Books by John Taggart


Dodeka, 1979; Dehiscence 1983;

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Books by John Taggart

I have been fortunate and delighted to publish, review, organize readings for and publish books and an audio tape by John Taggart at crucial points in his development. My comments on "triangulation" in these notes seem particularly appropriate here because with his work I was able to do a lot of the sort of presentation I had hoped for when I began my mature publishing. As a bit of value added, because he is a poet acutely aware of volumes, the music of intersections, and of mathematic arts (particularly geometry), "triangulation" may seem particularly felicitous in regard to his poetry.

I first came into contact with John by ordering a copy of his magazine, Maps. I'm not sure how our correspondence developed from the first letters. Certainly the letters were augmented by common friends - most importantly Toby Olson, Ted Enslin, and Paul Metcalf. I accepted some poems from what would become his book Prism and the Pine Twig in 1973 or 74 for Stations. These lyrics are strongly oriented toward and influenced by the Objectivist poets and their precursors and allies. The poems which appeared in Stations begin with lines by H.D. and for contributor's notes John sent a draft of an essay on Louis Zukofsky, which had either been based upon his doctoral dissertation or was incorporated into it. The poems' tight, brief lines, often enough referring to crystals, mirrors, and diamonds, suggested reflective facets of geometric forms made of yet-to-be discovered metals or formations of atoms. This in turn suggested a summation of some of the concerns of the Objectivists, and, indeed, in the essay, John asks questions about how much of an object a poem can become. Mention of musical form seems prophetic. A description of painting suggestive of hard-edge, geometric art from Mondrian to Albers brings in other associations.

I don't know when John wrote these poems. Apparently it was significantly before the publication of The Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal, which appeared in 1974 and which I reviewed in Margins. This book had moved away from (or perhaps we should say ahead of) his Objectivist models. Brief poems or stanzas of poems appeared in boxes in this book. Each set of boxed poems was followed by more conventionally lineated verses. In writing these poems, John informed me in our correspondence in the summer and autumn of 1974, that he had taken words from statements by Plato and the Belgian member of De Styl group of artists, Georges Vantongerloo, and used them to create terse lines in the boxes. The three sets of boxes each related to a geometric form (pyramid, cube, octahedron). These could be considered songs or arias, and the lines that followed them John called "unisons" or "fugues." ("Choruses" might have been a better term had it not been used in both Greek drama and 20th Century jazz in ways that could be misleading in Pyramid. John made physical models for each: strips of paper marked off into squares and triangles appropriate to the key words. He labeled each of the sides or faces of their divisions. A line of each poem was assigned to one face. The junctions of the faces when the models were assembled determined the sequencing of the final unisons. If the junctions didn't seem to work, he made adjustments - the method was simply a method, not a form of art in itself as it might have been for Jackson Mac Low. John was surprised by how they worked. Here are quotes from the letters to me:

I was frankly amazed, literally, - it is still difficult for me to make clear my own surprise - when the lines . . . made sense, made a sense I could not have predicted!

. . .at times the syllables literally dictated themselves to me, making a kind of music I've never heard before, and have difficulty reproducing or explaining to others.

My own sense of how this works is that the musicality of the poems reflects John's intense interest in medieval and Baroque European music and the jazz of the 20th century. Despite differences in these musical mileux, all three depend heavily on melodic invention, re-use of material of all sorts (often inverted or otherwise altered), and polyphony. Poetry that uses method composition usually tends to sound like the work of the poet who developed and used the method, or like the music he or she listens to. This is just as true in the work of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low as it seems to be in John Taggart's. It has been fashionable for some time for critics to use such musical terms as "counterpoint" in discussing poetry. This is plain metaphor, often poorly understood by the critic. It's simply impossible to create counterpoint unless you have two melodic lines going at once. That is, it might occur in a multi-voice composition; but without following a conventional musical score, it would probably not be precisely repeatable, and there's a good chance it wouldn't register to the ear as anything remotely musical. The nature of repetitions in Taggart's poems from this period onward, however, do faintly suggest some of the intersections and sense of volume in polyphonic music. How this works, I don't know. But since I've spent my time listening to more or less the same music as John has, I can hear the associations, and, perhaps equally important, I can hear how this does not precisely reproduce musical bases, only allude to them in a way that can seem haunting.

After I reviewed Pyramid. John began sending me drafts of a new work, Dodeka. I agreed to publish the book before it was finished. John used a similar technique in this book: tight arias in boxes followed by unisons. In this work, John explored the geometry and mythology of the Pythagoreans, and particularly Hippasus, a renegade. Basic mathematic mysticism had included the concept that everything in the world could be reduced to logical proportions. This is where Greek logic collided with mathematics, some of the confusion of which persists to the present day. You can't square a circle. The formula for Pi. continues in uneven numbers into infinity. Hippasus revealed "surds" such as this to the uninitiated, and as a result was killed or drowned or abducted by a dolphin for his crime. It could be, as a note from the philosopher Pappus in the beginning of the book intimates, that discussion of surds was more a way of trying to understand things which cannot be clearly formulated, leaving the law-breaker to "wander... hither and thither on the sea of non-identity ... immersed in the stream of the coming-to-be and the passing-away, where there is not standard of measurement."

In this book, the arias and unisons remain ambivalent. In some respects, they are an exultation of the fecund, seed-spreading or seed-finding dynamism of discovery. In other respects they remain a disciplined exposition of formal ideas based in classic forms. An indication of the intensity of some of this as it came through in readings comes from one of John's daughters, who, when talking about her father's performance, would do a sarcastic mimic in sing-songy, harsh falsetto voice of such phrases as "burn and dance...burn and dance" while closing her eyes and bobbing her head. However much she may have preferred not to go to readings, she seemed to be reacting to an earthiness that pre- and early teens don't like to see their fathers exhibit in stuffy environments. In addition to the refinement of older musical forms, Taggart was also beginning to tap some of the intensity and urgency of jazz. At about the time I published Dodeka, I set up the first of several readings for John in Milwaukee. He had been pushing the musical analogies farther and harder by this time, but had also picked up a new type of musical base for new poems. This base was the "minimalism" of such composers as Phillip Glass and Terry Riley. These composers based their music on repeating melodic lines over and over with tiny, incremental variations. Picking up leads from them allowed John to move closer to imitations of polyphony and other musical forms while maintaining a single vocal line.

The first poems written in this manner were "Slow Song for Mark Rothko" and "Inside Out." Rochelle Ratner and I reviewed these poems shortly after their publication - apparently acting as the first reviewers of this approach - in an issue of Paper Air magazine devoted to Taggart. This issue also contained perhaps the most widely distributed poem of this type, "Peace on Earth" as well as our comments on its immediate predecessors. John read another related poem, Dehiscence, at the reading I set up, and I asked to publish it.

"Peace on Earth" was a memorial to those who had died in the U.S. - Vietnam War. As an elegy, it may remain the definitive one for that war. Dehiscence picks up elements of Dodeka and "Peace on Earth" moving into a more theological and existential form of meditations. The work includes phrases of Tarahuamara Indian songs which function almost as abstract sounds, as well as the rhythm and blues standard "Who do you love?" In addition to the repetition with slight variations, this poem also employed a process of slow elimination, so that the lines became more wispy, more haunting, and more of a seeking for essences and irreducibles as the poem progresses.

After publishing Dehiscence I produced an audio tape of John reading it along with dodeka and the two earlier books To Construct A Clock and Prism and the Pine Tree.

These projects taken as a series, charted an arc in John's development as well as I can imagine it being done. In John's case, triangulation included publishing his poems, writing about him, getting other people to write about him, commissioning a symposium on someone else by him, setting up readings for him, and publishing audio recordings of him reading. The process may not have included his complete opus, but it did span major transition points in his writing - one of the things I wanted to do with multiple writers when I started Stations.

Design and Production

For the covers of Dodeka, I used a photo of a dodekahedron made of metal rods by Vantongerloo. Making duplicate negatives and opaquing out most of them, I printed the rods in brown and their shadows in blue. The image on the front and back cover each had its own box. It seemed that John had opened up the hard surface of Objectivist models, leaving defined but free and open space inside its bounds. This I sought to suggest in the cover images. It also seemed important to me that Vantongerloo had broken with Mondrian and his followers in moving away from square grids - something John may or may not have had in mind when he chose Vantongerloo as a source for the geometric forms he used in creating unisons. Is there an echo of Hippasus in Vantongerloo? Well, maybe - or maybe that's stretching association out of proportion.

The book contains an introduction by Robert Duncan. As with anything else by Duncan, this is an important work in itself. However, Duncan was perhaps the worst nightmare printers of 20th Century poetry have had to deal with. A big problem he inflicted on a lot of them came from his inability to understand the difference between the unit space of a typewriter and the proportional space of print. Joel Oppenheimer learned to print at Black Mountain College. It would have been a great service to poetry had Duncan learned the same art - or if someone had had the foresight to get him a typewriter set for proportional space - or if he hadn't gotten too carried away with Olson's notion of the typewriter as a tool for creating notation. Since the text I had to work with was prose, I didn't have problems of this sort to deal with. What I did have was Duncan repeatedly revising the introduction after he initial type was set. That the type for the book was set by Duck Type in Mineapolis, and I had to send corrections to them every time Duncan attacked, it made the process all the more difficult. As a result, it's as full of typos as you can expect that kind of situation to produce. Maybe a few less, but still a mess. It is strange how typos remain cuts in a printer's psyche for life. It's even stranger when those little lesions aren't his doing but remain fixed almost as solidly as they would be if carved in stone.

Dehiscence I laid out in what would now be called portrait instead of landscape mode. I developed several ways of leaving open space and used nearly the same colors as I did with Dodeka. The books thus rhyme with each other visually, and they form an L shape when placed next to each other, suggesting the change in direction in the prosody of the two books.


The music that goes on behind any kind of writing presumably has its relation to the finished product and the milieu in which it functions. In his notes on Miles Davis, Amiri Baraka muses on how many doctoral dissertations had been written with Davis sides playing in the background. It was interesting to me to note both the similarities and divergences of sound that went on behind the books I've published, and this seems particularly interesting in the instance of John Taggart. Design, typography, and the preparation of negatives as often as not went on with Palestrina or Don Cherry, Ockeghem or Coleman Hawkins playing in the background. Press work might be accompanied by R&B, received not by specific choice, but over the radio..

My practice in bookbinding for many years went in a different direction. When a book was finished, I usually bound several hundred copies - however many I thought the author, distributor, and I would need for the first months. After that I bound books in lots of approximately 50 as need seemed to demand. This meant that cottage industry production included several nights a week of book binding. Sometimes I did this while listening to tv shows to which I paid varying degrees of attention. Sometimes I bound books while listening to recordings of plays by a classic playwright, most often Shakespeare, given the large number of recordings available. There were times when I could listen to recordings of contemporary poetry. Many book binding procedures can be carried on simultaneously with conversation. If casual visitors stopped by on book binding nights, I could talk to them easily enough while folding covers or running glue brushes along the inner spines of books. At times I bound books while cradling a telephone between my ear and shoulder. Some parts of the printer's art are as solitary as writing. Binding isn't one of them.

How much music goes into any book you read - even one produced in the relatively impersonal environment of high speed, heavily mechanized production? Books by poets who had taken part in the public reading scene of the late 1950s - early 1960s seemed to me strongly enough related to jazz. In producing John's poems, the correlation between musics added an extra dimension of satisfaction.

To go to "Slow Song" and "Inside Out" click here
To go to the reviews refered to above by Rochelle Ratner and Karl Young, click here.

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