Thursday, February 5, 2009

Last year I put together a sequence of prose-poems, 64 in total, called "The Book of Random Access". It's got precisely 16,384 words in it (64 x 256). Not long after writing it, I decided that I'd wasted my time, that the piece wasn't up to much, and almost hit the delete key. I didn't, and now some sections have been accepted for Great Works and the Hamilton Stone Review, and I've had positive responses from friends who've seen it. So naturally, I feel more well-disposed towards it now. What's interesting about this is that it's an experience that keeps happening; work that I really want people to like and publish, usually doesn't turn people on. Work that I feel indifferent to, sometimes I even feel slightly hostile to, is often the stuff that people like. And after time, I come to agree. That's why the sense of a readership, however small, is so important. For myself, I find it very hard to gauge the quality of my own work until someone else has seen it; then, sometimes even before I know their reaction, I seem to be able to evaluate it more objectively, as if I can now see it through their eyes.

As to why work I'm indifferent to is often the stuff that works for others, it's hard to say. I think it must be something to do with the 'willed' quality of work - the less willed, or consciously directed, the better. I don't think it matters what type of work it is; whether it's nature-poetry, witty aphorism, cut-up, flarf - the state of mind required to produce good work seems to be the same. The artist doodles on a scrap of paper while mulling over a masterwork, then finds the doodles are far more interesting than the painting. Maybe that's what poets meant when they talked about being visited by the muse. Jack Spicer's poet as radio, receiving transmissions from outer space. Or in Buddhist terms, "emptiness" - the state of mind in which we don't identify with the products of the ego.

All of which is a complicated way of advertising my prose-poem. Or passing the time on this winter's night. Snow and ice outside, a glass of mulled wine in my hand.

14 comments:

richard lopez said...

i found this to be true for me too. which leads me to understand that for my work i can only let it go in where it wants and i find myself often trailing behind. and if i force work then the results are often pretty shitty.

but of course, i'm too close to my own work to be a good judge of it. doesn't mean i won't have favorites of my own. i am puzzled on the why of it too, such as why pieces of my work i'm enthusiastic to is met with silence and work i think so-so gets a fuller response from readers.

who knows. which is why i don't hardly throw anything out or delete it. besides, i find that when i'm finished with a text it seems to be finished with me as well and wants to be left all alone.

Alan Baker said...

Hi Richard. Not throwing work out is a good policy - there's always the hope that, browsing though old stuff will throw up a forgotten gem. It's nice when it happens, but, in my case, there comes a point where I have to say OK, the time has come... Move on!

John B-R said...

Later today I will send you a quote from Heidegger, which insists that this unwilledness MUST be the case, because we don't write "it", it writes us. Well, no, I won't send it, I got it pretty right here in theis paraphrase.

As for throwing things out, well, it seems to me that once a certain mode of "being written" is allowed to take hold, once the writer adjusts to being written (and this is a skill that takes years and years to develop: Gladwell's 10,000 hours), then there's no such thing as better or worse ... there just *is*.

As to whether people like my work or not, of course I love it when they do, but "the real work" has other imperatives.

Alan Baker said...

"we don't write 'it', it writes us"

Interesting. I must get round to reading Heidegger some day. So, "it", which writes us, is poetry. Wheras other types of willed writing, like emails, don't write us, we write them. Are we getting to a definiton of poetry here, or just into deep water/thin ice (in my case)?

John B-R said...

Where else might poetry be found other than when we fall through the cracks. I believe even A Pope sat back from his desk and said shit, "the proper study of mankind is man", cool, awesome, where did THAT come from?

The "it" that speaks us is poetry yes, but poetry can't be set apart from being. Being speaks us. Heidegger is well worth reading. I'm into a book now by Babette Babich, which sets him in conjunction with Holderlin and Nietzsche. Have you ever read Holderlin? There are a number of great translations; he's a totally amazing poet.

You say we write emails. I wonder how "cyborg" the author of an email might be, how "big" the authoring "I" really is, and how much the ego gets credit? Some credit, certainly, but ...

I mean, even this comment is a bit out of my control.

Alan Baker said...

I'd agree that when I read proper letters (rarely) my tone is more formal and, I guess, literary, than when I'm sending emails, and they are different again to when I'm blog posting, or reviewing for a print magazine. So, I'd agree that part of these communications is outside of my conscious control.

So I suppose one could argue that I'm a construct of language, just as I'm a construct of my social relations.

But "being speaks to us" sounds altogether more mystical, as if "being" is some kind of deity.

I've read some of Michael Hamburger's Holderlin translations.

Alan Baker said...

I meant "write" proper letters...

John B-R said...

Being is not a deity, tho it is important to note that when young H was a theology student. What if I had said Isness? As in Buddhist Suchness? There's no deity there. There's just the dance of the sub-sub-subatomic wavicles, to be reductive, or, to not be reductive, there's just the immanent universe, which does, of course transcend us, but not in any deific sense ... just in the sense that Rose is not you and you're not yr car, etc etc. H actually uses Dasein, which loosely translates being-there.

Re: emails, I wasn't thinking only of the informality of tone. I was thinking more (and this is true of letters, too, and every form of linguistic communication - I think) that we really are at best partners of an always-already language, whether conceived of by Lacan (we've discussed that a bit) as preceding us, or by Wittgenstein, as a set of games, which also must in some sense precede us, or else no one would know how to play them with us.

I'm just thinking aloud, so to speak ...

AidanSemmens said...

Hi Alan

In recent times I've committed much more time and effort to photography than to poetry and I have found there that exactly the same thing you say applies - that the things I'm most proud of are often ignored, while those I'm reticent, almost embarrassed, to show can get much better reactions.
I think there may be something in the intentionality aspect. I remember Bunting advising poets to shove all writings in a drawer until you've forgotten them and only then attempt to assess or revise.

If I may also refer back to an earlier topic I've just found in your blog - that hoary old chestnut known as JH Prynne.
Prynne's poetry has always seemed to me like the emperor's new clothes - except that some good "innovative" poets have come out latterly to say they can't see any clothes on him.
I think part of the point with Prynne is that he was an absolutely brilliant lecturer - the only literature lecturer at Cambridge in the mid-70s (when I was there) whose lectures drew queues and filled halls. He could also be inspiring company if you ever got into his inner circle - and that circle has at one time or another included a lot of the "avant-garde" poets whose names we now know. So there's a deal of understandable personal loyalty there as well as in some cases a huge poetical influence.
I'm also reminded of my first-year director of studies, Adrian Poole, explaining to me the uncreased spine on his copy of Finnegan's Wake: "I doubt if you'll find an English don who hasn't got a copy of that book on his shelves - or more than one or two who have actually read it."

:-)

Alan Baker said...

Hi Aidan

Yes, I like that advice fom Bunting. If you can wait long enough until you've forgotten your work - very hard to do - you can read it as if it were by someone else (and in my case think usually think'God, what crap!' - which shows how much the ego is involved to begin with).

Very interesting to hear your thoughts on Prynne - years back, on the british-poets list, I had discussions with people who had been in his inner circle, and they definitely gave the impression of being disciples. He clearly has great charisma and is an intellectual of the first order, which is what (I guess) status in Cambridge circles is based on. Strangely, that charm/wit/inspiring quality doesn't come across in the poetry. I mean some poetry charms - say, Ashbery's - but not Prynne's (I realise I'm not being very 'rigorous' here...)

I think Prynne's shunning of publicity adds a mystique to his name.

On a different note: I saw Bob Dylan at Blackbushe too. An experience of a lifetime. I didn't see you there...

all the best
Alan

AidanSemmens said...

Yup - disciples is exactly the word: there was a sense for those of us (well, me) who were as it were on the fringe of the circle that we were almost pitied by the true evangelists. You're right about charm too - I think Prynne consciously shuns it as he does publicity. Of course, at heart it could be that he is just a very shy man. But I think, too, that he has a very dry sense of humour and that an awareness of that is essential to approaching the poems (if you care to approach them at all).
For example, in the line
I a waffle
I am surely not the only reader to hear both "Hiawatha" and "higher waffle" :-)
On the subject of leaving things in drawers to forget, I had the most extraordinary experience a few years ago when turning out a cupboard preparatory to moving house. In perusing a box full of old mags I found not one but several poems of mine that I had no recollection of having written but were there published under my name. And all from a period when I would have sworn I hadn't been writing anything at all except sports journalism. Very weird.
Finally, Blackbushe - you must have sifted a long way through my garbage to find that. I don't know whether I saw you there or not... ;-)

John B-R said...

Re: leaving stuff in a drawer. Horace advised that thousands of years before Bunting. He said hold for 9 yrs, I believe. In an Art of Poetry of mine (composed in its entirety of back cover blurbs) that appears on the ars poetica site I revised that to "9 seconds, then post to yr website". Instant exposure also eliminates ego. If it's a poem, it's out there. Period.

Second, re: Prynne. I don't find his work particularly provocative, or particularly good, or particularly bad. Question, not being part of yr scene: can one hold his disciples against him? I mean, did he cultivate them? That's usually a bad sign. People who need/want disciples are usually stunted in some way, one that doesn't bode well for art, the test of which being from how deep a life it springs, if I have my Joyce quote right.

I have read FW, by the way. All the way thru once, and a number of sections many times. I've only found it an influence in its fearlessness and depth of emotion ...

Alan Baker said...

Hey Adian, you make me sound like a stalker. I merely read an article on the front page of your website. A good article, that chimed with my own experience - I didn't see Dylan after Blackbushe until almost 30 years later, and my impression was the same as yours.

Your forgotten poems raise some interesting philosophical questions; Lee Harwood, in his recent book of interviews answers questions about an early poem that he can't remember writing, which I guess means that his views on it are no more prescient that anyone else's. But he'd agree with that, as it chimes with his view that the reader makes the poem as much as the writer.

As for Prynne's humour, people talk about Geoffrey Hill's humour in the same way, but in both cases it's rather... donnish.... and over my head. As for whether he cultivated disciples John, I've know idea, though from Aidan's description, it seems as though he didn't discourage them.

AidanSemmens said...

Ah yes, of course, my website. Now that's something I should take out of the drawer and dust off... ;-)
I'm quite sure Prynne didn't discourage disciples, John - rather the opposite, I'd say. But is that a bad thing? If you have a view on anything that matters to you, as Prynne clearly has on poetry, why would you not encourage anyone who showed an interest in following your example or precepts?
The way I put curve on a free-kick is by striking the ball like this...
As for your nine-second rule, I'd be terrified of embarrassing myself seriously. On the other hand, most of what I write is journalism, and in that I relish the pressure of a short deadline. But that, of course, is ephemera by definition.