Monday, March 16, 2009

Jack Spicer's "Improvisations On A Sentence By Poe"

"Indefiniteness is an element of the true music."
The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition. The seagull
Alone on the pier cawing its head off
Over no fish, no other seagull,
No ocean. As absolutely devoid of meaning
As a French horn.
It is not even an orchestra. Concord
Alone on a pier. The grand concord of what
Does not stoop to definition. No fish
No other seagull, no ocean—the true


Twelve lines, the first being a quote by Poe, and the last being one word (to emphasize the hushed importance of the "topic"?). So ... essentially a ten-line poem. Four of those lines are repeated verbatim, broken up by "The seagull/Alone on the pier cawing its head off/Over", in the initial setting down. Why the repetition? Beats me. Has Spicer so little faith in the attention span of the reader that he has to repeat it? Or is the repetition a ploy to emphasize the similarity between the seagull and "the true/Music"? (laughably pompous phrase). If it's the former, why not repeat it a few more times? If once won't do the trick of making his facile point, why should only one repeat succeed in it? If it's the latter, why not go for a direct, compressed metaphor between seagull-music?

Spicer takes fourteen lines of self-important claptrap when all it should take to make his simplistic point is seven lines (leaving out "Concord" in the original line 8. And the first line quote could and should be put into a sub-header).

On to the content. Music has no meaning, whether it's the raucous, usually unwanted (by humans) sounds of a seagull, or the glorious sounds from an orchestra. I disagree. Spicer doesn't elaborate, preferring instead to substitute sledgehammer unmusical ( more on this irony later) redundancy -- "absolutely devoid of meaning" -- for intricate exploration of what constitutes meaning. Ralph Gustafson would also disagree: "Perhaps that was the craziness brought Chopin/In my head", as would Shostakovich, who once responded to an interviewer's question of meaning with: "It's all in my music". What a wonderful answer. He doesn't explicate it in pedantic fashion, yet he also doesn't negate that it has meaning (not a meaning, as the falsely simple would have it).

To return to my ironical aside, music is not poetry, and if Spicer is trying to glue the two together by a bald, false, unsupported claim of meaninglessness as to the former, then his conclusion is not only empty of authority, but intellectually dishonest. Yes, music sans song is obviously more suggestive, ambiguous, and open to wide perspectives and legitimate (on both sides) debate. That doesn't mean meaning is unresolvable or gauche. Also, meaning (as in poetry) has often to be made ambiguous for artistic purposes, but also at times for self-protective political reasons. Shostakovich wrote his fifth symphony to save his life (after being raked over the coals by Khrennikov for his Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk opera in those horrific Russian years of 1936-7), inscribing it as a composer's "response to just criticism". Now, the irony of that brilliant terseness is right in the title. It's "just" criticism. I haven't heard any musicologist remark on that before, but it seems worthy of discussion. In any event, all one has to do is listen to the minor-key quaverings surrounding the "triumphant" flourishes (culminating in the climax) to know what Shostakovich was up to. But to a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E obsessive (what, words don't have meaning in schools of poetics?), meaning is a dirty word. Hypocritical, no?

Well, so much for content. Let's turn to form, and it'll be a shorter exploration. "no fish, no other seagull,/ No ocean." -- Does meaning only have merit with other objects? As in my Gustafson quote, musical meaning can take on emotional qualities which don't always attach themselves to objects of physical closeness. "No ocean" is rhythmically awkward, and why stop at three? Surely, if the design is to awe the reader with just how "meaningless" the sound is, it would be more impressive to emphasize it with a longer list, including, but not limited to, people on the shore (isn't this Spicer's main point-- human hearing?), the sky, drifting garbage, the wind .... The meaning in poetry is encoded in its music, but to the lead-eared reader, incomprehension results in the pre-emptive "no meaning in words" arrogance.

In the work of Spicer, his antecedents, and especially his followers, poetry not only is drenched in poetics, but is synonymous with it. That's why boring, lengthy explanatory justifications are frequent in live readings of poets obsessed with the "limits or impossibilities" of language-- those writers and readers aren't really interested in poetry, just in talking about it. (I recall not too long ago clicking on a podcast of a Calgary language poet giving, supposedly, a reading of his verse. The length of the recording was an hour; I listened to twenty minutes, and he --don't recall the name-- was still explaining what was to come. I finally clicked off.) I like talking about poetry, too. But it ain't poetry.


Zachariah Wells said...

I think a fruitful contrast here is Stevens' "Idea of Order at Key West," another seaside ditty about language, music, meaning and, of course, order.

Brian Palmu said...

Quite right. And curious emotion(s) come out of Stevens' piece. Is there any feeling in the one-note discursive poem by Spicer?