Some questions for Inanna & Dumuzi

One more voice note on Inanna’s story – for my mythology and literature class.

If you’d like to hear it in my halting voice:


“The Descent of Inanna”

The story of Inanna’s descent has correlates in other mythologies you may be more familiar with. The descent of Persephone to the underworld and her mother Demeter’s search for her. Also the death of Eurydice and her lover Orpheus’s effort to rescue her from the underworld. Both of those Greek myths, of course, that had elaborate cultic practices surrounding them.

Dumuzi has many correlates as well. He is what the Victorian anthropologist Sir James Frazer called “the dying-and-rising god.” Figures to whom Dumuzi bears at least a passing resemblance include the Green Knight, of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dionysus, the god of wine, associated with the grape stock. If you’ve seen a grapevine, you can cut the vine all the way back down to a stump in the earth, and in spring it will spring forth with new green, and soon grow so luxuriantly that it covers and buries your fence, your other plantings, your car, your driveway. I say this having watched the behavior of my neighbours’.

Dumuzi_aux_enfers
Dumuzi in the underworld, flanked by snakes & surrounded by galla demons, who bear implements for breaking & flaying him (British Museum).

Dumuzi’s most surprising cousin though is Jesus Christ. We just celebrated, or saw others celebrate, the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Consider that Christ comes among us with a proposal of new and renewed spiritual life; is put to death; and, in the early spring, He is, by divine power, brought back to life. One understanding of the figure of Jesus Christ is that He is a descendant of the dying-and-rising gods with which the Ancient Near East was full to overflowing.

If that sounds outlandish to you, like I’m just making too much of a coincidental resemblance, consider as well that Jesus Christ, in the three days between his death and his resurrection, journeys, according to Catholic theology, to Hell – a part of His story known as the Harrowing of Hell. He’s reputed while down there to have saved the souls of those who died righteous but could not journey to Heaven, being unbaptized. So – death, a hell journey, then rebirth in the spring. And the period Christ spends in the underworld, the Harrowing of Hell, is named for an agricultural implement: a harrow is used in the cultivation of a field.

The galla climbed the reed fence.
The first galla struck Dumuzi on the cheek with a piercing nail,
The second galla struck Dumuzi on the other cheek with the shepherd’s crook,
The third galla smashed the bottom of the churn,
The fourth galla threw the drinking cup down from its peg,
The fifth galla shattered the urn,
The sixth galla shattered the cup,
The seventh galla cried:

“Rise, Dumuzi!
Husband of Inanna, son of Sirtur, brother of Geshtinanna!
Rise from your false sleep!
Your ewes are seized! Your lambs are seized!
Your goats are seized! Your kids are seized! …

Galla beat Dumuzi
Dumuzi, attacked by the galla, beseeches the sun god, Utu (source unknown).

The galla seized Dumuzi.
They surrounded him.
They bound his hands. They bound his neck.

The churn was silent. No milk was poured.
The cup was shattered. Dumuzi was no more.
The sheepfold was given to the winds.

(He’s broken up like wheat getting threshed. Reading it, I feel the way I think Christians are meant to on Good Friday about the Crucifixion. Oh and “Easter” appears to come from “Ishtar” – Inanna’s successor in the Fertile Crescent.)

Turning to the poem itself. One question here is why. Why does Inanna “open her ear” to the Great Below? Why does she decide to leave everything she knows and is queen of behind, to journey to this place that is hostile to her, inimical to her? She gives an explanation to Neti the gatekeeper to be passed on to her sister. Oh, I’m here to observe the funeral rites for your husband, the Bull of Heaven. I don’t think that goes too far as an explanation. It may or may not be true. It could be a feint, a dodge. It could be legit, but even if it’s a reason that she’s headed there, it’s not the reason that she’s headed there.

How might we read into the deeper layers of the myth, to learn what motivates this harrowing journey into the unknown and the unformed? One hint may be in the first three lines

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her ear to the Great Below.

“Ear” in Sumerian also means “wisdom.” The ear is the seat of wisdom. How does the poem change if we read “wisdom” where “ear” is printed?

From the Great Above she opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her wisdom to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna open her wisdom to the Great Below.

I think it’s also important that she adorns herself, or protects herself, or prepares herself, by donning seven of the me, which in this poem are garments; remembering that the me are the powers of civilization. Can we infer more about what her motive is, what her mission is, from these acts of preparation? And I’ll leave it to you, what other moments in this poem can we look to for hints, clues, cues, keys, to what is going on for Inanna, beyond her stated reason for this road trip.

Having just read you the intensely repetitive opening three lines, I’m brought back to the question, What is up with all the repetition? What is it here for? A listener’s just not trusted to get it the first time? or even the second time? or is there some meaning or purpose behind all of these reiterations? Remember, these poems, which we read on the page in a literature classroom, were not originally intended for silent solitary reading and literary appreciation. These were poems that didn’t just say something, but did something. These were liturgies, hymns but in story form, meant to make contact with the divine figures whose stories they were relating.

British_Museum_Queen_of_the_Night
“Queen of the Night” (British Museum). Terracotta. It’s uncertain whether she represents Ereshkigal, Inanna, or Lilitu (Lilith). The object in her right hand resembles, to my eye, the “measuring rod and line” (for dividing land into plots) Inanna brings to the underworld.

So there’s a religious purpose to them, a spiritual purpose. Having such a purpose, the work needs and wants to affect, you could say alter, the consciousness, the form of awareness, of the listener, the participant in the rite. As you encounter the repetitions, take them in, read them out loud to yourself, and see how they sound in your ear, see how they resonate in your body as you articulate the sounds. There’s not a lot of new meaning in a repeated line, the words don’t change much. But something may happen on a non-verbal, physiological plane, important to the effect of the poem.

The poem probably wants for us to identify with Inanna, so that we’re not just reading about her journey to the underworld, but participating in her journey to the underworld. We in a sense become Inanna. The whole time I’ve been recording this voice note there has been a doe and her fawn in my backyard, munching away at the flowers on my blackcurrant bush. What that has to do with Inanna, I don’t know, but it seems like it signifies.

All right, so, Inanna’s motivation, and the role of the repetition in inducing states of mind or consciousness in a reader or participants in the poem. The last thing I want to draw your attention to is the minor characters in the poem – the figures of the galatur, and the kurgarra, and the galla demons.

We get certain details about them that set them at a distance or a remove from ordinary human social interaction. The galla have no mothers or fathers, or brothers or sisters or children, they eat no food, they take no drink, they accept no libations. They do not participate in the usual give-and-take between the human realm and the divine realm. And the kurgarra and the galatur, what details do we have about them? They are created from gunk scraped from underneath the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters, Enki.

Created with GIMP
A fly, from CP’s Dumuzi (Gaspereau 2020).

What do we make of that? What is the gunk under the fingernails of the god of the sweetwaters? Why would that be good raw material for these mysterious creatures? They are creatures neither male nor female, so they don’t participate in the usual Sumerian gender binary, and that seems to give them unusual powers. They can enter the underworld “like flies,” and they have a capacity for – empathy? deceit? both? – depending on how genuine you think their commiseration with Ereshkigal is. But they get the job done, and they get it done well. They play her: they play the Queen of the Underworld, which is not a safe game to play, or an easy game to win.

Last thing I’ll note then, is that these two are like flies, and they are essential to the rescue of Inanna. An actual fly is crucial to the rescue, or the discovery, the recovery of Dumuzi. So what’s up with the little pesky buglike creatures, showing up at these crucial moments in this sequence? What do you associate a fly with, and what’s a fly got to do with a fertility myth?

Inanna and Dumuzi get it on

Another voice note for my Mythology and Literature class, on the goddess Inanna’s choice of a mate, and the meaning of their meeting. Lightly edited, like the last one. If you’d rather listen than read, here you are:


“The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”

A thought first more generally about what myth is, what our relationship to myth is.

It’s tempting to think of myth as something other people in other times have done and made, in order to give order and structure to their world. We might think that, given now to a scientific worldview, to empirical procedures for understanding how human beings work, how human societies work, how the cosmos at large works, on the greatest possible scale of stars and galaxies, the minutest possible scale of subatomic particles, that we’re no longer doing mythology – that mythology is something that we can see from the outside, from a remove, and gaze upon with interest, maybe some amusement, maybe a bit of condescension or admiration or nostalgia, depending on our disposition.

I want to suggest to you a different perspective though. That perspective begins from the notion that it’s only other people’s myths that look like myths. Your own myths don’t look like myths to you, they look like axioms. Let me note for you a couple of things that are very much part of our worldview, and that, if we see them from bit of a remove, may look more myth-like than we have been given to think.

The past. The future. Neither the past nor the future has any objective existence. Nowhere will you find the past, not even the instant that just passed. Nowhere will you find and be able to present the future; it does not exist anywhere. The past and the future are constructs of human mind. Our belief in them is so foundational that most of the rest of our beliefs depend upon them to even make sense at all.

I submit to you, the past and future, along a linear timeline as we conceive of them, are mythic, in that they are foundational, and they are collaborative constructs – nobody can make a myth on their own – collaborative constructs of our cultural imagination. And one mark that it’s myth is that we recoil from the suggestion that it’s “just a myth.”

So, if a myth is a world-arranging story, and the figures in the myths we’re looking at are animate, they’re characters, how then do we think about this reading for today, “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”? It’s more than just a boy and a girl meeting, flirting, fighting, and then getting it on. That’s just the surface.

We can ask what it is in the world of the Sumerians that this myth has the power to arrange, to put in order. Inanna is the goddess of love, of war, though I don’t think she’s prominent in that function here, of love and fecundity and increase. Also she has at her disposal the me, the gifts or powers of civilization. Dumuzi is the god of the vegetation, of the spring, of rebirth. He’s the classical dying-and-rising god; and in some contexts he was also the god of shepherds, a pastoral god, which explains his epithet, “the shepherd.” So what does it mean that the goddess of increase, herself, and the god of vegetation, himself, are getting it on?

Well, we can look at the terms in which their getting-it-on is expressed. You may have noticed the abundance of nature imagery, of agricultural metaphor. Fortunately this is just audio, so you can’t see me blushing as I read. Inanna is speaking:

My vulva, the horn,
The boat of Heaven,
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.
My untilled land lies fallow.

So there’s the agricultural dimension.

As for me, Inanna,
Who will plow my vulva,
Who will plow my high field?
Who will plow my wet ground?

It’s all thoroughly subsumed to this agricultural metaphor, of the sexual act as an act of well, farming, of planting seed that will then grow. The word “semen” is from the Latin word for “seed,” by the way. A little further on, we’re hearing from the narrator again:

At the king’s lap stood the rising cedar.
Plants grew high by their side.
Grains grew high by their side.
Gardens flourished luxuriantly.

Dumuzi and Inanna - cropped
Lovers embracing. Clay plaque, Mesopotamia, Isin-Larsa-Old Babylonian period, ca. 2000-1600 BCE. Baked clay. Basel, Erlenmeyer Collection.

Almost as if their sexual union either causes new abundance and growth in the natural world, or is one in the same as the abundance of spring, new growth, in the natural world – the world of nature that surrounds them, and the agricultural world, the fields that sustain the cities of Mesopotamia, the fields in which the natural world has been domesticated, put to human use. The fruit of their union is the whole of the green earth.

Putting natural increase in terms of sexual union allows human beings to participate in natural and cosmic processes, and not just to participate in them, but in fact to influence them. The world-arranging story that is a myth has a place in it for the human teller of the story. And in fact one thing to watch for as we encounter the myths of a number of different cultures over this course is, what kind of place does the myth give to the human participants? Are human beings made focal and central, or are they one presence co-equal among many? The Haida term for human being, according to Robert Bringhurst, the translator of Ghandl, whom we’ll be reading some weeks from now, is “ordinary surface bird.” Puncturing perhaps human pretensions to a special role in the cosmos.

A passage from a book called The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, on ceremonial observances around Inanna and Dumuzi’s marriage, I think sheds further light on the role this myth played in the cultural life of at least one of the Sumerian city-states. This is about the city of Isin:

[The City] celebrated yearly the marriage of the goddess Inanna to the god Dumuzi or Tammuz…. Since the goddess is an incarnation of the fertility of nature, and her husband, the shepherd-god Dumuzi, incarnates the creative powers of spring, it is understandable that this annual union of god and goddess signifies and is the reawakening of nature in spring.

Notice that dual verb – it signifies the reawakening of nature in spring, it also is the reawakening of nature in spring. The author, Thorkild Jacobsen, continues:

In the marriage of these deities the fertility and the creative powers of nature themselves become manifest. But why, we may ask, should human servants of the gods, the human ruler and – so it seems – a priestess, transcend their human status, take on the identity of the deities Dumuzi and Inanna, and go through their marriage? For this is what took place in the rites.

You got that? Every year, early spring, the king of the city takes on the role of Dumuzi, the high priestess of the temple takes on the role of Inanna, and in a ritual I believe most of whose details are lost to us, they, in those roles as god and goddess, consummated the marriage that ensured the return of natural abundance in spring.

Why does it make sense to them to do this? Jacobsen speculates:

The answer to that question lies back … in a remote prehistoric age when the gods were not yet anthropomorphic rulers of states and cities but were still directly the phenomena of nature. In those days man’s attitude was not merely one of passive obedience; it called for active intervention, as it does among many [quote unquote] primitives today. It is one of the tenets of mythopoetic logic that similarity and identity merge: “to be like” is as good as “to be.” Therefore, by being like, by enacting the role of, a force in nature, a god, man could in the cult enter into and clothe himself with the identity of these powers, with the identity of the gods, and through his own actions … cause the powers involved to act as he would have them act. By identifying himself with Dumuzi, the king is Dumuzi; and similarly the priestess is Inanna – our texts clearly state this. Their marriage is the marriage of the creative powers of spring. Thus through a willed act of man is achieved a divine union wherein is the all-pervading, life-giving re-creative potency upon which depends, as our texts tell us, “the life of all lands.” (198–99)

Okay, that’s a lot. All that is to say, the sexy bits are not just to make readers or listeners hot and bothered. They have a profound cosmological function: they make human beings participants in the generative powers of nature and the cosmos.


The image atop, left to right, like in a news photo, where protestors are:

Inanna, winged, with arrows for shoulders
Utu, sun god, he comes bladed out of the hill
Enki, god of the fresh waters, his shoulders running with fish
Isimud, Enki’s vizier, two-faced

Pound read myth as if it were the morning paper (Don Revell). Remember papers? The colour in it, Inanna’s joy, is from a pot I left on the hot stove & it cooked dry.

Inanna comes into her powers

In twenty years of teaching I never really learned to lecture. I prefer to learn what I think in the moment in collaboration with my students. Even in large courses, meant to be lecture classes, I work mostly by Socratic discussion. But Zoom and the like are too slow and rigid for that sort of work. So, in this pandemic spring, I’ve had to broaden my game.

Every week or two, I’ve posted for my students a “voice note” – a mini-lecture, basically, that I record off the cuff, or from a few lines of notes, and upload. With the quarter winding down, and these materials vanishing in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d transcribe and post them here.

This is the first voice note for my ENG 339 Mythology and Literature class – on two texts in Diane Wolkstein & Samuel Noah Kramer’s Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth. In transcribing, I’ve edited very lightly, and added in some of the primary text.

You’ll see that my goal is less to provide answers than to stir questions. Here is the note if you would rather listen.


“The Huluppu-Tree”
“Inanna and the God of Wisdom”

I should say at the outset I’m not going to try to define myth or mythology for you. I would like rather for us to arrive at definitions gradually as the evidence of our perceptions accumulates. Any definition I give you now is bound to be partial and incomplete and is likely to shortchange you by reducing the scope of your possible readings.

I’ll say just one thing, maybe it’s two things, to characterize myth. A myth is a supercharged story – a story that radiates meaning, radiates meaningfulness. And in part that’s because a myth is a story that has the power of explanation to it. It has the power, for its adherents, to explain how something came to be, or how certain arrangements in the world came to be the way they are. So a myth is not for entertainment, though we may find them entertaining when they become literature, or movies. A myth in its original context is an act of worldmaking.

So, looking at Inanna’s first text, “The Huluppu-Tree.” Inanna is the Sumerian goddess of love, and of war, and in some contexts of increase, of fertility. In this poem, we have her as a young woman, and we see some of the characteristic features of Sumerian myth right from the outset. The opening lines:

In the first days, in the very first days,
In the first nights, in the very first nights,
In the first years, in the very first years,

In the first days when everything needed was brought into being,
In the first days when everything needed was properly nourished,

If you read them aloud yourself, what you cannot help but hear is the intensity of the patterning and repetition. And it might seem hard to move the story forward, when the language is so bent on circling back on itself and saying itself over again with the slightest of modifications. Hold that in mind – the question of what the myth is, the mythology is up to, with these repetitions, these circlings back.

sapling
Relief vessel. North Syria, Mari. Early Dynastic period, ca. 2500 BCE. From Wolkstein and Kramer, Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth

And those repetitions have a graceful resemblance, if you look at the image on the facing page, it looks like a fragment of an image of somebody attending to a sapling, or two saplings, at the base of what’s probably a date palm. And see how the representation of date palm and of the waters under the surface of the Earth are both patterns that gain their force and intensity by taking a motif – crosshatching on the tree trunk, a sort of sinuous curve in the water under the earth’s surface – taking a single simple motif and repeating it ad nauseam. There’s a visual equivalence there to what we’re seeing in the repetition of the language.

That water under the earth, under that thin crust of earth, that’s the god Enki. Enki is the god of the sweetwaters, and in the Mesopotamian worldview, the sweetwaters, the freshwater, lives just below the surface of the earth. If you think about what happens digging a well, you dig a certain way into the earth, and water, when you hit the water table, water starts to flow through the soil into the hole that you’ve made. That’s the power of Enki. Enki is closer than some of the other gods, An, Enlil, to the underworld of Ereshkigal, because he abides under the surface of the earth. That’s not a coincidence. It’s significant to this journey of his that’s being described as he sets sail for the underworld. The underworld is adjacent to his territory, unlike for the other gods.

He set sail; the Father set sail,
Enki, the God of Wisdom, set sail for the underworld.
Small windstones were tossed up against him;
Large hailstones were hurled up against him;
. . .
The waters of the sea devoured the bow of his boat like wolves;
The waters of the sea struck the stern of his boat like lions.

Now it’s a curious thing that his journey to the underworld seems – incidental. The story of his journey ends with the waters of the sea striking the stern of his boat “like lions.” And then – story over. Scene switch. Suddenly we’re being told about a tree planted by the banks of the Euphrates.

At that time, a tree, a single tree, a huluppu-tree
Was planted by the banks of the Euphrates.
The tree was nurtured by the waters of the Euphrates.
The whirling South Wind rose, pulling at its roots . . .

Bad editing? Fragmentary tablet? Missing text? Is “At that time” a thin patch over a gaping hole? It’s more likely that the phrase hints at a cause-and-effect relationship that we need to suss out for ourselves. Two things are put adjacent, Enki’s trip to the underworld, with the near-swamping of his boat, it’s a contentious, agonistic journey, and then, adjacent to that, the growing of a tree by the banks of the Euphrates. The implication is, in one being beside the other, is that the one causes the other. Enki, the God of Wisdom, voyaging into the territory of the Queen of the Underworld, gives birth to something, makes a new being possible. And that new being is this huluppu-tree.

So that’s something to watch for in these myths. They very often won’t explain the most important aspects of their explanations. You need to work that out for yourself. What does it signify that it is the God of Wisdom, and not any other, who makes this journey, for instance?

So, I’m not going to walk you through the whole text, that would take us forever. But I wanted to look at those opening lines to articulate two kinds of thing to look for. One, the repetition. It’s possible to just skip over it as an annoying or tedious feature of another time’s sensibility. I encourage you instead to really sink into it, allow it to be a kind of musical cadence that’s not getting in the way of the storytelling but actually belongs to the storytelling. And then see what the felt experience of those repetitions is for you.

The other point, then, is that often the deepest significance of the story is unstated, is left implied, and it’s for us to make the inference. Sometimes the inference depends upon cultural knowledge that we don’t have, unless any of us are Sumerian, and I doubt anyone here is. Some of that cultural knowledge will be given to us in the notes, so be sure not to skip the notes at the back of the book that annotate the poem. And some of it doesn’t depend on cultural knowledge and we can think and feel through for ourselves.

With those thoughts in mind, I encourage you to spend a little time with the serpent, the Anzu-bird, and the “dark maid” Lilith, who make their home in the tree.

Then a serpent who could not be charmed
Made its nest in the roots of the huluppu-tree.
The Anzu-bird set his young in the branches of the tree.
And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the tree.

Nobody knows what an Anzu-bird is! That’s why it’s left untranslated. Whatever cultural knowledge we need there is lost to us. But the maid Lilith, we get a little cultural context from the note at the back of the book:

In Hebrew legend, she was the first bride of Adam; but insisting on her own equality, she refused to copulate with him, for she did not want to be underneath him. She fled from Adam and remained forever outside human relationship or regulation, possessed by an avid, insatiable sexuality.

Think through, feel through, what it is for Inanna, this young woman, teenager really, coming into her womanhood, to encounter the figure Lilith in this tree that is supposed to be made into Inanna’s bridal bed. And, what might a snake be or stand for? You’ll probably hear an echo from Genesis, and that’s not accidental, this text is a lot older than the story in Genesis, and probably influential on it. What else is a snake? The snake is something that sheds its skin, the snake is commonly a phallic symbol, this in particular is a snake that cannot be charmed – how do the different qualities of these creatures suggest the conflicts, the struggle, the nature of the struggle, that lnanna is in right now?

Turning to “Inanna and the God of Wisdom.” Again, I don’t want to overdetermine your reading. I want just to point to a few things maybe to dwell with, because they may help open up the poem to you.

One in this one is the notion of the me, pronounced “may.” What do you think the me are? I mean, we get long lists of them, we see what they are each individually. What does the word me mean, what is a me, what are the me, such that they can be treated as physical objects, loaded in a boat and taken from the stronghold of one city, Eridu, and brought by a somewhat fraught and dangerous journey, chased by demons of various different shapes, to the docks of another city, Uruk, Inanna’s city?

Inanna and Enki
Plate XV, source of the poem, is the obverse of a large six-column tablet, no. 15283 in the Nippur collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

“My father has given me the me:

He gave me the high priesthood.
He gave me godship.
He gave me the noble, enduring crown.
He gave me the throne of kingship. . . .

He gave me the dagger and sword.
He gave me the black garment.
He gave me the colorful garment.
He gave me the loosening of the hair.
He gave me the binding of the hair. . . .

He gave me the standard.
He gave me the quiver.
He gave me the art of lovemaking.
He gave me the kissing of the phallus.
He gave me the art of prostitution. . . .”

All of the major gods of Sumer are associated with one of the cities of what we now call Mesopotamia. When the me have successfully been brought to the city of Uruk, and given to the people of Uruk, and it seems to give birth to more me, violating laws of conservation of matter and energy. . . . When all of these me are now in the hands of the people of Uruk, what does it mean for Uruk? And does this mean Enki and the people of Eridu are now without the me? Are the me like coins and dollar bills that if you grab them up, and take them from one place to another, the place you took them from no longer has them? Or are the me more like love, of which it is said, the more you give away the more you receive – it’s not a fixed quantity.

And if the me are not a fixed quantity, and Inanna can take them from Enki, bring them to her people, without depriving Enki of them, then two questions. One, why are they represented as physical objects? And two, why does Enki work so hard to get them back from Inanna, when he has nothing to lose from her possession of them?

Red Black & Blues – A proposal

Draft of a proposal for an upcoming conference nearby.


Red Black & Blues is a transgressive translation of a text by Donald Trump – specifically, a tweet that defends his administration’s family separation policy and enjoins followers to “vote ‘R.’” I render it, one parcel at a time, as a serial asemic visual poem, in the colours of the American electoral map.

Working asemically, I can’t directly critique a policy I find monstrous, but I can disclose the monsters I find there. The work is thick with gargantuan bugs, ambulatory phalli, apostolic patriarchs, rageful fertility goddesses – figures the text suggests haunt the author’s psyche. These cohabit with forms that recall women in burqas, children on a playground in a live-shooter drill. As if demons and innocents were caught in the same inclemency. No one wants to hear that.

Asemic translation makes meaning a mutual creation even more than usual of author, translator, audience. Here be monsters, but whose monsters be they? Would I have found them in the text, if they weren’t also in me, to be found? Would a viewer find them who wasn’t able to finish them? It’s easy to demonize Trump, I do it hourly. Harder to say we belong to the body that made him.

This project uses the indeterminacies of asemic writing and a somewhat aleatory practice to touch on our complicity in the mess we’re in. The academy has terms for that mess, “patriarchy,” “institutional racism,” but those term have hardened some by now, become preconceived notions, and, for many, sites of shame and recrimination.

The notions I’m working from are the paramitas of Mahayana Buddhist practice: generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration, wisdom. Any asshole, no matter how stupid, destructive, beyond remedy, or you-know-who world-powerful, has these perfections, intrinsically. This project starts from that premise, though I too find it hard to swallow.


Addendum. Here’s a better way of saying it. Our complicity. Also our possibility, each of us, from before we were born.

Screen Shot 2019-07-28 at 11.35.57 AM

The course where it unbegan

This fall I’m teaching The Art of Compost, the course that hatched this blog, for the first time in three years. Thought I’d share with you the page that greets students when they go to the course’s online platform. Meant to open them to a composty way of thinking about word objects.


Welcome to 

ENG 460: The Art of Compost

“Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!”
What does one do with all this crap?
–Jack Spicer

In the beginning, there was compost.

Crumb – Genesis 1 – sized
R. Crumb, The Illustrated Genesis

 
The Bible is a compost pile.

The story of the Flood is floodwrack of a Sumerian epic, Gilgamesh.

The Song of Solomon, proclaiming the devotion of the Hebrews to their God in really quite erotic terms, is a compost of Canaanite love poetry.

The New Testament cannibalizes the Old to make Jesus make more sense.

 

Sappho - Papyrus
Sappho, a fragment

A bit of poem by Sappho.

The fragment only survives
because the poem was torn to strips,

and the strips (papyrus)
used to wrap a mummy.

Glyph

A novel digested yields
precious rare verse nutrients.

Phillips – Humument – sized
Tom Phillips, A Humument (fifth edition)

Tom Phillips found a bad Victorian novel in a London bookstore in 1966 and bought it on a dare.

He’s spent the last 48 years releasing the eye poems he finds in it.

Its protagonist, Toge, carved out of the words together, altogether.

Its human meaning, here and there uttered and everywhere embodied: “only connect.”

Glyph

A composted mass of poems
becomes a lettery soil.

Screenshot - Spicer.png
Jack Spicer, After Lorca

Jack Spicer didn’t write his poems.

Some were dictated to him by Martians.

Others came to him over the radio. The poet is a radio, he said, a counter-punching radio.

Glyph

You can compost something as impromptu
as an envelope jotting . . .

Bervin – Gorgeous – sized
Emily Dickinson, Jen Bervin, & Marta Werner, The Gorgeous Nothings

Jen Bervin and Marta Werner have found, in diplomatic transcriptions of the envelope jottings of Emily Dickinson, a curious new sort of visual poem.

. . . or grandiose as an extinct civilization
extant only in mind

Schwerner – Tablet X – sized 2Armand Schwerner imagines the discovery of tablets left behind by a hitherto unknown ancient culture.

The brackets and ellipses scholars use to transcribe broken ancient texts become the building blocks for visual poems elucidating

perception illumination annihilation enlightenment dissolution regeneration
sex birth death irrigation animal husbandry

Glyph

Compost will be our trope
for how writers take extant works
and break them down to pieces they can
use to make new works that will be
broken down in turn to
make new works
&c.


Whew. That took longer than you’d think to format. As you can see, it raises more questions than it answers. Our primary texts, w/ links:

Compost as trope, as topos, as practice. It’s a way of digging intertextuality and materiality without going all theory. It’s also ecopoetics as I myself feel it, not nature-as-leafy-green-stuff one swoons to in words, though that’s well and good, but interbeing discovered as your textual ground. Indra’s Net, felt on the breath, that it becomes the texture of our works, our days.


Our reading practice is fluid, but some of these may swim into our ken:

Works co-authored by time

The same except make-believe

20th C. ur-texts composed by bricolage

Objectivist &c. poems &c. at play in their wake

Translations that foreground their compost nature . . .

. . . and translations into a language of pure form

Other conceptual undertakings

Prose compendia and extravaganza with a compost face

Works that suggest to compose just is to compost

Instructions and conceptions

Images and sounds

The bin of the thing


It’s the bare thin start of a compost rolodex.

Later will try to get some more recent workings in.

Here, for now, the wormipede I just found on my kitchen floor, WTF.

Wormipede

Lastly, why so Euro? I need to dwell more on that, but it’s got to do with a hankering for diagnosis. Our thought, I mean the West’s, has been sick a good long time. One way to get a bead on what ails us might be to trace the shadows that remain of cultures who before their ruinous contact with us lacked our afflictions. “Ethnopoetics.” If we’re amiss, our others may offer a glance of salutary haleness. While I admire elders like Robert Bringhurst and Jerome Rothenberg, deep and sincere in an exogenous practice, it may have felt to some of its objects – it surely would to me were I to try on any such regard – like more of the same damn thievery.

Another way is endogenous – sift the debris all round us of our own works and ages.

“Poets Mistake Non-Poet for Fish in Barrel, Open Fire.”

Here is a bad bit of light verse published in this morning’s New York Times:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 11.16.08 AM

Here is the Facebook pile-on by poets, some nationally renowned, that ensued. We rose up to defend the shade of John Ashbery and the immortal values of poetry:

FB pile-on

It goes on much longer. An umbrage orgy. Here’s why it’s embarrassing for us and for poetry:

Screen Shot 2018-09-03 at 10.35.22 AM

It was the NYT opening its pages to an ordinary reader. A non-specialist.

No one (including, at first, me) thought to check – everyone just leapt at the chance to pummel this light verster into submission to our post-modernity. It’s high-minded bullying. How are poets going to be critics of the culture if we succumb this easily to its ugliest temptations?


P.S. And here, of course, am I, doing meta-umbrage, its own temptation.

 

Close reading Paterson’s line

Another bit of heavy lifting for my Pound and Williams students. I give as example more than I can realistically expect. But I want them to see what sustained close reading, in itself and for its own sake, looks like, to aspire to.


Did a spiel on Thursday, about the difference between writing deductively (state your claim then go about finding evidence for it) and inductively (explore the evidence and learn from it what your argument is).

Said, if you already know the material thoroughly, down to the details and textures, and out to the overarching themes – go ahead and write deductively. But if the material, you’re still learning your way into it, your main discoveries are ahead of you, and really in your schoolwork that should always be the case, forget deductive, do it inductively. Don’t start with a thesis. Start with an interest or question. Then go to the text, places in it that will further your interest, sharpen your question. Ask further questions of the text to learn how it works. This assignment and the allusion chart are just that sort of attention. As insights come about how the poem is put together they may bear towards your initial question or some other more illuminating where. Follow your line of inquiry until you have some insight into the text with heft, more than local. Now you’re in a position to draft an opening paragraph and a working thesis statement. Cuz how can you know what you think till you see what you’ve said?

And they were like, Why didn’t anyone tell us this?

And I was like, I’m telling you now?

And, working it inductively is “no ideas but in things,” in practice.

Fin digression. Follows, the close reading assignment.


The poetic line is what Hugh Kenner called a “patterned integrity.” The lines of the Cantos give off clear energy signatures—we can tell whether we’re in hell or paradise, myth or history, Greece or Provence, smiley face or frowny face, by the musical qualities of the line (stress and duration patterns), by the way it casts an image on the mind’s eye, and by how it plumbs the meanings of its words (diction and syntax). In other words, melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. The energy signature changes line by line, but as we grow attuned to the Cantos, we learn to recognize some characteristic patterns, and may then be a bit less lost.

In Paterson, too, the style of patterning often changes line by line. But we’ve an added challenge: those patterns don’t settle into distinct types we can become familiar with. Each line real­ly is a new world, with new terms—sonic, rhythmic, sensory, semantic, syntactic—on which it asks to be read.

One way to face that challenge is to isolate the line as a unit of perception. This assignment asks you to do that. Pick a passage you enjoy in Paterson. Isolate one line—

(1) There is no direction. Whither? I

Close read it, without reference to lines before or after, for its qualities of sound, image, and sense, as here:

Sonically, the line seems, at first, directionless. There is no alliteration, and no obvious consonance or assonance; in fact, the values of the vowels are all over the map, as if to create directionlessness in the mouth that speaks the line. Perhaps the line’s sonic variety is part of its point. The consonants are a mixture of voiced ([ð]) and unvoiced fricatives ([ʃ]), voiced plosives ([d], [k]), approximants ([r], [w]), and nasals ([n]); the vowels range from the front middle ([ɛ]) and the near-close near-front ([i]), to the mid-central ([ə]), to the near-close near-back ([ʊ]) and the close-mid back rounded ([o]), culminating in the diphthong [ai], which joins the open near-front [a] to the near-close near-front [i]. Sonically, the sequence seems thoroughly unpoetic, if poetry is understood as shapely speech. At any rate, the line seems to want to bring the whole mouth into play. Only after a few passes do recurrent sounds emerge—the [r] sound repeats in “There,” “direction,” and “whither”; there’s something like assonance between “direction ”and “There”; a common [ð] binds “There” and “whither, while a common [i] binds “is” and “whither”; and that [i] is transformed, in the line’s final thought, into the first person singular pronoun, by the addition of the sound also made by the indefinite article [a]. What at first seems chaos may turn out to be an argument for variety.

[If you’re not fluent in IPA, use the pronunciation key found in a standard dictionary.]

Rhythmically, the line is metrical, iambic pentameter without the initial unaccented syllable—a curious way to begin for a poet wedded to free verse. All the syllables are short except “There” and “Whith-,” both at the start of their phrases, giving the sense that the phrase begins at a fixed point, then rushes or springs forward.

Imagistically, the line is almost empty—curious for a poet who proclaims, “no ideas but in things.” The opening, “There is,” suggests we will be presented with an object, a locale, something that is—but instead we are offered a negation, what is not, and what is not is an abstraction anyway—“direction.” No wonder the next thought is “Whither?” No ideas but in things, and no sense, without things, where to go next. This is the first line of the section—the poet seems to wonder where to go next—suggesting that, as with the Cantos, the crisis of how to make the poem is one of the subjects of the poem. What traces of image or activity remain in the line are etymological: “direction” comes from the Latin dirigere, “to set straight,” from dis- “apart” and regere “to guide,” cognate with regal; the derivation of “whither” is unclear. And that brings us to semantics.

Semantically, the two words connected by the ligature [ð], “There” and “whither,” are a bit at odds: “there,” taken in itself, is an indication of location, as in “there it is,” while “whither” expresses a failure of orientation. The word “direction,” which sits between them, on its own tends toward the former sense, but negated  here by “no,” enforces the latter. (And yet to say “no direction” brings direction to mind as a possibility. As telling someone not to think of pink elephants ensures they will think of pink elephants.)

The first-per­son singular pronoun, “I,” is isolated sonically (there’s no other vowel like it in the line), visually (it’s stranded at the line end), semantically (only a general sense of directionlessness ties the “I” into a framework of meaning), and syntactically: it’s the start of a third sentence. The first sentence is four words long and includes a subject and a verb. The second is one word long and includes neither subject nor verb—if a sentence at all, it is radically elided, stripped down to a raw interrogative. And the third is, as said, barely begun before it is aborted by the line end. On the level of syntax as well, then, the line is committed to asymmetry and disorder, to upending any balance, harmony, or stasis. If these attributions seem too much, consider how much would be lost, sonically, semantically, and syntactically, if “There is” were omitted from the line, or if “I” were moved down to the next.

And repeat. Continue line-by-line for about five double-spaced pages (essay format). Conclude your analysis with a paragraph that addresses this question: What expressive features of the passage has this process revealed? (Avoid using the first person here. Imagine this paragraph is part of a formal essay, in which you are drawing together findings from a sustained close reading, which you can put to work somewhere else.) Please identify, in your title, by page number, the passage you are working with. And … enjoy?

An “allusion chart” for Pound’s Canto II

One assignment for my Pound and Williams seminar is to create an allusion chart for one of Pound’s Cantos. I hope that, freed from the paper demand to make an argument, students might follow lines of reference further and more curiously and with greater rigour also, than they otherwise might.

Here then, the in-class work they start with, and the sample allusion chart I give them, for Canto II, my first love.


Your fifth hour assignment for Pound is to complete an allusion chart for one canto (or a passage from a longer canto). Today’s work will give you some practice with that.

You’ll need:

The Cantos

Carroll F. Terrell’s A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound (Vol. 1. Vol. 2.)

Begin by choosing, with your partner, a canto to work with. Then turn a sheet of paper sideways and creating three columns: “Line or Phrase,” “Allusion or Translation,” “Significance, Issues, Questions” (see example below).

Working together, from the start of the canto, note every allusion you find (left-hand column); use Terrell and your own wits to explain the allusion (middle column); and consider the significance of the allusion, issues it raises, and questions left unanswered (right-hand column).

If you note allusions that aren’t in Terrell, you can track those, too. For instance, we noted in class that the rhythm of Canto I echoes the rhythm Pound’s “Seafarer.” So, we might enter “(four-beat accentual rhythm)” in the lefthand column; in the middle column, something like “Recalls Pound’s translation of “The Seafarer” and Old English rhythm generally”; and, in the right-hand column, something like “Overlays two sea journeys: seafarer’s and Odysseus’s; and a search for beginnings here: the roots of poetry in English, the roots of the epic.”

In the middle column, the challenge is to choose the salient information from Terrell, or any other source you use. Don’t just plunk it down verbatim – select and digest. (Any other sources should be noted in a Works Consulted page at the back.) In the right-hand column, the challenge is to make appropriate inferences from the allusion. Don’t be afraid to have questions and to ask them. Pertinent questions are just as good as clever inferences.


An allusion chart for Canto II

Line or phrase Allusion or Translation Significance, Issues, Questions
Hang it all, Robert Browning Robert Browning, author of Sordello, who treats the poet Sordello as a dramatic mask. • EP regards Sordello as the last epic in English—will pick up where RB left off. • Material recycled from first attempt at Cantos. Signals EP will use dramatic masks (personae) just as Browning does—so “I” may or may not mean Pound himself. • The Cantos are an epic but what “epic” means is up for grabs. • EP recycling own work and recycling culture’s work as well.
but the one “Sordello” The hero and mask of Browning’s poem. Italian troubadour (singer and poet, from French, trouver). Abducted the wife of his patron—some­what in the style of courtly love—but, oops. Fled. • Returned a gift of five castles (for military service) because felt he was “far richer through his poetry” (CT). Masks as above. • EP’s early work translating (and imitating) troubadours comes into play here. How and why do troubadours matter? • Love and love’s transgressions introduced as theme. Connection to come between human love and earth’s fertility. • Tension (or interplay) introduced between material productions (castles) and artistic ones (songs).
Lo Sordels si fo di Mantovana “Sordello is from Mantua” (Italian). EP uses places (and persons) as metonyms for values and practices—how does Mantua work in that light? • First use of Italian—after Latin at end of Canto I, and several Classical Greek allusions. Signals attention to Mediterranean cultures.
So-shu churned in the sea Reference uncertain. May be corruption of “Shiba Shojo,” Japanese for a Chinese poet who, according to Li Po, created “foam instead of waves” (CT). • Or, contrary to CT, may be a Japanese transliteration of Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuangtse. If former—would seem to mark what a poet should not do—and stands in contrast to Browning. • If latter—may be an approving reference—do all of EP’s references mark either approval or disapproval? (Compare to his treatment later of “Taozers.”) • Either way—line marks transition to seascape.
daughters of Lir Lir—Celtic god of the sea—seals are for EP his daughters. • Seals closely linked with Greek figure of Proteus—minor god who shifts shapes. Pun on Lear? • Proteus—minor Greek God—charac­ter­ized by transformation, as in “protean.” Figures in story of Odysseus (c.f. Canto I).
eyes of Picasso “evokes the artist’s faculty for changing the shape of the things he sees” (CT) What do Proteus and Picasso have in common? Metamorphosis. One alters his own form, the other alters the forms he sees. Not a coincidence that canto centres on a story out of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. • Could Lear fit in here too? He goes through a profound change of condition—if not of form. (C.f. tragic figures of canto IV.)
daughter of Ocean Capital “O” makes ocean either an abstraction—not EP’s style—or a being. Makes the sea a god. From class: “gods are a way of seeing nature.”
Eleanor, ελεναυσ and ελεπτολισ! Eleanor: Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine. • ελεναυσ: ship-destroying. • ελεπτολισ: city-destroying. Helen of Troy was “cause” of Trojan War—in which ships and in the end a city were destroyed. Curious misogyny by which a woman is blamed for a war men started, fought, and killed women and children in (as well as each other). Connect to efforts in later cantos to find a single cause for WWI and WWII: usury. • Eleanor of Aquitaine: “archetype of the femme fatale, inspiring both strife and poetry” (CT). Women and men both stand as types or archetypes in Cantos … do either ever stand as individuals?
“Let her go …” Voices of old men of Troy (“murmur of old men’s voices”) who wanted to send her back to Greece and end the war. EP seems to disdain their timidity—a failure of the life instinct—and yet they share his aversion to war. What gives? • Note how he reconfigures his source: instead of admiration—rejection, as in Homer, he gives us rejection—admiration—rejection. Why?
Schoeney’s daughters Schoeneus, father of Atalanta, “who, like Helen, through her beauty caused the death of many men” (CT) So we have three femmes fatales now—Helen of Troy, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Atalanta—brought together for what they have in common. Is this misogyny or a working method (or both)? Depends (in part) on whether he treats male archetypes likewise. A sense here of the ideogrammatic method though: bringing together three things (rose, rust, robin) to express what they have in common (redness).
by the beach-run, Tyro In the Odyssey, Odysseus, in Hades, sees Tyro, who fell in love with the god of the river Eni­peus. Poseidon, god of the sea, took on his form, put her to sleep, and raped her. Reference to O.’s journey to Hades connects this canto to Canto I. • A vignette from the Odyssey but has all the marks of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a transition, then, from the first canto’s focus on the heroic archetype (Odysseus) to the second’s focus on the theme of transformation (Bacchus).
arms of the sea-god Poseidon—though Proteus is here too—from a bit earlier—and Dionysos’ theophany (revelation of the god), soon to come, makes him a sort of sea god, also. The identities of the gods are themselves protean—ever-shifting—Proteus becomes Poseidon becomes Dionysos. So the way he treats women (triad of Helen, Eleanor, Atalanta) he also treats gods.
And by Scios Chios, an Aegean island. The transition begins to the canto’s second major movement—the theophany of Dionysos—starts by locating us in spot where that theophany begins.
to left of the Naxos passage Naxos another island—and a center of the Dionysos cult. Continues the specification of location. Interesting that something mythic will happen as if historic—i.e. in a particular place (also, at a time?).
a young boy Bacchus, god of wine and fertility, also known as Dionysos, Zagreus, Iacchus, Lyaeus. A central motif of the Cantos. As Canto I belongs to Odysseus, Canto II belongs to Dionysos.
loggy with vine-must Loggy: heavy, sluggish (OED). Vine-must: new wine. The source is Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The god of wine is drunk? I guess that fits.
“Cum’ along lad” A Classical Greek myth, taken from a Roman source, rendered in British Cockney voice. From class: One time laid on another as if on a flat plane (post-Cubist). But why lay times on one another in this way? Pound said, “All times are contemporaneous in the mind.”
And I said Who is “I”? Sixteen lines later identifies himself as Acoetes—captain of the ship. From class: The information necessary to interpret an allusion or a foreign phrase is often sitting nearby in the poem. Same thing done here with identity of speaker. • Pound’s use of personas.
And an ex-convict … a little slave money. Acoetes still speaking. Retells the story of Dionysos’s abduction. Why is Acoetes given such a prominent speaking part? Is he as important as Odysseus? Or is he just here as witness and storyteller? Either way, EP likes him because he honours the gods.
God-sleight then, god-sleight: / Ship stock fast in sea-swirl Long, slow syllables resemble rhythms of “The Seafarer.” • Repetition prominent. Three sea voyages overlaid now: that of Odysseus, that of Dionysos, and that of the seafarer. Is EP composing an ideogram? • Repetition foreshadows extended repetitive patterns both in this canto and in canto IV. Something here about suspension of time.
King Pentheus The king to whom Acoetes is speaking. “Acoetes is telling the story of his crew’s attempt to kidnap the god as a warning” (CT). Pentheus will refuse to honour the god and will end up torn to pieces by the god’s ecstatic followers. Pentheus lines up with sailors who don’t honour the god—who treat the sacred in a profane way—as a means of profit. EP’s values implicit here.
grapes with no seed but sea-foam The theophany begins. EP is doing more than translating Ovid. He’s reimagining the story Ovid told—passing Ovid’s tale through the prism of Cubist practice—so that the gist of it is made new again.
And the sea blue-deep about us, / green-ruddy in shadows Theophany culminates. Note subject-rhyme with end of passage immediately  before the Dionysos section—“a wine-red glow in the shallows.”
And Lyaeus: “From now, Acoetes, my altars …” Lyaeus: name for Dionysos “in his function as the god of wine and ecstasy” (CT). The god adopts Acoetes as his priest. This is EP’s own addition to the story—the god says, in effect, “From now on, Acoetes, you’ll tend to my altars.” (Elisions like this are common … when a passage, though in English, is obscure, try to feel out what words have been trimmed away.)
Black snout of a porpoise / where Lycabs had been Lycabs is a member of Ulysses’s crew. (Ulysseus is Latin form of Odysseus.) By importing Lycabs from crew of Odysseus to crew of Acoetes, EP has spliced stories of Odysseus and Dionysos together. Highlighting their importance to these early cantos: Odysseus, the journeying hero, is central figure of I, Dionysos, metamorphic god, central figure of II. • Lycabs makes no appearance in Homer’s Odyssey—only in Ovid’s telling, elsewhere in the Metamorphoses, of Odysseus’s journeys. So this is EP’s retelling of Ovid’s retelling of Homer. Compare to end of canto I: EP’s translation of Divus’s translation of Homer. Another way of laying different temporal plans flat on top of each other.
Medon’s face like the face of a dory Medon another member of Ulysses’s crew in Ovid’s telling of Homer’s story. But Medon does appear in Homer’s Odyssey—he’s Odysseus’s herald, and at home on Ithaca, not part of the crew.
And you, Pentheus, / Had as well listen to Tiresias Tiresias—seer of Thebes—in Ovid sometimes male and sometimes female. Blind but given the power to see the future. Like Acoetes he advises Pentheus to worship Dionysos. Not to heed a seer is really dumb. Not to heed someone who’s stood beside a god is also pretty dumb.
and to Cadmus Grandfather of Pentheus and founder of Thebes. “[T]he stones of the walls of Thebes rose to the rhythm of the music Amphion played on his lyre. The walls are conceived as the magical protective walls around the archetypal city which were traced in the air by ritual dance, music, and incantation.” CT seems to think city walls are important—why? Note second line of canto IV: “Troy but a heap of smouldering boundary stones.” Something about how a gesture—a dance—can assume a durable form—as a wall. Something about relation of energy to matter, act to thing, verb to noun. Compare to “the tensile light” in later cantos—light that’s both energy and substance.
Ileuthyeria “an inadvertent conflation of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, with Eleutheria, H [Greek], a marine organism of the genus of bisexual jellyfish” (CT) Significance obscure. Connection of bisexuality of jellyfish to gender transformations Tiresias goes through? But that’s connecting dots mostly outside the poem now.
Fair Dafne of sea-bords Daughter of Peneus, a river god. A subject-rhyme with Tyro, in love with a river god, Enipeus? At least, a return to the mouth of the river, where the canto began—its long central section having taken place mostly at sea. And beginning of the transition from Dionysos back to Tyro.
So-shu churned in the sea (As above.) Canto structured almost like nested parentheses: ((( ))). It opened with So-shu, and now returns to him; and will return shortly as well to Tyro.
glass wave over Tyro (As above.) After so much transformation, a return to where we were, at the outset. Suggests almost an eternal now—in which the rape of Tyro is always occurring. Traumatic and yucky, unless, as suggested before, gods are a way of seeing nature—here, a way of seeing the point where the river meets the sea? How is this “way of seeing nature” different from our common sense or scientific ways of seeing it?
Hesperus “Evening star sacred to Aphrodite” (CT). Near end of canto II, just as near end of canto I, an invocation of or to Aphrodite—goddess of love, and, for EP, of what else? What’s her role in this poem? The patron of Odysseus was Athena, who’s not shown up yet at all.
The tower like a one-eyed great goose Whose tower? CT is silent. Suggestion of a prison, a watch tower; also phallic.
And we have heard Identity of “we” unclear. “We” confirms we’ve left persona of Acoetes behind—he speaks only as an “I.”
the fauns chiding Proteus Proteus—sea-god with power of metamorphosis. How many gods here associated with metamorphosis? Dionysos, Proteus, Poseidon … mythological overkill? Or is Pound building an ideogram?
and the frogs singing against the fauns Reference to Aristophanes’s The Frogs—in which Dionysos and his companion, down in hell, try to drown out the croaking of “infernal frogs” (CT), perhaps with a “hemichant,” a technique of Aristophanes’s comedies that sets “one part of the chorus against the other”—i.e. it’s polyphonic. Reference to hell recalls Odysseus’ journey to hell in canto I. • Allusion to hemichant—fauns singing against Proteus, frogs singing against the fauns—suggests something about the working method of the Cantos themselves: voices will be juxtaposed, some aligned with each other (within one subset of the chorus), and some at odds with each other (different subsets of the chorus).

The image atop is a detail from

Exekias_Dionysos_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2044_n2
The Dionysos Cup by Exekias (fl. 545–530 BCE)

Navigating the Pisan Cantos (II)

Pound’s Cantos is a musical composition on multiple scales of order. I haven’t begun to fathom the polyrhythmic escapade it is. If you take the myriad gists that shine and go – glaukopis, as the olive leaves do, or as the eyes and mind of Athena are (74/458) – a shine that rubs off on those lucky enough to be at hand –

O Lynx, γλαυκῶπις coming up from the olive yards (79/510)

– if you take them as propositions in a discursive order, the matter will make you mad. But hear them as threads in a melodic arrangement, refrains, they come together as evidences of intelligence. Refrain‘s a salient pun here, because they’re a way Pound holds back, reins the outflow in, lashes himself to the post of an intention not his, as Odyssean he petitions a god-stuffed world to learn him his song.

I’m not going to try to outline the structure I intuit here – the thought of that task defeats me completely – only to isolate a few of the refrains that become, if they are not already, luminous details in the poem, their freight of meaning deepening with each recurrence.


To clarify terms. On the luminous detail, Kenner, quoting Pound, writes:

Luminous Details are the transcendentals in an array of facts: not merely “significant” or “symptomatic” in the manner of most facts, but capable of giving one “a sudden insight into circumadjacent conditions, into their causes, their effects, into sequence, and law.” … “A few dozen facts of this nature give us intelligence of a period – a kind of intelligence not to be gathered from a great array of facts of the other sort. These facts are hard to find. They are swift and easy of transmission. They govern knowledge as the switchboard governs an electrical circuit.” The Cantos undertake to make a poem-including-history out of such facts. (The Pound Era 152–53)

A luminous detail is a fact, a transcendental datum. It may repeat, but not as insistently as what I’m calling a refrain, and not as part of a musical framework. And while a refrain in the Pisan Cantos may have a historical provenance, it’s not factual in the way a luminous detail is. So it’s proper to distinguish the two. And yet they also seem involved in each other. Hypothesis: Refrains are details made luminous by the poem. The poem generates these luminous details and then redeploys them among those it has found exogenously.


We wrapped up the Cantos today, and I asked the group whether, trailing off as it does in drafts and fragments, dribs and drabs, it seemed to them a failure. A little to my surprise, they said not. Maybe, said one, it’s not the epic he aimed for, it came out more his own story than the tale of the tribe he intended, but that’s not to fail. That sounded good to me, and it occurred to me to say, in an era of bourgeois individualism, the story of an individual’s alienation may belong to the tale of the tribe. I asked if, after our time with Canto 75, most of which is sheet music

canto75.pngtracking a snatch of birdsong from its first custody, with the birds, through the chorus it inspired in Clement Janequin’s “The Song of the Birds,” Francesco Milano’s transcription of the music for the lute, and Gerhart Münch’s arrangement of the violin line (“the birds were still there. They ARE still there in the violin parts” – Pound, ABC of Reading 54) – asked whether anyone heard birdsong differently. That one said yes she did is enough to justify the Cantos. A poem isn’t what it means it’s what it does. A third student couldn’t put it to words but felt, after having his mind bent up over our weeks in the poem, that he just looked at things a little differently, and he seemed a little stunned by it, and not unhappy.


This will be an incomplete and eccentric assembly. Not the refrains most frequent, nor most important; those that’ve most caught in my mind. As I begin I find I’m unwilling to pluck a refrain from the context in which it gathers and casts off meaning.

Consider periplum

what whiteness will you add to this whiteness,
                                                                                             what candor?
“the great periplum brings in the stars to our shore.”
You who have passed the pillars and outward from Herakles
when Lucifer fell in N. Carolina. (74/445)

                      as the winds veer and the raft is driven
                      and the voices     , Tiro, Alcmene
                      with you is Europa nec casta Pasiphaë
                                            Eurus, Apeliota as the winds veer in periplum
Io son la luna” . Cunizza
                                            as the winds veer in periplum (74/463)

As Arcturus passes over my smoke-hole
           the excess electric illumination
           is now focussed
on the bloke who stole a safe he cdn’t open
                        (interlude entitled: periplum by camion) (77/485)

three solemn half notes
                                         their white downy chests black-rimmed
on the middle wire
                                                   periplum (82/547)

My notes on the Cantos are in three media. Pencil for my first two passes, reading them with Don Revell at the U. of Utah, then for my comprehensive exams at same. Blue pen for my first time teaching them six years back. Black pen for this my second time teaching them. Beside the last passage above I see in pencil two curved lines in the left margin – my shorthand for “take note of this”; in blue ink, “poem names its work”; in black, “+ 3 ½ notes, PER-i-plum

f      f
              d
                      g”

because I thought I saw a connection to a musical phrase two pages earlier, where birds on telephone wires are imagined as musical notes calling out TER-e-us, TER-e-us, the rapist of Philomel. A stretch, maybe.

I mention this navigation record because to read in periplum is to read processually – alert to where you’ve been, knowing you’re bearing onward newly, in the relief of abandoning any hope of commanding a bird’s-eye view. Pound is to me, for inducing a salutary surrender of control, a poet of freedom maugre his poem’s obscurity and its pockets of stinking pus. “I cannot make it cohere,” stress on “I,” stress on “make.”

I digress. Cantos + blog post + ADHD will incite that. And what is periplum anyway but focused waywardness? Pound defines it in Canto 59: “periplum, not as land looks on a map / but as sea bord seen by man sailing” (324). He derived it from the Latin periplus, which has had occasional use in English to mean “a circuit; a circumnavigation; a voyage or journey round a coastline” (OED).

“Periplum” is reading instructions. You won’t ever see the whole. You’ll see enough of the whole to navigate in confidence to the next scrap of coastline. You want more, check out Paradise Lost, apotheosis of our West’s ludicrous dream of omniscience. Look where which has got us? Meanwhile fifty feet of highway in your headlights, the rest of the world a live darkness looming above around behind you, will get you all the way home, though home be hundreds of miles distant, mountains and rivers interposing.

We broach the unmapped daily, constantly. Most of a given moment if you stop to notice is unmasterable in mind. Most of our literature, not all, distracts us from or rails against that imperturbable fact.

Here be monsters? No, the ungoverned. Is okay, is one meaning of the Cantos.


I’ve taken on, I see, a monster job. Let’s post this and continue tomorrow, or soon. The image atop, BTW, is Odysseus’s raft going down, periplum par excellence, cropped from Rhapsody ε by Greek artist Maria Xagorari.


Rahpsody_5

Navigating the Pisan Cantos (I)

Teaching my Pound-Williams course for the second time and we’re in the thick of the Cantos. Smoke’s coming out their ear holes. Thought I’d write up some of my teaching notes here, flesh them out a bit, maybe to be of use to them, maybe to others.

The first experience, for most, of the Pisan Cantos, is of a polylingual deluge, endless, formless, incomprehensible. It can lead one to grab on tight to the figure of Pound the sufferer in the weather-swept tent somehow holding it together, feeling it, telling it. But continuous narrative is explicitly what the Cantos are not. That figure is there, but it’s not Pound-in-himself, it’s ego scriptor, “no man,” “Old Ez,” one or maybe several of the poet’s personae.

To guide students away from reading the sequence as a shapeless confessional blurt, towards an appreciation of it as a made thing, consciously carefully fashioned, I tried this week to address these questions with them in turn:

  • What different kinds of material get mixed together in these cantos (content)?
  • What are some of the elements that recur within or across the cantos (refrain)?
  • What means of structure, order, organization, do we detect hints of (form)?

I don’t lecture, but here are a few things I might say, were I to.


The content

First the easy one. Survey the kinds of material, the content.

Mythology

Gods and goddesses are names for the divine in nature. They’re plural because our perception of the sacred is plural; divinity is diverse; seeing and naming them belongs to the work of sincerity, giving things their right names. “Heliads lift the mist from the young willows” (83/550). “Δρυάς [Dryas], your eyes are like the clouds over Taishan / When some of the rain has fallen / and half remains yet to fall” (83/550). “[T]o them that dwell under the earth, / begotten of air, that shall sing in the bower / of Kore, Περσεφόνεια [Persephone]] / and have speech with Tiresias” (83/553). Gods, though modes of perception, are immortal, timeless; a myth, telling of a god’s acts in the human world, tells of time cut through by timelessness. That matters to an understanding of all the repetition in the poem: recurrence, by which the lyric makes the past present, angles our perception of time toward the arc of eternity.

History

Myth and event both belong to the history of the human mind. What we call history is the gathered record of that mind in action. Pound likes most to pluck from the historical record those moments, glimpses, radiant gists, that stand out from their occasion as it were holographically, holding the whole whole in the sliver it is. These luminous details, drawn from the event record or the cultural commons, emanate, as if lit from inside, the possibility they exemplify. This was, once. And because it was, in some sense, it is. “How is it far if, you think of it?” (77/485) The hero of the Cantos is the human mind. The villain of the Cantos, same.

Hugh Kenner on the luminous detail:

[H]e constellates Luminous Details, naming them, as again and again in the Cantos he names the signed column [at San Zeno in Verona]. For the column exists; what it proves about forgotten possibilities it proves by simply existing. And five hundred more such columns would not intensify the proof. Again and again in the Cantos single details merely prove that something lies inside the domain of the possible…. What was done at Wörgl—once, by one mayor, in one village—proves that stamp scrip will work. What was done in San Zeno, once, on one column, proves the possibility of a craftsman’s pride in an unobtrusive structural member. And any thing that is possible can again be. (The Pound Era 325)

Also, from a technical perspective, luminous details are nicely compact, a phrase, a line, maybe two to throw an image on the mind’s eye. One could be a frame in a montage, a brushstroke in an ideogram.

Charactery

How to be brief about the Chinese characters. He thought they were pictures of what they meant. They did abstraction concretely – “sunrise” was a tree tangled in the branches of a tree, “spring” that sun in the roots of a tree, “sincerity” the sun’s lance coming to rest on the precise spot. Following Ernest Fenollosa, he found in them, or in their shared misapprehension of them rather, a new way of doing poetry in English. I’ll write more on this somewhere else sometime.

Memory

In this register, personal memory, the personae seem to drop away, the poet himself speaks, and even kind of accessibly – in English, no less! though in orthography, when others speak, tortured by Pound’s ear for accent and idiolect. “[T]hat had made a great Peeeeacock / in the proide ov his oiye” (83/554). It’s hard to persuade students that even though Pound the maker is drawing here from his own lived experience, it is not Pound the man speaking straight to them, thank God, at last something relatable, not Pound but “Pound.” The details he selects belong to the composition, and are on a par with their divers neighbours in it, offering no frame nor interpretive brass ring.

Present experience

Now and then we touch in with “Pound” in the present, a prisoner in a tent in the US Army’s custody. The experience has several different signatures we can fairly call infernal (“Till was hung yesterday / for murder and rape with trimmings” (74/450)), purgatorial (“this grass or whatever here under the tentflaps / is, indubitably, bambooiform” (74/466), paradisal (“unexpected excellent sausage / the smell of mint” (74/458)). These moments often build a pathos that carries over into adjacent maybe more prickly areas of the poem. The poem builds such pathos by fostering and exploiting our belief that “Pound” is Pound, when actually, Pound is ever becoming “Pound.”

Economics

I’m not on sound footing here; economic theory, Pound’s or anyone’s, bores me. For Pound the evil is usury, lending at excessive interest, and all its manifestations in human activity and mind. Money should be a measure of real wealth, natural abundance and human creative activity; usury is false wealth, money made off money without any addition to the world’s store of real value. It’s parasitic, hence the common recourse to lice. It blurs distinctions, crashes boundaries, smudges edges, hence all the opprobrium in terms of shit, slime, “slither.” In the upside-down world a usurious system creates, activities that create genuine value, the work of poets and painters for instance, goes uncompensated or sees its value perverted on the open market. Meanwhile, activities that fuel a cycle of perpetual destruction and resupply, war for instance, find themselves fed by interests that profit from them. Under a condition of near-constant warfare, arms merchants, bankers, and governments fall into a self-propelling cycle it’s the work of shills to convince the public is virtuous. If that sounds familiar there’s some evidence Pound wasn’t wholly wrong.

Now, how do you work a heterodox economic theory into an epic poem you’re building by lyric means? Part of Pound’s answer – use individuals to represent ideas, practices, errors, and evils metonymically – as the opposite of luminous details, abysmal exempla – may help explain the virulence of the poem’s anti-Semitism. He needed a someone to stand in for the evil of usury, and the old stereotype of the Jewish financier was ready at hand. Which ain’t a justification, the material is way ugly. I do think though it’s good to say what the ugly is and what it isn’t. He saw moneylending as the root evil and associated Jews with moneylending and that made for an anti-Semitism that’s a grievous stain on his character and work. He also, disappointed megalomaniac, invested his wish to change the world in a fascist strongman, Mussolini, who was never really whom he thought. He was, much of his adult life, anti-Semitic. He was, if not a fascist outright, a sympathizer. But he never espoused the race theory we all immediately associate with (German) fascism. Read the Cantos with a clear eye, they are polyglot, diverse, a worldwide commons, appropriative if we judge them by the standards of our day, but in their time a blowing-open of the doors windows and walls of a straitened Anglo-American canon.

Politics

The political thought of the Pisan Cantos begins in defiance, “That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock,” that’s Mussolini, “where in history will you find it?” (74/445), and mostly stays there, though there are forays late into self-questioning, most famously in the libretto that seems to crown the sequence: “Pull down thy vanity / How mean thy hates / Fostered in falsity / Pull down thy vanity, / Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity, / Pull down thy vanity, / I say pull down” (81/541). As naive postmodern readers in neo-liberal democracies we want a redemption narrative, the error of his ways gradually dawning on Pound, but we don’t really get that: mourning for collaborators, calumny on Churchill, mar or mark the final pages. Passages of rage and contrition are further shapes in the formal composition. Which is not to say the feelings are not Pound’s own. The intemperate boldness that was his genius and his tragic flaw let him think insights won in the aesthetic sphere worked also in the political. The goods of clarity, focus, cohesion, decisiveness, maybe unarguable goods in the one, mean the sacrifice of pluralism in the other. It’s ironic then that, taken whole, these polyphonic unassimilable Cantos come so close to exemplifying, formally, the messy sprawling diversity of a pluralistic democracy.

Mysticism

The Cantos is a religious poem. When I say the human mind is its hero I mean that mind. The poet’s work with myth is restless, syncretic, as if he were trying to get to the root of what the gods, some of them anyway, have in common; witness the fertility party thrown in Canto 47 by Tammuz, Adonis, Ceres, Proserpine, Aphrodite, and Dionysus, w/ Circe and Tiresias attendant. Observant becomes mystic when the name or idea of God falls all the way away. Two refrains in particular stand out to me in the Pisan Cantos as mystic gists. One’s from Pound’s neo-Confucian texts, “rain also is of the process”; “the wind also is of the process” (74/445). His “process” is the Tao; his sources have more Taoist infusion than he seems to know. The other comes from one of two strands of Christianity he seems to be able to stand, the neo-Platonic. (The other’s the remnant of fertility observance congenial to Dionysus, Eleusis.) The sharpest emblem to me here is the refrain of Johannes Scotus Erigena, “omnia, quae sunt, lumina sunt” (83/548), “everything that exists is light,” though, crucially, Pound pluralizes the thought in translation, making “all things that are are lights” (74/449).

. . .

That doesn’t capture everything; maybe we need a category Pilferings for the Confucian material and the forays into West African and Australian Aboriginal materials. It’s hard to know whether to decry how blithely he put to his own purposes cultural materials he didn’t grok half as well as he thought, or to applaud the energy with which he sought out the best that had been said and made anywhere. Those works when he found them, he treated as true equals of their compeers in the West, with distinctive things to offer a human culture he fairly saw as global.

And, I could go on about each category, shaky though its edges are, for pages, hours, ages. But my goal here’s just to note that each is, and maybe further, to propose each has its characteristic rhythms, and its own ways of casting pictures on the mind-eye, and its own styles of speech and thought – what Pound called melopoeia, phanopoeia, logopoeia. “From the colour the nature | & by the nature the sign!” (90/625). Attuning yourself to these is how to begin to learn to navigate the poem in periplum.

More on which soon. As we move on to refrains and the poem’s formless form.