UNTAM’D WING: Riffs on Romantic Poetry by Jeffrey C. Robinson
(Station Hill of Barrytown, 2010)
LETTER TO GLASGOW, 12-03-2010
“Someone said it… no great art without great theories… & I believed in it… and so I have great theories…”
- Ted Berrigan
Interview and Reading on In The American Tree, hosted by Lyn Hejinian & Kit Robinson, KPFA, Berkeley, 1978 available on-line @ PennSound
Jeffrey C. Robinson’s cuts & re-mixes, “riffs” as he terms them, call to mind, as Anne Waldman notes in her P(riff)Face, the “minimalization a la Ronald Johnson” evident in his R A D I OS where Milton’s Paradise Lost is played as source text, along with the narrative commentaries and poetic re-imaginings of Keats’ life & work in Tom Clark’s Junkets on a Sad Planet or the similar fun-jinks found in his The Mutabilitie of the Englishe Lyrick. While the exercise(s) is not new, a good time is had and Robinson offers a fresh experience of the work of the English Romantics, encouraging in the spirit of enthrallment where the pleasure of language is felt. A large focus is given primarily to Wordsworth (Robinson has published extensive criticism elsewhere) and Keats, but Coleridge and others get tossed into the fray a bit as well. The very best that may be said of a book for poets may be said of this one: it generates writing. An invigorating text, poems get propelled pell mell here and there as the impulse to write lies infectiously strung throughout the whole.
At the heart of the book is “The trickster Hermes,” patron saint of poets, stealers of lines. (pg. 114) On the back of the book, Anselm Hollo’s blurb: “speechless / an English like notes / of Anton Webern // winding through the weave / of the brain’s branches” takes its lead from Robinson’s liberties with his source texts, the generous feel he gives the soundings of words.
Lying on banks in tall grasses begetting begetting
Again again the wandering cry lying together
Still begetting the breathing beloved wet songs
Full fledged sparrows mouths closed so full
Nests dull evening lying full close breathing
Wm. met me lying breathing close the wandering
Cry Cuckoo coo continually Wm. met me
I and Wm. and swallows and thrushes employed lying
Breathing breaking down failing lying down again
Lying on sloping turf melting astonished
On my couch like the grave employed in bliss
This poem comprised of Robinson’s re-working of lines from Dorothy Wordsworth captures the staccato rhythmic feel of the repetitive days the Wordsworths spent together, while Robinson also rejoices in exuberant use of “-ing” whether present participle or gerund, as he does elsewhere.
“She [Dorothy] records his listening to her breathing and rustling. If I concentrate very hard, blotting out my own world, I can just recover their silences and sounds,” and as far as this goes, all is well. (pg. 71) Of course, when taking such liberties there are always traps of self-indulgence which must be out-maneuvered, less the result be “of music, audible to him alone.” (pg. 84)
As for Coleridge, Robinson’s riffs would do well with less “richly sensuous reverie” of such stuff as “wind against the wind-harp” (pg. 26) and further “wild and various” news of that “break / with faith” (pg. 29). Robinson’s results here lack any edginess. The sharp thrill of the original is gone. At its best, you come across the breezy clarity of an imagined Wordsworth, encouraged to:
the matchless pleasure
of gypsy girl
stirring air in her
When it comes to the matter of the “simultaneous uselessness and necessity of speaking to the dead” and “the juxtaposition of the eternity of death with the utter immediacy of speech” there’s often a looseness that pries its way into once tight language. (pg. 104) For instance, alternatively you may flip that last line to speak of the “eternity of speech” and the “immediacy of death,” with either arrangement, the truth is equally felt. The problem is that so often the powerful thrust of the original text is impossible to carry over intact into a newly imagined “real thing in the world.” (pg. xiv)
At times while merging the marvelous with that which is less than, the language folds in on itself. The following example, culled from “careful review of the manuscripts of the May poems” Wordsworth’s “two poems on May composed between 1826 and 1835,” one beginning “While from the purprling…” shows a Gertrude Stein repetitiveness that does not succeed well. (pg. 80)
May sweet May blithe May blithe
Flora blithe May blithe Flora blithe
May blithe blithe blithe Flora from
His couch upstarts blithe Flora blithe
May season blithe May season of
Renewed delicate leafy blithe May
Robinson teases round the question whether “blithe” does “go with ‘Flora’ or with ‘May’ ” testing the grounds of “visionary possibilities of words.” (pg. 81) But of course, the only end to such experiments remains “deathless unfinished song” (pg. 83) and thus “blocks of predictable Romantic idiom” are here merely transformed into blocks of predictable procedural constructs of Modernist experiment.
Robinson takes delight in his re-envisioning, “I like what I just made” and there are solid station-points throughout where he offers up legitimate truths by way of example of how poems do work. (pg. 75) A well made poem like any solidly built structure, while being still integral to itself, does also fold and unfold, overlapping in places and is capable of being re-joined together in fascinating new ways each time without losing in its strength, functionality, or meaning. For instance,
And very few to love;
Is shining in the sky.
The difference to me!
Is “the new last-line stanza” of Wordsworth’s poem “she dwelt among the untrodden ways” when rearranged, taking “the last lines” of each stanza to form a wholly new one. (pg. 75)
Beside the springs of Dove.
Half hidden from the eye!
When Lucy ceased to be;
Would be the new second-line stanza, following the same pattern, such secrets of the poets are a delight and this book is worth reading through for the enjoyment of coming across them. The trick is to remember that it’s not always so easy. It is in the nature of poetry to follow Keats when he declares, “I shall certainly breed” and breed he does here, as Robinson does too, drawing on Keats’ letters and marginalia to produce fresh lineation of declaration. (pg. 98)
richly for it
and will I hope
encourage me to
If Robinson ever needs the encouragement he doesn’t show it. Finally, it is all a “plunge of song” into which any reader may now and again dive into as a writer and that doesn’t do one bit of harm to poetry at all. (pg. 89)
“Graves of Shelley and Keats” (pg. 110)
at the feet of whose long buried bones
Gregory Corso’s fresh (by comparison) ashes
now lie with rent coming due
without other home to turn to
turns out you may evict the dead after all
those who have nowhere else to go
having gone where none know or dare
begs the question
“over time where do poems reside?” (pg. xiii)
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco. His critical essay on Creeley's debt to Stevens is slated to appear in Fulcrum 7 anytime now. Poems and such will be appearing in the next issue of Amerarcana. This Spring Post Apollo Press will publish his "There Are People Think That Painters Shouldn't Talk": A GUSTONBOOK.