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.