The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume III

Holes in paper open and take me fathoms from anywhere.
—Samuel Beckett to Nancy Cunard, January 26, 1959 (p 193)

The late 1940’s are often singled out as a peak in Samuel Beckett’s writing life. Indeed, that’s when he produced the works—principally Waiting for Godot—that put him on the map. But by 1951 he had reached a creative impasse and it wasn’t until 1957 that he began to see a way out of it. Volume III covers the years 1957-1965, the period of Beckett’s career we might describe as his great second act, involving multiple genres: the novel, plays for stage, television and radio, and his one and only film script. Talk about an embarrassment of riches. Volume III takes us even deeper into Beckett’s creative process than the letters to Georges Duthuit in Volume II had. We see his struggles, false starts, doubts and, in rough outline, the evolution of some of his works.

For me, the most fascinating periods of Beckett’s life are the years of exile in Roussillon, when he wrote Watt and planted the seeds of his great post-war works, and the period of his great second act. The two periods are related, as we shall see. But we have no letters from the Roussillon period, and so, for me, the third of the four volumes contains the most riches. Not only do we get to see, clearer than ever before, how Beckett worked his way out of his creative impasse, but we get wonderful glimpses of the way he worked, of the craft of his writing. We see him wondering out loud about ideas, shooting off sparks in multiple directions, and we see his peculiar relationship to his work—how complex, ambivalent and delicate it was. I don’t know that any other book has given me a clearer picture into an artist’s mind. And since Beckett is my favorite writer in English, this third volume of the letters will henceforth rest at the beating heart of my personal library.

Alain Badiou makes a case for How it Is being the work that released Beckett from his impasse and opened up the second act. Even if one agrees with the thrust of that assessment, it is undeniable that the story starts earlier. Becket began How it Is in 1959, writing in French as he had done for years. But the previous year he had written Krapp’s Last Tape and he had done it directly in English. He also wrote Rough for Theatre II and Embers in 1958. In my opinion these are the works that made the first break in the impasse. The key feature of all three is an assessment or at least an encounter with a life or a life’s work. Krapp’s Last Tape is well known. The other two aren’t as well known, but they’re every bit as remarkable. Rough for Theatre II involves two men, Bertrand and Morvan (clerks, bureaucrats, readers?), whose names, of course, resemble Beckett and the various Molloy/Malone/Morans of the novels. The two assess documents by and pertaining to a man set to jump from a window, but whether to assist or to understand the potential suicide is hard to tell. The whole thing is held in suspension and ends with the man still standing in the window. Embers is an even clearer image/narrative construct of Beckett’s creative impasse. It concerns a writer who can’t finish anything because his works always “went on for ever”. He visits with ghosts, who are arguably aspects of his own mind, or his own fictions talking back to him, and one of them says, “The time will come when…. You will be quite alone with your voice, there will be no other voice in the world but yours”. And let us not forget the strange end of Embers, when he remembers the upcoming appointment with the plumber: “Ah yes, the waste”.*

In November of 1958 Beckett remarked that he needed to get back to the time when he wrote Watt, in English:

I am in acute crisis about my work…. and have decided that I not merely can’t but won’t go on as I have been going…. and must either get back to nothing again and the bottom of all the hills again like before Molloy or else call it a day.
—to Barbara Bray (pp 183-4)

As he wrote to Barney Rosset, that period of “the bottom of all the hills” was precisely that of Watt. (p 181) The very momentum of the works from the late forties had led to impasse. He wanted the rock bottom. It seems to me that the three works I’ve mentioned broke into the clog even if it took the rigor of How it Is to snake through the muck.

A couple of details about these so very different works—Krapp and How it Is—following quickly one after the other. As late as 1968 Beckett considered writing variants on the Krapp theme, having him married, for example, and with or without children. Something about this play, the very idea of this play, that Beckett was so proud of when he had finished it, was a kind of fuel to its author’s imagination. How it Is, on the other hand, was a struggle through the murk. He even struggled with the title. And he shared work in progress with trusted friends, such as Barbara Bray and Robert Pinget, seeking their input. But Pinget found it very hard going, and this discouraged Beckett since he had worked so hard to make it clear. Pinget told his friend that, “Light can only come in through tiny cracks in all this darkness and this mud” and that, “The gasping in the first two parts is unbearable”. (p 354) His response to the novel was deeply troubling for them both. But for Beckett, the novel’s “unpalatable” tone was its truth.

Here a comment might be appropriate concerning Beckett’s doubts about works in progress compared to an apparent absoluteness with regard to finished ones. Here he responds to Arland Ussher, who had written about his work:

So have nothing wherewith either to agree or disagree with what you say about my work, with which my unique relation—and it a tenuous one—is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw. (p 511)

Beckett said the same many times to many different people. Clues as to his relationship to work in progress are found in letters to George Reavey and Alan Schneider. He wrote to the former

I am aware vaguely of course of the hidden impetuses that are behind its [Happy Days] making, but concern with their elucidation would prevent the making. (p 443)

and to the latter

New play festers…. Difficult to write about. Keep it till we meet. Know who’s going with me, but not where I’m going. Endless possibilities in idea. In great fear of spooking them. (p 487)

At a certain point, if Beckett did not abandon a work, he declared it finished, and when he got to that point he could be very firm. The letters are full of examples of very detailed instructions to directors of his plays. And as a director himself, Beckett had specific and one might even say rigid instructions for actors and every other aspect of production. To say he knew what he wanted is an understatement. His instructions, of primary interest to theater artists, were as if set in stone.

Of primary interest to writers are the glimpses we get into craft. Beckett occasionally mentioned to friends that he was at work in a place without access to dictionaries, but that it was for the best. He wrote to Barbara Bray that he “couldn’t imagine anyone feasting on Roget. Haven’t got a tip from it yet.” Then he adds, “Get me a copy, will you….” (p 426) In reassuring Pinget’s doubts about work in progress, he put in a P.S., “That you should agree with yourself on title and commas is all that matters.” (p 475) —a comment of particular interest to me since those are the areas I struggle with the most. He wrote to John Calder on the corrected proofs of an edition of Watt,

I started to suppress colons & semi-colons, having forgotten “how hideous is the semi-colon” page 156. So they all go back as indicated. Sorry for this stupidity.” (p 530)

I find this passage fascinating for many reasons, but perhaps mostly because of what it suggests about the use of these marks of punctuation. Even Beckett struggled with them! The fact that he underwent this “stupidity”, deciding in the end to save his joke rather than leave the unwanted marks out is funnier than the joke itself. And how arbitrary, really, the use of commas and sometimes, even, semi-colons can be. They must serve flow and tone and clarity. And if they don’t they need to go (wasn’t sure whether to put a comma after “don’t” or not).

The letter to Dulan Barber (p 575) is one of the most fascinating from a writer’s point of view. Barber was the representative of John Calder Publishers in charge of communicating with the printer. As explained in a footnote to the letter, “How it Is introduced two oddities that presented typesetting problems: no end punctuation, and stanzas of text divided by an extra line space.” (p 577) To get the character counts in alignment with these typesetting concerns, Beckett proposed a series of word changes. His command of the text in this instance is astonishing. And inspiring. But Calder Publishers were on top of their game too. They were able to resolve everything without changing a single word.

Beckett’s relationship to critics and criticism was, as we have seen, profoundly ambivalent. He could be exasperated, even infuriated by critics who couldn’t see what was in front of their faces but tended to read symbolism, allegory and deep meanings into everything. Yet he was upset with Pinget, as noted, because he had given a “moral” rather than “technical” response to How it Is. And he wrote to director Alan Schneider on his production of Happy Days,

I think myself that a commercial success is very unlikely and don’t anticipate much mercy from the critics. So I am interested in the “professional” reaction in the sense that it will help me to decide whether this is really a dramatic text or a complete aberration and whether there is justification for trying to push further this kind of theatre. (p 435)

And Barbara Bray, his closest and most trusted confidant during this period, was, among other things, a critic. Moreover, as noted before, he was hardly incapable of criticism himself, despite repeated claims to the contrary. He wrote to Barney Rosset explaining in precise and erudite detail what Film was about. (p 549)

I could go on outlining the riches of Volume III, describing some of Beckett’s problems with actors (and theirs with him) and with productions of his plays, about the actors he liked or didn’t like, and about how Play evolved. But I’ll have to end with a quote from what is, to my mind, one of the most remarkable letters of all, to Matti Megged, an Israeli writer. On the issue of the relationship between living and writing, Beckett wrote

It seems to me that this is probably your chief difficulty. Your view seems to be that what you can’t live you should at least be able to state—and then you complain that your statement has devitalized its object. But the material of experience is not the material of expression and I think the distress you feel, as a writer, comes from a tendency on your part to assimilate the two. The issue is roughly that raised by Proust in his campaign against naturalism and the distinction he makes between the “real” of the human predicament and the artist’s “ideal real” remains certainly valid for me and indeed badly in need of revival. I understand—I think no one better—the flight from experience to expression and I understand the necessary failure of both. But it is the flight from one order or disorder to an order or disorder of a different nature and the two failures are essentially dissimilar in kind. Thus life in failure can hardly be anything but dismal at the best, whereas there is nothing more exciting for the writer…. (pp 376-7)


The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Cambridge University Press

*Quotations from Embers from The Grove Centenary Edition

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Poetry and Music

The Poeming Pigeon: Poems about Music brings together 88 poems by 88 poets. The collection starts with a bang, as Michael T. Coolen tells us

the cosmic background radiation that was created
resonates throughout the universe

it is a D flat fifty-seven octaves below middle C
it is the source of all music

and it ends with a beauty, Kenneth Salzmann’s What But the Music, which asks

What but the music underscored every presumed
triumph and defeat, drew us into church basements
and into cheap apartments in bad neighborhoods,
ripped down walls, egged us on, played us out?

and my poem, Moonwalker falls somewhere in the middle (clue: it’s not about The Police although they’re pretty great).

There’s a pantoum and a sestina, poems that reference Bach, Puccini, Hendrix and Leonard Cohen, poems about country music and jazz music, poems about remembering music, playing it, dancing to it, and more. Another beauty is Deborah J. Meltvedt’s First Songs, about the music that plays while we’re in the womb, like

your mother’s voice sewing your bones.

It doesn’t matter what kind of music you like. I’ve never been a huge fan of Pete Seeger, but one of my favorites is Jane Yolen’s Singing with Pete, in which Yolen likens music to food:

You never left his concerts hungry, but carried those tunes
home in a tote sack, to snack on all the rest of your life.

Here are 88 reasons why we love music so much.

Get it from The Poetry Box

or from Amazon



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The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume IV

We shall never any of us know what we are worth, and it is the last question we should be asking.
—Samuel Beckett to Robert Pinget, May 24, 1966 (p 30)

On the 25th of November 1981, in thanking a friend for the gift of a pen, Samuel Beckett wrote,

If with it I fail to fail better worse I only deserve to succeed. (563)

It’s a sentence that only Beckett, whose idea of success was anything but ordinary, would have written, an arrangement of words that recalls his most famous “fail better” quotation from Worstward Ho, which he had been working on that year. It’s also a joke that only Beckett could have made. “Failing better” was good. He wouldn’t want to do it worse, but to poke fun at himself, at the very language of his latest work of prose fiction. Here he was, before the book was even published, characteristically distancing himself from it, or rather recognizing his distance from it.

Writing would not become easier for Beckett as he approached the final years of his life. He could quip that,

I work on, with failing mind, in other words, improved possibilities. (527)

But if anything his ambivalence toward that work only deepened. Writing was all he was good for, as he wrote, and all he wrote, to Mathieu Lindon in 1985 in response to the question, why do you write? (652) Yet a common refrain of these letters of the last two decades is that words failed to come, that there was little or nothing left, despite the fact that during this period he wrote some of his best and most beautiful works, including Not I, Rockaby, and Ill Seen Ill Said. They weren’t long, but they were large. And then, in the final year of his life, he would write, “silence is my cloister” (713) and, “I hope words have now failed me.” (719) His last work was the poem What Is the Word.

In the final letter, dated a month before he died and addressed to Michael Kuball, who had proposed making a film version of Murphy, Beckett wrote,

I am ill & cannot help. Forgive.
So go ahead without me. (726)

The tears came when I read that.

Fortunately a new batch of letters had become available to the editors after the first three volumes had been published and they follow in an appendix, opening the circle up once again. The four volumes are workhorses, both as books and as facilitators of more work. The immense scholarship they represent is nothing less than awesome. Even better, that scholarship never intrudes on the letters themselves, but serves them at every turn. Volume IV covers the years from 1966 to 1989. 1969 was the year of his Nobel Prize. After that Beckett’s fame grew and grew, and so did the demands on his time due to increased correspondence. As he did with his creative writing, so too with the correspondence: Beckett made do with less. He became a master of saying the most with the least. He developed in his letters a form of shorthand that at times resembles poetry. Here is a letter to Kay Boyle from July 30th, 1984:

Dear Kay
Forgive silence.
I grow dumber and dumber.
Nothing to tell.
Glad and sorry it’s said and done. All the little.
I think of you often, dear Kay.
Sam (643)

A severe critic of his own work, Beckett’s attitude toward the “Roughs” he wrote is rather interesting. He was adamantly opposed to any of his plays being adapted to film, and would probably have refused the Beckett on Film project. Certainly not all of the films are stellar, but in my opinion Katie Mitchell’s version of Rough for Theatre II is among the two or three best of the series. That film encouraged me to take a closer look at the text, and it has become a favorite. Beckett described the Roughs as “abortions” but added, “But I suppose what is not? More or less.” (520) This opinion did not stop him from having them published (while, by contrast, he resisted to the end allowing other works to be published) and wrote that as he prepared them for publication he “wondered if they were not performable. Their very unfinishedness has something dramatic.” (412) The Roughs (and Rough for Theatre II in particular) have always felt complete and satisfying to me, and Beckett’s letters have not solved the mystery why he relegated them to the back of the heap even though he did say, more than once, that his opinion of his work wasn’t necessarily better than anyone else’s.

Another highlight of Volume IV, for me, is when Beckett, who comes across as a polite, considerate and in all respects decent man, is unfair to the American actor Hume Cronyn. Harold Pinter had written to Beckett to report his concern over aspects of Cronyn’s performance in the 1972 New York production of Krapp’s Last Tape. Beckett in turn wrote to director Alan Schneider to instruct Cronyn to “refrain from any words that are not in the text.” (314) The words in question were “balls” and “rubbish” that Cronyn had chosen to comply with the stage directions of the play: “Krapp curses”. In Cronyn’s version of events (published in Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett pp 238-40) he had asked Schneider what curse words he should use and was told not to change anything. But Cronyn was upset not only because Beckett had written to Schneider and not directly to him, but also because he couldn’t go on doing something that Beckett objected to. So Cronyn wrote to Beckett to ask him which words to use and Beckett replied that any suggestions would be made to the director of the production. Now it would seem highly unlikely that Beckett could forget his own stage instructions. And yet this seems to have been what happened. The story sticks out only because it’s such a rare instance of common human failing on Beckett’s part. For a man who placed failure at the heart of his work, he seems to have exhibited uncommon excellence in his professional life.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Cambridge University Press

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Election Day was Yesterday

Ram On

“Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong”

– Bob Dylan from Ring Them Bells

View original post 226 more words

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It’s alright, Ma (it’s only the Nobel)

Bob Dylan has had detractors and naysayers going all the way back to the time he “went electric”, so it’s no surprise that a vocal minority is crying that he does not deserve the Nobel Prize for Literature. What does surprise me a little bit is the reason some are giving. They’re saying he doesn’t deserve it because songwriting isn’t literature. I had thought the world had become comfortable calling him a poet (I think of him as more of a storyteller than poet, but no matter). If Dylan doesn’t deserve the award on the grounds that songwriting isn’t literature then we’re back to saying he isn’t a poet either.

Literature as an art form using only written language, without the aid of visuals, music or sound is a difficult art to practice. Fiction, for example, offers unique challenges. You don’t have all that “license” that poets have and are expected to use. It’s difficult to experiment in fiction. Mostly, it’s exceedingly difficult to use ordinary language itself as an artistic medium. Giving the Nobel to a songwriter is not fair to people like Don DeLillo, some have argued, when there are other avenues for awarding musicians. No, it’s not fair. We should all be multi-talented, gifted not only in language but in rhythm, melody and musicianship as well. Of course, if you do have musical gifts then you can afford to scrimp a little on the language. You can use voice, in the form of song, and other musical elements to supply emotional components. The literary part might suffer but it’s compensated for by the musical part. So maybe songwriting utilizes some of the attributes of literature, but isn’t literature per se.

Bob Dylan hasn’t written any tunes like Yesterday or Do You Know the Way to San Jose. You don’t whistle Blowin in the Wind. Without the lyrics Blowin in the Wind doesn’t even exist. With the lyrics it’s not only a song, it’s literature. You can look at the words all by themselves, and it’s literature.

Is Bob Dylan then an exception to a rule? Can we call his work literature and not that of any–indeed every–other songwriter? I think we cannot. Songwriting is indeed literature. Much of it is poor literature, sure, but the world is also choking with terrible novels and dreadful poems as well. If words were a more or less disposable part of a song, then why did Burt Bacharach need Hal David? Read Bacharach’s memoir and you’ll know why. He might describe a beautiful woman by saying she “had colossal tits“. It’s a damn good thing he didn’t write his own lyrics.

I’m making a poor argument simply because I don’t have the will, desire or stomach to push it, and I don’t wish to be academic. I don’t know who I would convince anyway, and I don’t care. But if the basic definition of literature is language art written down, then I know that songwriters have spoken to me personally as powerfully as poets and novelists have. I could grab examples out of the air all day long. Here are just a few:

My list of ten favorite American poets includes two songwriters.

Everyone has a personal story about a song. Here’s one of mine: The song Any World (That I’m Welcome To) by Steely Dan has entered my bones not just because it’s fun to listen to, but because of its words. I escaped an unhappy childhood home in a desperate act of survival and never went back. Any world that I’m welcome to is better than the one I come from. Those words have become a part of my life. I practice the art of written poetry, but it is the work of songwriters–songs like this one–that I can quote verbatim all day long.

As a teenager and just beginning to understand this thing called literature, I discovered Hemingway and Randy Newman at about the same time. I still think very highly of Hemingway (who won a Nobel, by the way). But it occurred to me then that some of Newman’s lyrics were as brilliantly written as Hemingway’s short stories. I am still of that opinion. It’s only my opinion. But listen to these snapshots of lives captured in a few perfectly chosen words.

OK (one argument runs) but DeLillo still deserves the award, because people should be encouraged to read books. They don’t need to be encouraged to listen to songs. That may be so. But what of the possible positive effects of Dylan’s award? Young songwriters might get the message that if they take themselves seriously, the world might too. That there might be more to songwriting than twerk-flavored bubblegum. That if they work at it the sky’s the limit. They might even win a Nobel someday.

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Beckett’s Labyrinth

The Minotaur, not Narcissus, presides over the birth of art
Rosalind Krauss

Robert Morris, Untitled (Pink Felt), 1970, © Robert Morris

Robert Morris, Untitled (Pink Felt), 1970, © Robert Morris

Patrick Bowles records a conversation he had with Samuel Beckett while the two were working on the English translation of Molloy. Bowles had shared a quotation from Blanchot:

Every philosophy of non-meaning rests on a contradiction as soon as it expresses itself. [p 111*]

For Bowles, there was no contradiction involved if one recognized and respected the two separate “levels” of world and language. For Beckett there was only one level: the human being in the world. If a human being is to seek the truth in his relations to language and world, then he cannot represent himself as outside the world. And if the world does not correspond to human categories of meaning, then man “must represent himself as a part of…. this movement of the unmeaningful.” One may characterize this paradox as an act of language which rests on a contradiction.

Looking at it this way, if the contradiction is not embraced, then one is obliged to enter a discourse of infinite regress. Beckett added that this kind of writing can “kill a man”, emphasizing that men have indeed been killed by it. I wish Bowles had asked for examples. But one might take a look at the endless logical loops of Watt to see a related malady of the mind.

A number of other details relating to this matter are worth contemplating. One might say that a possible escape from the contradiction exists—in silence. The contradiction is not bearable itself except with a certain regard to silence. Bowles records that “scientific language has no relation to silence, in this sense, for the reason that scientific language is essentially concerned with meaning something.” [115] The kind of writing that an artist like Beckett engaged in depends on silence. Beckett’s approach can be contrasted with classical notions of order. In their conversation, Beckett had compared Bowles’ idea of two “levels” with the traditional separation of world and language, adding that Renaissance painting was for this reason “a fake”. The word “fake” is very cogent here, since classical painting, even to this day, is considered, on a fundamental level, a representation of reality. If one follows Beckett, no art could be more unreal. If by “reality” we wish to address the truth about the world, then our art must address chaos and everything that represents: contradiction, paradox, meaninglessness, formlessness, ignorance, weakness and failure, addressing it not as one from the outside, but as a being in movement with it. One begins to glimpse the extraordinary difficulty Beckett had in writing his works, always attuned to these ideas of truth, contradiction and silence.

Lawrence E. Harvey’s conversations with Beckett, undertaken six years after Bowles’, are worth considering in this connection. For Beckett, according to Harvey, form (if by “form” one means the strength of order) always militates against the truth of being. He told Harvey that “an ejaculation would perhaps be the most perfect expression of being” [133], a statement that Georges Bataille might have appreciated (more on Bataille below). Beckett did not care for Robbe-Grillet’s novels in this regard, since their primary function was to support a new kind of form and that, Beckett felt, “quickly [became] another convention” (he preferred something like the prose of Celine’s later novels). The word “convention” is significant when we recall that the drama of a play like Waiting for Godot was based on the stripping away of all conventions. And yet Beckett did not simply spew out his works. We know that he labored intensely over them. He did not ejaculate words (Bataille, by contrast, wrote a lot of rather poor poetry, reserving the better part of his labors for philosophy). He wrote such lines as:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

To emphasize his association of form with order and strength, Beckett told Harvey that Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures were far greater than his completed works. The difficulty of Beckett’s task may be glimpsed in his claim to “discover a syntax of weakness” [135]. And here we are reminded of the manner in which he parted ways with James Joyce—Joyce the synthesizer, endeavoring to put all of human culture into his work, and Beckett the analyzer, taking it all out, while searching for a way to address ignorance and failure, for that “syntax of weakness”. Failure, weakness and ignorance were far more fertile fields for Beckett than the strength of form and the architecture of human knowledge. Look at any of his works, from Watt to Krapp.

The phrase “syntax of weakness” reminds me of a phrase of Bataille’s, so it might be of interest to pause on the words of one of those philosophers of “non-meaning”. In The Labyrinth, an early essay from the 1930’s, Bataille wrote:

At the basis of human life there exists a principle of insufficiency…. The sufficiency of each being is endlessly contested by every other. Even the look that expresses love and admiration comes to me as a doubt concerning my reality. A burst of laughter or the expression of repugnance greets each gesture, each sentence or each oversight through which my profound insufficiency is betrayed—just as sobs would be the response to my sudden death, to a total and irremediable omission.

This uneasiness on the part of everyone grows and reverberates, since at each detour, with a kind of nausea, men discover their solitude in empty night.
Visions of Excess, p 172

For some time now it has been our task not to build a cathedral or any kind of monument, but to leave a record of our labors through a labyrinth that others may use to labor through theirs. And for that same amount of time we have been engaged in a far more profound renaissance, a truer one, if you will, that goes back to the ancient caves.

Robert Morris, Philadelphia Labyrinth, 1974, © Robert Morris

Robert Morris, Philadelphia Labyrinth, 1974, © Robert Morris


* Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Beckett Remembering Remembering Beckett, Arcade publishing, New York, 2006

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The Sad Cup of Coffee: a note on personification

I’ve had cold coffee and hot coffee, good coffee and lousy coffee, but I’ve never had a sad cup of coffee.
—Robert Rauschenberg

the spirit of truth must guide us in some sort, even in our enjoyment of fallacy.
—John Ruskin

Personification in poetry making is perhaps unavoidable, given the fact that we are human beings and poetry is an entirely human activity. It is tempting to broach the matter in philosophical terms, particularly that of phenomenology, noting its divergence with analytic philosophy. But I am not nearly equipped in necessary degree or kind to discuss it in these terms. Suffice to say I am biased on the phenomenological side of perception and it might be fair to describe Francis Ponge, the writer I look to as a master of the type of poetry I prefer, as a phenomenological poet. Let it stand as a signpost to a direction that one better equipped than myself might profitably go.

I will note in passing or preamble that a cup of coffee is itself an entirely human thing: a particular modification, manipulation or entirely human application of coffee beans. It is often used, in fact—the cup of coffee—in concert with the act of writing in any of its guises. I don’t doubt that it is taken for granted by those for whom it is so ready at hand what an extravagance this beverage is. The beans are harvested, roasted, delivered, packaged and stored and then, upon purchase by the consumer, they are ground and submitted via any number of techniques to nearly boiling water and, finally, often sweetened by any number of sweeteners and embellished with cream, both of which of course involve their own manufacturing and distribution processes. It takes a civilization to have a cup of coffee (and don’t, either, forget the cup, the techniques and tools for heating the water, the environment in which the preparation occurs, etc).

One might say, in a manner of speaking, that only those with access to a cup of coffee are in a position to engage in an act of poetry. If one is lucky, for example, to get a drink of clean water and a crust of bread or a few grains of rice it is hard to imagine poetry entering the list of concerns. Does this mean then that a cup of coffee is always a lucky cup of coffee, a fortunate one or even an extravagant one? Say “yes” and must one also say “yes” to the sad one or any kind at all other than “cold”, “hot”, “good”, “lousy”, etc?

Surely, considering the above, it is a sad state of affairs to sip a cup of coffee while sad. But we need not go so far as to suggest the cup of coffee itself is unfortunate or sad, even if its drinker is. Ruskin says as much.

But considering no cup of coffee exists outside a set of human concerns, it will not be possible to address it as a theme, subject or poetic object without at least implicitly acknowledging humanity. And that sounds kind of dumb, and certainly inadequate. After all, did we not just agree that any act of poetry, being an entirely human act, does not take place outside human concerns? More dumb-sounding statements, and compounded inadequacy. Here my lack of philosophical training shows grievously.

I said that personification in poetry making is perhaps unavoidable…. Let me now throw in a sprinkling of statements and claims (or aims) made by Francis Ponge:

The object is always more important, more interesting, more capable (full of rights): it has no duty whatsoever toward me, it is I who am obliged to it. (Banks of the Loire)

…. man will make marvelous strides if he returns to things…. and applies himself to studying them and expressing them…. in their essence as in their details. But at the same time he must remake them in the logos starting from the materials of the logos, which is to say speech. (Notes for a Bird)

The point is to describe the sky clearly, just as it appeared to me and impressed me so deeply.

From this description, or following from it, will rise in simple terms the explanation of my deep emotion.


If it’s possible to found a science whose matter would be aesthetic impressions, I want to be the man of that science (La Mounine)

La Mounine is the functional opposite of a pathetic fallacy. Rather than reducing a natural phenomenon to the emotion of a poet, Ponge went to the phenomenon first. But of course his writing is full of personification. Poetry is for people, after all. One does not really give a voice to things, and where, I’d like to know, did he claim to do that? His work is about man’s relationship to the world through the medium of language. “I try,” he said in an interview, “in the verbal world to do something which has as much concrete existence as the objects that I describe.” [The Sun Placed in the Abyss, p96] That reminds me of another thing Rauschenberg said: “I don’t want a picture to look like something it isn’t, I want it to look like something it is.” [Off the Wall, p87] But what of that sad cup of coffee that Rauschenberg claimed to encounter in Ginsberg’s Howl? Well, there are catatonic pianos and dreadful typewriters (also holy ones) in there, but I can’t find a sad cup of coffee anywhere.




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