What now feels like waaaay back in December, on the 17th--
[strange and disturbing how the election and all that has ensued since has changed my sense of time-- a terrible nightmare simultaneously on slo-mo and fast-forward happening right now]
--I had the pleasure of attending the Small Press Traffic event celebrating the 70th birthdays and recent essay collections of two of the Bay Area's creative anchors-Bob Glück and Aaron Shurin. Bob's Communal Nude: Collected Essays is recently out from Semiotext(e) and Aaron's The Skin of Meaning: Collected Literary Essays and Talks from the University of Michigan Press.
|Bob & Aaron, photo courtesy of Kevin Killian|
So, here is to the critical, creative, capacious thinking that might sustain us, provide pleasure, enable us to be, as Norma Cole put it when I saw her at Mary Burger and Truong Tran's art show some weeks ago--tenacious.
The first piece is from one of Bob's current projects:
Note: this is an excerpt
from a long poem, I Boombox. The poem is
assembled from my misreading’s. In that
sense, it’s an autobiography in which I dream on the page. It’s my version of
the modernist long poem, published in sections and only interrupted by the
Masked and distinguished,
French lightning laughing
And here's an excerpt from Aaron's essay "Prosody Now." As soon as I heard about Aaron's prosody class at USF, I wish I might have been a student there and could have taken it! The essay is as close as I will get.
from "Prosody Now"
This is a talk with four beginnings.
For the first we are deep in moonlight, though it is purely textual light, since we are indoors, in the hallway of a Spanish-style house in Los Angeles circa 1965. In that verbal shimmer and glow I've flung myself across the carpeted floor to perform for my mother and brother the soliloquy that will be my tryout piece for A Midsummer Night's Dream, our high school senior play. I am deliriously inside the spell of the spell-casting sonorities, as Oberon prepares Puck to begin his mission of mischief. "I know a bank..." he instructs and I declaimed, drunk on iambs and perfume, "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, where oxlips and the nodding violet grows quite overcanopied with luscious woodbine, with sweet musk roses and with eglantine. There sleeps Titania sometime of the night, lulled in these flowers with dances and delight..."The hallway carpet was a bed of flowers in which I too lay down in moonlight and drowsed...In the end, you may have read elsewhere, I was chosen to play not Oberon but Puck---nu, look at this face, who else?--but having voiced and memorized and rehearsed the Oberon lines, I held them close inside me--shall I call this somatic prosody?--for over thirty years, cherished and foundational...right up to the point that I began to teach a course in Prosody for the graduate writing program at the University of San Francisco.
The week's topic was "The Line" and in particular the metrical line, with further inflections to come via Pound, Williams, and Projective Verse. By luck or magic I happened to be walking through Golden Gate Park--that flower-strewn bank--and chanced upon the Shakespeare Garden, which I'd passed many times before but never yet entered. There I found, among the living representative plants, the textual flora as Shakespeare had named them, engraved as quotations on a stone wall. And there--of course I immediately searched--I found the coordinates of my beloved forest glade, where Oberon avowed, I read, "I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows..." Excuse me? Whereon? That's a mistake! Should be, as I'd memorized long ago, "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows," not "whereon the wild thyme blows." Did I have it wrong all these years, was that possible, did I have a somatic prosody malady? I ran home to Google--perhaps then it was Alta Vista--and found there was some scholarly contention as to whether the line should have scanned as perfect iambs--meaning some scribe had dropped the on in whereon--a position adhered to by a number of conservative noodle-heads, including our Golden Gate protectors of the regularity in verse--or whether Shakespeare had intended the broken foot, enacting a small caesura inside the imabic swoon. This is my first beginning. What is prosody? It is not just the difference between noodle-headed regulators and actual poets; it's the study of, or the attention paid to, the shifts of meaning in the balance in the tiny pause of a syllable suspended as a breeze blows or a petal falls. It is the possibility of "where" against the probability of "whereon."
For the second beginning let me take you to my apartment in San Francisco circa 1981, where a group of poets and enthusiasts have gathered together to form the now somewhat-famous Homer Club--an informal spinoff from the Poetics Program at New College of California--with the lunatic aim of acquiring ancient Greek and reading the whole of the Iliad in the original simultaneously. Many of us knew not a word of Greek, but we had passion for poetic study, and, not incidentally, the ferocious appetite of group captain Robert Duncan to motivate us. And so, foolishly, doggedly, triumphantly, I clopped my way through dictionaries and the crib of multiple translations--aided, I'll say, by a Motown-inflected natural ear for rhythm--to mark the rise and fall and rise of the Homeric hexameters as they roused the troops and swung the sails and heaved the bloody spears on the fields before Troy. We chanted together to hear the aural imprint of the oral epic, in our California accents and tone-deaf attempts at pitch, and we felt the beat of the mythical poets's staff as it, tapped out the points of the six flexible feet. Menin aiede thea, peleiados achilleos...Dum-de-de dum-de-de- dum dum-de-de dum-de-de dum dum. I would learn to call these units dactyls and spondees, but before that I would like awake for hours with the sonic hoofprints of the beat galloping through my head...not the Greek words, which I'd instantly memorized and recited, but the pure hexameters, before language, before the poem. What is prosody? It is the performance of humility before the great powers of form-in-language. It is the name of the galloping horse tearing through the fields of a restless dawn on its essential mission to gather poetic meaning. It is, as The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics has it, "meaning-given figured and textured shape" (37-39).
To read about Aaron's other beginnings, check out his book!