Consider the use of letters, for all principles demand them.
At the conclusion of Wen Fu, his treatise on the art of writing, Lu Chi, born in the Yangtze delta in 261 A.D. and author of the first book of criticism in the Chinese language, writes about writing:
Though they travel a thousand miles & more, nothing in the world can stop them; they traverse ten thousand years.
Look at them one way, and they clarify laws for the future; look at them another, and they provide models from old masters.
The art of letters has saved governments from certain ruin and propagates proper morals.
Through letters there is no road too distant to travel, no idea too confusing to be ordered.
It comes like rain from clouds; it renews the vital spirit.
(I quote from Sam Hamill’s translation, which makes no attempt to reproduce the rhyme of the original.)
Is this true? Has the art of letters “saved governments from certain ruin” and propagated “proper morals”? (One might ask Jesse Helms about that one.) Does literature—letters—come “like rain from clouds”? Does it renew “the vital spirit”?—
What does all this propaganda mean?
In the section called “Beginning,” Lu Chi writes of the poet,
And then the inner voice grows clearer as objects become defined.
Eyes closed, he hears an inner music; he is lost in thought and questions—
His spirit rides to the eight corners of the universe, his mind a thousand miles away.
And he pours forth the essence of words, savouring their sweetness.
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
What does the “art of writing” have to do with having your eyes closed? What is an “inner music”? Lu Chi’s poet, at least at his “beginning,” is alienated from the world, distanced, “lost in thoughts and questions.” He is not in any way a “performer.” Words arise out of the intensity of his subjectivity—imaged here as the magical ability to travel enormous distances. We recognize him easily because we have so many examples from our own culture:
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”)
The herald came to hand leading the beloved minstrel, whom the Muse did especially love: yet had her gifts to him been mixed, both good and evil. She had taken from him the sight of his eyes, and given him a power of harmony. Pontonous backed a silver-studded throne against a tall pillar in the midst of the feasters and set it for the musician and put him on it; then hung the resonant lyre on a peg above him and guided his hand to the place, so that later he might know to reach it down. Beside him he set a food basket and a goodly table and a wine-cup ready, that he might drink as his spirit prompted. The company plunged hands into the bounty provided, until they had satisfied their lust for drink and meat. Then the Muse pricked the musician on to sing of the great deeds of heroes, as they were recounted in verses whose fame had already filled the skies...
Coleridge too speaks of closed eyes. Why should writing, which depends upon vision, be associated with such a state? The Homeric singer, on the other hand, has not closed his eyes. He has been blinded by the very Muse whose bidding he does. In the eighth Book of The Odyssey, Alcinous says, “Let someone bid to the gathering our divine minstrel Demodocus, to whom the God has given such gift of music that he charms his hearers with every song to which his heart is moved”:
Of this was the song of the very famous minstrel: but Odysseus with two strong hands drew the broad purple cloak over his head to hide his goodly face. He was ashamed to let the tears well from his deep-set eyes publicly before the Phaecians. Each time the divine singer broke off his song Odysseus dashed away the tears, freed his head from the cloak, and poured from his loving cup a libation to the God.
(trans. Col. T. E. Lawrence)
Eyes closed, he hears an inner music; he is lost in thoughts and questions—
The contrast could not be greater. Homer’s “beloved minstrel,” like the poet of Lu Chi’s Art of Writing, bursts into song, but he is not listening to “an inner music”; he is not “lost in thoughts and questions”; despite his blindness, he is directed outward, towards his audience; he is, precisely, performing. Indeed, he is not even necessarily the author of the poem he is performing, a poem which Homer describes as dealing with “the great deeds of heroes, as they were recounted in verses whose fame had already filled the skies.” The author of the poem is not specifically mentioned, but that doesn’t seem to matter very much. If anything, the Muse is the author of the poem—as the Muse is certainly the inspiration of the poet. Odysseus doesn’t drink to the wonderful poet who composed the poem which the “divine singer” is reciting but pours “from his loving cup a libation to the God.” Song, it seems, originates in mystery—but it is not the mystery of selfhood, as it is in Lu Chi. Lu Chi (born 261 A.D.) and Homer (born, perhaps, 850 B.C.) both present us with an image of the poet—and they are in a way rather similar images. The poet in the act of speaking his poetry is definitely something to see. But Lu Chi’s image represents precisely the transformation of the image Homer gives us. The divinely inspired poet for Lu Chi is suddenly thrust inwards and away from his external circumstances:
His spirit rides to the eight corners of the universe, his mind a thousand miles away.
Eyes closed, he hears an inner music; he is lost in thoughts and questions—
His eyes are closed because the external world is no longer present to him. The Muse, on the other hand, thrusts the Homeric singer outward towards his audience as his “power of harmony” (which is no “inner music” but dependent in part upon the very real “resonant lyre” that hangs “on a peg above him”) moves Odysseus to tears. He does not transport his auditors “to the eight corners of the universe” but reminds them of their life; tells them what it means to be human as he sings “the great deeds of heroes.” He does not pour forth “the essence of words” but stirs specific memories in his audience. As the text makes clear, Odysseus is listening to events in which he has participated; he is listening to his own life.
Is the poet public or is he private? Do his words move outward to the world or inward towards a pure subjectivity, an “essence of words”? Are both these stances myths—and, if they are, what are they expressing? What do they have to do with Wen Fu, “the art of writing”?
Writing about writing in his great book, Interfaces of the Word, Father Walter J. Ong refers to “the indissoluble alliance which writing and print have with death, the great separator.” Writing turns “performer” and “listener,” who are necessarily physically present to one another, into “author” and “reader,” who are necessarily not. Writer and reader are separated—as if by death:
Even by Jane Austen’s time...the problem of the reader's role in prose narrative was by no means entirely solved. Nervousness regarding the role of the reader registers everywhere in the “dear reader” regularly invoked in fiction well through the nineteenth century. The reader had to be reminded (and the narrator, too) that the recipient of the story was indeed a reader—not a listener, not one of the crowd, but an individual isolated with a text.
“Not a listener, not one of the crowd, but an individual isolated with a text.” The isolation of Lu Chi’s poet is indeed linked to “the art of writing.” Writing for both writer and reader tends towards isolation—towards separateness, towards “privacy.” I need to be alone so I can write. I need to get away in order to finish my novel. The image of Lu Chi’s poet is the image, by now enormously hackneyed, of the sensitive, isolated, perhaps even “misunderstood” individual—a figure whose isolation mirrors the isolation of the reader alone with his book. The reader’s eyes are not in fact closed, as the poet’s are, but they are nevertheless turned away from the world.They are focused on a book, not on the world around him.
In the mirror of his text, Lu Chi’s words apply as much to the reader as they do to the poet:
His spirit rides to the eight corners of the universe, his mind a thousand miles away.
“Well then,” said Socrates to Phaedrus, are we able to imagine another sort of discourse, a legitimate brother of our bastard [writing]? How does it originate? How far is it better and more powerful in nature?
The figure of the heroic poet listening to “an inner music” is a mythologizing of the act of reading. What has reading to do with poetry? What happens when, as Eric A. Havelock puts it, “the muse learns to write”? The Homeric poet’s blindness is an indication that he has nothing at all to do with writing. There was no Braille in Homer’s day. At its beginnings, poetry is rooted in physical presence and in sounds, and, whatever the labyrinthine complexities of its history—and they are many—it always maintains some sort of connection with its purely oral past. “In a shell of murmurings,” wrote Robert Duncan in the 1960s,
(Bending the Bow)
Phaedrus. What sort of discourse? What do you mean about its origin?
Socrates. A discourse which is inscribed with genuine knowledge in the soul of the learner; a discourse that can defend itself and knows to whom it should speak and before whom to remain silent.
Phaedrus. Do you mean the living, animate discourse of a man who really knows? Would it be fair to call the written discourse only a kind of ghost of it?
Socrates. Precisely. (Plato, The Phaedrus)
Written discourse, writes Plato, is “only a kind of ghost” of “the living, animate discourse of a man who really knows.”
The shift from Socrates, who never wrote anything, to Plato, who was a writer, is the shift from an oral culture to a culture in which writing is of enormous importance. It is the beginning of the myth of subjectivity, of inwardness, a myth which finds its apotheosis in the conception of the “unconscious,” a conception of an area of the mind so “subjective” that it is for the most part inaccessible. The history of this myth of subjectivity is bound up with the history of writing. Do we speak our words aloud as we write or read them or are we silent before the page? Just as there are areas of the mind which must be “read,” “interpreted,” “decoded” before they can be understood, so words—the products of our breaths and bodies—are hidden in the tangles of “letters.”
The following poem, published by E. E. Cummings in 1935 in his volume, No Thanks, is, literally, unspeakable:
a)s w(e loo)k
[Speakers are silent while audience examines poem]
Cummings’ poem brilliantly places us at the exact point at which letters turn into words. The struggle to see the grasshopper as it moves and leaps in the grass is mirrored by the struggle of our eyes to make sense—and words—out of Cummings’ disarranged letters. But it is an entirely visual struggle. R-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r cannot be pronounced except as individual letters until one turns the letters around and perceives them to be “grasshopper.” It is as far from the oral as a poem can be.
At a certain point in its history Western poetry takes the page, and “letters,” as its primary mode of dissemination. The ancestor of Cummings’ poem is Stéphane Mallarmé’s "Un coup de dés, A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance," a poem published in 1897. Mallarmé’s poem marks the very first moment in which a modern poet admits that he is working with a page and that the page, even the entire book, can be used for expressive purposes. Beginning with that poem (which, Mallarmé says, “has no precedent”) modern poetry embarks upon an enormously important experiment, an experiment which continues into the present day: an experiment with specifically visual experience. Mallarmé not only accepts the silence and whiteness of the page as the primary means for the dissemination of his poetry, he makes active use of it.
I cannot possibly enter into the historical ramifications of Un coup de dés but suffice it to say that that poem gives birth to an extraordinary series of experiments with typefaces, with white space, with patterns, with letters (in Apollinaire as well as E. E. Cummings), with “field” techniques, with all sorts of essentially visual phenomena. In addition, poets begin to claim that their work is grounded in the visual, in “images,” and for the first time it is possible to argue, as C. Day Lewis does in The Poetic Image (1947), that “imagery,” not the “power of harmony,” is the very basis of poetry. The intense visual focus on the book, which is necessary if reading is to occur at all, becomes the very theme and condition of poetry. The poem exists, as Cummings puts it very well, only “a)s w(e loo)k.”
Yet this is by no means the end of the story. Writing is itself at this moment in a state of crisis. For the first time in its history it finds itself in competition with other modes of expression. Our children, we complain, don’t read enough. Literacy is declining. For many years writing was the only way of preserving human speech—but this is no longer the case. The cassette tape or the phonograph record or the radio or the television or the CD-Rom can give you the exact sound of the person who is speaking.
In his book The Muse Learns To Write, Eric A. Havelock reflects upon the new interest in orality which has characterized much scholarship in the past twenty-five to thirty years. Why, he asks, “should...works produced simultaneously in three different countries have all involved themselves in the role of human language in human culture? Why, in particular, this focus on the spoken language in contrast to the written?” His answer is: “We had all been listening to the radio....”
The electronic media have already changed the conditions of writing, though the exact nature of that change is not yet clear. We live, as Father Ong put it in 1977, in an “opening state of consciousness,” a state in which even the nature of biography—the nature of what we believe it means to be human—may have to be reconsidered.
Lu Chi’s inward-looking poet, the type of the subjective man, may strike us as oddly old-fashioned. The figure of the Homeric singer, with its very different sense of personality structure, has been a haunting presence in modern literature, whether one speaks of James Joyce or W. B. Yeats or H. D. or Ezra Pound or Jack Kerouac or Judy Grahn. What are we likely to experience next? We don’t know, but we have an intense sense that it is likely to be different.
“THE CURRENT STATE OF POETRY” (1993)
Mary Rudge has asked me to talk for ten minutes on “the current state of poetry.” Ten minutes is of course scarcely enough time to do anything like justice to such a subject, but I’ll do what I can. Poetry is not an absolute entity. It changes constantly. What might have been a “poem” for someone in the eighteenth century would perhaps be for us nothing but greeting-card verse. What is for us a “poem” would very likely be prose for someone living in the eighteenth century. There is always a wide range of what constitutes “poetry,” but the range by no means necessarily includes exactly the same elements. What is poetry now?
In order to understand the current state of poetry it is necessary to go all the way back to the beginning, and I will have to ask you to bear with me in this sketchy historical excursion. In the West the beginning of poetry is represented by the figure of Homer. Whatever the facts as to the “real” existence of that legendary poet (or, as some argue, those legendary poets), one aspect of Homer is very important. Homer is always represented as being blind. This means that Homer was not, and could not have been, a writer. Though Homer’s poems were later written down, Homer himself could not have conceived of them in that way. A blind person of Homer’s time had no access to reading or writing. Braille had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, Homer was a poet and in fact the very symbol of the poet for the West.
It may seem odd to us because we tend initially to encounter poetry in books, but, at the beginning, poetry and writing were quite separate activities. Poetry begins as something rooted in physical presence and in sounds. The Greek word for poet simply means “maker,” and the word can mean the maker of anything—a table and chair, for instance. The German word for poet is closer to the truth of the Homeric figure. It is Dichter, and it goes back to the Latin dico, dicere, I speak, to speak. The poet is someone who speaks. At its beginning, poetry is rooted in physical presence and in sounds—particularly in the sounds of speech.
Of course, poetry eventually gets written down, so it is perhaps pointless to go on about its ancient history. We want to talk about what poetry is now. Yet history is not something which happened “back then” and made a difference for “those people” and not for us. It is a living, active presence which is constantly determining our attitudes, passions, and beliefs. Anyone who has read James Joyce’s Ulysses or Ezra Pound’s Cantos or HD or Bertolt Brecht or J. R. R. Tolkien or Jack Kerouac knows that the Twentieth Century is by no means finished with Homer. We live in the most literate of ages, an age which is flooded with books. Yet much of modern literature is haunted by the presence of a non-literate bard who spoke his poems centuries ago. The energy of the “Spoken Word” movement is nothing but a (re)discovery of some of the energy of the Homeric figure.
Many of the most memorable passages in Plato’s works have to do with his quarrel with Homer—with poetry. This quarrel has many ramifications. In The Republic Plato has Socrates say, “We shall do as people who once were in love with somebody, if they believe their love to be no good to them: they don’t want to give it up, but they must...we shall listen to [poetry] but while we listen we will chant over to ourselves this argument of ours,...careful not to fall again into that childish passion which the many have. We will listen,...knowing that we must not take poetry seriously...Great is the struggle, great indeed, not what men think it, between good and evil.”
This “struggle” of Plato’s was a struggle with the culture in which he found himself—a culture which was, in his time, in a profound state of change. In his struggle, Plato was trying to align himself with the forces of the new, and the new meant the opposite of everything Homer represented. What Homer represented was the culture of orality. Socrates was never a writer. Though he spoke at great length and on many subjects, he never wrote anything down. Plato was Socrates’ disciple and a member of the next generation. Unlike his mentor, Plato understood himself to be a writer. We can see in the figure of Plato the shift from an oral culture (Homer, poetry) to a writing culture.
To be sure, Plato wrote a famous dialogue, The Phaedrus, which is to some extent an attack on writing. This is hardly surprising. At the very beginning of writing, some of the limitations of the art were understood and enunciated. This becomes, however, knowledge which no one wants to know. The ability to read and write becomes the fundamental mode of access to our culture. As such, it receives a good press which would be the envy of any politician. After Plato’s dialogue, very little is written about the limitations of writing.
A famous passage in the sixth Book of Saint Augustine’s Confessions suggests something more about the culture of writing—the culture in which we live. St. Augustine is watching St. Ambrose in the act of reading, and he notices something which is, to him, quite remarkable. “When [Ambrose] was reading,” writes St. Augustine, “his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest.” Augustine sensed at that moment that a momentous change had come upon the world. Ambrose was reading without moving his lips and without making a sound. Unlike the Homeric “singer,” he was not in the least “performing”: he was moving only his eyes. Augustine suddenly understood that the “new” consciousness was Christian, inward, and silent before the page. Augustine's “new” consciousness is also our consciousness. We are taught to read like Ambrose— without moving our lips and without making a sound.
If I were to ask you to “read” a bit of sheet music for me, you might be able to do it. There are many people who can “read” music. But there is no one who would consider the art of music to be defined by the sheet of paper on which the notes are written down. Music is not merely understanding the notes as they appear on the page. Music involves sound, whether the sound of the human voice (which is itself a multiple thing) or of instruments. Without sound, music is incomplete. The art of music is taken in with our ears.
The art of writing, however, for Ambrose and for us, is taken in with our eyes. Instead of remaining what it may have been initially, a notation for speech as a musical score is a notation for sound, writing became instead an art of silence.
What is the status of poetry in a culture devoted to an art of silence? “My Song,” wrote Shelley, quoting Dante, “I fear that thou wilt find but few / Who fitly shall conceive thy reasoning” (“Epipsychidion”). Shelley is aware that his poem will be printed. He is aware that his work will be taken in by the eye. Yet he calls his work a “song.” This is often true in poetry. Despite the poet’s awareness that the poem exists in a silent medium, the poem is nevertheless called a “song”—not something taken in by the eye but by the ear. Shelley is conjuring up the oral past of poetry. We are not talking here about “the oral tradition” as opposed to “the written tradition,” as if the two existed side by side. They have never existed side by side. In referring to his work as a “song,” Shelley is being consciously old-fashioned. In a writing culture, poetry, with its interest in sound, is understood as a kind of atavism. It is understood as something which is transcended in order to arrive at a form of “real” value—i.e., prose. The novel supposedly transcends the Homeric epic. The childish habit of sounding out the words as we read is supposedly transcended (and “corrected”) by the habit of reading silently. A writing culture is a culture of silence, and there is little place in it for an art which insists upon “readings,” upon sounds. In a writing culture, poetry too is “written.” It is understood as something of interest to a few nostalgic people who may be allowed their passion but who are not, as Plato says, to be “taken seriously.”
Yet this is not the end of the story. At the current moment writing is beginning to seem “old-fashioned.” For the first time in its history, writing is being challenged by other media which can do better what writing was for many years the only medium to do at all. If we want the speeches of Thomas Jefferson, we must go to a book. If we want the speeches of John Kennedy, we can find them on records, tapes, film, and video, and these media give us what the book cannot—the actual sound of Kennedy’s voice as he pronounced the words.
For the first time in history, the young are being conditioned by what Father Walter J. Ong has called “the new orality” of the electronic media. For the first time in history, intelligent young people have grown impatient with the silence of books—whatever the status of books as receptacles of information and experience. The silence of writing—which had been perceived as one of its strengths—seems to have begun to work towards its own undoing. The current crisis of writing (our children, we say, don’t read enough) revolves around the issue of writing’s ability to represent sound. But this has been a central issue for poetry, too. Poetry, relegated by writing to the dung heap of history because of its retrograde interest in sound, suddenly seems relevant. Where but in poetry—historically split between its interest in the auditory and the visual—can the current crisis of writing be most fully experienced? Poetry has a central role to play in defining that crisis, but it is not yet playing it. It has yet to arrive at a proper consciousness of its own powers. “The synthesizer,” wrote Miles Davis in his autobiography, Miles, as changed everything whether purist musicians like it or not. It’s here to stay and you can either be in it or out of it. I choose to be in it because the world has always been about change. People who don’t change will find themselves like folk musicians, playing in museums and local as a motherfucker.
Current poetry remains “local as a motherfucker.” But it has within itself the potentiality to be considerably more.
This speech was delivered in May, 1993 as part of a panel at the World Congress of Cultures & Poetry in San Francisco. These speculations, admittedly sketchy, don’t deal at all with visual poetry. Dick Higgins’ book, Pattern Poetry, demonstrates the long history of that form, but from my point of view visual poetry can be understood as one of the possibilities inherent in the visual art of writing. Writing—including what I am doing now, on this page—is a form of drawing. It is this fact that visual poetry recognizes and exploits, at times in a fascinating and brilliant way. The focus of this talk, however, is on other matters.