Wednesday, September 30, 2009

D. E. Steward on "Augustos"

History, birds, and bicycling are concerns in “Augustos,” one of twenty-three consecutive years of month-to-month poems that together form the larger work called Chroma. Dissatisfied with the conventions of fiction and the patterns of verse composition, developing the structure and method of writing these months has been gratifying for me.

The irregular line breaks, the fragments as verse, the missing full stops, the color motifs, and the month designations are present throughout Chroma, and many of its months segue in some manner from one to the next. In “Augustos” the exotic allusions to distant places and events are not forced but part of my experience, as matter-of-fact as bicycling or swinging a scythe.

“Augustos” began from an August bicycle ride below anvil-cumuli near an old battlefield in the Piedmont. It finished under “the awesome, ringing welkin” of more dramatic clouds. The wonder of feeling the continuity of nature while staring agape at short-lived cottontails and imagining that the asphalt on which the bicycle rolls may be only slightly less permanent than they is crucial to the poem. Its use of uncommon terms like “welkin,” “gryllidine,” “spurtles,” “fleams,” “snaths,” “cecropia,” and “rowen” enhances the mood of past-in-the-present. As people in linsey-woolsey mowed, as others tamed crows, as the same insects have been there for eons, the clouds build and swell and “go on and on . . . beyond the curve of earth.” The poem’s message is perhaps, worship anything, worship clouds.

“Augustos” ignores too many formalities and inflates associations too intensely to be read as randomly cohesive observations. The stanzas or fragments are pulses delivered from the debouchure of the keyboard, work like this probably being impossible before the scrolling technology of word processing. The organization of notes buttressed by the gabions of search engines, enhanced by the ability to accumulate massively and cut to the bone with the ease of block deletes, are the means of composition here. In a language domain of ranging complexity coherence is relative, but the imposition of a particular memory and experience upon what I write about channels its disemboguement. Poetic source is without limits, it is as all the world. The word brings this stupendous complexity to ground, anchors it to the particular. Some particulars in “Augustos” are abstract, some immediate, and enough are autobiography to make the poem nearly the enemy of the verity of knowing and remembering—which of course is what imaginative writing is.


  1. I'm particularly interested in what you call "organization of notes buttressed by the gabions of search engines" and the process of "inflating associations". At what point in composition does the poetic voice enter into written word? The observational notes that you keep- do they remain strictly objective until you later wrap them in whatever threads are spinning in the poetic consciousness, or is there poetry in an observation present in some form or another when you take note of something you may encounter on such a ride?

  2. NF, The Web is of course a great eye in the sky allowing us poetic powers that go far beyond any single consciousness in the past. I often start one of my months with a phrase or an idea and scroll on from there. I imagine that the whole process goes on in levels poetic awarness, some cleverly associative, some exdcitingly intense. It's just another sort of writing. DES

  3. NF, Read excitingly of course. "It's just another sort of writing" may sound glib but there's profundity there. It simply does not matter how poetry gets from the poet to the page. Twenty-first century writers just hage it a lot easier than scratching bark or quills or carbon paper.

  4. NFencore, Read have for hage. The Web may be a remarkable advance in the collection and organization of knowledge and awareness but there are relative truths. Just in the last hour I've been having a conversation with a friend of many years, a film critic and film historian, who views the Web as totalitarian intrusion -- e.g., Google Earth and Google Street. It could be that the purest poetry of the times is being written by Luddites?

  5. Ah, I enjoy hovering over that idea (the intrusion). It would seem appropriate that one could take that wealth of information to the other extreme; The same with any other exercise in greed. Borrowing a few threads from the Web until the poet-self is spun out and sucked dry -- I believe there is a lot of that happening (or could be, I'm only entertaining catastrophe) with "the" poetry of the millennial. Experience is no longer necessary to catalog our existential mumblings, as long as you can pile it on with references and viewpoints pulled from every cupboard that's jacked in.

    But when used as a resource, and not an oasis, control resumes. You demonstrate that well.

    I agree with the comment about the Luddites. I never get to read their compositions in full, though. The tide has almost always washed most of it out to sea by the time I arrive at the shore.

    Thank you for your continuing insights.

  6. Experience is a relentless inevitability. No one, poet or otherwise, lacks for it. Daily we sleep or laze (and sometimes dream) for eight hours and absorb for the other sixteen. Apparently Kant never ventured more than ten kilometers from his birthsite. Perhaps too much of the Web does dull poetic perception. All things in moderation, etc. Timidity and irresolution are probably the most corrosive quaslities for anyone writing poetry to avoid, along with perhaps playing too much solitaire at the keyboard.

  7. The point of the BPJ Forum is exchange, not pontification. For the rest of my month up on this remarkable site no more pronouncements from this end.

  8. How does music--that is, your ear for rhythm, the shapeliness of a phrase, and cadence--enter into the process of composing the months?

  9. LS, Music, I guess, is the most difficult aesthetic experience to write about but for me it often enters what I doing and so often I simply use the composition's name or the composer without further comment. If I try to say more it usually ends up as just sighs and flaccid adjectives. So necessarily I assume that if I mention something, say, like "Death and the Maiden" most people know their Schubert and let it go at that. Most of the time cadence and shape of phrase comes in the sound of the descriptive words, rhythm in the suggestiveness of the music mentioned.
    The music itself, when it comes to awarenss while writing, is what's recently heard or what is suggested by situation, personality, landscape, etc. Some people simply make me think of "March Slave" others of Bossa Nova or Wagner or Puccini arias, but generally if I make direct reference to music it's coming from something heard fairly recently. Music is a very fine thing to work with and often to work to. I'm in awe of musical composition, think of it as probably the highest calling, and have no idea how it's done.

  10. No more "pronouncements" promised but plenty of exchange if anyone has anything to say about "Augustos" or other of my months.

  11. Hello D.E.,
    I don't mind 'pronouncements', so no problem as far as I'm concerned.
    I've greatly enjoyed reading and rereading 'Augustos' (the alternation of narrative and solitary observation, impression or thought does not make it easily accessible (for me, that is), but of course, of course, it needn't be). I have retained this image of a man alone cycling the highest summits and plateaus (the world around, Japan, the Andes...), almost in thin air (right under the www as it were), all senses wide open, like an antenna (you refer to it yourself at the end of the poem) capturing wave after wave (or moment after moment) of life on the planet. Your word choice enhances this ethereal quality, sharpness and sense of bewilderment. Light and streamlined like a whirring new bike of carbon, aluminum...
    Interesting too, I found, the contrast of motion (the bike), and moment or standstill.
    Man appears as a bewildered and forlorn but well-equipped and deliberate spectator, going strong and on his way, and it looks like a good choice, now Goethes 'Homo Universalis' has evidently become extinct.

    I'd like to refer to LS's question too.
    I wondered how the theme of August, the climax of summer and life, found its specific form; separate lines, like cumulus in open skies, which evokes plenty of space and time, no stanzas (Italian: room), which evokes the (great) outdoors and freedom.
    Was it a deliberate choice, or did it happen all by itself while writing the poem?
    Have your other 'months' (like the one about December f. e.) got a wholly different form and cadence?
    And how did the 23 years come into it? Is 'Augustos' in fact 23 particular Augusts bound together? Have you remarked changes during these years, in your writing (stanzas earlier on, or no?)?

  12. Johan Huybrechts, Your stupendous "The Breathing of Sviatoslav Richter" arcs over my work in the Fall BPJ and I'm most fortunate to be under it nearby. Wonderful things are picked up by microphones -- and more tractable mysteries these days by cellphone and surveillance cameras. Maybe the era began in 1966 with Antonioni's BLOWUP. The way you take the susurrous breathing in the 1988 recording Rachmannoff's Opus 39 all the way to the Eiger Nordwand and beyond is thrilling.
    Thank you for carrying the bicycle aspect of "Augustos" farther. I hadn't thought of that. And thank you of course for your flattering reading.
    The theme of August is written through in much the same manner as every month in my series of twenty-three years of twelve months each. So its open, stanzaless form does not have to do with the poem's season. As for the cadence, perhaps I'm not as in control of that. I think that comes in the initial writing and then less well in rewriting.
    Some of my hundreds of consecutive months are less consciously poetic as they come around year-to-year, often fitting what has gone on for me in their span. The twenty-three Augusts are not bound together. The earlier ones are perhaps wordier and even less cohesive. The project began with September 1986 and has gone on month-to-month from there.

  13. JH, For "Rachmannoff" read Rachmaninov, or any of the other accepted spellings.

  14. Thanks for the praise, DE.

    One more thing: after reading your introduction for the forum, I remembered an old Italian (again...) expression used in the art of sculpturing: 'per via di levare' (versus 'per via di porre', which, I guess, is the more common way in poetry); composition by way of removing.

  15. Carving rather than molding, and then again that's another – like musical compositon – mysterious art. Ive known two very good sculptors very well, who both shift into a kind of high-chin trance attempting to talk about how it's done. Maybe poetry is too often "per via di figurare," prompting it to slip down somewhere removed from the spheres. There's something about poetry using the same constructions, vocabulary and vernacular used to sell cars or soap that's defusing.

  16. As October 2009 closes out and the dogs having barked, the caravan moves on (the little preposition "on" in that profound if cliched dog bark-caravan image being as powerful and evocative as any verb can be), deep thanks to BPJ and its mission of furthering "Al primo grillo" (Sandro Penna's poem in BJP's Fall's issue).