Repetition, Noise and Pleasure, or Why I like John Yau and Lisa Jarnot

an essay by David Kaufmann

ŢA few years ago, I was asked to contribute an essay to a book called Why Literature Matters. At the time, the title struck me as a dangerous seduction, because it seemed to claim that literature (however defined) should line up with all the other commodities and inherited habits of our post-modern lives and defend its usefulness. To be frank, I was not sure that the study of literature should try to defend itself this way , because it would always lose. After all, its utility is not obvious. Poems are unlikely goods in any number of ways. They cannot be eaten or slept in. They do not help you in the sheer mechanics of daily life and they rarely, if ever, generate wealth. There are no poetry start-up companies, no great improvements in poetic technology, and no great profits to be earned in poetry futures. Because literature has no direct material use, its defense usually has to draw on its invaluable and intangible effects: how it makes better citizens of either the state or the world; how it humanizes; how it resists the regimes of oppression, etc.

The need to defend the study of literature comes from the sad fact that resources are (relatively) scarce and all diversions of those resources need to be defended. But is utility the only possible justification for human activity? What other justifications are there? Imagine arguing that literature matters because it gives pleasure. Now, pleasure is a touchy subject in our society, in spite of--or due to--the fact that so much of the world we live in beckons with the promise of sensual and emotional gratification. But we tend to justify our pursuit of such gratification in terms of desert. We can have the "x" we want so badly because we deserve it, not because desire in itself provides sufficient warrant. In an odd way, the ambient atmosphere in which we spend a good portion of our lives incites our desire and then demands that we defend the desire we have been incited to feel. If we could overcome our odd and historically very specific ambivalence towards pleasure we might just say that literature matters because it is, in however attenuated a way, pleasurable. But for equally odd and historically determined ways, we probably cannot do that and still go on to win either the respect or resources that we want to claim for the study of literature.

So, in this essay, I do not want to defend the study of literature or poetry. Rather, I want to look at some of the ways that a couple of contemporary, and perhaps difficult, poems are pleasurable. I will take as my examples two very recent works readily available on the web, selections from Lisa Jarnot's Sea Lyrics and a sonnet, "830 Fireplace Road," by John Yau that was only posted at the tail-end of January. I will particularly look at the way the poems create and master their abstractions and obscurities through rhythmic and aural repetition and speculate on the kinds of gratification these poems might propose.

"830 Fireplace Road" counts as a sonnet because it has fourteen lines:

"When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing."
When aware of what I am in my painting, I'm not aware
When I am my painting, I'm not aware of what I am
When what, what when, what of, when in, I'm not painting my I
When painting, I am in what I'm doing, not doing what I am
When doing what I am, I'm not in my painting
When I am of my painting, I'm not aware of when, of what
Of what I'm doing, I am not aware, I'm painting
Of what, when, my, I, painting, in painting

When of, of what, in when, in what, painting
Not aware, not in, not of, not doing, I'm in my I
In my am, not am in my, not of when I am, of what
Painting "what" when I am, of when I am, doing, painting.
When painting, I'm not doing. I am in my doing. I am painting


It is an unconventional sonnet, of course, because it has no rhymes and does not adhere to any of the traditional metres associated with the sonnet. But that does not matter, for it appears to fall into a long tradition of experimentation with the sonnet form, of attempts to revise the sonnet while reducing it to its most practiceable essence. We could thus begin to talk about the intellectual pleasure of recognizing what kind of thing this poem is and playing our expectations of that kind of thingˇthe sonnetˇwith the actual poem in front of us.

But, more striking than the number of lines is the sheer repetitiveness of "830 Fireplace Road." The title refers to the address of Jackson Pollock, the Abstract Expressionist painter of the late 1940's and early 1950's, whose retrospective has been drawing great crowds to the Museum of Modern Art all winter. The first line is a quotation of Pollock. Yau, a man who makes his living writing art criticism, has taken the thirteen words of this quotation and reworked them in different variations with a minimum of punctuation to lead the eye or the breath. One could argue that with the repetition of the words and with the broken syntax and fractured grammar of this sonnet, Yau is trying to replicate in words Pollock's canvasses with their heroic swirls, drips and blots. But his poem, unlike an abstract painting, does not escape linguistic meaning. In fact, what is remarkableand fun about this poem is how many different nuances he can extract from these rather simple words, how many different shades and statements he can uncover.

Nevertheless, all these shades and statements point in the same direction: "I'm not painting my I." In this latter-day dramatic monologue, Yau's Pollock (never mentioned by name) makes ecstatic claims for his painting. I mean "ecstatic" here in its deep etymological sense, as a "standing-out" from the self. It seems quite clear that Yau's Pollock is celebrating the active, non-cognitive, unpremeditated aspects of his art. He is not painting his own self, not representing something that already exists, but creating something new in which that self seems to vanish completely: "When painting, I'm not doing. I am in my doing. I am painting." The painter disappears into the process of painting. This leads to an even stronger conclusion, because Yau's Pollock is not just his own paintings, but rather, painting itself, that is to say, allpainting. In this way, Yau has recovered, quite nicely, the bizarre atmosphere of inspired heroism that surrounded Pollock (and that Pollock did much to cultivate).

At the same time, however, it is hard not to suspect that the poem itself buys into the worship of the artist and the arts that it reveals so clearly. If there is pleasure to be hadŢ in the way that the poem's sense seems to emerge out of the repetition of its fragments, there is also an important pleasure in self-regard here. "830 Fireplace Road" celebrates visual art and, by implication, poetry as well. What is more, it compliments the reader on his or her education and cultivation, not only in terms of poetry but of the arts. After all, the sonnet works on the assumption that you are acquainted with the history of the sonnet, and that you know who Pollock was, what his address might have been, what his paintings look like and what he said.

To put all this in another way, the poem draws on at least two different kinds of pleasure. There is a large degree of play in the sonnet, a play with language and meaning that is fun like a puzzle, but also gratifying in that it opens up unexpectedly. In a related way but on a different plane, there is the established, but acquired pleasure to be taken in the notion and the products of the avant-garde. The avant-garde, of course, celebrates art (and its destruction) through insistent innovation and experimentation. Its works are meant to be heroic --even in their anti-heroism, avant-garde productions touch on the apocalyptic destruction or fulfillment of what has gone beforeˇand difficult. Most importantly, they stress their novelty, their purchase on the putative future. This can be a utopian aspiration or it can be pure commodification. As Hans-Magnus Enzensberger has pointed out in a rather cynical manner, the avant-garde sells the future before it has even arrived. And those who buy it, are acting as cultural investors, showing their cultivation and acumen by getting in on the ground floor. There is thus an interesting tension here between the local moments of play, defeated expectation and surprise, and a larger movement that restores expectation, that restates values (of "art," the avant-garde, etc) that have already been well established.

I want to look at another version of this tension and expand on the pleasures of surprise, by looking briefly at Lisa Jarnot. The Sea Lyrics look like "prose," because they do not have line breaks. But they are not conventionally prosaic. They have neither the structure of an argument nor the logic of a story. They also resist being excerpted, because their effect is cumulative:

        I am the waterfront and I cover the waterfront and all the boats all know me, I am the foreignest of birds and the shadows of sails upon martinis, I am underwater buying jam and drinking stolen coffee, I am pelagic now and sober, having recently discovered all the birds.


        I am barbecuing eucalyptus pigs of hills and brightly colored housetops, I am waiting for my senses to come back, I am a cabbalistic moment all in black, I am your drunken Irish brother and the plantains on the lawn, I am the tourists hoarding sharks teeth, I am the empty grain silos of Bernal Heights and god, and I am you on the back of a motorcycle crossing Dolores in the pineapple groves of Elvis Costello, sleeping all night, inside of the artificialist lagoons, beyond the palm trees, I am a drag queen named Heather not quite ready for New York.


        I won't go to the waterfront anymore, I am basking on a beach far from the army, I am pointing to a thousand speckled birds, I am watching the salads roll down to the shore, I am on the grounds of Mission High School with the murderers, I am near the edge of all the bungalows, I am reaching toward the pineapples to reach, I am dreaming the dreams I hardly know and know I have tattoos, I am in the ambulance at dawn, I am in this town beneath where you have jumped from bridges row by row, from the midtown light, I am in the dreams Lucretius, I have helped you to assemble all the mammals on the lawn.


        Massive and damp, on the ell curve by the Cliff House, next to the nude beach on the barrios that point, where I used to like the Grateful Dead but now I'm just a satanist, this is the Caf╚ Boh╦me where I spend my time, these are the sneakers I'd like to look cool in, this is the hallway with plantains and people I know, these are my neighbors, that is the jukebox place, these are the people who sleep on my steps, this is the man in the laundromat who wishes he was Carol Burnett.


        I am this Santa Ana wind and we are bowlers, we are at the haircut man, I have divulged so little of the avocado dawn, I am waiting to buy coffee near the docks upon the square, I am all the hot dogs and the roof of city hall, I am hardly standing in the kamikaze rain, I am of the new year sober now, I am inside of all the horoscopes at once, I am the rainy part of early fall expecting to go back across the bridges, I am near the greenish plantains down the street, I am the subtler angles of the sunlight from the surface of the moon, I am here to yet predict the dawn, I am getting better like the oceans on the sidestreet, I am surrounded by water, I am walking sideways near the church in Watsonville upon the orange line at Lammas Tide.

         ("Five Prose Pieces from Sea Lyrics1996;

As in Yau's poem, the obvious principle of organization here is the insistent repetition of the verb "to be," especially in the first person: "I amÍI amÍI amÍ." What saves this from being oppressively narcissistic is the equally obvious point that these pieces are not biographical in any conventional way ("I am underwater buying jamÍ"). The identities of this "I" range from the whimsical ("I am all the hot dogs and the roof of city hallÍ") to the almost incomprehensible ("I am of the new year sober nowÍ"). What is more, this poem can in no way be construed as a report on the whereabouts of its supposed speaker. Unlike the artist in "830 Fireplace Road," Jarnot's "I" is here, there and everywhere and all at once.

Part of the wit of this series lies in the way it plays the verb "to be" ( I am) off the present continuous (I am writing, I am dancing, etc). It shows quite clearly how the same words can have quite different uses, at the same time that it raises the question of the relation between identity (I am) and action (I am doing). To what extent, then, is the poem actually about the bits of language it puts into action? Take this odd moment, whose surrealism does not lie in the image as such, as in its odd, syntactically almost correct but yet unimaginable string of words: "I am barbecuing eucalyptus pigs of hills and brightly colored housetopsÍ." You can barbecue pork and you can conceive (perhaps) of the unappetizing prospect of a eucalyptus pig. But what is a pig of a hill? How can a hill be a pig (on the model of the Irishism, "He's a pig of a man")? And how can you barbecue a hill, let alone a housetop? To read this literally, or to try to recover the action or the things it is somehow "really" about would be a mistake. Like many an experimental poem over the past two decades, the piece has declared war on the idea that language has to refer to the brute stuff of the world all the time. At this moment, as at othersˇwhen did Elvis Costello become a place name?--Jarnot's words do not look at the "outside" of language, but at other words and the ways they can (and cannot) go together.

There is no "true self," however ecstatic, that you could construct from Jarnot's peculiar amalgamation of linguistic transpositions (one kind of name for another; one kind of adjective for another, etc). In a similar way, we might do well to assume that the Carol Burnett the man in the laundromat wants to be is a media fantasy, the product of many years of watching situation comedies. As with the drag queen who is not yet ready for the big time (is Heather her stage name?), identity in this poem does not reside in the heart or in the self. Like the cool sneakers of the third section, the self consists of a neat set of fashion accessories. In another context, Jarnot has articulated precisely this fluid sense of identity:

What I learned from those early heroes was what I had intuited
from childhood, that one's identity existed as one's invention, and that as
a creative person, one's identification and explanation of the self might
always be in flux, like the whole of the universe is in flux, existing as a
place of multiple possibilities, dependent only upon one's attentions to
the messages arriving from the outside.

("On Identity,"

Like the self that Jarnot discusses here, Sea Lyrics plays with the words that people use to make up identities. It shows how identities are fabricated at the same time that it renders that process of linguistic self-creation rather comic, in that it is susceptible to grammatical fun, if not absurdity.

It would seem that the sweet scandal of Jarnot'sSea Lyrics is that they promise lyrics, that is, the expression of the single (often suffering) self that two centuries of Romantic and post-Romantic poetry have led us to expect. And then they do not deliver on that promise. The defeat of the audience's expectation has been the common aspiration of much experimental or avant-garde writing since the mid-19th century and Jarnot definitely fits into this tradition. There is thus more than a touch of progressive rebelliousness here, of an attempt to overcome the encrusted prejudices of a complacent, middle-class common sense. We thought our language expressed our true identities and she is showing us that our identities are not "true" in the way we thought.

By the same token, it could be argued that when Jarnot makes much of the fluidity of identity, she is not rebelling against our entrenched bourgeois culture, but rather represents it at its worst. It is not only the intellectual and artistic avant-garde that has been telling us that identity is constructed from accessories and external messages. In their ads, Bennetton and the Gap have been showing us the same thing for years. In an odd way, then, the post-modern critique of identity dovetails quite comfortably with the shopping mall.

From this account, it would seem that the pleasures that Yau and Jarnot present have similar structures. They play with the fluidity of identity (ecstatic in one case, post-modern in the other) and seem to open up horizons of truly new experience. At the same time, they rest on expectations and social categories that are very well established, entrenched and accepted. Is there not a danger in these pleasures, then, in that they sell us a bill of goods and not the goods themselves?

I would like to propose another way of looking at all this. My argument above contains a dim echo of a distinction made by Roland Barthes, whose wonderfully flawed book, The Pleasure of the Text, still remains the best account I know of on this subject. Barthes distinguishes between the "text of pleasure," which ultimately reaffirms the world as it is already constituted, and the "orgasmic text" which shatters our fixities and delivers us to something new. While I have great sympathies for Barthes's desire to get beyond the limitations of the present, I suspect that the true orgasmic text would be quite literal nonsense, incomprehensible to those of us lodged within the present's horizons. This text would not the source of fascinationˇthat is, of pleasure or discomfort (pleasure's dialectical opposite)--but of indifference.

We can recast Barthes's terms, and though we will lose some of the apocalyptic pathos of his "orgasmic text," we might gain a better handle on the distinctions here. About twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I became very interested in a relatively little-known figure in literary theory, a Russian by the name of Yuri Lotman. Lotman started off in literature, but as life became more difficult under Stalin, switched to cybernetics. After Stalin died, Lotman returned to literary theory, but with a bent towards information theory. In the roughest of terms, he argued that the literary text is always threatened by two opposite temptations: boredom where no information is transmitted because it was all already known) and noise (where no information wis transmitted because there was simply too much to be assimilated). The test of a text's value, according to Lotman, is its ability to embody the greatest amount of information without dissolving into static.

The cognitive bias of Lotman's account should be plain and there is a danger here of reducing all the non-cognitive aspects of the literary textˇits sounds and rhythmsˇto some kind of information. So I want to make a suggestion, which draws on the experience of reading "830 Fireplace Road" and Sea Lyrics. In the end, gh I think the case can be made more clearly with Jarnot's poem because it is not so neatly anchored in more or less common historical references and therefore seems, at first blush, more confusing. Sea Lyrics breaks any number of rules of grammar, syntax and word choice. As in the case of the barbecued eucalyptus pigs of hills, the language often threatens to fly apart, to become dispersed into sheer nonsense. That it does not is a tribute in part to its skills of repetition of sound, rhythm and rhetorical structure ("I amÍ.I amÍ").These repetitions allow us to see the patterns of transposition and thus permit us to see the pattern and the poem as meaningful. The pleasure in these poems, then, might not just come from the mastery of a difficult game, or from the compliment that they pay to our culture and erudition, but also from the sensation of surprise. And surprise is nothing to be scoffed at. It is the intimation of the truly new that lies just this side of noise.

Copyright 1999  by David Kaufmann  All rights reserved