Anselm Hollo on Some Modern Poets Fragmentation

Anselm Hollo on Modern Fragmentation   June 25 1986

Continuing his remarks on fragmentation, poet-translator, Anselm Hollo looks at the concept in the work of seven of his contemporaries – Armand Schwerner, Ronald Johnson, Tom Phillips, Ted Berrigan, Larry Eigner, Tom Raworth, and Philip Whalen 

AH: I sort of went through my tattered memory to think about instances where contemporaries have used the idea of the fragment, or..something, done something related to that, and one very obvious example that came to mind is the American poet, Armand Schwerner, whose.. I would say his main interest outside of literature, outside of poetry, has always been anthropology and history. And he decided at some point (I’m trying to think, well, going on fifteen years ago) go see whether he could write a work, make a work, that would use the form provided by transcriptions of ancient, let’s say, Babylonian clay tablets and such, to take that and, in a sense, create, create a whole mythology and culture, by means if these Tablets that he would make himself, you know. I mean Armand didn’t go so far as to actually make the clay tablets, he used the typewriter, I think, but.. In a sense, that might have seemed a novel idea, except that it has a great tradition in this country – the fake-mythology, religious ritual text, I guess. Old-time in a way is the Book of Mormon (I mean that is just my opinion, I hope I’m not offending anybody! – but that was one guy’s work, who sat down and really dug the Old Testament, and said “Boy, I wish I could…”, “I wish there was more of this”, you know. I mean, it’s such a good read! (“Shit, I’ve read it many times over now, there’s got to be more”. So he sat down and wrote the Book of Mormon- he just invented the whole other mythology that.. played to this Continent (America) to a large extent).

Well, Armand (Schwerner) wasn’t about to study religion. So I have here one example of his work, it’s a’s long, it’s a book-length work, called The Tablets, and this is Tablet #4, where, complete with..scientific apparatus, you know, legend – “simple dots mean untranslatable, little crosses mean missing section, brackets with a question-mark inside them is variant readings” – you might read it this way – and, “whatever is in brackets has been supplied by the scholar-translator” – A little note – “Most large fragments  are the results of horizontal breaks. This tablet.. however is vertically fractured” –  and so forth<

Student: What does he mean by that?

AH: Well, if you think.. what does he mean by what?

Student:  When he says “these”,  is he referring to these fragments, as these on the page here?

AH: Yeah – yeah, well, these are..  this is a tablet essentially but it’s broken. So, broken in two and we get these two halves, I think is basically what it says formally . So it says, I mean, actually, what it ends up being is not so much a parody as, in a way, actually a recreation. It’s sort of like a venture into science fiction in a way, if you wish. You give.. not long, quite a while after Schwerner actually Ursula Le Guin Ursula K Le Guin who some of you science-fiction fans may have read, has created things, has done things like create a language, a consistent language, in some of her books, and also created music, with the insistence of a composer friend, and so forth. So, I don’t know, what we end up having here is obviously a classical litany – questions – when? does? is? like then like – long litany – and it ends up being entertaining, in its own way, especially if you’ve ever dealt with these texts, these, Armand’s things, are even funnier, because they are, like, a tongue-in-cheek parody, saying “why on earth are we thinking that this is actually very significant?”, you know, I mean, “When does the man sacrifice his hands?..” “Does the man wipe his belly with sperm?…” Does the man put good leaves under his testicles..?” – You know, I mean, it’s no funnier than a lot of the original texts, but..  So it is an exercise in creating a little parallel universe and the little lacunae, the missing things, are cleverly inserted too… “Like the world, a five-year-old’s bloody [     ]” – bloody what? – “Like a frog stops with small stones, small white stones…”

So, in this case, Schwerner makes a work out of invented fragments. Another thing, which is maybe a little similar to those Romantic period fake ruins in conceptual terms has been an exercise (which, again, any of you could try) that consists in taking a text, any text, you know, a text that interests you, and editing it., taking things out, changing it, altering it. Ronald Johnson, a poet who lives in San Francisco took, very ambitiously,  (John) Milton’s Paradise Lost and made a new book-length poem called “Radi os”  – (R-A-D-I -space-O-S, which is, you now “radi” as in paradise, “os” as in “lost” – “radios”) and what you get there, I mean, every word in that is basically Milton’s, although Milton never put them in that particular order and may have had many other words between them, between words that now are next to each other, but, he does an interesting thing (I couldn’t.. I didn’t have a xerox one of those to show you), he left the spaces resulting from the white-out or black-out (whatever color he used to take out what he didn’t think was so interesting) so that the page has this incredible air in it, I mean it looks like it was shot through with, I don’t know, empty space, and these words hover in it. So that’s worth checking out. It’s sort of laborious.

We’ll skip one of the pages here (in the classroom hand-out) and get (on) to Larry Eigner, but (before we do) there is two pages of work by the English.. he’s basically a painter, (but he’s a painter who’s always been very interested in literature, in fact, he translated Dante’s Inferno and illustrated it at one point) – Tom Phillips’  – A Humament 

which is a book [Anselm displays the book] – there it is – that is constructed from a very bad Victorian novel, called A Human Document by some author [W.H. Mallock] , you know (It’s like one of those books that you find when you check out the Goodwill store [the charity shop] books section – you know, old, mouldy hardcovers, falling apart – You may find A Human Document by whoever-it-was one day, but it was..)  Phillips found a copy that was in good shape and was so struck by the sort of brilliant awfulness of it that he thought, “Well, maybe it would be an interesting thing to do to see, you know, if someone could make something out of this?”. He thought of it as an object, you know, as just “a book”, and also as an object containing words. So what he did is spend, I think a couple of years going over the book page-by-page and making each page ino a little painting. In other words, not just knocking out words, you know, or taking out phrases, or.. telescoping words into one another, but, actually, making each page work as a picture, and leaving the words in, and, furthermore, trying to preserve some kind of.. It’s a very weird story-line – and the main character, for some reason, because those four letters occur a lot in the text, the main character’s name ends up being Toge, T-O-G-E. So it’s like “The Adventures of Toge”, but, actually, you can read it, it’s very interesting – it’s dazzling (in color it’s so dazzling that one tends to get lost in contemplation of the page just looking at it, and it’s hard to go on, so it’s really…) I think the book costs something like eighteen dollars [Editorial note – in 1986!]  but it’s certainly.. it’s hardtack, you can read it forever! – I haven’t (entirely) “read” it yet! – it’s almost as good as Finnegans Wake  (and) it’s prettier, visually! – Yeah, so what we have here then are these pages that. Page number 12 here – On the left in the image (which you don’t really get in this xerox now, but…it’s like a meadow, there’s flowers, and the text says,”Condemned to Life. This good book book for nobody” – So that’s like a little pidgin-English poem, and then it says “Meaning losing its meaning, when it follows any picture of  the part of a half of a picture. Details are not representation. Question whether the book is this. It is as if it is and exist in the purposes it does” – Or, the facing page says, “Moral moral moral moral moral. Good people have not been surpressed or altered .Moral moral moral moral moral moral”. I mean, think of the fact, I’m sure that not one of these “moral”s is doctored, I mean, it didn’t say.. Maybe it said “amoral” at some point.. but it’s a lot of “moral”s on a page, boy!  – And there’s one that deals with poetry somewhat, that has little explosions in the sky – “Feel, confide, enjoy, Spring, teach, laugh, express, poet, happy – I published one small volume and they have now forgotten it”- “Charm, read, think, understand, sky, realize, look”, But your eye is inevitably drawn back to that little box in the center, you know. “I published one small volume and they have now forgotten it” – (There’s a life in there!)

And then, also, some of it, some of it verges on Dada (again Dadaists were totally interested in fragments and fragmentation. Tristan Tzara’s idea that anybody can write a poem by taking a newspaper and cutting it into strips and putting the strips in a hat, and then pulling them out at random and copying them down, which is the precursor to the Cut-Up method now, first formalized, more recently by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. Sure, that’s like working with fragments. There was a movement in Russia contemporary with Dada, right after World War I and shortly thereafter, the Zaum  movement, which was the sort of radical wing of poetry at the time, led by Velimir Khlebnikov. Certainly also Khlebnikov’s synthetic language consisted of deconstructed Russian, German, French, whatever he could…yeah, I mean, he was quite a linguist, whatever he could think of, and deconstructing it quite a bit further than (James) Joyce did later in Finnegans Wake, So yeah this one Phillips page goes into some kind of Zaum language for a bit there – “She getting laden with gvalk, and frunk, and painful interest” – Pardon me?

Student: (How does he do that? –  because those words…)

AH: Well, no, so we are suddenly somewhere else, obviously, it’s a little.

Student: (He wasn’t the person writing things out. He didn’t actually do the writing)

AH: Oh no, no.  Oh, I did these (these Zaum words) come out? I think they’re parts of names, they’re parts of names  – Ringvolk – Mr Ring – Herr Ringvolk – something like that, you know (It was probably irresistable too to do that, for that reason)

Ted Berrigan wrote a novel called Clear The Range, which was, originally… I mean, it’s not originally written. It was written. There was a novel, there was a book by, I think, Luke Short, called Clearing The Range that Ted took and read and found to be just sort of average and run-of-the-mill and vastly improved by taking out things and maybe here and there putting in another thing. It’s a very…it’s a great surreal Western, actually. One could say, I think, fairly, that Ted’s Sonnets were constructed to a large extent by means of a, like, fragment composition, quotes, either from literature or other people or from himself, interwoven and rewoven into new verbal structures and repeated but never repeated in the same context. So, in a sense, the Sonnets is not, is certainly not a very whole work but it is made with an awareness of the  fragmentary-ness and the various ways you can replace things with other things and get a new thing.

Larry Eigner‘s work  has to me always seemed beautifully reminiscent of, say, Sappho infragments, or as we have her, while never ever seeming “fragmentary”, in a bad way at all, in this lovely continuum of words that goes on there, but, looked at with a traditionalist eye in  poetry, certainly would seem fragmentary, and would seem..”Say, what’s..there’s a lot, missing?” – Well, I don’t think there’s anything missing – [“Anselm Hollo reads “Small flightless birds” from  Larry Eigner’Air The Trees] “Small flightless birds/ the voice/ far tinkling bells/ /museum/ of sorts the rats destroyed moving ashore/  Midway/slow is the poem flat wall of the sea and sky each island rose farther than any whale fins breathing above the waves. the mirrors. heat/ past sunshine. /vibrations of air/ spiders, then birds settle/ reflexive/ man/ menageries/ bringing what he can/ from the bottom. interest/ in/ the quickening run-through/ one thing at a time/ tides/ a large motion/ small waves give boats / rock crumbles to earth/ under rain/ the seasclouds mulct the moon/  flats/  the whale is still hunted/ in certain parts/ prodigal/ the deep light/  The Confederacy, you have to/ repeat,/ was real/  suddenly/ to be denied/ lines there down the map/ if you recognize yourself/ still/ roads/ colors of your state/to make a noise in/the sheer slavery/ of abstruse thought/ full of the sky  rough  river/ dirt   the captured ordnance/ made gain (to puff/ in imagination  (useless  with the real/    shot/ crater  powder-kegs/ strewing the ground/ now then/ behind grass   the/ slope of cloud   house/ bed and emptiness besides/ returning the sun/ shown everywhere/ the full-decked..” –  In the first one, the one on the left-hand side, there’s obviously no very clear indication there.  I mean, I read it one way and you could read it a couple of different ways. You know, you could read it across – “reflexive man/ menageries/ bringing what he can/ from the bottom/ interest”, and so on, you know. I mean, that’s there, and when we read it to ourselves , we can read it either way (we can read it both ways at once).
So, yeah, I don’t think.. I don”t know.. I’m not aware of any studies of Larry Eigner’s work that really go heavily into the structure of it. or try to discuss particularly how these thing are made. [Editorial note – subsequent to Anselm’s class, there emerged the detailed scholarly work of Michael Davidson]  – I think they’re just made, more or less. The’re made very meticulously. I know Larry’s method of composition, in a sense that.. he’s very concerned about where whatever sits on the page. He says, “No no, that should go over here!”. So, he looks at the page. and that is a big part of it, how it’s seen on the page, as well as heard as a vocal performance.

[Anselm continues, surveying the class hand-out] – Yeah, I don’t think we have to read all these necesarily but there’s instances from Tom Raworth, a British poet who..   the two pages here are from..sort of a diary, diary-poem, it’s a parody essentially of a diary poem, the kind of thing where you sit down and say. “Well, I’ll write something every day” (which you all should do! – it’s not as easy to do sometimes as it sounds and, so you get these entries, they’re entries and in that sense they’re not fragmentary, I mean, that’s all there was for that day. “You call that a fragment? That’s all the words I was able to write today. Come on!” – So, as, for instance, (from “Stag Skull Mounted”) on the 3rd of June, 1970 – “this is my handwriting” –  Right, I mean, it’s a truthful and noble statement and who would want more actually?)

Student: (Saying it right..)

AH: Well, no.. Well, (yes), that may be what makes it interesting. Contemplate the fact of, you know, what happens when you read that out loud. Right.
June 5th was even sort of more purer in a way, just (the word) – “word”, and June 6th elaborates a little bit on that. It says “word a/ a the/the the/ in/adequate   language/ i love you”. And then two entries for the 10th which, you know, that “8.06 PM, it seemed that the word “poem” would suffice but then, about an hour and a half later, it became apparent that this would be much better if it read “poem/ poem” And nineteen days passed before the word “organic” found its place in this work. And it goes on..

And then the other one is not a longer piece too, it’s the end of the longer piece (“Describing the In on the Crest of a Wave”), but it doesn’t have dates. It has these little titles, however, that are not indicated as such but they’re over to the right, so that we get “try and remember/ the past   education”, which sort of stops the sentence back to the left side again. I see, that’s true, that’s what education is – try and remember the past, try at least! – [he continues] “power of the memory/ of first feeling –  myth” – “I have created a myth/ only a little myth/ but it could grow if you” “I had forgotten the object of my lesson should be there. “yes, I’m right”/ should only have given me freedom   but the mirror had flipped up i/ organized as much of the direction as I could and started off”  – quote – “not skimming like old-fashioned speed-readers  as a graduate,  you’ll be/ able to read a book in less than an hour” – unquote – “the best/ in history –  road sign” _ “disappearing hemispheres/ surrounded the grey balloon”  “surface clear?/ unloose/ re lease” “nothing is know” sang all the animals trying to get clear/” “dear/   page     I feel so useless/ but triumphantly sad”. “(use/ smaller paper) –   advice”

Again a form whose.. one of his masters, I think, contemporary masters, is Philip Whalen, (whose works I strongly recommend for everybody).  So that you get..  you get these works that proceed by takes, as it were, that may, at first, seem unrelated, or not particularly related, except that they were all.. you know, they were written by the same guy, or something or they were noticed by the same person, but, as.. as the structures expand, create their own figure and their own gestalt.  So that is.. that is, in a way, an acknowledgement of the discontinuousness of consciousness.

I mean we’re both performing super-human feats here right now, by sitting (I mean, you guys have been listening to me for almost an hour! – and, my god! – I mean, I’ve been talking for almost an hour! – I mean, that’s unnatural! People don’t naturally do that.) So we can do that, but, on the other hand, someone once said, “No one speaks in complete sentences, except for politicians and English professors”. You know, we do, we do train ourselves to these feats of continuousness and to these conventions of wholeness, you know. But they are, basically all they are, are conventions. I mean we do think that a.. that, for some reason we’ve decided, culturally and historically, we’ve decided, that a sonnet is a complete thing.
I mean, if it does, if a poem runs for fourteen lines and observes certain rules, then it’s complete, then that’s regarded as complete, closed, you know. This is a – uno – sonnet , you know. There it is. It’s marketable too that way, you know (“You wanna buy a sonnet?”), whereas…

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning a approximately seventeen-and-a-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximaely forty-seven minutes in]

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