  One simple example is his poem ‘The red Wheelbarrow’:

 The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

beaded with rain

beside the white

 Rather than asking us to conjure the image internally, the objects are painted for us by the poem. They are painted in minimalist, modernist terms certainly, but they are painted. This was Williams’ intent. He wanted us to see the objects, with the aim of breaking down the distance between the word and the thing.  In this way the meaning of the image is directed from its external existence into the reader and the meaning moves from poem to knowledge.


 The second point I wish to make about the cognitive operation of the image is the idea that the image as a figurative unit can be broken down into two halves. I call these the physical half and the symbolic half of an image. As I was casting my mind around for examples I passed a kebab shop and I thought that its name would make a fine example, so well go with that. It was ‘The Golden Kebab.’

 When something is being described as golden, how does it operate in terms of the dual existence of the image?

  The physical half of an image operates by referring to a real physical thing that could be seen and touched. A golden kebab, then, in this shop name would be a physical kebab made out of gold. Yellow, heavy, hard yet pliable and completely unappetising.  

Kebab (just ass)

Kebab (just ass)

But the name ‘the golden kebab’ isn’t operating on the physical level the way ‘The red wheelbarrow’ was. That was literally a red wheel barrow, and it’s the physical nature of the image that is being used in that poem.  With ‘the golden kebab’ the metaphor comes from the conceptual side of the image.

 In the conceptual sense refers to the symbolic connotations that are suggested by the physical thing, or the idea of the physical thing. Something golden is precious and valuable.  Something is golden if it is the best of its class, a golden boy, the golden child, the golden crown of a king. It implies authority, value, purity and supremacy. So ‘the golden kebab’ uses transference of the conceptual elements of gold for their metaphor, rather than the physical.


  Poetry is one of the ways a culture talks about itself, questions itself, its actions and its values. The image is the way in which experience is brought into the poetry and directed either from the reader into the poem, or from the poem towards a new understanding in the reader.  You can tell a lot about a society by looking at how they used the image in their poetry, it’s like a handshake. Everyone uses it, but always a little differently.


Wednesday Symposium and Internet Publishing

11 09 2009

This Wednesday just passed I was fortunate enough to attend a poetics symposium hosted by the University of Western Sydney and attended by some professional poets, academics as a few other meek postgraduate students. Turns out it was a blast. A controlled blast, certainly. The sort of blast most usually found inside the engines of the more sedate family sedans, but a blast nonetheless and with a good few units of intellectual horsepower.

I have less than no time to write today, so I’m not able to go into too much depth. The event, ostensibly, was scaffolded around the presentation of a few papers, and the discussion/launch of a new poetics book called Networked Language By Philip Mead. You can read a review of the book here. The reviewer, poet Pam Brown, was also at Wednesday’s meeting.

Amongst the various discussions that came up the question of the “value” of online publishing was discussed briefly. Specifically, the question was asked as to whether internet publishing by legitimate online literary publications, such as Cordite, have any value, or at least a greater value than just self publishing on your own blog. I don’t know.

My own thesis is that as the amount of unregulated crap* makes its way onto the bloggonettosphere the signal to noise ratio goes down to the point that ‘legitimate’ online publishers become devalued by association. Or, to perhaps phrase it more aptly, the ability to distinguish between content sites becomes more and more difficult, and legitimacy becomes something a publisher of online content needs to earn on an individual basis, rather than through a publishing medium. This is not to say that publishing somewhere like Cordite carries NO value. It still carries the stamp of non-self-validation. But how much is it worth? I don’t know.

In the words of The Onion. What do you think?



* I am aware of the hypocrisy of this statement.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18

27 08 2009

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee


 One of the great maxims of our age* should be: when in doubt, quote Shakespeare. It’s not one, at least that I’m aware of, but in the busy storm of life, or in a lack of inspiration, Shakespeare is a safe harbour to sail into…

 Any Poet in a storm? **

 Yes? No. No, sorry. Forget I said that. *cough*

 Anyway, enough has already been written about the romantically titled Sonnet 18 (above) such that adding my meagre voice to the mix is hardly going to contribute to the overall understanding of the poem. In short, however,  the poem asks whether it should compare the subject to a summer’s day, and then describes why the subject is much ‘fairer’ than that, as a summers day is shorter, rougher, and more likely to decline than the person that it is being compared to. In the same way that a person may be flattered with faint praise the poem has the effect of praising the subject through the fact that a summers day compares unfavourably to them, though it is perhaps fairer to say that the person compares to the ideal summers day, one that is not rough, or brief, or intemperate.

Sonnet 18

Sonnet 18

The poem is, ostensibly, as much about writing poetry as it is about the subjects ‘fairness’. Where the first half denigrates the act of poetic comparison, and the poet’s ability to find an apt symbol, the second half of the poem brags that by expressing the subject in poetry they have essentially immortalised them.

 But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

This may be a bit of ‘street’ poetry criticism. But with this sonnet I feel like there are serviceable lines, for eg. ‘But thy eternal summer shall not fade’, and then there are the ‘Money Quotes’ like ‘Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade’. Oh yeah. That’s the good stuff. It’s all great, don’t get me wrong. This is Shakespeare, the man had a skill. But some phrases are more… transcendent than others. ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of may,’ is another one. Rhythm, rhyme, and meaning all come together into one finely tuned phrase. The beauty nearly obscures the actual meaning of the line.

 Neither sentiments – that the person being described is too beautiful to be described aptly, and the immortalisation in poetry of said beauty – are original to Shakespeare. Ovid’s Tristia is the much cited [suspected] inspiration for the second theme.

 What is more interesting is the gentle battleground being drawn across this poem as it relates to the subject of Shakespeare’s sexuality. Actually, it’s not really a battleground. It’s more of a vague musing on the part of those Shakespeare scholars who have plainly exhausted all other possible avenues of speculation. The matter breaks down, more or less, into the order of the Sonnets as they were published.

 Sonnet 18 is clearly a poem of intense adoration, to the point where it is very often used as an example of classical love poetry. On the other hand, the poem is traditionally understood as being part of a series of sonnets called ‘The Fair Youth Sequence’ which are dedicated to a male friend of Shakespeare. This leads some scholars to think that, mayhap, the Bard preferred a bit o’ the ‘love that dare not speak its name.’ the counter argument is, of course, fuck it, Shakespeare was married. Then again, he ran away from his wife to live amidst the merry thespians of London. All in all, it’s fairly inconclusive. The other complication is the suggestion that the order of the poems was arbitrarily changed by the publisher who just threw number 18 in after 17 because, hell, it seemed to fit. No one’s going to read too much into it, right?

 This is, very possibly, the least important question in Shakespeare scholarship. You can also tell that this is one of his earlier sonnets. As time went on, Shakey*** became less fond of the end stopping he uses frequently in this poem and gets more into the use of enjambment. It is said, though I’ve put almost negative effort thus far into verifying the claim, that REAL Shakespeare scholars can date his plays and sonnets by how heavily enjambed they are. Cool, eh?


  *What ARE the great maxims of our age? I have no idea. Don’t spit into the wind? No, that’s more a maxim for EVERY age. I know: Don’t go up against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line! and stay out of the Fire Swamp. Also, you can’t be told what the Matrix is; you have to see it for yourself. 

 ** I Ought to be Bard.

 *** Otherwise known as The Bard, or DJ Spears.

My Father’s Face

24 08 2009

I didn’t get to write a blog on Friday like I do usually. The reason: illness. Not dire, not an aneurism, or the bubonic plague, or H1N1, or anything, but enough to keep me in my pyjamas and away from my keyboard for most of the weekend.

Nonetheless, last night I was well enough to go out, and my friends and I found ourselves talking about faces, and recognition, and I won’t bore you with the details. The conversation reminded me of a poem that I came across years ago. It’s called ‘My Father’s Face’ and it begins:

Every morning when I shave I see his face

Or something like a sketch of it gone wrong.

And it ends:

The prude and lecher in him moiled and

fought within the rough-house of his pride.

And killed each other when his body died.


And in the middle there is a very excellent poem by, I believe, and Australian male poet, but damned if I can remember his name. In fact, the author might have been British, Canadian, or Sudanese for all I know.

I would very much like to read this poem again. The phrase ‘My Father’s Face’ is so ubiquitous, however,  that Google provides far too many incorrect results for a single diamond to show through the rough.

If anyone can help me find a copy of this poem, I would be very grateful.

The Image and Bachelard

10 07 2009
Cherry Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms

I have been reading a lot lately in preparation for an application to a research degree here in Sydney, Australia. That application has been lodged now, thankfully, but I’ve continued reading, mostly for my own interest, and partly because I know that if I get accepted I’m going to have to back up my proposal ‘talk’ with a serious and studious amount of ‘walk’. As part of this reading I’ve picked up a copy of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘On Poetic Imagination and Reverie’, which is available from I’m still working my way through Collete Gaudin’s well thought out and interesting introduction to the work, and already it has me questioning some of the basic assumptions of our language.

 The one I want to write about at the moment is the idea and concepts surrounding the word ‘image’, as understood by our culture, and as understood by Bachelard. This will by no means be a definitive examination, but my first gentle foray into playing with this area of thinking, so take from it what you will.

 The first thing I think we should look at is: what do we mean when we use the word ‘image’? In English speaking cultures the word image has come to predominately mean a visual representation. This is not to say that the meaning of the word has degraded from a broader concept in recent, more technological times. Quite the contrary. A definition given in 1707 gives the meaning as ‘an artificial resemblance, either in painting or sculpture. However, the word, etymologically, runs:

 c.1225, “artificial representation that looks like a person or thing,” from O.Fr. image, earlier imagene (11c.), from L. imaginem (nom. imago) “copy, statue, picture, idea, appearance,” from stem of imitari “to copy, imitate” (see imitate). Meaning “reflection in a mirror” is c.1315. The mental sense was in L., and appears in Eng. c.1374. Sense of “public impression” is attested in isolated cases from 1908 but not in common use until its rise in the jargon of advertising and public relations, c.1958. Imagism as the name of a movement in poetry that sought clarity of expression through use of precise visual images, “hard light, clear edges,” was coined 1912 by Ezra Pound.

So the word has its roots in ‘copying, imitating’ rather that superficially resembling. And this, I think it key to the difference between how our current culture uses the word ‘image’ colloquially, and how we actually employ images, especially poetically.

 When we say ‘Image’ these days too often we mean ‘picture’, whereas what image means is ‘an artificial representation’, which needn’t be entirely visual. It is interesting to note that the French for image, funnily enough, is image (I put it in italics to help you imagine the accent), and the meaning translates not just to ‘visual’ image, but also to ‘idea’. It’s easy to over-read this sort of effect. However, what I hope to emphasise is that an image, as commonly understood, tends to under-emphasise the non-visual elements of the image.

 What Bachelard emphasises in his writing is the ‘material’ nature of the image. There is a complicated thought process behind this idea, but what it boils down to in my mind is that the material image, as understood by Bachelard, encompases the entire experience, conceptual, physical and referential, of a thing, not just the sight of it. In fact, Gaudin’s exegesis quotes as “Images are ‘lived’, ‘experienced,’ ‘reimagined’ in an act of consciousness …” In this way he downplays Sartre’s use of symbols:

Bachelard challenges Sartre’s choice of softness, viscosity, and shapelessness as direct symbols of the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness. … these are perjorative qualities, fixed in the moment of their material becoming.

 The point of Bachelard’s challenge is that softness, viscosity, shapelessness are not well chosen as symbols because there is no material experience to be found in them. They are immaterial and abstract, and as such do not relate back to an image, as such, but to a suggestion of one. As Gaudin explains, they are ‘fixed’ in place before they have become real.  However, an image that does adequately symbolise ‘the apprehension of the concrete world by human consciousness’ could itself conjure sensations/connotations of softness, viscosity, shapelessness.

 I think that an image must suggest the materiality of the thing being imagined. In this sense, then, the Poundian/Imagist idea of the image as an experience comes more into focus as the attempt, not just to describe visually, but to present the imagined materialisation of time, place, object etc. I’ll end with a famous example of Poundian Imagism. The haiku-esqu:


 The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.

 The poem is strongly visual, there’s no denying this. But the poem is not just attempting to superimpose one image on another in order to point out similarities. There is a definite, materialism to the imagery. The faces of the people, above their dark clothes, do not just resemble the bough visually, they are also wet, and fragile as petals. Pound attempts to convey not just an image that may be considered beautiful, but also his own sense of experiencing beauty. Suddenly, succinctly, at a glance. The image as an experience.


Enjambment and Caesura

6 07 2009

Whenever I come across a word I didn’t know I tend to look it up. And whenever I come across a new concept I tend to get a bit obsessed and include it in my writing as much as possible, often to the point of ridiculousness. My most recent obsession isn’t really a new concept. However, thanks to a succession of lazy English teachers in my school days, I didn’t know it by its name until I was researching my post about Ezra Pound. It’s actually two concepts, mostly employed as rhetorical devices, enjambment and caesura.

Caesura is the concept of having a pause or break in some part of a poetic line, with the pause tending to follow or conform to the nature of the thought being expressed. For example let’s take two of my favourite lines from poetry. The inscription on the fallen monument in Shelly’s poem Ozymandias:

`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’

The line is broken up rhythmically by the punctuation, which occurs as part of the declaration being expressed. The main purpose served here by the multiple caesuras is to make a more interesting line and to emphasise the arrogance of Ozymandias’ inscription, which is later contrasted with the collapsed and ruined monument to the long dead empire. It should be pointed out, also, that there are different types of caesura: Initial (beginning of the line), Medial (middle of the line), and Terminal (end of the line).

Enjambment involves running a phrase on past the place where it breaks down into the next line; or as Wikipedia puts it “the breaking of a syntactic unit (a phrase, clause, or sentence) by the end of a line or between two verses”. The idea is that the continuous syntactic unit straddles a break in the physical structure of the poem, basically. Like Caesura Enjambment is best used as a rhetorical device. There are two main effects (or employments) of enjambment. By placing the ends and beginnings of syntactic units on the same physical line, Enjambment can encourage the reader to go immediately from one unit to the next. The effect can be to encourage a ‘stream of consciousness’ effect or to unsettle the reading experience slightly. Enjambed phrases have more the feeling of a natural flow of thought than do completely end-stopped phrases*.

The other use of the technique is as a way of delaying a thought in the reading until after the break in order to surprise the reader with it. I can’t come up with a better example than the one used in Wikipedia, so I’ll steal theirs for the moment:

Enjambment may also be used to delay the intention of the line until the following line and thus play on the expectation of the reader and surprise them. Alexander Pope uses this technique for humorous effect in the following lines from The Rape of the Lock:

        On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore
        Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.

The second line should confuse the reader, raising the question “Why would a Jew or infidel adore a cross?” On second reading, the reader should realize that “breast” does not carry the general androgynous connotation of “chest” but instead the specific idea of a woman’s breasts, which are so attractive that a man of any religion would kiss the Christian cross to be near.

So the effects of these rhetorical figures can be as subtle or obvious as the poet chooses. What’s interesting is that these concepts are quite fundamental to poetry. Lines must end, and so must phrases, and the interaction between these two facts is the genesis of many subtle effects. The more we look into the great masters of any form the more we find out that they had exquisite control of even these small nuances. And the magic thing, the thing that made them great, is that they never seemed to notice them at all.


*Phrases where the end of the syntactic unit ends with the end of the line.

Ezra Pound and The Pisan Cantos

29 06 2009

There are some things that you can’t learn about a poem just by reading it.

Ezra Pound Mugshot 1945

Ezra Pound Mugshot 1945

For sure, I knew that, for Ezra Pound, the Cantos marked a shift in his poetic style/intentions that would govern the rest of his life’s work. But reading the Biography of Pound on Wikipedia this morning I came across this description:

On May 24 he was transferred from Genoa to a United States Army detention camp north of Pisa. He spent 25 days in an open cage before being given a tent, and appears to have suffered a nervous breakdown. He drafted the Pisan Cantos in the camp. This section of the work in progress marks a shift in Pound’s work, being a meditation on his own and Europe’s ruin and on his place in the natural world. The Pisan Cantos won the first Bollingen Prize from the Library of Congress in 1949.

The Pisan Cantos were not the first, but they are considered amongst the most read and influential of the greater body of the Cantos. This was perhaps because, imprisoned in Genoa without his usual library of resources, Pound was less able to cram the page with allusion. Less able, perhaps, but certainly not prohibited. The man was a master of reference and deliberately so. As Marjorie Perloff reminds us in her review of ‘Ezra Pound, poems and translations’ by Richard Sieburth:

 …when, on May 3, 1945, Pound was arrested at his home in the hills above Rapallo, he immediately put a small Chinese dictionary and a copy of the Confucian classics in his pocket. Working as he then was on his Confucian translations, he knew that, wherever the military police were taking him, he would need these books.   

And so, coming to the end point of my quote mining operation, it is not clear how we should then approach the Pisan Cantos. I’m of the opinion that if a poem has established itself as important, without reference to its personal context, we then are entitled to gain more insight by looking at the experiences that surrounded its creation. How do we read it though? Was the writing process an emotional response to having been imprisoned in an open cage for nearly a month by the occupying American forces, or was he coldly going about his work despite his situation? Maybe both.

 It certainly seems unlikely that the themes of the Pisan Cantos can be separated from the situation Pound was in at the time. The question becomes, then, how much do we learn by knowing what we know about the situation around these Cantos? Certainly the knowledge makes them seem more sympathetic in hind-sight, perhaps also more humane. For a poet who was widely criticised for his inaccessibility, perhaps the knowledge also makes them just that little bit more accessible as well. But, hypothetically, if we can’t learn about the context of the poem just by reading it, how much should we allow context to alter how we read and understand it.

 This much, I suppose, is a matter of choice. A post-modernist or post-structuralist would probably tell you that understanding a poem’s context is not just valuable, but essential to understanding of the work, and I tend to have sympathy for this point of view. It may, ultimately, come down to just that, to point of view. A creator of concrete-poetry, for example, my say that context for creation is unimportant in poetry, as the effect of a poem comes from the direct experience of the reading/viewing. A devotee of the Beat poets, especially of Allan Ginsberg, might say that understanding the context of the poem is half the battle in understanding the poem itself. I’m not sure that there’s a right answer in this.

I do know that the American Library of Congress was able to look beyond Pound’s Fascist sympathies, his trial as a traitor, and his anti-Semitism when they granted him the Bollingen Prize for the Pisan Cantos. Perhaps the lesson is that context doesn’t make or unmake the greatness of a piece of literature, but if it makes our reading more complete, then we can say it has its value.