“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)”

 

“A Continuous Fabric (Nerve Movie?)”:
Early Scalapino, Late Whalen
Part One

by Bruce Holsapple

                                                                  —1—

Leslie Scalapino’s tangled, darkish narratives would seem remote in approach from Philip Whalen’s emotionally varied—variegated—lyrics, yet Scalapino repeatedly championed Whalen’s work, and the two, beyond friendship, had affinities. Both regarded their poetry as investigating subjectivity and both proposed dismantling conventional ways of seeing—stripping perception of its overlays—in projects that entailed not only transforming their own thought processes but challenging the reader’s as well, seen in Scalpino’s adoption of a singular phrase from Whalen, namely, that the poetry be designed to “wreck your mind.” At a less than obvious level, both innovated on the lyric subject, the speaker, as the vehicle but also in the manner (speaking) by which they’d accomplish that goal. To that point, their self-reflexive meditations on the role of self in perception would open both author and reader to states of mind that confound conventional thought. An important route, then, into Scalapino’s work is through that speaking subject, and in the following, I’d bring Scalapino’s insights into Whalen’s uses of voice to her own early poetry, making evident the importance that voice has in her methods.[1] I also would tease out how that might change readers.

A part of my title comes from Whalen’s 1964 “Preface” to Every Day where he explains the book’s intended effect on readers, speculating on poetry as

A continuous fabric (nerve movie?) exactly as wide as these lines—“continuous” within a certain time-limit . . . to move smoothly past the reader’s eyes, across his brain: the moving sheet has shaped holes in it which trip the synapse finger-levers of reader’s brain causing great sections of his nervous system—distant galaxies hitherto unsuspected . . . to LIGHT UP. (Collected Poems 835)

The poems would read as a moving sheet or fabric that’s designed, like musical notations for a player piano, to trip keys—synapses—in the reader’s brain, demonstrating unsuspected areas inside. The notion of such a fabric is central to Scalapino.

Whalen also talks of his poetry in 1959 as “a picture or graph of a mind moving,” the poem focused upon self-exploration, but explicitly not grounded in representations of self or in assertions and insights—rather in “motions” of mind as it composes, another point Scalapino picks up on. Here’s an oblique instance, the opening lines of “Birthday Poem,” written during his first visit to Japan in 1967:

Thank God, I don’t have to write a poem
All those primulas raving potted hybrids
Mossy brim of brick fish pond

Only the biggest yellow-flowering one
Saves this day from death’s vagrom fingers gloom & sad

Thank God none of those who read my poems don’t see me
Don’t realize I’m crazy, what book shall I carry with me
Lonesome for my own handwriting

A year among strangers, the Japanese all are mad
They look at me, can’t forgive me for being funny-looking (571)

One can read this cranky, slightly paranoid stuff at face value, as representing Whalen, but the ironic opening feint, expressing his relief at not feeling compelled to write, obviously untrue—his use of hyperbole and the coy double negative, deft use of imagery, rushed phrasing and oddly sophisticated vocabulary, all signal a sensibility that counters taking the comments at “face” value. That is, there’s a doubleness at play between the author and speaker, a reflexive seeing through that makes palpable Whalen’s insight into his own processes.[2] More narrowly, this doubling effect posits distance between speaker and author, even though that speaker is given as the author. Such renditions indicate that self is under scrutiny, chiefly in terms of whether or not one’s perceptions are reliably representing the world. Obviously they’re not. That is also to say, Whalen plays upon a self-reflexive region between the speaker—himself—and the author—himself—in a sort of pantomime, resulting in a calculated but telling goofiness, a calculated, telling exasperation with self.

“if you exist any day you are not the same as any other day no nor any minute of the day because you have inside you being existing.”

There are five places where Scalapino discusses Whalen, all contained in the second edition of How Phenomena Appear to Unfold. I’ll focus on three. The first occurs in the title essay, developed from a 1989 Naropa talk on poetic form, where Scalapino speaks to “Birthday Poem” (above) and focuses on “how one sees (locationally and spatially) within the work composing an order” (116), an often illusory order, and on the apparent simultaneity of events occurring inside the poem. That is, Scalapino stresses that although “Birthday Poem” was ostensibly written on Whalen’s birthday, it was composed from notebooks written over the following two years, simultaneously but disjunctively presenting past, present and future as unified, for locale and time shift without markers. I’d add here that Scalapino restricts this talk to aesthetic experience, how phenomena unfold inside works of art. That restriction doesn’t hold for all of her statements on past and future, but for simplicity, I’ll stick with that.

How things appear in “Birthday Poem” emerge from both inside and outside, she explains, specifically, from inside the speaker as the subject (perhaps “in” a location) and from events “seen to be ‘outside’ and really therefore called up thus seemingly created” (116). It’s from the outside that an impression of history occurs. Scalapino then quotes from Gertrude Stein’s “Narration” (which Whalen had quoted), on the gnarly topic of inside and outside, where Stein distinguishes experiencer from experience in terms of what’s existing and what’s happening. The outside continuously occurs, Stein points out, which one knows because “inside” that event, and “if you exist any day you are not the same as any other day no nor any minute of the day because you have inside you being existing.” She then elaborates: “well the inside and the outside are not the inside and the outside inside,” that is, the two don’t exist totally “inside,” nor can they happen totally outside.[3] Happening and existing—difference and identity—are interdependent; they require each other, and Scalapino reads them as simultaneously creating each other. At the conclusion of this talk on form, Scalapino states she’s concerned “with the sense that phenomena appear to unfold” inside her work and asks “(What is it or) how is it that the viewer sees the impression of history created, created by oneself though it’s occurring outside?” That “outside” informs our view of the poem, but we bring that into the poem. It’s a social construct. She proposes alternately that it is by moving through “multiple perspective ” in which “viewer and speaker are ‘within’ (being its inside) the work, [that] allows reality to leak from many holes all around” (127).

In an “Introduction” to Whalen’s Overdrive: Selected Poems, Scalapino advances on two thoughts. Whalen’s writing, she posits, “is imitation of his own speaking,” a ventriloquism “which by being sensitive scrutiny of himself is actual conversation” (139). This is the self-reflexive doubleness I’ve mentioned. But inasmuch as his “sound/shape” constructions are mind-phenomena [140]), made “overt as voices simultaneously as their being the ego of the speaker,” so constructing the poem displaces that ego (“wrecks the mind”) (139). Second, Scalapino talks of Whalen’s writing as “the occurrence of time as being, or being as time” where past, present and future occur simultaneously, for in his work there are layers or levels that result from writing about or within what the mind was doing at various times and locations—multiple perspectives or “layers as states of mind as if these are the sound/shapes that’s the writing” (140). These discrete layers are presented without explanatory connections, disjunctively, and such poems become in effect “history as disjunction,” wherein the impression of history comes undone: “all times being brought together and separate simultaneously (‘wrecks the mind’) is there being no ‘history’ then” (140). As regards our reader, “The syntax and structure of the poetry imitates or duplicates the process of the reader’s own mind-phenomena, so that one is reading as going through the process that is one’s own mind” (137).

Scalapino expands on these observations in “Language as Transient Act,” an introduction to Whalen’s Collected Poems. She again refers to the simultaneity of past, present and future of time-as-being, although here that simultaneity relates to the leaping effects in Whalen’s verse, for one often must jump from phrase to juxtaposed phrase, without explanatory linkage, that is, jump between perspectives, inside and out. The lack of linkage leaves one the impression, she notes, that such phrases produce each other, arise simultaneously. This allows the reader’s mind “to be nowhere in formation,” disengage from constructing an explanatory coherence for the text. “So the present is only empty there (has no nature as itself, is words) and the future and past being a series of such presents-without-entity appear to arise from each other.” She terms this the disjunctive present, “which is no-separation of self and outside” (132-3). That lack of separation relates to a Buddhist notion of “free fall,” phenomena arising as in a “giant web where the only reality is the imposed inter-relations of the entities.”  The mind recognizes that “entire fabric of constructed order” as produced by mind itself and so goes into free fall, nonattached (134-5).

All avant-garde movements, Scalapino contends, would break down or otherwise remove a barrier “between the spectator/reader and their being that present time,” that is, their being both inner and outer, a project she also speaks of in terms of puncturing through an illusory mind/body split, similar to the holes through which reality was (above) said to leak. Whalen’s project, she posits, is an “examination of mind itself as shape and movement itself, or stillness, even extending that movement or shape to see the mind as inseparable from history . . . .” (129-30). By focusing on self-talk, Whalen turns inward, toward what Scalapino terms “interior scrutiny,” using voice as a means by which to explore mind as it composes—to observe himself observing. The purpose behind this doubling is a liberation—obviously a freedom from illusion, but further so that one arrive at a “point of no appearance” (123).[4] Scalapino further argues Whalen’s writing “is sound schemes, frequently the leaps and omissions of conversational exchange whose space and process are active mind phenomena. Conversation,” she elaborates, “implies more than one voice, also implies the mind creating self, and simulation of history, the inside and the outside together” (132). As a result of this doubling: “The attention of the mind (of either the speaker’s, or the reader’s or listener’s) in reading the text or during the performance, is neither in nor outside of that experience” (123), where “the mind examining the mind is the point of no appearance” (124). The mind recognizes mind as phenomena, yet finds itself outside of that experience, dismantling history as ‘a hierarchal construct that conceals relation” (130).[5] I read this disclosure of interrelation as a major motive in her own work, and I read the detachment as self-reflexive, “a gesture regarding itself” (Public World 51).

The triviality of the speaker’s pursuits, often presented as a struggle, is the focus, a sort of Mad Magazine in verse. In point of fact, most of Scalapino’s early speakers are in some way peculiar. They don’t fit socially and often imitate others as a way of belonging.

                                                               —2—

Scalapino obviously speaks to her own project through Whalen, and her insights are readily transposed to her work by way of her use of terms “mime” and “imitate.” In her introduction to How Phenomenon Appear to Unfold, for example, she speaks of her intention “to mime and demonstrate—be (and be seeing) the process and the instant of—the inside and the outside simultaneously creating each other . . . .”  She speaks of one essay as imitating H.D. (in order to understand her), of another as mirroring Ron Silliman’s concept that “syntax mimes space,” and of others, collectively, as imitating motion as gesture, with late essays as sound-structure-syntax conceptually miming cultural terrains (1-3, 6-9). Surely, then, mime is a recurrent strategy. In one late essay, Scalapino also speaks of her “methods of ‘examination’” as creating (a view of one [in]) a seamless reality” in order to prick holes in it (270), that the light funnel through, much as she earlier described punching holes in appearance (Green and Black 1; Phenomena 211). Scalapino’s miming, then, simultaneously tracks and critiques. That’s where a doubling emerges. The mimicry occurs by way of the lyric subject through the use of voice, and Scalapino talks of this doubled aspect as a “speaking” that goes past the bounds of speaking (Public World 56-7).

Use of mime occurs in her first published book, O and Other Poems, 18 lyrics, chiefly in first person, where her speaker emerges as an interpretive problem. Below is “Whistler.” Note how cleanly her narrative is structured: theme, complication, development, and resolution:

I wanted to be a champion whistler.

As an exercise I decided to capture in whistling
the buzz of a fly.
This is difficult because I could pay no attention
to the tune
but mimicked the stumbling of the fly from one key
to another.

At first it was necessary to whistle on scrambled
notes
and often these were shrill and painful
or very low
(the exact buzz impossible to render).

But finally I succeeded in a facsimile.

What’s that noise? people asked me
at first annoyed as I sat whistling on the living
room sofa
or broke into a whistle at the breakfast table.

They recalled something
however distant.

It’s the sound of the buzz of the fly, I said.     (No pagination)

Her ambition to be a champion whistler foregrounds a telling eccentricity, and note we’re signaled immediately to focus on the speaker rather than through the speaker to a topic, because if that ambition wasn’t odd enough, the speaker would accomplish this by imitating a fly, does so by mimicking how it “stumbles” from key to key. In contrast, the formal precision of her conclusion (“the sound of the buzz of the fly”) announces that this rendition is accomplished. She’s caused the audience to recall “something / however distant,” just as the author slyly mirrors something in ourselves, our own pretension. Note also that the speaker lives with intimates—the context is social, perhaps familial, kitchen table, couch—yet her perspective is that of an outsider, addressing the others as “people,” and she annoys them with that whistling. Nor does she ever finish her story, for that isn’t the point. And I don’t think the author is simply making fun, although this poem does seem part of a running joke. A second poem speaks of watching a fly, a third of separating M & Ms by color (before eating them), a fourth of staring at the ceiling, a fifth of cleaning one’s room by an odd numbering system. The triviality of the speaker’s pursuits, often presented as a struggle, is the focus, a sort of Mad Magazine in verse. In point of fact, most of Scalapino’s early speakers are in some way peculiar. They don’t fit socially and often imitate others as a way of belonging. But the poem operates by transgression, by spurning an expectation of what poems should do—literary convention—even though this poem presents itself in a perfectly polite way, as a straightforward narrative in first person (with unadorned diction and conversational rhythms) of an unusual—tellable—experience. That is, there’s a dichotomy between its status as a lyric and its significance as such, for the speaker never discloses anything of significance. It refuses to play that game. Although portending to be guileless, it violates our expectation of disclosure, if not also how we produce meaning, invoking instead imitation of a fly. It likewise flouts Grice’s cooperative maxim of Relation.[6]

Voice becomes a more conspicuous focus in Scalapino’s first major collection, Considering how exaggerated music is, where the credibility of her speakers is flagrantly at issue. The first section, hmmmm, for example, opens with someone who reports upon a prior speaking event. The curious opening line reads: “Consider certain emotions such as falling asleep, I said.” That is, the speaker has asked a prior audience to consider falling asleep to be similar to anger, fear, and fainting, for she feels that sleep is induced in her—it’s a time when blood is “forced into veins,” causing her (for one) to lose focus: “My tongue is numb / and so large it is like the long tongue of a calf or / the tongue of a goat or of a sheep” (3). “What’s more,” she positively loves this sensation, and when in private, she bleats. “No wonder I say that I love to sleep,” she concludes, as though she hadn’t known quite why she’s moved in this way. As Marjorie Perloff points out, her argument isn’t logical, and Perloff discusses how “decentering the subject foregrounds the artifice of the verbal process,” how Scalapino again plays with convention (as before), and how her language simulates “ordinary speech, with its short phrases, irregular rhythms, and gratuitous repetitions” (Radical Artifice 50-1). That might be pushed further, for the speaker’s relationship to the prior audience would seem central. Why, for instance, did she ask them to consider falling asleep (on one’s feet no less) to be an emotion?  One infers this prior occasion was a testimonial. We could ask, then, what is there about such “emotions” that she’d testify to? For there is a submerged argument about affect at play, about surrendering everyday consciousness to sensation, such that losing one’s focus (and one’s speech), when blood is “forced” into the arteries (not the veins, as she’s said), induces pleasure, and further, that uncovering these “emotions” testifies to an underlying element in human nature, a sort of inner animal. But if Scalapino is putting us on about this element, to what purpose?

The second poem opens, “Suppose I was [sic] thinking something, say, not knowing I was thinking it” (4), so again the topic of thought is invoked, such that acting without knowing what you think and losing focus are linked. In this segment, a dog approaches her with its tongue “lolling” and “whining the way human heads / loll forward in sleep and whinny,” sounds that are similar to our own sounds. But, she adds, it was “something so hesitant and low” that she compares it to “a neigh, the way we neigh, not thinking, when we are nervously mimicking a horse” (4), that is, she’s again broaching a boundary between human and animal in terms of thought. “So,” the speaker states—with “so” being a sign of inference, “I mimicked him, the dog, right back.” letting her tongue slide forward between her lips, “really laughing” (4). That inference occurs, as does her mimicry, on the basis of kinship, shared features. One wonders, consequently, what unconscious thought might have motivated this? And if we listen to that opening line (given recourse to the use of voice), the speaker’s stress on “was” above indicates her retelling is (once again) part of an argument, with the concession that she may have subconsciously thought this out, as in, “Okay, suppose I was thinking something,” but without knowing quite that she was thinking. Can one think without knowing you think? Perhaps. But if so, what happens to cogito ergo sum?

Perloff discusses this speaker in a second essay, citing another segment from hmmmm, this one about an encounter with a woman on a bus.[7] A stranger pretends to lose her balance and grabs the speaker by the arm, pinching her hard. Perloff comments, “But of course the real focus of this paragraph is not on the stranger but on the ‘I,’ who reads . . . sinister motives into the most ordinary of incidents. Somehow—how?—her mind’s not right, or is it that her suspicion is merely the emblem of the larger, depersonalized, tooth-and-claw survival of the fittest that characterizes the postmodern metropolis?” (How Phenomena Appear 269). Perloff’s reference to Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” is a calculated one—she reads Scalapino’s poem as employing a confessional model in order to “turn it inside out” (Radical Artifice 50). Scalapino’s speaker concludes:

Though I believed    (looking at her sideways,
and seeing only that her lips were parted slightly, with her snout
breathing softly)     that during the two or three minutes
in which this pain lasted, she was saying (or at least I imagined                                                                                                     [so
from the length of time that she held on to my arm
before releasing me)     I wish that I could make you yelp just                                                                                                  [once .  (21)

Perloff considers this piece and the overall tone of hmmmm to be “just barely controlled hysteria” (269). But Scalapino felt that Perloff misread her and objected (in an essay) that she wasn’t being represented by that subject “I,” nor was that “I”  projecting a malignancy (in the head) onto an urban landscape. Scalapino also discloses that the above segment was built from a dream that had “in it an earlier event from childhood,” so involves three perspectives. She comments: “In the real (childhood) event I’d noticed someone wasn’t human (a woman pinching me viciously with a gleeful expression in her eyes) and so realized I had a conception of that (what’s human)” (269). The question of what is or is not human is helpful. But those described events weren’t representing something, Scalapino insisted. They were “motions in space and commentary on these”—where “motion” clearly relates to Whalen’s “graph of the mind moving,” that is, with tracking the mind—and were intended as “breakdowns of prior constructions of events,” emphatically not “proceeding as doctrine.” Tone in hmmmm, Scalapino responds, “was actually very intentional—what is laughing? The tone gives the reader a surface that is non-readable—disingenuous and facetious and sincerity-as-vulnerable really being exactly the same. So it takes ‘one’ outside of socially controlled exchange” (Phenomena 269-70), in effect, I’d add, wrecking the mind. Mark that Scalapino doesn’t want her poem sewn back into a fabric she was at pains to unravel. Being disingenuous, I’d also note, violates the Gricean maxim of Quality.[8]

Acts of miming and pretend, of peering into mirrors and of seeing oneself as ‘other,’ a mountain, for instance, or a gosling, comprise most of the episodes of hmmmm. Imitation is its primary mode, the ticket out.

There’s much in hmmmm that’s facetious, many jokes, preposterous gestures, disingenuous things confessed, and perhaps a cover up (of one’s vulnerability), for there’s also much that’s sincere. The “tonal surface” is nonreadable because the text doesn’t indicate ways to distinguish between those gestures. This particular poem expresses related ambiguities. But when ambiguity is intentional, readers don’t require that such gestures to be separated. “How as I to know,” the speaker laments, that a stranger would fake losing her balance in order to injure me? Perhaps she couldn’t know. She’s an innocent, as some of Scalapino’s figures are. Mark however that in pretending to fall the stranger preserves a social “veneer,” and that the speaker is careful not to look at her directly—that is, she doesn’t violate personal space—so that the transaction occurs in secret. The stranger parts her lips to show her canines, but surreptitiously, “slightly.” The duration of her pinch signals it’s intentional, but that’s also a secret. The speaker’s response? She believes, perhaps imagines the woman to be saying “I wish you would yelp like a dog,” namely, show yourself also to be canine. Yet what would that show, besides the stranger’s dominance? It would make her inner nature public, get the speaker “down on all fours” as Scalapino later phrases it (19). This message, however, unfolds inside the speaker and elicits, according to Scalapino, the opposite, recognition of what it means to be human.

Scalapino elsewhere rejects interpretations based on exemplification and content—she counters that her work is “contentless” (“Interior Scrutiny” 206; Public World 50-1). That is likely because it’s “in motion,” “a gesture regarding itself,” self-reflexive (Public World 51). At the risk of reinstating what Scalapino wished disassembled, however, there are elements intended to be linked, thematic subjects, and ways to approach this text, in Scalapino’s terms, as both writing and critique, especially so when through the speaking subject, for almost all of the segments in hmmmm are expressed in first person, by someone given not only as a young woman, but a poet named Leslie (17, 25, 29), and this person coyly confides in her readers, so an exchange of some sort is at stake. Although what she confides is subject to interpretation, the occasions are noticeably public and the tone intimate, offhand. Her topic however is invariably private, for these segments function as disclosures.

I’d go further, for I read the poems as impersonations, but not impersonations of others, although Scalapino does that too—rather, impersonations of “Leslie” imagining herself as other, through the use of mimicry, voice, and in this section of the book, she imagines herself predominantly an animal, with kinship to other creatures, hence her emphasis on imitated sounds and her calculated childishness (sticking out her tongue), but enabled as well to participate, say, in the social life of a dog, for they often respond positively to her, even though the woman above does not. There are projections involved—she likewise sees through herself to the animal in others, as above, in reference to the woman’s snout and teeth. Note however that the observation was marked as the speaker’s imagining.

Scalapino makes that project most evident in the following segment:

As Rimbaud said,   I thought today sitting in the library
absentmindedly leafing through a book on the habits of birds,
isn’t the way we find happiness precisely by losing our senses
(oversimplified, of course, I was being    facetious.) But still
I can see imitating a bird’s call such as that of the fledgling
of a goose or a swan (here I referred to the book) by forcing
myself into a swoon. And,   by way of finishing the thought, I,
for the sake of appearances, since there were people sitting
in the chairs around me, merely sagged forward in my seat and
whistled as if I were asleep. Ssss, it came out, sort of a hiss,
like the noise of a goose. So, almost before I knew it,
I followed this by a low and guttural cough
and leaned forward simply to expel some phlegm. Then quickly
I took a glance around before I wiped my mouth. Feeling weary.  (17)

Citing Rimbaud’s Lettres du Voyant above on the “disordering of all the senses” is a giveaway, even if the speaker disavows any intention of finding happiness by “losing her senses.” While it’s perhaps “oversimplified” for her to seek happiness in that way, it’s also a bit more than that (even when you’re being facetious). This is a literate speaker, and Rimbaud’s intent was not to find happiness or even to “lose” his senses. It was “to arrive at the unknown,” to disorder his senses in order to become a visionary.[9] The account deviates from Rimbaud in sloppy deliberate ways. She absently leafs through a book on bird habits and lays out her plan: “But still / I can see imitating a bird’s call” by forcing herself into a swoon, although again she’s sensitive to social context, pretending to be asleep at the table. Could she actually accomplish this project in a public library? No, this is pretense. Yet note how careful she is to “complete” her thought, that thought is again the topic, and almost before she notices, she’s spitting on the floor. The speaker has marked affinities with our other, earlier champion whistler, and she imitates birds in order to eclipse an unstated but markedly human dilemma involving thinking, in order to get beyond that dilemma, by secretly experimenting with consciousness, an imaginative escapade intent on altering perception.

Acts of miming and pretend, of peering into mirrors and of seeing oneself as ‘other,’ a mountain, for instance, or a gosling, comprise most of the episodes of hmmmm. Imitation is its primary mode, the ticket out. And tone of voice is critical. “So far,” muses one woman, “the idea of the dog’s bark is sim- / ply the way I have found to describe a man’s sounds.” (One man is said to be led by his mistress as on a leash.) But “How can I help myself,” another queries, from thinking about men, with all their kissing and barking, “as being like a seal,” for as she reveals, “I am fascinated by the way a seal moves” (11). Or again, “Isn’t it interesting how a woman like me / pursues in man after man / the same face or even same foot or hand” (6). That is, being likewise compelled. And obviously, to read such passages without attending to tone of voice—voicing—is to miss altogether their intention.


[1] Most critics talk of “voice” as a figure of speech (most famously, de Man), but the importance of sound in poetry indicates that the figure derives from the function of voice. Linguistic rhythm, after all, can’t be determined without recourse to voice. By voice, I don’t mean “psychological parameters” unifying style around a “notion of self” as “the primary feature of writing” (Bernstein 407-8). I mean a package of events above the phonemic level, the suprasegmentals: stress, intonation, loudness, pitch, duration, juncture, rate, and focus, what linguists term “prosody,” and what Pound formulated as the total articulation of the poem. That would include punctuation, line breaks, and spacing.

[2] I speak of this doubleness in detail in “On Whalen’s Use of Voice.”

[3] Stein reiterates: “The inside and the outside, the outside which is outside and the inside which is inside are not when they are inside and outside are not inside in short they are not existing, that is inside, and when the outside is entirely outside that is is not at all inside then it is not at all inside and so it is not existing” (346). Stein also talks in this lecture of “at the same time while you are listening to be telling inside yourself and outside yourself anything that is happening . . . .” (342), i.e., the same doubleness.

[4] The phrase occurs in a poem by Steve Benson which Scalapino quotes and discusses.

[5] Experience for Scalapino is a matter of convention, social fabrication (e.g. Return of Painting 202).

[6] Grice posits that a “cooperative principle” underlies conversation, and he provides four norms or maxims, those of Quantity, Quality, Relation and Manner. The maxim of Relation is that the speaker make contributions appropriate to the needs of the transaction (28). My point is not that the poem should obey this norm, but that, inasmuch as the poem portends conversation, deliberately violating that maxim becomes an interpretive factor. For advances on Grice’s model, see Sperber and Wilson.

[7]The essay originally appeared in Critical Inquiry 25 (Spring 1999). When Perloff republished the essay in Differentials, the passage on Scalapino was excised. The original version, however (as of 2/14/2020) is posted on Perloff’s website http://marjorieperloff.blog/essays/silliman-autobiographer/#_ednref7. I refer largely to passages that Scalapino quotes in her response to Perloff.

[8] The maxim of Quality involves not saying what you believe to be false (27). Being false in a poem is an interpretive factor, one that runs the risk of having the poem discounted entirely. That’s not the case here.

[9] Rimbaud’s famous first letter to George Izambard reads partly: “Now I am going in for debauch. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working to make myself a visionary: you won’t possibly understand, and I don’t know how to explain it to you. To arrive at the unknown through the disordering of all the senses, that’s the point.” Rimbaud follows this with another comment relevant to reading Scalapino: “I is some one else. So much the worse for the wood that discovers it’s a violin . . . .” (xxvii).


Bruce Holsapple is a retired speech-language pathologist living in central New Mexico. He earned a PhD from SUNY Buffalo in 1991 and has published essays on William Carlos Williams, Charles Reznikoff, John Clarke, and Philip Whalen. He has published seven books of poetry, most recently Wayward Shadow. His book-length study of Williams’s poetry, The Birth of the Imagination, was published by the University of New Mexico in 2016.

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