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Sunday 31 October 2010

The Art of Struggle

The Art of Struggle 

The first step for the poet is to return to the origin; that is, to suffering. The modalities of suffering are important; they are not essential. All suffering is good. All suffering is useful. All suffering bears fruit. All suffering is a universe. – Michel Houellebecq, from his manifesto Staying Alive

The most important thing to note about Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Welbeck) is that he’s French. His writing has been lionised and lampooned in equal measure. By ‘writing’ I really mean his prose because most of his poetry has only ever appeared in French before now. His work has been described as racist, sexist, homophobic, reactionary, nihilistic, pornographic and repulsive, as well as moving, funny and prophetic. The strapline on the English cover of Whatever says, “as if desperately trying to find old bottles for new wine, ‘L’Étranger for the info age.’”[1] It’s a glib and slightly misleading sound bite, something that the author himself acknowledges, nevertheless Houellebecq’s prose style is understated, deadpan and often explanatory, reminiscent of Sartre or Camus. Whatever is the only novel by him that I own. I bought it because I’d begun to hear things about him – contradictory things – and I wanted to make my own mind up. I never finished the book, in fact I quit after only a couple of chapters which probably says more about my frame of mind at the time I attempted to read it than the book itself.

“Life is painful and disappointing,” he wrote in the opening sentence of his first published work, H.P.Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life.[2] It’s the kind of slogan-like statement that we associate with Sartrean philosophy – “There is no moral law,” “Man is a useless passion,” “Life is meaningless,” “The world is a nauseating mess,” “Hell is other people”. His writing also bears comparison to Baudelaire – his real literary idol – and de Sade another pair of writers who tend to divide people’s opinions. Like I said, the most important thing to note about Michel Houellebecq is that he’s French and by that I mean he comes from a literary tradition and has a mindset which is unique to writers of that nation. Being French means more than writing in French.

La poursuite du bonheur Although he is now infamous as a novelist Houellebecq first came to people’s attention, at least to the French people’s attention, as a poet. In 1992, his first collection of poems, La poursuite du bonheur (The Pursuit of Happiness) won the Prix Tristan Tzara. A novel, Extension du domaine de la lutte followed in 1994. In 1998 an English translation was published under the title Whatever and that’s when all the fuss began. In between a second book of poetry appeared, Le Sens du combat, poems, which won the Prix de Flore, up until then only attributed to fiction. This has now been translated as The Art of Struggle and published by Herla Publishing, an imprint of Alma Books who were kind enough to send me a review copy.

Translation is a bitch. A prime example is Camus’ novel L’Étranger which you’ll find under the title The Outsider in the UK and The Stranger in the US. Neither is accurate; Google Translate translates étrange as ‘strange’ and étranger as ‘abroad’ for example. A literal translation of Houellebecq’s first novel’s title could be ‘Extending the field of combating’ which I admit is awkward-sounding. Rather than ‘field of combating’ I’d probably have gone with ‘theatre of war’. A literal translation of Houellebecq’s second book of poetry could be ‘The Meaning of Combat’ but there’s clearly a reason why the translators have chosen to take the verb sentir which means ‘to be aware of’ or ‘to be conscious of’ and to render it as ‘art’ in the book’s title even though they translate it in two different ways within the book itself. Letters did go back and forth between them and the author and so there’s no doubt that he had a lot to say about the choice of words. He insists on doing interviews in French but since this often proves impractical he usually acquiesces and it seems his English is more than adequate.

His next book, another novel, was called Les Particules élémentaires (translated as Atomised by Frank Wynne, 2000; published in the US as The Elementary Particles). It may not have a synonym of the word ‘struggle’ in its title but in his review of the book Ivar Hagendoorn says: “Through its polarized characters it draws a radical portrait of the struggle with life at the turn of the 20st century.”[3] I could go on through the rest of his books but I think I’ve made my point: Houellebecq writes about life in the modern world and life in the modern world is a struggle.

Reading through reviews of his novels I think I’ve noticed where the split comes between those who love him and those who loathe him: people think the points he has to make are important – he says things that need to be said – but many people object to how he says them; they don’t like his storytelling. So you can imagine that this quote by him jumped out at me:

The struggle between poetry and prose is a constant in my life. If you obey the poetic impulse, you risk becoming unreadable. If you disobey, you’re ready for a career as an honest ‘storyteller.’[4]

In an issue of Salt Magazine the translators say this:

In one of his letters to us, Houellebecq says he feels The Way of the Struggle* is not just his best book of poetry, but his best book altogether. This might seem strange from someone whose fame is principally as a novelist. But reading his works together, it is clear his poems do not simply precede his novels but are instrumental in producing them.


Houellebecq’s poetry is as much an exploration of modernity at the end of the millennium as an exploration of the poetic forms of French nineteenth-century Romantic poetry. Houellebecq has been called the “Baudelaire of the supermarkets”, but his poetic voice is nevertheless instantly recognisable as his own. It is a voice for the new kinds of suffering brought upon man in the landscape of globalised cities, a landscape of increasingly accelerated and isolated relationships between human beings.[5]

* Interesting. It looks as though calling the collection The Art of Struggle wasn’t always the plan.

The Possibility of an Island Time and time again I kept coming across the word ‘cardboard’ in articles and reviews of Houellebecq’s books: e.g. “The Possibility of an Island is probably the worst of the novels, a long and caustic monologue against a cardboard backdrop,” (Point Magazine) or “This is supposed to be a novel of ideas, and the cardboard characters … are there so that the author can give shape to his thoughts” (San Francisco Chronicle). Personally I’m not averse to characters being a little two-dimensional (Camus’ Meursault does fine) but that’s where poetry wins hand and fist over prose because we can pretty much dispense with them.

Although his poetry is not as contentious as his prose opinions are still divided. Perry Anderson, in the London Review of Books, referred to it as “doggerel”[6] whereas Iggy Pop is on record as saying:

I read some of Houellebecq's poetry and thought "this motherfucker can write." I recognised some of my own traits in the book, and then discovered some more.[7]

There will be those who say that the opinion of a reviewer for an esteemed literary journal holds more water than that of a haggard old punk rocker but I’m not one of them. Both opinions are valid. There’s no accounting for taste.

For the most part the poems in The Art of Struggle are anonymous. Yes, they often have a first person narrator but it would be a mistake to assume that he’s always Houellebecq even though many of them share his traits. Take the opening stanza to ‘Mid-Afternoon’:

Gestures half-form, then end up in suffering
After walking a bit you’d rather go home
To sprawl in depression and lie on your bed,
Your body of sorrow’s heavy with presence.

Houellebecq’s depressive nature is famous. After a period of unemployment and depression, which led to several stays in psychiatric units, Houellebecq found a job working tech support at the French National Assembly. This formed the basis of his first novel in which he describes the crushingly boring lives of two computer programmers. The novel attracted a cult following and inspired a group of fans to start Perpendiculaire, a magazine based on a movement they called “depressionism”. Many of the characters he has created since have shown signs of depression.

Is depression depressing? Who would want to read anything written by someone going though depression? Like most ailments or afflictions depression is actually quite interesting from the outside. It’s not much fun on the inside – I speak from bitter experience – but that doesn’t mean you can’t produce insightful and often very funny work when depressed; again I speak from experience. The translators say of him:

During his appearances on French television at the time of the release in the Nineties of his first two novels, Houellebecq gave a fascinating depiction of someone who had not so much overcome as mastered the ills of his own depression, to the extent that depression had itself become an art.

His struggles with loneliness and depression are only the springboard from which he rises. What he sees from there is “a free-market society, where human beings themselves have been integrated within a system of exchange” as the opening poem in the collection puts it:

Dawn rises, grows, settles on the city
We’ve come through the night and not been set free
I hear the buses and the quiet hum
Of social exchange. I’m overcome with presence.

Today will happen. Invisible surfaces
Separate our suffering selves in the air
Then form and harden at a terrible pace;
But the body, still our pact with the body.

We’ve come through strain and desire
Childhood and dreams still pass us by
Not much there in a lifetime of smiling
We’re prisoners in our own clear selves.

The poem is untitled as are the majority in the book.

Poetry is not the same the world over. In English we think we can get away with calling a three-line poem with a 5-7-5 syllable count a haiku but it’s not a haiku; there’s a lot more involved. In their foreword the translators spend quite a bit of time talking about how surprisingly traditional Houellebecq’s poetry is.

In the French language the metre of a line of poetry or a whole poem is created on the number of syllables in the line, while English verse is organised according to the number of stressed and unstressed syllables in the line. Stress is produced in the poetry of both languages, and rhythm created in the interplay of the stressed and unstressed. But rhythm is not produced in the same way, nor heard in the same way.


Metre is at the heart of the verse poems of Michel Houellebecq’s book.


We have adopted meters which to us seemed flexible enough to convey the sound of reading each one of Houellebecq’s verse poems aloud, or silently; or the effects of hearing the poem reverberate. Sometimes a four-stressed line seemed right in response [to] the twelve-syllable French alexandrine … [b]ut sometimes a three-stress line seemed right.

That he has an affinity with the traditional he makes clear in his manifesto:

Believe in structure. Believe in the ancient metrics, equally. Versification is a powerful tool for the liberation of the inner life. Do not feel obliged to invent a new form. New forms are rare. One per century is already a brisk pace.[8]

There is no explicit narrative or plot in The Art of Struggle but the setting is clear: modern life in a modern city. No pretty nature poems here:

A few months later you lose your benefits
Autumn comes back slowly like gangrene;
Money is the only thought, the only law,
You are really alone, and it lingers and insists.

(from ‘The Dole’)

What’s interesting here is that the translators have chosen to use a slang expression rather than simply translate chômage as ‘unemployment’. I’m no expert but I would’ve thought that the more colloquial chômedu would have been used if he meant ‘dole’ as opposed to ‘unemployment’. Am I being petty? The word ‘dole’ suggests a certain class to me. If you asked any of the bankers who got laid off a while back they’d probably say they were simply ‘out of work’ or ‘unemployed’ not ‘on the dole’; common people say that. This is very much a British translation. Although ‘dole’ is an expression that is known in America they would be more likely to talk about ‘welfare’ and the same goes for some of these other translations:

Prisunic = Safeway

Continent – Aldi

Monoprix = Tesco

Un paquet de mouchoirs = Kleenex

Tesco has stores in the USA but under the name Fresh & Easy and they simply don’t have the standing that Tesco has in the UK. Fresh & Easy operates more than 160 stores in the United States. There are almost 2,500 Tesco stores in the UK.

There are a number of prose poems in the collection. I found these more accessible on the whole than the verse poems. Like this one:

In the Limpid Air

Some say, look at what’s happening backstage. How lovely, all that machinery working so smoothly! All these inhibitions and fantasies and desires, all reflected on their own history. The technology of sex appeal. How lovely!

Alas, I’m passionate and always have been about the moments in life when things stop working; when things globally fall apart, like an omen of things to come, not just in the present, but like glimpses of eternity suppressed by the system. The survival instinct on its way out.

I know it’s hard to base a code of conduct on such extraordinary suppositions. But that’s exactly what we’re here for, difficult things. Right now we’re suspended in life like on the Californian mesas, those platforms spiralling high over nothing. The nearest neighbour is a few hundred metres away but still in sight in the limpid air (and the impossibility of reunification is written on everyone’s face). Right now we’re in life like apes at the opera grunting and jumping in harmony. Up above, a melody floats by.

And, for comparison, here’s another translation:

In the Limpid Air

Some say: look at what’s happening behind the scenes. How lovely, all this machinery working! All these inhibitions, these phantasms, these desires reflected upon their own history. All this technology of the seductive. How lovely!

Alas, I have always loved, with great passion, these moments where nothing works any more. These states of disarticulation of the global system, which presage a fate rather than a moment, which suggest an eternity elsewhere denied. The genius of the species passes on. It is difficult to found an ethic of life on such exceptional presuppositions, I know. But we are here, precisely for difficult cases. We are now living as if on mesas in California, dizzying platforms separated by the void; the nearest neighbour is a hundred meters away, but remains visible anyway, in the limpid air (and you can read the impossibility of any reunification on every face). Now we are living like monkeys at the opera, mumbling and moving about in unison. Up there somewhere, a melody passes by.

—from The Yale Anthology of French Poetry. Translated by Mary Ann Caws

In his review of the Yale Anthology, John Palattella cited this as an example as said that this “shows that Houellebecq, besides being France's most caustic and capricious contemporary novelist, can also write mediocre prose poems.”[9] Question: is it a mediocre poem or a mediocre translation? It’s a rhetorical question. Let’s put it this way, there was a reason Beckett did most of his own translating.

GAN Tower If I was to ask you to think about a French building what would you come up with? The Eiffel Tower? The Pompidou Centre? The Louvre? Houellebecq writes:

If you knew the GAN Tower
Then you’d know my life

(from untitled poem on p.47)

There’s even a photo of La Tour First (First Tower) as it’s called these days at the start of the book. It’s in an area of Paris known as La Défense which Houellebecq would know well because he worked there as a computer programmer before making his living as a writer. It crops up in two other poems:

I came across an old prole
Looking for the son he’d lost
In GAN Tower, the graveyard
Of disheartened revolutionaries.

(from untitled poem on p.73)

Slo-mo, like an organ,
A tar-blackened heart;
I can see the GAN Tower
And my life in the balance.

(from untitled poem on p.81)

I worry when there are too many allusions to things like this because it makes the poetry less accessible. The GAN Tower is clearly more than just a building to the author; it symbolises a whole period in his life. Thankfully there are not too many references like this and for the most part the poems are about nameless, faceless, city dwellers – yous, wes and Is. With the singular exception of the poem on page 93 in which “Annabelle watched her youth slipping faintly through the curtains” all the other poems are about nameless workers, consumers, neighbours, holiday-makers, humans, men, women, foetuses even, the unemployed, brothers, sisters, victims, the dead:

Open-mouthed like carps we exhale the belches of the dead. To hide the smell of death coming out of our throats, coming undefeated from our throats, we use words.

(from untitled poem on p.29)

The blurb on the back of the book says in part:

The Art of Struggle … investigates issues of alienation, individualism and disillusionment

and that about hits the nail on the head. The book is divided into four sections but I had a hard time pinpointing why he’d chosen to do this. The first section focuses on relationships (being in and looking for), the second has a group of poems that deal with work and holidaying (so, day-to-day life), the third talks a bit about the environment and the last contains many poems that mention light in various contexts (the search for enlightenment?) but these are loose descriptions at best and you may make other connections. Houellebecq touches on many issues: politics, the environment, economics, religion, the future and the day-to-day humdrum of existence. Sex is a part of life; it gets a mention but there’s nothing gratuitous. On the whole the collection is quite tame. I didn’t find that a disappointment, more of a relief actually.

My main quibble with the book is with the translation. As I’ve already said the translators include a long foreword where they explain their approach which ends up being less transliteration and more interpretation. This is why I was pleased that they have included all the poems in the original French so we have the opportunity to compare them. They have made choices and I’m sure they would be the first to admit that there have been causalities along the way, acceptable losses. Here’s one:

Et les petites morts, petits autodafés

is translated as

With little faints and little tortures

La petite mort is French for "the little death" and is a metaphor for orgasm. I wonder why they didn’t leave it in the French like the poem on page 115 where they render the line:

La joie, un moment, a eu lieu


Joy, a moment, took place


Once there was joie de vivre

My advice would be to read the original poems along with the translations; they will reveal subtleties that the translators have been unable to carry over into English. It’s clear though that a lot has been lost in translation, rhymes especially, for example the poem on page 78:

Chose entre les choses,
Chose plus fragile que les choses
Très pauvre chose
Qui attend toujours l’amour
L’amour, ou la metamorphose.

ends up as

We’re a thing among things,
A thing more fragile than things
A very poor thing
Always waiting for love
For love, or a metamorphosis.

The translators say:

This is a journey in poetry, and in our translation of this journey meaning leads sound, even though meaning is made in sound…

If you have not read any of Houellebecq’s prose then this might be a good introduction to the writer. If you have read his prose then you probably have already made your mind up: he certainly seems to be that kind of writer. But if poetry about the angst of modern life sounds like your cup of tea then I’d give this a go. And it actually ends on a surprising spiritual upbeat:

Free and conditioned by our ancient sufferings
We walked across the plain
The frozen clods echoed under our feet;
Before the war, friend, in this soil grew wheat.

Like a cross stuck in dry ground
I held on, brother
Like an iron cross, with my arms spread wide.
Today, I came back to the house of the Father.

(from ‘The Way of the Struggle’)

The bottom line is that I enjoyed this collection more than I expected. I didn’t feel that I was reading a kindred spirit, though, despite the fact we have a few things in common. None of the individual poems will be making it onto my personal top ten but since there are only about half a dozen poems on that list anyway that says more about me than the poems. This works well as a collection: these poems feel as if they belong together and they feed off each other.

You can read three more poems on the Salt Magazine site here both in French and in translation.


houellebecq Houellebecq was born in 1958 in Réunion, a French colony off the coast of east Africa, parents divorced, a half sister somewhere along the way whom he doesn't see. His mother left when he was 12, to lead the "hippy life", and he hasn't seen her since. Hasn't seen his father in five years. Brought up by his grandmother, good at school, good at home. An obedient child then? "Yes." Worked as a computer expert for the National Assembly. Married, had one son, whom he doesn't see "very often", but who is now [28].[10]

The release of his … novel, Platform, was accompanied by a series of lawsuits filed by four Muslim groups after the author referred to Islam as the “dumbest religion” in an interview. The charge was “inciting racial hatred,” which Houellebecq vehemently denied, claiming, “I have never displayed the least contempt for Muslims. However, I have as much contempt as ever for Islam.”


France’s national Arabic newspaper published a photograph of a drunken, dishevelled Houellebecq with the headline “This Man Hates You.” No fatwas were issued this time around, but Salman Rushdie did come to Houellebecq’s defence, writing in The Guardian:

Platform is a good novel and Houellebecq is a fine writer who writes for serious reasons and neither he nor his book deserves to be tarred and feathered.”[11]


[H]e was eventually cleared of the charges.[12]

la carte et le territoire houellebecq His new novel, La Carte et le territoire (The Map and the Territory) was released in September 2010 by Flammarion. Slate magazine accused him of plagiarising some passages of this book from French Wikipedia. Houellebecq denied that this was plagiarism, stating that "taking passages word for word was not stealing so long as the motives were to recycle them for artistic purposes"[13]

In person he is serious, mournful, almost naive, which sits ill with the force and flash of the prose he writes. When last seen, Houellebecq was living on the remote Beara Peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, with his second wife and an ancient collie that came with the house. [It appears he may well have just moved to Spain, however.] … Occasionally, if some enterprising editor sends out a pretty reporter, he makes a gloomy pass. This is no more than his acolytes expect, since at least a third of a Houellebecq book consists of graphic descriptions of sexual conquest. And yet both a documentary in 2001 and a collection of essays and jottings that appeared in 2003 portray him as happily married, indifferent to praise and unambitious of fame. He is, tout court, a bit of a mystery.[14]


David Jack, ‘Michel Houellebecq: A Lyric Poet in the Era of Late Capitalism’, Colloquy, issue 19, June 2010


[1] Helen Stevenson, ‘The Books Interview: Michel Houellebecq – Having some fun with dysfunction’, The Independent, 2nd January 1999

[2] Michel Houllebecq, H.P.Lovecraft – Against the world, against life. A translation by Robin Mackay can be found online here. He renders Houllebecq’s opening sentence as: “Life is disappointing and full of sorrow.”

[3] Ivar Hagendoorn, ‘Michel Houellebecq: The Elementary Particles’, 12th June 2000

[4] ‘Michel Houellebecq, The Art of Fiction No. 206’, The Paris Review, Fall 2010, No 194

[5] ‘Michel Houllebecq: Three Poems, translated by Timothy Mathews and Delphine Grass’, Salt Magazine, Issue 2

[6] Perry Anderson, ‘Dégringolade’, London Review of Books, Vol. 26 No. 17, 2 September 2004, pp.3-9

[7] Iggy Pop, 26th March 2008 (edited transcript of online interactive 11AM press conference held by EMI)

[8] Michel Houellebecq, To Stay Alive, translated by Richard Davis, 1999

[9] John Palattella, ‘The Illusion of Inclusion’, Agence Global, 10th December 2004

[10] Suzie Mackenzie, ‘The man can’t help it’, The Guardian, 31st August 2002

[11] Salman Rushdie, ‘A platform for closed minds’, The Guardian, 28th September 2002

[12] Travis Jeppesen, ‘Holidays In the Sun’, Prague.TV, 14th January 2003, updated 6th October 2005

[13] Wikipedia article on Michel Houellebecq

[14] The Possibility of an Island (Michel Houellebecq)’, Llewtrah's Soapbox, 19th May 2008

Thursday 28 October 2010

Aggie and Shuggie 28







Wake up, son. This is a pub, no yer scratcher.


Ah wis jist checkin t’see af yer coonter wis level.


Shuggie, d’yoo hink Ah came up tha Clyde oan a banana boat?


Mibbe no.


Look Ah wis wantin t’ask yer aboot sumhim Ah wis readin aboot oanline.


Whit wis it?


At wis a refyoo af yoor Jim’s poemtry book.


Och aye.


Aye. It wis oan thas site cawd Tha Big Divide or summat like that. Ah canny quite rememer. Some bloke cawd Brent Robison. Looks a bit like yon Terry Pratchett but without tha floppy hat. Anywise e wis oan aboot sumhin cawd noanduality…




Noanduality. So whit’s tha when it’s at hame?


At’s whit’s Ah wish Ah wis.






Ah, Ah see. Very funny. Still huffin wimmen trouble, Ah see.


Yoo huff nae idea.


Whit noo?


She oanly wants us tae go an see a mayrige guidance coonslar.


Christ no Shuggie, ye canny be huffin tha?


Why no?


Ah mean, men an wimmen talkin tae each otha. S’no natural.


Tell me aboot it!


So whittre ye goan tae dae?


Ah huff nae idea.


Ah maint huffa solushun.


Which is?


Ye could lose yer voice.


Don’t be daft. Aggie’d suss me oot in a New York second af Ah were fakin it.


Ah no ye see, tha’s tha hing at’s magic aboot ma plan – ye’ll no be fakin it.


Whit ye goat, sumhin Ah cun swally at’ll take ma voice away?


Naw, sumhin even better.


Like whit?




Karaoke? Yoo need yer heed seen tae.


Naw, straight up, Shuggie. Ah’m goan tae get a stonkin great karaoke machine fer tha pub. A cupple af hoors beltin oot Bat Oota Hell an Ace of Spades an ye’ll be oaderin yer pints in braille. Trust me, Shuggie – Ah’m a barman.


Ah canny sing tae save masel.


An this is a proablem because why? When’s yer missus arranged tha appointment?




Fine. Ah wull see yoo oan Sunday night. Don’t forget yer platform boots.


Ma whit?

Sunday 24 October 2010



Ergo Jakov Lind’s stature as a major European writer is based on a collection of short stories, Soul of Wood, and two novels, Landscape in Concrete, and Ergo, all of which were written in German. After that he began writing in English and the bulk of his output from the seventies until his death in 2007 consists of memoirs.

‘Jakov Lind’ is a pseudonym, one of three by which he has been known. He was born Heinz Jakov Landwirth in Vienna in 1927 to an assimilated Jewish family. Arriving in the Netherlands as a part of the Kindertransport in 1939, Lind obtained false papers and became Jan Gerrit Overbeek; the young Dutchman explained his native German by claiming an Austrian mother, which was true. Interestingly he survived the Second World War by hiding in plain sight. He returned to Germany, where he disguised himself as a Dutch deckhand on a barge on the Rhine travelling between from the Hook of Holland down to the Ruhr Valley — one of the most postcard-perfect parts of the Reich.

Overbeek contracted the clap from a prostitute, and was ordered to a sanatorium to recover. There, he was recruited by a scientist-soldier to serve as a personal courier in an office attached to Das Metallurgische Forschungsinstitut des Reichsluft-fahrtministeriums, “The Institute for Metallurgical Research of the Imperial Ministry of Air Traffic.” When Allied bombs are falling even by day, and Berlin’s being threatened, what’s a Jew passing under false papers to do? Overbeek mimicked a Nazi. It’s unconscious, Lind tells us; one nods and obeys, one adapts. Overbeek had no way of knowing that this Nazi scientist, who refused to allow Overbeek any contact with friends (and certainly not with any female friends), was spying on the Reich’s nuclear program and making reports on the progress of the Cyclotron to the British. — E.J. Van Lanen, ‘The Year of Jakov Lind’, Three Percent, 10th Feb 2010

After the war he relocated to Palestine to rejoin his family and became Jakov Chaklan. He took passage to Haifa, only to find his father ill, his mother dead, and his sisters grown up. He couldn’t settle to life there. The kibbutz drove him crazy, as did the religious, and so he eventually, reluctantly, found his way to London and to the name he would hold onto for the rest of his life, Jakov Lind.

I normally leave bios to the end of book reviews but I think it’s important here to get some idea of the kind of person who, in between 1964 and 1967 sat down and wrote the three books I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Ergo: a comedy, to give it its full title, is interesting because no sooner had it been published as a novel — as Eine bessere Welt (A Better World) — than Lind quickly adapted it for the stage where it found some success off-Broadway. Barbara Long, writing in Vogue, described it as “a swirl of madness [involving] a grotesque caricaturing of reality rooted in apocalypse ... that links metaphysicians, madmen [and] fools.” The New Yorker was not so charitable: “Ergo was written by a Viennese dramatist named Jakov Lind, and can be classified as ‘stale-experimental.’ At any rate, I'm sick to death of the leering, obscene comedy of German (in this case, Austrian) self- disgust.” Both are accurate. And where you finally lean will depend on how charitable you feel towards any kind of experimental writing.

I think I could’ve enjoyed the stage adaptation. I found the novel hard going.

Watt Lind, in his lifetime, was described as a successor to Beckett and Kafka. It was what attracted me to him. And I can see where those who said that are coming from without a doubt. As soon as you take a bunch of paranoiacs and stick them in an enclosed space which two authors are going to jump to mind? Ergo takes elements of Watt and The Trial and adds a pinch of . . . oh, I don’t know . . . Jarry’s Ubu Roi, mixes well and stands well back.

The book opens:

ERGO: where the meadow narrows and the river makes a bend there is a sunken ship made of old beams and corrugated iron, stone flags and doors that don’t close properly, a jerry-built structure with rough wooden boards instead of windows that calls itself Custom House No. 8. Here at the end of a footpath it has lain rotting away for the last eighty or a hundred years. No one pays attention to it, because if you notice it from the bridge it looks like a piece of driftwood, but you don't notice it and no one has ever found out who if anybody lives there.

Well, what kind of book would this be if we weren’t introduced to the inhabitants? And indeed these three could happily take up residence on the set of Endgame and look quite at home there. First there is Roman Wacholder:

Slowly and heavily, a hippopotamus rising from the Nile, he rose from the paper mountain, beat the nightmare lewdness out of his clothes and stood there, a squat man of sixty with short gray hair and swollen lips, crossing his hands over his forehead, and looked around him darkly.

The mountain of paper is exactly that, three tons of paper, which he is responsible for.

The other two men are Wacholder's adopted son Aslan, and Leo, a tenant, neither of whom are required to pay any rent. (Yes, I noticed they were both the names of lions but I have no idea why.) Aslan is writing a novel to be called The Better World. So far it has taken him years to complete only five pages of his book which he keeps hidden.

To protect his own book, his private secret, he had been copying out the books of dead authors for several years. Wacholder suspected nothing.

Aslan: Do you know Faust, Father?

Wacholder: Faust? Mine is called Franz.

Mine is by Goethe. My pseudonym.

Wacholder: Can I take your word for that?

Aslan: Ask Leo.

Wacholder: Leo, is Aslan Goethe? I’ve known him a long time, and this is the first I’ve heard of it.

Leo: You didn’t know? I’m amazed. Aslan has lots of pseudonyms . . . Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Heine . . . he wrote them all.

Wacholder: All those famous people are my Aslan? Is that true, Aslan?

Yes, Father, I’m very famous.

Aslan is being facetious. Wacholder is not. Leo never leaves his bed and only thinks about the nature of existence and his philosophical masterwork, Placental Theory of Existence, an idea that’s perhaps best described here:

Spinoza It began as a pseudoquestion with Spinozist propositions. It started out scientifically, perhaps to avert suspicion, and gradually became its own principle. The principle was termed: the rediscovery of sense without nonsense.

Wacholder isn’t involved in writing fiction or philosophy. He prefers to send letters, seventy-three before the events recorded in Ergo, and a few more get written during the course of the novel. The letters all go to one recipient at Melchiorstrasse 9, Mr. Ossias Würz. As I said, they are not short of paper. In fact when the Minister of Commerce and Reconstruction, Trude Böckling, arrives to take inventory she finds 340,722 sheets unaccounted for. Only after Wacholder makes good with sex (although the sex is not very good) is the matter put to bed.

The Würz household consists of Würz, his wife (who for some reason still goes by the name Mrs. Rita Haunch) despite the fact that Rita’s grown sons, Arnulf and Arnold, “(begotten by a foreign dentist during the war),” who also stay with them had adopted the surname Würz. The two young men make a living by preying on “loneliness. Especially pensioned old gentlemen, dishwashers, waiters and policemen.”

Soliciting was fun. It amused the brothers to approach people sitting defenceless in the bus, cautiously crossing the street, patiently waiting in line for theatre tickets, with obscene propositions.


There was more money than patience and as much as loneliness. You can make a living by it, and that was no drawback either, especially since it was also fun. But why no women and girls, Arnulf? Würz had asked once. No objection, Father, but the market isn’t so hot.

You’ll note no quotation marks. There are none in the whole book and at times it gets very confusing especially when there is an interchange within a single paragraph. Occasionally, to make things clearer, Lind does use line breaks but quotes would have been so much easier and I see nothing gained by what I’ve always considered an affectation. Towards the end of the book capitals vanish too. I have no idea why.

Würz has not left his house for seventeen years. Wacholder’s seventy-fourth letter is sent to commemorate this fact. It also marks a breaking point for Wacholder. There’s nothing in the book to make it clear when the with-the-beatles1 events in the book are set but The Beatles are mentioned and so this has to be post-1962. My guess is that it’s actually it is 1962 and Würz hasn’t left his home since the end of the Second World War during which time he has devoted himself to hermetically sealing his home and eliminating every last atom of dirt from the place. The two men used to be best friends but over the years Würz’s refusal to leave the safety of his home has changed the tone of their relationship; Wacholder has started to view Würz has his nemesis and has convinced himself that his former friend is plotting against him. Plotting what I — and I suspect, he — does not know but plotting nevertheless.

His increasingly threatening and barely comprehensible letters do have an effect on Würz: they annoy him but no matter how annoyed he gets he’s not for budging. Wacholder realises that extreme measures are called for. And this is where things start to get a little silly. As he’s leaning over the iron rail and peering into the dark water below the Reichs Bridge he sees “foam and bubbles” and that gives him an idea:

Nerve foam. Nerve foam.

Nerve foam.

That’s what I’ll do to Würz. I’ll get him. I’ll get him with air, with thousands of bubbles. With brain poison. Watch it, Würz. Here it comes. Through the water pipes, gushing from every faucet. Hot from the hot and cold from the cold. That’ll show him how to clean house. First he’ll be surprised, then he’ll go mad. Whish. Wacholder smiled. Whish swish. Whish and swish. He shouted so loud that even motorists turned round. I’ve got it.

But he’s not got it.

His happiness lasted three minutes, then the world went dark before his eyes. Worries. Practical considerations. How will I get a water pipe? I can’t send him the juice in a trunk. It’ll all escape before it gets there. No, it’s got to go through the water system, it’s got to rise up unexpectedly from deep down, that’s right, it’s got to come from way deep down.

The more he thinks about it the more he realises how many obstacles he will have to overcome to bring his plan to fruition. But that’s all right. Leo, it transpires, has a better plan:

I’m working on it. I’m not finished, but pretty nearly.

Working on what?

His Nonbeing.


You heard me. I’m working on it. Leo stood up, tucked his shirttails into his pants and paced back and forth. He put on a look of pride and bored holes in the air with his right forefinger. That’s it exactly.

What? How so?

Where will Würz be if we subtract him?


Exactly. He’ll be gone. You’re not as dumb as you look. If we subtract him, he’ll be gone; if we take away his existence, he won’t have any existence. If something has no existence , it doesn’t exist.

So far, so good and no nasty chemicals to mix or employees of the municipal water works to ask favours of. But Leo’s plan also has one teeny tiny flaw:

Being can be. Nonbeing, that definite. But only if a majority agrees in it. A question of quantity. Quantity can reduce quality... [T]he negation of Würz involves the danger of self-negation, because of what is can be declared to be nothing, so can the man who does the declaring. In other words, if we say Würz doesn’t exist, Würz can say: No one who exists can say that I don’t exist. Then where would we be? Nowhere.

The inevitable conclusion is reached: they need a lot of people to agree that Würz doesn’t exist. They need to have a conference. And that is indeed what happens eventually though where the throng that assembles to hear Leo speak come from or how they heard about said conference either isn’t explained or I missed it, probably the former.

The story as I’ve presented it above seems straightforward enough if a little strange. It is not, believe me, it is nothing less than perverse in both the broadest and the narrowest senses. The novel is rife with allusions to the war in which it appears both old men were Nazis although not especially important ones if the truth be told despite Wacholder’s claims to the contrary.

Interweaving a multitude of cryptic episodes and motifs, Lind satirically excoriates Austrian – and, by extension, German – attempts to conquer the Nazi past as half-hearted and hypocritical. Morally he shows, nothing has changed. It must be said, however, that the story line is far too intricate to allow for a clear-cut reading. ... In his own drastically alienated manner, through narrative of allegory, the bizarre and the fantastic, he remains a writer in search of meaning amid the moral disasters of his time. — David Patterson, Alan L. Berger, Sarita Cargas, Encyclopaedia of Holocaust Literature, pp.113,114

The big problem is that meaningless things don’t have any meaning. What happened to these men in the war has set up a schema; they have continued to live meaningless existences to which they try an ascribe meaning. Highbrow rubs shoulders with out-and-out vulgarity. I suppose that’s a reasonable allegory for the stance the Nazis took on issues like racial purity; they could make the most obscene dreaming-in-black-and-white acts sound so reasonable as I found out recently when I researched their treatment of disabled people (see my review of Dreaming in Black and White).

The title is a puzzle. Ergo. We’ve all hear of Cogito ergo sum — I think therefore I am — but in this book what Leo is proposing is Cogito ergo vos es non — I think therefore you are not — when it comes to “removing existence from a mortal enemy of our society, a Mr. Ossias Würz ... who has been living on the immoral earnings of his wife’s minor sons...” Does that not sound like the kind of propaganda the Nazis used to spout off about the Jews? I know Orwell coined the word “unperson” but the Nazis came up with the idea first. The way that Leo explains existence (and the only place the word ergo appears in the book apart from the first word) is in the following statement where Leo informs the gathered conferees:

We pull on God’s cock therefore, we are. Penem Dei tractamus ergo sumus.

This declaration is presumably an important sentence, considering the fact that the title of the novel is derived from the quote but it’s part of a long monologue and I’m not sure quoting a large section of it would help. Suffice to say if language like that offends you then large chunks of this book will offend you and I advise you to steer clear of it.

Some reviewers have called the book surreal. It’s a word that’s overused. Really this book has its roots in German Expressionism not Surrealism. The common thread would be one of unrealism. In the world of Ergo anything is permitted. There is plenty of nonsense but I couldn’t make any sense out of it. I say that flippantly but I can see there’s a point buried in all the densely packed grandiloquence and verbiage. It’s what you have to wade through to get to it. I’m not easily shocked or offended and this book neither shocked nor offended me but I finished it feeling that he could have made his case far more eloquently and certainly more succinctly, not that the book is very long — 150 pages — but it felt much longer.

One review described it as "a wild, strange, bawdy book for lovers of paradox and black comedy" which is a very glass-half-full view of the book. I could replace every word with a far less charitable synonym and leave the sentence equally valid.

The worse thing is, although I struggled with this book there was a lot that intrigued me about the author and if another book by him came my way I’m intrigued enough to try him again; there were some brilliant passages in amongst all the murk. That says something.

You can read an excerpt here.


epa00936371 (FILES) A May 1988 file photo of Austrian author Jakov Lind whose death was reported by Austrian state tv late Sunday 18th February 2007. Lind celebrated his 80 birthday on Feb 10 and has been living in London for the past 50 years. He died on Saturday and his funeral was held on Sunday.  EPA/CHRIS HOFFMANN FURTHER READING


The Year of Jakov Lind

Jakov Lind's Obituary

Author's website

Thursday 21 October 2010

Precision poetry


Say what you mean and mean what you say. — Anon

Raymond Carver’s 1981 breakout book was What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Largely as a result of that collection, which became a literary sensation, Carver was credited with popularising a minimalist style. It was not a title he appreciated. According to Tess Gallagher, he "preferred the more accurate identification of his style as that of a ‘precisionist.’”[1] Carver explains the reason he hates the label "minimalist" as follows:

That word brings up associations with narrow vision and limited ability. It’s true that I try to eliminate every unnecessary detail in my stories and try to cut my words to the bone. But that doesn’t make me a minimalist. If I were, I’d really cut them to the bone. But I don’t do that; I leave a few slivers of meat on them.[2]

Precisionism wasn’t an expression I was familiar with. So I decided to investigate. It turns out that it began life as an artistic rather than a literary movement:

The term Precisionism itself was first coined in the early 1920s. Influenced strongly by Cubism and Futurism, its main themes included industrialization and the modernization of the American landscape, which were depicted in precise, sharply defined, geometrical forms. There is a degree of reverence for the industrial age in the movement, but social commentary was not fundamental to the style. The degree of abstraction in the movement ranged considerably (Sheeler's work was sometimes almost photorealistic).[3]

Elsie Driggs, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Herman Trunk and Georgia O'Keeffe were all prominent Precisionists. Of the five, Hopper is by far my favourite.


'Sun empty room' by Hopper

But let’s go back to Carver for a minute. In his essay ‘On Writing’ Carver wrote:

It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things — a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring — with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader’s spine — the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That’s the kind of writing that most interests me.[4]

william_carlos_williams The most obvious example of what Carver is talking about also owes a debt of thanks to another artistic movement: Impressionism. ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, as it has come to be known (the poem originally only carried the title ‘XXII’, denoting its place within the anthology Spring and All), was written by William Carlos Williams quickly from all accounts, apparently in less than five minutes, in exactly the same way that an Impressionist artist would hastily capture a fleeting moment. It differs in that it presents the scene in a simple, stark, unadorned manner. It focuses on the objective representation of an object, in line with the Imagist philosophy that was only ten years old at the time of the poem's publication. It should be noted that Williams had met the American photographer-painter, Charles Sheeler, shortly before composing the poem.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about this poem. It’s difficult to view it objectively any more. For me anyway. I can’t unknow, for example, that he was working as a paediatrician at the time and that while caring for a poorly child at the child's home he happened to look out of the window and saw the wheelbarrow. The poem says nothing about that. I very much doubt, however, that Williams sat down and thought to himself: I’m to write an Imagistic-Precisionist poem today. He wrote a poem and people have read much into it.

A more obvious connection between the Imagism of Williams and Precisionism began with this poem:

The Great Figure

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
moving tense
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city

In his Autobiography, Williams wrote:

Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.

Charles Demuth, whom Williams had met and befriended “over a dish of prunes at Mrs Chain’s boarding house on Locust Street”[5] based his famous painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold on the Williams poem.

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed out the poem’s larger meaning and where, perhaps, the painting falls short:

In the case of 'The Great Figure' I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' (sic) in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist.

All the above leads me to wonder how precisely these two poems were worded. Did Williams say precisely what he wanted to at the time? I believe he did. I also think he thought about what he’d written after the fact and the poems came to mean more than he had originally intended them to.

The Precisionist movement had a particular interest in industrial or mechanical subjects and had roots in Italian Futurism, a movement that also respected the beauty and power of machinery. Williams had a similar view of poetry:

A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem I mean that there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant.[6]

Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.[7]

Here, of course, “the machine” is held up as some sort of ideal. The problem with ideals is that they can be improved upon. When the telephone dial was first patented in 1896 I bet everyone thought it was ideal. And it was until the 1970s with the advent of the Touch-Tone system. Precision is a relative term. We can measure things in microns nowadays. But there’s a point where it’s impossible to tell the difference. Could you tell the difference between a line 0.5mm thick and one 0.45mm thick with the naked eye?

Marianne_Moore_1935 Comparing poets to artists is nothing new. Williams underlined the connection himself. In an interview with Walter Sutton, Williams said explicitly "I've attempted to fuse the poetry and painting to make it the same thing."[8] And he’s not the only poet where one can draw parallels. Take Marianne Moore, for example, a contemporary of his. She actually has a poem which includes the word ‘precisionist’ referring to writers (specifically letter writers) and not artists:

I learn that we are precisionists
not citizens of Pompeii arrested in action
as a cross-section of one’s correspondence would seem to imply.
Renouncing a policy of boorish indifference
to everything that has been said since the days of Matilda,
I shall purchase an etymological dictionary of modern English
That I may understand what is written,
and like the ant and the spider,
returning from time to time to headquarters,
shall answer the question
“why do I like winter better than summer?”

(from ‘Bowls’)[9]

Is Moore a Precisionist? Perhaps, but with a small p. Like Williams, with whom she corresponded, she began as an Imagist but if you want to link her with the word precision it would need to be via the word revision. She was a terrible one for reworking her poems. For example her poem ‘Poetry’ began life with twenty-nine lines and was finally whittled down to a mere three. She believed in precision. In an article entitled ‘Feeling and Precision’ she wrote:

Precision is both impact and exactitude, as with surgery.[10]

In ‘Bowls’ Moore insists that the goal of modernist art is not mere novelty, but exacting expression – an attention to meticulous utterance that, in her view, is clearly not the purview of any one time period or any one artistic school. ... The creation of lasting poetry will always be a matter of using exactly the right word in exactly the right place to achieve a precisely regulated effect.[11]

Interestingly, Darlene Erickson’s book on Moore is entitled, Illusion Is More Precise Than Precision: The Poetry of Marianne Moore. The title comes from a poem entitled ‘Armor's Undermining Modesty’:

Even gifted scholars lose their way
through faulty etymology.
No wonder we hate poetry,
and new stars and harps and the new moon. If tributes cannot
be implicit,

give me diatribes and the fragrance of iodine,
the cork oak acorn grown in Spain;
the pale-ale-eyed impersonal look
which the sales-placard gives the bock beer buck.
What is more precise than precision? Illusion.

Er, no it’s not. So what is she on about?

Moore distrusts facts because they rarely correspond to their appearance. When she states, “What is more precise than precision? Illusion”, she argues that precision has no place in a world of ever-changing facts. Instead, it must work within the field of the imagination, where the notion of the thing is more important than the physical reality of the thing. Moore does not totally disregard fact and the senses; she subordinates them to imagination and makes them stimuli for the imaginative process. The factual and the sensed gain importance only as catalysts for the imagination; reality becomes that which is insubstantial and which can never be proved.[12]

Actually if you wanted to describe Moore in artistic terms then the word collagist is probably the most appropriate choice. She literally cut the words she wanted to use “from a wide variety of sources, from magazines and literary texts and textbooks, or critical, scholarly, and biographical essays, to advertisements, travel brochures, government pamphlets, business documents; from important public speeches to random overheard speeches or snatches of conversation (often with her mother).”[13] Can you think of anything more precise?

Marianne Moore

'Marianne Moore' by Ray Johnson

There can be few poets though whose name is synonymous with precise writing, “relentless accuracy”, as she once put it. “Precision is a thing of the imagination,” she wrote.

Robert Phillips, writing about Moore in a poem[14], said:

On the bookshelf
her poems tick like quartz crystals,
precise as the world’s exactest clock.

The final three-line version of ‘Poetry’ ended up like this by the way:

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
it, after all, a place for the genuine.

I spent a long time looking at this poem and the quote about precision and illusion. A long time. And I kept struggling to reconcile these in my head. These couple of lines from The Norton Anthology of Poetry helped:

Her definitions aren't logical, but that's because poetry isn't completely logical either. ‘Poetry’ is about fitting real stuff into a space made out of words. For Marianne Moore, that's what a poet has to do, even though it's impossible.[15]

Poems aren’t simply containers for meanings. They are precision instruments specifically designed to stimulate our imaginations; sometimes we can give meaning to where they lead us, sometimes feeling and sometimes they leave us standing on the precipice not knowing whether to step back or take that leap of faith into the unknown. That’s precisely what poems are, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”[16] Because where else do illusions need to happen but in the real world? Anywhere else they’d just be . . . ordinary.

I think a good example of what I think Moore is getting at is this Imagist poem by Ezra Pound:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

“In a poem of this sort”, Pound explained, one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.”[17]

Let us be clear: one cannot write about what we haven’t seen; whether that “seeing” is physical or metaphorical depends on the kind of poet we’re talking about here. I, for example, rarely deal with the physical world in my poems but the point is easier to grasp if you think about it literally. Look at these three stanzas from Williams’ poem ‘To a Solitary Disciple’:

Rather notice, mon cher,
that the moon is
tilted above
the point of the steeple
than that its colour
is shell-pink.

Rather observe
that it is early morning
than that the sky
is smooth
as a turquoise.


how motionless
the eaten moon
lies in the protecting lines.

You can read the whole poem here.

The speaker begins by pointing out that to observe the way in which the details that make up the visual field are interrelated is more important than to create fanciful conceits and similes. Precise observation, even if at first it seems mere naming (“Rather observe / that it is early morning”) takes precedence over the poetic “coining of similes,” which is “a pastime of a very low order.”[18]

Although I’ve focused on Moore and Williams the simple fact is that, if you type “precisionist poet” into Google you get no entries at all; “precisionist painter” gives you 2850 entries and “precisionist artist”, 736. The Wikipedia article mentions no writers whatsoever. I seemed to be coming up against a brick wall.

Ron Silliman What first piqued my curiosity was something Ron Silliman mentioned in one of his posts:

Some of the New Precisionists whose work I enjoy a great deal these days includes Graham Foust, Joseph Massey & Chris McCreary.[19]

If there are New Precisionists one would expect there to be old ones but, like many of the schools of poetry I run across, pinning them down isn’t so easy but type “precise poetry” into Google and you come up with a few interesting examples: President Obama’s inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander (“careful, precise poetry and [an] awareness of history”[20]), JoAnne McFarland (“These are tight poems, lean and pristine. There is clarity of meaning if the reader takes the time to consider the subtext behind the lines.”[21]), John Siddique (“strong, clear and precise poetry of everyday life”[22]) and Blanca Varela (“It’s true that she has not published prolifically, but perhaps this could account for the dense precision of her poems: dense with meanings and precise in her choice of words.”[23])

Are any of these Precisionists with a capital p? I doubt it and I doubt it would matter to them.

A lot of the time I imagine people think that precise means concise. It can. And a lot of the time it does. I’d like to think that most of the time my poems could be described using both adjectives. Samuel Taylor Coleridge said it well: "Prose is words in their best order; Poetry is the best words in their best order." I think a precisionist would take a view that poetry should present the only words possible in the only possible order. What says more: the few lines of a tightly written poem or a volume of analytical comments on it?

I’ve said before that I think poets, indeed all writers, should say what they have to say and get off the page. It’s still a view I hold dear. I only write posts the length I do because I don’t have the time needed to trim them, not if I want to keep up with the posting schedule I’ve imposed on myself. In every other aspect of my writing I weigh every word carefully. I used to obsess about it. Oscar Wilde once said; "I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out." That used to be me. I wouldn’t finish poems for weeks because they did not meet my exacting standards. And then one day I realised that I was obsessing. And I stopped. I still aim to be precise, at the very least concise, but life is too short and I have too much to write to fret about every single word.

One last thought: what does precision mean? We’ve been talking about it for the last 3000 words and I bet we all thought we knew what it means, a synonym of accurate or exact. The precision of a measurement system, also called reproducibility or repeatability, is the degree to which repeated measurements under unchanged conditions show the same results. Since a poem is a response to a unique set of conditions it’s impossible to write the same poem twice. Its precision has to be taken on trust.


Hiromi Hashimoto, ‘Trying to Understand Raymond Carver's Revisions’, Tokai English Review, No. 5 (December 1995), pp. 113-147

Bonnie M. Emerick, ‘The Mentoring Relationships Among Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams and Denise Levertov’, Parataxis, Spring 2003

‘The Art of Poetry No 4: Marianne Moore’, The Paris Review

‘The Art of Poetry No 6: William Carlos Williams’, The Paris Review


[1] Tess Gallagher, ‘Carver Country’, Carver Country, p.18

[2] Hansmaarten Tromp, ‘Any Good Writer Uses His Imagination to Convince the Reader’, Conversations with Raymond Carver, p.72

[3] The Precisionist View, The Art History Archive

[4] Carver, ‘On Writing’, Fires, p.24

[5] Henry Geldzahler, ‘Numbers in Time: Two American Paintings’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 23, No. 8, American Painting (Apr., 1965), p.295

[6] William Carlos Williams, Selected Essays, p.256

[7] William Carlos Williams, from Authors Introduction to The Wedge

[8] Peter Halter, The Revolution in the Visual Arts and the Poetry of William Carlos Williams, p.171

[9] Marianne Moore, Complete Poems, p.59

[10] Marianne Moore, ‘Feeling and Precision’, Sewanee Review 52 (Autumn 1944)

[11] Marianne Moore, Robin G. Schulze, Becoming Marianne Moore: the early poems, 1907-1924, p.492

[12] Katharine Elaine Soles, Skepticism, Illusion and Rigourous Observation: Marianne Moore’s Poetic Pursuit of Hope, pp.59,60

[13] Sacvan Bercovitch (ed.), The Cambridge History of American Literature: Poetry and Criticism, 1900-1950, pp.270,271

[14] Robert Phillips quote taken from the poem ‘Late Reading’ which appears in Spinach Days

[15] ‘Marianne Moore’, The Norton Anthology of Poetry

[16] From the long version of ‘Poetry’

[17] Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir, p.89

[18] Peter Halter, The Revolution In The Visual Arts And The Poetry of William Carlos Williams, pp.60,61

[19] Ron Silliman’s blog entry for Friday 28th May 2010

[20] ‘Elizabeth Alexander’, Poetry Foundation

[21] Mike Ugulini, review of Fossil Fuel: Poems, Curled Up With A Good Book

[22] And Croft, The Prize, review, The Morning Star

[23] Gwen MacKeith, ‘Blanca Varela’, The Poetry Translation Centre

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