There Are Birds, by John Taggart (Flood Editions, 2008)
Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics, by John Taggart (University of Alabama Press, 1994)
At the back of There Are Birds, John Taggart’s new book of poems, is a note imploring readers to read the poems aloud. Taggart asks that we pay particular attention to the “internal space gaps of varying proportions (varying durations of silence),” which “provide time for rest, for an image to assume depth and definition, for reflection.” I read the entire book aloud once and have been working through individual poems and sections aloud in the process of thinking about this essay; unsurprisingly, vocalization transforms the poems. Lifted from the stillness and silence of the page and voiced into the air, they gather musical momentum, and their sounding admits new stillnesses and silences—the composed or “cadenced” silences in the measured spaces of music. From his earliest writings, Taggart has been committed to poetry as voiced song, but what interests me most in his note is the relationship it suggests between silence and image: in the musical rest—the space between audio tones—an image might gain depth and definition in the listening imagination. The implication of the poet’s request is that depth and definition are goals of his poetry, but the precise meaning of these words is not immediately clear. The first, most obvious possibility might be fullness and clarity—common goals of writing—but I suspect that there is something else at stake in Taggart’s diction. To read the words depth and definition in this first sense is to read them metaphorically, but considered more literally or physically, depth suggests space itself, a quality in three dimensions, as in “depth of field,” while definition suggests markings within or around space, a quality of a line, as in “defined edges.” Thinking in these terms, it becomes possible to make out that Taggart’s poetry seeks a certain imaginative space, and that silence, represented by the visual “gaps” within the printed poems, “provides time” for this space to take shape.
Depth and definition appear as well in the final lines of Section 70 of “Unveiling/Marianne Moore,” the 89-section, 61-page serial poem at the center of There Are Birds. The section is a good place to begin thinking about Taggart’s formulation of imaginative space. It begins:
There can be pictures under
pictures tones under
The first three lines quickly establish—and simultaneously collapse—a relationship between sight and sound. The initial clause, “There can be pictures,” is a simple declarative sentence syntactically similar to the title of the book, but the line extends to include the preposition “under,” a word whose meaning relies on a sense of depth. The object of the preposition—“pictures”—is dropped to the next line, literally placing it under the initial “picture,” but also suspending just for an instant the closure of the prepositional phrase, holding open the spaciousness of the preposition “under.” Like one of his poetic masters, George Oppen, Taggart attends carefully to prepositions, the small words that express relationship in space and time. The line break also allows the deliberative surprise that the object of the preposition is identical to the subject of the first phrase: what lies on top of the pictures are more pictures. Pictures, then, are not a final element to be revealed through another medium—language—but are themselves layered atop one another, by turns concealing or revealing one another. Taken as a hermeneutic assertion, these three lines begin to formulate a notion of interpretative depth: one sees through an image to see another image. As if to enact that depth through grammar, the next word, “tones,” follows “pictures” without any punctuation between them. The prepositional phrase opens directly into the next phrase, destabilizing the syntax of the sentence as it proceeds.
Such destabilization is common in Taggart’s poems, which he composes from short phrases (which he calls “atomic”) combined and variously recombined into lines of variable length. He typically omits internal punctuation between phrases, allowing there to be “syntax under syntax.” One instance of a word may function as both object and subject, or a noun might fall into a series of noun after noun. Reading a Taggart line, I often find myself sliding from one syntax into another, completing neither but following a third logic, a musical one. It is an improvised music of thought, which finds its meanings as it sings. Picking up Section 70 of “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” at the fourth line, I slide, by way of syntax and pun, from a visual vocabulary to a musical one—from “picture” to “tone”—in a repetition of the section’s opening prepositional figure:
there can be one picture there can be one tone
a body an intense face
a convulsive crying like the crying of a child who’s been beaten been left
in a dark room
what’s under all the pictures and all the tones what gives depth and what gives
The two independent clauses that begin this passage—“there can be one picture there can be one tone”— reprise, though with variation, the simple declarative of the first line (“There can be pictures”). The shift from the plural “pictures” and “tones” to “one picture” and “one tone” is left unexplained except by the adjacency of the declarations. The two possibilities—plurality and singularity—are present simultaneously. The interpretative depth—the “under”—of the first three lines reinforces this simultaneity, making it possible for one and many to exist at once in a single space, an imaginative space. One picture or one tone can be a space—a depth—in which many pictures or tones are layered. The fifth line specifies one such deep picture: “a body an intense face” (recalling “intense face of sorrow” from Section 7 of “Gray Scale/Zukofsky,” an earlier sequence in the book). The sixth specifies the deep tone of “a convulsive crying,” then, by way of simile, turns the tone back into a picture of a “child who’s been beaten been left / in a dark room.” In the imagined scenario of the poem, as the room goes dark, it takes the picture with it. What’s left in the room is the cry. And then, in the composed silence—the space before the next line—the image assumes depth and definition: the definition of the child in the depth of the dark room. The cry in the silence of space. But the poem does not yet rest fully. Suggesting that interpretation of picture-upon-picture might not lead to infinite regress into infinite depth, Taggart asks:
what’s under all the pictures and all the tones what gives depth and what gives
John Taggart’s writings on his own poetics are distinctly metaphorical. In the preface to his early book Peace On Earth, which contains the poem “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” Taggart explores the relationship between his poetry and Rothko’s paintings by describing medieval stained glass: “Medieval or Old glass, particularly the inner-glowing red, is the result of several thin laminations. The inner structure of all Old glass is made dense and complex by these laminations and by the impurities, air bubbles, and streaks within them. The Old glass is translucent, not transparent.” Quoting from the catalogue for Rothko’s 1978 retrospective at the Guggenheim, Taggart likens this process to Rothko’s process of painting, which involved dyeing the canvas with a series of “thin washes of paint,” allowing deeper layers of color to show through the topmost layer. The effect is that Rothko’s canvases seem to contain “a hidden light source . . . a quality of inner light which seems to emanate from the very core of the work.” What dazzles Taggart in Old glass is “the presence of mystery—to combine Messiaen and Grosseteste—the power of light residing in and shining through the glass as embodied spirit.” The visual techniques of Rothko and the Old glass artists provide the inspiration and model for his own compositional technique of combining and re-combining—“layering”—his “atomic phrases” to create larger works of audio and intellectual density to match the density of light in the artworks. Taggart writes that “all [his] work, before and since this poem, involves translation or, more accurately, transformation to make the poem a ‘sound object.’ ” A transformation of light into sound.
Taggart’s preface takes a further analogical turn, comparing his process of writing poems to Steve Reich’s process of musical composition. He writes of Reich that “[i]n this music . . . one hears music as a process. One hears the music compose itself.” This emphasis on process calls to mind Taggart’s writings on the poems of George Oppen—which he reads beautifully as graphs of “thinking actively”—and Louis Zukofsky, for whom, in Taggart’s conception, a poem is the process of seeing and singing at the same time. Taggart quotes Reich: “Listening to a gradual musical process one can participate in a particularly liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible the shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards (or inwards) toward it.” The processes of Rothko, Reich, and Taggart are articulated in undeniably religious language: Taggart’s “embodied spirit” becomes Rothko’s “inner light” becomes Reich’s impersonal “it.” I would like to propose that it is what might be “under all the pictures and all the tones what gives depth and what gives / definition,” and that Taggart’s poems enact a process of approaching it.
In another essay, “The Poem as a Woven Scarf,” Taggart provides more metaphors for the poem he wishes to write:
. . . I am drawn to the poem as a woven scarf with many openings through which light enters. It could be spread out, enlarged to a scarf of migrating birds in the sky. Yet however dense the weave and however enlarged the area, the poem must contain a perceptible pattern of openings, composed silences, within itself. The response is not itself composed, as in a church service. Its possibility is invited.
Here Taggart is concerned with the community formed by and around a poem. Wishing to extend the musically composed line he finds in “Slow Song for Mark Rothko,” but criticizing his earlier long poem “Peace on Earth” for being too “dense” and “saturated,” he seeks a form that will allow readers to “dance” in open spaces of cadenced silence. He seeks a looser weave. The threads of Taggart’s scarf are the threads of song, which, as he points out in the essay, must be read aloud if his poems are to make sense. The poem must admit silence as the scarf must admit light. The silence is it, that which passes through the poem but which the poem itself does not say. The poem-scarf is spread across literal space by Taggart’s second metaphor, and the threads of song become birds in the sky. The second section of “Refrains for Robert Quine,” the poem that opens There Are Birds, reads as a summary of Taggart’s poetics and a declaration of the work to come:
There are birds there is birdsong
having come through hunger and danger
there is free song
a free weaving of many songs
song against song and other songs clustered/spun out in a blending of wavy pitches
doucement the phrase means what the songs mean
that meaning so sweetly and freely as a gardener weaves flowers in her hair.
In the new book, which is a collection of serial poems, Taggart’s compositional principal of “atomic phrases” extends beyond the poetic line to become the formal principal of the entire volume. Images and phrases—“free songs”—are woven in and out of all the poems in the book, at once clustering into meaning and spinning out toward other meanings, other possible clusters. Taggart’s virgule—a notational mark ubiquitous in There Are Birds—is emblematic of how meaning occurs in his poems: it holds two possibilities present without choosing between the two. The serial poem seems a natural extension of a poetics of recurrence and variation, each piece of the series a new cluster of meaning about to spin out into other clusters. Taggart’s serial poems enact a process of analogical thinking—of connecting diverse things—and ask the reader, in following patterns of repetition and variation, to engage in kind, to ask over and over, “How is this like that?” and, equally, “How is this not like that?” Metaphor, then, is fundamental to Taggart’s poetics, particularly a kind of “serial metaphor,” a process of making metaphor that is always in motion, like Taggart’s musical line, always singing into new meanings, approaching it, which cannot be said—which is light, which is silence, which is a poem.
The naming of things—particularly elements of the natural world—and the ways in which naming creates relationships among things are recurring concerns in the long poem “Unveiling/Marianne Moore.” In Section 5, Taggart meditates on Linnaean naming:
Combination of noun and adjective
substantive and modifier of the substantive
Acer = maple + tegamentosum
two Latin words noun and adjective for one thing the tree
and its covering leaves
noun for genus for family adjective for species one particular member
of the family
Carl Linnaeus his system for naming things
whose father renamed himself after a tree himself
Linnaeus after the
system for naming and for classifying
bringing things into relation with other things other plants and
no system no
understanding of the world sum total set of names and things the world the
total set “the larger beauty”
a system an effort to tell the truth.
The series of nouns in the long, verb-less sixth line of the section enacts the very idea being expressed, of language as a series—a sequence of multiple elements—that constantly approaches some form of unification, of coherence: “one thing the tree.” Then the line break after “tree” and the following short line complicate the very singleness of the “one thing” by pointing out that one tree is made of multiple parts. There can be pictures under pictures. But the elusiveness of the one thing does not mean we should not try to name it. What the poem holds up is the provisional nature of naming, that if we see the system as “an effort to tell the truth,” then we must allow that this effort occurs by “bringing things into relation with other things.” By placing each species within a genus and so on up the system’s hierarchy, Linnaean naming suggest ways of comparing two species, of seeing how two things are alike and how they are different. It is a way to think of one thing as an instance among many, a way to tell the truth perhaps of the individual thing and a “total set” at the same time.
In Section 6, Taggart approaches the question of naming again, this time considering early American naturalist William Bartram’s naming of the snake-bark tree:
the no system apparently no system of the vernacular the common
obeying unapparent rules the rules of
when it is extraordinary
saying one thing is another
overstatement of identity not A=A the nonstatement/pseudostatement of
“true identity” but A=B saying one thing is another
truer statement of identity when it is truer
The name of the snake-barked maple is a metaphor that explicates itself, conjoining the vehicle, snake, to the tenor, bark. It may seem a commonplace to point out that the name asks us to compare the bark of a tree to the skin of snake, but what Taggart investigates here—the metaphoric nature of naming—is indeed so common that it could be overlooked. The wager of metaphor is that A=B might be truer than A=A, where “A = the bark of a tree B = the skin of a / snake,” though A=B might obscure A even as it reveals it:
to get you to stop to pay attention vivid bark
of a tree made more so
made truer/more vivid/unveiled A having been veiled however
momentarily by B
which is another rule the veiling to be unveiled rule
the veiling taking place in the fusion
see the A see the B see the A-B the fusion see the A through the B
see the A better more vividly
In the long first line of this last stanza, Taggart’s syntactical slippage enacts the idea that one sees most clearly when one sees relationship—when one sees individual things through their relationships to other things. Seeing A, seeing B, and seeing A through B fuse into a single activity as the words in the line slip into one another. As in “snake-barked maple,” A and B fuse into the single name. That fusion is the pleasure and disclosure that metaphor allows us.
It is also the pleasure and disclosure that Taggart’s serial poem allows us. The 89 sections of “Unveiling/Marianne Moore” weave together songs of Moore, Linnaeus, William and John Bartram, a Chinese police investigator, an American private detective, the painter Tao-chi, the woods of Pennsylvania, the woods of China, Marilyn Monroe, and other figures and elements. As the songs weave freely in and out of ever-varying clusters, again and again we are asked to see how things might be alike and how they might be different, and asked to see the one thing through its relationships to many things. In Section 15, this process is enacted through a series of metaphors the poem provides for itself, as images become music and music becomes language:
A comic book
“juxtaposed images in deliberative sequence”
images = clear A after B pictures
in = the space between white space and spaces in the
sequence = one after
another set of things that belong together that are put together
that are made to hold together
local girl bark of a tree skin of a snake
no causality or a different causality
repetition of a phrase a unit/part of a melody at a higher or lower pitch
a phrase-mark a line linking notes that belong together
dependence of a subordinate verb according to rules of tense for the principal verb
the principal verb is think
To see or to hear—to occupy space or to occupy silence—is to think, to occupy “spaces in the head.” To think in Taggart’s language is to experience relationship. But the risk of this kind of thinking is to be lost among a thousand pictures, a thousand songs, a thousand threads. Oppen, from Of Being Numerous:
One must not come to feel that he has a thousand threads in his hands,
He must somehow see the one thing;
This is the level of art
There are other levels
But there is no other level of art
The sureness of Taggart’s music—the deftness of his thinking—allows him and us “to see the one thing” while we see a thousand things. His poetry itself becomes like “one picture” or “one tone” in which many pictures or tones are layered. In the careful cadence of his imaginative space, we are allowed time “for reflection” and for dancing, time to see and hear “another set of things that belong together that are put together / that are made to hold together.” This holding together is the dance the mind does. The simultaneity of one thing and a thousand things is “what’s under all the pictures and all the tones what gives depth and what gives / definition”—the definition of one thing amid the depth of a thousand things. It is the truth the poem names.