Thursday, March 13, 2008

More from Lyn Hejinian: Correspondence with Billy Joe Harris about Pastiche, Poetic Forms, & More

My thanks to both William J. Harris and Lyn Hejinian for their permission to post their recent correspondence:

From: Harris, William J. 3/9/2008 12:28 PM To: lyn hejinian
Dear Lyn,It was really great having you here and in so many different situations. You had a real impact on the community--people really enjoyed your visit. And it was lovely for me to get to know you some--I hope there will be other times to deepen our relationship.I have a few questions. Which Beethoven fugue did you play from? It was quite beautiful. It seems to me that the Beethoven and Ascension were unresolved works but the cartoon piece (which I really enjoyed) seems to be more pastiche than unresolved. I am going to play part of Ascension to my advanced poetry class and ask them to talk about the shape of it. This is a question for me. After years I have returned to writing poetry and I am very interested in the issue of form--not right or wrong but why. When I asked Paul Muldoon (he was here a week before you) why he altered the form of his villanelles and sestinas, he had a hard time with the question. He finally said because he wanted to shake things up. So my question to you is why do you feel the need to create forms--forms to substitute for the traditional ones? Why don't you throw the wholeformal thing out the window? When some one called your forms arbitrary that didn't seem correct. To use 45 (?) sentences in a work because you are 45 (?) doesn't sound arbitrary but personal. In fact, it is no more arbitrary than writing a sonnet. How does the new sentence differ from the old line because some of your sentences just look like lines to me. Thanks for coming. It really was a great time. Best, Billy Joe
From: lyn hejinian Sent: 3/10/2008 10:20 PM To: Harris, William J
Dear Billy Joe,It was great for me too--the visit, the getting to know various people there--especially you. I hope I will be able to stay in touch with everyone. As for your questions: You are right that the Carl Stalling cartoon score hasn't all that much affinity with either the Beethoven (which is his Grosse Fuge Op. 133 [aka Great Fugue]-the recording I have is by the Guarneri Quartet on a CD titled "Beethoven: The Late String Quartets Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 133, 135") or Coltrane's "Ascension." Those two works are, so to speak, bursting at the seams-there's not enough room in them for all that the composers are trying to get in. "To Itch His Own," on the other hand, is a work that has room for all kinds of different things. The contrast that I was trying to set up, then, was between in internal otherness (an otherness erupting from within and bursting out) and an exterior otherness (existing on the outside and invited in). My other (perhaps less commendable) excuse for playing the Stalling score was its sheer surprise and pleasure value. And I do think the score utilizes but doesn't domesticate its materials; they remain surprising and intact-at least to my ear. Your message got me to thinking more about pastiche in this regard. It seems to me that the ironic subversion characteristic of pastiche doesn't (or doesn't always) domesticate the pastiched elements. Nor does it necessarily nullify them-though there is no denying the nullifying potential of irony.
But irony, in addition to having the capacity to be deprecatory and/or sarcastic, can also be joyous (raucous, hilarious-expressive of an affirmation) or sentimental. I mean sentimental here in a positive sense-as a positive term. I am interested in the 18th century notion of sentiment or sensibility-as an affirmation of a capacity for full emotional experience of the world. But the idea of sentimentality as a key element in modern writing hit me when I was reading Langston Hughes's The Big Sea. I was struck by two features of that work: the montaged structure of the work and the richness of the gaps between the vignettes (chapters)-gaps redolent of everything Hughes hasn't (or perhaps can't) say. Irony always establishes a gap-between what's said and what's not said but felt or meant. Sentimentality as, say, Laurence Sterne used it-or, to my mind, as Hughes used it-works by virtue of an almost identical kind of gap.
Pastiche is a particular kind of montage-but it isn't so far from the montage that structures The Big Sea (or Montage of a Dream Deferred). I don't know why, by the way, I saw this first in Hughes-I see it everywhere in the paratactic structures of Language writing now. Anyway-those are my thoughts for the moment on pastiche-for what they are worth. Your real question was about form-the invention of forms: why do it, and how. I've never been interested in "the craft of poetry" or in technical perfection, so the problems (or fascinations) presented by given forms have never played much of a role in my work. (An exception might be "the sentence"-but sentences aren't literary forms properly speaking.) And yet form-the shape or structure or set of enablingconstraints-is the first thing I work on when planning a new project. The initial challenge is to find a form that is pertinent to the project (rather than arbitrarily imposed on it) and that will be a dynamic facet of it. The work's form is, in this sense, closer to the "working method" than to form in the conventional sense-certainly it is intended to be reflective of an approach to the project (whatever it might be). I spend a lot of time thinking about various possible forms for the project I have in mind-which is to say, ways to approach it. The forms, then, are project-specific.
I don't want to bore you-but I will briefly describe the form of my most recently finished work, and my rationale for it. The work is called "Lola"; it's coming out next fall in a book I'm calling Saga/Circus. The work is meant to be a circus (a cruel entertainment involving clowns, also a battlefield, and also a small American town with its various citizens). As a circus, I decided it needed three rings-so there are three chapters. But, just as a circus spectator's attention goes from ring to ring, so the chapters come forward-in other words we come to "Chapter Two" (or "One" or"Three") repeatedly. The work moves through them quickly (the chapters are short). here is also a parade. The effect is Steinian and entertaining and the atmosphere is dark. The form is pretty loose-it was mostly a matter of determining to use the 3 chapter/3 ring motif. Does any of this help? Does it even answer your question? Warmly, Lyn
From: Harris, William J 3/11/2008 6:42 AM To: lyn hejinian
Dear Lyn,Boy, does it help! What a wonderful, rich letter. The phrase "enabling constraints" ties in--helps clarify my thoughts about poetic constraints. I come out of Williams, Baraka and Olson (organic form) and didn't really start thinking about poetic constraints for experimental writers until read Ron Pagett's HANDBOOK OF POETIC FORMS in 2001 which changed my way of thinking about poetry. I want to keep talking--I do really want to keep in touch. Best, Billy Joe
From: Harris, William J. 3/11/2008 11:50 AM To: lyn hejinian
I am in this wonderful world right now where lots of people are talking to me about poetry. I love it. Thanks for the prompts. I never used them before I came here. I have been thinking about them a lot--their magic. After a poetry reading on Sunday one of my former students said to me my prompts gave him permission to be creative. I am now reading Williams' book," Spring and All," for the first time--I had read the poems before but without the prose--and it seems the work is incomplete without the prose. I have decided when I play the Coltrane in my class I will also play Mozart for contrast. Best, Billy Joe
From: lyn hejinian 3/11/2008 2:31 PM To: Harris, William J.
Dear Billy Joe,I want to stay in touch too. I was thinking about the question of form again this morning, largely because I was reading my daily dose of Adorno's Aesthetic Theory and the dose in question was titled, yes, "Form." I was having difficulty concentrating on it, as my own thoughts kept digressing onto pathways of their own--perhaps stimulated by his, but saying so suggests that I understand his, and I am not confident that I do. That book of Ron Padgett's has been a godsend, especially for teaching. I often (although by no means always) am asked to teach a workshop of sorts. For grad students, I don't give assignments--but for undergrads, I do. Often I have them embark on a "serial poem" whose parts, as they provide accruing contexts for each other and influence the trajectory of the poem, must emerge in response to assignments--which set up some sort of constraint. I'll attach my list of such assignments, just for the fun of it. Very best, Lyn
From: lyn hejinian 3/11/2008 5:35 PM To: Harris, William J.
Isn't it awful that the prose got disappeared from "Spring and All" for almost 50 years? It amazes me that people don't realize how important context is. Best, Lyn