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The Darkness of the Present: Poetics, Anachronism, and the Anomaly

The Darkness of the Present: Poetics, Anachronism, and the Anomaly

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by Steve McCaffery

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The Darkness of the Present includes essays that collectively investigate the roles of anomaly and anachronism as they work to unsettle commonplace notions of the “contemporary” in the field of poetics.
In the eleven essays of The Darkness of the Present, poet and critic Steve McCaffery argues that by approaching the past and


The Darkness of the Present includes essays that collectively investigate the roles of anomaly and anachronism as they work to unsettle commonplace notions of the “contemporary” in the field of poetics.
In the eleven essays of The Darkness of the Present, poet and critic Steve McCaffery argues that by approaching the past and the present as unified entities, the contemporary is made historical at the same time as the historical is made contemporary.

McCaffery’s writings work against the urge to classify works by placing them in standard literary periods or disciplinary partitions. Instead, McCaffery offers a variety of insights into unusual and ingenious affiliations between poetic works that may have previously seemed distinctive. He questions the usual associations of originality and precedence. In the process, he repositions many texts within genealogies separate from the ones to which they are traditionally assigned.

The chapters in The Darkness of the Present might seem to present an eclectic façade and can certainly be read independently. They are linked, however, by a common preoccupation reflected in the title of the book: the anomaly and the anachronism and the way their empirical emergence works to unsettle a steady notion of the “contemporary” or “new.”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The consistent strength of this collection is the mercurial manner with which McCaffery wends his way among disparate topics, making illuminating connections between wide-ranging resources. The frequency with which one comes across improbable alliances generates much of the pleasure of this text.”—Jed Rasula, author of The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940-1990, and Modernism and Poetic Inspiration: The Shadow Mouth

“This book raises important ethical/political issues for the practice of art in the twentieth century. The Darkness of the Present calls them to rigorous attention in a series of critical studies. It finishes in a deliberate move to stand back, in order to reflect on the issues from a cool critical vantage, like Tennyson’s poet at the end of The Palace of Art.”—Jerome McGann, author of Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web and Are the Humanities Inconsequent?: Interpreting Marx’s Riddle of the Dog

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University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Modern & Contemporary Poetics Series
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Darkness of the Present

By Steve McCaffery

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5733-7

Chapter One

Cacophony, Abstraction, and Potentiality The fate of the Dada sound Poem

First let me offer a necessary prolegomenon. This chapter relies heavily upon quotations from Ball's diary—which was published posthumously (in abridged form) as Flight Out of Time—for precisely the same reason as Ball's fellow Dadaist Hans Richter relied upon it. As Richter elucidates:

I shall oft en quote from Ball's diaries, because I know of no better source of evidence on the moral and philosophical origins of the Dada revolt which started at the Cabaret Voltaire. It is entirely possible that any or all of the other Dadaists ... went through the same inner development, but no one but Ball left a record of these inner conflicts. And no one achieved, even in fragmentary form, such precise formulations as Ball, the poet and thinker. (14–15)

Notwithstanding Richter's trust, Flight Out of Time presents an interpretative challenge in being both compiled retroactively and published posthumously. Taking his personal diary entries between 1910–21, Ball started revising them in 1924 (after the emotions and incidents described had settled into a reflective distance) and Die Flucht aus der Zeit (Flight Out of Time) was finally published in 1927. A sec ond edition appeared in 1946 with a forward by Ball's wife Emmy Ball-Hennings. It is important to emphasize the fact that Die Flucht aus der Zeit was assembled from the controlling, executive viewpoint of Ball's new conversion to Catholicism (Michel 1). For the earlier Ball, during his Zurich days (the focus of this chapter), God was not dead but reified in the profiteering plunder of German capitalism and supported ideologically by a state apparatus that included religion. Ball had already launched a scathing attack on the conflation of Christianity and capitalism in his pre-Dada poem "Der Henker" (The Hangman) where Christ is born as "the god of Gold" and lives as "the god of lustful greed" (der Christenheit Götzplunder) (quoted in Steinke 79).

I. Prelude

No sound is dissonant that tells of Life. —Coleridge

The sound poem is the last of three rapid developments within the performative poetics of Zurich Dada that appeared between late March and June 1916. Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, and Tristan Tzara introduced the simultaneous poem (a genre invented by Henri Barzun and Fernand Divoire) at the same time as Huelsenbeck inaugurated his quasi-ethnographic "negro songs." Both types were launched at Hugo Ball's newly established Cabaret Voltaire on March 30, 1916 along with Ball's own contribution (some poems without words) on June 23, 1916. In the simultaneities, such as Tzara's inaugural "The Admiral is Looking for a House to Rent," sound, text, discrepant noises, whistles, cries, and drums interweave in a sonic version of collage. Interlocution collapses into a texture of promiscuous parlance and polylogue at the same time as linguistic fragments, in French, German, and English, intersect and combine into efficacious new amalgams. (It's surely no coincidence that the three languages utilized are respectively those of the three combatants in the Great War and most fitting to a performance in quadrilingual Switzerland.) Although, as a collective manifestation, the simultaneity attains the status of a gesamtkunstwerk only by way of a parodic valence, it nonetheless brings about that desired confluence and border blur of song, noise, music, and dance that Dick Higgins christened "intermedia" in the 1960s. Ball has left a succinct definition of the simultaneous poem: "a contrapuntal recitative in which three or more voices speak, sing, whistle, etc., at the same time in such a way that the elegiac, humorous, or bizarre content of the piece is brought out by these combinations" (Ball 57). Ball is also sensitive to the more somber, existential implications of this cacophonous, combinatorial genre. To his mind it represents "the background—the inarticulate, the disastrous, the decisive [expressing] the conflict in the vox humana with a world that threatens, ensnares, and destroys" (ibid.)

Huelsenbeck conceived his chants nègre as whimsical abstractions designed to evoke the rhythms and "semantics" of African songs. As stereotypical and racist as Vachel Lindsay's 1914 poem "The Congo" (Huelsenbeck's versions mix phrases of calculated nonsense, each refrain ending with the phrase "umba umba"), they gained limited authenticity when Huelsenbeck substituted an authentic African song for happy senselessness (retaining, however, his beloved end-refrain). The chant nègre took on a genuinely ethnopoetic dimension when Tzara incorporated fragments of authentic African songs culled from anthropology magazines that he read in Zurich.

From its very inception the twentieth-century sound poem has been shrouded in contradiction and uncertainty. There are at least two antecedents to Ball's "invention:" Christian Morgenstern's "Das Grosse Lalulà" (1905) and an untitled piece by Paul Scheerbart (1900). Indeed, a German or Swiss audience would have been familiar with the basic form of Ball's "poetry without words." Scheerbart's begins:

Kikakoku! Ekoralaps! Wiao kollipanda opolasa

Morgenstern published his poem in his immensely popular Galgenlieder (Gallows Songs) and called it a "phonetic rhapsody." It opens:

Kroklokwafzi? Semememi! Seiokronto-prafriplo; Bifzi, bafzi; hulalemi: Quasti basti bo ... Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!

The sound poem's "historical" origin and definition, however, are generally attributed to the German poet émigré Hugo Ball, who first performed his own samples on June 23, 1916. He recorded his definition of the new genre on the same date in his diary: "I have invented a new genre of poems, 'Verse ohne Worte' [poems without words] or Lautgedichte [sound poems], in which the balance of the vowels is weighed and distributed solely according to the values of the beginning sequence" (70). It is tempting to theorize the lautgedicht as Ball's voluntary abnegation of meaning, a splendid and festive nihilism designed to discover a self outside the limitations of reason and semantics. Yet neither the logic of the phoneme (Ball's chosen unit of composition) nor the poet's own recorded reflections support such a judgment. As I hope to demonstrate, Ball's sound poem is thoroughly grounded in historical sense and awareness. It was not, however, formulated as a response to Symbolism, nor to Dada's ambient competing avant-gardes of Cubism and Futurism, but rather as a response to, and a refusal of, the contemporary state of discourse under early twentieth-century capitalism. In addition, it emerged in a time of much non-poetic speculation about the powers of vocal sound.

The life and death of the sound poem can be constructed around a sequence of incidents and reflections that occurred over a brief period of time. To understand Ball's invention beyond a merely formal synopsis requires an investigation of his motives, activities, and state of mind both on and prior to June 23, 1916. His departure from semantic verse was certainly influenced by his own involvement in the emerging German expressionist theater and by his pre-Zurich studies of Chinese theater. Demoralized and traumatized by the horrors of actual combat, Ball came to realize the catalytic possibilities to effect revolutionary change through theater by way of expressionistic exaggeration. Directed to the subconscious, this new theater develops a code of the festive, with archetypes and loudspeakers used to by-pass realism (Ball 9). Less atavistic than transcultural in its propensities, the new theater draws heavily on Chinese and Japanese sources. Ball believed that especially Chinese theater preserved a mantic character—a trait he carried over into his own sound poetry. A diary entry for April 2, 1915 is of especial interest precisely because of its implicit comparison of actual war to the theatrical representation of battle:

When a general receives orders for a campaign into distant provinces, he marches three or four times around the stage, accompanied by a terrible noise of gongs, drums, and trumpets and then stops to let the audience know he has arrived.... the holy man sings and grabs the leader of the Tartars by the throat and strangles him with dramatic crescendos. The words of the song do not matter; the laws of rhythm are more important. (Ball 16)

Here Ball is obviously intrigued by the inflexion of singing into the representation of violent physical conflict and the concomitant downplay of semantic value within the song to the paramount importance of rhythmic law; this is a patent blueprint for the lautgedicht.

There is clearly a forcefully political dimension to Ball's sound poem. To understand some of its ramifications we need to bear in mind the climate of Europe and Zurich in particular. At that time Zurich was a city in a neutral nation surrounded by the carnage of a mad war of attrition. We must also look at an important event that took place in Zurich. In March 1915 Walter Serner—Ball's friend and future Dadaist—joined the staff of Der Mistral, a self-styled "literary newspaper" whose editors, Hugo Kersten and Emil Szittya, launched a prescient attack. This attack was aimed not at the current military conflict per se, but rather at the linguistic structures of the bourgeois institutions—religion, law, and politics, the current linguistico-cultural industry—collectively responsible for a "grammar of war." To supplement this editorial policy (so anticipatory of Foucault's work on discourse and the critique by Language poetry of language, narrative, and referentiality in the 1970s) poems were included and chosen on the basis of their deliberate undermining of grammatical and syntactic norms—hence the appearance of Apollinaire's calligrammes and Marinetti's parole in libertà (Witkovsky 421). Ball was unquestionably sympathetic to this agenda. In fact, when he arrived in Zurich from Berlin in May of 1915 he had hopes of collaborating with Serner on Der Mistral, though those aspirations failed to reach fruition. Similar to the work featured in Der Mistral, Ball considered his own sound poem as a frontal attack on the contemporary condition of instrumental language. Ball had previously been involved in radical publishing ventures. Prior to his flight to Zurich he had published in Franz Pfemfert's left-wing periodical Die Aktion and in October 1913 had himself founded with his companion Hans Leybold the short-lived Revolution. Ball quotes the French historian Florian Parmentier who linked the crisis in independent creative existence to a collusion between democracy and journalism, a collusion whose origin Ball traces back to Rousseau. Indeed, the origin of Ball's existential unrest dates to well before the war. As early as 1913 he reflects on a life "completely confined and shackled" by an unremittingly compartmentalized world in which serialized existence binds human beings to a monstrously predictable and repetitive functionality. The antidote he offers is resolutely non-futuristic and a surprising anticipation of Georges Bataille's theories of heterology and general economy: "What is necessary is a league of all men who want to escape from the mechanical world, a way of life opposed to mere utility. Orgiastic devotion to the opposite of everything that is serviceable and useful" (3–4). I find it significant that at this time Ball directs his ire and invective at the dehumanizing rhythms of the machine: it is this target that marks Ball's radical dissent from Futurist valorizations. Whereas in a few years Ball will inveigh against the language of journalism, in 1913 he offers a savage analysis of the material implications of the printing press itself:

The machine gives a kind of sham life to dead matter. It moves matter. It is a specter. It joins matter together, and in so doing reveals some kind of rationalism. Thus it is death, working systematically, counterfeiting life. It tells more flagrant lies than any newspaper that it prints. And what is more, in its continuous subconscious influence it destroys human rhythm.... A walk through a prison cannot be so horrifying as a walk through the noisy workroom of a modern printing shop. (4)

(It's sobering to compare Ball's account of the state of the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction with Benjamin's more famous document.) Before the horror of war and its incomprehensibility, Ball reacts to the horrors of the machinic imaginary, and this reaction is carried over into wartime. Indeed Ball emerges as the paramount Dada Luddite, writing in late 1914 after returning from a visit to the Belgian front, "It is the total mass of machinery and the devil himself that has broken loose now" (10–11). Later in a June 26, 1915 entry he claims an ontological and tactical confusion lies at the root of the war: "The war is based on a crass error. Men have been mistaken for machines. Machines, not men, should be decimated" (22).

II. June 1916 and After

Ball's diary entry for June 24, 1916 (previously incorporated into the program notes for the June 23 performance) proclaims, in manifesto-like fashion, the theory of his sound poem: "In these phonetic [sic] poems we totally renounce the language that journalism has abused and corrupted. We must return to the innermost alchemy of the word, we must even give up the word too, to keep for poetry its last and holiest refuge. We must give up writing second-hand: that is, accepting words (to say nothing of sentences) that are not newly invented for our own use" (71). This passage is remarkable for its synthesis of clarity and obfuscation. It carries a lucid call to praxis, yet at the same time petitions a vague mystery and prophylaxis. To neologize in order to innovate? Most certainly. Lyric neologism arises from a disgust with human words as historically sedimented, culturally debased phenomena; while entering history neologisms do not convey history as their burden. The move is not without precedent, for Ball follows in the footsteps of the Russian Futurist poets Khlebnikov and Kruchenykh whose practice of zaum (transrational language, to which Ball had been introduced by Kandinsky) produced texts and phrases of deliberate incomprehension. (It was the zaumniks' insight to realize that which is inexpressible in words is expressible through sound, thereby undermining Wittgenstein's claim in the Tractatus that "What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence" (6.54). Zaum also anticipates Joyce's portmanteaux poetics employed through out Finnegans Wake and lauded by Eugene Jolas in 1948 as the new language of the future.) As well as marking a stark reversal of his earlier beliefs in the dangers of neologism (Ball had recorded on 25 November 1915 that "Each word is a wish or a curse. One must be careful not to make words once one has acknowledged the power of the living word") it advances a poetics of bold individualism one consequence of which is an indirect critique of German ideology (49). For in reverting to the phoneme and to the force of haptic, pathic affect, Ball removes the very possibility for such propositional constructions and narratives on which any national language must be constructed. If Tzara's simultaneous poetry dismembers and collages national languages, Ball's lautgedicht effectively destroys them.

So far so good, but major questions now arise: What is "the innermost alchemy of the word"? And where is, let alone what is, poetry's "last and holiest refuge"? Ball's critical vector slides at this point from social disgust into a rhetorical enigma, a vague spiritual poetics, and a veritable poetical theology. Indeed, the lautgedicht surpasses any socio-linguistic critique of the contemporary, ambient conditions in the warring, secular world and encapsulates the very spiritualization of politics, sounding the redemption of the word via the power of abstract phonematicity. Ball offers an alchemical poetics of alembication by which the word, in being pulverized, is preserved as a higher distillate through refinement from its semantic dross. He summarizes his achievements five days prior to the first performance of the lautgedicht: "We have loaded the word with strengths and energies that helped us to rediscover the evangelical concept of the 'word' (logos) as a magical complex image" (68). Clearly by June 18 Ball had worked out not only a new genre of acoustic poetry but also a new theory of the image, one carried not by words but by phonemic rhythm, an image Ball himself calls a "grammalogue." (It is difficult not to think of Pound's own contemporary modification of the poetic image in which the image is uncoupled from a pictorial paradigm and redefined as an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time alongside Ball's comparable conversion of the image into a sonic shorthand for a mnemonically charged acoustic force.)


Excerpted from The Darkness of the Present by Steve McCaffery Copyright © 2012 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Steve McCaffery is the author of Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics and North of Intention: Critical Writings 1973-1986, and the coeditor of Imagining Language: An Anthology.

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The Darkness of the Present: Poetics, Anachronism, and the Anomaly 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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