interlude: Steve McCaffery


also, i have two reviews at galatea resurrects, so go to the post below for links!


just recently finished reading McCaffery’s “Seven Pages Missing,” Volume One of his Selected Texts 1969 – 1999. It is worth purchasing for the sheer range of forms and semiotic / post-semiotic possibilities that he explores. THIS POST IS “ABOUT” McCAFFERY SO IF YOU HAVE COMMENTS ABOUT HIS WORK, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO COMMENT AND WE CAN HAVE A DISCUSSION!


Steve McCaffery was born January 24, 1947, in Sheffield, England. He moved to Canada and with bpNichol, formed the Toronto Research Group. McCaffery and Nichol also combined talents with Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera as the Four Horsemen, creating and performing innovative sound poetry.

Interestingly, McCaffery’s visual / plastic poems are in response to Brazilian VisPo. In an interview in Open Letter, he says that the problem with Brazilian VisPo (particularly Pigniatari’s generation) was that their work remained semiotic, “the ultimate regression back to verbal meaning as a final project.” McC (and bpNichol) developed the “post-semiotic poem in which the lexical key was jettisoned and the poem functioned as a totally unprescribed, or open, from, as a sort of eventist movement of shapes to which a mean could be assigned by the reader.”

I really enjoy this aspect of McC’s work…some of his other work in the collection — some collages, some “homolinguistic translations,” some phrasal prose poems — are quite dull. To me, they are concept poems, and in these pieces, the concepts (there are “documents” at the end of the book that articulate method / theory) are far more interesting than the poems themselves…This is not a general rule of reading concept poetry for me, just these. DO OTHER PEOPLE FEEL THE SAME WAY?

What i do love are his “post-semiotic” visual pieces (his non-visual poems never really achieve the sense of “post-semiotic” even though they gesture towards it.) My Favorite is CARNIVAL (which are the pictures in this post).

This next italicized passage is McCaffery’s Introduction to Carnival:

Carnival is planned as a multi-panel language environment, constructed largely on the typewriter and designed ultimately to put the reader, as perceptual participant, within the center of his language.

The roots of Carnival go beyond concretism (specifically that particular branch of concrete poetry termed the’typestract’or abstract typewriter art) to labyrinth and mandala, and all related archetypal forms that emphasize the use of the visual qualities in language to defend a sacred centre. Pound’s vorticism also forms part of the grid of influences, and on one level at least, Carnival can be seen as an attempt to abstract, concretize and expand Pound’s concept of the image as the circular pull of an intellectual and emotional energy. Above all it is a structure of strategic counter-communication designed to draw a reader inward to a locus where text surrounds her. Language units are placed in visible conflict, in patterns of defective messages, creating a semantic texture by shaping an interference within the clear line of statement.

Panel Two is largely an expression of language emerging into conflict and internecine statement conveyed in the variety of mechanical means of expression that’s employed. It was predicated on a felt implication in Saussure’s assertion that language is differential and oppositive at its base. Having discovered, explored and tested the parameters of the typewriter in Panel One, Panel Two places the typed mode in agonistic relation with other forms of scription: xerography, xerography within xerography (i.e. metaxerography and disintegrative seriality), electrostasis, rubber-stamp, tissue texts, hand-lettering and stencil. The compositional problem was in finding a form large enough to accommodate these conflicts and what arose as a solution was the interlocking single page to form a sixteen unit panel with the offset book format (to be abandoned in the process of assembling the panel) constituting the final stage in the process of transmutating the scription. This second panel, then, applies a translative process to language’s most physical and concrete levels: script and grapheme.

Two phrases seemed to haunt me during the five years of composition. One, that form ‘is the only possible thing’ – a phrase, I think, that either echoes or cribs a line in Paul Blackburn’s Journals. The other was Pound’s lines in Canto CXVI:

to ‘see again,’
the verb is ‘see,’ not ‘walk on’

a profound phrase which I take to be Pound’s ultimate stand in support of static, synchronic vista (Dante) as opposed to the dynamic line of processual flow. Dante climbed, in the Paradiso, out of narrative into a non-narrative summation of the story line – as if art struggles to distance that which threatens it in closest proximity: language itself. Carnival is product and machine, not process; though its creation be a calenture to me, it must stand objective as a distancing and isolating of the language experience. The thrust is geomantic – realignment of speech, like earth, for purposes of intelligible access to its neglected qualities of immanence and non-reference. It is language presented as direct physical impact, constructed as a peak, at first to stand on and look down from the privilege of its distance onto language as something separate from you. Taken this way – as the ‘seen thing’ – its conflicts and contradictions are accommodated in a form based more on the free flight of its particulars than on a rigid component control. But Carnival is also a peak to descend from into language. The panel when ‘seen’ is. ‘all language at a distance’; the panel when read is entered, and offers the reader the experience of non-narrative language. There are no clues to passage for the reader other than the one phrase of Kung’s: ‘make it new’, move freely, as the language itself moves, along one and more of the countless reading paths available, through zones of familiar sense into the opaque regions of the unintelligible, and then out again to savour the collision of the language groupings. Against the melodic line which is narrative I work with semantic patchwork, blocks of truncated sense that overlap, converge, collide without transition as the sum total of language games within our many universes of discourse.

(intro continued):

Useful lines of entry to the panel might be gleaned from the following two etymological notes:

CARNIVAL from Med. L. carnelevale, a putting away of the flesh and hence a prelental language game in which all traces of the subjective ‘I’ are excommunicated. In this way to consider the sheer weight of linguistic presence in our lives and to confront it as material without reference to an author or to any otherness. As such, it constitutes a call that is a fleshless call to language out of language, a call we enter as components to become a part of that macro-syntax.

PANEL among its several meanings there are pertinent: L. pannus, a cloth or rag, that is a fragmentary surface we assign some purpose to. Any flat surface with a meaning. Writing itself. A flag. Inhabited land. Later, panel is the lining of a saddle – that on which we sit to be carried along. Panel here is the speech line. A journey as a narrative on horseback. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Speech on Pegasus. In M.E. there develops the verbal sense of ‘to empanel’ referring to a strip of parchment bearing the jurymen’s names. Language as that thing which judges us. Good art being the naming of that judgment. More recently is panel as a protective board inserted in mine shafts to prevent the walls collapsing. language as a babel-prophylactic, as labyrinth or mandala to prevent the destruction of a centre. Good art as good protection against its own internal threats. My own personal line of continuity goes back from Carnival to Pope’s Dunciad:

Thy hand great Dulness! lets the curtain fall,
And universal Darkness covers all.

in which Pope speaks as the Augustan panelogist par excellence alarmed at the collapse of all linguistic strata.

Interestingly enough, Alexander Pope and the typewriter were contemporaries. Henri Mill invented the typewriter in 1714, the year the enlarged version of The Rape of the Lock appeared and a year before Pope’s translation of The Iliad. The roots of the typewriter are Augustan; its repetitive principle is the principle of the couplet enhanced by speed. The typewriter oracled a neoclassical futurism that emerged in the mid twentieth century as poeme concrète. This is part of that oracle.

7 thoughts on “interlude: Steve McCaffery

  1. Bonjour mon ami!
    I recently discovered your Blog.
    I like it a lot. (the images and text on your last post are quite original, thank you).
    I am a painter, cartoonist and journalist. Would it be possible to link up? You can also use some of my illustrations for your text if you wish so…I try to update a Blog daily too… Stay in touch.

  2. Hi again!
    I linked you…
    Thanks for your kind message on my Blog.
    Have a nice day.
    Cheers. B.

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