The Tablets Armand Schwerner

(1999) A project of an epic scale comparable to Ezra pounds cantos and Louis zukofskys "A," Armand SCHWERNERS The Tablets is a major poetic statement of the late 20th century (see long and serial poetry). Its singular combination of deeply sincere cultural investigation and ironic self-parody, a poetic strategy Burt Kimmelman has called "at once primeval and postmodern" (70), places the work within a complex matrix of contemporary aesthetic and spiritual concerns. On the one hand, the work engages the movement known as ethnopoetics, which attempted to widen the historical and cultural scope of poetic awareness to include little-known ancient and "primitive" literatures. Schwerner, a close friend of the movements central figure, Jerome rothenberg, has been associated with this movement, which proposed "to allow a world to come into the poem—not Europe only or a poetics bounded by an age-old partial view," but a poetics that "at its most radical" would "[carry] forward a search for poetries far outside the imperium as such" (Rothenberg 733).

At the same time, The Tablets should be understood in terms of the procedure-oriented compositional strategies of such contemporaries as Jackson mac low and John cage. The Tablets makes use of an elaborate formal system, based on a fiction of anthropological/paleo-graphic research, which reflects, like Mac Low's and Cage's procedures, "a typically postmodern skepticism regarding the unitary self and its expression in the poem," according to Norman Finkelstein ("Armand

Schwerner"). As Schwerner himself puts it in "Tablets Journals/Divagations," a set of process notes appended to the poems themselves, "The Tablets live in a matrix of unbreachable, ambiguous and antique silence," but they "also exist within a context of Heisenbergian invention. Are The Tablets then blurrings within those two fixes, one unreachable, the other scientifically 'up-to-date'?" (133). Earlier in "Journals/Divagations," he suggests one answer to the question: "The conflict between the comedian and the mystic can make poems" (129).

The Tablets purports to be a collection of 27 texts translated from 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian clay tablets and cylinders written using a combination of Sumerian pictographs and Akkadian cuneiform. The texts are supposed to have come down to us through the labors of a figure known as the Scholar/Translator, and a large part of the humor and the pathos of the poems is derived from our sense of this figure bumbling through an immensely challenging project, always suspended between at least two poignant difficulties: either a great proportion of missing or uncertain material produces a fragmentary text whose content is highly unstable, or, at times, a fine, compressed lyric intensity shines through in what seem to be largely coherent passages—but is the Scholar/Translator projecting his own desire for coherence into a textual condition where none exists?

The sequence begins with a high degree of uncertainty: "All that's left is pattern* (shoes?)" reads the first line of Tablet I, and this is immediately followed by a nervous footnote from the Scholar/Translator: '^doubtful reconstruction" (13). The text is full of phrasings, which do not fit neatly into English: The phrase "hang-ing-mackerel-tail-up-smoke-death" is purported by the Scholar / Translator to be a "virtually untranslatable" evocation of a "coterminous visionary metaphysic" that refers "to both time-bound organisms . . . and the Death God, plonz, in his timeless brooding"; the line "they will-would-might-have-can-change the winter of NNE" contains a verb construction whose tense is "outside Indo-European categories." The multiplicity of each utterance is unsettling; at the same time we get a sense of language straining to recover the primary ground of experience. Indeed the Scholar/Translator shows himself to be obsessed with the recovery of origins: Uncertain whether to translate a particular word as "dry" or "unforgiving," he notes, "We find ourselves at or near the very point in time where the word, concrete in origin, shades off into an abstraction." Similarly, in Tablet vI, the Scholar/Translator thinks he may have located the first "particularized man" in literature, and in Tablet XI he claims to see "the first socialist voice in recorded human history." But these revelations are always undermined by our knowledge that the Scholar/Translator is inevitably distorting his originals to reflect his own desire for discovery, and his intrusions into the text increasingly betray his own doubts: "On occasion it almost seems to me as if I am inventing this sequence."

We readers know that the Scholar/Translator is a fiction as well. But as Finkelstein notes, the conceit underlying The Tablets should be recognized as "the deepest of deep parodies." The unstable status of authorship in the sequence ultimately reflects Schw-erner's deeply held Buddhist beliefs in the unreality of the ego, and, as Willard Gingerich has written, the poems excavate the paradox "that the inescapable and necessary ground of our being is the voice of the Divine; but the Divine steadfastly refuses to speak. Therefore, we find ourselves, age after age, forced to translate an immense silence, a translation whose purpose is to obscure the forgery of its source: the inarticulate Divine" (18). If The Tablets can be said to have a thematic unity, it is to be found in their confrontation with the greatly mundane and greatly profound basics of existence: physical suffering, bodily functions, the natural world, sex, birth, childhood, aging, death, divinity. When in Tablet III Schwerner writes, "I am missing, my chest has no food for the maggots / there is no place for the pollen, there is only a hole in the flower," he achieves, in a timeless sense, what the Scholar/Translator has been at pains to locate historically: the point in language where the concrete and the abstract, the given and the created, intersect.


Finkelstein, Norman. "Armand Schwerner," Jacket. Available on-line. URL: html. Downloaded December 2003. Gingerich, Willard. "Sacred Forgeries and the Translation of Nothing in The Tablets of Armand Schwerner." Talisman 21/22 (winter/spring 2001): 18-26. Kimmelman, Burt. "Traces of Being: Armand Schwerner's Ephemeral Episteme." Talisman 19 (winter 1998/1999): 70-77.

Rothenberg, Jerome. "Prologue to Origins." In Poems for the Millenium, Vol. One: From Fin-de-Siecle to Negritude, edited by Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Damian Judge Rollison

TAGGART, JOHN (1942- ) The poetry of John Taggart gestures toward the influence of a number of important figures and movements in the landscape of 20th-century American poetry: Wallace stevens and high modernism; Louis zukofsky, George oppen, and the objectivist school; and Charles olson and the black mountain school. His poetry also draws upon a number of other artistic influences—modern and postmodern painting (especially Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko), classical music, jazz, rhythm and blues, and philosophy.

Born in Gutherie Center, Iowa, Taggart has published 11 books of poetry and two works of prose, Remaining in Light: Ant Meditations on a Poetry by Edward Hopper (1993) and Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (1994), and he was the editor from 1966 till 1974 of Maps, a literary journal that featured many of the most significant but then under-appreciated poets, including Oppen, William bronk, Olson, and Zukofsky.

Taggart's first five books of poetry—To Construct a Clock (1971), Pyramid Canon (1973), The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal (1974), Prism and the Pine Twig (1977), and Dodeka (1979)—clearly invoke the sparse language and vision of objectivism and its tenet to capture reality objectively. The books of poetry that follow—Peace on Earth (1981) and Dehiscence (1983)—begin to break slightly with the earlier work and concentrate upon a poetic music indebted to jazz, especially John Coltrane (whose work is a palpable presence in Peace on Earth), Thelonious Monk, and other giants of the 1950s and 1960s. Beyond the clear impact of jazz upon these later books, the poems also gesture toward olson's important 1950 essay "Projec-tive Verse" and its proclamation that the form of the poem must embody the energy of the process of poetic discovery (see ars poeticas).

The most original poetry collected in the more recent works, Loop (1991), Prompted (1991), Standing Wave (1993), and Crosses (1998), seamlessly blends the visual acuity of objectivism, the musical harmonies of jazz, and the ideational and poetic dynamics of "Pro-jective Verse" into a powerful and original poetics, as typified by the opening lines of "Rereading" from Standing Wave: "He has closed the door to his room and he is reading / he has closed the door and he is reading a poem." Taggart's poetry gains linguistic and semantic momentum through the repetition of words, phrases, and ideas as the poem layers and builds its argument. Similar to jazz, it establishes a theme that it asserts and repeatedly reasserts in a effort to eke out linguistic and ideational nuances. And, in keeping with "Projective Verse," the repetition builds "energy" in its pursuit of those nuances.

From these later books, "The Rothko Chapel Poem," "Marvin Gaye Suite," "Monk," and "Poem Beginning with a Line from Traherne" (all from Loop) and "Rereading" and "Standing Wave" (from Standing Wave) are noteworthy as poems of great linguistic vitality, intelligence, and poetic resonance. Taggart's poetry, in this regard, is visually, linguistically, and musically innovative, and, in an age where the value of poetry is often challenged, Taggart's philosophical investigation into the role of art as part of the living process offers a valuable statement regarding poetry's vitality.


Daly, Lew. Swallowing the Scroll: Late in a Prophetic Tradition with the Poetry of Susan Howe and John Taggart. Buffalo, N.Y.: M. Press, 1994. Howe, Susan. "Life in Darkness: John Taggart's Poetry."

Hambone 2 (spring 1982): 37-45. Johnson, Ronald. "On Looking up 'The Pyramid Is a Pure Crystal' in Webster." Parnassus 3:2 (1975): 147-152.

David Clippinger

TARN, NATHANIEL (1928- ) A professional translator and anthropologist who has spent time in Guatemala and Burma, Nathaniel Tarn is associated with ethnopoetics. Tarn's poems revere world cultures, diverse religions, and the natural environment, while advocating political changes for their protection. His work is erudite, richly metaphorical, and rhythmically vibrant; Eliot Weinberger writes, "What holds it together is Tarn's ecstatic vision, his continuing enthusiasm for the stuff of the world" (222). Similar to Charles olson, Tarn juxtaposes various forms of poetic expression, including erotic love lyrics and political protests, with nonpoetic documents, from catalogues of Alaskan bird species to historical letters, to achieve a fullness that can "call into being everything there is" ("One" [1969]).

Tarn was born in Paris, France. After earning a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1957 from the University of Chicago, he received the Guinness Prize for poetry in 1963 (and has garnered a number of other honors over time), publishing his first book in 1964. He was founding editor of Cape-Golliard Press and a professor of comparative literature at Rutgers. Tarn has written or collaborated on more than 40 books of poetry and translations.

Motion and energy characterize Tarn's style. His sprawling, often unpunctuated lines transform the written page into a field, which depicts visually shifts in thought. His earlier poems are often spoken from the persona of the old Savage, who critiques and pities the decay of modern culture. Many of the later poems arise from events in Tarn's own life, but he downplays his own role in the events, instead considering how individual experience opens connections to the broader world. As Tarn has said, language "is the vehicle of ever deepening attention" (222).

"Projections for an Eagle Escaped in This City, March 1965" (1967) portrays the ironic event of a bald eagle's flight from a Washington, D.C., zoo in order to critique American involvement in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Tarn warns, "To be evil is nothing more than to be tired," and he finds an alternate symbol of freedom in the hummingbird, a hero in American Indian myths, noted for remarkable physical endurance. Tarn announces that "his lungs will flower, his heart / bear fruit. Mounting up with wings as a storm cloud, unafraid." In "Olvido Inolvidable" (1976), Tarn uses ambiguous pronouns to describe the cosmos as a pair of lovers, sometimes with Tarn, his wife, or the reader as one of the pair. The poem concludes with their union: "sun and moon wake in each other's arms surprised / and the stars make music together incessantly." Ecstatic, erudite, and energetic, Tarn's poetry embraces a world of cultural and natural riches, confident that such love can lead to radical political change.


Tarn, Nathaniel. "Nathaniel Tarn: 'Over the fragile sails your hands would make.'" In Talking Poetry: Conversations in the Workshop with Contemporary Poets, edited by, Lee Bartlett. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987, pp. 209-233. Weinberger, Eliot. "Nathaniel Tarn." In Contemporary Poets. 4th ed, edited by James Vinson and D. L. Kirkpatrick. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985.

Robert Temple Cone

TATE, ALLEN (1899-1979) John Orley Allen Tate was a founding member of the famed poetry magazine the Fugitive (see poetry journals), a magazine that advocated a formal approach to poetry and upheld the traditional values of the agrarian South in the face of industrialism flowing down from the North (see fugitive/agrarian school). Other key contributors to the movement included John Crowe ransom and Robert Penn warren. Tate was also a leading figure in the literary movement known as New Criticism. Tate's poetry is marked by its adherence to strict poetic forms and its intellectuality.

Tate was born in Winchester, Kentucky. He attended college at Vanderbilt University in the early 1920s. After graduating from Vanderbilt, he remained in Nashville, where he helped found the Fugitive. He later contributed to I'll Take My Stand (1930), a book that became a manifesto for the Fugitive movement. As editor of the Sewanee Review and as an instructor at several prominent universities, Tate wrote both poetry and criticism into his seventies and continued to exert considerable force as a critic of American letters. His greatest achievement was being awarded the National Medal for literature in 1976. He won many other awards, including the Bollingen Prize in 1956. He was elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1964) and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1965).

Critics have argued that Tate has been relegated to the rank of minor poet, in part, because of his unwillingness to break from his self-imposed formal rigidity and overly cerebral subject matter. References to ancient philosophers and obscure concepts abound in his work. Exile is a central theme in Tate's poetry, along with a profound sense of the past as imperturbable and all-encumbering: "What shall we say of the bones, unclean, / Whose verdurous anonymity will grow?" he asks in "ode to the confederate dead" (1926), suggesting that our sins will outlast us. Tate's fundamental belief in our need for atonement is perhaps underscored by his conversion to Catholicism in 1950.

Tate was an important influence on several prominent members of a subsequent generation of poets, many of whom were his students, including Robert lowell, Randall jarrell, and John berryman. He urged adherence to traditional forms and the exploration of abstract philosophical ideas. He was unwavering in his insistence on high aesthetic standards in poetry and poetics.


Arbery, Glenn Cannon. "Dante in Bardstown: Allen Tate's Guide to Southern Exile." Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea 65:256 (March 1990): 93-108. Bishop, Ferman. Allen Tate. New York: Twayne, 1967 Core, George. "Mr. Tate and the Limits of Poetry." Virginia Quarterly Review 62:1 (winter 1986): 105-114.

Aaron Parrett

TATE, JAMES (1943- ) J ames Tate is an unconventional poet, often described as surrealist in his

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