Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Signifying Monkey Talks Literature

This essay was published in the Iowa Journal of Literary Studies several years before Prof. Gates' ingenious study. The sparse earlier comment on the signifying monkey had, for the most part, a sociological rather than a literary focus.

Deep down in the jungles, way back in the sticks,
The animals had formed a game called pool. The baboon was a slick.
Now a few stalks shook, and a few leaves fell.
Up popped the monkey one day, ‘bout sharp as hell.
He had a one-button roll, two button satch.
You know, one of them boolhipper coats with a belt in the back.
The baboon stood with a crazy rim,
Charcoal gray vine, and a stingy brim, handful of dimes, pocket full of herbs,
Eldorado Cadillac parked at the curb. (1)

This monkey is one of the last representatives alive in oral literature of the grand African tradition of trickster figures, of whom the best known from the mother continent is Anansi and from America John, Aunt Dicy, and, of course, Brer Rabbit. Stith Thompson gives the names and addresses of their kin around the world.(2)

Like many similar figures the signifying monkey manages to outwit his opponents by means of verbal skill. The monkey’s adventures are described in the “toast” form, the oral African-American rhyming narratives that can still be heard in the streets and in the prisons.(3) His signifying consists of artful use of language, words used with meaningful indirection, metaphorical and ambiguous expressions. Now the signifying monkey is an excellent definition of homo sapiens, for surely the extent if not the absolute existence of human signifying practices sets the species apart from all others. (4) Thus my title might refer to the author of an article such as this who is, after all, a signifying monkey talking literature to other signifying monkeys, delivering, like Kafka’s ape Red Peter, a “Report for an Academy.” One recalls that in that story signification is the thin and problematic line that brings Red Peter from the bush and the zoo to a learned gathering.

However, the signifying monkey of the toast has more specific implications for literary study. Considering him as a representative of all mankind in its signifying practices and more narrowly of the signifying practices of oral and popular cultures, he offers insights about the definition of the literary that are too easily overlooked by theorists exclusively concerned with high art texts.
The difficulties that accumulate when one attempts to establish a general theory of literature without adequate reference to the characteristics of oral and popular forms will be evident in the briefest review of the polar opposition about which most discussion of literary value has revolved since the Romantic era. Many critics and theorists, and not a few poets, have built their barricades around positions basically defined by the continuum of tradition and innovation. Some have aligned themselves with the romantic impulse to privilege the innovative (Wordsworth when young, Pound, Shklovsky, Artaud) while others have celebrated the neo-classical emphasis on tradition (Arnold, Curtius, Leavis). Parallel polemical positions characterize the popular art/high art controversy. Some valorize the popular specifically as tradition-challenging in political terms (Bakhtin, Fiedler) while others attack it as destructive of all culture (Adorno and Horkheimer, and Leo Lowenthal who says that popular art is spurious, and even “the very counterconcept of art.” (5)

Is the signifying monkey, then, to be given entry to Parnassos? If he is, must that admittance depend on his challenging tradition and defamiliarizing language? The simple fact is that these disputes dissolve with the realization that every instance of language, and a forteriori every literary artifact, is at one conforming and non-conforming. Were it not for the former, it would be incomprehensible, and the latter is necessitated by the fact that every context and occasions is different and so no two utterances can be exactly equivalent. This does not, of course, deny the reality of the two poles: the most routine or morning greetings to co-workers can approach total repetition while Lautgedichte and some other modernist texts approach total unpredictability.

The fact that theories of art have been constructed about each end of the opposition is, however, suggestive of the critical role each plays in the aesthetic text. When Geoffrey of Vinsauf said at the beginning of the thirteenth century that the poet’s job is to “rejuvenate” the language, he included both the retention and the distortion of convention.(6)

It is certainly true that some genres are more conventional than others. There can be little doubt that oral and popular literature are relatively predictable. This has been frequently noted and, indeed, constitutes the ground for most of the attacks against these genres for being boring, artless, and uninspired. In fact, those who champion oral and popular works often try to demonstrate that their choices are acceptable according to the same old standards or irony, innovation, and the like. (7) But there is an equal aesthetic function for the opposites of these qualities as well.

Like Homer and other oral literature, black American folk narratives tend to be highly formulaic. Regardless of whether their performers are brilliantly creative or uninventive, they will make use of stock phrases, formulae, repetitions, allusions, and fragments of other texts. This is obviously true of blues lyrics and Elizabethan sonnets, but Julia Kristeva notes that in fact, “every text takes its shape as a mosaic of citations.” (8) We learn to read and write poetry by imitating, precisely as we learn to understand and speak in the first place. Each of the signifying monkey texts and the other toasts Abrahams collected from the same milieu repeats words, phrases, and episodes from others, but each is also unique.

The place of repetition in high art production is often masked by such terms as “learned style,” “awareness of tradition,” and talk of literary schools and topoi. In popular and oral texts, where it is most emphatic, it is more often denigrated. Extreme conventionalization, close repetition as a sort of intimate intertextuality, produces a familiarity with the words that is identified as automatized and algebrized by Shlovsky. But if language is regularly devalued by repetition, why do the Philadelphia street-corner poets and their listeners find it so attractive? Is there use of repetition any less insistent than that found in such beloved genres as television programs, romance novels, pornography, and comic books? This is, of course, the very concept on which Parry, Lord, and their followers have founded and developed the notion of the oral. Repetitiveness taken to extreme forms, such as American Indian songs in which a brief phrase (often nonsensical) is repeated for hours, or religious liturgy where the same words are spoken weekly for centuries, is hardly the result of incompetence or artlessness. It is simply a different aesthetic strategy.

Familiarization is evident in the formal conventions, the slang (the passage quoted at the outset requires more glossing than Chaucer), and the limited repertory of the tellers of signifying monkey tales. It appears also in larger descriptive clichés, in turns of plot, in the thematic goods retailed through the work. This point is so obvious that it scarcely requires documentation. It is clear that, contrary to Shklovsky’s claim, the repeated structures do not normally fade and disappear due to their automization; rather they are underlined again and again specifically to imprint them the more indelibly on the mental programs of their consumers. In fact, it is the variable data that are likely to bear a lesser semantic load, while constant repetitions delineates cultural components: sacrifice and hospitality ritual in Homer, Christians against the Saracens in medieval romance, the married couples’ embrace at the end of a situation comedy, or the police getting their man at the end of a cop show on television.

In “the Monkey and the Baboon,” formulae consisting of a single word or phrase include “’bout sharp as hell,” “raise” (as a challenge), “fussing and fighting,” and a great many others. The poem is clearly oral by the standard of economy. On the level of larger units, among the poem’s formulae are the jungle setting (suggesting both African origins and the harshness of urban American life), the monkey-baboon contest itself (which is recorded in numerous songs and stories as well as these toasts, some identifying the combatants as “the white man and the nigger”), and the ritual description of the main characters’ clothing (reminiscent of pages devoted to a knight’s arming)as set forth in the opening lines quoted at the beginning of this paper. His dress invests the monkey with an aura of taste and authority just as the merchandise does that is sold at Smokey’s Joes on Chicago’s South State Street, or the zoot suits of the ‘forties, flamboyant Jamaican hairnet caps, or academic regalia. The verbally fluent reciter of the poem seeks to appropriate the power unavailable to him in America today by cleverness with words that identify him with the victorious monkey, that is to say, he looks for success by semiotic means. He uses the vocabulary of clothing the same way.

Social conflicts arising from racism, poverty, and male/female relations are evoked and then resolved in oral narratives like this one, in a way that closely fits Levi-Strauss’s concept of myth as the symbolic mediation of binary oppositions. Much of shamanistic magic follows analogous paths of sympathetic magic: artful words are seen to shape reality. To narrate a myth in which a god defeats a demon is to exorcise the illness from the patient, and this verbal technology is used in contemporary America as much as in tribal societies. Certain critical discussions of popular culture, such as Mattelart and Dorfman’s How to Read Donald Duck, or Fiske and Hartley’s Reading Television have centered on this function as a replicator of ideological givens and thus a masker of contradictions and tensions. (9) But their partisan views rarely consider the example of tribal societies which inculcate cultural norms far more rigorously but toward ends more easily romanticized (see any issue of Alcheringa or the official art of so-called communist countries). Indeed, the classical Chinese opera (which is, in fact, popular) and the Maoist “revolutionary” opera are alike in that both use highly repetitive conventions to teach and reinforce ideology. This is the old Horatian ideal, upheld by E. D. Hirsch and others in the present day, of instruction as a prime function of literature. Though the signifying monkey has seen the inside of few schoolrooms, he teaches his audience a vision of the world and of themselves, complete with moral, aesthetic, and prudential values.

Repetitive structures are intrinsic to the nature of literature because the bear the normative didactic information it either seeks to transmit, or transmits unconsciously. The phenomenon, though, is not adequately explained by the principle of indoctrination. Even Horace allowed pleasure an equal importance, and quite likely Kid (from whom Abrahams collected the etxt) would say he recites poetry for amusement. What sort of pleasure is available from hearing the familiar yet once again, the parent who reads aloud to his three-year-old might wonder.

Eco says that the Superman comic books create a myth, partially because their appeal does not reside in any single story, but rather accumulates as the regularities in a group of stories. (10) This idea of the mythic does not depend on specific similarities to Oedipus or any other model, but rather on formal structural repetition which creates a field of expectations which it is then uniquely able to fulfill. Just as every television program has a set of clichés, characters, remarks, and situations that viewers would be disappointed to miss, Superman and the monkey stories are highly predictable. The contest between the signifying monkey and the baboon is just like that in other texts between a monkey and a lion; it is closely similar to the contest between Shine and the captain of the Titanic, as well as between Stagolee and Billy Lyon (whose surname identifies him with the monkey’s antagonist in the jungle setting). (11) What Eco called “the iterative scheme” in Superman is, according to him, “that on which most famous writers have found their fortunes.”

This popularity is only in part because audiences enjoy having their ideological presuppositions confirmed. Also contributing to the comforting mental message is the purely formal pleasure in encountering the same words, the same ideas, the same figures again and again. The consumer delights in his own initiation. This sort of literary delectation is by no means confined top the naïve. Certainly in scholarly exchange of all disciplines, readers and listeners enjoy jargon(that is, academic slang), familiar critics’ names and book titles. Though each individual has a list to some extent idiosyncratic, recognition of items from it reinforces a sense of belonging, just as the story of the monkey contributes toward the construction of community. In neither case is the sensation of pleasure necessarily dependent on agreement with the ideas expressed by the texts in question. Pleasure in the familiar is the self-reward of competence, whether the competence is in dirty jokes, in spotting an archetype a mile away, or in doing both at once.

Furthermore, familiarization is present in all language. Whenever a word is used with apparent transparency, without metaphor, ambiguity, or irony, whenever reader and text can settle into a certainty that, yes, tables do exist, or that cause and effect is a reliable principle, or that stylish clothing gives an individual power, familiarization is present. It is elevated to a significant formal role in the texts of the signifying monkey as it may be in deviant individual oeuvres like those of graffitists and William Burroughs (who, for all his cut-ups, is more redundant than Edgar Rice Burroughs). Repetition is not, as Shklovsky thought, the opposite of defamiliarization, but rather its precondition and its complement. Referentiality must exist as a system of socially agreed conventions before tropes can twist meaning. Lack of rhyme and internal rhyme have an effect in “The Monkey and the Baboon” only against a background of regularly recurring end rhyme. Information may be more densely packed into the code of the text when a cultural matrix of highly conventional and thus highly transformable structures.

Three main arguments have been presented here to demonstrate the constitutive role of familiarization in literary texts. It is the dominant mode by far in the greatest part of the world’s verbal artifacts; it is particularly likely to perform the didactic function of literature, and it affords plaisir, as well, of a sort associated with the aesthetic text alone. It remains only to qualify these claims, for, though they foreground that half of the nature of literature frequently neglected, it remains only a half.
Repetitive, non-challenging, apparently transparent structures in oral and popular literature have been devalued by some critics because they seem to declare an illegitimate certitude and discourage new thought. Culler, for instance, says that only rule-breaking literature can allow an “expansion of self.” (12) The fact is that oral texts, too, like that of the signifying monkey, have self-reflexive moments in which they betray their own hollowness, the gap or différence between signifier and signified. It would be possible to re-enact for this generation Norman Mailer’s feat in “the White Negro” (13)of naturalizing existentialism ( he complained that “only a Frenchman “ could produce “the all but ineffable frissons of mental becoming” like Sartre’s) by discovering it in the synapses of the Harlem hipster and his white imitators and counterparts. The modern version of this myth of nationalities (effete French, theoretically inarticulate but inspired blacks, and the essential mediating American intellectual) would be to locate Derrida in the cultural artifacts of black American street life. This may be done, but one must bear in mind that the Derridean signifying monkey provides only half the dialectic.

The word signify entered black American usage through the religious discourse of the New Testament. (14) In the Bible, it is typically used to refer to prophetic, symbolic, ecstatic, apocalyptic utterance, thus to figured speech with ambiguous or elusive meaning. In the parable of the sower and the seed, Christ says that such problematic language concealing meaning will persist until the end of days at which time nothing will be hidden, but all will be abroad and known. Thus, before the eschaton, “signifying” or speech that hides meaning will be the only mode available to man., The word is used in the gospels only in John and there only in a line, repeated on three occasions, in which Christ speaks of his approaching death, the passing out of the world of the logos. (15)

Here then is the sublime myth that underlies the monkey’s hijinks as well as the comic trickster preacher who is always deceiving, John, the clever slave, and many similar figures. The term “signify” as well as “jive” carries connotations both of artistic manipulation of language and of an essential characteristic of the sign: the capacity to lie, as both Hesiod and Eco agree. Zora Neale Hurston found her informants commonly called their oral literature “lying,” and among the storytellers whose works Abrahams collected language is sometimes called “shit,” as in “I talked my shit and I talked it well,” or when the narrator refers to himself as “old bullshitting Snell.” The monkey himself originates his adventures by deciding “I guess I’ll start some shit” and what more properly than shit could be called, in Derrida’s phrase “always already gone”? The problematic referentiality of poetry is apparent in the formula favored by another of Abrahams’ informants, Arthur: “You won’t believe this, but . . .”

The very formulaic nature of oral narrative, its reliance on the conventions of rhetoric and rhyme all underline its dubious truth value and its primary relations not to the world in general but to other texts. The signifying monkey, Shine from the Titanic, and Stagolee all have the same motive for adopting language that Kafka’s monkey had. Language is the only available means of gesturing in the direction of communication until some Second Coming. For one who has fallen from Eden, it is that with which one copes, makes do, gets by.

The monkey can teach critics then that familiarization and defamiliarization are interdependent and equally necessary for generating literary texts. Those who study primarily modern elite literature or who read other texts with critical concepts derived from an exclusive bias in favor of modern high art are likely to ignore or undervalue the kinds of structures that predominate in literature as a whole. In fact, every linguistic act both conforms and nonconforms; words play at referentiality while fleeing from it. The anxiety of influence is balanced by a deep delight in influence as in fact we love our parents as well as hating and fearing them. To write or to talk is to caress others erotically as well as to strike at them aggressively. The recognition of this balance derives particularly from examination of oral and popular texts like “The Monkey and the Baboon” and points toward the development of theoretical concepts that will more accurately describe the cultural productions of humanity. Such recognition does not dilute the canon, but rather refines it; it does not point away from literature, but rather directly toward its heart.

1. Roger D. Abrahams. Deep Down in the Jungle, rev. ed. (Chicago: Aldine, 1970), p. 148.

2. See his monumental Motif-Index to Folk Literature.

3. Apart from Abraham’s seminal book, the toasts are most conveniently available in Dennis Wepman, Ronald B. Newman, and Murray Binderman’s The Life (Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1976). This edition is the most likely to be used by modern reciters whose practice is not purely oral. Even in his seminal studies of orality during the 1930s, Milman Parry found some Balkan epic poets using printed versions of their stories. See The Collected Papers of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales.

4. Cf. the decorous Latin of Culler’s homo significans in Jonathan Culler, Structural Poetics (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), p. 130.

5. Leo Lowenthal, Literature, Popular Culture, and Society (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1961), p. 54.

6. Line 769 in the ltext of Ernest Gallo, The Poetria Nova and Its Sources in Early Rhetorical Doctrine (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), p. 54.

7. Thus Krazy Kat and the Marx Brothers are applauded by high culture critics such as Artaud for their “surrealism,” etc.

8. Julia Kristeva, Semiotike (Paris: Seuil, 1969), p. 146.

9. Armand Mattelart and Ariel Dorfman, How to Read Donald Duck (New York: International General, 1975) and John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television (London: Methuen, 1978).

10. Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), p. 107-124.

11. In each case an intelligent but vulnerable hero is pitted against a more powerful but less sympathetic opponent. The texts are all available in Abrahams, Chapter 5.

12. Culler, p. 129.

13. Norman Mailer, “The White Negro,” in Advertisements for Myself (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959), pp. 337-358.

14. Since “signify” entered slang usage from learned rather than vulgar usage, it seems obvious that it derived from the religious vocabulary though no documentation of the link has been published. Perhaps the best discussions of “signifying” as an urban American art form are Thomas Kochman, Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972) and William Labov, Language in the Inner City (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972).

15. There are also at least four occurrences of the word in Acts and more in Hebrews, I Peter, and Revelation.

Translations from Hans Arp

Child of an Alsatian mother and a German father, Hans Arp was born in Strassburg at a time when it was German. When it became French again at the end of WWI, French law mandated that he call himself Jean. Thus his very name draws attention to the nationalist contention that struck him as absurd.
An originator of the Moderner Bund (“Modern League”) and an exhibitor with the Blaue Reiter group prior to being a founding member of dada in 1916 Zürich. The creator of sublime abstract sculpture and other visual work, Arp is also a major poet. Educated as an artist in both France and Germany, he was already dodging the draft in Switzerland when he was called up. He recounts writing the date in the first blank of a stack of forms, then proceeding to write the date in every other space, after which he painstakingly added the column of numbers thus produced. He then took off all his clothes, folded them with care, placed the paperwork on top and presented the stack to the officer in charge, upon which he was told he was unsuitable for the military.
Later associated with the highly political Cologne dada group, he also participated in the first Surrealist show at the Galerie Pierre in Paris. During the ‘thirties he worked with the Paris-based group Abstraction-Création whose members, including Mondrian, Kandinksy, and Mary Cassatt, considered Breton’s Surrealism to be dogmatic.
Arp pioneered abstract art, though his early association with Kandinsky is evident in his preference for van Doesburg’s term “concrete” as more appropriate for forms that originate in the mind and occupy space. Regarding “the law of chance as the highest and deepest of laws,” he employed aleatory elements in works such as his randomly tossed papiers déchirés. He loved to reshuffle image sets (as here in “Roses Stroll the Streets of Porcelain” and “Westoily Roses”).
His poetry strikes me as a pyrotechnic display of images, a one-man band, a word-collage. He shares with a prominent school of poets today the proposition that, as Jacques Riviére said of the dadaists in general, for them language "is no longer a means; it is an entity." If his lyric persona is sometimes difficult to follow, this is hardly surprising given his goal of “break[ing] down the language into atoms, in order to approach the creative.” In Arp the background is a vast and cosmic laugh and he does not shrink from whimsy, yet he insisted to the end that dada was no farce. Using the same religious language favored by Huelsenbeck, he notes of his circle of young revolutionaries “our lot of earthly joy was meager. But by way of recompense we were visited by angels.”

Opus Null

I am the great great Thisthatthey
a rig or ous re gime
the stem of ozone prima qua
the nameless one-percenter
The P. P. Tit and trom as well
trombone without a mouth or hole
I’m Hercules’ great earthen bowl
the left foot of the right right chef.

I am the entire lifetime long
the ovary’s dozeneth meaning
totality of Augustine
in cellulose gown preening

He pulls from out his coffin black
one coffin, then another
he wraps himself in a black crepe sack
and weeps with his front end.
Half wizard and half maestro
without a cane the time he’ll beat
a greeny clockface on his hat
and falls down from the driver’s seat

With that he pokes the ghetto fish
off his well-equipped easel. He
finds his long cubistic socks are torn
twice in two and thrice in three.

He sits with himself in an arc
A circle sits right by his side.
A bag that holds a comb that stands
must be his sofa and his bride.
The of-of and his left-hand skin
his own bag and his own life
and tick and tack and tipp and top
he own body falls from the wife.

His steam dynamo turns out
hat upon hat from his hat and then
he stands them in formation in
a ring just as one does with army men.
Hew greets them then and tips his hat
and three times greets them all as friends
They always trust a caca-you
replaced by him with caca-too.

He sees them not but greets them still
He’s with them and they’re all about.
The hats are all included
they screw the top from his ego

Roses Stroll the Streets of Porcelain

just on the edge of the fairy-tale
the night knits roses for itself;
the tangle of things resolves into
storks, fruits, pharoahs, and harps.
death puts down its nattering wreath
by the root of the void.
and the storks chatter on chimneystones!
and the night is a stuffed fairy tale.

and the roses stroll the streets of porcelain and knit from the tangle of their years
one star after another.
between stars there sleeps a piece of fruit.
the empty lands stuffed years laughing foot-lockers dance!
the storks eat the pharaohs.
from chimneystones roseblossoms!

death eats one year after another.
and pharaohs eat storks.
between fruits sleeps a star. often it laughs lightly in its sleep
like a porcelain harp.

growing chimneystones eat harps porcelain wreaths dance.
pharoahs have roots of roses!
the storks pack chimneystones in their footlockers and fly off
to the land of the pharoahs!

The Swallow Testicle

Oh no, oh no, good Kaspar's dead!
Who now will hide the burning banners in cloudbraid
and daily build a black mare's nest?
Who now will turn the coffee mill in its old, old barrel?
And who will lure the idyllic deer
from its petrified paper bag?
Who'll blow the noses of ships, parapluies, wind-udders, ancestral bees, ozone spindles,
and who will bone the pyramids?
Oh no, no, no, our good Kaspar is dead! Pious bimbam Kaspar's dead!
The shark will rattle his teeth with heartrending grief when he hears his given name -- so
I sigh on -- his last name Kaspar Kaspar Kaspar.
Why hast thou forsaken us? In what form has your great and beautiful soul
transmogrified? Are you a star? or a chain or water hanging from a hot whirlwind? or
a transparent brick on the groaning drum of rocky BEING?
Now our tops and toes dry up, and fairies lie half-charred on the funeral pyre.
Now the black bowling alley thunders behind the sun, and no one winds up compasses
and pushcart wheels any longer.
Who now will eat with the phosphorescent rat at the lonely barefoot table?
Who now will chase the siroccoco devil when he wants to fuck the horses?
Now who'll explain the monograms in the stars?

His bust will grace the mantel of all the truly noble men,
but that's no comfort, no tobacco snuff for a deadhead skull.

Second Hand

that I as I
one and two is
that I as I
three and four is
that I as I
what time now
that I as I
it ticks, it tocks
that I as I
five and six is
that I as I
seven eight is
that I as I
if it stands it
that I as I
if it works then
that I as I
nine and ten is
that I as I
eleven and twelve is.


And she was delivered of a healthy strong boy
who enjoyed the name Baobab.
The boy grew and grew
and grew up to the blue of heaven.
And Baobab’s people liked to look
right in the eyes of interlocutors
However, for one as tall as Baobab
this no longer could be done.
So they dug out lots of soil
And opened a great abysmal hole
in which Baobab entered by choice
for he too could never bear
not to look into the eyes
of those to whom he spoke.
The earth that they had dug
they tossed over their starlet’s edge
into the bottomless space.
And after Baobab had had passed
a hundred years in this hole
he began to dwindle.
Every day he was smaller and smaller
until in the end he evanesced.
Now those who dwelt in that small star
sat there with nought
but a great abysmal hole
and one small strip of land around the hole
and they looked
now into the starlet’s abysmal hole,
and then over the edge
of their small star
into the bottomless space

Westoily Roses

the roses will be crucified on hats the lips
the roses fly forth
the bloody organs drip on the visible
throne of the half-grown Near Eastern stones and
on the white skulls
the three shaven summers and the three shaven
crosses stagger forward on crutches like the May
the lyre body tells of bloody slaughter
against the hairy stones, the lyre body shoots out a poison foam
stony crutches bloody noses hairy stones against
the shavehead skulls

the lyre body drips blood on the white shirtfronts
as though in a battle unpacked and tosses its
three snowballs behind its three summers.
from the retorts roll the skulls of the Itosis.
the lips of the hats return on crutches.
gloves will be crucified on hats.
the crosses support one another half-human like
by the bridegroom and the other half-mannish by
the bridegroom

the lyre body tells of the birth from foam of a
half-grown Near Eastern stone must certainly and
heath-soul sits on a visible throne and
tosses the bloodier parts of the foolhardy and carthardy
on the fifth of May. then the foam birth shoots poisonous
accent-hens against the signature-organ of
the lyre body clings to the clapper by their balled-up wings
and rings out and the winged words fly forth.
wings shave the hairy hearts.
the air of the bit shakes and calls who goes there.
and that’s the way it goes up and then down like in a letter.

it rings out in the heart.
The foam birth wraps white May air in a
the half-grown Near Eastern stone throws its
three gloves over its three hats and clings
to the roses.
the lyre body shaved the slaughter-clapper.
winged roses fly to the snow-lyre.

The Rhetorical Critical Theory of Geoffrey of Vinsauf

The author of the most influential of the Latin rhetorical handbooks of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Geoffrey of Vinsauf is the best single source for students of medieval literary theory. Long obscure, read primarily by scholars interested in Chaucer or Dante, he has often been dismissed as a dull prescriber of hackwork formulae. On the contrary, though, the modern reader may find his concepts often strikingly anticipate recent critical speculation, and his poetic practice at its best dazzles with ingenuity and experimentation.

Though little is known of Geoffrey’s life, what facts we have vividly suggest his milieu: the cosmopolitan world of Latin culture in the high Middle Ages. He seems to have been born in England, probably of Norman parents; he studied and then taught in various countries, likely including France and Italy as well as Britain. His name is said to derive from his authorship of a treatise on viticulture.

His most significant and well-authenticated works are the Poetria Nova, written aound 1210, and the Documentum de modo et arte dictandi et versificandi, probably written somewhat later. The content of these two texts is for a good part identical, though their style differs. The Poetria is in hexameter verse and contains full poetic examples as well as much playful wit, while the Documentum, more like a textbook, is in prose with much shorter, more direct exposition and abbreviated examples. Both are prescriptive manuals which seek to instruct the reader in effective techniques and methods, including sections on how to begin a poem, how to conclude it, and what ornamentation (such as figures of speech) the poet should select.

A number of other texts have been attributed to Geoffrey with less certainty, among them a lost work on letter-writing, and English rhetoric (excerpted from the two principal works), several poems, and an essay on law.

To understand Geoffrey’s approach to literary questions and his critical vocabulary it is necessary to appreciate the role of rhetoric in European education. First formalized in ancient Greece to develop oratorical skills for the law-court and the assembly, rhetoric provided the basis for most elaborations of literary theory from Plato and Aristotle through Cicero and Horace and, through this classical tradition, into the Middle Ages and beyond. Though certain incongruities were inevitable when the same discipline was applied to philosophy, poetry, and propaganda, there was little substantial challenge to the rhetorical approach until the Romantic theory of the late eighteenth century. Though other forms of criticism existed from antiquity onwards – antiquarianism, impressionism, or truth-seeking, for instance, rhetoric was the field that sought to explain the artful use of words, and thus of literature.

Geoffrey’s very title nicely encapsulates his relation to the great tradition. He nods toward Horace (whose Epistola ad Pisonem, often called the Ars Poetica, was a touchstone) and the Rhetorica ad Herennium (also known as the Rhetorica nova) while, at the same time, his Poetria Nova aims at supplanting these authorities and establishing a new code. not total “freedom,” which would be codeless and thus chaotic. The same ambivalent attitude toward convention is evident throughout his theory and practice.

After an opening which is a tour de force of rhetorical wit, Geoffrey proceeds to discuss invention and how to begin a poem. He then takes up the widely misunderstood medieval topics of amplification and abbreviation, and concludes with a list of colores or figures of speech and thought.

Manly’s important article on “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians,” while focusing on a critical and neglected area of study, spread the idea that Geoffrey was a burden, a pedant peddling unreadable verbal fripperies, and insisting on the mindless adherence to obsolete models. In reality, though, he sought to systematize the capability for literary language to bear meaning. His concern was always to refresh and renew usage to lend new meaning to old words and to create new expressions to convey thoughts never before fit into language.

This attitude is manifested in Geoffrey’s advice on narrative strategy: begin anywhere but the beginning. What may seem a frivolous counsel of novelty as an end in itself is really a way of encoding more content into the text. A story that conforms to linear time will seem “natural,” whereas distortions of sequence compel the reader to interpret.

In the same way the lengthy catalogues of figures of speech which may seem wholly adventitious or merely decorative are in fact empirical inventories of possibility. Every trope is a way of wringing new semantic value out of cliches and other shop-worn expressions. Such broadly conceived devices as translatio (or metaphor) and transsumptio (metalepsis or transformation) can guide the author toward the mot juste. It is true that Geoffrey’s predilection for novelty underlies his countenancing such daring moves as selecting intentionally inappropriate epithets and cultivating paradox.

But in theory at least, such choices cannot serve whimsy or decoration. For Geoffrey there exists a pretext or archetypus of the work in the author’s conception, and all efforts in composition are directed toward realizing this idea. Though Geoffrey does stress the pleasure of the aesthetic text when he uses metaphors such as the cook or the magician for the author, he nonetheless clearly declares that ornament is trivial without the weight of meaning. The text, he argues, resembles a well-ordered feudal household in which every element plays an essential part in the functioning of the whole.

Geoffrey’s text is part of the sophistic tradition that casts doubt on the adequacy of language. Whereas some among the ancients had trusted in the ability of words to represent reality and thus in the manipulation of language as a heuristic tool for discovering truth, the sophists were suspicious of referentiality while exploiting the resources of language to their very limits. When Christianity with its dogma of revelation largely supplanting the philosopher’s quest for truth, language still retained among the scholastics its reputation as a useful tool for supporting scriptural truth. For rhetoricians like Geoffrey language is always technical – a means toward the expression of something already complete in conception rather than a means of discovery in itself.

The immense popularity of Geoffrey’s work is evident in the fact that over two hundred manuscripts of the Nova Poetria are extant. Chaucer parodies Geoffrey in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” and translated him in Troilus and Criseyde. Dante and many other poets are clearly aware of his prescriptions, and the rhetorical criticism of which he was the outstanding exemplar for his age continued to dominate European literature for centuries. Along with the other Latin rhetoricians, Matthew of Vendôme and John of Garland, he formulated a vision of literature that served an entire era. Long neglected as dry and boring, his work seems in many ways contemporary today.

His historical importance is beyond doubt; he is worthy of rediscovery not only for the considerable illumination he throws on other medieval poets but for the assumptions and implications that underlie his dicta. His nuanced understanding of tradition and innovation contrasts with the fundamentally Romantic preference for the new so prevalent now. He realized that it is only against a background of convention and the substantial cultural common ground required for shared conventions that the artful poet can play, twisting language and reader expectations and thought and thus convey beauty and produce new ideas and insight while refreshing old words. The simplistic moral thematics of the exempla are not present in Geoffrey; rather his view is consistent in many points with modern artists and critics. Geoffrey seeks to maximize the semantic load of every word while regarding the signifier as ambiguous and contingent. Thus the word comes round by analogy to resemble lived experience, artificial and accidental though both may be, not by an imperfect mimesis, but as a parallel construction, as a metaphor.

Art and the Marketplace

Art (and Science) in the Marketplace

In the present difficult economic times, art (along with the poor, the ill, the young, and the old) finds itself vulnerable. Challenges even to the very modest governmental arts budget, cuts to the schools arts programs (both in class and extracurricular), loss of private funding, and shrinking discretionary expenditures by consumers, have backed the arts into a corner. In response, arts advocates have often aped the rhetoric of the chamber of commerce, touting the arts as an engine of urban renewal, offering both a potential for reuse of industrial buildings and a lure to attract tourists and high-income residents, with a high “multiplier effect” for every dollar invested.

While understandable as a grant-catching dodge, this sort of language is false to the nature of the arts themselves. Artistic production, indeed, intellectual work in general, is essentially self-justifying, and in this it differs from other forms of labor. One grows wheat in order to produce food; one designs bicycles to enable people more efficiently to ride; one teaches to prepare the young. Each of these activities is functional – it is justified by its result, and each of these results may be quantified in economic terms.

The theoretical scientist, though, along with the historian, the poet, and the painter are obliged to work without the prospect of such a measurable return. The physicist doing basic research and the composer completing his symphony both work without expecting much in the way of extrinsic rewards; most find the work itself gratifying. Similarly one who reads of new findings of the interactions of subatomic particles without jealousy will feel only admiration at the perspicacity of his colleague and, perhaps, at the marvels of the cosmos as well. Money doesn’t enter in. The concert-goer who hears the symphony will have no thought of the balance sheets of the composer, the ensemble, or the hall. He will feel only the beauty of the music. The fact that neither the scientist nor the composer will ever reach a mass audience, that most people will be wholly ignorant of the work of either, has nothing whatever to do with the value of their work.

The fact is that human beings are distinguished from other beasts by our ability to manipulate symbols. Language is only the most elaborately sophisticated of our semiotic systems. The growth of science and of art rests upon this ability to play with information, using the data of real lived experience either to discern patterns in nature (science) or to record one’s vision (art). The people who focus on these activities are realizing the fullest potential of what it is to be homo sapiens, as the sniffing dog, the exploring honey-bee, and the fly that alights within minutes on the newly dead are all enacting their genetic potential, enjoying, we may guess, the full use of their inherent powers.

Not all people, of course, make art, but, in a sense, those who do justify those who do not, surely more effectively than our celebrity athletes serve their fans. It is perhaps rather more like the contemplatives of the Middle Ages who imagined that their prayers were a dynamo of power sustaining the secular world. Few people read poetry books, but who would have them vanish? The Metropolitan Opera requires immense sums of money from foundations and governmental agencies and charges over a hundred dollars for most tickets, yet its place is secure. To be fully human, we must have some specialists whose job is to approach Reality whether through conning the mathematical mantras of the galaxy or by setting in the durable form of art a vision of what it is to be alive.

Of course I speak here generally of the pursuit of art and knowledge in themselves. I do not mean to deny that researcher and artist alike require some income; that patents and books are bought and sold; that Darwin and Newton, Shakespeare and Dickens may have aimed at popular recognition; that many researchers work for interested corporations and many creative people for television and advertising outfits. These intersections of art and commerce need not enervate the artist, but they are irrelevant to art’s ultimate ends. The Brandenburg Concerti were presented to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt and written while Bach held a post as Kapellmeister, but these facts do not affect today’s listener for whom the pieces might as well have been written on a grant from Target Stores.

A commodity is justified by its role in commerce, and art often passes through the marketplace, sometimes lingering and haggling and evaluating the competition, but art at the end of the day is something other than a commodity, something different, yet which in human development has proven equally universal, equally useful.

Some Sonnets

I like cadenced, rhythmic lines, but rarely use fixed forms. The three poems below are exceptional cases: all, more or less, Shakespearean sonnets. (The first has some tetrameters, but, if you like, you may take more time to read them.) I find at times that the arbitrary requirements of a sonnet lead to unexpected places, allowing me to surprise myself.

The Wind

The ululation of the wind outdoors,
like bay of some large beast, is charged
with brio by which my own breath’s enlarged.
I’ve swallowed cities, mountains, mice and boars,
bits of facts about some mendicant
five hundred years ago, atomic weights,
exuviae abandoned, Malay straits,
the deer that come at night, a hierophant
of old Eleusis, dust beneath my feet.
Just as gravitation works both ways
love must go back and forth as does
everything I see and hear and eat.
Each sight I see outside my window pane
adds one more thread unto my own self’s skein.

Sonnet: For Fred Hampton and Mark Clark
assassinated by police December 4, 1969

Fred Hampton and Mark Clark are dead today.
for last night with the dark the rats came out.
The dawn was soon to come, still all was grey,
and when the smoke had cleared there was no doubt:
the ancien régime has still some bite;
a man who’ll sell his soul will sell his friends;
and politics, when boiled down, is might,
so high ambitions need not bring good ends.
They stood with Borinqueño Lords and whites
from Uptown arm in arm and spoke their word,
and when it ended in a bloody night,
one doubted whether anyone had heard.
Oh, had we Archimedes now in space
to move the earth onto some better place!


This brumous day the vapors mask the scene.
Boundaries blur to grey on grey. That elm
not so far off might be Pleistocene
or else on Mars or some supernal realm.
Yet one of normal eyes and average height,
though he may be no wizard and no dunce,
while looking out his window to the light
can sometimes see a million miles at once.
But now as there’s no take on distant sky,
he’s turned back to that shadow-play,
the cranium’s cinémathèque, the inward eye
to find what light it sheds upon the day.
Whether what he finds be ore or dross,
the afternoon will come to be no loss.