26 April 2009

The birth of the author

More thoughts about Roland Barthes, who's probably best known for the concept of the 'death of the author'. It's linked to the lisible/scriptible comparison seen in S/Z, in that the author of a modern work isn't the same controlling presence that Balzac, or closer to home Dickens, was. It's more than that, though, it suggests that the text is produced by language through the author, and then assembled by the reader.

Foucault asked "What is an author?", and described an author function, which means that Shakespeare the author is not the same as Shakespeare the man. So that it's logically possible to ask "Was Bacon Shakespeare?". Shakespeare the author is largely defined by the work, so that William Shakespeare's will, for example, or T S Eliot's note to the milkman, are not the work of Shakespeare or Eliot the author. It's kind of obvious once you think about it. But I think there's a historical shift, and the concept of an author has grown. Largely, perhaps, because of increasing protection of intellectual rights. When a novel was published as being by "A Lady", the readers had no idea of an author, but probably had some idea of what to expect, in the same way that one knows what to expect from a "Mills and Boon". This affects the way writers write. They are conscious that a poem, for example, is part of an oeuvre. It means that individual poems can rely on the reader's knowledge of the work, and can therefore be harder to understand.

James Joyce had to turn up in this blog sooner or later, and his stories and novels build on those that have gone before. Ulysses is never going to be easy to understand, but it's easier if you've read Portrait.

The Cantos is an extreme example. You need to know all Ez's work to understand any of it.

Anyway, this is a preliminary note. It's something I'll be coming back to.

20 April 2009

More Basil Bunting

Just in case you're feeling happy about spring, read this:
Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise
mournful candles. Sad is spring
to perpetuate, sad to trace
immortalities never changing.

Weary on the sea
for sight of land
gazing past the coming wave we
see the same wave;

drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting

It's the first poem, dated 1924, in Bunting's First Book of Odes. I like the idea of chestnuts raising mournful candles. It takes me back to Cambridge and my room in New Court. During revision, at this time of year, my window would be filled with the view of the chestnut in the middle, with its distinctive pink blossom. Combine that colour with the smell of gitanes, and you get me, aged 20.

Bunting was 23 or 24 when this poem was written. Men of that age are, I suppose, permitted to express a weariness with life's insisting on persisting year after year.

19 April 2009

Canto XLI

Another one about economics, banking, trade, etc.

But here there's a reference to Mussolini, and I've looked up and found that Mussolini became Italy's prime minister in 1922. I ought to have known that, but it still surprises me that he was in power so long. The reference is this:
"Non ci facciam agannar per Mussolini"
said the commandatore della piazza
and I think the first line means 'let us not allow ourselves to deceived by Mussolini'. As for the rest it's more along familiar lines, where occasional snipes at bankers and arms dealers bubble up.

This ends the 'eleven new cantos' published in 1933. I've got further than I expected to in this survey, though it's taken longer. And I think I'll stop now. There really is no point in my looking uncomprehendingly at cantos that probably repeat and possibly develop economic views I don't really want to know about.

What the exercise has done, however, is reignite some interest in modernist poetry. So I'll keep the blog going - maybe renamed - for occasional looks at some examples. I'll leave this with Basil Bunting's On the Fly-Leaf of Pound's Cantos
There are the Alps. What is there to say about them?
They don't make sense. Fatal glaciers, crags cranks climb,
jumbled boulder and weed, pasture and boulder, scree,
et l'on entend, maybe, le refrain joyeux et leger.
Who knows what the ice will have scraped on the rock it is smoothing?

There they are, you will have to go a long way round
if you want to avoid them.
It takes some getting used to. There are the Alps,
fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble!

12 April 2009

Canto XL

Daily Mail time. Every so often, someone points out that the money in the banks is our money. Or as Ez puts it:
Independent use of money (our OWN)
toward holding OUR bank, own bank
currency OF (O, F, of) the nation.
That use of capitals and repetition, that sense of pointing out the obvious, that only a darned sophisticate wouldn't see, is spot on.

This section, apparently deploring the way banking developed is then set against a passage apparently discussing the Carthaginian exploration of the west coast of Africa. I suppose what might be happening is that the parasitical behaviour of bankers is being contrasted with genuine exploration and trade-building.

10 April 2009


Oh, I hate Roman numerals. Almost as much as Roman mathematicians musta. Actually, it wouldn't surprise me if they had used some kind of abacus. Roman numbering at least recognises base 10. Is it too hard to believe that Roman accountants would mentally translate vii into seven beads on a frame, then do the calculation and translate the pattern of beads back into letters? Their skill would have been in the translation (and also in the use of the abacus) and it would in fact have been in their interest to keep the numbering system difficult. But anyway, I hate Roman numerals because they're commonly used to mystify. As in copyright dates on tv programmes. Or to lend an air of antique respectability. The Cantos hardly need any more reference to ancient civilisation.

This one, for example, is back in homeric mode. There's an early reference to Circe and various passages in Greek, and (cheers Ez) he's got this habit now of giving the Greek passages twice, once in Greek lettering and then transliterated. There's also quite a lot of Latin and a bit of Italian, and this:
When I lay in the ingle of Circe
I heard a song of that kind.
Fat panther lay by me
Girls talked there of fucking, beasts talked there of eating,
All heavy with sleep, fucked girls and fat leopards,
Making it even more bizarre that he felt compelled (in XIV) to write sh-t.

You'll get no opinion from me on what this canto's about. I'm currently listening to a brilliant piece of music by Astor Piazzola.

08 April 2009

Ez said (Canto XXXVIII)

Canto XXXVIII begins with a quotation from Dante about counterfeiting money. For once the quotation is referenced, suggesting it's important. The rest of the canto is about economics and the arms trade. The thing that strikes me about many of these passages is just how bound they are to their time. Which is weird, because Ez's effort is clearly to yoke different eras and civilisations together in his analysis. Maybe it's just like the way past visions of the future are so often so quickly dated. Focussing on an imagined world, the writer doesn't notice the assumptions implicit in the text, which stand out glaringly to later readers.

Writers/readers. Guess, from the title of this post, what I've been reading. S/Z by Roland Barthes, that's what. I don't think Barthes had much to say about Ez specifically, but in S/Z he looks at the difference between conventional 'realist' writing and modernist writing; he was more concerned with the nouveau roman but I'm sure it can apply at least as well to modernist poetry.

He describes two kinds of text: lisible and scriptible in French. Literally, they mean readable and writeable, although they are unhelpfully translated, normally, as readerly and writerly. I'm reading the book en français, naturellement, so will use the French terms.

A lisible text is one in which the meaning and connotations are closely controlled by the text. Although there may be a certain pluriel or plurality of meaning, the apparent transparency of the text is an illusion. Barthes demonstrates this by an incredibly detailed analysis of 'Sarrasine', a story by Balzac, looking at how it employs various codes to build the meaning, and also showing how it is deeply intertextual - defining beauty, for example, in terms of earlier texts (including artworks). It's a tour de force, even if now it's suffering a bit from the blindness to unconscious assumptions that infects visions of the future. He says that some of the meaning depends upon some shared understandings. Now, about 50 years later, it's becoming clear that at least some of those understandings are time-bound.

By contrast, a writeable text is one that doesn't really exist until a reader constructs it out of the loosely linked raw materials. (This is why I think 'writerly' is a bad translation - it appears to put the writer in the foreground, which is precisely wrong.)

It's a simplistic contrast, as Barthes accepts, and his use of a particularly good text shows it up. A lot of the analysis shows that the reader has a large input into the construction of the meaning, or at least in choosing from the plural understandings that it allows. A work can't last if it allows no scope for the reader to be involved in its construction. I'd suggest there's also a case to be made that a purely writeable text can't last, either.

Anyway, the book has given me some things to think about. Here's one extract (my poor translation) following an unattributed fragment of speech:

It's impossible, here, to attribute to the comment an origin, a point of view. Now this impossibility is one of the means by which the plurality of text grows. The more the origin of a comment is unclear, the more the text is plural. In a modern text, the voices are denied any source: the speech (discours) or better still the language (langage) speaks, and that's all. In a classic text, on the other hand, most statements are sourced; one can identify their father and their owner. Sometimes it's a consciousness (a character or the author), sometimes it's a culture.

Clear relevance here to the unattributed quotations and comments throughout the Cantos. But again, as I've said above, I think there are cultural codes or assumptions embodied in the text, which are now dated and have to be re-learnt.

But is too much plurality a bad thing, Roland, hein?

05 April 2009

A Sunday special

I thought I'd take a look at another American modernist, Marianne Moore. The wikipedia entry is quite funny. I would never have known that she had been asked to suggest a name for a new Ford model. Her suggestions included "Mongoose Civique", "Varsity Stroke", "Pastelogram" and "Andante con Moto". All rejected, funnily enough. And I bet her ghost was proud when in 1996 she was inducted into the St Louis Walk of Fame.

Choosing a short poem at almost random gets this, entitled "Voracities and verities sometimes are interacting"
  I don't like diamonds;
the emerald's "grass-lamp glow" is better;
and unobtrusiveness is dazzling,
upon occasion.
Some kinds of gratitude are trying.

Poets, don't make a fuss;
the elephant's "crooked trumpet" "doth write";
and to a tiger-book I am reading -
I think you know the one -
I am under obligation.

One may be pardoned, yes I know
one may, for love undying.
and a note says: "Tiger-book: Major James Corbett's Man-Eaters of Kumaan.

Formally, it's tight. The first two stanzas are syllabic, and require, for example, 'obligation' to be pronounced with five syllables. It's very precise. (That's why I've formatted it the way I have, it's clearly important.)

Like Ez, there are references to some other texts, and no clue of what they are. 'Crooked trumpet' might be findable, but 'doth write' is less distinctive (like 'those girls'). The 'tiger-book' references seem to be a joke.

Taken on its own, it's impossible to know what the poem 'means'. As I've sat and looked at it, I've come to change the stress pattern: One may be pardoned for love undying, but you shouldn't bet on it. 'Love undying' may refer to the love itself, or the use of the phrase: poets, don't make a fuss: a plainer expression may be better. So, one reading of this poem is that it is part of a textbook on writing poetry. But probably more than that: it celebrates the everyday, the unobtrusive, just like William Carlos Williams' wheelbarrow.

Maybe more of other poets' work will feature later, the more I find less in the Cantos. But for the next Canto, I'm hoping (at last) to use a punning title, "Ez said".