November 2008

Dale Smith

marsupial inquirer

“Victory of the Song”: John Taggart and Roger Snell

In an interview several years ago, what John Taggart said of a work by Herman Melville can be seen as commentary too on his own practice. “The poem,” he said, “ends in claiming a certain victory… which is the victory of the song, the idea that song is that which floats free from the text, and cannot be captured by the text.”
Such a claim begins to describe Taggart’s attention in the poem to sound as its principle architecture. Using the structure of the serial poem, he establishes “loops” that, like melody in jazz, return, often transformed, to amplify and realign his writing’s purpose and direction. What he brings to the page, in a sense, is where he is -- placing the self in the realm of something more permanent -- the shared properties of language.
His new book -- There Are Birds -- continues to reveal the labor and attention of a poet working in a singular space that exists somewhere between the traditions of the Objectivists and Black Mountain poets. Like those seminal schools of modernist poetry, Taggart contributes to an ongoing sense of discovery in the poem. By making he calls “sound objects” he brings the world into greater clarity as the interplay of sound and meaning locate new awareness.

One significant long work in this book -- “Unveiling / Marianne Moore” -- offers a serial notation on topics such as modernism, natural history, ancient ritual practices, and the immediate environments of the Cumberland Valley -- Taggart’s home. The poem-as-“sound-object” invites readers into a musical register that is often brilliantly atonal in its reflective orientation to place, self, words, and other elements proper to one’s sense of creative embodiment. He writes:

“if the snakes’ head is fatter than the neck, it’s more likely poisonous”

what the president of the Keystone Reptile Club said
at the Second Annual Snake Hunt and Outdoors Weekend around here

and there are snakes in the cellars of old

oikouros ophis

where the pipes/wires
are where the green glass Ball jars are stored in rows on unpainted wooden shelving
under-sense of fruit and root smell

the jars the pithoi

the pithoigia is the opening of
jars letting ghosts out and thanking the snake for protecting the jars

Here, in just a few lines, we get from the “Keystone Reptile Club” to ancient Greek pithoi -- large pots often used to bury the dead. The quick movement of thought and sound brings the past into the realm of the contemporary, making immediate a world that arrives not from idea, or knowledge, but through the improvisation of song.


Like Taggart, Roger Snell investigates the sonic possibilities of the poem in his first book-length collection -- The Morning. Snell also continues a conversation with modernism, nodding in his work to Pound, Williams, Olson, and the Objectivists. It’s curious to watch someone’s affinities so nakedly distributed throughout a book -- but a relief too. In an age saturated with the genius of John Ashbery, the communal presence of Black Mountain and Objectivism relieves Snell’s poetry of the machine-generated copia popular now. Instead, his lines are briefly stated, held in a kind of syllabic tension that moves only where the force of desire allows. The evidence of hard labor presents itself on each page. And so an inspired response to the banal comes into view for readers. The pace arrives readily, providing perspectives of life through an intricate pattern of song. The notational figures in the book’s title poem, “The Morning,” for instance, propels a voice through the phenomenal paths of the daily. Snell writes with philosophic intensity (and paranoia):

To be oneself once and for all
sometimes I don’t want to be seen at all
else it is the room, walls

I is not I, nor here, the place beyond
an unsure distance no clearness or
much purpose

The day was elsewhere
so I’d thought to go away, yet tendency
he warned to shut-off or out was there

Still the ground shifts, I’d read the day was gone
the room black, such enclosure to stay in,
inhabit act, destroy all instances

Such meditative instances as noted in these lines arrive among the daily observances of the world around the subject. The sense of displacement -- of a self that is animate yet uncoordinated by place and time -- gives the poem a kind of introspective urgency. Its force builds, frame-by-frame, to imagine the transformation of a self as a kind of stranger who tags along just behind the lingering presence of who we think we are. Elsewhere in this serial poem, he writes:

Where was it?
it was in the air to reach after

What was it?
like boy when whatever turned me back
towards home was idle time

How did you know?
when I was younger I wanted to be…

out in the world
far away from home

distance increases
time’s economy

until one is
possibly nowhere

Romantic preoccupations with self, childhood, and nature give this poem its untimely wonder. It asks questions that return again and again to challenge us with temptations to form answers. And yet, Snell allows the poem to stand as its own response to the impossibility of life. It is the artifact of his witness and recollection in words.
Other poems use a kind of gnomic brevity of line, wherein sense and sound run together, the poem leading toward uncertain endings. In “Aperture,” Snell writes:

to let light
thru plumb


think be-
ing home
each room


a play on
Williams, a
sequence of days

These stanzas work like quick snapshots of the imagination -- ideograms by which the poet enters the enormity of his intent. Poems like this make The Morning a companionable volume, a welcome arrival in an increasingly global twilight.