25 may. 2006

Jordan asks, are there writers duller than Milosz and Herbert? Surely not, though I can't say any poem by Herbert has even registered on my consciousness. Maybe Mark Strand is duller. What was it with the interest in Eastern European poets during the cold war? I wonder what domestic agenda that was serving! We were often told that in those countries poetry really MATTERED. Proof was that the writers were censored or exiled, or worse. There was a kind of envy: if the government cracked down on me, it would prove I was really important. But what makes a poet interesting and relevant is not some force from outside cracking down on the poet. I could take the dullest poet and create a factitious biography. Would that make the poems better?


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I'm reading La Vue, Le Concert, La Source in French. (Raymond Roussel.) It's fun to look up words in the dictionary, and fun to just read without looking up anything too. Each has an identical structure. The narrator looks into a picture, a photograph, a water-mark on hotel stationery, a label on a bottle of mineral water, and find amazingly hyper-realist detail. He describes many dozen characters, each distinctive in personality but each, ulimately, a cultural cliché. The son who is the sole support of his mother, he skips meals and gives a few private lessons for very little money. The woman who is trying to marry off her daughters. The old guy, not too bright with a lot of money, tells the same story over and over again; everyone flatters him in hopes of an inheritance. it's like a compendium of types, most of whom no longer exist but that are still somehow recognizable. There is also some visual detail: a description of a leather glove, the creases reflect the places where the hand has moved most frequently. A girl playing with sand on the beach; a lock of her hair is blowing in the wind in a way that should annoy her, but she pays no attention. This takes quite a while to describe. You would think it would all be extremely dull, but it's not.

Koch translated one of these works, but the rest I believe have never seen English. The effect in French comes from the perfection of the alexandrine couplets, with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes, in contrast with the seeming banality of the content. Roussel ocassionally comes up with interesting poetic effects, but often it is pure prose--except for the fact that it's in verse. Foucault has some interesting observations about these works too. Robbe-Grillet was going to title a novel La Vue, after Roussel (it became Les Jalousies.) Surrealists, Oulipians, New York School poets, nouveau romanciers, poststructuralist critics, have all been devoted Rousselians. He's the secret "Source" of avant-garde poetics. I'm more interested in him than in Gertrude Stein, who often exploits a similar kind of banality.