A Fragmentary Poetics (Part One)

Due to the length of this essay (& perhaps more to the limitations & strains of this medium), it will appear in two parts, the latter of which will be posted next update. — Z.

    I am a slow learner. My education — and it is still ongoing — has consisted of missed opportunities, hasty readings, and misremembered lessons. And I am as well a slow writer. I draft painfully, in widely-spaced turns, and rewrite obsessively. I leave much unfinished, discontinued. Appropriately, my poetry is a poetry of unfinished surfaces and discontinuities, a poetry of fragments. Perhaps in compensation, I have evolved (or discovered, or adopted — or stolen) a poetics of fragments.

    “We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were any body else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by my narrowness of experience.” The advantage of the personal voice in an essay on poetics is precisely similar to what Thoreau adumbrates in the opening pages of Walden. The first person, that is, allows the expositor of poetics to avoid proscriptivity, to display her or his praxis not as a model for suitable or correct — whether politically, socially, or aesthetically — writing, but as one particular path, chosen out of a number of alternatives. The first person allows for a descriptive poetics, as opposed to a universalizing blueprint.

    Thoreau writes, and writes that he speaks. Here I only write. A few readers might hear my voice, but I am not speaking — I am writing these words in a composition book (trademark “The Scholar”), with a bright blue plastic fountain pen (brand name “Lamy”), filled with shocking violet ink. And I’m thinking these words with my brain, sounding them out as I go (I can feel my vocal cords contracting as I write, even though I’m not speaking them aloud). And I’m typing them into a a Macintosh PowerBook 5300, hoping that the system won’t crash and lose fifteen hundred words of semi-deathless prose, like it did last week. Or a month ago, as I’m revising and adding to what I’ve earlier written, patching, veneering over, and reshaping sentences that on the page or screen, somehow don’t sound right.

    When I was younger, I wanted to write long poems that would hang together, that could be admired for the deftness with which their heterogeneous materials were woven into single fabrics. I admired unwieldy nineteenth-century long poems no-one I knew had read — Melville’s Clarel, for instance — and claimed to admire vast poems I had only dipped into: Hardy’s The Dynasts, Charles Montague Doughty’s The Dawn in Britain, Michael Drayton’s Polyolbion. But I could not write like that. Poe dismissed Paradise Lost as passages of fine poetry bound together by stretches of versified description. And I concurred with Poe, not in rejecting Paradise Lost but in rejecting the long narrative poem, if only because I did not have the patience to write the low-intensity passages that would lead from one high point to the next. So I looked to Davenport, to Johnson, and to their modernist forebears, Pound and Zukofsky, for poetries in which bright moments and curious jewels of language were set side-by-side without regard for the flabby, less energetic verbiage that would explain their juxtaposition.

    I read French haltingly, but Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés was, in its form, a revelation for me. Where I loved his sonnets, toasts, monologues, and occasional verses for their dense, concentrated metaphoricity, I was drawn to Un coup for that same dense opacity expressed in a fundamentally spare, almost empty form. The shipwreck the poem tells of is as much a shipwreck of language as of anything beyond language, and leaves in its wake, not a harmonious description in classical French alexandrines, but a series of fragments of various shapes and sizes — flotsam and jetsam.

    My friend Ted Pearson describes his own work as “long poems of very few words.” This, then, was another model for the long poem, one that would mobilize fragments of language within the desert white space of the page. Space as a source for the voice, yes — but more crucially, empty space as the phenomenological environment of the reader, for whom blankness looms, broods around words which seem to shrink almost to nothing in their nakedness.

    The fragment entices. It speaks of something more, no longer present. Shelley read the fragmentary statue of Ozymadias both as a testimony to a lost whole — the pride and pomp of the Pharaoh Ramses II, the “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” that commissioned an undying eternal monument to themselves — and, despite the attritions of time, a testimony to the art and skill of the sculptor who, with sly subversion, “mocked” the Pharaoh in depicting him. Friedrich Schlegel, leader of the Jena Athenaeum group, and perhaps the preeminent Romantic theorist of the fragment, argued a different line. “Many of the works of the ancients,” he wrote, “the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace surely in mind, “have become fragments. Many modern works are fragments as soon as they are written.” This bespeaks a sensibility distinct from Shelley’s, one which seeks aesthetic wholeness, not in the imagined totality of which the fragment is the eroded remainder, but in the fragment itself, whole unto itself: “A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine.”

    Rilke, his poet’s eye nuzzling about the “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” admits that “We cannot know his legendary head” [Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt]. Nonetheless, the inner light that still suffuses the fragmentary statue “from inside” has the power to impose a self-altering imperative: “You must change your life [Du mußt dein Leben ändern]. Who is “you,” called upon with the familiar”du”? It is not the poem: it can only be the poet, for the fragmentation of the statue goes no further than its description in the poem: the poem itself is whole, a perfect sonnet, all its rhymes in place.

    In English, the renaissance of the fragmentary which Schlegel heralds came about only in the first decades of the last century, when poets like Eliot and Pound (in large part inspired by European modernist visual artists) discovered the resonance and power of the fragmented utterance. (Do I want to write literary history? Here?) When I was younger, I read The Waste Land as the record of a spiritual journey from despair to something like complacent hope. Now, I can read it only as a virtuosic collage of fragments. After a first exhilarated immersion, I read The Cantos like a good scholar, tracking down the sources of the quotations, annotating my copy of the poem (in brown ink, with a fountain pen) from an array of reference books fanned out on the table around me. When I began Olson’s Maximus, I had George Butterick’s guide to the poem in one hand, a mechanical pencil in the other. But this time, I found that source-hunting was impeding the movement, slowing down and even arresting the “projectivist” thrust of Olson’s language. What I realized was that The Cantos had drawn me in, not as a treasure-trove of Pound’s reading, but as a glittering, unsystematic hoard of resonant fragments. It was wrong, I realized — or wrong at least for me — to begin my first sustained reading of Olson’s epic with Baedeker in hand. Butterick replaced on the shelf, Maximus could pull me forward with an energy kindred to that of The Cantos or of Williams’s Paterson, another great modernist fragment-poem.

    I happily admit that my writing technologies are antiquated. I write by hand, usually with a fountain pen, in bound books (some line, some unlined).I used to use gray, round-cornered composition books, but I haven’t been able to find them for some years, so at present I use a heterogeneous array of different books, ranging from large, leather-bound business ledgers to tiny paperbacks. My writing is careful, almost obsessive (which is not to imply uniformly legible). I date each entry, and often begin the day’s writing by lamenting how long it’s been since I last wrote.

    I begin drafting a poem on one page; when I’ve written a few lines, I rewrite them, either immediately under the draft or on the facing page. Rather than copying from the recto to the verso of the same page — which means flipping back and forth and often miscopying words or spaces — I will write a new draft into another notebook. So tracing the composition of a given poem (not something I often do) is a process of tracking down the notebook of a given period, toggling back and forth between them, and trying to make out which version of a given line or passage is prior to the other.

    One poet friend of mine writes only on yellow legal pads, with a sharpened pencil. Another can only compose at the keyboard; before the advent of the personal computer, he wrote at the typewriter. There are strong affinities between both of their poetics and my ow. Does this mean that the old question “How do you write?” is really irrelevant? I don’t know. Sometimes I think so, sometimes not. Like Louis Zukofsky’s, my handwriting is tiny and, I’m told, hard to read. Unlike Guy Davenport, no teacher has ever told me, “You have neat and attractive handwriting.” Occasionally, my hand has been the source of useful mistakes: copying from one notebook to another, I have misread my own writing, replacing the wooden original with a more vigorous, less logical alternative.

    My working notebooks, when they aren’t taken up with prose ramblings or actual drafts of poems, contain large stretches of random verbal material: words, phrases, sentences, quotations. Unlike Davenport, whose multiple notebooks are rigidly and productively segregated among subjects and modes, my own notebooks are rigidly and productively random. I admire his orderliness; I haven’t the discipline to do it like that. (The story of my life in
nine words.)

    Discipline. Louis Zukofsky’s works have occupied me for better than a decade now, and the more I learn of them (the more I love them), the more the man’s sheer dogged discipline, his rage to order his materials, strikes me. One way of reading “A” might see the poem beginning in a Cantos-like mode, only more complex, more highly structured. As the poem progresses, Zukofsky finds that way of going just too simple. And so, with an almost obsessive attention, he devises crueller and crueller straitjackets to fit his language into: Why not write a section in which distribution of “n” and “r” sounds is determined by the formula for a conic section? Why not try to imitate the structure of a baroque partita (since he’s already done the baroque fugue)? Why not translate a stretch of the book of Job into an English that sounds as much as possible like the Hebrew? Why not try to fit six thousand years of history into a thousand lines of poetry, sedulously avoiding proper names? Why not do that last one twice?

    The twenty-four movements of “A” have God’s plenty for the structure-hunter. A horse in every movement, the letter “A” thematized in every movement, Pythagorean number-lore, literary history, current events — and all wound up in an ever-shifting and ever more complex formal systems. My mind boggles, and admires. But I haven’t the discipline to do it like that.

Mark Scroggins (© 2002)