Sunday, June 05, 2005

Poetics of the "Assay" Form

Some examples of the “assay” literary form:

The assay, as I take it, is a piece of hybrid prose criticism and poetic text. The form was to some extent prefigured in various works of Derrida, also Barthes.

Two good examples of assays in America:

1) Hirshfield, “Poe: An Assay (I),” published in the Threepenny Review, available online here.

2) Susan Howe, “My Emily Dickinson.” Excerpt available online here at Al Filreis’ fine site.

Benefits of the assay form: recognizes the fact that because unlike other art forms, poetry is performed in the exact same media, words, as is used for its criticism, then, a mixed form might be possible.

Drawbacks: untrammeled subjectivity, stylistic drift, lack of parameters, causing confusion/boredom in the reader.

The assay as a form was also prefigured by Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem, “A Season in Hell,” which at times has mixed poetical-critical features. For example, there is one long sequence in the poem where Rimbaud performs a remarkable critical deconstruction of his own prior work. (See Season in Hell, Delirium 2: Alchemy of the Word, available online here.)

Some of what he writes there is just so loveable:

What I liked were : absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, bright-colored prints ; old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books full of misspellings, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children's books, old operas, silly old songs, the naive rhythms of country rimes.

(Rimbaud). I believe a recent example of experimentation in such a mixed poetical-critical prose or poetry-prose vector would be the writing of Ms. Finch. (Her blog is to the left and called 666poetry-finchnot). She is not mixing critical prose with poetry, but rather, autobiographical and diaristic prose with poetry. I am interested in any form hybridizing or mixing traditionally "prose" and "poetry" elements, because there are so many potential innovations there. The media format of the blog invites experimentation with mixtures of "dear diary" and lyricism, for example.

Other examples of mixtures of the two discourses:

--Basho's travel diaries, for instance "A Visit to Sarashina Shrine," with their combination of "dear diary" prose and interspersed hokku.

--Milosz' format in his book, "Unattainable Earth," in which he would have a poem per se, followed by a "comment" which was basically a piece of interjected prose-critical deconstructive framing or gloss.

--Mallarme's fragments for his project "A Tomb for Anatole," which can be found in translation into english in a book by Paul Auster. These fragments, written by the french master on tiny pieces of paper, and kept in a box (shades of Wittgenstein's "Zettel," Walter Benjamin's "Arcades Project," or Fernando Pessoa's trunk of writings variously edited into "The Book of Disquietude"), are singular in their mixed aspects of prose and verse. They hold a position of interbeing between poetry and prose, thereby defining a new form. (Anatole was Mallarme's young son who died. Grief made it impossible for Mallarme not to hybridize, for any limit felt in that existential situation must have been pure pain).

While we are on the subject of pauvre Arthur, let me note in passing one beautiful little myth that has cropped up about him. After Arthur Rimbaud left the world of poetry in his early 20s, he became a gun-runner and wandering trader in the then-wilds of northern Africa. To this day there are local legends about the mystery man from France among the people there. For example over at John Tranter’s wonderful “Jacket” e-zine site, there is a postcard of the purported “Arthur Rainbow House,” see here. Apparently apocryphal, but beautiful nonetheless. Check out this stained glass from the “Rainbow House”.


Sheila Murphy said...

a rich poste - many thanks for this clear piece about an important emergence with firm historical roots.

anders said...

Thank you! You don't know how important it is to me that my writing is not a complete imposition on others.

Sheila Murphy said...

Imposition?????? Jamais! It's a treat. Thank you.