The Uncontainable

by Kathleen Fraser



Swing and crack of the wrecker’s ball. Action. Demolition. I awake with the film running and the image stopped. That absolute moment when volition at once enters and brings down the old building. A structure with its shelter and solidity no longer in place. Necessary rupture and collapse. Then, to see: it’s only a building. Only bricks, cement, pipes, wires and stairs designed for a particular function and statement. Once pinned to someone’s drawing board, it had expressed the day "sufficient unto to its needs." This architect’s drawing--at least for the moment--had been realized. Its articulation and solidity held ground. Claimed territory.

Then, as if to provide the dream’s title, the word appears:



a verbal scrim through which to recomprehend the image of destruction. The dream has presented, simultaneously, a photograph and its title, as if in neon, framed large. Webster’s defines devolution as "a rolling down or falling; the passing (of property, qualities, rights, authority, etc.) from one person to another; devolve said of duties, responsibilities, etc.: as, the work devolves on the foreman when the superintendant is ill."

Uncertain before these apparently random signs, I am led by the dream’s compressed imagery to reading rooms in various local libraries where I spent hours as a child absorbed in the great and not-so-great historic works of literature; texts that had drifted to the surface and remained in sight on the shelves...out of intention or random neglect. Without knowing it, I was learning very early an order and an hierarchy of literary valuings installed by whatever "superintendant" or "foreman" was empowered to buy the books and keep them in circulation. What were their preferred narratives and whose working methods best expressed the views and tastes of those empowered to shape our knowledge of language, song and story? Why did some books remain to represent all poetic language? Why were others removed from the shelf and not replaced? Primary questions for anyone accessing poetic language from an already meticulously mapped grid.

You begin from anywhere, nowhere. Language is a private tryst. "No matter how long and elaborate history’s procession, the eye meeting it along the muddy road is always first person singular." (Powers 1995)

One begins to understand that the established forms one is born into--the well-designed structures which precede, protect and guide--may limit and even harm the ability to listen for an interior prompt of difference and to follow its peculiar, often "irrational" moves...having been called beside the point. Each writer comes up against this constructed wall and accepts the power, safety and authority of its limits...or decides to break through.

What would it mean to listen through existing written forms? And from such tracking, to revisualize and to reassemble the wall as a page of departure from the known--graffiti of inner drift and disruption, inscribed with the hidden particularity of one still alive.

In the "Forward" to her twelve volume work, Pilgrimage, Dorothy Richardson said that "phrases began to appear" and "The Stream of Consciousness lyrically led the way" when she allowed herself to listen (1976, 11). The familiar official progression of sentences was replaced by something more spatial, less regimentally sure of itself..."a contemplated reality having for the first time in her experience its own say."

I do not know what it gives,
a vibration that we cannot name

for there is no name for it;
my patron said, "name it";

I said, I can not name it,
there is no name;

he said,
"invent it".

H.D., Trilogy

Why this imperative to find provocative word orders, to invent a visual shape for one’s interior life, to distinguish it from all the others who have spoken for it, before it? A bit of personal narrative floats up:

She remembers how, walking away from her only conference with the professor of English literature, she felt confusion and some defeat, sitting across from him at the desk as he returned her new poems, without commenting directly on them, instead explaining to her the abstract idea of poetic form, while drawing for her the image of a wheel with spokes, rim and center. There seemed to be no fit between what he was saying and what she was hearing in her mind which, if accurately expressed, woud be more like the simultneous presence of light waves and particles than a wheel...a clamor of voices arguing and interrupting, urgent and cacaphonous with bits of speech and thought. It occurred to her then that she wanted to try to get that degenerating syntax into a poem, even though the great poems she’d been assigned didn’t read like that. She had no idea how she would locate such a counterpoint on the page, but understood that her interior soundtrack while shaped by system was not systematic...but interested her for its unacknowledged music. This was 1959. She’d never heard of Apollinaire or Charles Olson, Dorothy Richardson or Gertrude Stein.

In Europe, meanwhile, literary history has been gathering--still largely unacknowledged in American classrooms of the late Fifties/early Sixties:

Richardson, 1921: "writing as an action and a process" for the purpose of making reading "strange--in syntax, sentence and paragraph structure"--rather than writing "in its usual guise of an invisible and omniscently produced object." (Gevirtz 1996, 26)

Woolf, 1929: describes Richardson’s new sentence as that "which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fiber than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes."

•H.D., 1926: in naming her novel Palimpsest, appropriates the term for her own writing process, seeing herself as temporary host to the guardianship of shared human inscription--the immanence of history, past and present, passing through her as a palpable force...poet as conduit, receiver and scribe.

Stein, 1926: rejects almost every classbound rule of English language narrative and asserts her obsession with sentences, parts of speech and grammar’s function, predicating the reality of "a continuous present" independent of established syntactical and semantic agreements of meaning.

These are chapters of Modernism’s devolution, in which four women--two British and two American--take on the solidity and unabashed authority of existing literary forms and parallel practices by male modernists, to propose their own startling alternatives. Passing from one person to another. Displacing old buildings.

The poet who turns to language as an active principle cannot simply replicate received forms. She resists standardization and refuses a reverential attitude towards authorial absolutes. The not-yet-articulate in her nags to be acknowledged and expanded beyond pedigreed literary icons referred to as "the forms"--as if all possible formal shapes and cadences had been locked into place, untouchable, disconnected from ever-changing speech use and perceptive field and intellectual event.

Repeating the known is acquisitive; it surrenders, as a collector does, to "good things," rather than hazarding uncertain territory; it narrows the range of attentiveness, neglects the unacknowledged.

What is this urgency to speak/scrawl/visualize one’s moment uncommonly? Given that men and women share the same potential lexicon and a similar modernist perception of social fragmentation, why would a woman poet need to invent her particular versions of it?

All our daily inclination to be idle tourists, to be comfortable believers, our inclination to tame art or spirit or the unspeakable by comprehending it, turns on us. For the uncontainable is everywhere, as Rilke loves to tell us; it is even in ourselves.

(McHugh 1993, 22)

Trajectory and barrage, as if to see it on a radar screen, trapping and visualizing the private language still missing from public record. The uncontainable.

One claims the activity of invention through sheer necessity. It is as if you can’t help yourself or, conversely, that you are impelled to escape the predictable as it has come to limit your movement--excluding, pre-editing, denying not only nuance and level of perception but how one’s spirit might move between the inside and the outside. The next opening of the language. The next hands-on structure. As poets were meant to do.

"The uncontainable" will not be quieted. It simply needs time enough for dissatisfaction to erupt and a poet of sufficient inventiveness to give it voice. Its propelling impulse has been essential to twentieth-century American prosody. We find it profoundly illustrated in Charles Olson’s 1950 manifesto, "Projective Verse" (Allen 1960, 386) where he articulates his physical inability to fit into the inherited forms of "closed" verse. While those forms have inspired other writers, they have not proved to be expansive enough for his own body, his own breath--the energy field that propels his language. He must break all visible and invisible restraints and invent a page--a "field"--in which his line, his spoken "energy discharge," can "declare for itself." Reading his essay in the Sixties and reading it now, one is forcibly struck by Olson’s ability to listen, recognize and insist upon the efficacy and necessity of inventing an entirely new system for thinking about language composition. One sees how his concept--so urgently proposed--released immense amounts of poetic energy and invention in his peers, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley, and in many poets of succeeding generations, each of whom, while developing a unique tonality, proposed (in certain of their own poems) a reading of the page’s visual potential and syllabic particularity as demonstrated by Olson.

Almost every great poet has needed to resist the law-abidingness and administrative presence of the superintendant and the foreman, even if the act of resistance is unheralded by theoretical preface. Even the most playful exorcising of grammar and syntax should not be underestimated as a repudiation of traditional guardianship--the refusal of sterile ground--as Stein so steadily demonstrated.

But it does not matter to the poet who is just coming into a mature understanding of writing that others have preceded her in their practice of

the continuous present, stream of consciousness, field composition and other named forms of disruptive polyphony. These stand as important companions in the formal recognition of devolutionary necessity. Nevertheless, "No matter how long and elaborate history’s procession, the eye meeting it along the muddy road is always first person singular."

Dorothy Richardson called it "the behind and between", "that dangerous looseness"--the deliberate instability she was importing to a page as vast and ambitious as Olson’s. But she believed that women (and, by inference, the woman writer) had been taught to speak within the highly rational confines and grammars of a male-dominant public discourse--that is, "his language." She believed that only by willingly immersing the self in "the miraculous commonplace"–fidelity through attentiveness–could women writers construct a "language" authentically theirs.

"Telling it slant," sliderule poetics, improvising one’s relation to language as often as is necessary, graphics of recursive inquiry, determined & indeterminate cadence. Not to be tamed.




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BIO: Kathleen Fraser edits HOW2 . "The Uncontainable" will be part of Fraser's new essay collection, Translating the Unspeakable/ Poetry and the Innovating Necessity, due out this November from the University of Alabama Press as part of their Modernist and Contemporary Poetics series, curated by Charles Bernstein and Hank Lazer. Fraser’s Selected Poems il cuore: the heart is available from Wesleyan/UPNE.


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