Tuesday, December 19, 2006

cut-up technique

ron has a recent post that raises some interesting questions regarding use of collage or cut-up techniques in writing. like him i'm ultimately less interested in who did it first, but i wonder if the question why it emerges at a given historical moment is even answerable -- in part because the given historical moments (dada, 1916; burroughs/gysin, 1950/1960; koch, 1953; berrigan/ashbery, 1962-1963) are so fundamentally different).

ted berrigan's sonnets are the jumping-off point for ron's discussion. he wonders,
Given that he used cut-up or splicing techniques, some of them in such a way that you can’t miss the device – the same lines pop up over and over – and that some of the source material was his own very first “not-so-good” (to use Notley’s own judgment here) poems, I’ve wondered – during maybe three of my read-throughs – if a devoted scholar could reconstruct the “uncut” poems, the translations from Rimbaud, the miscellaneous additions that, in fact, make these so much more than verbal collages.
i think berrigan's papers are at syracuse, so this may not require that much reconstruction. but an essay of mine on clark coolidge from a while back might serve as a useful example of one kind of possible reconstruction. there i discuss one of berrigan's sonnets, which reads
This excitement to be all of night, Henry!
Elvis Peering-Eye danced with Carol Clifford, high,
Contrived whose leaping herb edifies Kant! I’ll bust!
Smile! “Got rye in this’n?”
Widow Dan sold an eye t’meander an X. Whee! Yum!
Pedant tore her bed! Tune, hot! Full cat saith why foo?
“Tune hot full cat?” “No! nexus neck ink!
All moron (on) while “weighed in fur pal!” “Ah’m Sun!”
Dayday came to get her daddy. “Daddy,”
Saith I to Dick in the verge, (In the Verge!)
And “gee” say I, “Easter” “fur” “few tears” “Dick!”
My Carol now a museum! “O, Ma done fart!” “Less full
Cat,” she said, “One’s there!” “Now cheese, ey?”
“Full cat wilted, bought ya a pup!” “So, nose excitement?”
alice notley's annotations to the penguin edition of the sonnets contain the following for the above poem: “see line 1: This sex I meant to be a love night and real, whispered I, etc. Made up by me — a poem written in phonetics. . .” (83). and as i wrote in the coolidge essay, "The sonnet is thus an English-to-English homophonic translation of a prior (and only partially recoverable) Berrigan text."

the parenthetical aside is not really clear without the explanation that i think editor nate dorward must have removed from the essay. what i meant is that you can partially reconstruct berrigan's original by essentially translating this poem homophonically "back into english." his notes says "This excitement to be all of night, Henry! / Elvis Peering-Eye" is a phonetic or homophonic english-to-english translation of "This sex I meant to be a love night and real, whispered I" for example. i do not know what to do with the rest of line two, but i suspect that "whose leaping herb edifies Kant"(line 3) may orignially have been "who sleep in her bed if i can't."

ron goes on to discuss kenneth koch's celebrated serial poem when the sun tries to go on, which begins
And, with a shout, collecting coat-hangers
Dour rebus, conch, hip,
Ham, the autumn day, oh how genuine!
Literary frog, catch-all boxer, O
Real! The magistrate, say “group,” bower, undies
Disk, poop, “Timon of Athens.” When
The bugle shimmies, how glove towns!
and reasons
if Koch is being less systematic than, say, Mac Low, I think it’s impossible to imagine just writing this, say, as it came to him. [note: in the comment box, jordan disagrees.] That really doesn’t become possible, so far as I can tell, until sometime in the early 1970s, most probably in the work of Clark Coolidge, specifically after he dropped the idea of the long poem he’d embarked on after Polaroid and The Maintains, works that equally problematize normative syntactic integration into units of meaning, but do so using systems throughout. Look, say, at Quartz Hearts instead.
ron's chronology is a bit off, which is understandable given the lag times and, in the case of quartz hearts, unsequentiality between the composition dates and publications of coolidge's work. quartz hearts was a "hinge work" (coolidge's words) between polaroid and the longprose, and thus was written before the longprose (even though it was published in 1978, after the bulk of the longprose and a few years before coolidge abandoned that project.)

quartz hearts was written straight out, as ron suggests. but i've studied the manuscripts for polaroid at suny-buffalo, and they suggest that it was also written straight out, by hand, all caps, on 5 x 7 note pad paper, and published as such without significant revision -- and not "using systems throughout" as ron claims. among the polaroid manuscripts there are some loose sheets or working notes that i describe in my unpublished book-length study of coolidge's early work. one set provides a very loose schema of seed-word strings, as this passage from the relevant chapter of my study describes:
This set of working notes for Polaroid among the Coolidge Papers at SUNY-Buffalo contains what amounts to a five-page holograph schema or table of word strings, one for each page of the poem, as follows:
1 — IT — THEN — SUCH
There is clearly a correlation between each string of seed words in the schema/table and the pages of the poem, which appear to have been the result of verbal improvisations using the seed word strings as their basis. Essentially they become focal points around which each page of the poem operates, as a comparison of the words in the first string of the table (“it,” “then” and “such”) with the opening lines of the poem indicates:
of what can it such
as which since can it

been as nor can of whence what
never even
a single ever still of still
of when as now then
[...] In terms of compositional strategies, it is difficult to tell with certainty whether Coolidge’s holograph schema or table was constructed prior to (and thus serving as a compositional aid for) the poem itself, or after the fact of writing the poem. I am inclined towards the former conclusion, based on what he states in the interviews.

More important, however, is the fact that the use of “seed phrases” indicates that Coolidge here has continued earlier compositional strategies, ones that goes back to poems like the “Bond Sonnets” and “Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric,” both from 1964. Recall that the former used a chance procedure to derive and arrange words from the Ian Fleming source text, while the latter was published exactly as it was written into a notebook with no revision. Of course, the strict procedural technique of the “Bond Sonnets” and what I called earlier the improvisational collage form of “Flag Flutter” are hardly the same thing. The Maintains also involved chance elements (what words happen to be on the same page of the dictionary) and improvisation. What becomes clear when one examines the additional materials at SUNY-Buffalo related to Polaroid, namely the holograph manuscripts of the poem itself, is the fact that the poem was written straight out from beginning to end, on unruled pages roughly five-by-seven inches in dimension (probably from a writing pad or tablet) with little to no revision. Polaroid thus clearly extends the improvisational element that has been central to Coolidge’s writing process from early on while adding a procedural element that Coolidge had abandoned for most of the intervening decade.
so ron's claim for coolidge "using systems throughout" polaroid has to be qualified, or at the very least distinguished from what we know of mac low, koch, berrigan, etc.

No comments: