Text in the City: Difficult Language

by Garry Thomas Morse

Last week, I was present at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC to hear Weyman Chan’s poetry recitation for the Robson Reading Series, including new work and “biotext” from his latest title from Talonbooks, Chinese Blue.

Chan is a witty mercurial sort, and in his writing, his various branches of scientific and literary knowledge often intertwine, and startling commentary waterfleas out of direct observation, or in this case, a petri dish:

                            maybe buffered ions, a Bic lighter and
     any off-the-shelf acrosome accelerant
     could help me to sit down without hurting
     my protractor
                        I see him fitting Ivy League pins to horse sperm
     Go Harvard!
                        and pompoms to hamster oocytes
                   now observe how assiduous penetrants push’n‘pull

And whether it’s passing comment upon the most recent media feed or sly codification of a violin sonata by Johannes Brahms, with pop-art projectives, Chan is keeping us in the continual loop:

     Kate and Wills didn’t see that when they waved from the Hyatt
     kitty-corner to Arts Central
     so nothing was reported
     I mean who knew life was free to overlook
     you’d get off on some laugh track this northern arctic psychodrama
     springs on the royal we
     or is this your free but lonely
     (frei aber einsam) talking–
     and the Twitterverse wants what?

Chan was engaging a reader as ever, but I was especially affected by a few favourable words he gave on the subject of “difficult language” in poetry and works of literature, also making reference to Charles Bernstein’s collection of essayistic offerings Attack of the Difficult Poems.

Katie Couric kicking back with Attack of the Difficult Poems
photo © Lawrence Schwartzwald 5/2/11

With respect to the poetical acuity of Katie Couric and her viral “reading” meme, the book is for the most part a light-hearted survey of directions poetry has taken or appears to be taking, and surely has its place as an introductory teaching tool. And after a while, you begin to get the idea that difficult poems, especially when they’re at that special age, can be difficult.

My favourite “essayish” tidbit is “Invention Follies”, in which Bernstein talks of radical formal innovation in modernist and contemporary art and its role in reinventing the aesthetic for new readers and new contexts. He suggests that

it is now fashionable to attack innovative poetry as frivolous, as the product of privileged individuals who do not have to face the harshest realities of poverty, war, or social injustice. This attitude, while often morally motivated, is aesthetically and ethically treacherous..innovation comes as a response to the human crisis: innovation is the mark of rethinking, trying to break out of the obsessive-repetition-compulsion we see all around us, whether in an individual or a family, or politically (in the conflict between states or groups).

However, as with Chan’s charming spiel, the most heartening part is Bernstein’s giving equal footing to the respective ideas of innovation and refinement, indicating that the refined work that comes after disruptive innovation may be “better’, even if it lacks some of the initial energy. He stresses

I want to flag the danger of morally coding either end of this spectrum of disruption or refinement. Great works certainly exist in both modalities, and bad ones too, nor can the modalities always be differentiated.

Brahms, who was more or less stuck with the prospect of honing and refining the classical tradition for concert music, would be happy to hear this. No he wouldn’t. Anyway, when discussing the concept of “disruptive technologies”, Bernstein quotes directly from Clayton M. Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail (go Harvard Business School Press!):

Disruptive technologies bring to a market a very different value proposition than had been available previously. Generally, disruptive technologies underperform established products in mainstream markets, but they have other features that a few fringe (and generally new) customers value.

This business model sounds eerily familiar to me. The cycle of book production is scarcely different, as we tend to fall into the habit of focusing on what is “new and improved”. And these days, there is a palpable air of desperation in the air surrounding authors about being a hit, being hot, being relevant, being topical, being a household name, being popular, etc. By the way, Bernstein emphasizes in his introduction that difficult poems are not popular! Yet we still can learn to love them!

In terms of cultural production, especially with poetry, one finds oneself in the position of defending a niche market of the abstruse, the esoteric, the unusual, and quite naturally, the difficult. In relation to the market, either the innovative or refined work may have the appearance of a defunct product, a product that defies means of handshaking or the recognizable stamp of approval indicative of a product that will pass muster. And yet it goes without saying that the broken widget of today may be the highly stimulating fidget of tomorrow!

Also highly enjoyable in Bernstein’s book is “The Art and Practice of the Ordinary”, in which he offers examples of how ordinariness in poetry can present unexpected difficulty, particularly in the work of Gertrude Stein:

..Stein’s poetry is stripped of all its literariness, as marked by high poetic diction, a certain set of themes, metrical conventions, even the look of the poem on the page. Indeed the prose format of Tender Buttons is more ordinary than the verse format of a sonnet. So the work is certainly a move toward the ordinary and away from the literary. But because it is not representational in a conventional way, it seems odd or opaque. It does not appear to be ordinary, yet its aim is to present the ordinary.

To generalize, poets such as William Carlos Williams and Gertrude Stein were up to speed on what was happening in the world of painting and wanted to apply such theories to literature. Cezanne and Juan Gris had realized that due to conventional modes of painting, a tree was not a tree and not even the colour of a tree or not even the colour of a colour. American readers are even welcome to perceive this colour as a color. Therefore, through the medium and materiality of language, these poets, to name a couple, were trying to get at the “thingness” of a thing, instead of providing meaningless descriptors. Or at the very least, to point out that any thing could be the “thingness” of a thing.

For example, let’s take out our BookThug edition of Tender Buttons from their Department of Reissue and let’s take a quick look at “Mildred’s Umbrella”, something any Beckettian character could truly cherish:

     A cause and no curve, a cause and loud enough, a cause
     and extra a loud clash and an extra wagon, a sign of
     extra, a sac a small sac and an established color and
     cunning, a slender grey and no ribbon, this means a
     loss a great loss a restitution.

One of my all-time favourite books of poetry over the past decade (and I am talking desert island stuff) springs to mind, Natalie Simpsons’ accrete or crumble, originating from the exceptional Vancouver micropress LINEbooks and distributed by New Star Books.

In a pinch, I would venture that some of Simpson’s work could be seen as refinement of Stein’s technique. In saying so, I factor in a high level of enjoyment that refinement allows. That is also to say that the most daring avant-garde works can quickly exhaust themselves through sheer technique, along with the reader. While mindful of process, Simpson often allows language to do the work, to make its own syntactic leaps and interjections, and this subtlety (and brevity) gives the reader a chance to savour every quirk and every lovely:

     urgent anguish options. subtle rounds that blue inside fall away
     from thinking of portions. that angular set of anguish sets the
     fall in firmly. embrace aches too, aches and thought. angles of a
     broken mind, the angular bent.

Ah, accrete or crumble, so beautiful and yet so difficult. What are we to do with you? And there you are again, with the rhythmic function of a heart:

     heart learns, and quantity theories, and quantity theories
     correct. the heart learns emotion, when didn’t motion beat. the
     heart learns beating two by two by sizes. when the heart beats
     distinction out, when flash sounds temper.

     constant and temper attractions. heart beats to attraction: the
     heart is a fine weave.

At the start of this year, at the Dead Poets Reading Series in Vancouver, in addition to reading from Jack Spicer’s The Holy Grail, I read some of Spicer’s letters from After Lorca, including this tantalizing admonition:

Most of my friends like words too well. They set them under the blinding light of the poem and try to extract every possible connotation from each of them, every temporary pun, every direct or indirect connection—as if a word could become an object by mere addition of consequences. Others pick up words from the street, from their bars, from their offices and display them proudly in their poems as if they were shouting “See what I have collected from the American language. Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!” What does one do with all this crap?

Naturally, no one listened. In answer to such a rhetorical flourish, I would say that the ever fashionable Nikki Reimer has gathered up the so-called ‘crap’ of our North American language with care and with a deft collagist touch has assembled bundles of the strangest beauty in her book [sic] from Frontenac House, as in this clip from her poem “next top model”:

     imitation is the highest form of bathos
     the dilettante reclines on the divan stretches legs long &
     supple smooth & slender alas, the big toe is hairy
     not pontificate but quantify not genuflect but elevate not
     application but raison d‘être

     proud to produce garbage all the world needs
                      one more lousy frock

For whatever reason, that last line is not [sic] formatting correctly, so in fairness to the poet, I am going to clack in another topical example, an alteric and commodified examination (of self?), commentary in assemblage’s clothing:

     discovered L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry last week;

                                                                                  good thing i’m
     going to the gym today
     met a girl named Nikki who plays the trombone;

                                                                                  conveniently, i
     just monetized my blog
     she’s never been named hottest poet of the year, so it’s a
     good thing she produced the 7 o’clock daily topical promo
     they wanted to be the Tim Hortons© for the masses rather
     than the Starbucks© for the masses; damn lucky they’re
     playing two sets this evening
     he’s not hitting the high notes;

                                                                                  good thing his
     parents are paying the rent

In [sic], so often, the person in the act of speech is seen as not only being part of the process but also being the process itself. In other words, the process is you. Let us read “gentle cycle” together:

     i washed your white shirts because i love you i washed your white
     shirts because i had to i washed your white shirts out of a sense
     of boredom and growing alienation i washed your white shirts
     and lost three pounds i washed your white shirts because i felt
     betrayed i washed your white shirts and reached nirvana after i
     washed your white shirts i felt an intrinsic and lasting sense of
     peace i washed your white shirts and then called your mother i
     washed your white shirts and then ate the rest of the ice cream
     after i washed your white shirts i had to wash my underwear i
     washed your white shirts

Also, Reimer’s [sic] has some of the cheekiest promotional copy:

[sic] thus written, error mine. Sic to incite to attack, especially as a command to a dog: “Sic ‘em!” Siccing poetry on you. That’s sick, as in, awesome. Or ill and sickly. Either way, the (gendered, sexualized) body is implicated. [sic] re-writes a feminist lyric within the long shadow cast by neo-liberalism upon the city and its denizens, mis-remembers the lines and re-inscribes the labour and commerce and sexual negotiations that take place there.

Another book with its sheer difficulty in the right place is Cecily Nicholson’s Triage from Talonbooks. Nicholson’s work explores artistic and urban means of production with a great deal of attentiveness and offers the reader a model or prototype for poetry, a light industrial language sensitive to everyday misunderstanding and what is more, the relative unknown, as in “resolvency”:

     Vie vole fractious o process o rhythm
     tain that specular social schism il ne faut
     jamais perdre le contrôle de la danse as thou
     art double unanimous fixity delicious everybody
     knows formation social leaves divided entities, foliage
     shade presses assembly folds middle percentages faux
     fur berry wine for men redneck answers fleeting clock forth
     tectonic sorts resettle chest scarped gentle sloping port portals

As in Reimer’s [sic], Nicholson’s findings of language, even the most simple of sentences, carry an ominous and ironic sensibility that indirectly conveys the compassion and concern of an author (the poet, we assume):

     a wilt like this

     for a century now runs quickly
     behind our lovely file

     satellite sincerely pressed into this moment

     map future blue rubber bands
     round a packet of handbills

     propriety prime occasion
     couth clay nation


     come learn about your tenancy rights
     dinner provided

As with the elusive term “sic”, the term “triage” is more complex than it appears, and is often associated with medical treatment centres. However, it is specifically a means of prioritizing patients, and the French origin of the word relates more to the sorting of goods. In this respect, Nicholson associates these notions through her poetry, aligning the process of organizing medical treatment with a more overtly consumeristic process.

This week, I was happy to lay hands upon a copy of Lyn Hejinian’s The Book of a Thousand Eyes, her new book from Omnidawn Publishing that in homage to the illustrious storyteller Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights explores the world of sleep in over three hundred segments of varying length and form, creating a serial poem that continually explores its own process of dream-reportage:

     frst Vhtidyinr – nr erll
     I mean …
     mpe jrsy smf dp, ryjomh nsf

    But there is no way to correct a dream

For the most part, Hejinian makes use of ordinariness and as in much of her work, has a strong narrative undercurrent, a flow of language with existential properties that does not necessarily have a starting point or subject. Yet the feeling remains that the movement of her lines should be observed carefully. If you blink or fail to pay attention, as in recounting a dream directly upon waking, there is the sense you are missing something:

     Yesterday has arrived and remains
     Under suspicion
     By the bereft of bereavement, by the adrift of generating distance
     That makes description of the shore almost impossible
     And of the distance, too, shuddering beyond the tents
     Pitched like heads under hats on the sand
     And chattering nonsense that we try to interpret
     To our continual embarrassment–


     While splitting a bagel and counting the minutes
     In chatter so banal that every passion lies hidden in it
     As we stand
     Back (from the unicyclists, rowdy generals, and birdwatchers
     Hurrying by) to back
     With the people we love for love
     Of their surreptitiously lost or slowly hidden histories
     Secret even to ourselves from where we stand
     Butter knife in hand and offering them jam

I could not touch upon the subject of “difficult language” without favourite-ing Jenny Sampirisi’s Croak, her delectable book of poetry from Coach House Press, as the voices and lyrics crept right into my reptilian brain and have been mucking it up ever since it went to print. I took a more comprehensive look at Croak for The Toronto Review of Books, which is viewable online.

Nor can I mentally conjure forth Sampirisi’s frog-girl chorales without mentioning The Book of Frog from Pedlar Press, which I leapfrogged upon at Bolen Books on a jaunt to Victoria, a less murky but even more peculiar “fiction” by Jan Zwicky that documents the electronic interactions of a well-travelled text-centric frog known as Frog and clearly takes a “poke” at various writing styles, from memoir to blogs to texting to travelogues. Frog is also being educated in what it takes to be an albatross:

     If you think it is hard to type with frog feet, you should try
     typing with wings. But don’t worry about the capitals. A couple
     of centuries ago, the ffrench used doubled lowercase letters rather
     than capitals. So frog could be made to look more important by
     spelling it ffrog. And ffrog is ffrench, right? Thing is, the ffrench
     only did it with consonants. It won’t work with aalbatross. Maybe
     that’s why albatross has two esses at the end, to make up for not
     having two a’s at the beginning.

I have no idea why this works as a book. It’s even quite a bit of fun eavesdropping on the correspondences involving this green highbrow who is ultimately trying to resuscitate the somewhat neglected act of writing letters, even digitally. Maybe it works simply because no one knows you’re a frog on the Internet.

Jessica Michalofsky gives Zwicky and her latest work a more in-depth perusal for The Winnipeg Review here.

As it has assumed battle stations on my desk, I’m also inclined to mention Anis Shivani’s My Tranquil War from NYQ Books, although I am tempted to include him under the rubric of “difficult sort” instead of “difficult language”, as not surprisingly, his Huffington Post items often court controversy, as with his rather inflammatory article Can Creative Writing Be Taught? Therapy For The Disaffected Masses.

However, some of Shivani’s critiques resonate with Bernstein’s talk about poetry or literature being treated as a “new and improved” product, or the idea that William Gaddis, the writer Jonathan Franzen calls “Mr. Difficult”, offered in his 1955 novel The Recognitions, in the mouth of the suitably named Mephistophelean Recktall Brown, who in addition to sponsoring art forgery schemes without appreciating the divine spark of art within them, hopes to create a novel factory of best sellers based on focus groups of readers.

I find it “difficult” to fall asleep next to this random Penguin.

This is obviously an old complaint regarding American literature, and I am not trying to project these errant musings onto Shivani. I would hazard to say that he curates a number of items, including interviews with American authors that do tend to lament a contemporary collective “forgetfulness” of innovative works by remarkable writers, and that is very interesting to me. Here is Shivani’s definition of “literature” as opposed to heavily commercialized self-help and therapy writing groups:

Literature is about having, first of all, a broad humanist understanding of the tradition, how vastly oppositional styles of writing have sought to grapple with the same human problems over time, how history and politics have shaped national literatures, how you can not necessarily learn—for that is too reductionist a term—but be challenged by great writers like Chekhov or Tolstoy or Kafka, to create something utterly unique to yourself.

Shivani’s My Tranquil War is “difficult” to approach for a quaint Canadian scribbler like myself, particularly due to my unfamiliarity with his many referents and allusions to canonical figures. To be perfectly candid, I was interested in reviewing his book, but in finding myself outstripped (or outgunned!), here is me wriggling out of my assignment to self. Classy, hey?

That said, his new book reminds me a little of Ezra Pound’s Personae and especially “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”, and also perhaps Jack Spicer’s After Lorca, since Shivani readily takes up each poetic style like a literary mask to suit the occasion of each poem, and since his homages feel like they are roasting valentines surrounded by (at times electrified) barbed wire. I won’t say treated as inscrutable cuspidors even if I am thinking it. Let us take a sound bite from his poetic address to Walt Whitman:

     do we still contain multitudes, do we still admire contradictions,
     do we still welcome the man of the unknown past from the flat prairie in our
           tallest constructions of epistolary definition, in the spires of Manhattan
           and the churches of Boston,
     do we still elect as governors and senators, secretaries and presidents, men
           of the truant heart, who long to escape their duties at the first signal
           of the freethinking teacher,
     or do we only elect taskmasters and joy-spoilers, elect of the God in their
           knowing smirk, convinced of the futility of idea and thoughts and diction,
           freed of the salubrious value you saw to the continent without end, forever
           discoverable in far corners as the embodiment of the single man’s lone

I recall that after the release of the excellent film The Hours, I was exposed to countless poems of only slight variation about Virginia Woolf’s drowning. With respect to those poems, I feel this is a factor in Shivani’s able interrogation of sentimental tropes. And even if he is quite sincere about his poems in My Tranquil War, he also appears to be acutely aware of the most common kinds of poems that Americans are writing over the past decade, and even as he chimes in with his own two bits of redress, this is perhaps sufficient to trigger Shivani’s mockery of the much-hackneyed style, if not exactly the individual writer, as in the ending to his poem “The Life of Virginia Woolf”:

     Am I a snob? In astute typescript, I expect Leonard to adhere.
     Daughters of educated men, resent Cambridge, oppose it tooth
     and nail, for Morgan Forster’s essays are brilliant in childbirth.
     Educate civilization being destroyed in Hitler’s phallic rise,

     as the tiring leaning tower makes her twitch for country survival,
     the walk to the Ouse the happiest earth-green journey in years.

Now, to relax, as we think about where American literature is headed, let’s watch this video that CandiceIsSuperSwell made for her Creative Writing class, replete with an extra side of awesome sauce. A shoe-in for the Pulitzer, surely! Okay, settle down. Let’s not be difficult, now.