Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Annotated Pilot, Part V: Gubernator non sum

. . .nor out of cheap material create what is permanent.

It would be (has been) foolish to set out to produce what one hopes to be a seminal piece of Tost scholarship without consulting Palinurus. As I now flip anxiously through the pages of The Unquiet Grave, a reading of "I Am Not the Pilot" recommends itself that both mocks my investigations and confirms them.

In 1944, Cyril Connolly published The Unquiet Grave, A Word Cycle under the pseudonym Palinurus. It was, Connolly reports, described by critics as "merely an anthology, a collection of extracts chosen with 'outremer' snobbery and masquerading as a book or . . . if book it be, then it is both morbid and depressing." It would seem that Tony set out to produce an anthology that might provoke an equal but opposite critical force. Connolly said that his was "inevitably a war-book", and it seems to me that "I Am Not the Pilot" is inevitably a 9/11 poem. I mean "inevitable" with the same irony that we find in Connolly's introduction. "Although the author tried to extricate himself from the war and to escape from his time and place into the bright empyrean of European thought, he could not long remain above the clouds." (We see the cover of Invisible Bride before us, of course.)

This book mocks my analysis because its existence strips the poem of its innocence of tradition. The Palinurus of the Æneid was a pilot, and Connolly's first chapter is accordingly called "Ecce Gubernator [Behold the Pilot]". Thus a whole subtext, in the traditional sense of that word, unassisted by search engines of any kind, installs itself under the poem. The story of Palinurus is the story of a sailor who falls into the sea (because he falls asleep) and spends three days and nights in the ocean until he "at last [comes] safely to the seashore near Velia", after which he is murdered for his clothes by the locals and left on the beach to rot without burrial. Now, the Oracle tells us, "The shade of Palinurus must be appeased." Connolly explains that the real theme of the book emerges from this injunction: it denotes "the core of melancholy and guilt that works destruction on us from within." The simple theme of Tony's poem, then, is "I am not Palinurus and must not be appeased." If that were all, the critical flarfing so far explored would be a waste of time. While mildly interesting, the nature of the sources would be incidental to the poem, would have nothing to do with "what we vaguely call its poetical effect" (Kitasono). Tony's poem simply inverts a theme of Connolly's (who seems, however, to have wanted it to be inverted) and Peter O'Leary's recent suggestion that flarf is a mode of parody and Google-sculpting just a method of inspiration seems to be more or less right.

Two rhetorical figures will bring me from this mockmaking to confirmation. The first is an exchange between Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan during a writing class at Kent State in 1971.

RD: . . .Inspiration. You can't learn that, nobody can teach it to you, you either feel it or you don't.
AG: I think you can teach inspiration.
RD: Teach inspiration?
AG: Taking it literally, inspiration being a matter of breath, you can teach breathing.
RD: Oh, breathing, right. And you can teach vowels.
AG: And if you can teach breathing then you can teach a certain body looseness and mind-freshening-- (Allen Verbatim, p. 109)

Which might remind us of a page from Pound's ABC of Reading.

Perfectly sincere people say you 'you can't teach literature', and what they MEAN by that is probably true.
You can quite distinctly teach a man to distinguish between one kind of book and another. (p. 87)

The sense in which both of the arguments pass from the unteachable mystery of poetry to the teachable craft, is exactly that which at some point brings us up to the flarfomatic algorithms built into Google. You can quite distinctly program a machine to identify words and phrases and use this to establish a body-looseness (if you will).

"I Am Not Palinurus" is not a meaning that the poem carries, but is embedded in the very grammar, the apparatus of the poem itself. Meaning, here, is use. So it, too, is an anthology, but it is neither morbid nor depressing: has no melancholly core, feels no guilt. It is, on the contrary, shameless. And its sources display no snobbery at all, no erudition, no "empyrean of European thought", just the Global Idiom in use.

Connolly compared the English language to a polluted river (a river actively now being polluted) while "a few patient anglers are sitting" on its shore. It

has, in fact, so contracted to our own littleness that it is no longer possible to make a good book out of words alone. A writer must concentrate on his vocabulary but must also depend on the order, the timing and spacing of his words, and try to arrange them in a form which is seemingly artless, yet perfectly proportioned. (p. 93)

Here flarf is more optimistic about what can be fished out of the waters. Connolly called the classicism/romanticism debate "a dead dispute over the distribution of emphasis between man and nature". I wonder if I can still recover the poem as a classical exercise; or at least my criticism. In any case, I think I've been pushed to the edge of my own transatlantic snobbery and must now try to find a body-looseness somewhere in the new American idiom. Google. Blog. Flarf.

1 comment:

Laura Carter said...

Do your own sprezzatura thing, man. Flarf or no flarf.

Enjoying this!