Of the ways into poems, one way has reliably worked for me. A variant of the “cut-up” method, which I believe is traced to William S. Burroughs, it might be called negative erasures, or From Prose Chaos, or, after Duchamp, “With Hidden Noise.”
Several years ago one could to receive hundreds of junk emails advertising Cialis and/or sup-prime mortgages. At first these emails were not filtered into junk at all. Later, the senders attempted to trick servers with odd typography and pasted-in wordlists.
That the lists rode along the ads for pharmaceuticals and loan sharks lent them a certain hilarious, and also potent, quality. Signals of someone casting about and copy-pasting abounded, e.g. tiny floating bits of news articles or HTML from the sender’s own email program.
Here’s one of the lists:
Check out Duchamp’s piece “With Hidden Noise.” Think of the prose chaos in the wordlist as a skein of words surrounding a hidden subject—a noise. Because it’s made of words, the skein is never quite the same. The hidden noises are therefore many, emerging with your noticing (and notice).
Whether your poem is “noisy” per se is up to you. It seems to me that noise is contingent on the state of capture: release cancels it out.
Choose your blend of constraint + personal creative authority. Decide on adding connective words or whether to make changes according to the needs of the emerging poem. For example, if a word from the list proves to be not right, consider replacing it with a word that rhymes with it (another hidden noise).
I came across a copy of W.S. Merwin’s Lament for the Makers. It’s an anthology about the size of a 45rpm record, constructed as an elegy for some of the poets Merwin admired. The work of these poets—twenty three of them—comprises the anthology. It’s a nice basis for a book; embodying the title poem lends it certain come-to-life vividness.
Constrained by brevity of lives and of presentation, he chooses unexpectedly from mostly familiar poets. Sylvia Plath’s “Words,” for example, caught my eye on the first flip-through. For Dylan Thomas, he offers “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London.”
I didn’t know the poem myself, but right away the title indicated that it was going to be a difficult one to pull off. Dylan Thomas manages it. I found myself in the surprising position of reaching for an anthology to read more Dylan Thomas—it had been awhile.
Michael Robbins writes of Dylan Thomas’s work that “self-seriousness is the major trope” (the whole short piece is worth reading). But in “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,” Dylan Thomas enacts a kind of stepping down from proclaiming. He reveals a flip-side of self-consciousness. He sort of contrasts himself.
Self-seriousness, meanwhile, to use Robbins’ more specific term, is seductive. As such, as a writer’s writer, Dylan Thomas can lure one into imitation—big mistake. Perhaps a writer-reader, from a conscious stance—at least specifically avoiding imitation—can use, burn, that intense energy, and produce something different.
In any case, so prompted, I turned around and wrote some prompts.
I might add one: create a selection of poets to anthologize, and explain your selection. Attempting to do that in a poem, as Merwin does, would be a real challenge, I think, especially for more than about seven of them*. But if you truly adore (or mourn) the poets you chose, it might work wonderfully.
First read Dylan Thomas’ poem “The Force That through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower.”
In a letter, Thomas wrote: “I make one image…let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together; a fourth contradictory image, and let them all within my imposed formal limits, conflict. Each image holds within it the seeds of its own destruction, and my dialectical method, as I understand it, is a constant building up and breaking down of the images that come out of the central seed, which is itself destructive and constructive at the same time…” (as quoted in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry).
The first stanza of the poem illustrates this technique, a complete ‘seed cycle’ within a formal limit:
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer..."
Write a poem using this technique, or a variant of it.
Adjust compression (the spacing of the contrasted elements) as needed and experimentally. Also, adjust the formal constraint (rhymes, stanza shape), or jettison it entirely.
Less Death’s Dominion
First read “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.”
Write a poem so unexpected, that death shall have no dominion in it at all. The goal is to strain (or non-strain) to write not only with freshness (a familiar goal that in and of itself seems to yearn towards a writerly "death shall have no dominion" on its own), but literally to create an open, clear, deathless field or vista or space in which everybody has a star “at elbow and foot.” Is it possible?
The interesting thing about Dylan Thomas’ poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” is the extent to which death does have dominion in it.
For this exercise, however, the poem should be different; death will have no dominion in it, not even in paradox. It will be a poem from another world.
* See the notion of "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two," which suggests that humans can hold onto about seven new concepts at a time.
Pierre Etaix said of his comic films, “I never felt I was creating something important.” Perhaps the torn portrait of himself in the film Rupture is a working model for this type of artist. Once he sees his severed self in the ripped photo (ripped by an indifferent lover), he helplessly launches a series of intricate gags involving his writing desk. If only he weren’t an adult, his childlike struggles with pen nibs and ink blots could be fun play, not fraught. He’s played with by physics: gravity, flow—and by artifice: photos, stamps, a cigarette lighter in the shape of a gun. His pain plays out in the live deconstruction of his ego. The simplest actions become impossible. Even his deliberate-seeming death is unintentional.
Does ecopoetics tell the artist to forget the ego, like this? To fall apart, in a rupture from the industrial art economy? It probably should. The amplified demands of identity, as in the persistent cultivation of career, seems anathema to the enmeshed, connected stance of a deep ecological poem. A return to health, of the earth and of the poet, in tandem, is our goal, but the ‘industrial’ poet’s fixation on career and ego gets in the way. Yet self-importance seems to be the zenith to which career naturally shoots, even unintentionally. Career, in turn, is the carrier of the artist’s work, what gets it noticed. But like large noticeable clown shoes, there’s something about career that is inherently comical. Should non-ecopoems, town and city poems, as it were, court comedy and absurdity then? They probably should.
Clips from Rupture are hard to come by, but above is a clip from Etaix's longer film Yoyo. The egalitarian antics of this performing family seem to offer possible solutions to the 'industrial' or urban artist's dilemma.
We say so-and-so is an important painter of 20th century Europe; so-and-so is a ‘leading’ writer in the Americas. Status rankings are broadly human, not limited to the art world, and are at least partly natural—but is an author-centric (as in, self-centered) model for art really all we can aim for? Bernard Krause, in The Great Animal Orchestra, describes the work of musicologist Louis Sarno, who recorded the songs of the Ba’Aka tribe in central Africa. Krause describes how these complex songs harmonized with natural forest calls of local wildlife, but changed with the introduction of ‘civilized’ noise. With the changes came new varieties of health crises. He relates Sarno’s observation that a return to physical health involved retreat into the deeper forest and the medicine of connected songs. A remedy did not involve cutting a recoding deal in a distant city.
With much of art wedged firmly in the industrial model, how to freely thrive and still learn from other artists and from one’s predecessors? How to cheer up in the face of our apparent eco-illogical doom? Influence and imitation spill continuously into a cultivation of fame, or an abject fear of the lack of it. It is thus perhaps restorative to spend time with satirists, comedians and clowns. As remote as their charades seem to be from the wild dreams of nature, their stories do one thing reliably and powerfully: turn the urban world to jelly. Clowning brings down structures, snips the strict webs of fashion, sends all the up elevators down. High and serious art must devise revolutions, it seems, to liberate anyone more than an individual urban character. Satire, in contrast, has a certain intrinsic leveling power that naturally flows from a given state of crisis and excess. It is the stance of 'enough is enough.'
Some films - comedies, satires and related. (Definitely a growing list, and the predominance of French language films is incidental— I've just been haunting that shelf lately at my local library.)
L'iceberg - Fiona Gordon, Dominique Abel, Bruno Romy
The Fairy - Fiona Gordon, Dominique Abel, Bruno Romy
Le Havre - Aki Kaurismäki
The Man Without a Past - Aki Kaurismäki
Day for Night - Truffaut
Jour de fête - Jacques Tati (Charming early film; interesting negative portrayal of then-novel automobiles).
PlayTime - Jacques Tati
The complete films of Pierre Etaix.
The Taking of Power by Louis XIV - Roberto Rossellini
Orpheus - Jean Cocteau (not comic, per se, though it has its moments, for reasons I explore here).
Also, though I haven’t seen it, Song from the Forest (2013) traces Sarno’s career and looks fascinating. Trailer here.
I kept encountering a certain gripe as I started, threw aside, and re-started The Letters of Pliny the Younger.
Pliny chose which of his letters to publish, and I suspect that he inserted, in his lawyerly manner, the one excerpted here as evidence for a pet argument of his that re-emerges like a trickle in the dry prose: that he is, in fact, a funny guy.
Who are you, to accept my invitation to dinner and never come? I have a good case and you shall pay my costs in full, no small sum either. It was all laid out, one lettuce each, three snails, two eggs, barley-cake, and wine with honey chilled with snow (you will reckon this too please, and as an expensive item, seeing that it disappears in the dish), besides olives, beetroots, gherkins, onions, and any number of similar delicacies. You would have heard a comic play, a reader or singer, or all three if I felt generous. Instead you chose to go where you could have oysters, sow's innards, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancing-girls. You will suffer for this—I won't say how."
Reading the letters of the Younger Pliny, we start to understand that Pliny was not only Pliny, but also flinty, and wily—and thus we read on.
Notes on Jean Cocteau's Orphée
Disclaimer: I haven't yet seen Blood of Poet, or Testament of Orpheus.
Also, spoiler alert.
Jean Cocteau’s film Orphée is a prance, a caper, between tragedy and comedy, irony and schmaltz. These oppositions are not always intentional: it’s an imperfect, if artistic and entertaining, even endearing, film. But as others have noted, the narrative sometimes feels a bit crowded; the acting, occasionally stiff.
Cocteau gives us a classic retelling of the Greek myth with the freshness and irony of a French provincial setting. Orpheus (Jean Marais), a poet, enjoys fame, but struggles to balance his art and home life—he rebuffs his wife Eurydice (Marie Déa), for example, when she tries to share the news that she’s pregnant. She, in turn, complains that her husband is too obsessed with drafting poems with help from a talking car:
Eurydice is killed, per the myth, and Orpheus descends to the underworld to retrieve her. All goes jelly-like as he walks through a full length mirror in the couple’s bedroom. He departs, flows, pushes, gloved fist first. He must cross the veneer to understand his obligations as a poet. Though the mirror contains only his inconsequential reflection, it has been impenetrable to him thus far. What helps him through are the gloves, left discarded on the bed by the enigmatic character most often referred to as ‘Orpheus’ Death’ (María Casares). We have just seen her moments before, busy, ramrod straight— literally packed into a corset, it appears. Thus far in the film she has been consistently bitchy, totally dominating, but her identity has been fluid, like the mirror she navigates so adroitly: before Orpheus entered the room, she was not ‘Orpheus’ Death,’ but ‘Eurydice’s Death.’
Cocteau is an artist so competent in his creation of the lovely that he must always push through to its converse. He seems to have been born knowing that he must temper playful flourishes with something dark, or else his work is merely sentimental. But whenever he does so, he can’t help but belove and be-lovely those darker realms. In his novel Les enfants terribles, for example, the central crisis in an early scene, in which the character Paul is near-fatally injured by his schoolmates, is muffled in a fairy-tale snowfall (the snow, in fact, is a weapon). In Orphée, another poet, Cègeste, is killed, but his broken body, hit by the underworld motorcycle gang, is portrayed symbolically, with a kind of stock gesture, in draped poise.
Baudelaire might understand the challenge . In a poem published 89 years before Orphée, “Hymne à la Beauté;” he speculates upon Beauty, a netherworld goddess who overpowers her enraptured devotees. Never sweet or kind, murder is one of her “dearest trinkets,” a horror with which she enchants. She wills her lovers to destruction and dissolution. Indeed, like Beauty’s mad adorer in the poem, Orpheus falls in love with his own death. As he skirts and slides along, clutching and handling the walls and edifices of the liquid underworld, he enacts Baudelaire’s description of utter self-abnegation (lines 19-20): “The panting lover bending over his love/seems like a dying man caressing his own tomb.”
Baudelaire’s figure succumbs to an indifferent and possibly evil force. The rewards are the spoils of beauty: entrance into a “world less hideous and time less oppressive.” Orpheus, too, flees from his stifling married life, beckoned by orders from Casares’ distracting mouth (as Baudelaire describes it, “Your kisses are a philter and your mouth an amphora/Which makes the hero cowardly…”). But Cocteau’s Orpheus escapes. Though he delights in the dark myth, zestfully portraying all kinds of devilish behavior, Cocteau indicates an instinct to return from debauchery. His narrative establishes Baudelaire’s temptation, but with the twist that his hero must be freed, not kept, in order to achieve integration, poetry, and peace. Does the beauty of the film suffer as a result, according to the laws of the Baudelairian universe? This is what the hapless lover in “Hymne à la Beauté” might mockingly predict.
It's true that the film sometimes startles us from its dream. Early scenes depicting a private investigator, for example, pursuing the disappeared Orpheus, feel nagged into being at the request of exterior logic. The mob that attacks Orpheus at the end of the film is briefly sketched, their leader Aglaonice established, but also forgotten, and their attack is brief, too—death by bit parts. When Cocteau too awkwardly suppresses the beautiful lushness of his talent—one might say when he doesn’t enter and exit the mirror as gracefully as the gloved Orpheus—the film can go almost slapstick, a little bit slapdash.
Mostly, though, the film thrives. The unique gesture of freeing Orpheus invigorates Cocteau’s story with a kind of madcap novelty. But is this gesture another retreat from deeply felt tragedy, caused by Cocteau’s aesthetic affections? Perhaps, but it works. If we look again at what happens, Cocteau swaps Orpheus’ traditional death, in which he’s torn apart by Maenads, for the death of the mesmerizing beauty of his death. The voiceover at that moment comments: “The Death of a Poet must sacrifice itself to make him immortal.” This notion, a pivot upon which Baudelaire’s seduction is shifted, creates an opportunity.
The second, lucky departure of Orpheus from the underworld enables Cocteau to show us the mirror image of his obsessive love from the up-side world, where ethics still matter. And we find some irony there, watching Orpheus with Eurydice cuddle in their rather kitschy home, hovered over by floral wallpaper and caricature portraits. Cocteau seems to use, or rather tease, seduction’s devouring pull, but doesn’t let himself get used: neither by Beauty, nor by Rules. Importantly, he will not follow the dictates of Baudelaire’s haunting poem. This lightens his work. This is his opening to comedy.
One of my favorite such ironies comes, surprisingly, at the downfall of ‘Orpheus’ Death.’ After Orpheus is killed by the mob of hipster-bacchantes, and tumbled back down to the underworld to what appears to be his doom, María Casares, in her last moments as his death, reaches the crisis.
Her beautiful, sparkling tears come at the moment of the decision. In the liquid, dark underworld, wet light over her eyes figures (or, really, disfigures, because of the distortion of the drops) what appears to be a soulful change. We see something of that bedroom mirror in the tears. Indeed, our own epiphanies come from behind screens as thin as tears, as thin as the workaday sounds and colors our perceptive eyes and ears transmit to us. Our insights are intermittent, like the scraps of verse announced by the talking car. Her choice? She relents, and a tribunal permits the poet and his wife to escape.
Mesmerized by the splendid cinematography, we might miss the irony. ‘Orpheus’ Death’ realizes she loves Orpheus so very much that she’s willing to…not murder him. If she now seems more human than ever, this is a mad human. Or a mirror human. If to love is to merely not kill, then any impatient sigh is a knife thrust. Moreover, have we known some mortals who try to pass off such meager effects as ‘love?’ She is the ‘lover’ who, clasped together with the poet minutes prior, had demanded, “will you obey me completely;” the lover who, earlier that same day, efficiently murdered his wife. It’s enough to make one weep.
But her tears are beautiful—we’re seduced. They signal something like soul, but they’re also magical, like the gloves the poet wore, helping us get through a difficult surface. With help from tears we might better roll our own eyes and burst out laughing, but the scene is too lovely, and Casares’ acting is anything but stiff, so we don’t. We follow her, raptly attentive, as she’s taken to her fate. If the entire film is a kind of mirror, it’s not so much a reflection of human frailty, but an entry/exit into the choice Baudelaire poses—or an answer to a kind of two-sided puzzle. The character ‘Orpheus’ Death’ consumes, burns our attention like Baudelaire’s beautiful goddess, but Cocteau kills ‘it’—or at least neutralizes the death wish, and thus the power—and affirms the chance to live on, to make more art: to make beauty.
“The humor, when it comes, is dry,” Roger Ebert writes of Orphée. When the humor comes, Cocteau is especially free. Far from patching up of narrative threads or grasping at pieces of lost logic, in the best moments he flows through, paradoxically combining subconscious inspiration with a knowing wink. Of the film’s many virtues, and according to his talents, he offers a unique gift, namely a lovely, aesthetic sense of irony, one exquisitely understated—like the jewel of a giggle, in the midst of a weep.
Translated lines from Baudelaire's poem can be found in The Poem Itself: 150 European Poems Translated and Analysed, edited by Stanley Burnshaw. Pelican Books, London, 1964.
Since the early 1950’s, the Lettrist International, and its successor, the Situationist International, had been engaged in, among other things, reimagining the city. In 1955, for example, the Lettrist newsletter, Potlach, featured a “Project for the Rational Beautification of Paris,” which included such propositions as arranging, with ladders and footbridges, a promenade along the roofs of the city; putting switches on lampposts so that lighting decisions could be made by the public; redistributing works of art currently held in museums among local bars; and turning churches into either romantic ruins or haunted houses. By 1978, in the bitterly elegiac narration of his last film, (Guy) Debord was moved to write, “we were, more than anybody, the people of change, in a changing time. The owners of society were obliged, in order to maintain their control, to desire a change that was the opposite of ours. We wanted to rebuild everything, and so did they, but in diametrically opposed ways. What they have done illustrates our project in negative form.”
Luc Sante, The Other Paris. 2015.