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Burner 3 - Accessing the 'before'

- Aodán McCardle


What is the relationship to language?
What are the expectations when you come to it?
Does ‘reading’, the act of, impose limitations, cultural???

Being a learnt or in that sense inherited trait of already composed parameters, for example its normal rituals are supposedly commonly shared, that is not questioned within the daily actions of reading?  Ultimately then the action of reading is brought to language already formed and as such the language itself of the particular piece has already been half formed, that is moulded.  The result has to be a blindness until such time as reading itself is as unlearnt as alien as the poetry needs to be in order to remain active while being read or experienced.  In this piece I will use the works of two poets I admire but present an aspect of one which I believe extends the active state or life of the poetry.

It’s the trusting of words, the obvious trusting of words rather than the wordiness.  Rachel Blau DuPlessis did say she never wanted not to be understood, that she never intentionally tried to be difficult to understand.  This was in response to a question about the more erratic and perhaps broken use of syntax in her earlier poetry. 1 The problem is there; to want actually to be understood; which is perhaps more than she said, and is also perhaps more in the context of an individual question than of her poetry in general.  Nevertheless the question itself raised the issues or complexities of understanding or being understood.  To want to be understood implies a belief that what you have to say is right.  What I will explore in the first part of this piece is whether the idea that being right is possible or even desirable.  The primary text I will deal with is Ulli Freer’s Burner 3, an extract from the piece now published as Burner on the Buff, which was made available at a workshop at Birkbeck.  I will contrast this with the poem Draft 37, also read at Birkbeck, by Rachel Blau DuPlessis but with the understanding that no hierarchical criticism is meant, only that my point can be made available through the contrast.

The belief that what you say is right; what does that do to the work and how might this be evident in the work?  Ulli Freer’s Burner 3 investigates.  Does that imply right as a destination?  Possibly, questions can lead or rather one can be lead by questions but such an investigation does not formulate questions.  By this I mean that the real questions at least in Freer’s work are formed when our known relationship to a poem or word is not enough and instead the question or engagement with word and poem become intrinsic to getting it to be a poem.  This known and what I will term the ‘before’ of a word or indeed any experience will be crucial to understanding the difference between an active or fixed relationship to the poem. Both DuPlessis’ and Freer’s poetries have an availability of the ‘before’, but DuPlessis’ veers more towards a before of set values.  Draft 37 is assured in its skill with words.  The first stanza,

Hard.  The dure of tradurre.
Wide low arcdeep fields,
houses dotted, ho detto,
with shadow.  And sun stark.

the first line knows what it is saying and is assured in its ‘dure’ and ‘tradurre’.  This assurance of outcome is also seeped into ‘arcdeep’ and the playfulness of ‘ho detto’, and finally stamped into ‘sunstark’.  If this is beauty and it is ‘a beauty’ then it is a comfortable beauty.  It takes part in levels of skill and knows its worth there.  As such it isn’t an investigation.  This before is laid out, borrowed and used.  Freer’s before, if it is knowing, is more like being in the presence of know, rather than making use of know.

The second and third lines of Burner 3,

                                                   blue outlay
go down dog to the maximum

finds echoes of itself or re-entries to its possibilities twenty four lines later in,

spoken voyages outlay blue do down dog to the
                  evidence maximum beware currents

and again in,

ending outlay as do blue to current down dog axiom


clouds under dog down  do as

which is third line from the bottom.  The spread of these connections is important and I will discuss this in more detail later but here it is the idea that rather than using questions the poem investigates through what is present and absent, through what happens when a line gets to be on the page next to another or on its own or connected to another line some distance away, either graphically on the page or in time, reading time or just as importantly seep time when similar sound patterns or word patterns emerge.  The difference between seep time and reading time here is that these connections may not emerge on a first reading and it is not simply a matter of linear time traced to the point when they do.  Seep time is a movement through layers of reading and indeed listening as I will argue when I develop the idea that this is a particularly oral poetry.  The reading and re-reading, temporal, relationship to the piece is a filter in which different experiences of the piece merge or catch on each other as sound and word patterns do in oral poetry where there is not the expectation that all can be heard in one listening or all that is heard be remembered or juxtaposed during the next listening.  This can be said of phrases such as ‘lines sweet taste on lips’ and ‘value lines sweet fool’s suggestion’, which are thirteen lines apart and whose respective previous and following lines do not have similar content.  Nevertheless this might be seen as a seep-rhyme, a phrase establishing forward or backward resonance or plainly establishing temporal resonance.

DuPlessis’ ‘arcdeep’ and ‘sunstreak’ are obviously lyrical but the sing quality/value of these lines of Freer’s is all the more for having their sound values higher on the scale of their relations to meaning.  By this I mean that rather than simply sounds relating to a memory, to a value set during a previous experience or more definitively to a preset value contained in the traditional rhyme structure or semantic marriage of standard or romantic meaning and lyric sound, Freer’s lines or word combinations release the primacy of meaning from semantic structure to that of sound.  How we combine the sounds or perhaps how we are able or enabled to combine the sounds before establishing meaning is crucial in establishing the reader in the process of the ‘before’.  It is an act of writing, writing as a form of listening.  This before is an act of listening not a product of listening.  Importantly meaning comes into being only during this act of listen/writing.

DuPlessis’ is an informed skilful listening ‘before’ which is still resonant after.  Freer’s before is still resonating, in the act of ‘now’ resonating.  Is this a product of denying grammatical norms and so priming our instinct to explain, to tie down, find a home for, place what is out of place?  No!  Collage, cut ups, can do this but the resonating there is all after.  Yes some of it may mimic the before of Freer but the difference is that over a long period, in a larger section, the cut up will reveal its 'laterness', will begin to relate experiences of ‘after’, while Freer’s work retains this ‘before’.  We might say that Freer’s units are larger, not relying on the shorter charged unit of the cut up.  The key here is the unit and the charge.  The cut up relies on the surprise but it is an after which makes no demands of any intentional working of the mind.  To succeed as a cut up unit is to rely upon a random and neutral designation of beginning and end. The random and neutral provide the semantic surprise, an energy shock or jolt for the reader. The question is where, how and for how long this shock registers in the reader’s attention memory.

The resulting semantic surprise is brought back to the before state of experience in order to make comparisons.  The resistance to what has gone before, to previous value systems’ defining of success or failure in rhyme, metaphor or meaning is that which measures the cut up all the while acknowledging the cut up’s coming into being in the ‘after’, during the reading but not the reading which is writing.  For the cut up the writing that takes place is in the neutral action of cutting up words or otherwise randomly selecting them.  Crucially, their phrasal length remains somewhere between this selection and their final use on the page or utterance of the poem.  This is the ‘laterness’ I refer to, the inability of the cut up to inspire the before, or to retain any presence at that point.

Freer’s work due to its ability to extend the line or phrasal unit reinhabits the before continuously at new points during each reading.  The coming into being of the unit is primary.  Burner 3 may be seen as one unit in this sense.  DuPlessis’ drafts approach this sense of the unit but rather link to ‘befores’ without remaining active in that sense. The words ‘sun stark’, apart from being a heightened description of a particular or figurative image contain beauty in the alliteration of the ‘s’ sound.  Allied to this the soft stretched nasal ‘n’ sound running into the ‘s’ further magnifies this relationship and again the bluntness of the ‘t’ and finally the lyrical ring of ‘ark’ which contains the sharp semantic shape equally with the sung sound and figurative shape of the shadow and light friction.  This is an almost concrete drawing of the figurative via the graphic and semantic word.  This is however a standard, if as I said, skilful poetic device at work and the appreciation of it is via fixed relations that activate preset value systems.

To return to these poems’ sense of song, DuPlessis’ sounds/rhythms inspire a familiarity, a comfort and reassurance in the reinstating of certain values and locations in the world.  DuPlessis' drafts find links to premeditated values, values already considered and decided upon, values pertaining to pleasure and confirmation.  The type of semantics at work here pitches towards a surface level of metaphor and/or rhyme.  We understand the metaphor because we have met it before or understand it to be a variety cultivated from a family we recognize.  Similarly the rhyme depends upon the recognition of prior experience of such rhymes.  It makes no demand that we reconsider what is or might constitute a rhyme and that is perhaps my reason for raising earlier the question or problem of being right as a desire.  Freer’s song has more of an orphic cross with Dionysus.  It is calling into being its own form from a seeming chaos and in fact relies on the reader/listener in a symbiotic relationship where each completes the other.  Paraphrasing Michael McClure’s idea that ‘our experience of the poem is the poems experience of itself’, we may extend the idea by saying that our experience of Freer’s song is here our experience of ourselves singing.  Singing as listening as awareness and attentiveness.  When singing one listens to how one is doing, how in tune, how in time, how loud and also being aware of the listener, how, how, how, now.  The larger unit of Freer’s poem, of his singing, is both graphic and sonorous.  It activates what is already there in the graphic layout and sound sense of the poem, and specifically the spatial is indistinct from the temporal and from time.  It is not that they extend each other or from each other but rather that the sung and singing are the same and 'say' the same.  By this I mean that time is collapsed, the temporal now of reading or listening is a larger unit, a larger temporal now.  To hear this part of the song is to hear also its related parts whereas in DuPlessis’ poetry to hear sung parts is to open into a relationship with what has been heard, a return to another temporal now, a reinstatement and confirmation of its values, of previous values.  This is of use, is effective as they, those values, come to inhabit the temporal now of the listening. I would argue that listening is then not an act of assumption but of investigation.  Freer’s song is heard, heard, heard, here and here, and now.  It is active, swelling into an 'as developing' temporal now.  It is not a now that is, as much as an 'Ising'.  This listening/hearing is literally/physically perceptible to anyone in the presence of Freer’s reading.  Not just the sound but the physical body pursuing the beat is manifest.  Freer stutters after words that are written down in plain sight in front of him in large letters, not because he can’t see nor because he’s nervous or lacks confidence; rather such a relationship to poetry, to reading poetry, demands a responsibility to the work.  This is a moral responsibility such as that described by R. B. Kitaj in relation to drawing, particularly the human figure.  He said ‘[it] has also been called a moral act in the sense that you must face decisions and their consequences.’ 2 Pertinent also from this passage is what is described as an ‘unfriendly’ critic’s comment on Degas stating that he was ‘continually uncertain about proportions’.  ‘Nothing, Degas replied, could better describe his state of mind while drawing.’  This is the demand of the moral act, responsibility and consequence of a particularly self imposed kind which makes such physical, indeed mentally physical, demands of active awareness and attention on Freer’s part as he reads and reciprocally on us as we listen, as we sing.  Peter Makin in the introduction to Basil Bunting on Poetry says

the assumption seems to remain, in many quarters, that poets and readers should simply be able to elicit, from words in verse, simple proportions, of a kind that anyone can count on his fingers.  Hence the Augustan scorn of a critic like Donald Davie for a poet like William Carlos Williams, who confesses that he cannot elicit such simplicities from his verse – who knows, according to these definitions, that he does not understand his own meters. 3

To take this further we can consider the possibility that one cannot know or understand because the meter is not one’s own.  The poem comes into action during the listening of the reader, indeed during the listening of the listener singing.  Freer’s physical interactions during reading are indeed a part of ‘the total articulation of sound of a poem.’  Makin says of Bunting,

these lectures are the fruit of a poet’s (…) much longer efforts (…) to understand the main medium of verse.  They take prosody – “the total articulation of the sound of a poem,” Pound had called it – to be the centre of the art of poetry. 4

This total articulation is the active state necessary for any poem and in Freer’s pursuance of the listening/hearing now of the song or of the singing one can experience a move into another of Bunting’s themes, that of dance. Bunting says ‘I don’t think I’m misrepresenting the views of scholars of art who are anthropologists, if I say that they think almost all the arts originate in the dance.’ 5 The crucial point Bunting makes is when he disagrees, with what he sees as the general opinion of anthropologists, that primitive dance has a purpose.  Definitive in this sense of dance and indeed a part of its connection to the arts, according to Bunting, is that it needs no ‘justification’. 6 He repeats and broadens this idea throughout the lecture when he says of Menominee Indian songs, ‘they are a convincing demonstration that poetry can exist without troubling itself to have any meaning at all, let alone a valuable one.' 7 I contend that the word meaning today is often wrongly used as reference to previously established semantic outcomes or solutions and that meaning can and does in Freer’s sense locate itself in experience; his, the poem’s, and ours’, of the temporal now of each other. Music and rhythm are located for Bunting in the ‘movement of the human body.’ 8 Bunting relates the story of his mistaking a noise for ‘the sound you hear when the tread is coming off your tyre,’ which turned out to be, ‘a group of Kurdish women (…) and the sound I’d heard was their long slack dugs beating against their belly as they walked: beating out a kind of march tune, steadily.’ 9 The implication of Bunting’s unknown sound and his instinctive reaction to it is that when you hear a sound you don’t know you apply possibilities to it.  In Freer’s poetry you are in the presence of knowing that you won’t know the sound, so you wait, you listen passively, just as you look at a painting, and that question of ‘value’ is implicated in the moral of drawing, of responsibility and consequence.

I said earlier that the spread of connections in Burner 3 is important.  Attention and memory become key features in the body’s relationship to this work.  Nicholas Johnson the publisher of Etruscan Press referring to the poetry of Bill Griffiths speaks of the question of what can be retained. 10 There is a similar process at work here but there is a semantic challenge within shorter and longer sentence or unit structures.  The unit in Freer is perhaps page length, perhaps larger.  Crucially, it doesn’t allow any definitive stance.  I say stance because again the body as it is exposed to these works either in graphic 2D format or during a reading is drawn to the front.  The page in the 2D is a unit, if an open ended one, the attention during reading moves backward and forward discovering connections and it is this attentive memory patterning forced upon the body by the traditional demand for a semantic structure which presents the possibilities of an oral relationship, indeed demands this comparison and then leads to an understanding that this is oral poetry mapped onto a 2D world rather than a semantically written work mimicking oral poetry.  Patterning I would suggest is subtly different from pattern.  The significant difference is that pattern refers to a fixed entity whereas patterning is in process, in action.

They repeat and they echo and they balance one another and yet I think none is ever repeated without some variation and often when you compare two figures that seem alike at first you find them proceeding by quite different methods to quite different ends, though still related to each other. 11

This is what Basil Bunting says when referring to a monogram from The Lindisfarne Book.  It is not insignificant to me that this relationship to the written word, albeit the graphic stylization of a particular monogram ‘chi rho iota’, an abbreviation of Christ’s name, comes into being at a time when spoken words are not generally considered as, or through, the 2D written sign.  The meaning in particular today of the singular written word is somehow accessible only via a textual seniority such as the archival authority of the dictionary, just as law or indeed science establishes the rightness or limits of experience.  The patterning here is defined by the differences rather than the sameness and as such a negotiation must take place rather than an acceptance, so active attention and awareness are necessary.  Pattern locates itself more in expectation while patterning demands a relinquishing of expectation, or at least an awareness of the consequences of that expectation.  In Burner 3 the return or seeming re-encounter in such lines as I mentioned earlier, ‘lines sweet taste on lips’ and ‘value lines sweet fool’s suggestion’, depend upon being lines apart and that fact that their respective previous and following lines do not have similar content.  The repeat and echo as Bunting says proceeds via different methods and ends.  The orality of this work is established further in what this does to our attention.  To remain in contact with the temporal and spatial movement in the poem we need to establish memory such as that used when listening.  Bunting speaks about something like this in relation to the intricate details of the monogram.

You look at it close up with a magnifying glass and it seems rather florid, rather chaotic.  You stand back and look again, and its as classical, as perfectly placed on the page, as simple in essence, as those Japanese prints with a single spray of cherryblossom. 12

The graphic looking at play here demands a change of focus such that the eye cannot pay attention to both elements at once, or rather to do so it uses memory as a go between or short circuit, and similarly for listening memory must give us the connection to the moment in the past when a particular line was sounded.  This is akin to the process of experiencing Freer’s music.  You concentrate on, or focus on, parts which in their intensity seem to isolate themselves.  This is the seeming chaotic.  However, when you stand back and allow the experience to gain and maintain its own relationship then the patterning across and back and forward describes an altogether more simple set of relations, a simplicity of form achieved through the complexity of detail via patterning.

This is further complicated during performance when the reader's body is placed in the vicinity not only of the complexity of the graphic and aural text but it must also contend with the body of the performer.  I spoke of the stuttering and of the relation to dance.  Bunting says,

Poetry and music are both patterns of sound drawn on a background of time.  That’s their origin, and their essence.  Whatever else they may become, whatever purpose they may sometimes serve, is secondary.  They can do without it, in case of necessity.  Whatever refinements and subtleties they may introduce, if they lose touch altogether with the simplicity of the dance, with the motions of the human body and the sounds natural to man exerting himself, people will no longer feel them as music and poetry.  They will respond to them {as meaning}, no doubt, but not with the exhilaration that dancing brings.  They’ll not think of them as human concerns; they will find them tedious. 13

The overall connective tissue of all the elements at work is patterning and the possibility of making use of this dissolves fixed locations of rhyme and rhythm.  This fixity might be considered instead as decoration and Peter Makin is clear about this,

Bunting assumes that art is shape, not content.  There is no excuse of course, for decoration: it simply spoils shape.  In this art, in the English language, rhythm is the most essential shapable: and if the poet has the rhythm right, he probably needs nothing else to give main form to his poem.  The noticeable patterning of phonemes (the sounds of consonants and vowels) will be as unnecessary as brilliant eye-catching metaphors and will be to that extent a distraction. 14

The crux here is the ‘noticeable patterning’.  The implication is that decoration is tied and fixed such that the distance or relations of individual parts remain constant and this has implications for the human body in its ability to differentiate scales of measurements across a varied field of senses each of which demands its own confusions.  A consequence of this is the generality of the foot and iambic pentameter as units of measurement equally complicit as decoration if their purpose is seen as fixity as machine measurement ignorant of breath or wind.  Bunting refers to syllable and stress, the first being French and the latter English as indicators of measurement, and says that this measurement is of the wrong materials, of syllable rather than stress. 15 I would like to take this further and extend the idea of where stress occurs.  Words ringing out; in verse we are waiting for the rhyme or the position of the ring, locating the end of the line.  In Freer’s work this occurs through other recognitions, through the moral responsibility of a personal negotiation.

What or whom is the language for?  Jerome Rothenberg, in an interview with Eric Mottram, speaks about shamans as being ‘people of language’. 16 He says

that the shaman was a person who cured through language - the shaman was a song maker whose songs and gestures had a particular function within his culture. 17

He clarifies this by referring

to Levi Strauss on “the effectiveness of symbols” where he described the shaman creating through song, through chant, through a fundamental act of poesis, a language for the sick person. 18

My interest here is in relation to Freer’s language, not in the sense of asking him his intentions but nevertheless questioning what or whom it is for and what kind of actions it performs.  Certainly the rhythm of Freer’s reading meets the description of chant with its over-riding or overbearing almost autonomous motion, and the intensity of his word connections and locii raises their tone to a lyric pitch so that the atmosphere of song prevails when listening to him.  Is this true when reading Burner 3?  Not necessarily, unless reading through the memory of a previous listening, as after all we rarely read song lyrics with the same listening ear which experiences the vocal reading.  We treat written song lyrics in a manner which admits a lack of music or lack of the presence of music.  Freer’s work however has its music present in the intensity of those word meetings, connections, the phonetics of the letter and word sounds and the semantic resonance or friction between the everyday use and these new patternings.  In this the ‘before’ being present and the coming into being of new relations is crucial.  I’m not particularly interested in any definitive answer but rather in the continuous presence of the question, who and what is this language for and what does it do?

I can perhaps begin by saying what it does not do.  It does not manipulate assumed reactive interpretations.  To describe what I mean by this I will refer to a recent reading during which a very highly skilled poet uses various expletives and shocking reflections to attack a particular subject.  In many poems this same style is used.  In this sense the reactive interpretations of the reader listener are mostly known or settled during the writing and so it shocks and yet is a known shock even if sometimes retrospectively recognized either because of manipulation or pace.  It is then no surprise, rather a pre-emptive knowing interpretation, half relying on instigating our interpretation but really preying upon it.  So perhaps a phrase has recognizability built in.  This does not mean that it is completely emptied.  In this poetry certain visceral, verbal shocks are such a main stay that the stance from which they stem is to some degree emptied and there the lessening of what it is they are doing.  This lessening is camouflaged by technique but as with the cut-ups the eventual outcome is a negotiation of the after rather than an engagement of the before.

Freer begins each reading with a breaking of the space.  By this I mean that he engages our attention in such a way through action, sound or visual stimulant that our preconceptions about the expected reading are mislaid.  However differently this is carried out it could be said that ultimately each breaking of the space has the same intention upon the listener/viewer and yet it is never the same.  Not that the factualities are never the same, they aren’t, but it is rather that the space broken is never the same.  The space into which the poem emerges or in which the poem emerges is never the same.  How?  It is always a breaking of the space and yet exactly because each space is different then we are made aware of the moment in which we are at that point existing and so are aware of the coming into being at that moment of the poem.  It is perhaps also because of the way in which Freer breaks each space in the moment and moves into the poetry without emptying the experience or replacing its neutrality that what then happens in that space, the poetry, is active.  It never contains the energy of a previously broken space as this would simply not be a broken space.  Perhaps it is because the viewer/listener is included but not preyed upon, their reaction is neither excluded nor precluded. I extended a phrase of McClure’s earlier to suggest that our experience of Freer’s song is here our experience of ourselves singing and I can take that further to say that what Freer does is allow us to break into our own space, the experience of ourselves being in the moment. The breaking of the space is an act in and of itself and not in any way a prelude, and by that virtue it is in action. In this way then recognizability does not have the same lessening effect.  So that is why it is more vital to say what this poetry does not do.  Even the random cut-up adopts recognition but Freer’s words by demanding our attention, awareness and action never lose their independence to recognition.  They do not carry the energy of our befores but have only their own as we come upon them for the first time, each time.  The ‘before’ then is that potential of all future uses of a word, the after is its present state.  Freer’s ‘after’ crucially includes, remains open to, the before.  Most poetry settles in the after, a fossilized presence of previous afters which in our syntactical and semantic mapping memory reside over that space in which the original ‘before’ of a word should wait.



1 Comment made By Rachel Blau DuPlessis at poetry reading in Birkbeck 01/06/04 in response to question by Redell Olson about broken syntax of earlier work.

2 R.B. Kitaj, Kitaj: Pictures and Conversations, Julián Ríos, (Moyer Bell, 1997) p.191.

3 Peter Makin, Basil Bunting on Poetry, ed. Peter Makin, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) p. xxx.

4 Peter Makin, Basil Bunting on Poetry, ed. Peter Makin, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) p. xiii.

5 Basil Bunting, Basil Bunting on Poetry, ed. Peter Makin, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) p. 2.
Hereafter BBOP.

6 Bunting.  BBOP, p. 4.

7 Bunting.  BBOP, p. 20.

8 Bunting.  BBOP, p. 3.

9 Bunting.  BBOP, p. 3.

10 Nicholas Johnston, speaking at the 'Hands on Poetics' talks series at Birkbeck.

11 Bunting.  BBOP, p. 5-8.

12 Bunting.  BBOP, p. 8.

13 Bunting.  BBOP, p. 4.

14 Peter Makin, Basil Bunting on Poetry, ed. Peter Makin, (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999) p. xiii.

15 Bunting.  BBOP, p. xiii.

16 Rothenberg, Jerome.  The Riverside Interviews: 4 Jerome Rothenberg.  Eds. Gavin Selerie with Eric Mottram. (Binnacle Press, London, 1984) p. 22.

17 Rothenberg, p. 22.

18 Rothenberg, p. 22.


****  Burner 3 is part of Burner on the Buff by Ulli Freer (Veer Books, London, 2005)  ****


Aodán McCardle


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