Tina Darragh: performing the familiar sentence
This paper was originally presented as a Talk in the series organised by Robert Hampson at Birkbeck University. There was a reflexive element to the presentation, as the Talk referred to its own form, and drew attention to the shape of the evening. I have retained these comments in this revised version as they are relevant to the argument such as it stands. The stage directions or performance notes were read as well as performed in the presentation. They reference poems of Darragh’s that also describe their own procedure.
The title of this talk ‘performing the familiar sentence’ comes from an original intention to focus only on Tina Darragh’s poem ‘Raymond Chandler’s Sentence’; the work of hers that Ron Silliman included in his anthology In the American Tree. I afterwards moved to include comments on other work of Darragh’s.
This talk will unpack each of the terms in its title, more or less thoroughly. It will at times make literal the metaphors contained in them, as this unpacking literalises a dead metaphor. On the other hand, a scaling phenomenon is often spontaneously analyzed by the mind into a hierarchy… Therefore one must not hasten to follow Descartes’ recommendation and begin to subdivide every difficulty into parts. (Mandelbrot, Fractal Geometry)
The form of the talk concerned me slightly, as I was unsure how to pitch it. I felt it should be less formal than a lecture or a paper, and at the same time, it needed to be more structured than a 40-minute session of ad libbing. The shape of the event would differ from a lecture, as my contribution should provide material that would invite a response from those others present. Unlike the lecture with its obvious hierarchy, with its central figure of one speaker, this talk might be more decentred, centreless, like a doughnut maybe.
Perhaps the mobius strip is a better model, as it also removes a sense of a hierarchy by having one edge, having one surface. In its circling back on itself, its returning to the beginning (or absence of beginning) this model implies speaker and audience, speakers and audiences, in a reciprocal relationship, with movement in different directions. This model also removes any pressure I might have felt to come to a conclusion, or to make particular points in a given order.
This talk began to be put together in Somerset in August 1999 on the day of the solar eclipse. I was house-sitting for friends and so happened to be in the band of 95-97% coverage. I had taken several of Tina Darragh’s books with me, as I wanted to get some uninterrupted work done on a dissertation chapter that studied her work. This talk will demonstrate features of Darragh’s work, of her working, and of my engagement with these processes and their outcomes.
The form of the ‘talk’, the ‘talk as genre’, can offer scope for a ‘personal voice’, a speaker ‘talking’ as opposed to the objective commentator of the conventional academic paper. This speaker talking may develop a narrative, with a central character, a character designated as ‘I’. ‘I’ appears throughout Darragh’s work, and for ‘you’, the audience, for the listeners to the ‘talk’, as I incorporate portions of Darragh’s writing into this talk, the distinction between the two ‘I’s, (if they are always two, if they are not aspects of each other differentiated by context), will not always be easily heard.
Mark Leahy is not proposing to speak for Tina Darragh, he does though appropriate some of her lines and re-performs them without always signalling their source. I follow her lead in letting an ‘I’ into the text, an ‘I’ that is at once ‘familiar’, that you recognise and attribute, but that is at the same time problematic, and is performed as a role, as a character. That ‘I’ which might be thought to gather to itself the characteristics of an individual, the experiences of a familiar person, becomes a character, a character in the performance, an inscribed stroke, a keystroke, a letter, unindividuated without (its) context.
‘I’ serves as one signal of the performance, and in the performance that is Darragh’s writing, the ‘I’ links works and projects.
In ‘Procedure’, Darragh’s commentary on her work, written for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, she describes the performance of the works in on the corner to off the corner, as they come about on the pages of the dictionary, using finger movements, tracing lines, transcribing results, leaving tracks, traces. The reader follows these tracks, follows the trace of the movement of making.
Several of the poems in on the corner hold together as paragraphs, with the sentences within them describing a journey, functioning as a recipe, or a manual for making such poems. The paragraph relates a narrative of its own construction, using syntax to link part to part, clause to clause, sentence to sentence, in a record of the temporal sequence.
This part to part relationship, is at times akin to assembly instructions, or a lesson plan. In ‘“long” increased simultaneously with “fine”’, from a(gain)2st the odds, a Montessori teaching exercise is included, presented step by step.
In ‘adv. fans — the 1968 series’, the steps of the writing procedure are described, and then the results are demonstrated. In the introductory section of adv. fans Darragh writes how she was thinking of the possibility of a poem in the form of a theatre (28).
A poem as a theatre involves the blurring of genres, and at the same time the adoption of generic forms or conventions not usually associated with theatre. Speech or voices usually located only on the stage and directed from the stage would now also be found coming from the seats. The theatre form is not just concerned with performance, though this is important, it concerns the relationship between stage and seats, the reader/performer and the audience. Darragh maps the form of the “advertisement fans” onto the shape of the theatre.
Theatre and advertising both draw public language into the space of the poem. The language of political speeches, of the church, of power, is seen to be included in everyday private language or the personal. The poem considers the development of particular language terms over time, the introduction of new words and uses into the language, and the pressures on language that bring about these changes.
The procedure for the composition of the fan sequence is given in numbered points. Any reader could follow these “steps”, and a wide variety of different results might be produced. This procedure combines the intimate and the remote, the familiar and the strange. The tearing and pasting and folding of pages involves the writer’s/maker’s hand, as did the composition of the poems in on the corner, the writer’s hand or the reader’s hand in close contact, in intimate touch. The framing of this intimate investigation with “definitions”, brings in public classification of language, and the ordering of language based on ‘objective’ observation.
The intimate presence of the writer’s or reader’s hand does not imbue the made text with the aura of the individually crafted work, it is not concerned with the transference of the value of the individual maker to the unique, original object. Rather, the procedure invites equivalent intimate gestures from other reader-makers.
The inclusion of the generalised, commodified gestures of language in a public sphere, does not exclude the personal, but draws the remote or alien(ating) into a space where the individual can negotiate (with) it.
Part of Darragh’s work ‘adv. fans — the 1968 series’ is included in the anthology Out of Everywhere, edited by Maggie O’Sullivan. The anthology is subtitled, “linguistically innovative poetry by women in North America and the UK”. One catalyst for my consideration of the term ‘familiar’ in relation to Darragh’s work, is O’Sullivan’s ‘To the Reader’, her preface to this anthology. In this introduction O’Sullivan uses some terms I have been pointing towards in my discussion of Darragh’s work, though the emphases she makes in reading this work differ from mine. O’Sullivan writes:
O’Sullivan is engaged, here, in a polemical differentiation of the writers within her anthology from other writers not included there, in an inverse of the exclusion she claims her selected writers are subject to. Darragh, in her work, uses those factors or categories of writing that organise the ‘other’ sort of anthology of women’s poetry, in particular genre, and the familiar. Her use of these features does not disqualify her from inclusion in an anthology of “linguistically innovative” writing, but it is not marked in O’Sullivan’s comments. The image of “excavating language”, on the other hand, is especially relevant to the works in Darragh’s on the corner to off the corner, as well as in ‘adv. fans …’.
The use of excavation as a model here, recalls Susan Sontag’s use of it in the essay ‘Against Interpretation’ (6). In ‘Against Interpretation’, Sontag reviews the history of interpretation and hermeneutics. Then, describing the situation of the discipline at the time of her writing, she observes that it “excavates”, and as it excavates it destroys the work in its drive to dig behind the text, to find a sub-text that is the true work (6). The concept of ‘excavation’ as used by O’Sullivan, functions as a more positive engagement with the materials of reading and writing. For Sontag, an otherwise unproblematic emphasis on content lessens the work of art. She writes:
The result of the interpretive drive, for Sontag, is to make of the work of art something consumable, a product, a meaning that can be admired, exchanged, valued. It could be subject to taxonomy, classifiable according to its content. Labelled in this way it will be taken out of active service, made timeless, made into an object outside history. Sontag stresses the need to historicise the activity of interpretation itself, to be aware of it as a social or cultural construct, or, to construct an historical methodology of interpretation (7-8). For Sontag, excavation is associated with an interpretative drive that would reduce the work of art to “an article for use” (10). Excavation, as Sontag reads it, will shut down options, while in O’Sullivan’s terms it can open up possibilities.
The image of excavation has been used more than once in relation to Darragh’s work. Both Hank Lazer and Michael Davidson quote a commonplace from Emerson’s essay ‘The Poet’. The quotation, “language is fossil poetry”, draws on a sense of writing involved in a digging out of older senses of words, of refreshing dead metaphors, of uncovering the hidden at the heart of language. Davidson uses the quotation specifically in relation to what he terms “lexical archaeology” (Ghostlier Demarcations, 106), and gives a family tree of twentieth century practitioners who work in/with this feature, leading back to Pound’s work in the Cantos. Lazer uses it in relation to Darragh’s “dictionary derived compositions” (Opposing Poetries, 45). Both these instances consider that the poetry is engaged in revealing something already there, or in bringing to light aspects of language not easily perceived. By using the scientific model of archaeology to comment on the work, they propose a model where options for reading or writing are closed down, as in archaeological practice finds are classified, layers are recorded, and the past is made known.
Darragh’s engagement with the page of the dictionary does not suggest she readily accepts the historical model, the scientifically etymological narrative of the words on the page. In place of the proposed biography of words offered by a dictionary, a model based on Romantic humanist notions of development, a bildungsroman for each word, Darragh proposes a contextually specific engagement with the material of language. She quotes Art Berman: “New Criticism, grounded in empiricism, attempts to account for the formulation in literature of a non-scientific cognition which is an imposition of Romantic notions upon a purportedly scientific procedure”. Darragh goes on:
The various work collected in Out of Everywhere is unfamiliar, is outside or opposed to generic classification, is opposed to an easy classification of the work of women writers. Darragh reassesses the familiar, and recuperates some of the features of (women’s) writing that O’Sullivan dismisses. In considering the term ‘familiar’, I sense its unpopularity; within ‘innovative writing’ circles it is too easily a term of censure. In its place, I would like to suggest ‘intimate’. A sense of ‘intimacy’ or ‘the intimate’ would describe close engagement with the material of poetry, as writer and/or as reader. This is the proximity of pen and hand, keyboard and hand, hand and page, screen and eye, eye and text, the text and I. The specific context of reader/writer in engagement with the words in/of writing, that intimate contact, exists in tension with the repetition of that engagement by others or in other times and places. The particular event is in tension with recurrence.
Darragh’s image in ‘Raymond Chandler’s Sentence’, of her mother chain reading mysteries on 1950s schoolday afternoons, is part of a chain of reading, of readings. Darragh reads Chandler and other mysteries in the present of the poem, Chandler had been a reader of Earl Stanley Gardner, and I now read Darragh’s poem. The chain stretches into the past and future, intertwining with other texts along the way. This familial reading, this reading in community, does not have to mean the works will be “read in familiar ways” as O’Sullivan puts it (O’Sullivan, 9). Reading as a social act, rather than solely as a private individual act, offers possibilities of engaging closely with these writings without reducing their unfamiliarity. The writer is not with the reader as a mother might be, and so instruction, a teaching is built into the texts. The texts carry their own pedagogy. The writing carries tools for operating it, operating on it; it demonstrates its own functioning. Darragh’s work, in particular, carries such apparatus, as it describes its making.
Darragh’s fingers moving over the pages of her dictionary, in the writing of on the corner, were physically intimate. Her pinning of one of Raymond Chandler’s sentences above her desk meant that she was in intimate contact with it over a period, she became familiar with it, in close contact with it, she read it closely. Such ‘close reading’ need not only be that of scientific observation, but also the closeness of an intimate relationship. This intimate reading, is a response to texts that are initially unfamiliar, it depends on the reader becoming familiar with the text, so that she can recognise something of what is going on in her reading. There is a danger that this model of intimacy sounds isolated, a private interaction between writer or reader and text. The relationship cannot take place without a context, the writing exists in context, and the reader becomes intimate with it in context. Her negotiation of the text will be facilitated by a range of other readers in the past and present, and the reader will be part of this network of relationships, thus being involved in a social intimacy.
Perhaps Darragh in reading detective novels repeats a reading act of her father’s (and of her mother’s) and so “goes to him”, or links up with him in a familial reading. Hardboiled detective novels are sometimes seen as ‘men’s’ books more than as women’s, and this may link father and daughter. The fact that Darragh connects to her father through a genre points to the enduring popularity or wide distribution of detective fiction, and comments on an essential feature of genre, that it involves repetition or recurrence. “[A]s recurrent patterns of language use, genres help constitute the substance of our cultural life” writes Carolyn Miller (‘Genre as Social Action’, 39). The repeated reading act, recurring over generations, itself can be considered as a genre, and this genre of action functions to culturally link the lives of Darragh and her father. The father, in a different way to the mother, can provide a model of reading, is a model reader. The detective novels are here held out as a possible link, a bridge to the other generation, the other gender, a connection to the father.
Genre as a means of classifying works allows for their being assigned to families. To this extent, it depends on the familiar. The notion of a family connection among works can also be applied to writing not considered generically linked. Ron Silliman in his commentary on the mini-anthology ‘The Dwelling Place’ published in Alcheringa, calls it a “fix-in-time of writing which bears a family resemblance” (118). “Dwelling” is linked to belonging, and to home, and thus to the familiar. As Freud in ‘The Uncanny’ points out, the familiar carries with it, its apparent inverse, the uncanny or unfamiliar (220-222). The reader recognises the familiar, it is in some sense already known. She can also recognise the unfamiliar, in the distinguishing mark of anagnorisis (the rhetorical figure of recognition), or in an aberrant occurrence of the known. The “family resemblance” may offer a familiar place of engagement with new work, or a variety of unfamiliar works may be grouped by their difference from the known. Works that are assigned to the same genre may be considered as borrowing from one another, or perhaps, as each borrowing from some common source or model. Genre is thus linked to translation and to re-working, and might be considered a social manifestation of the intimate collaboration of a writer with a text.
In his book Recognitions, Terence Cave emphasises the presence of recurrence, of repetition within situations of recognition. There is a “compulsive returning to the ‘same’ place” (489), a return to the familiar. Within this compulsion is carried that other aspect of the familiar, of the recurring, that of the uncanny. The return to the familiar is not always easy, and there are uneasy aspects to the performance of generic action. In Darragh’s engagement with Chandler’s The Big Sleep, and its translation into film, there is something she “hadn’t expected”, in spite of her familiarity with the story, and with the genre. This “further confuses” her, and leaves her with the feeling she is “facing something [she] can’t see” (‘RC’sS’, 393-394). Her response is to work her way out of this, by repeating actions, repeating exercises from high school Latin class, (re)creating an order that has been disrupted (‘RC’sS’, 394-395). She then realises that she “needed to create this order” so that she could repeat a series of generic actions, so that she could return to a familiar situation through negotiating a generic form (395). The performance of a genre serves to establish familiar bonds, and at the same time it is in (re)forming familiar bonds that generic action takes place.
The talk as a generic form is a performance; and as Bob Perelman puts it:
When I first typed out this quote, for the written text of this talk, I was going to leave out the reference to language-writing practice in particular, and so focus on the form of the talk outside a specific literary historical context. I then thought of the fact that Darragh in discussing her own relationship to that practice has referred specifically to narrative and notions of the person as causing her writerly embarrassment, as causing a friction between her work and that of language-writing as defined by certain practitioners.
In an interview with Tina Darragh, published in Aerial 5, Joan Retallack speaks of Darragh’s work as “negotiat[ing …] two extremes”, one of “expression” and the other of “formal kinds of approaches” (69). For Retallack, this means that Darragh has “personal reasons for why [she] chose the procedure” (69). I agree that Darragh does join the personal and the procedural, but what is particular about her joining of them is not that she has “personal reasons” for doing so, but that she often presents these reasons in the work. These reasons guide the shape or the action of the procedure. This raises the distinction between the personal and the private in writing. For me, the private depends on a sense of an isolated individual claiming ownership of her work, while the personal relates to a situated person engaged in socially intimate actions.
Later in their conversation, the two writers associate this personal and procedural mode of making poetry with questions of gender. For Darragh, the matter of procedure, of formal approaches, can map very easily onto the working life of a woman and mother, where there is “this constant negotiation with all these different variables” (76). The writers agree that this is “about gender” as there is still a different concern among many male writers.
What angers Darragh is that while writers can happily blur the boundaries between genres, between styles of work, there are limits to this blurring, and these writers feel a border is needed to delimit serious work from mere play. Darragh’s joining of the intimate and the public, and of the familiar and strange in both, can strain at those borders. For other writers in the community, the sense of a Language-writing community may depend on the maintenance of boundaries just as much as any other style or form does. If the work is threatened from without by the perception that it is not “serious”, the presence within the community of “suspiciously playful” work (77), can further undermine how the work of the community is viewed by others.
This talk has attempted to play with aspects of the talk form, with elements of Darragh’s work, in order to enlarge the possibilities for writing, and for discussing writing. The talk as a form, as defined by Bob Perelman, would seem to offer a space for those elements of writing that Darragh feels embarrassed by, for those aspects of her practice that she feels are not always welcomed by other practitioners.
On that note I opened the space of the Talk to participation by the others present.
Cave, Terence, Recognitions: A Study in Poetics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988)
Darragh, Tina, on the corner to off the corner (College Park, MD: Sun & Moon Press, 1981)
---- , ‘Procedure’ in The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book, ed. by Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984), pp. 107-108
---- , ‘Raymond Chandler’s Sentence’ in In the American Tree, ed. by Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986), pp. 391-396
---- , ‘Howe’ in In the American Tree, ed. by Ron Silliman (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986), pp. 547-549
---- , Striking Resemblance: Work 1980-1986 (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 1989)
---- , a(gain)2st the odds (Elmwood, CT: Potes and Poets Press, 1989)
---- , ‘Interviewed by Joan Retallack’ in Aerial 5 , pp. 69-85
---- , ‘adv. fans - the 1968 series’ in Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK, ed. by Maggie O’Sullivan (London: Reality Street, 1996), pp. 27-34
---- , ‘from The Dream Rim Instructions’ in Etruscan Reader VIII (Buckfastleigh, Devon: Etruscan Books, 1998), pp. 9-27
---- , ‘fractals «-» I-in-error’ in Etruscan Reader VIII (Buckfastleigh, Devon: Etruscan Books, 1998), pp. 30-32
---- , ‘s the any ME finel mes: A Reflection on Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”’ in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, ed. by Mary Margaret Sloan (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman, 1998), pp. 696-701
---- , ‘Error Message’ in Moving Borders: Three Decades of Innovative Writing by Women, ed. by Mary Margaret Sloan (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman, 1998), pp. 703-704
Davidson, Michael, Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997)
Freud, Sigmund. ‘The “Uncanny”’ (1919), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVII (London: Hogarth Press, 1964) pp.217-252
Lazer, Hank, Opposing Poetries: Issues and Institutions (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996)
Mandelbrot, Benoit B., The Fractal Geometry of Nature, rev. ed. (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1983)
Miller, Carolyn R., ‘Genre as Social Action’ in Genre and the New Rhetoric, ed. by Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway (London: Taylor and Francis, 1994), pp. 23-42
---- , ‘Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre’ in Genre and the New Rhetoric, ed. by Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway (London: Taylor and Francis, 1994), pp. 67-78
O’Sullivan, Maggie, ‘To the Reader’ in Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America and the UK, (London: Reality Street, 1996), pp. 9-10
Perelman, Bob, The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996)
---- , ‘Speech Effects: The Talk as Genre’ in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, ed. By Charles Bernstein (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) pp. 200-216
Retallack, Joan, ‘Interview with Tina Darragh’, Aerial 5 (1989), pp. 69-85
Silliman, Ron, ‘Language, Realism, Poetry’ in In the American Tree (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986), pp. xv-xxiii
---- , The New Sentence (New York: Roof Books, 1995)
---- , ed., ‘The Dwelling Place: 9 Poets’ in Alcheringa (ns) 1.2 (1975), pp. 104-120
---- , ed., In the American Tree (Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1986)
Sontag, Susan, ‘Against Interpretation’ in Against Interpretation (New York: Octagon Books, 1966), pp. 3-14
BIO: MARK LEAHY is a writer and Lecturer in Performance Writing at Dartington College of Arts, England. Recent publications include Artists’ Profiles for www.a-nweb.com (2003); ‘we tongue it with our eyes’ in Verbal inter Visual, Central St Martins (2001); ‘Doris Green: In Memory of Edward Peter John and Child’; Chain 7; 2000; ‘ “do it, and again do it”: Repetition, Rereading, Recognition in the Poetry of Bruce Andrews’ in _The Mechanics of the Mirage_, Liége, 2000. He curated _Siber Art_, performances by Viatcheslav Mizin and Alexander Shaburov (London 2003) and jointly curated the workshops and exhibition _Verbal inter Visual_, (London, April-May 2001). He has worked with performance artist Bobby Baker and with Station House Opera. He is part of the team responsible for _In Place of the Page_, with artist Brigid McLeer, 2003-2004, www.inplaceofthepage.com. Research interests include relations between poetry and visual arts, issues around genre in visual and textual production and consumption, and theoretical investigations of reading. He is also a visiting lecturer at Middlesex University.