Charles River

Charles River
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Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Cool of the Archive: On Gustaf Sobin


Reading in an archive is exhausting business. Like viewing paintings at a museum, saturation fatigue, as my friend Nancy Kuhl calls it, can set in quickly. It’s not just the difficulty of deciphering an author’s longhand script, in some cases, but the immersion in their life, their day-to-day concerns, along with the unavoidable sense of feeling like an eavesdropper. Beyond that, there is the larger experience of cognitive confusion that occurs when poring over reams of completely unedited material: so many envelopes stuffed with letters with no signposts for what to read first, or what might prove illuminating and what is merely a dead-end.

I don’t consider myself an archive scholar. Mostly, I just read poems in books that someone has edited, then try to think of some things to say about them. My previous trips to read poet’s papers – to Durham, Northumbria, where Bunting’s papers are kept, and to Storrs, CT, to read Duncan’s letters to Olson – were stimulating, but they never opened up new avenues for the kind of analytical writing I do. At best, they offered the possibility of an alternate life where I would reinvent myself as the editor of obscure poets’ correspondence. Which could be enormously useful to say, about seven people, but probably even more thankless than what I’m doing now.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, thanks to the gracious hospitality of Richard Deming and Nancy Kuhl, who put me up for the night, I spent a total of about seven hours at Yale’s Beinecke Library, an elegant cube of a building, reading through three out of ten overall boxes of Gustaf Sobin’s correspondence (the entire archive of his papers comes to 48 boxes). I had no firm notion of what I was looking for other than the possibility of locating some connections between Sobin and some other poets I’m writing about, chiefly Michael Palmer and John Taggart.

I was disappointed with respect to the latter, who only wrote to Sobin once (about rights for some translations of Rene Char), but the Palmer letters were quite marvelous, though I have no idea what, if anything, to do with what I gleaned. There was a real sense of connection, through the work and the care and demands of the work, that linked these two (though Sobin’s letters to Palmer are not included). It was a privilege to read them and out respect for Palmer I won’t quote from them here except to note one poignant remark made after his 41st birthday: “Some things at least I can appreciate more. I won’t list them, lest they disappear.” (That single word, “list,” in Palmer’s spidery hand, gave me some long minutes of puzzling out).

There are also some gems from one of Sobin's literary executors, Andrew Joron, who writes, in 1999: "isn't the system of language itself finally to be understood as an Ur-terrestrial toponym?"

The most amusing exchange, from 1956, occurs between Sobin, still a student at Brown, and Ezra Pound, still incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s. Sobin writes to the older poet as a “very deep admirer” and asks if he can visit and, if possible, bring him some him of his poems. Pound’s typewritten reply, on a postcard, is terse:

“you will have to give proof of preparation,/& a list of what you object to//before I can spend time on you/let alone kindergarten lesson// Yrs. E.P.//also some personal reference would be helpful//why should ANY man take time away from informative reading?”

Sobin’s cheeky response is priceless. He begins by stating that he has no list of objections. Instead, he submits a list of things he loves. These include “my fiancĂ©, swimming at Paraggi, Canto 90, and Campari bitter and ripe olives.” There’s no indication if the trip to D.C. was ever taken. I suspect somehow that it was not. But if it was?

In the 1980s, Sobin, already in dialogue with his publisher James Laughlin at New Directions, offered to help Laughlin with preparations for a film about Pound, much of which was to be shot on location in Provence. The exchange between the two is animated, with Sobin supplying a special map that links Pound’s sacred sites to the Michelin map for Provence. He also prepared, after combing through The Cantos, an extensive list and breakdown of the poem’s many allusions to troubadour culture. It runs to several pages, single-spaced. I’ve requested a PDF of this with a view toward augmenting my argument, made in a recent talk given at Orono, about Sobin’s discrete silence regarding Pound’s influence on his work.

There’s no mention of the film’s final fate. At several points, Laughlin complains about the work schedule set by the director, Lawrence Pitkethly, both on the set and in post-production. I suspect these aren’t really in earnest. Either that, or Laughlin simply had no idea about the kind of hours that go into production, which can easily run to 15 per day. In 1982, a screening of some 13 hours of unedited footage takes place at Yale in the hopes of securing the film’s purchase by the archives. But I have yet to verify if the film is at the Beinecke, or if still exists in some form, or if it was even completed or shown anywhere. (Pitkethly also directed several episodes of the PBS/Vendler series, “Voices and Visions,” including the one on Pound).

N.B. A quick Google search indicates that a 90 minute film, "Ezra Pound: American Odyssey," did in fact appear in 1988. The NY Times called it a "standard biographical documentary." Presumably it is more or less the same as the Pound episode in "Voices & Visions." So much for the mystery -- and my research skills.

The Laughlin correspondence is extensive and full of mutual warmth and regard. Sobin’s file contains the New Yorker profile of Laughlin, entitled simply “Jaz.” Their friendship survived New Directions’ draconian decision to drop Sobin from their list (apparently his books weren’t making the grade: sales of 1000 over two years). That was a tough letter to read and must have been even tougher to write, much less receive. Yet even as Laughlin’s health failed him (he'd suffered a stroke) and his eyes started to go, he remained the ever supportive friend and erstwhile editor. The last letter from him is dated January 28, 1997. He died later that year, in November; Sobin included a print out of the NY Times online obituary. The feeling of loss, of the end of a conversation, is palpable.

As Sobin wrote to Laughlin, on May 24, 1993: “Palliative, that’s the word. Isn’t that what poetry – and irises – are all about?”

The most vivid correspondence that I came across – and this is one of those things that can surprise you in archive research – was Eliot Weinberger’s. The force of Weinberger’s personality is electric in his letters – there are seven fat folders full of them – which begin in the 70s and go through the 90s. He comes across as a consummate bon vivant, witty and sharp, with a gift for piercing pronouncement and razor-sharp satirical gibes at the expense of the inflated. And he made me want to read the mysterious Karin Lessing.

Many of Sobin’s responses are collected in this file, often given over to detailed instructions for the proofs of his complicated poems that would appear in Weinberger’s journal, Montemora. As Sobin writes, “the proper placement of a word can be as significant, as crucial, as the word itself.” It’s clear that not only Weinberger’s great care as an editor, but his investment in a certain kind of poetics, was of great importance for Sobin, a real source of nourishment. Montemora supported, he writes, “the breath of the letter, the spark that instructs the shadows.”

Weinberger’s support obviously was instrumental for Sobin. What it gave him was hsi first real moment of recognition. Which, finally, may be all the reward a writer can really hope for. As he put it in a letter of April 28, 1977: “I’ve been living here, Eliot, on a slab of wind, for over ten years, writing, writing, writing. That the words finally carry. That you hear them, is great recompense.”

1 comment:

  1. Patrick, in the Netherland of Burning Man, I found your post. How pleasant and interesting. Kay Merkel Boruff Dallas

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