Born in 1830 in Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson lived in almost total physical isolation from the outside world and is now linked with Walt Whitman as founders of a unique American poetic voice... More >
William Carlos Williams
Poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright William Carlos Williams is often said to have been one of the principal poets of the Imagist movement... More >
The images I am using here are taken from various research libraries I visited over the last three years. Some Emily Dickinson fragments from the Amherst College Library, some from William Carlos Williams manuscripts for Paterson III in the Poetry Collection at SUNY Buffalo's Poetry Collection, some from the Jonathan Edwards' manuscript collection at Yale's Beinecke Library, and others from visits I made with Jen Bervin last winter to the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Metropolitan Museum. I've also included a few images from the recent limited press edition of Frolic Architecture printed by Leslie Miller at Grenfell Press in NYC.
I won't stop to identify the images nor will I always identify the quoted poems. It should be clear which are Dickinson fragments and poems, and which are Williams's. The poems I quote in the text are from Paterson lll, and Dickinson drafts; finally sections pulled from my own Frolic Architecture.
Electronic technologies as they evolve, are radically transforming the way we read, write, and remember. The nature of research is changing. The primary difference being our way of viewing actual material in archives as opposed to viewing the same material on a computer screen. Digital, virtual etc. While I realize that change will bring thrilling new and more open possibilities for research—this lecture is a collaged swan song to the old ways.
This is the beginning of "Book III, The Library" from William Carlos Williams's Paterson,
I love the locust tree
the sweet white locust
How much does it cost
to love the locust tree
A fortune bigger than
Avery could muster
the shelving green
whose bright small leaves
lean among flowers
sweet and white at
A cool of books
will sometimes lead the mind to libraries
of a hot afternoon, if books can be found
cool to the sense to lead the mind away.
For there is a wind or ghost of a wind
in all books echoing the life
there, a high wind that fills the tubes
of the ear until we think we hear a wind,
to lead the mind away,
Drawn from the streets we break off
our mind's seclusion and are taken up by
the book's winds, seeking, seeking
down the wind
until we are unaware which is the wind and
which the wind's power over us
to lead the mind away
and there grows in the mind
a scent, it may be, of locust blossoms
whose perfume is itself a wind moving
to lead the mind away
through which, below the cataract
soon to be dry
the river whirls and eddys
Spent from wandering the useless
streets these months, faces folded against
him like clover at nightfall, something
has brought him back to his own
In which a falls unseen
tumbles and rights itself
and refalls—and does not cease, falling
and refalling with a roar, a reverberation
not of the falls but of its rumor
my dove, unable and all who are windblown,
touched by the fire
a roar that (soundless) drowns the sense
with its reiteration
unwilling to lie in its bed
and sleep and sleep, sleep
in its dark bed.
In the recently published The H.D. Book, (a collection that until now only existed in separate chapters in mostly out-of-print little magazines, Robert Duncan writes:
The secret of the poetic art lies in the keeping of time...To keep time—designing or discovering lines of melodic coherence...Counting the measures, marking them off, the whole intensified in the poet's sense of its limitation. One image may recall another, finding depth in the re-sounding.
He wrote this in 1961. The boycott is even more severe in 2011, but I believe, this currently exiled spirit: (Keats's "Beauty is truth—truth beauty"— Walter Benjamin's "The beautiful is neither the veil nor the veiled object but rather the object in its veil," WCW's "beautiful thing! aflame" and "beauty is / a defiance of authority?") I believe this spirit, a deposit from a future yet to come, is gathered and guarded in the domain of research libraries and special collections.
On June 20, 1926, Hart Crane, then staying on the his mother's family property on the Isle of Pines, Cuba, wrote to Waldo Frank while working on what he hoped would be his epic poem The Bridge:
The form of my poem rises out of a past that so overwhelms the present with its worth and vision that I'm at a loss to explain my delusion that there exist any real links between that past and a future destiny worthy of it. The destiny is long since completed, perhaps the little last section of my poem is a hangover echo of it—but it hangs suspended somewhere in ether like an Absalom by his hair.
[I adore that line.]
Possibly during 1885 the year before she died, Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to her sister-in-law Susan,
Emerging from an Abyss, and re-entering it—that is Life—is it not, Dear?
The tie between us is very fine, but a hair never dissolves.
Things-in-themselves and things-as-they-are for us
Often by chance, via out-of-the-way card catalogues, or through previous web surfing, a particular "deep" text, or a simple object (a bobbin, a sampler, a scrap of lace) reveals itself here at the surface of the visible, by mystic documentary telepathy. Quickly. Precariously. Coming as it does from an opposite direction.
If you are lucky, you may experience a moment before.
In 1875, Emily Dickinson jotted on a fragment of stationary.
Luck is not chance—
Fortune's expensive smile
The Father of the Mine
Is that old fashioned Coin
The English definition for text and textile is taken from the Latin, "textus." from "textere" to weave, meaning that which is woven. In "Sentences" (1928) Gertrude Stein writes: "What is a sentence. A sentence is an imagined frontispiece. In looking up from her embroidery she looks up at me. It is partly. A sentence furnishes while they will draw . . . . What is the difference between a sentence and a sewn . . . . what is the difference between a sentence and a picture."
An article by Edward Moore and Arthur Burks on editing the manuscripts of the philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce has an epigraph taken from the horse's mouth: "I am a mere table of contents. . . a very snarl of twine."
In research libraries and collections, we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant visual and verbal textualities and textiles. In material details. In twill fabrics, bead-work pieces, pricked patterns, tiny spangles, sharp toothed stencil-wheels; in quotations, thought-fragments, inscriptions, endangered phonemes, even soils and stains.
I held it so
tight that I
lost it —
said the child (boy)
of the Butterfly
Of many a
that is the
For conversion, there must be a mysterious leap of love. Sometimes, a hidden verso side acts as prior counterpoint. The way improvised children's tales have needlepoint roots in Latin holy words and medieval jargon. What difference does it make if what we see before our mind's eye has already been interpreted? This meanly magnificent "waste" is on a scale beyond actual use. It provides us with a sense of life hereafter.
Coming home to poetry—you permit yourself liberties—in the first place—happiness.
On August 19, 1926, Hart Crane, ended a letter to Waldo Frank this way:
I have never been able to live completely in my work before. Now it is to learn a great deal. To handle the beautiful skeins of this myth of America—to realize suddenly, as I seem to, how much of the past is living under only slightly altered forms, even in machinery and such like, is extremely exciting. So I am having the time of my life just now, anyway.
In 1828 the first edition of Noah Webster's, An American Dictionary of the English Language defines skein this way:
Skein, (skane) A knot or number of knots of thread, silk, or yarn. A loosely coiled length of yarn or thread, wound in a reel suitable for a manufacturing process (as dyeing) or for sale as knitting wool or embroidery.
Something suggesting the twistings and contradictions of a skein ('unraveled the tangled skein of evidence') a trimmed strip of osier made from splits for basketwork. A metal thimble on an axletree arm.
A flock of wild fowl in flight.
[That's why reading Noah Webster's original dictionary is very often like reading poetry. And it's completely changed now.]
Noah Webster's The American Dictionary of the English Language is repeatedly invoked through our 19th century interpreters, Emerson, Melville, Hawthorne, Dickinson, Whitman, and many others.
Edward Dickinson's copy of the first edition was in the family library and Emily Dickinson herself owned an 1844 reprint of the 1841 edition. Noah Webster with her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson was one of the founders of Amherst College, and her father was on the board of the excellent Amherst Academy she attended and where for a time, Webster served as President of the Board. In 1862 she told Thomas Wentworth Higginson
When a little Girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality—but venturing too near, himself—he never returned—soon after my Tutor died, and for several years my Lexicon was my only companion,
Dictionary definitions could be called skeins—singularities, spirit-sparks.
STITCH vt : 1: to sew with a back puncture of the needle; so as to double the thread. To sew or unite together, as, to stitch the leaves of a book, or form a pamphlet. 2. To form land into ridges.—New England.
Running over affinities and relations, as was her practice, Dickinson could discover on the previous STI page of her Lexicon the definition for STICH pronounced [stIk]. (K)n. 1. In poetry. A verse of whatever measure or number of feet. 2. In rural affairs, an order or rank of trees [in New England, as much land as lies between double furrows is called stich or a land] or, she could skip down a few words to "STICHOMANCY: the divination of lines or passages of books taken at hazard."
Quotations are lines or passages seized at hazard from piled up cultural treasures. A citation exerts a finite particular inflection in advance. Cut or teased out with a needle it can interrupt the continuous flow of a poem, a picture, an essay, or a lecture like this one.
After Dickinson's death, this note was found among her papers. "What a Hazard an Accent is! When I think of the hearts it has scuttled or sunk, I almost fear to lift my Hand to as much as a punctuation."
[Now, this is Williams.]
The search is a poet for his language—to collate with the language of the noise of the Falls, which seems in itself to be a language which we were and still are seeking.
Between 1946 and 1958, William Carlos Williams labored over the work he conceived as "a long poem in four parts" (he eventually completed five, and at the end of his life had started on a sixth). The five were published by New Directions in separate limited editions; my favorite, Book III The Library, in 1949. He later said that in Paterson he wanted to use the "multiple facets which a city presented as representatives for comparable facets of contemporary thought thus to be able to objectify the man himself as we know him and love him and hate him . . . I deliberately selected Paterson as my reality." Once he had fixed on the city he needed to gather and collect facts in relation to the place [from libraries, local and otherwise], especially to the Passaic River and its Falls.
For many years I taught and lived in Buffalo, another hard-up northeastern, or easternmost mid-western rust belt city with a larger, more dramatic Falls; but it wasn't until this September when I returned to give a reading and because I was working on this lecture, actually visited the original documents that went into forming Book III, now housed in the University Library's Poetry Collection. Here, I encountered the actual preliminary jottings, typed and re-typed drafts, and collected newspaper clippings he used as fuel for fire.
Niagara Falls and the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Names are supposed to be signs for things, but what if things are actually the signs of names? What if words hold a "spirit" potential to their nature as words? Then like things of experience in their passage between languages may materialize into posthumous vowel notes whipped up with shifting consonantal impact until by a side-step or little jump, the embroidered manifestation of an earlier vernacular reflects authority (edenic justice) through ciphered wilderness and pang.
Are you there?
Prescription. Prefatory writing, order, rule—the establishment of a claim of title to something under common law by virtue of immemorial use. A written direction for the preparation, compounding, and administration of a medicine.
Name. Age. Address. Date. Telephone.
When we were children playing games of hide-and-seek the person chosen to be "it"— now turned round, alone and counting&mdsah; was supposed to keep on looking in spite of snares, and false resemblances.
Ask the librarian behind the desk for a cardboard box of labeled file folders containing little whispering skeletons.
Place one in my looking-glass hands.
the sweet white
at heavy cost
This consecrated branch transmits to posterity the benefits of seeds or buds hidden in trees for thousands of years.
1835. [This is from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," and I couldn't believe how it spoke to this Jonathan Edwards cover, for one of his books]
Faith!" shouted Goodman Brown, in a voice of agony and desperation; and the voices of the forest mocked him, crying—"Faith! Faith!" as if bewildered wretches were seeking her, all through the wilderness.
Previous work I have done in terms of manuscripts and archives led me to the massive collection of the papers of the 18th century New England theologian, some say our first American philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, in New Haven. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, one of the largest buildings in the world devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, was constructed from Vermont marble and granite, bronze and glass, during the early 1960s. The structure displays and contains acquisitive violence— the rapacious "fetching" involved in collecting. On the other hand—it radiates a sense of peace. Downstairs, in the Modernist reading room I hear the purr of the air filtration system, the rippling sound of pages turning, singular out of tune melodies of computers re-booting. Scholars are seated at wide worktables bent in devotion over some particular material object. They could be copying out a manuscript, or deciphering a pattern. Here is deep Memory's lure, and sheltering. In this room I experience enduring relations and connections between what was and what is.
Beinecke's vast collection of Edwards family memorabilia contains letters, diaries, notebooks, essays, and more than twelve hundred sermons (most of them in miniscule script). Jonathan Edwards was the only son among ten unusually tall sisters their minister father jokingly referred to as his "sixty feet of daughters." Their mother, Esther Stoddard Edwards, also known for her height, taught her eleven children and others in Northampton in a school that consisted of a downstairs room in their farmhouse. Later they received the same education Timothy provided to local boys in his parish in East Windsor, Connecticut. The girls were tutored along with their brother (in some cases they tutored him) in theology, philosophy, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, history, grammar, and mathematics. All except Mary were sent to finishing school in Boston. But almost all that remains from this 18th-century family's impressive tradition of female learning are a bedsheet probably woven by his mother,
The folio-size double leaves Jonathan, Sarah, and his ten tall sisters wrote on were often homemade: hand-stitched from linen rags salvaged from worn out clothing: lists, sermons, quotations of psalms, dissonant scripture clusters, are pressed between coarse cardboard covers with frayed edges. The rag paper color has grown deeper and richer in some.
Three of Edwards' manuscript books I particularly love are titled "Efficacious Grace." Two of them he constructed from discarded semi-circular pieces of silk paper his wife and daughters used for making fans.
If you open these small oval volumes and just look—without trying to decipher the minister's spidery script, pen-strokes begin to resemble textile thread-text. Surface and meaning co-operate to keep alive in one process, mastery in service, service in mastery.
I have always been drawn to Edwards (even at his angriest, such as the famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" which has a wonderful epigraph from Deuteronomy: "Their foot shall slide in due time." I must be sick, but I find that he's very comforting), because he understands the way in which single words and sentence clusters directly affect involuntary memory.
Involuntary memory is lucid, pre-verbal, soothing. Hit or miss—an arrow into the eye of loving.
One day, by chance, I opened a folder titled: Wetmore, Hannah Edwards, Diary: in the hand of her daughter Lucy Wetmore Whittlesey. Inside was a copy of "the private writings" of Jonathan's sister. Lucy's late 18th century italic script (much easier to read than her Uncle's, or her mother's earlier handwriting) begins in media res with an excerpt from psalm 55.6.
Oh that I had wings like a dove! [for then] would I fly away, and be at rest.
The visual and acoustic shock of that first exclamatory "Oh" on that paper brown with age, made me think in a rush of Henry James's great novel The Wings of The Dove and the beauty of the King James version of the 55th psalm in relation to its wide use in this novel where James so perfectly finds his form for work that was to follow. The fictional orphaned American heiress Milly Theale, "stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamoured of the world" is based on James's American cousin Minny Temple whose early death he feeds on as an artist. James brings Minny to life in Wings, and again in 1914 at the end of his long writing career, (he died in 1916) with a moving tribute to this beloved cousin as he brings Notes of a Son and Brother (his rambling memories of William and himself) to its last two paragraphs:
Death, at the last was, was dreadful to her; she would have given anything to live—and the image of this, which was to remain long with me, appeared so of the essence of tragedy that I was in the far-off after time to seek to lay the ghost by wrapping it, a particular occasion aiding in the beauty and dignity of art.
And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove, for then would I fly away and be at rest / Lo would I wander far off and remain in the wilderness. Selah.
had the wings of a dove th
, but whether I could, I fly, Oh
, & abiding PORTION and no
ring, deceiving, enjoyment
s, where shall I find Real ,
I wander from mountain
ne---Oh that I could fin
rest for the sole of m
^^nd^ weary myself t
Language leads to the limit of breath. The grapheme h, Breath's last letter remnant, hangs suspended somewhere in ether like an Absalom by his hair.
[And now I'm reading again from Williams]
Rather than being able to write anything concrete about Edwards and his manuscripts, I drew from the experience of viewing their chance conjunctions, attached flaps, cut ups, mixed messages, erasures, delineations, affiliations—and started to produce something made from Hannah's "private" writings with a mix of other sources.
walking just below my fathers orchard (after I ha
walking just below my father's orchard (after I ha
eligioun g a the concerns of my soul my busines
religion and the concerns of my soul my busines
strayed for an labored after an awakening sense of
In research libraries and special collections, words and objects come into their own and have their place again. This known world. This exact moment—a little afterwards—not quite—
I remember the summer before my sister Jerusha's death.
and I was leaning over the south fence and thinking in this
manner, that I was never likely to do better and where should I
Most of my writing life has been spent in Connecticut not far from where Hannah Edwards Wetmore lived and wrote. Reading her "Private writings" I experience, through an occult invocation of verbal links and forces, the qualities peculiar to our seasonal changing light and color. It's a second kind of knowledge—tender, tangled, violent, 'august,' and infinitely various.
Her name begins and ends with the aspirate phoneme H. Spectral letter H—Occult—quick thought—reached through the fire of reading.
To touch is to reach.
Poetry has no proof nor plan nor evidence by decree or in any other way. From somewhere in the twilight realm of sound a spirit of belief flares up at the point where meaning stops and the unreality of what seems most real floods over us. The inward ardor I feel while working in research libraries is intuitive. It's a sense of self identification and trust, or the granting of grace in an ordinary room, in a secular time.