However flippant or off-hand, one of Joyce’s most famous limericks, written in homage to Eugene Jolas, editor in chief and guiding spirit of transition magazine (1927-38), does brings home two serious points. First, it foregrounds the well-nigh apocalyptic verve with which transition proclaimed its avant-garde “revolution of the word” (after which, in Joyce’s paraphrase of Madame de Pompadour, comes the flood); and second, it presents Jolas’ programme of writing, regardless of its generic belongings, as an essentially poetic activity concerned with revolutionising language as a whole. Over the eleven years at transition’s editorial helm, Jolas the “poetriarch” published not only seventeen instalments from “Work in Progress” or the first English translation of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung,but also much of German expressionist (Georg Trakl) and French surrealist (Robert Desnos, Philippe Soupault) and Dadaist (Hans Arp) poetry, added to which were many theoretical analyses, polemics, proclamations and defences of the work of its championed writers against their detractors. These were chiefly written by Jolas himself and mostly in defence of Joyce, but most of his pronouncements were strategically general enough to construe a wholly self-substantial theory of language and poetics.
Although a certain programmatic tendency was present in transition from its very start, it was only in transition 11 that Jolas officially launched his revolutionary programme. In “The Revolution of Language and James Joyce,” Jolas presents his diagnosis of the decay of contemporary literary language and of the ensuing need for literature to be made genuinely “new,” calling for “the disintegration of words and their subsequent reconstruction on other planes.” This disintegration is all the more necessary now that “the discoveries of the subconscious ... should have made it apparent that the instrument of language in its archaic condition could no longer be used.”(2) Accordingly, it is in Joyce’s “Work in Progress” that the revolutionary practice of word disintegration and reconstruction is “developed to its ultimate degree, thus confounding those timid minds who regard the English language as a static thing.”(3) Joyce’s revolution seems merely to accelerate operations already at work in any language evolution. Jolas’ fanciful account depicts words undergoing “organic changes through the centuries” chiefly through the agency of people “impelled by their economic or political lives,” who consequently “create the new vocabularies.” Joyce is elevated to the status of “the vates, or poetic seer, [who] frequently minted current expressions into a linguistic whole.”(4) Of course, Jolas’ notion of language can be (and has been)(5) exposed as highly problematic. Words, of course, change over time, and sometimes, somewhere, some individuals intentionally created words which have afterwards entered into the lexicon of the language, even though this occurred far less frequently than what Jolas would have us believe. And the issue seems to lie less with the right of Joyce, the poet, and the people to create words, than with the political question of how to have them understood. But for Jolas, the neologistic endeavour was a communal one nonetheless. True to his word, four years after his declaration, Jolas compiled the first of transition’s“Revolution of the Word Dictionary,” into which, under the heading “NEOLOGISMS,” he included portmanteaux by Murray Godwin, Leo Frobenius, A.L. Gillespie Jr., Laurence Vail, Stuart Gilbert, Sidney Smith, Charles Duff and some of his own making (under the pseudonym of Theo Rutra). The list, meant as invitation to “its readers to contribute suggestions for this section, which will be continued in subsequent numbers,” opens with six portmanteaux by Joyce himself:
And concludes with “words to be retired from active service” such as
Clearly, Jolas’ effort in the “Dictionary” makes a case for a portmanteau “moment” within a lexicographical project of a new word thesaurus in service of a new language. However naively metaphysical in his purgatorial fervour, Jolas is still spot-on in pinpointing the mechanisms underlying Joyce’s poetics in Finnegans Wake-to-be: the “disintegration” and “reconstruction” of both wordform and wordsense describing the two chief techniques Joyce’s writing is going to bestow to post-War letters. That is, the (multilingual) pun and the (neologistic) portmanteau as vehicles for achieving three conjoint effects: shattering signifying stability, annulling authorial intention, and also exploding the boundaries that establish national languages.
In keeping with transition’s cosmopolitan agenda, the magazine - although primarily connected with Joyce’s “Work in Progress” - devoted equal amount of attention and paperspace to another, and in many ways contrary, contributor - it published no fewer than ten works by Gertrude Stein, including a reprint of her 1912 Tender Buttons. While Joyce’s work was co-opted for Jolas’ numerous conceptual programmes (most notably, his “orphism” and “verticalism”), Stein’s became the conduit of what Laura Riding termed “new barbarism” and defined as follows:
Unambiguously, what Riding terms “caricaturing language in its present stages” is a barb against the (then nascent) Jolasian programme, and yet the spirit of Stein’s use of language is one with Jolas’ “renewal” and “reconstruction” - only not of words themselves, but of the reading “experience” by way of syntactical and narrative (de-)structuration. Stein’s free-associational method, following her experiments with automatic writing as a calculated disruption of verbal habit, produced her famous “continuous present.” As she explained in her famous 1926 lecture “Composition as Explanation,” the tautology according to which “the time of the composition is the time of the composition,”(8) proposes that a writer writing should write, first and foremost, about herself performing the activity. Instead of using compositional time to merely represent another time, writing should present itself - again, an approach poles apart from that of Joyce’s careful and gradual note-taking, quoting, grafting, re-drafting, the writer turning into a “scissors and paste man.”(9)
As far as transition’s editor was concerned,the preference for either of the two great experimenters could not have been more outspoken. As he reminisces in his memoirs, Man from Babel, Stein’s “mental attitude was remote from anything I felt and thought” in that “not only did she seem to be quite devoid of metaphysical awareness but I also found her aesthetic approach both gratuitous and lacking in substance.” Jolas confesses that “my tendency was always in the other direction. I wanted an enrichment of language, new words, millions of words.”(10) The “other direction” of enrichment as opposed to Steinian reduction was, needless to say, not only Jolas’, but more importantly Joyce’s own. However, when it comes to the question of influence on the post-war Anglophone poetry, the tables seem to have turned in Stein’s favour, as can be illustrated by another magazine venture highly similar to transition, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (1978-81) magazine and the movement it helped to organise and channel.
Though separated by four decades in time and by the Atlantic Ocean in space, parallels between the two abound.(11) L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, just as transition,aimed at blending poetic theory with practice and thereby challenging generic conventions and possibly intervening into the socio-political. Both were US-oriented (L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E even centred and based). Both originated in a time of perceived crisis: transition took stock of the effects of the Crisis in values following the Crash of 1929, while the mid-70s situation out of which the Language movement emerged was one-in Ron Silliman’s words-in which the “American New Left was dissolving,” and the dumbstruck nation bore witness to “the first resignation of an American president.”(12) However, when it comes to transition’s twofold (i.e. Joycean/Steinian) heritage, the preference is clearly for the latter. If Jolas’ transition chose to combat the rise of nationalism and fascism by positing artistic cosmopolitanism and the Joycean multilingual word, then L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E resists the commodity logic of late capitalism-whose chief effect upon language has been described by Ron Silliman as the “disappearance of the word”-by revisiting the legacy of Stein’s syntactic innovations and positing a “New Sentence.”
It is precisely its explicit indebtedness to Stein’s exploration of repetition and syntactic minimalism that stands at the root of the crucial difference between the two poetic programmes, marking off the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry movement most clearly as different from Jolas’ revolution of the word, this despite their shared points of departure. Silliman describes the logic of late-capitalist commodity fetishism-when applied to conventional descriptive and narrative forms-as one in which “words cease to be valued for what they are themselves but only for their properties as instrumentalities leading us to a world outside or beyond them.”(13) This tendency is perceived in a broad variety of social phenomena, such as
More abstractly, language under capitalist stage of development undergoes “an anaesthetic transformation of the perceived tangibility of the word,” to the benefit of “its descriptive and narrative capacities,” regarded as “preconditions for the invention of ‘realism,’ the optical illusion of reality in capitalist thought.”(15) What L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry seeks to combat is the commoditized tie between “reference” and its deformation in “referentiality,” by posing as a “philosophy of practice in language” and “searching out the preconditions of post-referential language within the existing social fact.”(16) Although Stein and Joyce are mentioned in the same breath, it is clear that Stein’s undermining of the “assumption that the free evolution of a narrative art, as such, is possible” by means of her “continuous present” is preferred to Joyce’s “reintegration of the novel into language,” whose usefulness for Silliman is questioned by Joyce’s “pre-Saussurian linguistics, that of etymologies.”(17) Accordingly, Finnegans Wake has not proven a salient influence on the style within much contemporary Language Writing. Lyn Hejinian, for instance, is one poet who confesses the influence of Stein’s syntactic estrangements on much of her early work. Likewise, Carla Harryman’s, Barrett Watten’s and Charles Bernstein’s excursions into the prose poetics of the New Sentence seem to be derived, stylistically, from Stein’s “New Barbarism” rather than Joyce’s “revolution of language.” Of course, the wider consequences of Joyce’s portmanteau poetics (errancy, plurality, autopoesis, artifice and materiality, to name but a few) have been embraced in some Language Writing, but largely without entering into intertextual dialogue with Finnegans Wake in specific. Still, there is at least one Language poet whose work attests to the possibility of a productive synthesis between the two strands of transition’s experimental heritage.
The work of Steve McCaffery - in which, according to one of his publishers’ blurb, he “has always pushed his practice beyond the printed page into both film, performance art, technology and trans-disciplinary collaborations”(18)-provides a perfect contemporary nexus of poetic practice and critical theory where poetry as text on page is confronted with other media realizations and actualizations. As he himself characterized his work in the ‘Afterword’ to Verse and Worse, his “Selected and New Poems 1989-2009,” his is
As theorist, McCaffery has authored numerous essays on 20th-century poetic avant-gardes (collected as Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetic, 2001) and co-edited of two highly instructive and illustrative anthologies, Sound Poetry: A Catalogue (together with bpNichol, 1978) and Imagining Language (with Jed Rasula, 1998). McCaffery’s “Introductions” to these two volumes converge on one point: on Filippo Marinetti’s parole in libertā as a poetic technique foundational of the twentieth-century poetry exploratory of the visual and acoustic properties of language. Imagining Language is a vast collection, spanning material as diverse as the visualexperimentation of the Alexandrian school of the 2nd century BC, the concrete poetry avant la lettre of the Metaphysical poets, the writings of the Baroque mystic and decipherer Athanasius Kircher, and via Mallarmé, the avant-gardists (the omnipresent Marinetti), and Ezra Pound, all the way to Jorge Luis Borges, John Cage or Jackson MacLow. The pride of place (Part One of a total of five) is accorded to the Jolasian/Joycean “Revolution of Language,” not least because it attempted a “liberation of letters from subservience to both correct speech and proper spelling, alongside decorum and taste.”(20) Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is, then, singled out as an epitome of Jolas’ multilingual endeavours, a project aiming at “the production of a polyglot interlingua, a massive reservoir from which all languages derive and into which they ultimately return.”(21)
McCaffery’s own recollection (in his “Afterword” to Verse and Worse)of the influence of the work on Imagining Language on his own poetical practice is characteristic of his entire poetic investigation:
McCaffery’s own involvement in sound poetry takes place in the context of the 1970s Canadian avant-garde group The Four Horsemen. In 1970 Nichol and McCaffery (after solo and duo sound performances) joined forces with Paul Dutton and Rafael Barreto-Rivera to form the first sound-poetry ensemble, The Four Horsemen. Their work is very much an experiment in collective communication, the sensing of changing biological-emotional states, which guide the shifts and structural decisions in their highly improvisatory performances. In The Four Horsemen, an intermedial experience is generated on the liminal zones of theatre, music and poetry. Steve McCaffery has also collaborated (together and independently) with electronic composer Ann Southam to produce text-sound compositions of high sophistication, with which synthesized speech, various speeds, splicings and superimpositions have all been investigated.
His involvement in concrete poetry has taken on a much broader form, far less on the narrow level of direct linguistic visuality or calligrammatic iconicity, than on the plane of discursive collage, recycling of textual “founds,” and experimentation with text/picture interface. On the more traditional note, strong visual component is exhibited in McCaffery’s poetry on the level of its imagery involved in the well-nigh imagist juxtaposition of discontinuous phrases or merely two words, participating in an overall programme of a “slippage to indeterminacy.” Carnival The First Panel: 1967-70 (1973) is a mechanical device that comes complete with its own instruction manual. The texts asks readers to destroy the book by tearing out its pages “carefully along the perforation” near its spine, and then to assemble the “panel” by laying out the pages in a square of four. Ironically, one must destroy the book in order to read it. Carnival offers readers a productive role not only because it asks them to physically manipulate the book, but also because the text's instructions do not indicate the precise manner in which the panels are to be re-assembled. There are sixteen pages of “typestract” or abstract typewriter art in the first panel, (not including the covers, introduction, errata sheet, and postcard with instructions for reading), however, the order of combining the “sixteen square feet of concrete” panels is left up to the reader/operator of the text.
Finally, Paradigm of the Tinctures, a collaboration between McCaffery and Alan Halsey, revisits the classic humanist idea of the Sister Arts where poetry is understood to be a speaking picture and a picture a silent poem. The re-visitation, however, is bluntly revisionary and the result is a fresh text-graphic dialogue, metaphorical as it is indirect. Let me settle for but two examples: “precise image 23” ends on a note of “a figuration and a picture / across from who I am between two similar scripts / for a dream,”(22) and is accompanied by Halsey’s picture juxtaposing two similar images of a distorted mirror-reflection of nearly abstract construction and the inscription “River” above it (Fig. 1). The images, though both reflections of the identical object, are out of synch, thus blatantly stating their artificially scripted, manipulated nature, two similar scripts for a dream-like displacement of POV. “precise image 27” is accompanied with a house window-like grid superimposed over an image that previously accompanied “a child’s history of rhetoric caught as it happens” (Fig. 2). This superimposition invites a reflection on the connectedness of the texts themselves, for the former’s statement that “everything is its own opposite” gains momentum in the recycling of the previous image as if seen from an “opposite” side, echoing the latter’s image of “emblem of mutability rearranged to accommodate a severely silhouetted perspective.”(23)
However, for all the potential and usefulness of technology, even texts as seemingly traditional, text- and print-based, as McCaffery’s Every Way Oakly, present an interesting experiment with sound poetry, and an invitation for an experimental performance of the text. Via the technique of sampling and rewriting an already existing text-a technique so popular with the Language poets-McCaffery delivers a polyphonic homolinguistic translation (i.e. a translation within one language) of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons in which “Stein’s perceptual methodology” is re-contextualised “within the linguistic discipline of translation.” Most interestingly, this translation is to be read alongside Stein’s original: “It’s suggested that a reader have handy a copy of Stein’s originals for comparison. Ideally, get a friend to read the translations aloud whilst you, simultaneously, read the original Tender Buttons.”(24)
Of course, it would be reductive-given the breadth and depth of the tradition on which McCaffery’s work elaborates-to claim any sort of exclusively Joycean heritage for McCaffery’s poetic output. But even the present brief overview does bring into relief how the chief concerns of McCaffery’s writing (intermediality, materiality of language, writing/reading as performance, inscription as transcription, etc.) have been informed, inspired, or in his own words, “radically vitalized”(25) by the linguistic ramifications of Finnegans Wake. His plenary lecture at the 22nd James Joyce Symposium in Prague, 2010, pinpointed the usefulness of Joyce’s Wake for his own practice, while also showing how the Wake can be read by a poet and - poetically, i.e. as writing organised spatially, “as an economy, a vast circulation of nodes and intensities through which circulates a spectacular rivalry between the products of two literary figures: acrostic patterning, and portmanteau condensations.”(26) McCaffery calls these-nodes by means of the Wakean neologism-“proteiform graphs” (FW 107.08), and traces them in the notorious HCE and ALP acrostic structures across the entire text, showing how these distribute “a profoundly complex, polysemous textuality as a network of latent and manifest interactions.”(27) Regarding the portmanteau, McCaffery enumerates five of its most distinctive and productive qualities in the Wake as follows:
Clearly, this list of the Waken portmanteau effects-its anti-linear, anti-referential, anti-purist, anti-authorial, and yet somehow deeply “linguistic” character-chimes well with McCaffery’s earlier pronouncements regarding his own “Anglophonic non-nationalism,” his “rejection of an ego-based poetry” and “a deep commitment to formal innovation.” The Wake’s “polyglottal quality,” its grafting of lexemic parts “across discourses and languages” which “engenders new encounters with enriched semantic possibilities,” this, ultimately, to McCaffery’s mind, is “Joyce’s legacy to reader response theory, the open text and Language Poetry alike”(29) and, last but not least, to McCaffery’s poetry as well. Last but not least, the Wake is “poetic” in the Jakobsonian sense, in that it projects elements from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination - its portmanteau-esque and acrostic “labyrinths of plurality and suggestions” are governed strictly by “a phonotactic law.”(30)
Moreover, McCaffery’s is a “Joycean” poetry, not only by following some of the Wake’sramifications for poetry in the age of electronic media, recording and sampling devices, and the hypertext, but also by writing “with” and “through” it. The two examples McCaffery’s essay provides are both from his Language-movement period (mid- to late-70s), and both subject the Wake to rewriting, governed by predetermined mechanical operations with the text.
The first text, Anticollabora (1977), comprises an “anamorphic” excavation of the entirety of Finnegans Wake. Reading through the 1959 Viking Press edition of the Wake, McCaffery records the premier portions of all the words fractured at a line end and carried over to the next line for semantic completion. In doing so, he “stages the clash of two codes: textual and bibliographic,” with each line of Anticollabora corresponding to one page in the Wake and stanza breaks correspond to textual breaks in the source text. The point, here, is twofold and contradictory: to further multiply the Wake’s polysemy and plurivocity, but also to elucidate some of its obscured signification. As McCaffery notes, his rewriting “comprises 50% of the total of lexemic units Joyce would have considered semantically incomplete and arbitrarily broken.” And yet, as becomes clear even just from the excerpt below (transcript of Book IV of the Wake, pp. 593-628), some of the part-words become “words in their own right.”(31) This poses a question relevant not only to the Wake in specific, but to book-based textuality as such: to what extent does the bibliographic code interfere with-serve or dominate-the textual one?
The second of McCaffery’s Wakean texts, Mr Fish also Eye (1975), is an example of a technique cherished by many Language poets, presenting a homolinguistic translation of the first page of Finnegans Wake. Here, McCaffery follows the principles of allusive referential, a translation technique which doesn’t aim at a clean, binary transfer of meaning from one code into another, but rather develops all the suggestions and connotations of the original’s words and phrases, creating a new text through word association, resonance, and subjective interpretation of the words in the original text. It was, says McCaffery, “the ambitious project of a young writer to out-Wake the Wake and take on the impossible challenge of translating Joyce’s magnum opus into a different English,” and, “wisely and mercifully abandoned after completing the first page,” it runs as follows:
McCaffery’s allusively referential translation of the Wake’s opening engages in a whole gamut of modes of paraphrase/periphrasis/translation. These range from explanatory notes (“thuartpeatrick” yields “jumbled catholic saint”, “Jhem or Shen” are described rather than translated as “names suggestively chinese,” etc.) to some witty substitutions (Joyce’s “buttended,” via association with butter, gives “margarined”; “bland old isaac” becomes, rather funnily, “the prophet of braille,” etc.) and further to some wordplay of its own (e.g., McCaffery’s “phil of sophical” has no direct Joycean analogue, as far as I can find) and downright mistranslation (“tumptytumtoes,” via association with tam-tam and hump, yields “chiropractical tympani”). Again, McCaffery’s text challenges and subverts the convention according to which translation/interpretation is meant to “carry over”/“elucidate” some hypothetical “meaning” independent of the materiality of the words themselves.
As such, texts like Anticollabora or Mr. Fish Also Eye attest to how Joyce’s “proeiform graph” writing in the Wake-however idiosyncratic, polyvalent and non-transferable-can present, for a formally innovative poet like McCaffery, an inexhaustible source of ambiguous code offering itself to further permutation, paraphrase, clarification and obfuscation. What Jolas had perceptively called Joyce’s “revolution of the word” and conceptualised as the conjoined effects of breaking through the lexicalised signifying process, of doing away with authorial intention, and of traversing the limits of national languages, becomes revisited in McCaffery’s work to pose questions regarding the very conditions of what it means to write, read, or communicate. Questions which Joyce himself posed in his Finnegans Wake more pointedly and productively than anywhere else in his work (his poetry including), but also questions which came to be dealt with more seriously (as the cases of both transition and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazines, as well as McCaffery’s own, clearly show) in post-Joycean poetry than prose.