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.
ENG 460: The Art of Compost
“Look at my butterflies, my stamps, my old shoes!”
What does one do with all this crap?
In the beginning, there was compost.
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.
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.
A novel digested yields
precious rare verse nutrients.
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.”
A composted mass of poems
becomes a lettery soil.
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.
You can compost something as impromptu
as an envelope jotting . . .
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
Armand 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
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
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:
- Sappho, If Not, Winter (Carson trans.)
- Emily Dickinson, The Gorgeous Nothings (Bervin and Werter eds.)
- Ronald Johnson, Radi Os
- Tom Phillips, A Humument (sixth edition)
- Susan Howe, Souls of the Labadie Tract
- John Berger, The Shape of a Pocket
- chapbook set:
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
- Anon, The Descent of Ishtar (neo-Assyrian) (British Museum)
- Anon, “His Message” (Anglo-Saxon) (and CP’s translation) (Asymptote)
The same except make-believe
20th C. ur-texts composed by bricolage
- Ezra Pound, The Cantos (and this resource)
- William Carlos Williams, Spring and All (Archive.org)
- William Carlos Williams, Paterson (Archive.org)
Objectivist &c. poems &c. at play in their wake
- Celia and Louis Zukofsky, Catullus (EPC)
- George Oppen, “Of Being Numerous” (U California P)
- Lorine Niedecker, “Lake Superior” (Wave Books)
- Charles Olson, The Maximus Poems
Translations that foreground their compost nature . . .
- Jack Spicer, After Lorca (Cuneiform)
- David Melnick, Men in Aida (Eclipse)
- Jon Furberg, Anhaga (Pulp Arsenal)
. . . and translations into a language of pure form
- Marcel Broodthaer, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (MOMA)
- derived from Mallarmé’s
- Derek Beaulieu, Flatland (EPC)
- Derek Beaulieu, Local Colour (derived from Paul Auster’s Ghosts) (Eclipse)
- compare Peter Bamfield, Un homage à Thomas Pynchon’s Rainbow (Eclipse)
Other conceptual undertakings
- Ed Friedman, The Telephone Book (Eclipse)
- Kenneth Goldsmith, Day (Eclipse)
- compare two poems from Goldsmith, The Day (Poetry Foundation)
Prose compendia and extravaganza with a compost face
- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (Archive.org)
- George Oppen, Selected Prose, Daybooks, and Papers (Archive.org)
- Robert Grenier, Five Essays (This/Eclipse)
Works that suggest to compose just is to compost
Instructions and conceptions
- Tristan Tzara, “How to make a Dada poem” (Filreis)
- William Burroughs, “The Cut-up Method” (Filreis)
- John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing“
- Craig Dworkin, A Handbook of Protocols for Literary Listening (EPC)
- Derek Mong, “Ten New Ways to Read Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os” (Poetry Daily)
Images and sounds
- The Chauvet Cave (French Ministry of Culture)
- Sappho, papyrus fragments (Sackler Library)
- William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Blake Archive)
- Marcel Duchamp, readymades (MOMA)
- Joseph Cornell, boxes (Guggenheim)
- Robert Rauschenberg, paintings (Guggenheim)
- Stephen Drury, “John Cage’s Prepared Piano” (YouTube)
The bin of the thing
- Jed Rasula, This Compost
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.
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.