Verse and Worse Selected and New Poems of Steve McCaffery 1989-2009
Darren Wershler, editor
Wilfred Lanier University Press, 2010
The 1980s proved an important decade for me. In 1986 my critical writings from 1973 through 1986 appeared collectively as North of Intention in a joint Canadian and American venture. It was also a decade in which some of my most substantial poetic texts appeared: the collaborative Legend (1980), the aphoristic Knowledge Never Knew (1983), Evoba (my poetic rescension of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, 1987) and The Black Debt (1989) whose two lengthy components (“Lag” and “An Effect of Cellophane”) realized my own poetics of recombination and phrase propulsion (in deliberate contrast to the New Sentence). The year 1988 was marked by the tragic passing of my dear friend and colleague bp Nichol. During the two decades sampled here in Verse and Worse I published eleven poetry titles through nine different presses based in four different countries. I mention these facts to underscore some fundamental proclivities in my writing that should be evident in the material republished here: a stridently anglophonic non-nationalism, a rejection of an ego-based poetry and a deep commitment to formal innovation. Notions of “identity,” “self” and “subject” have never been important factors in my writing. This is not to say that these do not inform my work, but that such matters have never been a focus or preoccupation. As a white heterosexual male, matters of identity are what one tries to escape and I’ve found my persistent commitment to collaboration (critical and creative) a mainstay to non-unity and decentredness.
Georges Perec has always provided me with an inspirational model for writing and publishing: diversify, make each publication entirely different from the former. (As such, a publication such as Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet is utterly alien to my sensibility.) My friend bp constantly harangued me to gather together my former, current and future poetic writings into a single work: The Abstract Ruin and to make it “Panel III” of Carnival. This I have never done. However, I concur with him on one important credo: that those discrete units we call “poems” gathered into those larger units we call “books” and sometimes partitioned into “decades” are false discontinuities in that indescribable and unpredictable ontological praxis known as writing. I certainly do not think that any writing (be it Charles Olson’s or Christine de Pisan’s) divides rationally or purposefully into decades and such artificial chronologizing impedes as much as it facilitates a pleasurable (or otherwise) encounter.
In arriving at Legend parameters for a Selected Works I decided on a number of exclusions. First and foremost none of my collaborative work is represented, hence, sections from, the collaborative sound-text scores of the Four Horsemen and my part-published but ongoing collaboration with Karen Mac Cormack (From a Middle) do not appear. Equally none of my collaborative and solo sound work is represented (an ideal Selected would include an accompanying CD). My visual, concrete and non-linear poetry is similarly absent, although samples of this can be found in Seven Pages Missing and on the Coach House Website. There are however two exceptions: the two Vico meditations can justifiably be considered “visual” poems although I personally regard them as conceptual; the poems from Paradigm of Tinctures are part of a collaborative work with British poet Alan Halsey, a collaboration in which Alan supplied stunning visual collages that match (often in odd ways) my own accompanying poems. As printed here they give a false presentation of the dialogism between word and image but I judge them to stand as independent texts. These parameters were agreed upon with Darren and we arrived at a somewhat visually orthodox gathering of texts with prose blocks and ragged right line-endings providing the dominant visual impression. But hopefully the poems display a somewhat non-linear thinking.
After my theorizing of Language poetics and the resultant poems, or rather creative manifestations (in such works as Theory of Sediment, 1991) and The Black Debt, 1989) my work took a philosophical turn in the late 1980s in the sense that the syncretism it always seeks shifted from socio-linguistic critique towards an inclusion of post-structural and post-phenomenological adaptations. Preeminently I sought poetic applications of primarily philosophical ideas. For instance in “Lag” I applied Lyotard’s theory of “phrase universes” as outlined in his book Differend, as well as Delezue and Guattari’s notion of “becoming” to a specific “becoming meaning” that reveals itself in a festive expenditure of persistent yet loose connecting phrases. A common site of inquiry in many of the poems is not only how meaning is produced but how meaning is lost, or rather how poems can stage for the reader the experience of a risk to the loss of meaning. There are several techniques exploited to this effect: phrase propulsion I’ve mentioned above but others include the logical shifts and semantic gaps consequent to the paratactic structure of a piece like “Tyrolean Night,” and a willful “misapplication” of a specific type of discourse to a form for which it was not intended (such as “Digital Poetics).
I’ve always retained from my reading of Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse” one important precept: the structural importance of kinetics to the revelation and disappearance of meaning (his notions of “breath” and “energy” do not factor in my work but importance of kinetics does). Speed is essential to the structure of “Lag” and the finite recombinations that make up “An Effect of Cellophane”.
Another element informing much of this work is a “slippage to indeterminacy.” Barthes’s and Lacan’s notion of the free-floating signifier strikes me as offering a fecund potential for poetics. Saussure too, in his rethinking of the old relation of word to thing as a new relation (and one entirely within language) of signifier and signifier suggested the potential of detachment and a linguistic economy of emancipated signifiers in the search for a non-representational poetry. I’ve long felt the rejection of representation crucial to any investigation into styles of poetic thinking. What constitutes such a discretion? Not entirely the abandonment of logic but certainly the freedom to a certain capriciousness in its application, arrived at through a tactical linking of words into propositional units. I recall puzzling one member in an audience at a reading I did several years ago in London, England, with the phrase “disambiguated geese.” To his question “what does it mean?” I answered “it doesn’t mean anything but it allows you think and in so doing you experience a fresh, perhaps novel juxtaposition of two common words. I think this hones in on the quintessential significance in Barret Watten’s notion of total syntax: a transposition of neologism from the invention of new words to the invention of new phrases and propositional units. Examples of this linguistic-cognitive phenomena populate the selections in this book; they are examples of my commitment to that perhaps masochistic hortation of Modernism to make it new. But innovation for its own sake is, like art for art’s sake, ultimately otiose. Kenneth Goldsmith’s and Tan Lin’s recent claims on behalf of unoriginality and uncreativity are major interventions in the contemporary avant-garde that need to be taken seriously. But they too partake in a legacy of negative poetics that starts in anglophone literature as early as the Preface to the second edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Bold innovation is immediately co-optated into a patinated rhetoric of supercession which gets one nowhere beyond the ephemeral titillations of fashion. I prefer to that other narrative of Midas that re-visions the avant-garde as a storehouse of available and cumulative techniques deemed viable and adaptable to the urgencies of the present. Poetry won’t change the world but might render the world rethinkable. This is not a Utopian inclination but a tactical strategy within a multiplicity of dreams, agendas, mistakes and arrogances. It is a poetics of promiscuity envisioned as a tactic. I adopt a chiasmic view of history: that’s partly Eliotian and partly Benjaminian: the present contemporarizes the past as much as the contemporary is historicized by the past. Any worthwhile poetic must be historically rigorous and admit the capricious power of the anachronism.
A serious rethinking of the lyric and aesthetics in general is evident too in this selection. I believe Jeremy Prynne derived from the poetry of George Meredith the phenomenon of a dizzying display of terminology that nonetheless is anchored by a feeling of surety, of “lyric” anchor. I won’t call this voice and thereby open a Pandora’s box of problems but I will venture to call it architected style. It is style that offers a refuge for the self and it is evident in the paradox of Eliot’s modernist poetics of impersonality that in so may ways has dominated the contemporary from Cage and MacLow to Goldsmith and Bök. Style reveals the individual behind it bringing word and flesh together in a writing that, of necessity, interpenetrates a world. My “style” is evident in all the poems in this volume and my “life” informs them insofar as my reading constitutes a major component of both my writing and my life. I like to think of lyric not as a historically defined genre but an atmosphere in which its problems, contradictions and aporia play themselves out. There is a distinctly “lyric” quality in several of the poems in verse and Worse but in being present it is problematized. Think of lyric as a certain weight of language gained through the ineluctable sedimentation of the poet’s medium: words added to a specific method of construction. It is a neutral constant that allows the operative presence of illogicality without the evidence of schizophrenia or surrealism; it permits a defamiliarized experience to be digested without disgust.
And let’s not forget humour and the simple pleasure of a laugh. Poets should not take themselves too seriously as politicians or world-changes (leave that to the Pol Pots, Stalins, Endira Ghandis, Margaret Thatchers, and Jesus Christs of the planet. Mina Loy envisaged a wonderful portmanteau of practical science and linguistic innovation she called the laboratory of the word and dropped Gertrude Stein in it. Laboratories are used for dissection and transmutations, anatomizations and alembications. I like to think of both these uses operative within the poems that make up Verse and Worse. Robert Creeley many years ago in an interview published in Sagetrieb distinguished my work form other Language poets by the unrelenting presence of humour. That state of the induced laugh has been adequately philosophized from Bergson to Bataille, its revolutionary power installed inside advanced counterinsurgencies against the hegemony of the Logos. I’m glad it’s present in this book, the induced chuckle that propels ego into orbit and relativizes most reality and all pretense. Its elder sister of course is satire, that almost defunct telos of writing that dominated and defined the 18th Century. The lampoon seems to have shifted ground from poetry to late-night television. Most poems here do not include the joke-as-such (eager readers will have to wait for my new book Dark Ladies for that) but it does embrace humour as a key element in the reader-writer relation.
Humour in poetry is partly an effect of language’s lability, its autopoeitic inclination to excess, multiplicity and indecidability. David McKettrick and Adrian Johns have each traced the entire history of printing until 1830 as the triumph of instability and uncertainty empirically undercutting that multiple modularity on which print knowledge and certainty is based. These poems exploit a significatory potential that is curiously in concordance with that history. The fifteen years spent on “accidental research” that saw the light in Imagining Language reinforced for the poet in me a fundamental dynamic oflinguistic signs: not to fixity and repeatable designation, but to capriciousness, volatility and the archaic dynamic of the swerve away from a norm. That in a nutshell is creed and testimony to the fact that my true muse is neither negativity nor Beatrice but the clinamen, the divine goddess of the swerve. Curves, inclinations, the disrupted but not severed linear flow are the proto-poetic dynamics behind Verse and Worse and that connect it to that notorious and glorious minor science of modernism: Alfred Jarry’s science of imaginary solutions: ’Pataphysics.
Let me delineate delineate a few instances of my own pataphysical work reprinted in the present volume. “The Dangers of Poetry,” “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” and the earlier “Restricted Translation With Imperfect Vowel Shift (after Basho)”: these attempt to present a poetry modeled on the two fundamental laws of Pataphysics: the clinamen or swerve (already mentioned) and the syzygy, an astronomical term denoting the momentary conjunction of two opposites. I’ve long felt that Jarry’s fin de siècle definition both anticipates and exceeds Reverdy’s theory of the surrealist image. (Breton’s rehabilitation of the sentence into the avant garde after the momentous move to words in freedom marks the most conservative moment within the history of vanguard modernism.) Moreover, Jarry’s science embraces a trans-disciplinarity that has been a lasting influence on my own swerving poetics which advocate the staging and merging of variant and frequently oppositional discourses. Many poems in Verse and Worse mix vocabularies of science, philosophy, linguistics and other allegedly non-poetic discourses into a multiplicity that hopefully mirrors some conditions of our age, an updating so to speak of Robert Duncan’s brave envisioning of a symposium of the whole. Others slide a renegade content into an orthodox format (the samples from “The Entries” for instance that offer pataphysical [re]definitions of familiar words within the stylistic protocols of a dictionary.) Rather than Duncan’s dream of a holism these poems celebrate multiplicity in a poetic parallel to Jean-Luc Nancy’s ontological call for a “being singular plural.” I will refrain from elaborating this into a passive liberal multiculturalism and the kind of bureaucratic tokenism that has reduced the Canada Council awards and grant criteria into a farcical myopia to singular histories and geographies, and insist that acknowledgement of multiplicity and difference must further carry an acknowledgement of contestation, agon and whatever historically remains of the system of the dialectic. In this I am a firm supporter of Marjorie Perloff’s brave and pioneer campaigns against judgment being clouded by the politically correct.
Language too inflects social material (a point insisted on by Bruce Andrews) and the poems selected for Verse and Worse do not represent an abnegation from a world albeit mediated by and constructed through language. There is a world outside the text and hopefully the poems included diffract, refract and to a certain extent enact that world. Hence, the verbal markers of historical contingence like Mogadishu, penned during the first crisis in Somalia and now surprisingly revivified. I exploit the possibility for proper names to inflect particularities and historical moments but used this way, as markers of currency, fall victim to the fallacy of eternal relevance. This is the fate of Alexander Pope’s great poem TheDunciad whose Gildens, D’Urfeys and Cibbers now sound like rejected moments in Finnegans Wake. Yet the poem remains eminently readable and comprehensible without the prosthetic aid of biographical glosses.
Let me end with a lament and a seduction. There are poems that I’m sad cannot be included because of length. “Teachable Texts” is a favourite of mine and a poem that think stands the test of time, likewise “Poetry in the Pissoir.” Both are available (theoretically in earlier formats). I withheld poems from the Basho Variations and Every Way Oakly (my homolinguistic translations of poems in Stein’s Tender Buttons) as a courtesy to my publisher, the brave Jay MillAr, in the hope that sales of his editions will reap largesse.
—Buffalo 29 July 2009