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1.) John Ashbery, The Tennis Court Oath
This set of poems is to me still the most inventive and single-minded work by Ashbery. The words not only continually surprise and move me, they seem continually to surprise and move themselves:
Going close to the bowl you said a word
Me. You forgot the piano. It is
The one thing that can destroy us. (“A Life Drama”)
All the great disorienting techniques are in The Tennis Court Oath—cut-up, appropriation, chance, free association—but they are performed in a way that seems strangely quiet and, hence, even more disturbing. Like Jackson Pollock’s paintings (to take a decidedly un-quiet comparison), these poems do not simply relate the “flatness” of their medium. They also engage in a tragically joyous vision: How do we speak at all when to speak is already to have been spoken? All that’s left is noise.
2.) Lisa Robertson, Lisa Robertson’s Magenta Soul Whip
“Utopia is so emotional.” This series of occasional poems is mostly discussed in terms of philosophy and architecture. And Robertson does deal with and in abstraction, but in a way that asks us to grind those abstractions against our bodies—to “name the liquids and seconds that move the body turning towards memory and emitting sound…”. What is so fascinating in her work is the kind of bubbling frenzy that the poems contain even with their classical frames of reference (Lucretius, Virgil, Pliny, etc.). These poems are about how control, fantasy and sex decode the things of nature—and the nature of things. “the dominator is cuddled inside of me: what would you call that?”
3.) Clark Coolidge, Smithsonian Depositions and Subject for a Film
“Putting back the rusty disc to cover any strata that might be loose.” This is Clark Coolidge’s homage to his friend Robert Smithson. Smithson’s work often involved heaps and piles of material—rock, glass, sand—on gallery floors and in the “landscape.” His most famous work is Spiral Jetty (a jutting spiral of rock in the Great Salt Lake). In this long poem Coolidge seems to ask the question: what happens when you move language around with a tractor shovel? The poem is a dense set of mostly prose appropriations. At times he adds autobiographical detail in a kind of rich, sonically thickened and musical language. This is self-writing, but it imagines the self as a collection of language strata, a series of readings and layers of linguistic history and association. Coolidge himself was a jazz drummer, but the musical analog for this book, unlike his jazzier collections such as The Rova Variations or Sound as Thought, would be the massive swaths of sound in composers like Iannis Xenakis or Krzysztof Penderecki.
4.) Susan Howe, Articulations of Sound Forms in Time
Living inside of an archive is not the work of librarians only. In fact, we are all archivists, preserving and subtly transforming the language(s) we speak every day. Articulating sound forms in time. In this book, Howe deforms and distorts an escape narrative by the 17th century English colonist Hope Atherton. She draws attention not only to the way that text and language work as a system of storage and retrieval but also how they fail in that capacity. From the first line—“From seaweed said nor repossess rest”—she joys in making unsuspected yet ordered columns of discrete chunks of words. It’s exciting to follow: we get a sense that she is dealing with words not her own (who uses their own language, anyway?), but her reframing of those words a sense not only of the confusions of an-impossible-to-know past but also the layers of history our everyday language contains. You might call it the historical sublime.
5.) Anne Carson, If Not, Winter… Fragments of Sappho
Carson’s translation of Sappho’s fragmentary canon comes at history from the opposite direction. Whereas Howe explodes a coherent text so that we sift through the incongruencies and violence of our colonial past, Carson gives us the entire “body” of Sappho’s work, which is, of course, a body deformed, broken up, and erased by time. These fragments become remnants, and they mark an undeniable pathos. What remains of desire, experience, and love? Unraveled weaves of words… “soda” (189), “celery” (191), “gold anklebone cups” (192).
6.) Algernon Charles Swinburne, Poems and Ballads, First Series
Swinburne was a great reader of Sappho. He wrote in her form and took on her voice in many of his poems. He was also a great and incredibly musical poet. I have recently decided to read more of his work (to the understandable scorn of many of my peers), and I think it is an absolute must for any writer or reader in English to get a feel for his excesses. For Swinburne, sound always threatens to override sense. Rhythm, repetition, assonance, alliteration…he really is a great mangler of the language (I mean that in a positive sense!):
Here, where the world is quiet;
Here, where all trouble seems
Dead winds’ and spent waves’ riot
In doubtful dreams of dreams… (“The Garden of Proserpine”)
Since the advent of “free verse,” we have started to lose our ear for the joys of repetitive sound play. Modernism supposedly erased the kind of overwrought ornamentality of a decadent poet like Swinburne, but I can see (and hear) an intimate connection between his work and poets like Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and H.D. They not only take up much of Swinburne’s matter (e.g. medieval romance, the sea, thwarted desire) but also consciously cut up his prosody. Many of Pound’s Cantos, for instance, could not have been written without an ear developed by the rhythms of Swinburne. Let the waves of sound wash over you…
7.) 0 to 9: The Complete Magazine, editors Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci
0 to 9 was a photocopied and staple-bound poetry magazine edited by Bernadette Mayer and Vito Acconci in downtown New York City in the late 1960s. Its simple, DIY presentation was a clear precursor to the punk zines of the 70s, 80s and now. Content-wise, it’s not too far from punk either. Mayer and Acconci curated a vast repository of playful (and at times enervating) experimental possibilities: poetry as maps, poetry as blank space, poetry as diagrams, poetry as single words, poetry as quotation, poetry as instructions, etc. etc. An example:
Testing language and its limits became the order of the day. Each experimental project imagines a collaboration between reader and writer in the creation of a utopia (a “no place”). In a way, the projects collected here are not too far from a poet like Swinburne: they are new forms for integrating language, with the recognition that these forms are as arbitrary and productively constraining as any sonnet or pantoum.
8.) David Berman, Actual Air
On the other end of the poetic spectrum from 0 to 9 is David Berman’s collection of poems, Actual Air. Berman was the lead singer and songwriter for the band Silver Jews, and many of these poems are also lyrics to his songs. A down-home surrealist, Berman does not question language’s representative capacity or material nature in any direct way. Rather, he collects situations and characters. He tells us absurd stories:
A second New York is being built
a little west of the old one.
Why another, no one asks,
just build it, and they do. (“New York, New York”)
The poems works like the weird collage/dream paintings of Salvador Dali and Max Ernst, connecting dream, fantasy, and the uncanny in often hilarious ways. But the comedy is always tempered by a fear of loss, as if the set-piece fantasies are actually produced to counteract a world of flux:
All things rigid in their arrangements,
coiled up in autumn’s marble,
and I couldn’t trust them to remain. (“The War in Apartment 1812”)
9.) Lawrence Giffin, Get The Fuck Back into that Burning Plane
Giffin is also a dark comedian, and this long chapbook poem takes us into the twisted logics and eclectic vocabularies of contemporary consumer culture:
Proposition A, “the sun will rise tomorrow,”
is true for all time and is thus totally
unintelligible. Even then,
your comprehensiveness is undercut
by the purchasing power of others.
Giffin’s sly mix of philosophical, economic, and military language performs an urgent attack on a world in which our docile bodies shuttle between various institutionalized forms of being. The fingers of “lab, factory, prison, school” touch, prod, and command us, and even the languages of love and transcendence are infected:
My hope is that I remain bound to you.
My hope, which is valid thru 05/14/04.
This poem concisely analyzes the frustrations and paradoxes of opposition in contemporary America. It is important reading if one wants to understand more about the cultural conditions that spawned the Occupy Wall Street movement.
10.) Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English
Bergvall is a French-Norwegian writer and visual artist living in London. Meddle English collects essays, poems, and performance pieces from the last ten years of her working with and in language. As with Coolidge and Howe, Bergvall is attracted to the ways in which we can reveal personal and political history by emphasizing language as a material thing (a “heap” to use Bergvall quoting Robert Smithson). In her “Shorter Chaucer Tales” Bergvall remixes Middle English, contemporary English, French, Latin, and more in way that reveals playful and unexpected sonic and semantic connections. “Deus hic” becomes “God is drunk,” for instance. But, really, Bergvall is using old language to remind us that the way we view the world—even the simplest things like a sunrise, sound, and an earthquake—happens through the filter of language:
At these wordes words heven rose glood
the deepest soun son sound
a song sangen entuned intoned
a dense clamour clamor cries out
Love is leaving! the Earth quakes quaketh shakes under their feet! (“The
This is not antiquarianism; rather, she is “spitting out the most intimate and most irretrievable” in order to create something new out of the detritus of the past. Her work is the implicit answer to Giffin’s melancholy. She shows the way to “fight off one language with another language” (“Cat in the Throat”).
John Melillo is a visiting Faculty Fellow at the University of Arizona for 2011-2013. He specializes in poetry and twentieth century British and American Literature. John studies the relationship between sound and meaning in a variety of literary and cultural contexts, from the rhetorical strategies of modernist poets to the contemporary performance of punk music. In addition to his academic research in noise, John writes art and music criticism and plays guitar and sings, most recently in the pop/noise project Algae and Tentacles.