When I told my friend C that instead of talking about “they day daze,” I will talk about friendship, he responded with (and I imagined him scoffing at me, virtually, in our instant messenger conversation), “I must tell L, wait till L learns about this. Friendship? From someone who routinely misses get-togethers for years just because he feels like having alone time?” So I begin this talk on friendship, with a questionable credibility on the subject matter. “But I want to think about friendship,” I insist, and then kid C, “as my way of trying to be a better friend.”
The title of this talk “They Correspond” is taken from an epigraph I appropriated in they day daze from Jack Spicer’s book After Lorca. In one of his letters to the dead Federico Garcia Lorca, he writes: “Things do not connect; they correspond.” I want to think about these two independent clauses in relation to two recurring aspects in my writing process – 1.) A preference for correspondences of things over connections of things, which I practice in collage work, and 2.) Correspondence, as in the correspondence between or among people engaged in various conversations. This pun on correspond is quite salient in After Lorca, in its humor and estrangement, as Spicer channels the dead Lorca to write the preface for his book. Here is a part of the preface
Frankly I was quite surprised when Mr. Spicer asked me to write an introduction to this volume. My reaction to the manuscript he sent me ( and to the series of letters that are now a part of it) was and is fundamentally unsympathetic. It seems to me the waste of a considerable talent on something which is not worth doing. However, I have been removed from all contact with poetry for the last twenty years. The younger generation of poets may view with pleasure Mr. Spicer’s execution of what seems to me a difficult and unrewarding task.
It must be clear at the start that these poems are not translations. In even the most literal of them Mr. Spicer seems to derive pleasure in inserting or substituting one or two words which completely change the mood and often the meaning of the poem as I had written it. More often he takes one of my poems and adjoins to half of it half of his own, giving rather the effect of an unwilling centaur. (Modesty forbids me to speculate which end of the animal is mine.)
And here is an excerpt whence the epigraph “Things do not connect; they correspond” is taken:
Things do not connect; they correspond. That is what makes it possible for a poet to translate real objects, to bring them across language as easily as he can bring then across time. That tree you saw in Spain is a tree I could never have seen in California, that lemon has a different smell and a different taste, BUT the answer is this—every place and every time has a real object to correspond with your real object—that lemon may become this lemon, or it may even become this piece of seaweed, or this particular color of gray in this ocean. One does not need to imagine that lemon; one needs to discover it.
Even these letters. They correspond with something (I don’t know what) that you have written (perhaps as unapparently as that lemon corresponds to this piece of seaweed) and, in turn, some future poet will write something which corresponds to them. That is how we dead men write to each other.
My keenness in talking about friendship is manifold. In a creative sense, I am grateful to a number of friends for the writing and the visual art work that I do. My work is heavily dependent on prompts and encounters, mostly chance encounters through heard language, conversations, interesting material, and also through willed encounters, for examples, in conversation on specific drafts of my work, or friends gifting me with objects they think I can use in collage.
But the more that I think of friendships as integral to the creative process, the more interested I become in thinking about how friendship is a generative potential outside of prevailing rhetoric on friendship (i.e., friendships in relation to social capital, or the perverse realism of social networks and marketing — of “adding/making friends” in relation to the pursuit of profit, or the profitability of corporations). One should also note that in the realm of thought, while friendship is tackled as a virtue in moral philosophy, it is not so much discussed in recent contemporary discourse; and also note, that love (or at least the amorous relationship) while perhaps more consequential and affectively more complex in reality, is more conceptually mapped. Think for instance of entire books on the topic of love, for examples, Roland Barthes abecedarian of the flawed lover in A Lover’s Discourse, and Alain Badiou’s “In Praise of Love” where he masterfully distills the concept of love without reducing its complexity:”
“What kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? That is what I believe love to be.”
I am interested in how friendship as generative affective links/networks/multiplicities (rather than as rhetorical ruse or social stratagem) is integral to and inscribed in creative work, but at the same time wary that links/networks/multiplicities, even if deemed affective, such as friendship, are also potential sites of hierarchical power structures and false multiplicities. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari refers to this scenario, rather punningly, by invoking the friendship theorem from the field of graph theory:
[E]ven when one thinks one has reached a multiplicity, it may be a false one—of what we call the radicle type—because its ostensibly nonhierarchical presentation or statement in fact only admits of a totally hierarchical solution. An example is the famous friendship theorem: “If any two given individuals in a society have precisely one mutual friend, then there exists an individual who is the friend of all the others.” (Rosenstiehl and Petitot ask who that mutual friend is. Who is “the universal friend in this society of couples: the master, the confessor, the doctor? These ideas are curiously far removed from the initial axioms.” Who is this friend of humankind? Is it the philosopher as he appears in classical thought, even if he is an aborted unity that makes itself felt only through its absence or subjectivity, saying all the while, I know nothing, I am nothing?) Thus the authors speak of dictatorship theorems. Such is indeed the principle of roots-trees, or their outcome: the radicle solution, the structure of Power.
The modest project I want to carry out today is to try to trace the affective links of friendship and to see how form, particularly the form of the poem (form taken as the configuration of the materials that is the poem rather than a prescribed/fixed form) is entangled with friendship and how this entanglement is generative. Needless to say the examples, are wide-ranging, and impossible to exhaust in the duration of this talk (which also makes it beautiful). At least for the purpose of this talk I will go through examples from Jack Spicer, in particular from his epistolary work, an excerpt taken from Paul Celan’s Meridian speech, and excerpts of poems by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.
Most of Spicer’s epistolary work is found in these three books: 1.) In “After Lorca,” with letters to Lorca interspersed with playful “translations” of Lorca’s work, and with each translation dedicated to someone; 2.) In “Letters to James Alexander” with letters addressed to a James and a Jim Alexander (which Spicer did not mean to be published but was included in the posthumous publication of his collected poems “My Vocabulary Did This To Me”); and 3.) In “Admonitions” with poems and letters dedicated to his poet friends. Spicer compounds the boundaries of the personal and the public space through the form of the letter by maintaining an intimate tone as is typical in, and dictated by the rhetoric of, letters, but with the intention of reading the letters to an audience. In one of his letters to James Alexander, he relays the annoyance of one of his audience:
It is absolutely clear and absolutely sunny as if neither a cloud nor a moon had ever been invented. I am lying here as if neither a cloud nor a moon had ever been invented. I am lying here on the grass of the University of California, a slave state but one which today seems peculiarly beneficent. I have not had a letter from you in weeks.
I read them all (your letters and mine) to the poets assembled for the occasion last Wednesday. Ebbe was annoyed since he thought letters should remain letters (unless they were essays) and poems poems (a black butterfly just flew past my leg) and that the universe of the personal and the impersonal should be kept in order. George Stanley thought that I was robbing Jim to pay James. They sounded beautiful all of them.
(from Letters to James Spicer)
In Spicer’s letter, we can see the poet playfully map a complex topology of affective links – from poet to addressee, letter sender to receiver, to an audience with a range of responses spanning from wonder to frustration. In one of the letters to Lorca, Spicer admits to the frustration he feels from not having an audience to his poems, “I may not be a better poet when I am in love, but I am a far less frustrated one. My poems have an audience […] All this to explain why I dedicate each of our poems to someone,” Spicer writes.
Although Spicer’s playful tracings hint at and point to potential topologies of friendship by complicating boundaries of personal and public space, I want to turn to Paul Celan to look at an affirmative and more nuanced topology of the necessity of friendship as a condition of the poem – a topology where friendship is inscribed in, and is integral to the poem. Here is an oft-cited passage from his Meridian speech which I present in three versions: first in the John Felstiner translation, then in the Rosmarie Waldrop translation and lastly the original German text:
The poem is lonely. It is lonely and underway. Whoever writes one stays mated with it.
But in just this way doesn’t the poem stand, right here, in an encounter – in the mystery of an encounter?
The poem wants to reach an Other, it needs this Other, it needs an Over-against. It seeks out, speaks toward it.
(trans. John Felstiner)
The poem is lonely. It is lonely and en route. Its author stays with it.
Does this very fact not place the poem already here, at its inception, in the encounter, in the mystery of encounter?
The poem intends another, needs this other, needs an opposite. It goes towards it. It bespeaks it.
(trans. Rosmarie Waldrop)
Das Gedicht ist einsam. Es ist einsam und unterwegs. Wer es schreibt, bleibt ihm mitgebeben.
Aber steht das Gedicht nicht gerade dadurch, also schon hier, in der Begegnung – im Geheimnis der begegnung?
Das Gedicht will zu einem Andern, es braucht dieses Andere, es braucht ein Gegenbür. Es sacht es auf, es spricht sich ihm zu.
I present here the three texts to highlight a couple of things. First, which applies to all Celan texts (or most works of translation, event): it is pointless to speak of a definitive translation (though some translations are more capable than others) and that the beauty of going through several translations is the possibility of finding multiple valid readings of the texts.
Here are other interesting differences resulting from the translations:
Meaningful variations occur in the translations of the last two sentences of the excerpted passage. Where one can note the following:
- The play on “an-Other,” einem being the german equivalent of the English article “A” and Andern the German word for “other,” but also for “changing” or “altering.” This compounds the tracings if one were to look at the topology formed by other/another in terms of difference and similarity, and inclusion and exclusion.
- Gegen is the German equivalent of the preposition meaning “towards,” but also of “against” and “around.” Uber is the german for over (hence the translation “Over-against”), but Gegenuber taken as a word translates to English as the word “opposite.” This compounds the tracings of the sentence in terms of directionality.
- Will zu translated by Felstiner as wants to reach (with a tone of desire) but which Waldrop translates to intends (closer to creation, as in “designing another”).
But the more interesting variation happens in the translation of the phrase “Wer es schreibt” which directly translates to English as “who writes,” but which Felstiner chooses to translate to “whoever writes,” and Waldrop translates to “author” (in German note that author typically translates to Autor or Versfasser).
The precise impersonality of a “who writes” rather than the generic, seemingly random “whoever writes” or the hierarchical, and also limiting, status of the “author” allows us to read in Paul Celan a possible map of friendship (from an indefinite “one who writes” linked to/intending/going to others, an Other, many others). Is this not analogous to the “Who?” that Maurice Blanchot in his essay on friendship, written on the occasion of his friend, George Bataille’s death, speak of when he says:
I also know that in his books, George Bataille seems to speak of himself with a freedom without restraint that should free us from all discretion – but that does not give us the right to put ourselves in his place, nor does it give us the power to speak in his absence. And is it certain that he speaks of himself? The “I” whose presence his search seems still to make manifest when it expresses itself, toward whom does it direct us?
“Who was the subject of this experience?” this question is perhaps already an answer if, even to him who led it, the experience asserted itself in this interrogative form, by substituting the openness of a “Who?” without answer for the closed and singular “I”
So one can take the poem, as Celan describes it, in the Meridian speech as analogous to the form of the letter, but written by an indefinite (multiple?) “Who?” to another, towards others.
I want to turn now to Mei-mei Berssenbrugge to look at explorations of the intensities present in the affective links of friendship. If through Spicer we were able to view friendship as a social creative space, and in Celan as intrinsic to the poem, I want to ask what intensities are present in the affective links of friendship. What happens if we push the limits of letter writing outside its realistic communicative realities? The poet Mei-mei Berssenbrugge asks:
What if image were Eros as words?
I write to you and you feel me.
What would it be like if you contemplated my words and I felt you?
(from Concordance, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge)
In attempting to map the affective links of friendship as inscribed in and as a necessary condition for poems, apart from mapping the geometries linking “Who?” to “Others” one must also ask – how is it possible to have an affective but non-sentimental attitude towards persons in a friendship? I turn again to Berssenbrugge for the possibility of such space:
I’m so pleased to be friends with Maryanne, though I don’t understand how she has time for me, with her many friends.
The event of friendship opens, making afterward a field of possibility from which to begin, tenderness pre-existing.
At my party, how does friendship sometimes light her being there, sometimes possibility itself?
Let the sensation, “I listen to her,” dissolve in my head; there’s no self.
What’s called hearer is hearing.
An exemplary listener is determined, who pre-exists my wish to be heard.
She loses this presumed identity through singular beauty, one dividing the other.
Perhaps, “Can you hear me in the night?” exaggerates friendship.
Its featherweight vulnerability offers no counterweight for care through that night?
(from Kisses from the Moon, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge)
In Berssenbrugge, this non-sentimental affective space is enacted through an exercise in attention. Formally, through the long sentence-line where attention is held, released, and reined in again through the minimal music in an alternating conjuctive and disjunctive space of discourse. But also atmospherically, where while intimacy is evident – enacted here through the dissolution of self in pure perception (“hearer is hearing”), it is not used to produce mere narrative effects, but rather to intensify the becoming of affective relations.
Going back to Blanchot, in his essay on friendship he writes:
“Friendship this relation without dependence, without episode, yet into which all of the simplicity of life enters, passes by way of the recognition of the common strangeness that does not allow us to speak of our friends but only to speak to them, not to make them a topic of conversations (or essays), but the movement of understanding in which, speaking to us, they reserve, even on the most familiar terms, an infinite distance, the fundamental separation on the basis of which what separates becomes relation.”
(from Friendship, Maurice Blanchot)
So in Blanchot the relation of friendship is not set in narrative (without episode), hence actions and relations are not configured to yield specific ends, yet these very same actions and relations are “open to life.” Is this not what it means to live a creative life?
Berssenbrugge, Mei-Mei. I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.
Blanchot, Maurice. Friendship. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Redwood City, CA. Stanford University Press, 1997.
Celan, Paul. Der Meridian und Andere Prose. Baden-Baden, BW. Suhrkamp Verlag, 1988.
Celan, Paul. Selected Poems and Prose. Trans. John Felstiner. New York City, N.Y.: WW Norton, 2001.
Celan, Paul. Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1986.
Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. New York City, N.Y.: Continuum, 1988.
Spicer, Jack. My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer. Eds. Peter Gizzi, and Kevin Killian. Middletown, Conn: Wesleyan University Press, 2008.
Raymond de Borja’s book of poems and collage, “they day daze,” was published by High Chair. Past works can be found on: High Chair, Kritika Kultura, HTML Giant, Lemonhound, The Volta Blog, Matter Monthly.