Disjunctive Poetics: From Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky to Susan Howe by Peter Quartermain
(Cambridge University Press, New York, 1992. digital reissue 2008)
Peter Quartermain is one of those great critical writers ranking along with Marjorie Perloff, Helen Vendler and Rachel Blau Duplessis. He taught at the University of British Columbia, in Canada, for over 30 years retiring in 1999. He and his wife, Meredith Quartermain, a gifted writer herself, ran Nomados Press where they published chapbooks. The poets covered in this book have been his interest for a considerable time. Thus, he brings a wealth of insight and knowledge to bear on their work.
This breadth of knowledge becomes evident immediately in his extensive and well-wrought introduction. Take, for instance, this statement from p. 9:
Meaning is problematic for each of the writers discussed in these essays, and it is precisely that problem which makes their work so intransigent and so attractive. Stein’s writing foregrounds linguistic rather than thematic or narrative procedures and connections while demonstrating that coding is not the motive for writing, or rather, that decoding is not where it leads. Writing does not bend toward a singular Truth...Characteristically narrative, Bunting’s writing moves meaning to the periphery, as does Zukofsky’s, giving primacy to sound: ‘the meaning is hardly ever of any importance,’ he said; and he once praised Persian music to Zukofsky because it is what he called ‘multilinear’ rather than monolinear.
The first chapter focuses on Gertrude Stein. Titled ‘A Narrative of Undermine’: Gertrude Stein’s Multiplicity’, Quartermain focuses initially on some specific examples of Stein’s work. He opens with an examination of her ‘Sentences’ from 1928 before going back to explicate some examples from Tender Buttons, probably Stein’s best known work. Here he does an excellent job About the excerpt from ‘Sentences’, he makes this statement:
The transformational strategies in which her writing abounds render impossible the reader’s possession of meaning, for in rendering inaccessible to the reader the customary contract with the author as authority it undermines the reader’s sense of his/her own certainty as arbiter of the meaning of the text. Stein’s attack on notions of clarity radically undermines our notions of knowledge: It is difficult to know what we know, or even that we know, for we can only see clearly (and therefore ‘know’) what is static. Her writing, completely antiauthoritarian, cultivates its own indeterminacy of meaning because it takes place in and is part of a world that is itself indeterminate.(23)
Calling Lifting Belly “A great love poem, a celebratory hymn to domesticity”, Quartermain goes on
one of the great referential poems of this century, yet, paradoxically, it draws much of its energy, beauty, and humour from its strategy of almost completely withholding reference from the reader. Profoundly transgressive in that it records a relationship that is ‘illicit’ (hence not to be written), the poem assaults the standard interpretative notion of meaning as an ‘essence’ that must be extracted just as it assaults the standard interpretative practice of peeling away ‘layers’ of signification through abstracting and then explicating ‘key’ words and phrases which will ‘unlock’ the text. Lifting Belly is predicated on the paradoxical desire to write out the humour and affection of sexual and domestic love while at the same time preserving and protecting it through a cryptic style that, on one hand, encodes certain references and thus withholds them from the reader, and on the other records in a more-or-less daily journal the events of the day.(29-30)
Unfortunately, when he takes his focus from the specific and enters into a more general discussion, as he does with Patriarchal Poetry or even Lifting Belly, he seems to lose that insightful ability he has already proven capable of.
Fortunately, this is not true of the chapters (2-4) that he devotes to a discussion of Louis Zukofsky. Perhaps this is because of the way he approaches this poet. Chapter 2, titled ‘Recurrencies: No. 12 of Louis Zukofsky’s Anew’, begins this discussion by focusing on the specific allowing him to make such statements as
So, too, with this poem, save that the things in it are bound together by the sight
and more particularly by the sound of the words, by the language, in which they occur, and by the poet who records them. And the poet does not himself presume to gloss either what give rise to the poem, or the poem itself. For to do so would be to say what it ‘means’, and one sense of ‘mean’, we should recall, is to intend, to have intentions. Instead, the poem enjoins us to stare in wonder, as well as to stare, wondering(55)
The dynamics of the poem arise, in part at least, from the tension between a desire to let the reader into the poem, and an urge to keep the reader out lest in its ease of entrance the poem disappear. And both feelings border on necessity, for the poem’s existence. The pressures thus generated shape the rhythm of the poem, as well as compress the syntax. What results is a tough notty Grace; read the poem aloud, and notice the transformations – sight, sound, and sense.(59)
In the next chapter, titled ‘Instant Entirety: Zukofsky’s ‘A’, he provides an overview of Zukofsky’s lifelong poem – a poem Zukofsky spent 26 years writing. Recognizing the problems with the writing of a long poem of this nature, problems which Basil Bunting had warned Zukofsky of, Quartermain states that “What is most immediately evident, however, is that Zukofsky tackles the formal problems time poses in the composition of a long poem by deliberately building discontinuities into its structure.”(60) Quartermain then goes on to state that Zukofsky had learned a valuable lesson from watching Chaplin’s Modern Times, this lesson being the concept of ‘instant entirety’:
This concept of the ‘instant entirety’ has its prosodic implications for conventional views of formal coherence as a consistency of formal repetitions, architecturally or musically predictable, are not available to a poet whose prosody and form, like Zukofsky’s, are so closely linked to his ideas about music. Recognizing that ‘each poem has its own laws’ – that any poem, that is to say, inevitably (be it ever so slightly) modifies its own formal principles as it proceeds – Zukofsky took as a structural principle for ‘A’ the notion of prosodic variety.(62)
Such insights into the overall structure of ‘A’ go into the making of chapter 4, ‘”Not at All Surprised by Science”: Louis Zukofsky’s First Half of ‘A’ – 9’. Beginning with what Quartermain refers to as an ‘upside-down sonnet’, Quartermain states that “If you read it aloud without paying much attention to the sense it sounds gorgeous, unlike any other poem in the English language. But the ear seduces you into figuring out what it says, and you pause, and consider.”(71) In addressing himself to the multiplicity of themes that goes into the making of ‘A’, Quartermain says
The vocabulary drawn from Marx misleads the unwary reader, for readers (and indeed some writers!) of poetry in this century have been in the habit of supposing that a poem addresses itself to one frame of reference only, and that if there is any ambiguity in a poem, then that ambiguity serves to intensify and render more complicated a ‘central theme’ of the poem, or to reveal a covert theme or ‘point’ of the poem which must then be reconciled to the overt statement/s the poem makes. Talking of the ‘resolution’ of tensions and ambiguities in the poem, such readers have often identified that resolution with what they also call the poem’s (and the poet’s!) ‘integrity’.(87)
This does not conclude Quartermain’s interest in Zukofsky. It is just the conclusion of discussion of Zukofsky’s poetry per se.
The next two chapters examine influences on Zukofsky’s work beginning with William Carlos Williams and continuing with James Joyce. In ‘‘Actual Word Stuff, Not Thoughts for Thoughts’: Williams and Zukofsky’, Quartermain examines “where the end word of a line...ends one statement but unpunctuated also starts the next, acting as the pivot on which the next line turns...a grammatical/syntactic play known to students of classical Greek, as apo koinou – and in Williams’s hands it is, as syntactic play, as play of meaning, the play of the mind, a form of logopoeia.”(93) Quartermain contends that Zukofsky uses this for different purposes than Williams: “the line break in Williams serves to intensify what the poem says – he is playing around with meaning; but Zukofsky plays around with meaning for the sake of the sound.”(95) In ‘‘Only is Order Othered. Nought is Nulled’: Finnegans Wake and Middle and Late Zukofsky’, Bottom: On Shakespeare and Catullus are considered from a Joycean perspective. Quartermain makes much of the numerology at play in Zukofsky’s Bottom but never once puts forth the idea that this is important to Zukofsky as a result of his Jewish heritage – something Zukofsky greatly played down but is nonetheless present. I confirmed my suspicions of a Kabbalistic influence with Adeena Karasick who advised that “Gematria is Jewish numerology (Kabbalistic).” Quartermain succinctly summarizes this chapter in the following statement:
A salient feature of Finnegan’s Wake is that the very punish nature of the book invites us to translate while ensuring that translation is impossible; a similar punishment lies in store for the reader of Catullus. This strategy, of withholding intelligibility while seemingly offering it, is absolutely essential to both books...It is not, of course, that neither book is intelligible, but that they profoundly disturb our notions of intelligibility: Like the world, the text must stubbornly resist the straitjacket of determined meaning and the singularity of intellectual order. The writing does not offer a vocabulary as a lexicon of terms but as a repertoire of activities..., and the question, reading both Joyce and Zukofsky, is not a question of meaning but of procedure.(118)
Most of the remaining chapters, dealing with such luminaries as Basil Bunting, Robert Duncan, Guy Davenport, etc. are what I would term ‘throw-away’ (or ‘add-on’, if you prefer) – articles that have been flitting around a desk or filing cabinet for some time and need a place to roost. I do not mean this in a pejorative sense but merely that they are not of the same significance as what has been discussed. There are two that do stand out. The first is the one titled ‘Robert Creeley What Counts’. Now normally, when poetry is discussed, the grammatical construct that incites interest is the verb. In fact, Quartermain, in a backhand approach, cites this brief passage from Stein “why after a thing is named write about it”.(155) Yet, Quartermain finds, in a passage that cites another, contradictory, passage of Stein’s: “Poetry is I say essentially a vocabulary just as prose is essentially not...It is a vocabulary entirely based on the noun” before it turns to a passage related to Charles Olson who was alleged to have said to Creeley “A right noun...is worth every color in the business. Actually a noun carries all the color with it, and rightly used, gets back, all that light has done with it, yes?”(156) Thus it would appear that in this lineage the noun has supplanted the importance of the verb. The other chapter is the last which deals with Susan Howe ‘And the Without: An Interpretive Essay on Susan Howe’. This is a great introduction to the contortions that Howe puts language through in codifying her poetry.
As a postscript, I was going to combine this review with a review of the 2006 release by Library of America of Louis Zukofsky: Selected Poems, edited and with a foreward by Charles Bernstein which is the most recent release of Zukofsky’s poetry until I discovered that New Directions will be reissuing on December 10, 2010 both Zukofsky’s Anew and his A.
John Herbert Cunningham is the host of Speaking of Poets – a half-hour radio show on Sundays on CKUW 95.9 FM. He resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada where he writes poetry, reviews and interviews. He publishes regularly in half a dozen literary magazines in Canada and the same number in the U.S. He is also a multi-instrumentalist with the free jazz group ECMW – Experimental Creative Music Workshop. He is currently studying the alto sax, the Chinese flute and the darbouka.