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Thomas Fink

David Shapiro’s ‘Possibilist’ Poetry

In this issue of Jacket you can read:
button Thomas Fink: David Shapiro’s ‘Possibilist’ Poetry
button David Shapiro (in conversation with John Tranter, 1984)
button David Shapiro: Six poems (from A Burning Interior, 2000)
button Carl Whithaus — Immediate Memories: on the Poetry of David Shapiro
button Nathan Hauke: Meditations on David Shapiro: Memory and ‘Lateness’
button Kent Johnson: Poem Upon a Typo Found in an Interview of Kenneth Koch,
Conducted by David Shapiro
In Jacket 15: David Shapiro’s 1969 interview with the late Kenneth Koch.

This piece is 2,200 words or about five printed pages long.

During his nearly forty year poetic career, David Shapiro, born in 1947, has often been linked with John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett, Joe Ceravolo, Frank Lima, and others associated with the New York School, itself a heterogeneous grouping of poets. It is a matter of historical record that ‘senior members’ of the New York School enabled Shapiro to get his early start and that he has, in turn, supported writers of the ‘school’ in his own editing and criticism. However, I believe that it is a disservice to the complexity of his poetry to confine him to this affiliative frame.

Another diverse (and, these days, tremendously influential) ‘school,’ Language Poetry, has absorbed the influence of New York School innovations, along with those of Stein, the Objectivists, Black Mountain, and various others in ways that bear substantial comparison with Shapiro’s exploratory poetry and poetics. Among the Language Poets, perhaps only Michael Palmer has cited Shapiro as a fellow traveler, but in the crucial period of the seventies, it is clear that their cultural spheres were significantly overlapping: members of the Language School and Shapiro were grappling with the ‘defamiliarizing’ poetics of Russian Formalism, the language theory of late Wittgenstein, and Poststructuralist critical theory.

In an article that acknowledges a certain degree of common ground between Shapiro and the Language Poets, Carl Whithaus asserts: ‘Shapiro’s poetry,’ unlike Language Writing, ‘is not about revelation or the production of meaning; rather it is about loss and memory, those fleeting traces of the past inscribed imperfectly in words.’ I must insist that issues involving ‘the production of meaning’ cannot take a back seat to any other component of Shapiro’s work, even as ‘loss and memory’ are also major concerns.

Opening the title-section of the title-sequence of his most recent book, A Burning Interior (2002), Shapiro, as in various earlier poems, articulates compelling figures of ‘tracing’ as indicative of the problematic of representation, whether of the past or of immediate intensities: ‘Burning Interior// of a copy of nothing/ or more precisely a series/ of xerox sketches of/ burning interior-exteriors...’ (1). In diverse fashions, Shapiro’s work and Language Poetry both feature vigorous investigation of how arbitrary or logical placement of ‘interiors’/ ‘exteriors,’ distinctions between supposed ‘origins’ and ‘copies,’ and designations of ‘nothing’ and ‘substance’ arise and may be contested in the uses of language.

At the outset, it is important to note that poets like Palmer, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Barrett Watten, Charles Bernstein, and Bruce Andrews have strongly contextualized their poetic theory and praxis as Marxist. David Shapiro, whose politics come through in the poetry as distinctly left liberal, has never done so. An oft-cited passage in Ron Silliman’s essay, ‘Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World’ (first published in 1977) suggests why he and other Language Poets consider the destabilization of referentiality a crucial Marxist gesture. Silliman reads the ‘passing’ of ‘language... into a capitalist stage of development’ as ‘an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word, with corresponding increases in its expository, descriptive, and narrative capacities, preconditions for the invention of “realism”, the illusion of reality in capitalist thought’ (The New Sentence 10). For him, ‘capitalism’ ‘narrows’ ‘the function of reference in language... into referentiality.’

Whether or not he would agree with Silliman’s specific historical analysis of cause and effect, Shapiro in his John Ashbery An Introduction to the Poetry (1979), demonstrates massive suspicion of ‘realist’ narration and the presumption of referential solidity, and he also frequently insists upon the importance of ‘the tangibility of the word’: ‘One of the central functions of an “abstract” poetry’ like Ashbery’s ‘is to be aware of itself as non-discursive palpability. Such poetry is involved in particularity without a stable ground’ (175). These remarks are uncannily pertinent to prose-poems of the late seventies like Ron Silliman’s Tjanting and Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, whose sentences feature a tremendous amount of precise, ‘worldly’ description without pointing to a narrative or discursive center. (Of course, many Language poets have acknowledged the influence of Ashbery’s most syntactical disjunctive, experimental poetry on their own work.)

When Rae Armantrout validates ‘language-oriented writing’ as ‘work’ that ‘sees itself and sees the world,’ thus behaving in an ‘ambi-centric’ way, she praises writers like Susan Howe, Carla Harryman, and Hejinian who ‘bring the underlying structures of language/ thought into consciousness’ (546). Many—perhaps most—of Shapiro’s poems illustrate these kinds of focus. In ‘November Twenty Seventh,’ a poem published in 1983, the reiterated term ‘nothing’ marks the negative scrutiny of referentiality’s assertions of stable ground:

I’ve built nothing; you are the architect.
You are near me like the sound of an archaic car.
I know that I love the verb not to know.
Do you love it? The distance is like a Chinese garden.
I pluck pomegranates out of the Halloween stores.
Then I keep looking at this phrase like summer hills.
The mountain represents nothing, the mountain air
Represents nothing, but two birds seem bad enough.
In these things there is an immense exile like a surface:
And when we try to stop expressing it, words are successful. (To an Idea 76)

In an essay entitled ‘Migratory Meaning,’which stresses that readers are trained and thus seek to bring all the parts of a literary text into relation, and to do so as ‘parsimoniously’ (115) as possible, Ron Silliman lists aesthetic devices in a poem by Joseph Ceravolo that strenuously resist this effort and, thus, in Armantrout’s terms, cause readers to be conscious of ‘underlying’ linguistic ‘structures’: ‘key terms which resist specificity’; ‘evidence that the title does not “name” the poem as a whole, but functions instead as a caption’; ‘a seeming rejection of anaphoric connection between sentences’ (The New Sentence 119).

Certainly, Shapiro’s title, ‘November Twenty Seventh,’ provides no awareness of the poem’s totality. The only seasonal reference is to Halloween, and, if this is supposed to be a diary entry, it grants no access to the ‘inner life’ of a diarist. As a ‘caption,’ the poem could refer to the day it was written, and the date may have some private resonance to the poet, or it could ‘represent nothing.’ As in much of John Ashbery’s work, identification of speaker and addressee and their placement in a dramatic context in Shapiro’s poem above are unavailable. The indeterminacy of the pronouns ‘infects’ and is further ‘infected’ by other undefined ‘key terms.’ What is it that ‘the architect’ has ‘built,’ literally or metaphorically, and why is the speaker unable to ‘build’ anything? Is the ‘mountain’ an architectural or linguistic structure or natural ‘thing’? And how and why is it, along with the surrounding ‘air’ (atmosphere or song?) and ‘birds’ (real birds or odd people?), not a source of representation? How can ‘exile’ inhere in the solid presence of ‘a mountain,’ unless that mountain is but a word?

On the one hand, at least in the first six of the poem’s ten lines, ‘rejection of anaphoric connection between sentences’ is apparent in the strange shifts from image to image. For example, how does the ‘Chinese garden’ relate to the ‘Halloween stores,’ as if any store is confined to the sale of items for one holiday (other than Christmas)? And yet, there is a tenuous ‘narrative’ push/ pull involving a ‘you’ and an ‘I,’ and one may impose a scenic quasi-continuity in the movement from ‘hills,’ to ‘mountain air,’ to ‘birds,’ and finally to the ‘we’ (you and I?) asked to refrain from ‘expression’ to allow language to ‘succeed’ when its users do not presume to make it represent more than it can.

The concluding sentence does seem to indicate that the poem can be read as a performance of Armantrout’s ‘ambi-centric’ gesture: poetry attending to its own materials and representative possibilities and, in some mediated way, to the ‘world’ of unstable selves, ‘mountains,’ and ‘birds.’ Perhaps the ‘I’ is the poet who does not ‘construct’ language (the ‘you’), since the ‘architecture’ of linguistic possibilities precedes him/ her. In writing a poem, the poet expresses ‘love’ for (and perhaps frustration about) his own inability to know and experiences the intense pleasure and/ or pain and, finally, acceptance of an ‘exile’ of phenomenological imagery from symbolism and meditative coherence, the severance of ‘surface’ (or what Shapiro in the Ashbery book calls ‘palpability’) from ‘depth.’ Given all of the disjunction and sounding of ‘nothing’ in ‘November Twenty Seventh,’ such a reading can be no more than plausible, if unverifiable speculation.

In concert with the skepticism about narration and transparent ‘referentiality,’ both Shapiro and many of the Language poets are deeply committed to an expansion of poetic possibilities and a resistance to limitation of stylistic avenues. In ‘An Interview with Hannah Mockel-Rieke,’ Charles Bernstein observes ‘that the interconnection among the poetic styles attended to in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E has to do with the rejection of certain traditionally accepted techniques for poem-making and an openness to alternative techniques — together with a distrust of the experimental as an end to itself,’ as well as the refusal to valorize ‘any new style or technique or device’ as ‘the gold pot at the end of the rainbow’; for Bernstein, ‘a commitment to the need for a multiplicity of stylistic approaches among a multiplicity of poets, and even for one poet’ (My Way 64) is central.

Admittedly, Shapiro’s forays into prose-poetry have been less sustained than those of many Language poets. However, sequences in his last three books juxtapose different strophic and stanzaic patterns, prose and verse, relatively coherent narrative elements, dream elements, and fragments of meditation. The elegiac opening of the sixteenth section of the sequence, ‘Voice’ (1994) entitled ‘A Note and a Poem by Joe Ceravolo in a Dream,’ provides a cogent lyric explanation, not only of Ceravolo’s approach, but of the drive of Shapiro’s own poetics to expand possibilities:

He was a poet of grammar
and a love poet and what
is more he showed the re-
lationship between grammar
and love. When he perturbed
syntax he seemed to in-
vert? reinvent? universe?
the possibilities of love
by making so many multiple
relations possible and/or
present or present tense.
He is a possibilist poet
entrances with its naïve
or Utopian anti-grammar. (After a Lost Original 70)

Rather than being ‘anti-grammar,’ Shapiro often pushes for ‘Utopian alternative grammar’ that abandons unitary utterance for multiplicity. The fragmentation within (or following) the second sentence in the passage above is a good example. Two infinitives are followed by a noun (‘universe’) that can either be interpreted as the object of the infinitives, banging against the most obvious object following the last question mark, or as a new verb coinage.

Shapiro’s question hinges on the subtle shift of the second to last letter in two verbs (‘r’ to ‘n’). According to the first reading, the poet asks whether Ceravolo desires through syntactical innovation to shuffle the ‘universe’s’ existing elements or to make new ones, and ‘the possibilities of love’ stand in an apposite, hence equivalent, relation to ‘universe.’ According to the second reading, Shapiro seeks to know whether his late friend and colleague attempts to ‘invert’ and/or ‘reinvent’ and/or bring a ‘universe’ into being out of the materials of love’s ‘possibilities.’ (The verb ‘universe’ is not merely a synonym for ‘universalize about’; it is something more actively generative.) There is no compulsion to choose between the two alternatives, but their co-presence tells us that multiplicity exists in the uncertainty of grammatical and syntactic relations, as well as Shapiro’s heterogeneous imagery and frequently surreal tropes. Of course, those who have scorned Language Poetry tend to confuse multiplicity of these kinds—the insistent cultivation of possibility that can be characterized as ‘possibilism’—with total randomness and utter unreadability.

The second example of ‘perturbed syntax’ in Shapiro’s passage involves the lack of punctuation separating the weird enjambment of ‘poet’ and ‘entrances,’ the unsure identification of ‘entrances’ as plural noun or third-person singular verb, and the jarring use of the pronomial adjective ‘its.’ An ordinary sentence might read: ‘He is a possibilist poet whose/ work entrances with its naïve/ or Utopian anti-grammar’ or ‘...poet who/ entrances with his naïve/....’ or ‘He is a possibilist poet./ He provides entrances with its [the poetry’s] naïve/....’ None of my versions have the compression, lyric charge, or range of what Shapiro wrote, and that distinction indicates that commentary can only chase after the poetry without catching it.

Could the Marxist contexts of Language Poetry significantly negate my attempt to sketch common ground between the ‘possibilist’ practices of Language writers and those of David Shapiro? Leaving this question to other readers and other critical occasions, I maintain that it is important for Shapiro’s work to be part of the general conversation about contemporary poetry that, in Silliman’s terms, advocates for ‘the tangibility of the word’ over ‘the illusion(s) of reality.’

Works Cited

Armantrout, Rae. ‘Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?’ In the American Tree. Ed. Ron Silliman. Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 1986. 544-546.

Bernstein, Charles. My Way: Speeches and Poems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Shapiro, David. A Burning Interior. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 2002.

———. After a Lost Original. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1994.

———. John Ashbery: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

———. To an Idea. Woodstock, New York: Overlook Press, 1983.

Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York, New York: Roof Books, 1995.

Whithaus, Carl. ‘Immediate Memories: (Nostalgic) Time and (Immediate) Loss in the Poetry of David Shapiro.’ Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association. (1997)

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