Harp & Altar
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Elise Harris

Michael Newton

Lily Saint
Make It Do, Make It Now: Mary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow and Ronald Johnson's Radi os

Make It Do, Make It Now: Mary Ruefle's A Little White Shadow and Ronald Johnson's Radi os
Lily Saint

New cultural and artistic movements tend to be named after the fact despite the attempts of various “avant-gardists” to forge a place in the historical record through the invention of an –ism avant la lettre. (Who remembers Nowism or Thingism these days, let alone Neoplasticism?) Usually a trend emerges in fits and spurts until some well-situated individual has the good fortune to find both the right name for the thing and someone who will announce it in print, thus joining signifier with its partner for life. Timing is everything.

As a result, there are frequently new forms in circulation waiting patiently for their baptisms. And when it comes to contemporary poetry, which has both the luck and the misfortune to be virtually independent of market forces, inventiveness abounds. Indeed, one might even bemoan the general glut of unnamable emergent poetics. Just defining the word “poem” is hard enough. Disarmingly, not a single element remains to categorically distinguish a poem from any other piece of writing. Therefore, though I plan here to discuss a new poetic form, I dare not speak its name.

To give a sense of why I balk at this, consider a sampling of the various names that have been applied to the type of poem under consideration. Giving credit where credit is due, I should point out that metaphor-happy critics have already done much of the work for me. Reviews of these kinds of works, along with the language used by the authors themselves, refer to them alternately as “erasures,” “omissions,” “ruins,” “translations,” “nets,” “fragments,” “etchings,” “effacements,” “ghosts,” “palimpsests,” “remainders,” “transpositions,” “bricolage,” “cracked egg shells,” and “coffee grounds,” and we could probably apply the Derridean term—“traces”—to these poems as well.

Why so much variety? What are these works anyway? Particularly essential to their creation is the material process. Taking a complete text—either a poem, a novel, or a work of nonfiction—the author removes words at will, until a new bare-bones poem emerges from the physical act of deletion. The result, in some instances, looks on the page somewhat like a secret government document that has been released to the public with the juicy and incriminating bits taken out. Fortunately, the strongest of these poems manage to add meaning and beauty despite its apparent subtraction. The most well-known book-length version of this kind of work, if not necessarily the first, is Ronald Johnson’s Radi os, originally published in 1977 and reprinted by Flood Editions in 2005, in which, beginning with the text of Milton’s Paradise Lost (with the title serving as the first obvious excision), Johnson deletes words in order to create a wholly new poem.

This, for instance, is the opening page of Johnson’s book:


O                                             tree

                                into the World,



                                                                 the chosen        

Rose out of Chaos:




Johnson avoids at all costs the instinct to make of Milton’s original text a work of pure abstraction. Instead, he discovers a new story to tell, a narrative that bears in its very being the presence of its forerunner. In this version both God and Satan are excised from the story of the Fall and only man remains. By destroying all remnants of Milton’s precise blank verse, Johnson simultaneously mirrors the destruction of perfection in the Garden of Eden and the subsequent creation that that act engendered.

As a mirror of Milton’s theme, however, it is clearly a broken one, and nowhere is this more deeply reflected than in the materiality of the page itself. The visual is indeed paramount in these works, yet what they frequently reveal is a shattered vision of fragment and ruin.[1] Mary Ruefle’s gem of a book, A Little White Shadow, makes this particularly evident. Keeping the fabulous original title of a work that was “Published for the Benefit of a Summer Home for Working Girls,” in 1889, Ruefle extracts her poems from an unknown minor publication, not, as in Johnson’s case, from a Western classic. But she works in the same way, only going one step further by using actual white-out on old yellowed pages to make the traces of her choices not mere blanks, but decisive acts of creative excision. The title itself also draws our attention to this “whitewashing.” Here’s a particularly literary example from the book:


     other people          read









     my cousin Suvia






                                                   never cared for




                                                          and in this as in

most things I agreed with her.


Though most of her book is not as overtly concerned with literary criticism as this example is—it’s an appropriate insertion in the context of the discussion. If Ruefle (and cousin Suvia) don’t care much for sonnets—the lifeblood of the Western lyric tradition—she certainly cares for their skeletal remains.[2]

The act of erasure represents a kind of poetic anorexia, and as a verbal whittling down, the poems edge toward a Beckettian silence. Ruefle’s poems, in particular, recall the very considered sparsity of haiku. But the skeletal striptease is not an essentialist one. The original texts are not being subtracted down to some fundamental truth, but instead become textually overdetermined. Works such as Milton’s replicate even when deleted. As with most “great” texts, part of its success lies in its endless heuristic possibilities. Yet the poem-making process of erasure may also allow us to reverse this form of overdetermination, along with any notions of literary progress, by making great texts out of bad ones (which I suspect is what Ruefle has done here).

Underlying Johnson’s and Ruefle’s work, of course, is Pound’s modernist dictum—“make it new”—which is itself a modern “translation” of an ancient Confucian expression. Both poets operate under the assumption that there is no better way of doing this than by revising something old. Much like the constant reworking of past modes of dress in the ever-retrograde world of fashion, with its Janus-head turned simultaneously toward the future and the past, Johnson, Ruefle, and the smattering of other poets who have appropriated this form of excision and revision, paradoxically locate their very contemporary freshness in the texts of yesteryear. Ruefle writes,


          the          dead.





                                                borrow so little from

                                                                        the past






                                         as if they were alive,


yet Ruefle’s—and Johnson’s—aliveness makes itself known precisely through such borrowings.

As these works remind us, in our age of the hyper-new, virtually nothing can retain its novel status for long. Even Radi os, which already formalizes the act of recycling, and which was written and much applauded in the late seventies, has spawned a whole cluster of imitators who, while making the form their own through a variety of modifications, also inevitably strip it of its novelty.[3]

Another way we might understand this recent trend, then, is by seeing the engagement with and the disruption of past works of literature as evidence of literary nostalgia. Who reads Milton anymore but a few earnest graduate students, superannuated professors, and struggling poets? What has happened to the works once hailed as classics, now condemned as obsolete? Tearing apart such works may on the surface be an irreverent thumbing of the nose in the face of the long-dead literary forebears who haunt contemporary writing, but more subtly, these works are an homage representing critical and creative engagements with texts that writers continue to revere despite an increasingly fragmentary present.

Most touching in both Radi os and A Little White Shadow—and particularly in the latter—is the sense of loss that the blankness on the pages communicates. Despite the furor over Harold Bloom’s infamous book on influence and misreading, his more disturbing charge is that the Romantic poets initiated the death of poetry and that each subsequent generation of poets has been complicit in its inevitable demise. Hoisted on their own petards, the poets considered here lend themselves to this project of their own undoing, lacking words to name precisely what this death consists of, but eloquently sounding out its elegy as the words disappear into the void.

[1] These are as much works of visual art as of literature. Tom Phillips’s groundbreaking A Humument, first published in 1970, takes the visual aspect of such creative ventures to an extreme.

[2] Jen Bervin’s Nets (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2004) engages in a similar way with Shakespeare’s sonnets. Bervin also chooses not to “erase” the excised words completely from the page, but instead prints entire sonnets with the “chosen” words in bold face and the “erased” words in a dim gray type.

[3] See, for example, Bervin’s Nets, Michael Koshkin’s Parad e R ain (Big Game Books, 2006), or Susan Howe’s A Bibliography of the King’s Book or Eikon Basilike (Paradigm, 1989). Anne Carson’s recent translations in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (Knopf, 2002) offer a variation on this theme in her decision to foreground the breaks in the papyri through the inclusion of brackets, which Carson insists “are exciting.” There are numerous other examples from the past three decades to be found in American poetry.