A Humument: re-vision as vocation

Andrew David King
June 26, 2012
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Though unspoken, the po-biz (short for “poetry business,” as it’s jocularly called) has formulas and definitions. And it has schedules. Among them: if you’re a new poet, you publish chapbooks before you have a full book. Then, if you’re lucky and—sometimes—skilled, you publish one full book at a time. Each is a new project, kept apart from its predecessors. Aesthetic preferences and motifs will carry between them, of course, but each book should be a digestible unit. Each should serve as a window into the mental space in which they were composed; sampled over a long enough period of time, these windows will piece together to form part of a building. This is your career. A bar code should fit on it. Much like a church, each column of stained glass stands on its own, though when read in sequence a narrative appears. Stand back far enough, and a story in Morse code shines through—one whose gaps and blurts we ignore for its arc.

There’s nothing wrong with this model, per se, but its acceptance as convention has shrunken the number of works that enter the world as byproducts—not products—of vocation. These works exist as straight and endless lines, as projects whose unfinishedness is not a defect but a fundamental feature. These works aren’t defined by their appearance in the public sphere; publishing them is a way of documenting their existences. Before each snapshot they were changing, and after they continue to change. Conceiving of a work of art this way transforms its aura almost entirely: the work isn’t an objective to be completed, but an aperture into a long tunnel of fluctuation. This is how I think of A Humument, which Phillips continues to modify many decades after a fortuitous chain of events called its first edition into being. The project becomes not a presentation of completeness of meaning, but a vehicle to talk about its fleetingness. Each published edition is a photograph of loose variables, of living figures whose bodies flurry long after the camera’s lens has snapped shut. The idea of distinct chapters, each with its own life, is a fallacy.

This means that often the artwork we examine in our present moment has already breached into its future. In other words, I’m looking at a picture of the past when I read the fourth edition of A Humument, just as when one looks up at the constellation one sees dead stars—but stars that were once there, lights that once appeared as they now do. For Phillips, the state of Mallock’s novel remains unchanging (its text is set; this is part of the game) but the film hovering over it has already possibly changed, and with it that modification of its meaning, by the time facsimiles reach the reader. This isn’t a radical notion, not even for the most po-bizzy of poets out there. Ideas about already-published poems change. Line edits get imposed; revisions are made. Sometimes those revisions get published, and when they do, they take on a macabre double life: new item by day, mutant descendant of another by night. Poems wear once face in a magazine and another in a collection. But this is a different brand of modification: that which shifts one falsely-thought “finished” product into actual finished project, leaving the first poem’s dead shell as detritus. The vocational dedication with which Phillips churns out A Humument takes mutability as a tenet, not as a nuisance.

I don’t mean to say that the work that goes on unseen between formally separate collections of writing doesn’t bear similarities to the explicitly vocational. There are valleys full of mental webs stitching together the peaks of published books; the work that goes on behind the sheen of marketing fliers and publicity is, even if rough, continuous. If anything, this realization makes an even stronger case for the project not as finished product, even temporarily so, but as an ongoing act, one whose flickers and flits we can watch in quick glimpses via formal publication methods. We call ourselves readers of books, but we could be readers of poetries—the ongoing poetics a given person founds over the course of their writing life. The vocational project requires a not dissimilar process as that which cultivates a more traditional career trajectory—but the undertaking of a project as a vocation invites the act of creation to be seen not as an event that happens at disparate moments on one’s timeline, but an act that continues indefinitely. The mental trajectory behind the work at hand is less hidden; it becomes more public. Or, if seeing works as windows into the mental trajectories of their artists seems unsound, the vocational undertaking allows for more windows into the ways a work might have manifested differently.

Though the conventions of modern publishing haven’t been friendly to such vocational work, its fruits have still abounded in literary history. Leaves of Grass, which was born as a response to Emerson’s call for a distinctly American poet to emerge in his 1844 essay “The Poet,” was first produced in a Brooklyn shop on July 4, 1855; it consisted of 95 pages of untitled poems. Though there’s disagreement as to precisely how many editions followed—scholars say either six or nine in total—the book was revised extensively by Whitman over the course of his life until the production of his “deathbed edition” in 1891-92. Leaves of Grass itself punned on publishing house slang for books that would disappear as soon as they appeared; it’s hard to tell for sure if this was Whitman’s nod to impermanence, or a facetious and preemptive chin-raising at critics. Regardless, his departure from today’s standard of unitary steps forward finds itself reincarnated in works like A Humument, which Phillips continues to revise.

For American poetry the vocational project begins, not ends, with Whitman. Several decades after the last edition of Leaves of Grass made its way to the public, in 1927, Louis Zukofsky began work on his magnum opus “A.” He remained at work on the manuscript until his death, though he took an eight-year break starting in 1940. The poem’s 24 sections—themselves prismic invocations of the number of hours in the day—carry whole lodes of assumedly autobiographical material, but more importantly material dictated by time. One wonders if this collection of sonnets and canzones alongside free verse and musical scores could have even been conceived had Zukofsky given it years and not decades in which to thrive. “A” found publication as a whole in 1978, the same year Zukofsky died. A year after his death, in 1979, contemporary language poet Ron Silliman began his hyper-Zukofsky-esque project, The Alphabet. He completed it—and its 26 sections beginning with each letter of the alphabet—in 2004. Though many were initially published separately, Silliman has articulated a vision of his poetry as co-extensive with his life; this lifework, as it might be called, he titled Ketjak. And it is ongoing.

All poets worth writing criticism about are subjected posthumously to the dignity or indignity (it may either, or both, depending on the poet) of having their works juxtaposed across a linear continuum. The messy map of a bibliography is corralled into a line punctuated by hatch marks whenever something critically noteworthy happened. Though convenient for the purposes of scholarship, the reductionism of this approach doesn’t foster an appreciation of the importance of creating as much as it does of finishing. Coming upon a work like “A” in its completed form for the first time, on the other hand, we’re left not with more or less windows into both the process and the work, necessarily. Knowing the amount of time it took to write, we’re faced with a need for a new framework of evaluation. The vocational work produces infinite particular frames and is at once irreducible. We can say two opposing things about this: that it allows us to access more of the work—if a work is a oscillating, temperamental construction and not an untouchable gem—while simultaneously making the work harder to subject to forms of traditional critique. We can’t say this happened here, that happened there. We can’t hold the butterfly still long enough to get the pin through its abdomen.

But Leaves of Grass, “A,” The Alphabet, and A Humument have taken on dual existences; each came first in a fragmented form, and then later as a collected whole. This fragmentation appears only in retrospect, though—in a manner semi-reminiscent of Eliot’s ideas about the canon, each work never veered from completeness because its completeness relied (or, as is the case with Phillips, relies) upon its repeated reenactment. A Humument was no less complete when its fourth edition was published as it is now that the fifth edition has hit bookshelves; it immediately took its place on the horizon of its own past as well as the pasts of other literatures. Seeing this perpetuation of a work over a span time invites the threefold notion that either the fragments are their own wholes, the anthology of fragments is the only whole, or that the anthology and the fragments can each exist as wholes at once. This trinity defies the defining apparatuses of criticism, and is therefore troublesome: how can a thing’s parts also have legitimate thing-ness, but be irrevocably modified by the hard fact of the bigger thing’s existence? Each edition of A Humument is in conversation with previous editions both as distinct objects and as limbs on a shared body—a body that has not fully been explored or discovered. Each edition is the apotheosis of all its predecessors.

So when we talk about the project, are we talking about all of Phillips’s editions, or just the most recent one? And if we consider the project as a collection of editions, to what extent do we segregate them? In the case of longer works that haven’t been published in chunks but have been composed over significant periods of time, those particular fade into speculative hypotheses; the collected work contains them, but dwarfs them. The vocational project, subsumed under the critical emphasis on dates and publications in terms of a straightforward progression of time, becomes an irreversible movement instead—a living thing that ceases to squirm only because the force behind it falls cold. But while it lives, it lives. Phillips’s decision to continue altering A Humument and to make the ongoing-ness of the project an integral part of its definition (and of his life) forever demarcates it from the pamphlet that materializes only once. And I do mean materializes—all of the thoughts coalescing into, and out of, a one-shot book are relegated to the realm of the private. The public receives a ready-made object. With projects like Phillips’s, though, we get to watch the Rubik’s-cube-like whole problematize and solve itself over and over again. And until the next edition comes out, we don’t realize its antecedent wasn’t a block of solid colors, but a jumble to be grappled with. And there is risk here: “Virtually all the work on A Humument has been done in the evenings so that I might not, had the thing become a folly, regret the waste of days,” he writes in the notes to the fourth edition.

Phillips’s project is both glacial and translucent: a watery mass incessantly forming and re-forming. Akin to one-shot books, we only ever see the tip of its origin, not what’s beneath the waves—but we get more glances in the case of the vocational project. What changes (or doesn’t, problematically) is how we talk about these works: how do we even know what exactly we’re talking about when we mention A Humument? It makes sense to refer to editions, as I’ve done in past blog posts, but this seems as incomplete as reviewing one chapter of a novel. Each vocational project, rather, dictates the terms that frame its interpretations and evaluations. Leaves of Grass can more easily be charted as an evolving work that creates new versions of itself while keeping these versions largely similar to past ones; A Humument keeps Mallock’s background text constant while re-shifting how it edits that content in radical new ways. One might make more drastic leaps between editions of Phillips’s project than when comparing the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass to the first. Both, though, re-appropriate their past incarnations as well as the external world from which they arose (i.e. the found text of A Human Document).

What’s perhaps most interesting about the vocational project is not its rarity in the contemporary poetry scene, though it is rare; the only poets I can think of besides Silliman who is currently pursuing such a project is Frederick Glaysher, whose serialized book The Parliament of Poets attempts “to stand with Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, the other great epic poets,” and to confront “the fullness of modern life, in all its global complexity, humanity’s many strands, and weave a new, universal vision of epic song.” These goals might seem high-minded or impossible—but who else is entertaining them? It’s not for me to say if Glaysher succeeds; I haven’t yet read his writing. But there’s something inherent in a commitment to a project this large that necessarily valorizes revision. No epic was written in a day, and the editions of A Humument have spanned forty-plus years. “Revision” disassembles quickly to “re-vision,” not an insert or a removal for the purposes of scooting as close to perfection as possible, but as a renewed way of seeing. It’s for anyone to say whether or not Glaysher or Silliman revise their past works to the extent that they re-envision them, but Phillips indisputably does. A Humument’s refusal to preserve its own past as an art object only makes sense as a “refusal” when we impose the idea that a work of art is only as much as its physical apparitions; but Phillips’s cyclical and not-so-cyclical alterations inform that this isn’t a refusal to preserve as much an insistence on honoring the amorphousness of his creation. The ephemeral warps and twists before us. It quiets eventually: “River that must turn full after I stop dying,” Zukofsky begins the 11th section of “A.” But so long as it moves it requires a belief in art as botany, not taxidermy: in an arboretum we must keep moving our heads to catch what flashes out, time after time, from behind the leaves.

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