Sunday, March 21, 2010

iii Duchamp, Dickenson, Olson: Stutters of History (from Redell Olsen's dissertation)

.....the link between written and spoken language in highly visual terms. By creating visual "hinges" within words ("receiv / ing...h / ieroglyph") and extending spacing between words ("the mute vocables") the text self-reflexively notates a nearly aphaisic form of language. The reference to a "stuttering" extends this idea as the stutterer is forced to break words up into a series of linked and repeated sounds. Howe has even described her own critical work as stuttering, a stuttering that is "acoustically charged" with "a feeling of needing to write or say something but having no idea how to say it" (Keller "Interview" 27). The hinge is one of several devices that Howe uses to foreground a moment of delay, a stuttering space which fractures the languages of her intertexual sources, thereby calling their completeness and accuracy into question.
Duchamp's The Green Box (from which Howe takes her epigraph to Hinge Picture) consists of notes for his major work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Batchelors Even. Duchamp gave the piece the subtitle "Delay in Glass" (26):

Use "delay" instead of picture or painting on glass becomes in glass--but delay in glass does not mean picture on glass--It's merely a way of succeeding in no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture--to make a delay of it in the most general way possible, not so much in the different meanings in which delay can be taken, but reather in their indecisive reunion "delay"-- / a delay in glass as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver. (26)

The materiality of the work is part of its meaning. Howe has made it clear just how central this art object is to her: "It would take a book for me to go on about what The Large Glass means to me...It is so two-sided. Synthesis, antithesis, reflection and delay" ("Dialogue" 286). A delay in glass is directly comparable to Howe's stutter because it is a hesitation in words that emphasises the difference between phonemes and morphemes, a space that emphasises the materiality of utterance itself. To think of the poem as occupying a space akin to a delay in glass gives Howe a position from which to criticise conventional representational structures. In The Western Borders (1976), she writes, "Enchantment like lies can alter the sight of the beholder / but not the reality of the thing seen" (n.p.) Howe's texts resist the enchantment of conventional modes of representation, modes which attempt to construct a direct link between language and the world that it purports to represent. Just as Duchamp's "Delay in Glass" call attention to its own materiality by suggesting that the large glass does not refer to something outside itself ("no longer thinking that the thing in question is a picture"), Howe's stutter calls attention to the materiality of language, thereby calling into question language's capacity to represent a referent. In effect the visually notated stutter in Howe's text offers a critique of the natural voice as the bearer of truth.
In this sense of stuttering voices and practices that seem to face certain obscurity which continually inderlies Howe's work. Her desire to invest time in "a writing practice that seems unacceptable" ("Dialogue" 380) is confirmed by her interest in Emily Dickinson. Over her life-time, Dickinson produced a series of hand-written poems in small sewn packets. These were subsequently torn apart by editors and converted into type-written approximations of their originals. Early editions of Dickinson's work superimposed a standardised punctuation onto the texts and reordered the fascicles according to themes chosen by the editors themselves, who also dismissed the multiple variants of both the texts and the individual lines within poems. For Howe, the recovery of Dickinson depends on a recovery of these verbal and visual elements from the original texts. This is obviously a difficult task. Howe reads Dickinson's poems as if they were delays in paper, moments of spaces of suspended communication that are dependent on their material manifestation (handwriting on paper) for their effect. Mistrustful of previous editorial strategies, Howe asks "Can quick particularities of calligraphic expression ever be converted to type?" (Birth 4). She struggles to reclaim a writing practice which resists the standardisation of canonical norms and so is threatened with loss and erasure.
Howe describes the way in which Dickinson created her own hybrid discourse from "higher' female education" and combined it with what was termed "unladylike" outside reading:

Pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philosophy from alien territory, a 'sheltered' woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hestiation. (My 21)

It is this moment of hesitation that is according to Howe gendered: "He may pause but he must not hesitate" she quotes from Ruskin (21-22). The stutter is an acoustic or phonic moment of hesitation, but it is also for Howe a kind of visual mark. Like the stutter, the visual mark (when "read" as language) falls outside the recoverable space of meaning, it does not seem to stand for anything beyond itself. Howe highlights this connection in her discussion of Hawthorne's story "The Birth-Mark", from which her own book of essays takes its name:

One day, very soon after their marriage, Alymer sat gazing at his wife, with a trouble in his countenance that grew stronger, until he spoke.
"Georgina," said he, "has it ever occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?"
"No, indeed," said she, smiling; but perceiving the seriousness of his manner, she blushed deeply. "To tell you the truth, it has been so often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so."
"Ah, upon another face, perhaps it might," replied her husband. "But never on yours! No, dearest Georgina, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature, that his slightest possible defect--which we hesitate whether to term a defect or beauty--shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection. (Hawthorne qtd. in My 7)

The husband's wish to edit the face of his wife parallels the relationship of editorial control and censure that Howe seeks to address in her critical work on Dickinson. Howe challenges a tradition of editorial scholarship which has repeatedly removed and expunged the visual marking of Dickinson's texts, precisely because their characteristic features were not apparently assimilable into the recognizable orders of what could be read as language. For Howe this issue of editorial control is certainly "a gender issue" (Keller 33)

He might pause, She hesitated. Sexual, racial, and geographical separation are at the heart of Definition. Tragic and eternal dichotomy--if we concern ourselves with the deepest Reality, is this world of the imagination the same for men and women? (My 21-22)

As this passage suggests, Howe's stance toward the reclamation of a hybrid scripto-visual practice has profound implications for the feminine writing subject. Howe begins her book, My Emily Dickinson, by asserting that she will contradict her own epigraph from William Carlos Williams:

It is the women above all-there never have been women, save pioneer Katies; not one flower save some moonflower Poe may have seen, or an unripe child. Poets? Where? They are the test. But a true woman in flower, never. Emily Dickinson, starving of passion in her father's garden, is the very nearest we have ever been--starving.
Never a woman: never a poet. That's axiom. Never a poet saw sun here. (Williams qtd. in My 6)

At the same time, Howe makes it quite clear that "A poet is never just a woman or a man" (7): "We are all both genders. There is nothing more boring than stridently male poetry and stridently female poetry" (Birth 172). Gender effects language, but this is not the whole story: "we constantly confront issues of difference, distance, and absence, when we write" (My 13). And it is this distance which is also found in the scripto-visual notation of a stutter, a hesitation, a stammer--that which falls outside the laws of speech and of writing into the realm of the visual.
Kathleen Fraser's influential essay "Translating the Unspeakable: Visual Poetics, as Projected through Olson's 'Field' into Current Female Writing Practice" argues that a number of women writers (Myung Mi Kim, Hannah Weiner, Laura Moriarty, Susan Howe and Barbara Guest) adopted Charles Olson's visual use of the page, its "spatial, historical and ethical margins" (644), to configure an alternative feminine writing practice. As Fraser points out, Olson offered an alternative to "the narcissistically probing, psychological defining of self" typified in the work of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Olson's visual and typographical experiments seemed to coincide with their "scepticism towards any fixed rhetoric" (644). Fraser saw in Olson someone who resisted the "prescription of authorship as an exclusively unitary proposition" (644). According to Fraser, Olson offered contemporary women writers "another kind of use value" for language, one that allowed for a more complex subjectivity that might be able to incorporate the inconsistencies of temorality; "its continuous broken surfaces, its day-by-day graphs of interruption and careening" (644).
Like Olsen, Howe is drawn to the visual notation of a stutter. At first sight it would appear that the two of them have much in common. The conception of the page as a visual field connects Howe to Olsen's poetics as he describes them in "Projective Verse." Howe clearly admires Olsen for his visual use of the page:

At his best, Olsen lets words and groups of words, even letter arrangements and spelling accidents shoot suggestions at each other, as if the page were a canvas and the motion of words--reality across surface. Optical effects, seemingly chance encounters of letters, are a BRIDGE. Through a screen of juxtapositions one dynamic image may be visible. ("Where" 6)

For Olson, the field of the page consists of "OBJECTS", syllables, lines, images and sounds in relation to one another. Following Robert Creely, Olson asserts "FORM IS NEVER MORE THAN AN EXTENSION OF CONTENT," i.e. the logic of the poem to dictate its rules (Selected 16). This synthesis of form and content emphasises the importance of process in generating meaning. Olson further links the poem's processual character to the breath. The line on the page is to be governed by the direct relationship between the ear and the breath:

But breath is man's special qualification as animal. Sound is a dimension he has extended. Language is one of his proudest acts. And when a poet rests in these as they are in himself (in his physiology, if you like, but the life in him, for all than) then he chooses to speak from these roots, works in that area where nature has given him size, projective size. (25)

In Olson the stutter is also connected to his stress on the syllable which he describes as "these particles of sound" whose juxtaposition is as important as "the series of the words which they compose" (18). Olson connects the visual look of the poem on the page directly to the body itself. His model for the ideal line is the male body at the peak of its physique, as it "gives voice." Similarly, he clearly connects the visual potential of the page and the mark-making capabilities of the type-writer to the acoustic pauses of the breath:

If a contemporary poet leaves a space as long as the phrase before it, he means that space to be held, by the breath, an equal length of time. If he suspends a word or syllable at the ends of a line (this was most Cummings' addition) he means that time to pass that it takes the eye--that hair of time suspended--to pick up the next line. If he wishes a pause so light it hardly separates the words, yet does not want a comma--which is an interruption of the meaning rather than the sounding of the line--follow him when he uses a symbol the type-writer has ready to hand:

'What does not change / is the will to change' (Selected 23)

It is these visual "interuptions" on the page, this series of stutters between meanings, which suggest a link between Olson's and Howe's scripto-visual practice.
In any interview with Cole Swenson, Howe describes the "immediate shock of recognition" that she felt on encountering Olson's work: "It was his voracious need to gather "facts", to find something, a quotation, a place, a name, a date, some documentary evidence in regard to place" (381). Like Olson, Howe is concerned with the marking and bounding of territory, the representation of the self in an already inhabited landscape. However, there are clearly distinct gender problems with making too close an identification between Howe and Olson. Howe maintains that Olson's writing is "for a woman, an indeterminate, sometimes graphically violent force" ("Charles" 168):

I am a poet. I know Charles Olson's writing encouraged me to be a radical poet. When I was writing my first poems I recall he showed me what to do. Had he been my teacher in real life, I know he would have stopped my voice. ("Charles" 166) Furthermore, her work suggests a different relationship to the visual in relation to history and to the voice to that found in Olson because of her attention to the articulation, reframing, and representation of the feminine subject.

4 comments:

Hayes said...

oh...my...god...this is amazing...thank you liz!

howes and kingfishers.
jared

celestual said...

this is great! i was thinking joe posted it bc of the stutter ;p

I am pondering on the "delays in paper, moments of spaces of suspended communication that are dependent on their material manifestation"

the material and commodity affects the communication and delay - so the medium of a crayon on construction paper versus homemade papyrus and a fountain pen woudl convey a different delay?

小研 said...

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Elizabeth Guthrie said...

Yes, for Joe & his dissertation proposal - & for all of course!
xo