Bob Perelman


[Presentational draft from a poetry panel, "Procedural and
Investigative Poetics," Bard College, June 1999]
While the classroom is the breeding ground of most poets and
readers, poetry is not particularly happy there. Here at the conference
there have been the an increasing number of hints about happier locations,
situations, and procedures outside the classroom. There's an obvious force
to these suggestions. To walk in a city, collaboratively, with a sense of
open pluridirectional purpose animating people--that's a livelier notion
than a block of students sitting in a room. Taking my own case, to have a
community full of poetry readings, talks, poets theater, magazine, intense
discussions in bars where there's not too much music blaring to get the
way of conversation--such an environment educates much faster, more
thoroughly, people take more risks, practice always corrects, informs, and
furthers speculation, which in turn animates and furthers practice. The
lessons learned there produce new knowledge. 

This happy art childhood occured when I was in my late twenties
and thirties in San Francisco. That's where I was educated; where I
learned that all poetic situations are possibly interesting, that poetry
can spring up in any space of the present; that poetry has a past that is
not dead weight, but non-demonic ancestors who are alive in the present
only they do not have the answers, and in fact need you to ask the
questions so that they don't keep asking the same old ones. I learned how
to learn, which is to learn how to begin to learn; I learned how to skate
on thin ice, how to swim wearing ice skates, how to sink mindfully . . . 
But that's not the whole story. Before I went to San Francisco, I
already thought poetry was all important, exciting, a life-filling
pleasure. That's why I went. So while I ultimately want to propose an
active poetic scene as the best pedagogical situation, I want to turn back
to classroom, to the actually existing institutions and the physical and
social situations students, teachers, writers and readers find themselves
in. I want to consider them, without too much cynicism, undue phobia, or
excessive pessimism. At the same time I don't want to accept them as a
blueprint of the future, or even of the present. We want to get to a
future that's different from the present; but we are not going to get
there by bypassing the present. School is an extremely powerful agent of
cultural change: the rightwing that attacks diversity in the curriculum
knows this well. At the same time, school is a ceredentialling operation,
a normativizing, socializing factory that takes its raw materials
in--students, that is--and cans them in a syrup of one part cultural
prestige, twelve parts obedience, fifteen parts cynicism. A sane, but sad,
response to that can be "We    don't    need    no    edu   cation" as the
gloomy song goes. I don't like that song--a little too proto-fascist for
my anxious ear.
A poem generally requires a great deal of close attention, comparison
to other poems, historical contextualization; it should be read aloud;
there should be sustained discussion. Meanwhile the 50 minutes or hour
and twenty minutes is up and we haven't gotten to Ashbery. Read
Tennis Court Oath  and Girls on the Run  for Monday.
This is a standard academic narrative; the standard remedy is
abbreviation. To take three figures, "XVIII" of Spring and All
("To Elsie") becomes, not  

	The pure products of America
	go crazy--
	mountain folf from Kentucky

	or the ribbed north end of
	with its isolate lakes and           
	valleys, its deaf-mutes, thieves
	old names
	promiscuity between

	devil-may-car men who have taken
	to railroading
	out of sheer lust of adventure--

	and young slatterns, bathed
	in filth
	from Monday to Saturday . . .

but the conflict between democratic diction and high modernist innovation,
with cars, immigration, gender and class mentioned; "Love Songs to
Johannes" becomes, not

	Spawn of Fantasies
	Sitting the appraisable
	Pig Cupid                                                          
	His rosy snout
	Rooting erotic garbage
	"Once upon a time"
	Pulls a weed
	White star-topped
	Among wild oats
	Sown in mucus-membrane . . .

but path-breaking eroticism, perhaps with sidelong comparative glances
thrown at "The Waste Land" and Edna St. Vincent Millay's sonnets; Tender
Buttons  becomes one or two of the shorter pieces out of 108 and these few
become not

	          RED ROSES

	A cool red rose and a pink cut pink, a collapse and a sold hole, a
	little less hot.


	Suppose it is within a gate which open is open at the hour of
	closing summer that is to say it is so.
	All the seats are needing blackening. A white dress is in sign. A
	soldier a real soldier has a worn lace of different sizes that is to say
	if he can read, if he can read he is a size to show shutting up

        Go red go red, laugh white.
        Suppose a collapse in rubbed purr, in rubbed purr get.
        Little sales ladies little sales ladies little saddles of mutton.
        Little sales of leather and such beautiful beautiful, beautiful beautiful.

but examples of a literary version of Cubist portraiture, with a some
sentences from "Portraits and Repetition" receiving notice, as well as
issues of domestic space and lesbian erotics vs. surveillance.
Such abbreviation feels all too often like an evasion, if not betrayal, of
a poem's specificity. An opposing impulse is to insist that the poems
actually be read, those exact words and contours, everything else be
damned: experience, not knowledge, is the goal. Basil Bunting, teaching
late in life, went for this, in a kind of despair. As the anecdote is
told, he gave up talking about poetry, and would just read poems.
Occasionally, in an attempt to awaken the cadence-deprived ears of his
students, he would play a record of The Goldberg Variations. But beyond
problems with syllabus management, what is the place of literary history
in the classroom? These days it's a partial and polemic story, from
whatever angle it's told. And when one as a teacher models varieties of
reading, one also modeling taste and judgment.
There's a utopic dimension to this panel's topic, "Procedural and
Investigative Poetics," that seems to promise a way out of these problems.
The rubric can be thought to mean a number of things, although a primary
reference is to John Cage's work and the kinds of attention and values
that his work models. There's a powerfully positive force to these
conceptions. If we imagine them operating happily, then reading and
writing become, rather than tedious demonstrations of competence or
failure, tools that lead immediately to new perceptions.
In conversation with Cage, Joan Retallack tells of getting her
students to write down a question and a statement independently. She then
shuffles the two batches and students pick a question and an answer
randomly. "The first reads the question at the top of her pile, the second
reads the statement "as if" it were the answer; and of course it is the
answer. My students are always amazed." (Aerial  107). This procedure,
according to Retallack and Cage, helps students develop "a sense of trust
in their ability . . . to make meaning." Meaning is no longer external,
lodged in some master writer's intention and skill; it does not entail
learning an approved body of prior work, or obtaining knowledge of
specific, difficult procedures. It becomes home made, the immediate result
of openness and attention. The angst engendered by logjam logistics, the
very lengthy reading lists needed to produce taste and flexible literary
judgment--all this disappears in the utopic scenario where each moment of
the students' experience would be unique, democratic, empowering, novel,
poetic, nonjudgmental. 
In one sense there is, in the Cagean world, no longer any boundary
between the work of the art and the world. Cage speaks of coming out of a
Mark Tobey show: "I was waiting for the bus and I happened to look at the
pavement I was standing on and I couldn't tell the difference between that
and the Tobey. Or I had the same pleasure looking at the pavement" (108).
In obvious ways, this approach marks a sharp departure from almost
all prior art thinking. Compare Pound's excoriation of the ignorant poetic
amateur: he writes that the standard London poetaster is like a child who
hears Busoni play and immediately arranges to give a concert. Pound
complains that "the ordinary piano teacher spends more thought on the art
of music than does the average 'poet' on the art of poetry" [Selected
Prose, 31]. Conversely, Pound said that at 15 he decided to learn more
about poetry than anyone else. Olson takes the same poetic imperative to
knowledge in a slightly different direction: it's not the poetic field
that the poet needs to master directly, but the material historical world,
and through that, the poetic. The imperative to expertise is the same,
	Best thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until yourself
	know more abt that than is possible to any other man. It doesn't matter
	whether it's Barbed Wire or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust 
	it. Saturate it. Beat it. 
	And then U KNOW everything else very fast: one saturation job (it might 
	take 14 years). And you're in, forever. (13)

(There's a quite a tang of graduate school in Olson's advice, except that
the subject, instead of Browning, is Pemmican, with its simulacrum of
fresh air. And it usually takes a grad student 8 years, not 14.)  While
many of Pound's pronouncements in ABC of Reading and other places make
teaching and learning potentially available to all, the sense of
specialness--"And you're in / forever"--eventually predominate: his last
characterization of The Cantos is "the great ball of crystal." The line
between inside and outside ends up being very sharply drawn. Readers can
feel drawn in via a kind of religion--Diane DiPrima has written of seeing
light emanating from the pages of The Cantos--or via study. Senses of
being "in" are enabling for those who experience them, alienating for
those who don't. Many students hate the feeling of failing to get in, the
door slammed in the face.
In terms of judgment and intentionality, the contrast between the
Pound-Olson tradition and a Cagean poetics could not be more obvious; but
in another way they are not all that separate. A Cage procedural work can
be just as baffling to some students as Pound or Olson. Quite a bit of
work has to be done to connect with the words, animate and interanimate
them. In order to do this work, a similar power is needed in both cases.
The student has to identify, to some extent, as an artist, or at least
have formed some allegiance to the enterprise of art. This of course is
much different from the identification that locks many beginning students
into being interested in nothing but familiar narratives and vocabulary. 
Without some kind of prior or emergent identification with art,
the following two passages are equally closed. The first is from Cage's
"Writing through the Cantos"; the second is the lines in The Cantos 
themselves from which Cage derived his first line: 

	        Public destrOyed de vaUx 32 millioN exhumeD with
	        mmE douZe ambRoise bluejAys
	        his Peers but unicOrns yseUlt dead palmerstoN's worse oviD
	        much worsE to summariZe was in contRol byzAnce
	        as I recall it there was no such thing as public
	             opinion (Vienna)
	Metterch destroyed Maria Theresa. Marema
	                           "tranne nella casa del re"
	                                                        B. Mussolini
	                           to some chap from Predappio
	not yet, so far as I know, written down.
	        Lugubrious Knole, 
	                        Capture of Warsaw
	Paris, at Palais Royal
	        "where they are rather badly off for society"
	de Vaux talked of nothing but bullfights
	        not only 32 million subjects, but
	                pretend to govern all Europe
	That he (the Archbishop) had not quite the grasp
	St Leu, Beauharnais, Tascher
	        given to M's'lle Hortense by the Citizen Talleyrand
	"a sapphire, and a bit of the cross
	        true cross, exhumed with Charlemagne's skeleton.

To read -- or better, to want to read either of these passages, one needs
to know something of the aesthetics that motivated the procedures that
produced the words. This entails some sense of the careers and art
narratives involved. That's one thing we have to do, can't really avoid
doing--it can be a good thing to do. Students do want to learn things; and
narratives about other people's lives are easily learnable. Cage, in the
same conversation with Retallack I quoted earlier, says that all that is
necessary to do is "to brush information against information." But what
makes information information? Certainly the more one knows, the more
textured and connected the particular bit of information. While Cage
continually urges his listeners and readers to pay attention to all parts
of their environments equally, not valuing any one part over another, in
fact, his own procedures are governed by absolute loyalty to friends and
admirable ancestors: Pound, Duchamp, Joyce, Thoreau. Cagean procedures 
may include turning on shlock television and recording every tenth word but
they include much more, and their poethical approach cannot be deduced
from the products of the entertaiment industry. Cage's non-intentionality
grew in a highly cultured sophisticated environment: Schoenberg, Duchamp,
Jasper Johns, and many other of the most notable art names of the century.
His work was performed, displayed, published in prestigious venues. I'm
not at all trying to criticize Cage's as "elitist"; I do want to underline
his tremendous devotion to art and the great success and energy that buoys
up his work. 
To go back to the anecdote of his seeing the sidewalk after seeing the Tobey 
exhibit, Cage says that he 
	had the same pleasure looking at the pavement. And yet I was, I was
	determined--I was very poor at the time--and I was determined to buy the
	Tobey, on the installment plan, which I did. I paid five dollars a week
	for about two years. And yet I had learned gtom Tobey himself, and then
	from his painting, that every place you look is the same thing. You don't
	really need the Tobey. (laughs) But you need it to tell you that I guess.

Cage's work is as thoroughly predicated on great art as is Pound's. That's
arguable, and there are many ramifications. Nevertheless, the underlying
similarity seems strikingly obvious.
I now want to turn to the Berrigan poems. If teaching poetry involves instructing 
students to be able to read in ways they hadn't already known, then the following 
poem is particularly hard to teach, at least in my experience: 

	de Kooning, 


This is from A Certain Slant of Sunlight, a series of poems written on
postcards, sent out, and later collected in book form by Alice Notley
after Berrigan's death. The tonal distances in this poem are not
immediately evident to all students; one treated the poem with reverential
seriousness, backed up by close reading which showed how the individually
separated words mirrored the pain and confusion of contemporary life, etc.
Here, very much unlike the case with Cage, there is a wrong way to read.
But if the poem is making a joke, it is a complex one; and one of the
facets of the humor is that Berrigan is serious about the denotative
sense. So, in that sense, the student was right. But of course he missed
the critique of administered language Berrigan is making. The words of the
first stanza are the kind of language that wants to convince CEO's to buy
Tobeys for the boardroom. "Johnson, why should we spend $85,000 on this
thing that looks like a bunch of white worms squashed on the sidewalk by
a bulldozer?" "Well, sir, With daring and strength men like Pollock, de
Kooning, Tobey, Rothko, Smith and Kline filled their work with the drama,
anger, pain, and confusion of contemporary life. Besides, it'll be worth
$125,000 in five years." The first stanza bespeaks a customer whose life
is absolutely not anguished; whereas the second stanza enacts a topos of
proud humility. It could be translated as follows: By the immensely
concentrated deadpan sarcasm of my utterance, I demonstrate that I am just
as serious an artist as these masters who have been translated into the
empyrean of capital. Tobey, Pollock and de Kooning, the famous and the
dead, have to stand still for such stupid descriptions; I am a true artist
and can concentrate such social distances into the simplest few words, so
I am  just like them: a true artist. 
Have "the drama, anger, pain, and confusion of contemporary
life" -- sorry, that should be "the / drama, / anger, / pain, / and /
confusion / of / everyday / life" -- been overcome by this poem? Yes, by its
humor. But, on the other hand, no: the poem registers the distance
between, on the one hand, the museum and art market world where heroic
stories are effortlessly and expensively wafted onto the pristine walls
and, on the other, the outsider world where the poet has to do all the
work of registering his own spiritual, aesthetic success on a postcard,
which then circulates well beneath the radar of the corporate and museum
In the next poem, Berrigan shows himself tasting worldly success, but in a 
number of ways he undercuts this.


	I left the bookstore stunned & giggling
	between Baudelaire & Betjeman my books
	in print took up nearly a foot.-- I
	walked several blocks to my car--
	glowing at having reduced the competition,
	not to mention John Ashbery & John Berryman, 
	after all, how many Johns does one poem need?, 
	to mere, forlorn, lonely manifestations
	of the lame, the limp, the loud, and one Knight.--
	got in, put it in reverse, and backed up 
	        a block and *. I was home. Odd
	having a car in Manhattan! Now home, 
	stretched out on the bed, I'm working on #233
	of my next work, "500 American Postcards."
	Now I've stopped, to do this one, #13 today!
	Oops! Wait a minute. Will this fit on a
	        Postcard? Joseph Conrad, here I come  Ted Berrigan 4 Apr 1982

The questions a poem like this raises are fascinating. "Eureka!" is
typical of the way Berrigan ended up working, where personal life and
public poetics became impossible to distinguish. In the St. Marks Poetry
Project scene, Berrigan quickly became a star, a kind of Samuel Johnson
who modeled an anti-academic poetic literacy. That this poem is printed in
the book in a facsimile of Berrigan's handwriting is a small emblem of his
literary immediacy (almost all the others are typeset). In one sense it's
like Cage's gestures that say, I'm just a person, doing this activity;
from another angle, it's a display of importance.
"Eureka!" is a funny poem, in both senses. Berrigan's literary megalomania 
-- a foot of books in the St Marks bookstore; a named, ongoing
project; utopic productiveness: 13 poems a day--all stumbles up against
the "Oops!" where the picayune presentness of pen on paper enacts its
micro-explosion of angst. Then the staged megalomania is allowed to take
over again: this one postcard-poem threatens to shoulder Conrad off the
shelves. (Although, if one looks at the handwriting closely, there's a
hint of deference in the way Berrigan has added "Joseph" before "Conrad."
It spoils the more aggressive cadence: "Conrad, here I come!" and there's
not really room for the "Joseph"; but it seems that  Berrigan didn't quite
dare to treat Conrad too familiarly.)
There are a nest of literary and personal ironies here. Berrigan
is boasting but teasing himself. He very much wants to be a major player
on the major shelves, taking his place beside Baudelaire. But Betjeman?
It's doubtful Berrigan is stunned by being in his presence. Berrigan's
including Ashbery in the hosts of the beaten competition is typical of the
shifting personal planes of his irony. It is a given in Berrigan's work
that John Ashbery and, even more, Frank O'Hara, are unquestionable
masters. How is this information a given? You have to know. How do you
know? By reading much of what he wrote and by being in touch with his
scene. Berrigan is a coterie poet; but at the same time his work models a
wide range of public noises and attitudes. The ensemble of these
attitudes, more or less, is what gets activated when I read a particular
poem. So "Eureka" becomes a lens onto the poetic field in Berrigan's time,
as well as a snapshot of the narrative of his poetic career. How does one
teach that? Especially when one factors in the comic but ultimately deadly
serious issue of literary aggression and the battles over literary value
that are modeled here. 
Berrigan's work interests me in making the problem of literary
aggression so patent: I have an intuition that I can't yet back up that in
Cage's work the issue of artistic quality is quite masked; that Cage makes
aesthetic judgement an absolute non-issue in his own case; but in his
choice of material with which to work (Duchamp, Thoreau, etc) he uses only
work that he considers the very best. With Berrigan the issue of aesthetic
judgment is obvious. The goofy and more or less good-humored quality of
"Eureka!" vanishes at the lines castigating the "mere, forlorn, lonely
manifestations / of the lame, the limp, the loud." Those lines are as
serious, and as nasty, as The Dunciad. Part of Berrigan's charm was
based on such passionate aggression. It didn't always matter which way the
arrow pointed--one poemlet that sticks in my mind:

	        for Larry Fagin

	You are lovely.
	I am lame.

Who was "you"? Who was "I" there? It didn't matter: some poetry was lame,
which was and is scary, undemocratic, and ultimately a necessary
ingredient for making a climate for ambitious poetry. A major facet of all
this, which just occurs to me is ear. How is that taught? What else,
really, is there to teach about poetry? Isn't the rest simply professional
categorizing, and interesting poetic sociology? Cage's motto "our ears are
open" bypasses these questions, implying that any sound is music. But his
own work was caught up in his own intentionalities (to be elegantly
anti-intentional, perhaps) and tastes. He hated Beethoven. 
The relations between individual poet and all other poets animate
"Eureka!": it's really an exemplification of the issues of Eliot's
"Tradition and the Individual Talent," which, for Berrigan, were always
crucial. While Berrigan wasn't interested in Eliot's canon, his own canon,
and his relation to it, was the central animation of his writing: literary
significance was always at stake. As he writes in another poem, "It is
important to keep old hat in secret closet." This says something that is,
or should be, obvious to poets. It's not always a pleasant truth. But what
does it say to students? They don't yet know which hats are new and which
are old. In fact, often they are most enthusiastic about the medium-old
hats--which is fine: enthusiasm is the first place to get to. 
Can the mercurial aspect of fashion be kept separate from the
scarifying eternity of Mt Parnassus? Starting with Baudelaire in "The
Painter and Modern Life" the answer seems to be no. "It is necessary to be
absolutely modern," saith Rimbaud, two centuries back. These matters are
part of a long, complicated story, one that we need to learn and teach,
however imperfectly.

Poetics Index