The owner of one of our local Chinese restaurants introduced us to "A" vegetable. Yes, "A" - apparently that English long vowel is how one pronounces 菜 - a tasty green (the way they prepare it at Panda Garden, anyhow). "It's easy to remember," she said: "it's a vegetable." Smiles all around: get it? The vowel, the article, and the proper noun are identical.
Which reminds me of a poem with a title that works the same way - whose author would undoubtedly have appreciated the bilingual play on words. Indeed, if it had happened to Zukofsky, it probably would have ended up in his Very Long Poem. He'd already written "Poem Beginning 'The,'" so he knew whereof he spoke, when it came to articles. Then this, from Rachel Blau DuPlessis' new book Purple Passages:
"The importance of verbal intensity to Zukofsky is shown in his response to L. S. Dembo's serious question: 'Do you conceive of ["A"] as having an overall structure?' Zukofsky turns the answer from large to small and from structure (scope, design, plan) to intricacy of diction, condensation of syntax, verbal focus: 'It's the detail that should interest you all the time.' Dembo is observing the sheer overall scale of the thing, its obvious daunting scope and largeness. Zukofsky answers by insisting on smallness and the local detail as sustaining interest." (77)
Indeed, Dembo's question is the one we keep asking in our "A" discussion group (which I've affectionately dubbed "The 'A' Team" - precisely the opposite meaning of that letter than the one DuP. is insisting upon). But DuPlessis goes on to read Zukofsky's insistence on the micro as being in the midrashic tradition - but without its teleological premise. "The poem may supersede The Cantos," she writes, "but it cannot 'fulfill' itself - it can only be a perpetual midrash on its own ambition" (84).
All of which points up the obvious: It is "A", not "The". It's a poem amongst many poems, composed of thoughts, quotes, word selections among many available in the world (just another parole to the universe's langue). It's a poem that insists on its specificity, contingency, even randomness:
'I've walked thru
some years now
and never till you
said saw these panes'
he consoled with
that I looked' (from "A"-15, p. 363)
Does this mean that "A" is ultimately a nominalist poem, despite all the Spinozan and Aristotelian machinery? It's certainly not an ("a"?) humble poem. But it does seem cobbled together in a way I find congenial (as did those other cobblers [or bricoleurs], Duncan and Johnson). Centrifugal, not centripetal. Which is why it supersedes the Cantos (perhaps) and appeals to a reader born not much before both poems stopped: which, if we're into labels, would be tantamount to saying it is a pomo, not a modernist, long poem. It focuses on the anecdote for its own sake, rather than the grand recit.
And, appropriately enough for a poem in the midrashic tradition, I'm quite sure someone else has said all this (better) before.
At the New Orleans Poetry Festival, April, 2017 - Eileen Tabios, Tim Dyke, Lo Mei Wa and myself before the Tinfish Press reading.
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