about this section:

Investigation of the poetics/politics of intentionality may be considered as a significant element of this section, as well as questions of canon formation, public access, the reviewing process, etc. These writings may be original or reprinted (by permission), and will include conference papers relevant to the HOW2 project. Reflections on the poem-making process are encouraged, as well as more formal essays. Bios and photos are always requested; when they don't appear, it is at the discretion of the writer.

Please direct inquiries about issue 9’s readings to Kate Fagan

“Truth While Climbing the Stairs” — A Rosmarie Waldrop Section

Edited and Introduced by Kornelia Freitag

The need to tell is rather a need to destroy, and the need to invent a need to reconstruct, differently

—thus Rosmarie Waldrop characterizes the activity of writing in a conversation with Joan Retallack.which is published in this section. Waldrop’s own exploration of the destructive and the reconstructive power of writing has led to fascinating linguistic experiments which blend philosophy, mundane affairs, history, autobiography, and feminist critique. The scope of her writing — which reflects the scope of her reading — invites spontaneous reactions as well as in-depth theoretical analysis. I have seen audiences roar with laughter while she was reading her poetry and I have had students debating heatedly the intricacies of one line in a poem by her.

The beginning of her long prose poem The Reproduction of Profiles (1987) indicates what is meant in the introductory quote:

I had inferred from pictures that the world was real and therefore paused, for who knows what will happen if we talk truth while climbing the stairs.

This is not just a play on Wittgenstein and Kafka, it literally destroys the quotes from The Philosophical Investigations and from the narrative fragment “Description of a Struggle” to reconstruct them differently. By recycling two texts by canonized male authors in her own poetry Waldrop reinvents the literary canon to tell what she detects and / or finds lacking in it. She undermines generic boundaries, questions traditional wisdom, and subverts authority. Like her speaker in the lines above she pauses and interrogates — but she is not interested in setting new rules and regulations. As she has pointed out before and repeats in the interview:

. . . the equation poet = legislator . . . means nothing to me. I think of poets as language maintenance crew.

And Waldrop carries her linguistic maintenance work to perfection by making language soar, similes swerve, and meaning multiply. Her poetry and prose is not the illustration of some academic talk on “indeterminacy,” “metafiction,” and “differance” but performs and ironizes these concepts at one and the same time. Far from being ascetic intellectual exercises, Waldrop’s texts are truly captivating. It’s not just polite rhetoric when some of the poets and critics who contributed to this section describe being literally drawn into Waldrop’s texts: “as though . . . walking through the space in the book” (Retallack) or having “the sense that I’m standing inside the words themselves” (Lurie).

This absorbing yet open concept of Waldrop’s work invites different readings, interpretations, and comments. In the following section a whole range of interpretative possibilities becomes obvious: First Waldrop and Joan Retallack discuss the poetics underlying The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and A Form / of Taking / It All. This is the second half of a conversation between the two fellow poets, begun in 1991. The first part of the conversation (not reprinted here) was published in Contemporary Literature 40.3 (Fall 1999) — so it is about time the second part came out! The abrupt end of the following transcript may well be taken to symbolize the incompleteness of any discussion of Waldrop’s texts. Here it leads to six analytical essays.

The first three essays work to situate Waldrop within the terrain of feminist linguistic experimentation. Kimberly Lamm uses Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of minor literature to analyze the way in which Waldrop’s A Key into the Language of America interrogates the gender and sexual politics of Early American writing. In a carefully balanced analysis Lamm shows how the long poem “reveals that there is a feminized minor within the minor literatures of American literary culture struggling to find lines of escape,” a feminized minor which is never fully personalized, voiced, or embodied but is “a gendered subject position that exists between the seams of national, cultural, and linguistic identity.” This never fully realized yet nonetheless gendered subject position in Waldrop’s poetry is also at the center of Deborah Meadows’s and Linda Russo’s attention. Both investigate how Waldrop’s poetic language games explore the constitution and dissolution, the representation and the concealment of gender. Meadows characterizes Waldrop’s method as the “Poetics of Embodied Philosophy,” the poetic re-insertion or maintenance of “the corporeal within philosophical systems as a position of gender strength.” Russo demonstrates how the poet’s “Poetics of Inflection” combines subtle feminist, grammatical, and philosophical slides “to deform traditional figures of the feminine.”

The following three papers all examine in one way or another how Waldrop manages to create the “position in between” as Lamm has called it or, in the words of Marjorie Perloff, Waldrop’s “between world” with regard to her handling of genre and generic traditions. Perloff analyzes the two books by Waldrop which would fall most obviously into the category of “life-writing”: the historiographic metafiction The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and the poetic collage Split Infinites. She demonstrates that the mimetic and epistolary sequences of the novel may be closer to the author’s personal history, yet only the “non-representational mode” of the poetic sequence reveals the “between world she is trying to capture.” An autobiography, or rather an autobiographical roman a clef, tells less than a poetic “auto-graph which creates via linguistic density.” The technique by which Waldrop effects this linguistic density is also examined by Brian Reed, who inspects and compares Waldrop’s A Form / Of Taking/ It All and Shorter American Memory to explore “how, when, and why Waldrop adopted a collage-based aesthetic.” By situating Waldrop’s texts in the traditions of North American as well as of Middle European modes of collaging, Reed illuminates both the frequently overlooked international context and the innovative qualities of Waldrop’s collage texts. A third take on the techniques and effects of Waldrop’s idiosyncratic formal designs is Susan Vanderborg’s examination of Waldrop’s “Poetics of the Book” as played out in A Key into the Language of America. Serendipitously, Vanderborg’s essay, which investigates the specific mode of collage in A Key as “present[ing] the book form as contested space,” resonates not only with Perloff’s and Reed’s theses but also with the introductory conversation between Waldrop and Retallack as well as with the first analytical essay by Lamm. By demonstrating the “multiple practices by which” Waldrop manages to alter and recontextualize “the structure of a seemingly fixed printed book,” Vanderborg’s essay suggests why Waldrop would plead for readerly and, to a certain degree, even writerly openness to diverse, including realist, modes of representation — all may be “necessary” at some point and useful for reinterpreation and reorganization. At the same time Vanderborg demonstrates on a structural level what Lamm elaborated primarily on a conceptual level: that A Key’s poetic experiments “reveal the movement of the minor from within the major’s dominance” (Lamm). Instead of pretending to an easy escape from “the major,” Waldrop, states Vanderborg, “makes sure that the ‘complex variables’ in her own Key never permit an absolute or conclusive book.”

Communicating with Rosmarie Waldrop — via her texts or in person — is intellectually stimulating, always both an invitation and a challenge. Her writing and her personality have provoked the two concluding contributions by poets Bobbi Lurie and Jennifer Moxley who register the excitement about, the bewitchment by, and — yes — the reverence of “the magic” (Lurie) evoked by Waldrop’s poetry, of “the Waldrop Effect” (Moxley).

This selection of essays and statements presents diverse approaches to Rosmarie Waldrop’s linguistic experiments. Yet each interpretative effort represents only one(-dimensional) commentary. An ample warning can be found in Waldrop’s Reluctant Gravities, in the section titled “On Ways of the Body”: “The price of deciphering seems to be transparency.” Waldrop tells “truth [mostly] while climbing the stairs.”

Bio: Kornelia Freitag holds the chair of American Studies at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany. She has recently finished a study of the cultural criticism in the poetry of Rosmarie Waldrop, Lyn Hejinian, and Susan Howe.

Joan Retallack and Rosmarie Waldrop, “A Conversation”

Kimberly Lamm, “Gender in a Minor Key: Rosmarie Waldrop's A Key into the Language of America

Deborah Meadows, “Rosmarie Waldrop and the Poetics of Embodied Philosophy”

Linda Russo, “Poetics of Inflection: Rosmarie Waldrop and The Reproduction of Profiles

Marjorie Perloff, “‘A Small Periplus along an Edge’: Rosmarie Waldrop's AutoGraphs”

Brian Reed, “‘Splice of Life’: Rosmarie Waldrop Renews Collage”

Susan Vanderborg, “A Tale of Two Keys: Rosmarie Waldrop's Poetics of the Book”

Bobbi Lurie, “Meditation on Certainty”

Jennifer Moxley, “A Personal Reminiscence Chronicling the First Documented Case of ‘The Waldrop Effect’”


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