Wednesday, April 20, 2005

David Melnick: PCOET

The first thing I ever read by David Melnick was probably the essay “The ‘Ought’ of Seeing: Zukofsky’s Bottom” in the fifth issue of John Taggart’s Maps (1973). It’s a brilliant article, still after thirty-two years the best single thing ever written about Bottom: on Shakespeare. Melnick shows himself entirely at home, not merely with Zukofsky and Shakespeare, but with Aristotle as well – more at home with Aristotle, one might venture, than Zukofsky himself, who quotes and comments on tons of passages from that philosopher in the course of his big, weird Shakespeare book.

I read “The ‘Ought’ of Seeing” in grad school in Ithaca, New York, while I was writing a dissertation on Zukofsky and Stevens, and I was still in grad school when I discovered that Melnick was also a poet. I got Ron Silliman’s In the American Tree in 1987, which excerpted two of Melnick’s collections and included the following (self-composed) author’s bio:

     David Melnick was born in Illinois in 1938 and was raised in Los Angeles. By the age of 7 he had invented a private language, and at 13 he constructed a semi-private one with a friend. He was educated at the University of Chicago and the University of California at Berkeley, and now lives in San Francisco. His first book, Eclogs, containing poems written in the 1960s, was published in 1972 (Ithaca House). PCOET, written in 1972, was published in 1975 (G.A.W.K.). Men in Aida, Book One (Tuumba, 1983) is the first book of projected poem based on Homer’s Iliad.
      This poet’s politics are left, his sexual orientation gay, his family Jewish. He has wandered much, e.g., to France, Greece and Spain (whence his mother’s ancestors emigrated in 1492). As of this writing, he has never held a job longer than a year-and-a-half at a stretch. He is short, fat, and resembles Modeste Moussorgsky in face and Gertrude Stein in body type and posture.

That was enough to get me reading. Soon after, thanks to Ithaca’s wonderful secondhand bookstores, I happened upon copies of Eclogs and PCOET, two-thirds of Melnick’s entire published corpus. (PCOET and Men and Aida are available on Craig Dworkin’s Eclipse site, as well as another installment of Men in Aida; a later work, A Pin’s Fee, is online at Logopoeia.)

Eclogs was an important book to me in many ways, but it’s PCOET that has really stuck with me. It’s a collection of 83 short poems, many of them single-liners, some of them a single word. If Clark Coolidge’s Space strips poetry down to the words themselves, then PCOET goes a step further, breaking the words themselves down into their constituent letters and sounds:

o hawero
rrno pori      od bno

mrmdly is

shig weit yxzaaana y-

cgot ghuin,    it 7

shig kulkk
n xprty off wiqap

             oegi boyy


At time it seems as though Melnick is simply typing as rapidly and sloppily as possible over some preëxisting text. At other times he’s running words into one another, forcing the reader to tweeze them apart and attempt to parse out their component parts. This is “active” reading at its most active, a continual struggle to make out the familiar among clouds of the alien.

If that sounds about as pleasant as a root canal, then I haven’t conveyed how much fun Melnick’s text really is. This is a high-spirited piece of work, a running joke that cedes authority from the poet to the reader with a scornful wave. I challenge anyone to read aloud the following –

oange astare
o lawe, o starest
outcat lode hapdne

leslac igowersoas
artest not a leslac


cher waeret, deit


– without bursting in laughter. And one’s next move, of course, is to contemplate how deftly Melnick’s letter-combinations veer towards and then dart away from familiar “sense.” POET would be the most pompous title imaginable for a collection. Throw in a “C” – which, as Zukofsky never tired of reminding us, sounds the sense of sight, the sense by which we see the letters of the words we read – and you have something far stranger, far more self-effacing, and far more sublime: PCOET.


Steve said...

Thank you for this superb and intelligent post on David Melnick's poetry. Exceptionally insightful and intelligent, Mark! :)

I saw/heard David M. only once. I believe it was a/the annual Saint Valentine's Day reading at New College in San Francisco (1989? 1992? or some year in between), and he read from _Men in Aida_, which is of course incredible and hilarious (AND tender and oh so human and gentle and did I mention HILARIOUS, in stitches hilarious!).

Phenomenal punning, naturally.

Anyway, was wandering around checking out what there is to read on the net about/by Melnick this morning and came upon your good Note, which is astute and smart and sharp. Cool!

PB said...

Grear article, thanks for sharing with us. As for PCOET I hadn't thought of Zukofsky's C. My misreading trying to connect natural language poet (romantic idea) contrasting with pc/type"writing" machine writing (modernist idea) playing between these two alienating signifier from conventional meaning.

Panos Bosnakis