the horizons of poetry

in relation to williams and the idea of “sites of communion”, i wanted to repost a revised edition of an old post on Z and WCW:

“All art aspires to the condition of music”
— Pater

Williams resists this idea in preface to Spring & All:

“Writing is likened to music. The object would be it seems to make poetry a pure art, like music…Writing, as with certain of the modern Russians whose work i have seen, would use unoriented sounds in place of conventional words. The poem then would be completely liberated when there is identity of sound with something — perhaps the emotion.
I do not believe that writing is music. I do not believe writing would gain in quality or force by seeking to attain to the conditions of music.
I think the conditions of music are objects for the action of the writer’s imagination just as a table or —
According to my present theme the writer of imagination would attain closest to the conditions of music not when his words are disassociated from natural objects and specified meanings but when they are liberated from the usual quality of that meaning by transposition into another medium, the imagination.” (150)

in williams, the imagination, not music, becomes the trope of the transcendental, the site of communion. Liberation occurs not when words are disassoicated from semantic or semiotic pressure (made “pure” into music) but when the words are transposed into the imagination.

Zukofsky, on the other hand, adopts this idea of music as the transcendental trope; In “An objective”: “The order of all poetry is to approach a state of music wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention”. and in “A statement for Poetry”: “Thus poetry may be defined as an order of words that as movement and tone (rhythm and pitch) approaches in varying degrees the wordless art of music as a kind of mathematical limit.”

Williams does not see what poetry would “gain in quality or force”, but that the poem created as an addition to nature transposes the local onto the global, this i think being the politic of his project – the dream of a common speech only achieved by the “local”, practical imagination.

zukofsky, however, in prepositions: “music being the one art that more than the others aims in its reach to speak to all men.”

For williams, the practical imagination (coupled with the idea of “currency english”) is the method of communion, but zukofsky desires to speak to all men by integrating lower limit speech and upper limit of music.

WCW describes the cleavage between prose and poetry as being a necessary tension: from SPring and ALL “Imagination is not to avoid reality, nor is it a description nor an evocation of objects or situations, it is to say that poetry does not tamper with the world but moves it — It affirms reality most powerfully and therefore, since reality needs no personal support but exists free from human creates a new object, a play, a dance which is not a mirror up to nature but–
As birds’ wings beat the solid air without which none could fly so words freed by the imagination affirm reality by their flight” (150)

Compare this to Zukofsky in “An Objective”: “In poetry the poet is continally encountering the facts which in the making seem to want to disturb the music and yet the music or the movement cannot exist without the facts, without its facts. The base matter, to speak hurriedly, which must receive the signet of the form. Poems are only acts upon particulars. Only through such activity do they become particulars themselves-i.e. poems.”

These two articulations are surprising similar. Both WCW and Z hope to liberate words from narrow contexts to a larger communion of contexts – and they both have their transcendental tropes. they also realize the importance of struggle and the inability of poetry to become completely freed or completely music – which is to say that poetry can never transcend (or abandon) the world. The social consiousness of both WCW and Z do not allow them to completely transcend the particulars of the physical/social world.

Both WCW and Z have a similar idea of the “horizon of poetry”. In Z it is a “musical horizon” whereas in WCW it is an “imaginative horizon” – both of their aesthetic projects aspires to attain these horizons, thus enacting similar liberations through very different tropes. This aspiration is driven, partly, by the ethical concerns of both poets dreaming of a common language in which to communicate across boundaries (their immigrant experiences perhaps relevant in the construction of this desire).

In Z’s “A Statement for Poetry”: “Poetry has always been considered more literary than music, though so called pure music may be literary in a communicative sense. The parts of a fugue, Bach said, should behave like reasonable men in an orderly discussion. But music does not depend mainly on the human voice, as poetry does, for rendition. And it is possible in imagination to divorce speech of all graphic elements, to let it become a movement of sounds. It is this musical horizon of poetry (which incidentally poems perhaps never reach) that permits anybody who does not know Greek to listen and get something out of the poetry of Homer: to ‘tune in’ to the human tradition, to its voice which has developed among sounds of natural things, and thus escape the confines of a time and place, as one hardly ever escapes them in studying Homer’s grammar. In this sense poetry is international.”

This idea of “international” highlights both WCW and Z’s desire for a “transtopospatialilty” that desires a communion with a global community without abadoning the local community (the relation between upper limit music/lower limit speech & liberated words / bound functions of words).

(also, there is an interesting parallel in WCW’s “Excerpts from a Critical Sketch: A Draft of XXX Cantos by Exra Pound” – Williams writes “As to the Greek quotations — knowing no Greek — I presume they mean somthing, probably something pertinent to the text — and that the author knows what they mean. . . . But in all salient places — Pound has clarified his out-land insertions with reasonable consistency. They are no particular matter save that they say, There were other times like ours — at the back of it all.” Williams is hardly convinced that one can gather meaning simply from the “music” of a piece. Z has more faith in this, highlighted by his use of homophonic transliteration in “A” 15, as well as the numerous musical structures throughout “A”).

Here is a rather strange quote from a strange essay of Z called “BASIC” (an essay about the invention of a universal language: “One great step forward would be news every hour of the day and night, in a common language, from one or another of 24 stations working with a common purpose through BASIC. [It] is against ‘Babel’, the confusion of many languages. But the refreshing differences to be got from different ways of handling facts in the sound and peculiar expressions of different tongues is not to be overlooked, precisely because they have international worth.”

This is quite lovely. Z’s desire to establish “standards” to poetry and to perhaps reduce the range of language to a flattened musicality so as to create a larger communion of readers could dangerously push into arguing for an actual common language thus denying and destroying cultural differences…but in the above quote, “different tongues” also have “international worth”, not just what transcends those tongues (music). So there is a very beautiful dialectic between the communal international worth of transcendence (the global, music, imagination) and the differential international worth of immanence (the local, facts, particulars, things). Witnessing the way in which Z and WCW navigate these terrains allows us to deepen our understanding of both their grounding in their specific “locality,” and their desire to establish “sites of communion” in a world where these sites are being de-established, fragmented, and dislocated.


4 thoughts on “the horizons of poetry

  1. Hafa Adai, my name’s Michael (Miget) (familian Kabesa and Bittot) I was just checking out your blog, and want to know if you want to link to me. I enjoyed reading the discussion on whether or not the subaltern can blog. When asked such questions, I always respond that it depends upon which theoretical framework you want to try to answer the question is, because then it varies from yes to no to n/a. But then when you throw into the mix the positionality of Guam, as a less than typical site of subalternity, or possibily the site which through its banality forces a necessary reconfiguration of subalternity/sovereignty, it makes the questions so much more interesting.

    There’s a meeting taking place in Berkeley/Oakland on the 20th and 21st of May that you might be interested in attending, related to political issues of Chamorros and their islands. Email me at and I’ll send you the info. Si Yu’us Ma’ase na un sungon este anakko’ na post-hu, adios esta ki.

  2. Hafa Miget, i will definitely link to your blog and would love to hear your voice around these parts – i’ve been following your work for some time and know you are a poet also, among other things. anyways, i will email you and respond to your comments soon.

  3. csperez – your entry on Zukofsky -Williams is fascinating – I have read Imaginations nad it interersting the way WCWs also integrates or rather juxtaposes theory and then puts in his poems – he later changed that format – your disucssion is onto it I think – chimes with Scroggins book on L.Z. – I also think that both were struggling with ‘the particular(s)’ etc and the need for “tarnscendence” as was Pound…the “music” is a complex metaphor and signal for a higher language state I think (and yes Cage has changed things) – all very complex but interesting -notice how LZ’s integral sign might remind one of the scroll on a violin! I pointed this out on the Poetics List to someone. BTW I have to confess I havn’t read right thru “A” to date…but it is an impressive project.

    You are doing a PhD on HD the poet? Are those her poems and hence the biblical and classical referncees? Some interesting information here -also the connection to Guam -we don’t hear much about Guam (or the associated Islands (it is a big US military base with a lot of weaponry as far as I know).

    HD. I have read some of her (HD’s) stuff – and a friend did a masters on her.

    Kind regards

    Richard Taylor (NZ)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s