Questions of Accent (Final Ch.)

Murat Nemet-Nejat
Art & Literature, Articles & Essays
Questions of Accent (Final Ch.)

XI. To Be a Poet Or Reader of Uncanonizable Poetics

American poetics is asocial, therefore, uncanonizable. I am not talking about changing the canon, therefore creating a new structure of power; discontinuous means uncanonizable. I must apply the principle of quantum mechanics here. The moment a style or a poet is canonized, therefore gaining a privileged mainstream position, the language written in that style loses the tension between power and victimhood and stops being American. Writing poetry in American English is not a trade or guild activity to be taught at special schools or communities (while making movies or TV shows is), but an act of personal survival.

Reading American poets is essentially following a series of distinct, discontinuous personal strategies in language. Tradition in the European sense is an illusion in American poetry. Even the “newest” French or English writer writes with a hope of one day becoming a “classic.” Thinking of the future, or even in the traditional sense of the past, thinking of a continuity, are ruinous for an American poet or critic. Therefore, Jabes and Derrida, masters of academic style, tools to create a new canon, have no relevance to an American poet unless as abject objects to be attacked.

Harold Bloom’s paradigm of anxiety of influence, the poet struggling with his linguistic father-predecessor, is wrong. With the possible exception of Allen Ginsburg and Whitman, I know no American poet who has created truly original work as a “flowering” of a previous poet. In a radical sense, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, Stein, Reznikoff, Zukofsky, Creeley, Ashberry have no American beginnings or ends. The contemporary attempt to create a new canon around, for example, the figures of Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards, Dickinson and Stein is to misunderstand their work. The accents (in Susan Howe’s word, “hesitations,”) in Dickinson’s, or any other poet’s writing, are unreproducible, completely idiosyncratic. To think that Stein’s repetitions or Ashberry’s mellifluously expansive meditations are linguistic tools bequeathed to later poets in terms of a “flowering poetic tradition” is wrong-headed. In American poets these are outside trappings of idiosyncratic, personal solutions, accents, that can be completely ignored by and are only marginally useful to another poet. What unifies the poets is their unchanging, confrontational, aggressive relationship to their language. None of them is writing in his or her mother tongue and must therefore distort, accent it to make it his/her own.

XII. Accented Relationships Among Poets: Is There No Influence Then?

Creeley calls Zukofsky “the teacher of all of us,” but Creeley does not imitate or expand on Zukofsky’s poetic style. He undercuts it by creating hesitations, weaknesses (accents) in its architecture. Creeley mishears Zukofsky’s reading of his own poems by “hearing” stops at his line breaks. To do that to a Zukofsky poem (to a lyric like “Songs Of Degrees”), in essence, is to demolish (to add excessive stops to) its sound architecture. But vocal hesitations at line ends (independent of syntax) is the core of Creeley’s poetic sound, the power of its vulnerable intimacy. In essence, Creeley’s relation to Zukofsky is confrontational, accented. What he learns from Zukofsky is, I think, to turn the language he is born to, English, into an alien, slightly abstract structure of sound he can crack, poke into. What he learns from Zukofsky, is American English.

Zukofsky, a foreigner, teaches Creeley, the Puritan, English as a foreign language, a structure of power Creeley does not completely own. At his most original Creeley subverts Zukofsky’s powerful architecture of sound to interject his weaknesses, hesitations. For Creeley Zukofsky is the alien, the outside which softens the smug nastiness, the male chauvinism of the early poems in For Love. It brings them ambiguity, restraint, by turning their power driven misogyny inward, into a language of vulnerability and pathos.

XIII. The Music of the Victim Is the Language of the Unnamed

In American poetry the father (tradition) and the mother tongue (the language of intimate and evocative words) are split. This confrontation makes the American poem an attack into the unsayable (socially and spiritually). To evoke what is unnamed is, always, to evoke what is not in the physical body of the language, in its material music. The language of weakness, of the unnamed, must have a Puritanical bias, “Thou shalt not worship graven words.” The poet’s instinctive love for words, their physicality, is suspect, must be restrained.

The music of words (of their plasticity) is tradition. The music between words is the language of the outside, the unnameable. That’s why Zukofsky, whom Creeley calls the poet with the perfect ear, can be, maybe must be, tone deaf. That’s why Dickinson, the supreme American poet, has so few quotable, physically luscious lines. American poem is anti-musical, cannot preen its physical achievement like a peacock. Once again, Whitman sticks out against my theories like a sore thumb.

The American poem (and poet) is always trapped in the space between words, in the crack between his/her vision and the language he/she is using, in the discontinuity (as opposed to cultural unity) between the self and his/her language. His/her soul belongs to somewhere else. That is why if he/she is influenced by another poet, that poet is almost always from another language, French, Indian, Turkish, German, Spanish, Japanese, etc. Or, more often, the mother lode of influence is another medium, cubism or abstractionism in painting, Jazz, photography, movies, TV, etc. American poems are continuous acts of translations from another language or medium or both. In this process, the languages of origin (Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Turkish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, etc.) or aesthetic philosophies are not hierarchical, canonical, but coexist on the same level. No language is superior over another language. Surrealism is no more relevant than Sufism, deconstructionism or anthropology than Zen, glyphs than photographs, the poets Yunus Emre, Zbigniew Herbert, Xavier Villaurrutia than Arthur Rimbaud.

As I said, American English is neutral with no personal, cultural associations. No more is this more clear than in Emily Dickinson. What do sun, father, Hunter, He, God, etc. (all images of authority) mean in her work? Nothing. They are essentially blank emblems, a chain of Moby Dicks, completely stripped of their traditional associations, around which the poet weaves her barely decipherable soul. Under the deceptive music of a hymn, of a little embroidering lady, the blankness of these crucial images liberates/unhinges the syntax in the poems, completely privatizes it. What is Moby Dick after all? An attack on whiteness, an asocial, self-destructive pursuit of the unnameable, which all the lists, all the encyclopedias, all the charts, all the lore of the country cannot name. Call me Ishmael, the poet, who (I) must a tale unfold/ Whose lightest word… I am thy father…. Seems, madam? No it’s. I have that within me which passeth show…. Others trappings and suits of woe…”

The unnameable, ineffable, the radically inner implicate, require, fate a confrontation with the father tongue. The music is in the ensuing unhinging.

XIV. A Writing Block Revisited

During the ten years before The Bridge, my first long poem, I was learning American English. I was not, as I thought, uprooting what is Turkish in me; but I was learning the potent, cool neutrality of American language into which I can pour my Turkish soul. My mother tongue is Turkish, but I cannot write in Turkish. Against its heat my heart feels like a vulnerable moth. I first chose to be a Jew (and not to be assimilated) as a rebellion, an act of self-empowerment against my mother tongue. I came to the United States as a Jew. The ten years I thought I was erasing the Turkish in me (my writing block), I was actually building the language, the tool, American English, which will empower me to receive, reintegrate my Turkish soul. As a poet, American English took the place of my Jewishness. In fact, American English and Jewishness to me are one.

I embraced American English as an act of empowerment. But as an American poet I saw I have no power. Not only that, but I saw, at the end of my writer’s block, that I have no subject but what is Turkish in me. Like every American poet I saw my inspiration come from outside. And that inspiration is my state of vulnerability, my mother tongue. Here, at this focus of my step-language, I encountered the mixture of power and weakness, empowerment and marginality, privilege and victimhood, white heat and coolness. To fight the white heat of mother tongue, I must accept the isolation, victimhood of American poet. I save my woman’s heart in the heartless, remote neutrality of American English; my heart prevails in the telltale signs I impose on American English. The imperfect match creates cracks, breaks. These imperfections, insufficiencies, errors are also the focus of absolute power, intensity, the center of the experience of an American poem where empowerment and victimhood are unified.

Turkishness, Jewishness and American poetry, the unholy knot of my poetic identity, coactive, where each side pulls against and sustains each other, like the undulations of a high wire act, of a somersault. How can one think of identification with, influence by your predecessor? Embrace, emulate, pay heed to another poet, and the whole act collapses. The energy of an American poem is centrifugal, outer looking, partly a tense escape. Each poet is a discontinuous Lautrec high wire act. Think of a tradition, the whole act collapses.

Like Jabes and Derrida I am a Jew born in the third world. My difference from them is that, as writers, they chose to be assimilated Jews, chose to be assimilated into a powerful center, identifying with the power of French cultural center. I chose to remain a Jew. After ten years in the desert of a writer’s block, I learnt to accept the Arab in me, my discarded slave mother, Hagar, the Turk, the bastard Jew, speaking in American English.

The solipsism of American poetry changes not only the concept of tradition, but the concept of influence. The relation of the poet to other poets is opportunistic, a series of avoidances, redirections caused by collisions; but strong poets, like a runner back, weaving their circuitous routes against obstacles to reach the end line. The concept of influence as identification with a tradition is unthinkable. The tension of an original American poem is always centrifugal. While the used language creates one center of gravity, the poet’s inner gravity pulls away from that, is somewhere else. As an outsider, like a magpie, my relationship to others are opportunistic and arbitrary, unclassified, free of tradition. My influences are like a series of reactions to a minefield, weaving against obstacles, surviving a collision against a superior force if I must. Here is the circuitous route of my collisions which determine the shape of my growth as a poet: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the Turkish poet Orhan Veli, Tolstoy, the Turkish poet Cemal Sureya, Andrew Marvell, Thomas Browne, Swift’s A Tale Of The Tub, Turkish folk poetry, Kleist’s Marquis Of O…, Japanese poetry, the Scottish philosopher Hume, the Turkish Sufi poet Pir Sultan Abdal, “Ode On A Grecian Urn,” TV, American movies Dim Sum, Chan Is Missing, Raising Arizona, Blade Runners , the Chinese movie House Of The Red Lanterns, the Japanese director Atami’s The Funeral, amateur photography, the philosopher Francis Bacon, Wittgenstein, logical positivism, Roland Barthes, Ezra Pound’s “The Seafarer,” Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Seferis, Cafavy, the Turkish poet Orhan Arif, etc.

XV. Why American English Is Different from Other Languages And Has No Overtones?

Because it is an oval. Language is not the producer of myth in the United States; movies, TV, popular music are. Words play a subservient position in American culture, in movies, in TV, in music. In their legendary abuse of script writers movie moguls instinctively knew that. Is there a twentieth century American poem as resonant as the face of Humphrey Bogart, the breathless blondness of Marilyn Monroe, the fight over a plate of steak between John Wayne, James Stewart and Lee Marvin in Who Shot Liberty Valence or, politically, as potent as Murphy Brown giving birth to an illegitimate child on TV?

TV’s influence is the most profound. It has altered contemporary epistemology, what is truth and how it is to be perceived. It abolishes the distinction between inner and outer (the foundation of American poetry), private and public, true and false. The underlying assumption of TV is that there is no difference between home (the living room) and the inside of the box (the world at large the box contains), between the front and the back of the lens, this fusion affecting the concepts of sincerity and truthfulness and truth. TV style reflects this radical change of epistemology; therefore, TV style is the reverse of American poetic style, which is based on the radical difference between the inner and outer. The new reality reflected in the TV style may have enormous ramifications for American poetry; but these are questions for another paper. Let me just make a few preliminary remarks.

The purpose of TV style is to diminish the resistance between the inside and the outside the box, to make the screen so transparent as if porous. (The movie Poltergeist deals with this phenomenon.) Minimalism is at the bottom of this style. TV language is minimalist. How few memorable phrases can be attributed to those considered masters of TV, Reagan, maybe Clinton, both Teflon figures. Verbal contradictions do not diminish them. Reagan can misquote facts at infinitum. Clinton can make mutually exclusive proposals. What unifies them is not their facts, their fire, but the image of their “affability,” a minimalist value if ever there was one, their image that they are one of the people (outside and inside the box are the same). But affability is an essential value of unity when American reality is a wrenching multiplicity of interests. The two great American myths are immigration, “nation of immigrants,” and unity, “the United States.” TV is what sustains them both, balances this oxymoron; it creates the visual and stylistic trick that holds the nation together. Transforming, fusing it into the myth of “belonging,” creating an aura of belonging, TV turns alienation into a state of power, empowerment.

The true language of America is not American English, but TV. TV is the gravitational center of culture. If an American poet wants to embrace a tradition, he/she should not embrace an American English poetic style, but the style of TV. An American poem can be a confrontation between the minimalism of a TV style (which itself has numberless variations, genres, structures, etc., and is therefore infinitely suggestive) and the idiosyncratic perversities of an inner vision. Its power may lie in the cracks, fault lines this confrontation causes. These distortions on the minimalist surface are its accent. For instance, my poem “Heartbreak Weekend In Atlantic City” is a series of discrete, transparent scenes; but the scenes follow each other in perverse, askew, disjointed, arbitrary ways. The accent is in the sequence they create. It belies, undercuts, interiorizes the solidity of the poetic/the TV surface. The true influences on this poem were a horrifying visit to Atlantic City, which the poem records, and the compulsive, arbitrary changing of channels by remote in front of TV, that is, a confrontation between personal experience and the cool, pseudo-neutral image, which is the true American language.

Though TV style is the very antithesis of American poetic style, they are also eerily similar. In both one encounters the co-existence, balance of alienation, victimhood and power, empowerment, belonging. In both there is a tendency towards austerity of means for maximum effect. This basic oneness makes TV and its stylistic aura such a potent inspiration for poetry, TV a genuine poetic anti-tradition. TV language (like American English) is oval because it is an oxymoron, half true and half false. It is not a perfect match. It requires, like a football ball, an excessive embrace, a compulsive, defensive act to be owned. TV is the true language of the United States, its white screen our Moby Dick, and the poet’s function is to explode, to embrace and be consumed by it. What is “Heartbreak Weekend At Atlantic City” after all but to see within the hard, glitzy surface of Atlantic City image (posters, architecture, etc.) a radical interiority, intimations of compulsive infantilism (“Atlantic City Restaurants,” “The Architecture of Atlantic City,” etc.)

The fate of the outsider, poet, Jew, women, etc., with no daily used mother tongue, is infantilism. It is weakness. The true power of words, in American language, on the other hand, is anti-mythical. They are, an American poem is, private, individual tools to assert one’s existence, identity by projecting onto, cracking the myth, surface of affability. It is in this destructive function that words (or poems) become empowered. That is why, American poetry must be discontinuous. Unity in multiplicity (TV’s affability) is the only American myth. The attempt of certain poets to create myths (Charles Olson, for example) falls flat because the American words are too private, solipsistic. The moment the language gains mythic resonance; it becomes preempted by the omnipresence of TV. The figure of Blake or Rimbaud or anybody else, Stein or Dickinson, as a myth creator is very seductive; but I think irrelevant.

XVI. The Social Position Of an American Poet, Of an American Poem

The hardest and most important lesson for an American poet to learn and accept, and exploit, is the subservient position of words in American culture. To choose to be a poet is by definition to be a victim, an outsider. To choose American English is to choose an infinitely suggestive medium of self-definition, not of myth-making or public, institutional recognition. There cannot be a canon, tradition, however rearranged, to which an American poet may belong. After essentially obligatory lip-service in high schools and colleges, poetic experience (both the writing and reading of it) involves the cracking up, exploration by one poet or reader (alienated by his/her addiction to words) the language of another poet. That relation between text and reader cannot be the casual, institutional relationship that exists between movies, TV and their audiences. When a poet says, “I want to put demands on my reader,” he/she is acknowledging, being or without being aware, this peculiar gap. He/she is actually asking for more than the innocent tone of the demand implies. He/she is asking another psyche to leave its skin (not an easy or particularly enjoyable experience) and jump into the blankness of another’s language, to glean private resonances of a complete other in its constructions. This is its whiteness.

The American poet must be interested in everything except a national poetic canon bequeathed to him or her. What gives life to an American poem/poet is a continuous infusion of otherness: other arts, other media, poets of other languages. For instance, Dickinson loves the bees and flowers in her garden, the Amherst landscape. Reznikoff is obsessed by the miseries of 19th century industrial America. Tony Towle loves music. Stein’s closest friends were artists. I am obsessed by Turkey and the Sufism in Turkish love poetry. But none of us, I think, became poets, instead of novelists, painters, horticulturists, etc., because of these concerns. These infusions create the illusive tissue of reality, order, transparent surface, into which the poet may puncture his/her inner demons, which must remain unnameable. For instance, Dickinson’s true home is not the Amherst landscape, but the intimations among the cracks in her distorted syntax, the sex and violence lurking among the bees and flowers in her garden. The inner demons of each poet may be different, but the demon which unites us all is the excessive, non-social attachment to words, which by itself makes the poet an outsider, a victim. Each poetic achievement is a struggle, by means of words, to achieve primacy, power, a self-contradictory act like squaring the circle. An American poet is one addicted to words and who is fated, because he/she wants to, to say the unnameable. It is a continuous attack on white, white whale, white screen, white language, a sign of weakness and alienation. The entire energy, power of his/her work derives from his or her rebellion against, refusal, as a user of language, to accept this social inferiority of language (and the unnamability of his/her inner existence) and his/her compulsive cumulation of facts, minutiae of smoke screen to counter it.


“Questions of Accent” was first published in the poetry journal The Exquisite Corpse in 1993 and then was included in a collections of writings from The Exquisite Corpse in a book entitled Thus Spoke the Corpse by Black Sparrow Press in 1999.

The End

The Bengali translation of this text is available on the following link:

স্বরভঙ্গির কাব্যতত্ত্ব ও মুরাত নেমেত-নেযাত (শেষ পর্ব)


Murat Nemet-Nejat. Poet, Essayist and Translator. Murat Nemet-Nejat was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and lived in the United States since 1959. He studied literature at Amherst College and Columbia University in the United States. He is the author of several...

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