- Form and Discontent*
1. Composition as Explanation
In the beginning there is Gertrude Stein, who says in “Composition as Explanation”: “Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same” .
I could also say, in the beginning is Aristotle: “the fable is simply this, the combination of the incidents” .
2. A Look Around
The forms that have been striking me as “wild” have tended to be Steinian in this sense of stressing the horizontal, the axis of composition. I’m most struck by 3 tendencies: one is literally spatial composition, e.g. Susan Howe’s work; another, an emphasis on discontinuity, leaps on the level of syntax, of logic, of grammar. Breaks that do not immediately fold back into a smooth unity and may occur in mid-sentence:
I was on my way from Carthage, it was night. It is not wax I am scorching was dead about her with knots.—Norma Cole, Mars
I hide behind a category by misbehaving.—Carla Harryman, Under the Bridge
Loop conceived in a line, the spine with its regions, reasons. On another, sweaters hang by the wrist to dry. The list is sweet. You lie. The eye is met by the season.—Ron Silliman, Paradise
You took my temperature which I had meant to save for a more difficult day.—Rosmarie Waldrop, The Reproduction of Profiles
Went out so I’d take the car and a whole system of banking and money is based on a hierarchy.—Leslie Scalapino, Considering How Exaggerated the Music Is
Roast Potatoes for.—Gertrude Stein, “Tender Buttons”
Or, a subtler example, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s almost unnoticeable shifts from one grammatical structure into another: [End Page 54]
Never mind if he calls, the places you get through inwardness take time, and to drift down to the shore of the island, you know by the sand moving, even the coarse sand here It’s hard to say if you can even stand up, there. . . .
The third tendency is mathematical. There is a lot of counting. Not stresses, not even syllables—I’m not considering that most unimaginative bunch, the new formalists—but words per line, sentences per paragraph. You all know about Ron Silliman’s love for the Fibonacci number series, or Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, which began with 37 sections of 37 sentences each. When she published a second edition at age 45, she added 8 sentences to each section plus 8 new sections.
Jacques Roubaud: “No ideas but in numbers” .
Then, in a somewhat more remote way, a number of people use ideas of permutation. For example, Jackson Mac Low’s 4 Trains, of which I will quote the first two stanzas:
Train rule atom intricate nitrogen. Rule unusual leotard entropy. Atom train ostrich might. Intricate nitrogen train rule intricate casual atom train entropy. Nitrogen intricate train rule ostrich genealogy entropy nitrogen.
Rule unusual leotard entropy. Unusual nitrogen unusual social unusual atom leotard. Leotard entropy ostrich train atom rule dies. Entropy nitrogen train rule ostrich pope yearly.
As Zukofsky puts it: “[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” .
All these examples draw attention to arrangement, composition. They all listen to language. I once wrote:
I don’t even have thoughts, I say, I have methods that make language think, take over and me by the hand. Into sense or offense, syntax stretched across rules, relations of force, fluid the dip of the plumb line, the pull of eyes. . . . No beginnings. All unrepentant middle.[A Form / of Taking / It All 74]
And none of these forms are “organic form.” None relies primarily on metaphor, though from the Romantics on poetry has been more or less identified with it.
Let me step back for a moment to the beginnings of the concept of organic form, what it reacted against.
When Goethe started to make a splash writing free verse, around 1770, the dominant aesthetic...