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Genevieve Kaplan

How we read Caroline Bergvall’s “Via” and Why we should care


Fig’s “Via”

Section 1

In reading Caroline Bergvall’s 2005 book Fig, the poem “Via: 48 Dante Variations” stands out for its straightforward appearance. Bergvall’s other works in Fig often do not look like poems in any expected sense, instead appearing as prose paragraphs or fragments, often using unconventional elements like hyphens, ellipses, slashes, or even blank space to fill up the pages. Because Bergvall is first a sound artist, experiencing her representations of predominately sonic poems on the page can be daunting or confusing. “Via” is one of the more poetic-looking and less visually demanding pieces of the book. Composed largely in tercets, punctuated by names and dates, “Via” emphasizes its materiality — the poem is a collection of 47 English translations of the first three lines of Dante’s Inferno. These translations, rather then being performed by the author herself, were gathered from the British Library, painstakingly copied and arranged by Bergvall.

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Bergvall introduces each poem in Fig with a prose interlude, sharing the occasion for and the process of making each piece. Before we start reading “Via,” then, we are invited to understand its creation. Bergvall explains her method of “counting and collating” and of “writing, of copying out, of shadowing the translators’ voicing of the medieval text.” We understand that Bergvall’s role in creating the text has more to do with accumulating language than generating it. “Via” begins with an epigraph, citing Canto 1 of the Inferno reproduced in the original Italian. The source of the text is clearly identified, though the author (except in the poem’s subtitle: “48 Dante Variations”), year, and edition of the original passage are not noted. The poem begins:

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1.   Along the journey of our life half way
      I found myself again in a dark wood
      wherein the straight road no longer lay
          (Dale, 1996)
2.  At the midpoint in the journey of our life
      I found myself astray in a dark wood
     For the straight path had vanished.
          (Creagh and Hollander, 1989)   (lines 1-8) [1]

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“Via’s” formatting (which relies on alphabetical — rather than chronological — organization of the accumulated translations), the numbers to the left of each version, and the careful notation of author and year contribute to a reading that emphasizes the materiality, rather than the content, of the poem. As the poem is seemingly laid out so plainly, “Via’s” presentation, is also notable for what it is missing. Some omissions seem particularly curious. Why not provide the first names of translators? Why not give a space between each translation and the next, further emphasizing materiality? Why not list translations in the order located, or the most popular, or the year published? Why not remind us of the Inferno’s original publication date to give the reader some perspective?

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Clearly “Via” generates a lot of questions, but we can also read straight through “Via” as we would any poem, savoring the small shifts and the sonic progression Bergvall emphasizes through her alphabetic organization. Focusing on content, we can see that the circular, repeating pattern of translations reinforces the scene described in Dante’s first tercets. As readers we are put in the place of Dante’s narrator, “perhaps following a lead, in the dark of the dark, in the woods of the woods.” Though the story told in the text can never move beyond a “midway stage” (line 44), and the speaker in the poem is never rightly placed upon his path, there is some satisfaction in finding that though we begin “wherein the straight road no longer lay” (line 3) and are told that “the straight path had vanished” (line 7), ultimately as the poem ends we find it is only the speaker who has “lost the path that does not stray” (line 181).  

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Though “Via” begins with a narrator distressingly unable to locate himself and looking for a path that doesn’t exist, the poem ends on a positive note as, comfortingly, it turns out only the speaker and not the path “had gone astray” (lines 161, 165, 169 and 173). The fault of being lost goes back and forth between the speaker (“I had wandered” (line 19)) and the larger world (“The right road was wholly lost and gone” (line 118)). It is worth observing how much of the poem, especially early on, relies on the speaker eschewing responsibility for being lost. In the first 39 translations listed, the speaker accepts responsibility for his predicament only eight times. In the other stanzas, the speaker suddenly “found himself” (lines 2, 6, 14, 22, 25, 29, 37, 41, 45, 62, etc.) lost through no apparent fault of his own and repeatedly and passively states that the right path “had been lost” (lines 34, 42, 63, 114, and 138, italics mine), assigning blame to some force larger than his person. However, the notion of fault is explicitly attributed to the speaker in six of the last eight translations. “I had gone astray” (lines 161, 169, and 173) is mentioned three times; the narrator states “I had missed the oath and gone astray” (line 165); and the narrator again reminds us, “I had lost the straight and narrow path to stray” (line 157). The poem ends by reinforcing the speaker’s culpability: “I had lost the path that does not stray” (line 181, italics mine).

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As we continue to read through the poem, we begin to see that Bergvall’s narrator is no longer Dante’s narrator. As we enter the world of “Via” we are no longer following Dante on his journey to find Beatrice, we are tracing the mood and predicament of a new speaker. Unable to follow the traditional narrative arc of the Inferno, readers of “Via” construct a new reading from the translated excerpts of the Dante’s text. “Via’s” narrator is not circling the rings of hell; instead he is trapped between the motives of self and world, learning the repercussions of sleep and inattention. Suffering the knowledge that ultimately one’s self is responsible for one’s predicament, Bergvall’s speaker finds that blaming the world will get him nowhere.  

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Moving away from the content in the poem, the poem’s structure also invites a certain kind of reading. Fig’s presentation of “Via,” listing the authors and years of the translations underneath the lines, invites readers to think not only about Dante’s journey but the way they understand both Dante’s journey and Dante’s text. The differing translations listed in “Via” invite readers to reassess whether their understanding of the Inferno is the correct one. Similarly, the listing of so many incongruous translations induces readers to examine the act of translating, as well as to wonder how the English-speaking world might have purposely or inadvertently interpreted the text in the last 200 years. For example, might the shifts in attributing accountability be traced to cultural or religious shifts having to do with autonomy? How does the telling of a past- or present-tense story influence our reading experience?  Marjorie Perloff explains the list of translations Bergvall makes in “Via” as “collapsing historical time and emphasizing the relativist nature of translation. The resulting musical structure emphasizes similarity where we might expect difference and yet the alphabetization (‘Halfway… ’, ‘In the middle of… ’), reminds the reader or listener that no two of the translations are exactly the same” (Perloff). Bergvall’s highlighting of differences in translation might help readers engage with the poem on multiple levels — as a reading of the Inferno, as the completely new poem “Via,” or as a combination of the two — and re-consider that any reading they perform is just one on a spectrum of potential readings of a spectrum of potential poems.

Chain’s “Via”

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First presented as a sound-performance piece in the year 2000, “Via” did not appear on the page until 2003. In its first print incarnation in the journal Chain (2003), “Via” has a different appearance than its later publication in Fig. First, the work is listed (both on the page and in the table of contents) as having two authors of equal weight: Dante and Caroline Bergvall. The editors explain this choice in their introduction: “Because we see translation as the result of a rigorous conversation, we decided to put the author and translator names beside each other.” While this presentation emphasizes Bergvall’s and Dante’s roles in the creation of “Via” and implies that Bergvall’s actions in writing the poem most closely match those of a translator, the actual translators of Dante’s text are oddly hidden. In Chain, the poem is separated into two parts. “First Series” lists 48 translations in alphabetical order and “Second Series” lists the authors in chronological order (not the order in which they appear in “First Series,” but by each translation’s publication date). The organizing system used here obfuscates, as “First Series” and “Second Series” do not immediately match up. Let’s take a look at the first few lines of each:

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      FIRST SERIES
1    Along the journey of our life half way
      I found myself again in a dark wood
      wherein the straight road no longer lay
2    At the midpoint in the journey of our life
      I found myself astray in a dark wood
      For the straight path had vanished.          (lines 1-6)

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     SECOND SERIES
20     Rev. Henry R. Cary, 1805
17     John A. Carlyle, 1844
46     Cayley, 1851
34     Thomas Brooksbank, 1854          (lines 1-4)

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Listing the authors by publication date helps the reader to see how many translations of the Inferno took place and when. For example, using Bergvall’s listing here, we can see that no translations took place between 1805 and 1844 but six new translations were published between 1911 and 1918. The most English-language translations were published in the 1990’s, with eight separate translations published in the five-year span between 1993 and 1998. This surprising information may cause readers to second-guess the accuracy of Bergvall’s recordings [2], but it also makes us wonder what was going on in the mid-1990’s that made new translations so in demand? Why were 17 new editions necessary between 1970 and 2000 but only seven between 1930 and 1960?  Instead of looking inside “Via” for meaning, readers of Chain are encouraged to reflect back on literary history and the whims of society to understand some aspects of the poem.

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Chain’s presentation of “Via” further diminishes the relationship of the translator to the work. Highlighting Bergvall’s and Dante’s names but relegating the translators to “Second Series,” making readers hunt to match up a translator with his passage, puts the emphasis on the poem’s content and the act of accumulation. Instead of inviting comparison between translations, “Via” continually moves onward to the next “variation.” Though presented after the “variations,” having two subtitles (as opposed to footnotes or some other method) does help “Second Series” to seem equally as prominent as “First Series.” Instead of “Second Series” working as merely a citation for “First Series,” the second poem invites a reading (albeit a difficult one) in its own right. We might read the poem “Second Series” by noting repetitions, anomalies, or other factors. One may begin to notice only three translators named are women [3] and that five translators are named James or John. One cannot deny the incantatory qualities of “10 James Sibbald, 1884 / 43 James Innin Minchin, 1885 / 35 John Augustine Wilstach, 1888” (lines 10-12). Read aloud, the “poem” sounds ominous. While it’s a bit of a stretch to call “Second Series” a poem, its equal footing with “First Series” encourages us to attempt a consideration.

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In Chain, “First Series,” too, reads differently. Instead of reflecting on Dante’s text, as Fig’s presentation of “Via” encourages, the version shown in Chain implicitly gives Bergvall more authorial credit by pushing the tercets closer together, emphasizing content over materiality. “Via” becomes not a series of short texts by Dante but a long poem by Bergvall. Glancing at the appearance of “First Series,” Bergvall’s role can be understood as writing (or translating) a poem, not merely arranging a series. Just in the formatting, Chain’s “Via” mimics the presentation of a poem in translation followed by the poem in its original language. As we begin to look more closely at the text, as well, we have a different experience than our reading in Fig. In “First Series” the speaker in “Via” is trapped by the tight “variations” which allow no time to pause or reflect. He continually repeats and slightly alters his steps, but ends up not with acceptance of responsibility (as in Fig); rather, he is presented with a list of names that similarly leads him nowhere. It’s less satisfying to attempt a reading of the form and content of Chain’s “Via” as instead of closure we get “Armand Schwerner, 2000” (line 48).

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The very inclusion of “Via” in this issue of Chain is also noteworthy. The 2003 issue of the journal focuses on “translucinación,” a word “made up by Andrés Ajens to describe how translation is a form of reading and writing that creates new work, new conversations” (Osman and Spahr iii). Chain wants to highlight the field of translation, and “Via” by merely presenting translations (rather than performing them) is making a similar move. Bergvall explicitly uses translation to create a new work, as she chooses to bind already translated material together to make a poem that did not previously exist. Further, Bergvall’s brief note at the end of “Via” supports the kind of conversation the editors want to spark. Bergvall writes, “Translations into English of Dante’s Inferno as archived by the British Library — Spring 2000 (700 years after the date fixed by Dante for the start of the journey).” Through “Via (48 Dante Variations),” the author brings her version of the “archive,” before only available to those with access to the British Library, to a different set of readers. “Via” literally uses translation as a form of (or replacement for) writing and makes possible a conversation that was impossible before.

Conceptual “Via”

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The poem’s inclusion in the translucinación issue of Chain also introduces the question of “Via’s” relationship to Oulipian writing, a practice originating in 1960’s France which can be understood to include “all writing… subjected to severely restricted methods” (Mathews 205). Paul Fournel, the movement’s current president, explains “the role assigned to Oulipo is… that of proposing a constraint, giving a model of that constraint, and thus, allowing it to meet the text that will take on its form.” In their introduction, the editors of Chain expressly state

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We didn’t want an issue that just collected works from around the world. As we edited, we avoided fake translations, machine translations, homophonic translations, and oulipo-inspired translation procedures. We believe these methods do have some value (and we have included a few examples of such translations to represent the many that were submitted to us), but we wanted an issue that explored how translation might be a starting point for something that remained in explicit dialogue with the original work while at the same time transforming this work into something new.          (Chain iii)

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“Oulipian-inspired translation procedures,” a category into which Bergvall’s “Via” clearly falls since it follows a formal procedural restriction, are dismissedby the editors, relegated to a parenthetical and dismissed as having “some value” but really not enough. As translucinación, according to the editors, seems to accurately reflect the project of creating new work expressed by Oulipo, [4] the subsequent devaluation of Oulipian-inspired texts is an odd choice. Ultimately, the editors’ introduction, though neither explaining Oulipo nor specifically labeling “Via” as Oulipian serves to provide the poem only a precarious position in the journal. Chain’s introduction encourages readers to question if Bergvall’s poem or other procedural works can act as relevant examples of translucinación. After reading the introduction we wonder if “Via” is valid or if it should, as the editors imply, be dismissed as mere exercise.

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It is certainly not incorrect to label “Via” as coming out of an Oulipian tradition. Perloff calls “Via” Bergvall’s “most explicit Oulipo work.” [5] Editors Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim include “Via” as well as two of Bergvall’s essays about constrained writing [6] in their 2007 anthology The /n/oulipian Analects, “an alphabetical survey of constrained writing in modern English.” The anthology, which records work and ideas presented at a 2005 “noulipo” conference organized by the editors, [7] proposes that a re-appropriation of Oulipian ideas is taking place and cites “Via” as one example.

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However, an Oulipian constraint-based presentation of “Via” remains somewhat flawed. Bergvall’s own note in Chain, as it points readers to the content as much as or more than the process, contradicts a procedural or constraint-based reading. Using the start of Dante’s journey rather than the publication date of the Inferno reflects the plot-based content of the piece rather than the process of its making — after all, Bergvall’s own collection of tercets doesn’t begin until 1805, less than 200 years before the publication of “Via.” [8] In his review of The /n/oulipian Analects, Stan Apps singles out “Via” as “particularly notable” and describes the poem’s project as “creating an elliptical narrative of the history of the text’s reception by English-language translators” (italics mine), again focusing on content rather than process.

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While no one criticizes (or glorifies) “Via” as being purely Oulipian, the notion of Oulipian process often acts not to illuminate the text for readers but to narrow the actions of the text and even the idea of its creation. The inclusion of the poem under the heading of constraint-based writing discourages other potentially meaningful readings of “Via” and makes them unnecessarily secondary.  Emphasizing the idea of ”oulipo-inspired” writing, as the editors of Chain do, or as “post-Oulipian” writing as Viegener and Wertheim do is correct, but ultimately their labels act to invalidate and overpower the potential for poetry in “Via.” If “what constraint does is stab meaning in the back” (according to Paul Fournel), “Via” stands out both because of and despite its Oulipian methods. On its own terms, Bergvall’s poem remains quite readable as its constraint only reinforces its meaning.  

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However, labeling the work limits readers’ potential to view the poem as a poem instead of one participant in a greater scheme. We can see this problem even more explicitly when “Via” is cited as an example of conceptual writing, as this particular labeling of “Via” results in a clear undermining of the poem’s power. Kenneth Goldsmith lists the work in his “Gallery of Conceptual Writing,” alongside texts like Craig Claude Closky’s The First Thousand Numbers Classified In Alphabetical Order, which performs exactly as its title indicates. Goldsmith’s categorization of “Via” is troubling, especially as he explains (in “Uncreativity as a Creative Practice”)  that one determining factor of conceptual writing is that “we’re happy that the idea exists without ever having to open the book.” While this attitude is perfectly valid, [9] it perpetuates the myth that the idea should not only take precedence over the product but that the product itself is arbitrary. Like other presentations of “Via” as post-Oulipo or “/n/oulipo,” labeling the text as “conceptual” allows readers to point to “Via” and agree, yes, that’s exactly what it is. But concept is only one facet of a successful work. Reading poetry through a single lens, no matter if it has to do with content or process, is almost always wrong. Anthologies, collections of “movements,” and lists like Goldsmith’s often encourage readers to look at the poem predominately through a single context it may not be asking for. [10]

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“Via” both belongs and is out of place in Goldsmith’s categorization. Bergvall’s “variations” are clearly poetry in a way that Goldsmith’s prose work Traffic [11] and Closky’s list of The First Thousand Numbers Classified In Alphabetical Order will never be. “Via” looks like a poem on the page, as it progresses in relatively short lines and jagged right margins. Bergvall’s numbering system may add a list-like, rather than poetic, quality, but the numbers also evoke the lineation markings often found alongside poems in anthologies. [12] Indisputably, “Via” also contains poetry, not prose. The various translations of Dante’s first tercet include lines by poetic notables such as Christina Rosetti, Robert Pinsky, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; Bergvall’s cited variations consistently draw on poetic devices such as rhyme, lineation, and alliteration. “Via,” unlike Goldsmith’s other examples, is explicitly formally and sonically aware. While “Via” undoubtedly fulfills aspects of Goldsmith’s notion of conceptual writing, Bergvall’s work also moves beyond concept to embrace and explore the more elemental expressions of poetry.  

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In his article “‘Lost Already Walking’: Carloline Bergvall’s ‘Via,’” Brian M. Reed likens “Via” to installation art, specifically to arrangements of found objects. Though Reed chooses to focus his discussion on “Via” as an aural text [13], he too supports a reading of the poem as concept. “In ‘Via,’” Reed writes, “Bergvall… seems to consider the most important part of the creative process complete after deciding on a generative algorithm.” “The artist’s stamp, what makes an artwork ‘by’ an individual, lies solely in this concept,” he explains. In Bergvall’s case, the concept is alphabetization, and limiting the translations included to those available in the British Library before May 2000. Reed’s comparison of Bergvall’s work to installation art, though, is apt, and also indicative of the way we are more comfortable exploring elements of conceptual visual art than we are examining experimental poetry. Labels such as “found poetry” or “conceptual writing” cannot quite encompass everything that “Via” contains. Most descriptions end up seeming dismissive. However, Reed’s comparison of “Via” to installation artist Félix Gonzáles-Torrez’s shiny candy spills models a way to accept and enjoy the resulting product of the poem (which too often gets overshadowed by descriptions of process). When confronted with Gonzáles-Torrez’s work, Reed notes, we are not so bowed by his concept that we forget to participate in the scenario he creates. Rather than a response that is quickly noted and dismissed, the candy spills ask for sensory participation through sight, smell, touch, and taste. This could be a way to read “Via” as well. Instead of ending with a reading that labels and moves on, we might push ourselves to ask: what else is there? What should we do with what is presented to us?

Bergvall’s “Via” (back to Fig)

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While it is tempting to categorize “Via” as a particular type of writing, one should not discount the author’s preferences. Bergvall’s writings, experiments, and sound poems encourage readers to struggle with the question of what her texts actually are. “Via” is particularly relevant to discuss as it resists categorization at the same time that it is claimed. Chain’s presentation of the poem seems straightforward, but just as the editors’ introduction points out “Via’s” Oulipian roots, the poem as presented on the page attempts to deny artificiality. In Fig, the poem “Via” becomes explicitly procedural, but Bergvall’s prose introduction asks readers to read the work as more naturally evolved. Looking at these two distinct versions of “Via”, we begin to see that it is not the poem itself so much as the way it is presented that makes categorization difficult.

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Bergvall’s prose discussion in Fig gives readers particular insight into the author’s own intentions and processes. If it is easier to dismiss a poem that relies mainly on concept, Bergvall anticipates and counters such disagreement in her explanations leading up to “Via.” “I had started this piece by accident,” she emphasizes, encouraging readers to imagine the poem began organically rather than conceptually. According to Bergvall, “Via” was a project the author “[stumbled] upon” rather than purposely sought out. In addition to downplaying the poem’s conceptual nature, the author goes on to detail the amount of work that went into creating the text, a “process [that took] some two years in all.” She writes,

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My task was mostly and rather simply, or so it seemed at first, to copy each first tercet as it appeared in each published version of the Inferno. To copy it accurately. Surprisingly, more than once, I had to go back to the books to double-check and amend an entry, a publication date, a spelling. Checking each line, each variation once, twice.          

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It almost appears as if Bergvall is protesting too much, as “double-checking” once or twice seems neither a particularly surprising nor labor-intensive activity, one that any author would expect to undertake before publication. A task that was simple “at first” did not become more complicated, just more time consuming. However, the author’s emphasis on “at first” and “surprisingly” again supports a natural rather than procedural development of “Via,” as well as a legitimization of her own authorship. Bergvall’s explanations inspire the reader to empathize with her task as a writer and comprehend the amount of work that went into creating something so seemingly easy [14]. Reading Bergvall’s prose, our assumption that the poem’s title (as well as the poem itself, which acts as the 48th variation mentioned in the subtitle: “48 Dante Variations” [15]) are her main contributions to “Via” is shown to be too simplistic. Bergvall’s note encourages us to believe that even “stumbling” upon the project may be viewed as an essential creative moment.  

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As “Via” looks more explicitly Oulipian, Bergvall apparently wants her process to appear more organic, more difficult, and more worthy. Contemporary presentations of the poem (in Fig, in The /n/oulipian Analects, on UbuwebSound) play up conceptual and Oulipian influences rather than downplay such factors by clearly acknowledging sources, pausing between “variations,” and taking inventory by listing numbers and dates. Bergvall herself, however, does not describe the text as explicitly Oulipian or conceptual, though looking at the poem readers find it easy to categorize as such. At the same time as recent presentations of “Via” explicitly acknowledge procedure and invite easier classification, Bergvall intensifies background information and attempts at justification and explanation. A one sentence description that sufficed in Chain becomes two pages of detailed discussion in Fig. Bergvall points out to Fig’s readers, “There are ways of acknowledging influence and models, by ingestion, by assimilation, by one’s total absorption in the material. To come to an understanding of it by standing it in it, by becoming it. … This was an illuminating, if disturbing, development.” According to the author, collating translations should not be considered mere busywork but in actuality is “illuminating” and even “disturbing.”

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Allowing that the process of creating a poem, particularly a constraint-based procedural poem, has merit is not a new idea, but the emphasis and placement of this discussion in Fig, before the presentation of the poetic text, is noteworthy. Can we not accept constraint-based or conceptual writing as valid on its own? Bergvall, by adding prose explanations to Fig, seems to agree that we can not, that perhaps we have neither the patience nor the inclination to fully examine a piece of writing which can be easily described in a single sentence. It’s easier to understand “Via” if we classify it as “noulipo,” or “conceptual poetry,” but if we are willing to also read it as a poem, on its own, our experience becomes richer. However, if we are told that “Via” “is a compiled list of translations into English of Dante’s opening lines,” and we believe the concept is of more importance than the product, we may be unlikely to take that next step.



Notes

[1] I’m using Bergvall’s own reading (on Ubuweb Sound) as a guide for determining line numbers. Because she does not differentiate the names and dates of translations from the other material of the poem when reading aloud, I feel they should be counted when assigning lineation.

[2] Bervall notes in Fig that she looked at all the “translations as archived by the British Library up until May 2000” but mentions she omitted “two editions archived as missing, the one archived as under restoration and the multiple unaltered editions by the same translators” (64). My preliminary online searches of the British Library indicate that Bergvall did not egregiously exclude relevant translations. However, Bergvall also mentions the addition of one translation to the Chain version that is later removed from Fig; though she says the “late edition broke the rule of the task,  its chronological cut-off point” (Fig 65), it appears that the translation later omitted is indicated as being completed in 1986, performed by “Kathy Acker via Don Quixote” (Chain 59). It is unclear what reason Bergvall had for excluding Acker’s text originally.

[3] The genders of “R.T. Bodey” and “C.H. Sisson” (Chain 59) cannot be determined from the text itself.

[4] If “the aim of the Oulipo is to invent (or reinvent) restrictions of a formal nature… and propose them to enthusiasts interested in composing literature” (Roubaud 38-39).

[5] However, Perloff goes on to call “Via” a “fascinating exercise,” again raising the question of validity: exercise vs. poem.

[6] Specifically, the anthology includes Bergall’s esays “Constraint, Time (or Georges Perec’s Lieux)” and “Writing in Situ.”

[7] “The purpose of the noulipo conference was to examine the legacy of Oulipian constraint-based writing among Anglophone writers,” according to the editors (Viegener and Wertheim 149). As the book gathers together texts from the participants of the conference, it is unclear if “Via” was performed at the event or merely an example included here. The editors explain, “rather than assemble a collection of papers, we have edited the critical pieces into a series of entries that reflect the major debates of the conference. Samples of the participants’ own creative writing practices read in the evening sessions, are printed as the authors presented them” (105).

[8] Similarly, the inclusion of “Via” and other texts in the noulipian conference and resulting anthology infers that Oulipians also are literary authors. However, Oulipo’s original definition has to do with allowing and inspiring the creation of texts rather than actually writing them. In “Via’s” next incarnation in Fig, the presentation (both Bergvall’s and the appearance on the page) changes somewhat dramatically. Bergvall begins moving toward a discussion and awareness of procedure. Bergvall fixes a technical problem she sees in the Chain version of the poem; she omits the “late addition [which] broke the rule of the task, its chronological cut-off point” (Fig 65).

[9] And it is clear that Goldsmith has no qualms with conceptual writing, especially as he includes his own book, Traffic, in this category.

[10] Beyond simply the label of “conceptual,” Goldsmith’s inclusion of “Via” brings up some troubling information about the state of literature. Goldsmith explains that conceptual writing is “framed through the discourse and economy of poetry” (“Conceptual”). It is because poetry is “freed from the market constraints” and because poetry is “non-economic,” according to Goldsmith (“Conceptual”), that conceptual writing is able to be discussed through the guise of poetry. As well as devaluing the poem in the larger realm of literature, this way of defining a poem by its market worth, rather than such elements as the poetic intentions of the author, the use of poetic language or form, or attention to sound or appearance, is overly narrow. If The First Thousand Numbers Classified In Alphabetical Order is a poem because of its concept as opposed to its aural or visual qualities, the poem no longer has to be poetic. This also brings up the problem of whether The First Thousand Numbers Classified in Alphabetical Order is literature at all, and if so, what that means about literariness. Is “conceptual literature” a valid subgenre? Or should “conceptual literature” be relegated to the realm of poetry and seen as lesser, as Goldsmith intimates?

[11] Traffic is an interesting example of how we classify works as “poetry.” The designation on the back cover indicates the book should be shelved a “Literature” but Goldsmith’s biography at the end of the text offers that he is “the author of eight books of poetry” (italics mine), Traffic ostensibly included.

[12] It is also interesting to note that Bergvall does not read the numbers aloud in the readings of “Via” available on UbuwebSound.

[13] This makes sense, as Bergvall tells us that “Via” was originally conceived of as a performance piece; she was interested in its “musical structure” and “shifting cadences” (Fig 64). But Bergvall’s “sonic text” (Fig 64) has adjusted from life in the ear to life on the page. Reed’s discussion of “Via” as a sound text is both useful and compelling, but I choose to focus on “Via’s” print presentations and the larger ramifications of our readings of them here.

[14] Bergvall’s note is also rather ironic, as there are easily recognizable errors in both the Fig and Chain presentations of “Via.” In Fig, T.W.Parsons’ 1893 translation is mistakenly attributed to Seamus Heaney (who is identified as the translator of both #6 and #16 in this version) (Fig 67). Chain’s chronological listing of texts either places Kathy Acker’s (later omitted) translation out of order or records the incorrect date for publication (Chain 59).

[15] The poem is the 48th translation in the Fig version of the text, as that presentation includes only 47 translations. In Chain’s version of “Via,” 48 translations are copied in the poem, leaving Bergvall to contribute only the arrangement and the title.



Works Cited

Apps, Stan. “Review” (Matias Viegener and Christine Wertheim, editors. The noulipian Analects. Les Figues Press, 2007). Octopus 10. 29 Nov 2008 http://www.octopusmagazine.com/issue10/reviews/noulipo.htm.

Bergvall, Caroline. “Via.” Fig. Cambridge: Salt, 2005.

–––. “Via.” Chain 10. Summer 2003. 55-59. http://people.mills.edu/jspahr/chain/chain10.pdf.

“Caroline Bergvall.” UbuWeb: Sound. 30 Nov 2008 http://www.ubu.com/sound/bergvall.html.

Fournel, Paul. “Constraint and Content.” The /n/oulipian Analects. Los Angeles: Les Figues, 2007. 39-50.

–––. “Oulipo at 45.” The Drunken Boat, vol 8. 2005. 20 Oct 2008 http://www.drunkenboat.com/db8/index.html.

Goldsmith, Kenneth. “A Gallery of Conceptual Writing.” Dispatches: Journals. The Poetry Foundation. 26 Jan 2007. 30 Nov 2008 http://poetryfoundation.org/dispatches/journals/2007.01.22.html.

–––. Traffic. Los Angeles: Make Now, 2007.

–––. “Uncreativity as a Creative Practice.” http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/goldsmith/uncreativity.html.

Mathews, Harry and Alastair Brogchie, eds. Oulipo Compendium.London: Atlas, 2005.

Osman, Jena and Juliana Spahr. “Editors’ Notes.” Chain10. Summer 2003. 30 Nov 2008 http://people.mills.edu/jspahr/chain/chain10.pdf.

Perloff, Marjorie. “The Oulipo Factor: The Procedural Poetics of Christian Bök and Caroline Bergvall.” Jacket 23. August 2003. 30 Nov 2008 http://jacketmagazine.com/23/perlof-oulip.html.

Reed, Brian M. “’Lost Already Walking’: Carloline Bergvall’s ‘Via.’” Jacket. Oct 2007. 30 Nov 2008 http://jacketmagazine.com/34/reed-bergvall.shtml.

Roubaud, Jacques. “Introduction.” Oulipo Compendium. Ed. Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie. London: Atlas, 2005. 37-44.

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Viegener, Matias and Christine Wertheim, eds. The /n/oulipian Analects. Los Angeles; Les Figues, 2007.

Genevieve Kaplan

Genevieve Kaplan

Genevieve Kaplan is a PhD Candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her poems, essays, and reviews have recently appeared in Gulf Coast, The Hat, Jubilat, TEXT, and American Book Review.

 
 
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