Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Some Notes on Influence (inspired by Noah Eli Gordon)

I’m just getting around to reading Novel Pictorial Noise by Noah Eli Gordon, which was selected by John Ashbery for the National Poetry Series and published by Harper Perennial in 2007. It’s pretty remarkable. By stacking up big, vague, abstract Latinate terms, he creates complex sentences that appear to be rich with meaning and knowledge, but upon inspection, mean almost nothing, because none of the terms are well-defined. The near-meaninglessness of the prose poems on the recto pages is highlighted by the true meaninglessness of the fragments (erasures?) on the verso pages – each open page looks like this (click the image to enlarge):


As such the poems become pure syntax and vocabulary, sentences for the sake of sentences, with the ideas seemingly just beyond view, obscured by the foliage. For example: “What example doesn’t contain the blooming topography of its own terminology?” Or: “The grand narrative the end of narratives had had had had no grandiose ending.” This is very much how Ashbery’s poetics work. And, as in Ashbery, the fog will break and reveal the occasional moment of crisp truth. (“By definition, actors are interchangeable.” Or: "The world's not weirder than we think, but weirder than we can think.") In fact, reading Novel Pictorial Noise, I feel that I better understand Ashbery.

Here’s one in full, to better see their diagrammatic beauty:

If you see the straight highway before you is permanently closed, then a picture is conjured to fix ambiguity. Although a rope doesn’t ask for its knot, any expression is merely detour dressed with intention, a side road muddied from constant use. Why should a thread understand a carpet? Unimportant that my arrows point anywhere, accidental that an actual wind moves them. As always, this road ends behind us. Why should a machine be anything other than a picture of itself, when meaning and purpose read as vestments of design and one has the burden of officiating doubt on one’s mind?

(The poems usually end on a rhyme, a funny little “yes, this is poetry” flourish that reminds me of Bach.)

Funny story: I learned recently that Noah Eli Gordon has confused me for years with another person, namely a woman that John dated on and off before we met. Once, this woman, who was also blonde but otherwise looks nothing like me, met NEG at the Boston Poetry Festival and told him she was a fan of his work. A few months ago, he recounted this memory to me, and I had to admit he was thinking of someone else.

I wonder if this false memory had any influence on the way he read my poetry. In any case, NEG taught The Self Unstable in his class at UC Boulder last semester, and I visited the class to do a reading and Q&A. We had a few minutes to spare beforehand, so we hung out in his office, and he gave me copies of all his books. He remarked that he thought I’d find Novel Pictorial Noise to be similar in interesting ways to my book. And yes, of course, I do. I’ve remarked before that I often lament I can’t write more like Ashbery, or perhaps it’s just that I don’t; when I sit down to write, Ashbery is not what comes out. But in Novel Pictorial Noise, I see a link between my poetry and Ashbery’s, suggesting we have a common ancestor after all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about influence lately. The only real anxiety in my influence is that I don’t have (m)any influences, at least not intentionally – I’m not good at imitating my “heroes,” and I don’t really believe in heroes, literary or otherwise. People, even heroes, let you down. But who knows how these things work? I was reading a lot of Anne Carson in college and grad school, and would have loved to have someone compare me to her. Nobody did, with good reason. Instead they compared me to Frank O’Hara. Now that I’m not reading Carson, people are saying The Self Unstable reminds them of Short Talks. It’s like the “watched pot never boils” theory of literary influence: only when you’re not trying. 

10 comments:

  1. I see why this would appeal to you. It's not only Ashberyesque but also made of sentences and half-sentences with an autotelic, aphoristic quality:

    any expression is merely detour dressed with intention, a side road muddied from constant use.

    Why should a thread understand a carpet?

    Unimportant that my arrows point anywhere, accidental that an actual wind moves them.

    As always, this road ends behind us.

    I read somwhere that NEG made a whole book by cobbling together cullings from page 27 of a few thousand different books. Weirdly elated by that idea, I went to the library, randomly collected a stack of novels, jotted down words and phrases from page 27 of each novel, and let the fragments commingle promiscuously. I'd tried that Keith Waldrop kind of thing before, but this experiment turned out better than usual, probably because I went fast, thinking, "This isn't really a poem." That this-isn't-really-a-poem attitude often results in good stuff, cf. "Howl" and The Tennis Court Oath.


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    1. In the "praise for NEG" section at the front there is a quote from a reviewer who said his poems "flirt with aphorism" -- I like that, I think my poems don't flirt but crawl right into bed with aphorism.

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    2. By the way, the "meaningless" fragment on the verso page looks like Tzara's hat to me.

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  2. I'm with you on not being good at resembling hero(in)es; my first mega love was Elizabeth Bishop--and I still find her poems fresh, uncanny, wonderful, and also at times frustratingly imperfect despite her reputation for perfection--but I don't believe my poems have much link to hers, and the idea of imitating her seems doomed to me. I did once write a 10 page poem that to me was basically just imitating Wallace S, but the editor who took it disagreed--or found that summary as really inadequate--, and the person who wrote a little intro for it thought that didn't make enough sense either. I wish--other than in like an n+6 sense--I was good at imitation. Hmm, I think maybe I have had some success with imitating dear darling George Herbert though. Influence for me is a word that I think is often weirdly used; usually it seems to be an author naming another author they'd like to be affiliated to, to be a marker of identification, but for me influence would be when another author's works infiltrate your own work regardless of what you want/identify with; in other words, I'm not sure one can name their influences; that's for others to do. Have you read NEG's ekphrastic poem Color System (published in 1913)? It's terrific.

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    1. Yes, influence is usually aspirational when you identify it yourself.

      Nope, haven't read that one!

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  3. It's a cool poem--and fun to teach for English Comp, as I have many times done, because one could argue it's dozens and dozens and dozens of dependent clauses that finally culminate in an independent one, albeit one whose subject is not wholly normative: "The yes."

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  4. One of the things you say here in your description of the book, "By stacking up big, vague, abstract Latinate terms, he creates complex sentences that appear to be rich with meaning and knowledge, but upon inspection, mean almost nothing, because none of the terms are well-defined," makes me think immediately of the kind of thing one encounters commonly in corporate memos, and also in the speeches of middling politicians. (I'm not implying anything here about Novel Pictorial Noise, which I haven't read, just commenting in general.)

    I find it difficult, or maybe impossible, say or think what might be influences on my writing, in the way the word is generally used -- another way to put it is, I'm too much inside my own writing to have any clear notions about whether it resembles anyone else's writing. I can, however, name many poets whose work has shaped my intentions, my ideas about how I want or hope to write.

    So I maybe couldn't name a single poet or writer who has influenced how I write (there no doubt are some who have, I just find it too difficult to guess at who they might be), but I can name many who have influenced how i want to write.

    At the moment I'm listening to a news story on public radio: some website (Wikipedia? or wiki-something) apparently posted (I haven't gone looking to see) a "selfie" photo taken by a monkey. According to the story, the man whose camera the monkey used is trying to get the website hosts to remove the photo on grounds of copyright infringement. The website hosts, in response, said that there's no copyright infringement, because it was the monkey who took the photo, not the man. The web hosts apparently added (to clarify?) that they aren't claiming that the monkey holds copyright to the photo, only that the man definitely doesn't hold the copyright.

    Not sure exactly how this relates to any of what you've posted here, but it seems like it must, somehow or other. Composition by randomness? The venerable theater of the absurd?

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    1. It relates. I'm thinking of Ted Berrigan, his composition by random juxtaposition of appropriated lines. In his view, poetry didn't belong to anyone. There was no such thing as copyright infringement.

      Ashbery: "I really think that meaningfulness can't get along without randomness, and that they somehow have to be brought together."

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    2. Yep, that was Wikipedia. (Such an amazing photo)

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