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J Cage: Music is permanent; only listening is intermittent

Thursday, January 19, 2012


No forms less/ than activity

—R Creeley

We live in a little apartment made out of the top of an old mill that was built before the Civil War. The green walls of our living room narrow into an expanse of exposed wood that leads into our bedroom (newly painted). Our floor is warped and most of our windows are crooked… An antique grinder that is too heavy to move has become a part of our furniture. I looked into the larger downstairs apartment once this summer before our neighbors moved in, jealous of their washer and dryer, and saw that they live among the industrial detritus of old mill machinery too. They even live with large gears, counter-weights, and a staircase that dead-ends into the ceiling. The mill’s water wheel is long gone, but there is still a trace of a dilapidated stone dam, that I imagine it must have been attached to, crumbling across the bank from the creek that runs beneath the back half of our apartment where I sit to read in the morning next to the portable heater with my feet up on the windowsill. We write poems here. We lay the pages of manuscripts out across the floor and our dog, Franklin, walks through them; then, we shuffle them up and start anew. Our pages are covered in dirt, dust, leaves, pine needles, and dog hair.

A place is a compost of time—a layered process that exposes space. It belongs to itself; it is isolated and resonant. A poem is, likewise, compost. I can think of no more graceful account of this than J Clare’s loving attention to the nightingale’s nest in his tremendously lush and gentle “The Nightingale’s Nest”:

How curious is the nest; no other bird

Uses such loose materials, or weaves

Their dwellings in such spots: dead oaken leaves

Are placed without, and velvet moss within,

And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare,

Of what seems scarce materials, down and hair.

The first time I ever taught a creative writing class, I asked students to introduce themselves by deciding (as a class) what kind of “dirt” they wanted to know about each other. One of the first things that they, inevitably, wanted to do was identify themselves according to the genres that they imagined themselves to be writing in. I saw where this was going and I tried to shut it down right away because genre is a limit and an imposition. Writing with genre in mind degrades our circumstances because it forces us to think of our writing as a product (and, thus, to classify it accordingly). I tried to organize class (loosely) around the activity of compost journaling instead—an alternative that I hoped would allow us to focus on the rawness writing as it happens. In part, because this is the way I write, as D Levertov instruct me to in Some Notes On Organic Form: “Organic poetry…is a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such poetry is exploratory.” Students kept lyric journals throughout the semester and we worked off from photocopies of handwritten pages from their journals. Approaching pages as fields, we scored energetic developments, weird dissonances (pivots), and tracked patterns. Class time gave way to some of the rarest writing I’ve seen—projects were edgy, expansive, daring, fine, and roughly textured. They were stunning. They are. Like C Olson says, “We do what we know before we know what we do.”

I think our imagination of poems often stunts our ability to take instruction from the occasions we find ourselves writing in. Wm Blake addresses the problem of projection when he recounts being lead down through a mill to his eternal lot by an Angel in The Marriage of Heaven & Hell

So he took me thro’ a stable & thro’ a church & down into the church vault, at the end of which was a mill: thro’ the mill we went, and came to a cave : down the winding cavern we groped our tedious way, till a void boundless as a nether sky appear’d beneath us, & we held by the roots of trees and hung over this immensity ; but I sad : ‘if you please, we will commit ourselves to this void, and see whether providence is here also : if you will not, I will ?’ but he answer’d : ‘do not presume, O young-man, but as we here remain, behold they lot which will soon appear when the darkness passes away.’

So I remain’d with him, sitting in the twisted root of an oak ; he was suspended in a fungus, which hung the head downward into the deep.

By degrees we beheld the infinite Abyss, fiery as the smoke of a burning city ; beneath us, at an immense distance, was the sun, black but shining ; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey, which flew, or rather swum, in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption ; & the air was full of them, & seemed composed of them : these are Devils, and are called Powers of the air. I now asked my companion which was my eternal lot ? he said : ‘between the black and white spiders.’

But now, from between the black and white spiders, a cloud and fire burst and rolled thro’ the deep, black’ning all beneath, so that the nether deep grew black as a sea, & rolled with a terrible noise ; beneath us was nothing now to be seen but a black tempest, till looking east between the clouds & the waves, we saw a cataract of blood mixed with fire, and not many stones’ throw from us appear’d and sunk again the scaly fold of a monstrous serpent ; at last, to the east, distant about three degrees, appear’d a fiery crest above the waves ; slowly it reared like a ridge of golden rocks, till we discover’d two globes of crimson fire, from which the sea fled away in clouds of smoke ; and now we saw it was the head of Leviathan ; his forehead was divided into streaks of green & purple like those on a tyger’s forehead : soon we saw his mouth & red gills hang just above the raging foam, tingling black deep with beams of blood, advancing toward us with al the fury of a spiritual existence.

My friend the Angel climb’d from his station into the mill ; I remain’d alone ; & then this appearance was no more, but I found myself sitting on a pleasant back beside a river by moonlight, hearing a harper, who sung to the harp ; & his theme was : ‘The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.’

But I arose and sought for the mil, & there found my Angel, who, surprised, asked me how I escaped?

I answer’d : ‘All that we saw was owing to your metaphysics ; for when you ran away, I found myself on a bank in the moonlight hearing a harper’” (“A Memorable Fancy”)

Blake’s eternal lot is pleasure not a projection and he only knows because he has faith enough to wait to see what happens. Accepting projections of our eternal lot is dangerous because the exertion of agency hampers our ability to see things clearly. When Blake’s Angel flees, he finds himself alone listening to a harper at the edge of a river. His terrible vision of Leviathan gives way to music and peacefulness that is associated with the river’s current. Accepting other people’s projections about what is and is not a poem by making comparisons is just as dangerous. (Remember that it is the inscription THOU SHALT NOT that turns all the flowers in Blake’s “Garden of Love” into tombstones.) Our circumstances shine beyond comparison. Poetry shatters the rhetoric and authority that is predicated upon the empty rhetoric of tradition. The Norton Anthology is compost like any other and, as Thomas Paine asserts in Rights of Man, “It is the living, and not the dead, that are to be accommodated.” Jesus: “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). Better to recognize the gifts we are given to accordingly. D Wordsworth: “Happily we cannot shape the huge hills, or carve out the valleys according to our fancy” (Journals).

Clare’s primary concern is attention; he knows that he is the one who doesn’t belong and he’s worried that he’ll frighten the nightingale

Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall

Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives.

We will not plunder music of its dower,

Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall;

For melody seems hid in every flower,

That blossoms near thy home. (“The Nightingale’s Nest”)

We would learn well to heed the gentleness of Claire’s bird poems and the humility that allows him to participate in the compost he sees. Hearing is a process of externalization: Ear/ hear/ here (“The Fern Owl”). When Clare takes instruction from the nightingale’s “out-sobbing songs,” he steps out of agency to merge with the activity at hand until he is “lost in a wilderness of listening leaves” (“The Nightingale’s Nest”). Thus, he is drawn into an ecstasy of abandon where his is no concern at all. At one with his work at Walden, Thoreau knows this lesson well: “I had an old axe which nobody claimed” (Walden). Wildness sharpens an axe that will never rust and we’re welcome to swing it as long as we give ourselves over to the chopping.

Returning to the compost of journals across intervals of time we map space that requires us to learn to encounter ourselves as other(s). We see we are not where we were and we see that we are not the organizing principle. We are not birthing a constellation; we are being born. Composting is holistic as it makes way for a realization that presence is much more expansive than we often take it to be. Thoreau addresses the strangeness that accompanies this experience when he considers the layered bloom of presence in the “Solitude” chapter of Walden

With thinking we may be beside ourselves in a sane sense. By conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. I may be either the driftwood in the stream, or Indra, in the sky looking down on it. I may be affected by an actual event which appears to concern me much more. I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another.

We are writer(s) and reader(s). “Reading” and “Sounds” are rightly separate chapters in Walden because they are separate activities. Ecstasy blurs them together. J Cage: “Opposites = parts of oneness” (Themes & Variations). Jesus: “Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?” (Matthew 22:12).



Then I turned to see the voice that spoke with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the seven lampstands One like the Son of Man, clothed with a garment down to the feet and girded about the chest with a golden band. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes like a flame of fire; in a furnace, and His voice as the sound of many waters; He had in His right hand seven stars, out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword, and His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength. And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as dead. But He laid His right hand on my, saying to me, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and Death. “Write the things which you have seen and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.” (Revelations 1:9-19).

D Levertov: “Form is never more than a revelation of content” (Some Notes on Organic Form). Poems are a revelation of activity underway, terrifying and lovely. A word is a “two-edged sword.” At the edge of this world, Jesus comes adorned with seven beautiful lampshades and seven stars because forms bring us to rest in the activity of the next place. Breakdowns are always, finally, a matter of perspective. The rain-soaked birches that we kicked through as children rot to feed the forest floor. Thoreau: “Some forms of disease, even, may prophesy forms of health” (“Walking”). Abandoning our words to the compost allows them to grow. F Gander’s “The Nymph Stick Insect” explores writing as compost by considering the fact that creation is a layered process full of hap and catastrophe: “The diagrams themselves [conceive] an intuition, the scribble suggests a word. A structure arises, but becomes useful only after its development. Evolutionary theorists call this exaptation. Our brains may have developed this way.” Rest assured, our place will be determined for us. Recognizing that the limits we would put on our poems are, in fact, our own is the beginning of our eternal lot. Jesus: “Let us cross over to the other side of the lake” (Luke 8.22).

I love R Creeley’s 1961 address to the Patterson Society because it asserts that language is a salvation deeply involved in the, inevitable, loosening of agency: “Again and again I find myself saved, in words—helped, allowed, returned to possibility and hope. In the dilemma of some literal context a way is found in the words which may speak it” (A Quick Graph). His account of writing forwards the “way” as something that is inexplicably “found”; it also underscores the fact that, in the end, it is not us at all but “the words which may speak it.” These words will keep speaking long after we’re gone because meaning continues to resonate. (Check out Eli Friedlander’s gorgeous book about JJ Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker, JJ Rousseau: An Afterlife of Words…) R Creeley has been dead for almost seven years; his words continue to speak to me every day. This is the only thing that I know about the future: Other people will read our poems or not; they’ll see what happens there and know what to do or not. Other people will live in this mill; they’ll get their own glimpses of eternity here. A compost is never finished because particles keep moving. I found a piece of string in the grass last summer, good as any, and I put it into our dresser. An active nest is always underway, and as E Pound comes to realize at Pisa, “grass [is] nowhere out of place” (Pisan Cantos).

All the good books know that eternity leaves us behind. Creeley gives Pieces away: “I left the room to them,/ I felt, as though hearing/ laughter, my own heart lighten.// What do you do,/ what do you say,/ what do you think,/ what do you know.” He gives Pieces away in a way that calls to the compost: John 13:7, the end of W Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and the end of WC Williams Spring and All. It’s mine now and tomorrow it will belong to you. Jesus: “Blessed are the eyes which see the things you see” (Luke 10:23). Even as I write this, Franklin yawns and lays his sweet face down across the keyboard to tell me that it’s time to go for a walk. Maybe I’ll want to see what I wrote here when we get home.


  1. Have you read Jed Rasula's This Compost?
    Sadly, I have not yet, but there is a great interview with him in Iijima's anthology on ecopoetics and it's on my to-read list.
    I, of course, thought of Bachelard's The Poetics of Space while reading this and I'm reading this new book by Dylan Trigg which is called The Memory of Place, which reminded me of your descriptions of writing in a place filled with history.

  2. Yes! It's a great book! Craig Dworkin recommended it to me four-five years back and I read it for my Ph.D. exams. J Rasula: “The poem’s plot is no sequence of narrative events, but a garden plot that makes its protean heap a biodegradable mask of regeneration." (He also says that "so much depends/ upon" WCW's red wheel barrow precisely because it is used to move compost...) Thinking about Bachelard too.

    Don't know D Trigg's book, though. Thanks for the heads-up! I'll have to track it down.