After writing about David Jones and list-making yesterday I came across ‘L&M 1: The Gemstone Ruby System’ by the above and was impressed by its obsessive and unpoetic cleverness and this got me to thinking about why I like the list poem and what makes such a poem work.
Then, in response to the Jones piece, Vance Maverick drew my attention to ‘America, a history in verse’ by Edward Sanders and I looked at the first few pages of volume 6 which contains one of the worst poetic lists that I have ever read.
Before we go any further I need to throw in a kind of disclaimer because I’m going to (amongst other things) write about my own poetry making. I’m going to do this because I understand the rationale for the list poems that I make and because I feel that they ‘do’ what I want them to. I’m not writing about them in order to draw attention to my practice, I put them on this blog because I like them and because I can. I’m also going to write about a list poem that has me as its subject, this was written by my daughter and I use this because it’s a good poem and because it shows that list poems can be quite lyrical and tender. I need to stress that I’m not comparing either of these with any of the others that are included primarily because different lists are about different things.
So, this will look at lists by John Matthias, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Goldsmith, Jerimee Bloemeke with a glance at the fiction of John Updike and Roberto Bolano.
This was going to be called ‘the tragedy of the list’ but that seemed too lit crit, however I want to start with a couple of lines from the current master of the list, John Matthias:
............They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all colaterals and cogs,
Codes and Codices for Mdme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestos which proclaim their faith in algorythms of an
Unknown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives, their little trumpets blow.
This is the second time I’ve quoted these closing lines from ‘Laundry Lists and Manifestos’ and I do this because they show great technical skill and because the point that is made is an important one. We all use lists to impose some order on our lives and the environment in which we exist, the business of science is essentially about creating sophisticated lists from raw data (simple lists). The sadness / tragedy of the list is that it will never be adequate to its task and thus contains within it an elegy to itself. I think my personal interest in or obsession with lists is that the Rortian relativist in me views them as essentially and fascinatingly fictive. as increasingly obsessive attempts to paper over the cracks of our collective neuroses.
Because Matthias understands lists and (this is important) is a very accomplished poet, he can do brilliant poetic lists. This stanza is from the ‘Autumn’ section of ‘Four Seasons of Vladimir Dukelsky’:
Diaghilev soon died and Gershwin soon after. Dukelsky grabbed at
Balanchine, the movies. Emigre composers headed for LA as
Wall Street crashed and Sunset Boulevard survived. Prokofiev heckled him
From Moscow about maids who become prostitutes to feed their mums.
His mother ate. He wrote his songs: April in Paris on a tuneless upright
In the back of West Side Tony's bistro; Words Without Music for
The Ziegfield Follies 1936. Duke would dig Dukelsky from the rubble
Of Depression. Dancers kicked their can-cans on the silver screen.
This may not feel like a list but it is structured around a succession of proper names (ie a list) and these names are all connected to Dukelsky (aka Vernon Duke) and are built into an evocative chronology of a specific cultural event- the arrival of European musical talent in Hollywood. There’s also the ‘d’ alliteration of the last two lines. Because Matthias is both telling a story and making a point the reader tends to miss just how listful this is and the fact that the succession of names gives added impetus to the story.
Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’ is one of the major works of the last century and is in part based on the historical records of Gloucester, the fishing town that is the subject of the sequence. ‘Maximus’ contains many lists but this is one of the most striking:
14 MEN STAGE HEAD WINTER 1624/5 they required 7 hundredweight biscuit bread £ 5. 5. 0.
@15/ per hundred
7 hhds of beer or sider 53/4 the tun 20. 0. 0.
2/3 hhd beef 3. 7. 2.
6 whole sides of bacon 3. 3. 0.
6 bush. pease 1.10. 0.
2/3 firkin butter 1. 0. 0.
2/3 cwt. cheese 2. 0.
1 pecke mustard seed 6. 0.
1 barrel vinegar 10. 0.
15 lbs candles 1. 0. 0.
3 pecks oatmeal 9. 0.
2/3 hhd/ aqua vitae 3. 0. 0.
2 copper kettles 3. 0. 0.
1 brasse crock 1. 0. 0.
The list contains many more costed items and the total expenditure is then used to compare the different costs of a ‘mere’ station and a plantation.
In the poem Oslon is clear to clarify that the list is ‘calculated’ from the original but it is also clear that it is a straightforward piece of appropriation with little or no embellishment.
I’ll ignore the various points that ‘Maximus’ makes about the doing of history and instead look at the effect on the reader. Olson believed that if you wanted to know something about a subject then you should immerse yourself completely in it- something he achieved to good effect when writing his brilliant study of ‘Moby Dick’ – and this, together with the other chronologies and genealogies is his attempt to thoroughly involve the reader in Gloucester’s story. There’s also something about placing the past undiluted and complete into the present which is an echo of Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ thesis which underpins the sequence as a whole.
Ferlinghetti’s ‘Big Fat Hairy Vision of Evil’ is a lengthy multiple definition, these lines are taken from section 1:
Evil is death warmed over
Evil is live spelled backward
Evil is lamb burning bright
Evil is love fried upon a spit
and turned in on itself
Evil is sty in eye of universe
hung upon a coughing horse
that follows me at night
Evil is green gloves inside out
next to a double martini
on a cocktail table
This is at the opposite end of the listful spectrum, it is lyrical, poetic and goes on to develop something about the poet’s relationship with evil. I first read Ferlinghetti when I was fourteen and remain of the view that he’s the most skilled of the Beats- although I don’t think there’s a lot of technique in the above which is more about having an idea and seeing it through.
We now come to Kenneth Golsmith’s ‘Traffic’ which is a transcript of unadulterated and sequential traffic reports every ten minutes from a New York radio station. It’s a poem because Goldsmith says it’s a poem and it’s classed as conceptual because the idea is supposed to be more important (worthy) than the material. I’m in a minority here because I’m fascinated by the text and less impressed by the idea because the text is about how short bursts of language can be used to communicate useful knowledge about a complex and changing environment.
It can be argued that my interest in this comes from an interest in urban space rather than poetry but isn’t this compression of knowledge into short bits of language an element of what poetry does best?
We now come to the intensely personal, My daughter (Kayt) made this a few years ago and I use it here to demonstrate that list affinity may be genetic and how this device/conceit can be used to produce something intensely personal and affectionate.
Then there is the list in fiction (as opposed to the fictional list. I need here to confess that I can’t see the point of John Updike and part of this disdain comes from the first Rabbit novel where a list of objects in a shop window is used to evoke both mood and place but is done so heavy handedly that the reader just notices the device and can’t get to the desired effect. Bolano’s ‘2066’ has a mesmerising description of murder upon murder committed against women in Northern Mexico which is both unbearable and compelling because it is presented factually with nouns and verbs rather than the usual surfeit of describing words.
As for me, I’ve got a strong interest in the poem as data and am also of the view that poetry is currently far too poetic for its own good. In the last six months I’ve made poems consisting of the stats for this blog, of the labels and captions used for maps and plans at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and images of 25 or so set lists from the recent Gillian Welch tour in chronological order. All of these are lists, all of these are appropriated from elsewhere and they all ‘do’ what I want them to which is to throw up questions about data, evidence, veracity and the authentic and the place of these in our cultural landscape. It is really important to me that these shouldn’t contain any of the usual poetic conceits (the enjambment in the label poem is taken from the labels themselves) and that they should primarily be lists.
What’s really good about the Bloemeke list is the repetition of ‘purchase’, the flat level of detail without digression and the absolute absence of adornment. It is archival, documentary, hypnotic a poem that is entirely of itself and an entirely fitting (heartbreaking) elegy for these dismal times.