Michael Davidson

Michael Davidson: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

In The Fall of America, he traverses the United States in a Volkswagen, speaking his observations into a tape recorder and singing the requiem of Walt Whitman's democratic vistas. The book was written in 1966 during the first major escalation of the Vietnam War, and Ginsberg was among the first to register the enormous impact of global telecommunications on that conflict. One poem in the volume, "Wichita Vortex Sutra," captures the bizarre contradictions between distant Indochina and middle America. Ginsberg is literally in a vortex of recorded speech as he drives (or is driven) from Macpherson, Kansas, to Wichita, where he is to give a poetry reading. He describes himself being surrounded by high tension wires, telegraph poles, and invisible radio waves:


    News Broadcast & old clarinets

        Watertower dome Lighted on the flat plain

            car radio speeding acrost railroad tracks--

Kansas! Kansas! Shuddering at last!

        PERSON appearing in Kansas!

    angry telephone calls to the University

    Police dumbfounded leaning on

                    their radiocar hoods

    While Poets chant to Allah in the roadhouse Showboat!

Blue eyed children dance and hold thy Hand O aged Walt

    who came from Lawrence to Topeka to envision

            Iron interlaced upon the city plain—

    Telegraph wires strung from city to city O Melville!

            Television brightening thy rills of Kansas lone

I come


Ginsberg views himself as a "lone man from the void" like Whitman, who has been sent to identify himself as a "PERSON" in Kansas. His isolation is contrasted with a world of electronic sound--news broadcasts, crank telephone calls protesting his appearance on college campuses, police in their "radiocars," and television signals. Ginsberg is driving through Bible-belt America, where religious broadcasts merge with news from Vietnam and then-current patriotic songs such as Sergeant Barry Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Berets." It is against this electrical interference that the salutary voices of Whitman and Melville are remembered, voices forged in a different America and a different auditory sensorium.

As Ginsberg rolls through middle America, he records the voices of radio announcers broadcasting the daily body count of the dead in Southeast Asia. Newspaper headlines, billboards, and other forms of highway signage add to the general information blitzkrieg as Ginsberg strives to retain a voice capable of prophecy:


"We will negotiate anywhere anytime"

                                said the giant President

        Kansas City Times 2/14/66: "Word reached U.S. authorities

that Thailand's leaders feared that in Honolulu Johnson might have tried to

persuade South Vietnam's rulers to ease their stand against negotiating

with the Viet Cong.

        American officials said these fears were groundless and Humphrey

was telling the Thais so."

                                AP dispatch

                                    The last week's paper is Amnesia.


Quoted material from newspapers, far from clarifying the ambiguities of the historical moment, creates further confusion. The speech of Johnson or Humphrey, filtered through AP journalese, convinces neither the Thai leaders who want further assurance of American support of South Vietnam nor the poet who wants the opposite. Against the doubletalk of Washington or the newspaper, Ginsberg poses the prophetic voice of Whitman's "Democratic Vistas." In a world so riven by undirected sound, Ginsberg yearns for a sign or an icon that participates directly in the physical character of its source. He finds it, partially, in the Chinese character for truth as defined by Ezra Pound, "man standing by his word":


        Word picture:              forked creature


        standing by a box, birds flying out

                    representing mouth speech

Ham Steak please waitress, in the warm café.


Ginsberg wants a voice that has not already been heard, one equivalent to Pound's ideogram that captures in an instant what the canned voice of the media cannot provide. The voice as "word picture" would be as immediate as birds flying out of a box or a request from a lunch menu. For Ginsberg the orality of the tapevoice stands in direct opposition to the reproduced heteroglossia of incorporated sound. Newsmedia, press reports, advertising, and police radio transmissions are all implicated in an information blockage against which the low-tech, Volkswagen-driven cassette recorder stands as alternative. Prophecy no longer emanates from some inner visionary moment but from a voice that has recognized its inscription within an electronic environment, a voice that has seized the means of reproduction and adapted it to oppositional ends. "I sing the body electric," Whitman chants, but the literal possibility for such a song had to wait for Ginsberg and his generation.

Michael Davidson: On "Mantis"

Perhaps the most graphic example of formalism in dialogue with modern materialism is Zukofsky's sestina "Mantis," which not only addresses the alienation of life under modern capitalism but does so by debating the "implications of a too regular form."

What is most interesting about Zukofsky's response to social crisis is that it is often conducted in formal terms that seem at odds with the material under consideration. This disparity has prompted Eric Mottram to speak of "A"-9's canzone structure as a kind of "dandyism" whose "strained versifying operates a trite statement of art taking its place as labour in 1938-40" (98). Mottram's essay is one the best accounts of the difficulties of forging a materialist poetics, but it fails to historicize the oppositional meaning of Zukofsky's formalism with respect to competing theories of committed art during this period. Zukofsky used formalism not to aestheticize social tensions but to return a degree of use-value to an increasingly instrumentalized poetry. Rather than solve the problem as Oppen did--by giving up poetry altogether--Zukofsky sought to provide an immanent critique within the terms of modernism itself.

One way of understanding Zukofsky's formalism is to see it as a response to the larger issue of social reification. In Lukács's canonical description, reification refers to the transformation of labor power into a commodity, the objectification of "sensuous human activity" into a "second nature." Building upon Marx's notion of commodity fetishism in Capital, Lukács describes the process by which relations between individuals "take on the character of a thing and thus [acquire] a 'phantom objectivity"' (83). As Marx dramatizes (in a passage quoted in "A"-9), commodities seem to speak to each other, saying "our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange-values" (176-77). As both Marx and Lukács argue, when commodities acquire independent agency, the worker's role in creating them is occluded, leading to a sense of passivity and helplessness in the face of an autonomous, self-regulating market--"autotelic" in every sense.

Lukács is less interested in the specific economic factors contributing to reification than he is in the epistemological forces that maintain it. He describes the bourgeois philosophical tradition inherited from Kant as constructing a reflective consciousness that, while claiming power over its material surroundings, is unable to assess its own historical circumstance. The bourgeoisie, since it is implicated in this contemplative attitude, cannot rupture it; but the proletariat potentially can understand its own historical moment--and its alienation. What the proletariat "owns" is not labor power but a certain vantage by which the congealed version of that power in commodities can be seen for what it is. It is this vantage that preoccupies Zukofsky in his early poems and that becomes the focus of "Mantis."

"Mantis" concerns the perspective from which material conditions become detached from an observer. Rather than being about commodities or labor per se, the poem uses its own status as an aesthetic object as a lens for viewing social alienation. And since the observer in this poem is also a poet, the work explores the degree to which "looking" and "writing" are implicated in a single mode of production. It is not that social reality is reproduced through the poem but that, through describing the inability of poetry to remove barriers between individuals, the poem generates a second vantage "produced" in the interstices between formal accomplishment (the poem as made thing) and social inadequacies (the absence of a unified proletarian consciousness). The poem consists of two parts--a sestina and an interpretation--each of which augments and redefines the other. The sestina invokes the poet's sudden encounter with a praying mantis in a subway station; the interpretation accounts for the sestina itself, situating the encounter with the mantis within a larger meditation on writing. It may seem odd that Zukofsky chooses such a complex literary vehicle to deal with "the growing oppression of the poor," but the poem's recycling of terminal words according to a numerical formula provides a felicitous frame for rendering "The actual twisting / Of many and diverse thoughts" invoked by the mantis.

The sestina's invention is associated with Arnaut Daniel, who invented the form, but most important for Zukofsky is its use by Pound who, in The Spirit of Romance, described it as "a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself" (27). Pound wrote several sestinas in his early career and regarded the form as a paragon of virtuosic difficulty, a touchstone for poetic apprenticeship. Zukofsky, no longer an apprentice, uses it to address Pound at a moment (1934) when the older poet's increasing interest in Mussolini and Social Credit threatens their relationship. By subjecting the sestina to "ungainly" issues of poverty and urban alienation, Zukofsky confronts the dangers of poetic mastery divorced from the cultural and social institutions such mastery serves. Virtuosic control, as an end in itself, quickly becomes


Stuffing like upholstery

For parlor polish,

And our time takes count against them

For their blindness and their (unintended?) cruel smugness.


(All 76-77 [emphasis added])


Although Pound is not the antecedent here, a certain Victorian "smugness" associated with Pound's early personae is.

Although the title of the poem focuses on the mantis, clearly the subject is less the insect than the speaker's ambivalent response to it:


Mantis! praying mantis! since your wings' leaves

And your terrified eyes, pins, bright, black and poor

Beg--"look, take it up" (thoughts' torsion)! "save it!"

I who can't bear to look, cannot touch,--You--

You can--but no one sees you steadying lost

In the cars' drafts on the lit subway stone.


(All 73)


The shifting deixis of these lines dramatizes the speaker's ambivalence, both to the mantis and to the poor. The ambiguity of "it" in the third line suggests that he addresses himself as much as the mantis. For Zukofsky is asking whether or how to "take up" the event, how to give it form and stabilize "thoughts' torsion," much as the insect strives to steady itself in the drafty subway. The confusion of first and second persons ("I who can't bear to look, cannot touch,--You-- / You can--but no one sees you") points to the speaker's conflict about addressing those who challenge his autonomy. Deixis fails to differentiate the subject from the eyes around him, and by the end of the stanza the question of whose eyes are seeing whom is thoroughly vexed, although understandable for a poet who consistently pronounced I's as "eyes."

The only witness to the poet's discomfiture is the newsboy, but he is, in Lukács's terms, wrapped in the endless circulation of commodities, an extension of the reified history represented in his papers:


Even the newsboy who now sees knows it

No use, papers make money, makes stone, stone,

Banks, "it is harmless," he says moving on--You?


(All 73)


In the interpretation, the market logic introduced here is shown to be circular.


Rags make paper,

paper makes money, money makes

banks, banks make loans, loans make

poverty, poverty makes rags.



It is precisely this vicious circularity to which Zukofsky's poetic form refers, even as it offers its own alternative semiotic economy for six recycled words. Likewise, the problems of deixis and perspective illustrate the difficulties of looking at another outside of market relationships. The mantis, by breaking through the speaker's contemplative gaze, reminds him of cultural traditions that he has forgotten but nonetheless summons to explain the insect's mythic meaning:


Don't light on my chest, mantis! do--you're lost,

Let the poor laugh at my fright, then see it:

My shame and theirs, you whom old Europe's poor

Call spectre, strawberry, by turns; a stone--

You point--they say--you lead lost children--




The speaker's attraction to and repulsion from the mantis replicate his response to the poor, and by acknowledging "shame" he transforms self-closed revery into vulnerability and even empathy. By referring to "old Europe's poor," Zukofsky acknowledges his own ethnic origins, sustained by the affirmative nature of shared narratives. Just as the mantis is able to "lead lost children" in an old story, so it saves one modern subject from isolation.

At the end of the sestina, the poet realizes that, until he identifies his alienation with those around him, he cannot translate his subway experience for future generations. He urges the mantis to "Fly ... on the poor," as it has alighted on him, "arise like leaves / The armies of the poor, strength; stone on stone / And build the new world in your eyes, Save it!" The paraphrase of the socialist motto ("Build the new world in the shell of the old") is varied here to include the acts of looking and identifying that have dominated the poem so far. But the final tercet presents a too-tidy conclusion to a poem that has opened up more problems than it has solved.

If "Mantis" ended here, with the ringing injunction to "build the new world in your eyes," we would have been left with the very aestheticized politics deplored by Mottram. It is for "'Mantis,’ an Interpretation" to return to the poem and dismantle the totalizing gesture implied by the form and manifested in its utopian apostrophe. Zukofsky's mandate to append an interpretation is granted by Dante, whose Vita Nuova offers an earlier example of poetry plus commentary (albeit in prose). And as with Dante, Zukofsky wishes to render a transformative experience by interpreting the condition surrounding words brought to bear on it:


Mantis! Praying mantis! since your wings' leaves

            Incipit Vita Nova

            le parole ...

            almeno la loro sentenzia

the words ...

at least their substance

at first were

"The mantis opened its body

It had been lost in the subway

It steadied against the drafts

It looked up--

Begging eyes--

It flew at my chest"


--The ungainliness

of the creature needs stating.


(All 74-75)


Zukofsky includes a first-draft opening to the poem ("The mantis opened its body") to indicate his difficulty in finding words for an awkward moment. However "ungainly" these first twenty-seven words, they become the "pulse's witness" to the event, just as Dante’s "new life" begins with Beatrice's look. Zukofsky's equivalent look combines the "Begging eyes" of the mantis with those of the poor.

Zukofsky refuses to treat the mantis as a symbol, but he realizes that it "can start / History" by calling up disparate areas of knowledge and subjecting them to experience. Like Melville's whale, the mantis can become a curriculum:


line 1--entomology

line 9--biology

lines 10 and 11- the even rhythm of riding under-

        ground, and the sudden jolt are also

        of these nerves, glandular facilities,

        brain’s charges


(All 78-79)


This catalog, like the whimsical index at the end of "A" or the footnotes to "Poem Beginning 'The,’" presumes to account for topics invoked by the mantis, but the more Zukofsky includes, the less he verifies. For the listing of facts alone cannot account for the "original shock" provoked by the insect. When facts remain ends in themselves, they signal their distance from any actual exchange. What "Mantis" offers as a corrective is to provide "a use function of the material: / The original emotion remaining, / like the collective, / Unprompted" (79). For it is this "invoked collective" of disarranged and recombined facts that reestablishes contact, not to stop history with a verbal icon but to keep it alive and tangible in the present.

"Mantis" and its interpretation are one poem seeing modern history through two pairs of eyes. We could speak of the sestina as embodying the modernist attempt to secure sight through the imposition of formal constraints, the humanist achievement of mastery over the quotidian, the mantis turned into a symbol of the poor. But in the interpretation we discern a postmodern (and we might say post-Marxist) attempt to dereify the discourse of mastery in favor of internal critique. Neither poem exists without the other, just as the eyes of the mantis trade places with the eyes of its beholder.

Michael Davidson: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Stein explores the priority of male power and succession as a discursive possibility in "Patriarchal Poetry" (1927). In its opening lines, Stein invokes the close proximity of terms for ontological and historical validation: "As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away." The imperative "fasten it back" suggests the constructed nature of the historical narrative of filiation. The lines that follow blur the boundaries between precession and being:

For before let it before to be before spell to be before to be before to have to be to be for before to be tell to be to having held to be to be for before to call to be for to be before to till until to be till before to be for before to be until to be for before to for to be for before will for before to be shall to be to be. . . .

Here the terms for temporal priority and spatial proximity ("before") merge with terms for being ("to be," "to be for"), creating a sentence whose grammatical structure embodies the difficulty of establishing a "place" for presence. "There was never a mistake in addition," Stein concludes, and in a world in which existence is based on having gained priority (having been here before), things will always add up to the same thing. In "Patriarchal Poetry," the sum of all equations is patriarchy.

I have spoken of the incarnational structure of Christianity by which an originating voice, or reason, is succeeded by a supplemental logos or word. In "Patriarchal Poetry," this narrative dominates Stein's structure of repetitions and is given explicit emphasis in the work's opening. "To change a boy with a cross from there to there" suggests ways that Christian incarnation ("a boy with a cross") inaugurates history and establishes the terms for repetition:

Let him have him have him heard let him have him heard him third let him have him have him intend let him have him have him defend let him have him have him third let him have him have him heard let him have him have him occurred let him have him have him third.

The sheer monotony of these lines illustrates the rule of succession being invoked. "Let him have him" defines the horizon of progress in terms of male succession. The variation, "let him have him third," neutralizes numerical sequence by the repetitions of male pronouns. The dialectical aporia, the "third" term, can never be anything more than a repetition of the same. The biblical incarnation in John, "In the beginning was the Word," is reconfigured by Stein as a conundrum: if the word is already gendered as male, can it engender anything other than itself again and again? The terms that interrupt the repetitions above - "third," "occurred," "intend," "defend" - are framed by the phrase "have him" so that all variation is a direct function of a "him" who permits it.

The priority of a patriarchal principle is based in language, specifically in a speech-based linguistics. Stein undermines such phonocentrism by pointing to the pragmatic contexts within which certain linguistic formulations occur. The form that her pointing takes is a satire of male rhetorics of proof and validation. By substituting the term "patriarchal poetry" for other substantives, she indicates the extent to which the proof and the subject-position that establishes proof are connected. In one case, she mocks the way that domestic life - specifically regimens of eating and cooking - is permeated by a patriarchal principle:

Patriarchal poetry and not meat on Monday patriarchal poetry and meat on Tuesday. Patriarchal poetry and venison on Wednesday Patriarchal poetry and fish on Friday Patriarchal poetry and birds on Sunday Patriarchal poetry and chickens on Tuesday patriarchal poetry and beef on Thursday.

Marianne DeKoven calls the repetition of the title motif "arbitrary," but I find repetitions such as these highly directed, suggesting that along with daily bread, one consumes an ordered logic as well. "Patriarchal poetry" refers both to the gendered basis of daily life and its dissemination through poetry.

The criterion upon which DeKoven evaluates Stein's work is its ability to sustain variation and change. Thus, she admires works such as Tender Buttons or "Susie Asado" because they constantly vary and reconfigure language in new and interesting ways. Long works such as "Patriarchal Poetry," on the other hand, suffer from redundancy. It is true that the latter makes for difficult reading, but redundancy is very much at issue in its critique of male discourse. By filling her paragraphs with the same words, often subordinated to the phrase "patriarchal poetry," Stein undermines the function of all series - lists, catalogs, and schedules - that appear to structure the quotidian. Far from organizing reality, Stein's lists point back at the rationalizing tendency itself:

Patriarchal Poetry sentence sent once.

Patriarchal Poetry is used with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry is used with a spoon with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry is used with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry used with a spoon.

Patriarchal poetry in and for the relating of now and ably.

If the function of a list or a schedule is to distinguish and isolate, Stein's lists show the entropic nature of such a win to power. Within the logic of patriarchy all distinctions are moot. The difference between something "used with a spoon" and something "used with a spoon with a spoon" is only the illusion of difference.

I have said that "Patriarchal Poetry" foregrounds pragmatic frames for utterances. Many of the paragraphs create the effect of discourse without any human or social context. If Wordsworth's definition of poetic discourse is a language of men speaking to men, Stein's variation is of systems speaking to systems:

Patriarchal poetry makes no mistake makes no mistake in estimating the value to be placed upon the best and most arranged of considerations of this in as apt to be not only to be partially and as cautiously considered as in allowance which is one at a time. At a chance at a chance encounter it can be very well as appointed as appointed not only considerately but as it as use.

The humor of such passages lies in their mockery of professional or bureaucratic rhetoric, with all of its minor discriminations, parenthetical qualifications, and unqualified assertions. The glaringly absent term here is any referent for the "value to be placed upon the best." Patriarchal poetry is faultless because, as a structure of legitimation, it has permeated the very logic of value itself.

Where does woman exist within "patriarchal poetry" (the system, not Stein's text)? At one level, she is its object, that about which a male poetry is written. Stein satirizes the goals of traditional love poetry in a sonnet placed at the text's center:

A Sonnet

To the wife of my bosom

All happiness from everything

And her husband.

May he be good and considerate


Gay and cheerful and restful.

And make her the best wife

In the world

The happiest and most content

With reason ...

The poem concludes by hoping that the wife's "charms her qualities her joyous nature" will make her husband "A proud and happy man." The function of the sonnet, as Stein sees it, is not to celebrate the wife but to hope she will continue to satisfy her husband. This is patriarchal poetry with a vengeance, and although Stein was perfectly capable of aping the bourgeois structure of the family herself, with Alice as wife and herself as husband, this sonnet, with its Hallmark Greeting Card sentimentality, suggests how ironically she could treat this ménage. Furthermore, it suggests that what sonnets are "about" is ultimately a system of avowals, the human terms for which are socially determined.

The longest catalog in "Patriarchal Poetry" is one consisting of variations on the phrase "Let her try" ("Let her be," "Let her be shy," "Let her try"), concluding with the appeal

Never to be what he said.

Never to be what he said

Never to be what he said

Let her to be what he said.

Let her to be what he said.

In terms of Stein's biography, we could see this as representing Stein's attempt to be free of her brother Leo, not to be "what he said" but to "try" to be herself. This may help explain Stein's desire to live outside of patriarchal authority, but it does not address the material form in which this desire is expressed. By focusing on the grammatical and pragmatic contexts of negation ("Never to be"), of commands ("Let her be"), and existence ("to be"), Stein inverts the authority of patriarchal language and points to the discursive nature of subject production itself. That she performs her deconstruction with a great deal of humor and wicked wit makes her task all the more oppositional.