by Steve Evans
Dictionary of Literary Biography v.169 (1996)
Note: The body of this text is approximately 7800 words in length (ten printed pages in the large format used by the DLB). Written in 1994-1995, the entry does not take into account Rosmarie Waldrop's substantial accomplishments since that time.
Name: Rosmarie Waldrop
Birth Date: August 24, 1935
Genre(s): POETRY; ESSAYS; CRITICISM; NOVELS; SHORT STORIES; FICTION
Table of Contents for Entry
Biographical and Critical Essay
Further Readings about the Author
About This Essay
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR
A Dark Octave (Durham, Conn.: Burning Deck, 1967).
Change of Address, by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1968).
Camp Printing (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1970).
The Relaxed Abalone; or, What-You-May-Find (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1970).
Letters from Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop, by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1970).
Spring Is a Season and Nothing Else (Mount Horeb, Wis.: Perishable Press, 1970).
Body Image, by Waldrop and Nelson Howe (New York: G. Wittenborn, 1970).
Against Language?: Dissatisfaction with Language as Theme and as Impulse towards Experiments in Twentieth Century Poetry (The Hague: Mouton, 1971).
The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger (New York: Random House, 1972).
Alice ffoster-Fallis: (an outline), by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1972).
Until Volume One, by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1973).
Words Worth Less, by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1973).
Kind Regards (Providence, R.I.: Diana's Bimonthly Press, 1975).
Since Volume One, by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1975).
Acquired Pores (Paris: Orange Export, 1976).
The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body (Columbia, Mo.: Open Places, 1978).
The Ambition of Ghosts (New York: Seven Woods, 1979).
When They Have Senses (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1980).
Psyche & Eros (Peterborough, U.K.: Spectacular Diseases, 1980).
Nothing Has Changed (Windsor, Vt.: Awede Press, 1981).
Differences for Four Hands (Blue Bell, Pa.: Singing Horse, 1984).
Streets Enough to Welcome Snow (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1986).
The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1986).
Morning's Intelligence (Grenada, Miss.: Salt-Works Press, 1986).
The Reproduction of Profiles (New York: New Directions, 1987).
Shorter American Memory (Providence, R.I.: Paradigm, 1988).
A Form / of Taking / It All (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1990).
Peculiar Motions (Berkeley, Cal.: Kelsey St. Press, 1990).
Light Travels, by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1992).
Lawn of Excluded Middle (Providence, R.I.: Tender Buttons, 1993).
Fan Poem for Deshika (Tucson, Ariz.: Chax, 1993).
Cornered Stone, Split Infinites (Elmwood, Conn.: Potes & Poets Press, 1994; New York: New Directions, 1994).
A Key into the Language of America (New York: New Directions, 1994).
A Century in Two Decades: A Burning Deck Anthology, 1961-1981, edited by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1982).
"The Joy of the Demiurge," in Translation: Linguistic, Literary, and Philosophical Perspectives, edited by William Frawley (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984), pp. 41-49.
"Alarms and Excursions," in The Politics of Poetic Form: Poetry and Public Policy, edited by Charles Bernstein (New York: Roof, 1990), pp. 45-72.
Peter Weiss, Bodies and Shadows (New York: Delacorte, 1969).
Edmond Jabès, Elya (Bolinas, Cal.: Tree Books, 1973).
Jabès, The Book of Questions, 4 volumes (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1976-1984).
Jabès, The Death of God (Peterborough, U.K.: Spectacular Diseases, 1979).
The Vienna Group: Six Major Austrian Poets, by Waldrop and Harriet Watts (Barrytown, N.Y.: Station Hill, 1985).
Alain Veinstein, Archaeology of the Mother, by Waldrop and Tod Kabza (Peterborough, U.K.: Spectacular Diseases, 1986).
Paul Celan, Collected Prose (Manchester, U.K.: Carcanet, 1986; Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1990).
Jabès, The Book of Dialogue (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987).
Emmanuel Hocquard, Late Additions (Peterborough, U.K.: Spectacular Diseases, 1988).
Jabès, The Book of Shares (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
Jabès, The Book of Resemblances (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England/Wesleyan University Press, 1990).
Jacques Roubaud, Some Thing Black (Elmwood Park, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990).
Jabès, Intimations the Desert (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1991).
Jabès, From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1991).
Joseph Guglielmi, Dawn (Peterborough, U.K.: Spectacular Diseases, 1991).
Jabès, The Ineffaceable The Unperceived (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1992).
Friederike Mayröcker, Heiligenanstalt (Edinburgh, Scotland: Morning Star, 1992; Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1994).
Jabès, The Book of Margins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
Jabès, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1993).
Elke Erb, Mountains in Berlin (Providence, R.I.: Burning Deck, 1995).
Roubaud, The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis (Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995).
"Berlin (plus) Portfolio," selected and translated by Waldrop, Exact Change Yearbook, 1 (1995): 61-90.
Jabès, The Little Book of Unsuspected Subversion (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1996).
Selected Periodical Publications - Uncollected
"Marat/Sade: A Ritual of the Intellect," Bucknell Review, 18 (Fall 1970): 52-69.
"Charles Olson: Process and Relationship," Twentieth-Century Literature, 23 (December 1977): 467-487.
"Mirrors and Paradoxes: Edmond Jabès, Le Livres des Questions," Kentucky Romance Quarterly, 26, no. 2 (1979): 143-155.
"Chinese Windmills Turn Horizontally: On Lyn Hejinian," Temblor, 10 (1989): 219-223.
"Shall We Escape Analogy," Studies in Twentieth-Century Literature, 13, no. 1 (1989): 113-129.
"Silence, The Devil, and Jabès," in The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field, edited by Rosanna Warren (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989), pp. 225-237.
"Split Infinite," Denver Quarterly, 27, no. 4 (1993): 102-106.
Contribution to "Editorial Forum," Chain, 1 (1994): 112-113.
"An Interview with Claude Royet-Journoud," by Waldrop and Keith Waldrop, Lingo, 4 (1995): 160-167.
Rosmarie Waldrop's contribution to post-1945 American poetry is formidable. The author of ten books of poetry, numerous chapbooks, and two novels, Waldrop is also an award-winning translator (most notably of Edmond Jabès's work) and, along with her husband, Keith Waldrop, the publisher of one of the most persistently adventurous of America's independent presses, Burning Deck, now in its third decade of operation. Her work has received international recognition, especially in France and Germany, and is increasingly discussed in this country both in the context of the contemporary avant-garde and also in the context of feminist writing, where her name is often linked to those of Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Barbara Guest, Leslie Scalapino, and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge.
Making her achievement perhaps the more remarkable is the fact that English is Waldrop's adopted language and the United States her adopted home. In "Alarms and Excursions," a 1990 essay that provides an excellent introduction to her overarching concerns as a writer, publisher, and translator, Waldrop points out that, along with the inevitable difficulties associated with a shift in one's primary language (her native language is German), the experience of this change can also yield a valuable insight: "it makes you very conscious," she writes, "that you don't ever own the language, that the language is larger than you, that it is not simply a tool that you are master of." She has on several occasions spoken of language as the only credible form of "transcendence" in secular times, and in a brief essay from 1993 titled "Split Infinite," she describes the act of writing in these words: "Allowing ourselves to be lost, we dive into the infinite of language."
The biographical experience of linguistic dislocation not only informs Waldrop's theoretical and practical orientation toward language, it also represents a historical link to preceding generations of avant-garde writers, principally, in Waldrop's case, the Surrealists and, even more centrally, the Dadaists. Like these earlier writers, Waldrop engages in a literary practice predicated on a commitment to the materiality and almost plastic manipulability of language as a medium. Her own work in concrete and visual poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, her frequent use of collage techniques and procedural devices throughout the 1980s and 1990s, not to mention her many years of hand-setting type for Burning Deck books and chapbooks, all testify to an ongoing exploration in the fundamentally strange and surprising precincts of the material word. Refusing an exclusively instrumental relation to words--refusing, that is, to reduce the Baudelairean "forest of symbols" to mere lumber--Waldrop prefers to think of writing as a way of "uncovering possibilities." "My key words would be exploring and maintaining," she says, "exploring a forest not for the timber that might be sold, but to understand it as a world and to keep this world alive."
Waldrop was born in the small German town of Kitzingen-am-Main on 24 August 1935. Her father, Joseph Sebald, taught physical education at the town's high school. Her mother, Friederike Wohlgemuth Sebald, had aspirations to a singing career, but these never materialized except in the most modest of forms. Waldrop's sisters, the twins Dorle and Annelie, were nine years her elder. Owing perhaps to the age difference and the special nature of the bond between twins, Waldrop felt quite separate from her sisters while the children were growing up. Both sisters did, however, come to be implicated in Waldrop's subsequent life as an author: to Dorle, for instance, is dedicated the 1979 poem "The Ambition of Ghosts"; the cover art for When They Have Senses (1980) is also attributed to her. The character of the sister in Waldrop's semi-autobiographical novel, The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter (1986), is loosely modeled after Annelie (to whom, under the pen name "Yerma," that book is also dedicated). Waldrop describes her father as having been something of a walking compendium of quotes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller. His curious blend of pantheistic naturalism and church-attending Catholicism, as well as his ubiquitous activities as an amateur astrologer, are characteristics that appear to the poet in retrospect to have influenced her in the opposite directions, pushing her to become the more rational the more "kooky" some of her father's behavior became. Her mother's Prussian Protestantism kept her father's tendency toward mysticism in check; it was she who set the tone of the household as secular and even modestly cosmopolitan, encouraging her daughters' aesthetic aspirations and seeing that Annelie received training as a ballerina until World War II cut those studies short.
In "Memory Tree," a recent prose poem, Waldrop writes of a "long life of learning the preceding chapter." She refers, of course, to the rise of National Socialism, culminating in Hitler's assumption of power in Germany in the years immediately preceding her birth. Waldrop undertakes the imaginative reconstruction of this period in her well-received novel The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter, the title of which alludes to the mythic founding of Waldrop's hometown by King Pippin the Short in the eighth century, where the ostensibly apolitical lives of the characters Joseph and Frederika Seifert (modeled on Waldrop's parents) are linked to the crumbling of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi hegemony in Germany. Regina Weinreich, reviewing the book for The New York Times Book Review, saw that "marital betrayal is a metaphor for what is happening in the state. Everyday detail progresses to a haunting echo: 'Auschwitz, Maidanek, Treblinka.'"
In "Memory Tree" Waldrop resuscitates more of these "everyday details"; this time, ones directly embedded in her past:
My first schoolday, September 1941, a cool day. Time did not pass, but was conducted to the brain. I was taught. The Nazi salute, the flute. How firmly entrenched, the ancient theories. Already using paper, pen and ink. Yes, I said, I'm here.
I was six or seven dwarfs, the snow was white, the prince at war. Hitler on the radio, followed by Léhar. Senses impinged on. Blackouts, sirens, mattress on the floor, furtive visitor or ghost.
A kaleidoscope of early experiences, these sentences juxtapose disparate time frames: the experience of starting school in 1941 is fused with the bombing of Kitzingen in 1943 ("Blackouts, sirens, mattress on the floor"), which resulted in the school's being closed. The first sentence of the second stanza ("I was six or seven dwarfs, the snow was white, the prince at war") refers to Waldrop's brief experience, at ten years of age, as an actress in a troupe that traveled from village to village in an American army truck during the months immediately following Germany's surrender in May 1945. Waldrop remembers that "in the afternoon we played Snow White and the Seven Dwarves for the kids and in the evening we played Wedekind's Love Potion . I was one of the dwarves in the afternoon and I was a Russian nobleman's son in the evening."
The historical fact of the concentration camps, as writers from Theodor Adorno to Michel Foucault and Edmond Jabès have maintained, discredited not only the political practice of fascism, but also the metaphysical concepts to which fascist politics had appealed for legitimacy. For Waldrop the concept of a full and homogenous center is one such concept. For her it is a matter of ethical as well as aesthetic principle that "the center is empty," that, indeed, "it becomes tangible only in the negative, in the totalizing claims to define it, give it a content, which cannot but turn into tyranny and intolerance. In Jabès's books it becomes tangible in its grotesque historical parody, the concentration camp." Even in works where no explicit reference to the historical fact of fascism is made, such concerns remain in evidence throughout Waldrop's own writing. For instance, in the brilliant prose poems of The Reproduction of Profiles (1987) and Lawn of Excluded Middle (1993), the primary figure is that of an absent center, or "empty middle," conceived of as a generative matrix. The social category most prominent in these two works (and in many other of Waldrop's books, as well) is that of gender, but it would be a mistake to overlook the dense and contradictory investments a society makes in organizing the gender(s) of its citizens, a point with obvious resonance in relation to such phenomena as the Nazi cult of the "mother."
The overlap between the historic and the personal--what Waldrop once summarized in the lines "personal blisters from / impersonal burns"--results in ambivalence. In the introduction to her 1994 New Directions volume, A Key into the Language of America, a text that redoubles and dislocates the 1643 text of the same name by Roger Williams, Waldrop takes stock of some of the ambivalences that suffuse her personal history:
I was born in 1935, the year Williams's 300-year banishment officially ended. I was born "on the other side," in Germany. Which was then Nazi Germany. I am not Jewish. I was born on the side of the (then) winners. I was still a child when World War II ended with the defeat of the Nazis. I immigrated to the U.S., the country of the winners, as a white, educated European who did not find it too difficult to get jobs, an advanced degree, a university position. I can see myself, to some extent, as a parallel to the European settlers/colonists of Roger Williams's time (though I did not think God or destiny had set aside for me a virgin garden). Like Roger Williams, I am ambivalent about my position among the privileged, the "conquerors."
It is to her "position among the ... 'conquerors'" that Waldrop owes her early grasp of the English language, the result of growing up in what became after 1945 an American occupation zone. Drawing on this background, as well as some knowledge of French,Waldrop entered the University of Würzberg (just north of Kitzingen) in 1954 to study comparative literature. It was also in 1954 that she met a recently discharged private in the U.S. Army, Keith Waldrop (who at that time was still known by his first name, Bernard, rather than the middle name, Keith, by which he would be known from the late 1960s forward). Contriving to see more of one another, the two undertook the first of what--although they could not know it then--would be their many collaborations, a project translating one of Friedrich Nietzsche's poems. The two further arranged to study together in Aix-en-Provence in the academic year 1956-1957, during which time their relationship grew serious. Waldrop completed her undergraduate study at the University of Freiburg in 1958, and on 17 December of that year, having been accepted into the graduate program in comparative literature at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she traveled to the United States with the intention of making her life there. One month later she and Keith married.
At the University of Michigan the groundwork had already been laid for what came to be known as the anthology wars. Donald Hall, coeditor (along with Robert Pack) of the New Poets of England and America (1957), was at the time a new addition to the faculty at the Ann Arbor campus and was destined to become the emblem of "academic" poetry when Donald Allen's New American Poetry threw down the gauntlet in 1960. Waldrop recalls arriving in Michigan, where Keith had preceded her by a year (indeed, it was money from a Hopwood Award that Keith had won for an essay the previous year that paid Waldrop's passage from Germany), to find a circle of people bound by their common interest in Ezra Pound's work and by their practice of writing and circulating new poetry among themselves.
James Camp and Don Hope (who along with Keith coedited Burning Deck magazine between 1962 and 1965), Dallas Wiebe, John Heath-Stubbs, X.J. Kennedy, and the Waldrops composed the core of this circle, known playfully as the John Barton Wolgamot Society. Wolgamot was the author of In Sarah, Christ, Mencken, and Beethoven There Were Men and Women (1944), a fascinating if arcane book that Keith had stumbled upon in a used-book shop. Contributing to the aura that this author assumed for the circle was the fact that Wolgamot is a near-homonym of Wohlgemuth, the maiden name of Rosmarie's mother. Along with Hall, W. D. Snodgrass--then teaching at Wayne State University in nearby Detroit--also participated in the circle. Both men were represented (along with Kennedy, Wiebe, Camp, Heath-Stubbs, Keith Waldrop [under the pseudonym "Bernard Keith"], and Hope) in the first Burning Deck title, a 1961 anthology edited by Hope and entitled The Wolgamot Interstice.
Kennedy was in many ways the "star" of this group, but the high value that he and Hall placed on traditional prosody was by no means unequivocally endorsed by the others. It was against the backdrop of an increasing "camp mentality" that Burning Deck magazine was optimistically announced as a "quinterly" journal in 1962 (in point of fact the four issues of this journal appeared over the course of three years). In their joint introduction to the 1982 anthology of Burning Deck authors, A Century in Two Decades, Rosmarie and Keith recall that "the two most widely noted anthologies of the time, both representing the period 1945-1960, contain[ed] not a single poet in common. Burning Deck ... disregarded this split, printing and reviewing a spread of poets wide enough that on occasion an author would complain about being in such unprogrammatic company." With strong praise for Robert Creeley's For Love (1962) and George Oppen's The Materials (1962) in the first issue (Fall 1962) and an equally strong defense against criticism by LeRoi Jones and others of X.J. Kennedy's Nude Descending a Staircase (1961) in the second issue (Spring 1963), Burning Deck magazine inaugurated an approach that gently but insistently cast a skeptical eye upon narrowly partisan claims, an approach that became a signature of Burning Deck publications when it passed to the Waldrops' joint editorship from roughly 1968 onward.
Discussing her first years in the United States, Waldrop speaks of a time of "taking things in, adjusting to America." Her earliest attempts at writing, already fairly tentative, were more or less suspended for a while. "I tried to go on with the little attempts I had made," Waldrop recalls, "but it became so artificial to write something in German when I was by that time thinking in English, dreaming in English, living in English." Translation provided the ideal bridge, a "natural substitute," she later called it. She first tried translating the work of American poets such as Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell, Creeley, and Pound into German. While some of these translations eventually appeared in journals such as Aspekte & Impulse, Wort & Wahrheit, and Lyrische Hefte, Waldrop's lack of contacts in the German publishing world made publication there a somewhat frustrating endeavor, so she reversed direction and began translating poets such as Gottfried Benn, Karl Krolow, and Günter Grass into English.
In 1963 Waldrop's first journal publications appeared, including both original poems (see those appearing under the pseudonym "Rosmarie Keith" in Burning Deck 2) and her translations (in journals such as Alternative, Chelsea, and Choice). In the same year the British poet Charles Tomlinson selected a manuscript of her poetry for a Major Hopwood Award. In 1964, her dissertation not yet in hand (she received her Ph.D. in 1966), Waldrop was hired to teach comparative and German literature at Wesleyan University. Taking their 8 x 12 Chandler and Price platen press (purchased in 1961 for $175), she and her husband moved to Durham, Connecticut, where they spent four years before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, where they have made their home from 1968 to the present.
The appearance in 1967 of A Dark Octave marks the advent of Waldrop's career as a serious writer in English. The eight poems in this chapbook prefigure Waldrop's mature work on a thematic level. The title poem, "A Dark Octave," introduces a musical metaphor that will reappear throughout her oeuvre (for two quite different examples, see Differences for Four Hands, 1984, and The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter). The same poem also interrogates the foundation of perceptual experience and its links to personal identity, a relationship crystallized in that perhaps most basic of English-language puns, "I/eye." "Setting Type" is a meditation, triggered by the daily labors of running a small press, on the physical properties of language. "For John Cage Perchance," besides being an homage to the avant-garde composer and writer, also ruminates on the absence of ontological and epistemological grounds, an absence Cage's aleatoric practices can literally be said to "sound." "Blank Moment" introduces the conceptual protagonist of so much of Waldrop's work, the absent center or excluded middle.
One thus recognizes many of Waldrop's major themes in this first collection; but less in evidence are her subsequent formal concerns. Considered from a metrical standpoint, the poems in A Dark Octave are quite static, their semantic and sonic values tending to resolve in end-stopped lines without benefit of enjambment or major prosodic variation. There is a heaviness to the lines that, in concert with the conceptual and thematic concerns being explored, imparts to the small volume a rather stern, abstract tone. Waldrop herself characterizes these early poems as "fairly conservative," attributing the cautious formal approach to her youthful obedience to preexisting models and her misplaced orientation toward the narrowly semantic dimensions of a poem.
The eminently still and solitary world of A Dark Octave gives way to a more gregarious, if also more vertiginous, world by the time of Waldrop's second chapbook, The Relaxed Abalone; or, What-You-May-Find (1970). A collage of language that Waldrop drew from the case histories found in standard psychology books, The Relaxed Abalone is as formally frenetic as A Dark Octave was static. Here Waldrop composes in highly enjambed short lines that take their bearings from the page's center axis, rather than the uniform flush left margins of A Dark Octave. Her acknowledged metrical debt to Creeley's compact, almost gasping, lines is often evident in these pages, and the gesture of placing the first-person pronoun at the beginning of a phrase but the end of a line (thus using syntax as counterpoint to lineation) makes the "self" in these poems seem about to catapult off the page. The subject, only conceptually decentered in A Dark Octave, has been formally decentered in The Relaxed Abalone, and while the overall effect of this decentering is more evocative of play than pathology, it is precisely the border between the two states that Waldrop is here exploring.
The half-decade from the appearance of her first chapbook in 1967 to the publication of her first major collection, The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger, brought out by Random House in 1972, encompasses a great deal of activity on Waldrop's part. Her translation of Peter Weiss's novel Bodies and Shadows was published by Delacorte in 1969 (a scholarly article on the same author's daring parable of reason and revolution, Marat/Sade: A Ritual of the Intellect, 1965, appeared the following year). A third chapbook, Spring Is a Season and Nothing Else, was brought out in an exquisitely printed edition by Perishable Press in 1970, a year that also saw a collection of print experiments, Camp Printing, appear from Burning Deck. In 1971 Mouton published Waldrop's doctoral dissertation, Against Language?, a stunningly lucid tract exploring "dissatisfaction with language" as a theme in modern and avant-garde poetry. Already working from the Wittgensteinian standpoint that would prove so generative in creative texts such as The Reproduction of Profiles and Lawn of Excluded Middle, Waldrop's critical acumen and sheer command of the tradition of experimental writing in German, French, and English make this a work still well worth consulting twenty-five years after its publication.
Perhaps the single most important event of this vibrant period of Waldrop's early career came not in the United States but in Europe, where she and her husband were spending the year 1970-1971--she on an Alexander von Humboldt grant and her husband on an Amy Lowell traveling fellowship. (A long-standing joke about the "mystical marriage" of Humboldt and Lowell dates back to this conjunction of funding sources and bears literary fruit, so to speak, in the 1990 "collage epic," as critic Marjorie Perloff called it, A Form / of Taking / It All.) The couple spent the bulk of this year in Paris, and it was while in that city that they met Claude Royet-Journoud (editor since 1963 of the pathbreaking small magazine Siécle à mains, titled after a line from Arthur Rimbaud's Season in Hell, 1873). They also met Anne-Marie Albiach. Albiach and Royet-Journoud were two other writers making a life together and sharing with the Waldrops interests ranging from the work of the Egyptian Jewish writer living in exile in Paris, Edmond Jabès, to American Objectivist poets George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky (Albiach had in fact just translated into French the first half of Zukofsky's "A"-9, notorious for the extreme precision of its internal rhymes). In a published interview with Ed Foster, Waldrop recalls the effect of this meeting:
[S]uddenly there were two people my age--actually a bit younger--who were talking about poetry in a very technical, but also "lived," way. Aside from Keith, they were the first people I found I could really talk with in a way that stimulated thinking and writing. They are maybe even more crucial than Jabès to what happened to Burning Deck and also Keith's writing and my own.
The friendship had major ramifications for Waldrop, particularly in that it was through Royet-Journoud that she came to meet Jabès and resume a project that she had just shortly before considered abandoning: the translation into English of Jabès's work that first resulted in The Book of Questions (1976-1984).
Waldrop's volume The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger appeared in 1972, brought out not by one of the independent presses that proved so important to her later career, but by the commercial press Random House. A sentence early in Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) provided Waldrop with her title: "Miss Stein used always to tell this story when the casual stranger in the aggressive way of the casual stranger said, looking at this [Matisse] painting, and what is that supposed to represent." Waldrop's identification was not so much with the philistinic response to non-representational (or abstract) modern art, the response recorded and ridiculed here by Stein. Rather, it was to the sense of being an interloper or intruder, transgressing codes of which one is not even aware, that Waldrop meant to refer with her title. She elaborates: "I felt aggressive being a German writing poems in English, I felt I was one of those aggressive, casual strangers."
The volume runs to slightly more than ninety pages and is divided into three sections. The first and second sections, composed of seventeen and fifteen poems respectively, gather together poems that first appeared in A Dark Octave and Spring Is a Season and Nothing Else , along with some previously uncollected work from periodicals. The sequence "As If We Didn't Have To Talk," in thirty-eight numbered sections, makes up the third part of the volume and gives the clearest indication of Waldrop's emerging formal and conceptual concerns. It is interesting to note that many of the poems in the first two sections appear in revised form. In preparing them for book publication, Waldrop eliminated similes, cut specific lines, and rearranged certain of her line breaks. In no case did she add to the poems. Indeed, her criteria appear to have been condensation and the creation of more startling and direct juxtapositions. What helped Waldrop take to heart Pound's definition "dichtung = condensare" (later the title for a Burning Deck book series devoted to German authors in English translation) was her experience printing books for Burning Deck. In a 1994 forum on gender and editing, she recalled:
In a tangible way, it is printing, even more than editing, that has affected my own writing. Printing letterpress (especially setting poems by hand, as we did in the beginning) is so slow a process that I became extremely aware of any unnecessary "fat." It has helped make my poems leaner.
Clustering around themes of gendered identity, the body, domestic space, family history, and the immigrant experience (and the ambivalent feelings it engenders), the poems in the first two sections of Aggressive Ways share a common question: namely, how to have a place without locking oneself into an oppressive condition of stasis. It is not surprising, then, that "home" is a persistent and yet conflicted trope in poems such as "Morning Has No House," "Linear," "Cleaning," "Between," and "Confession to Settle a Curse." Consider, for example, the poem "Cleaning," which takes the innocuous (but clearly gendered) activity of straightening up as a point of departure for questioning one's relation to matter more generally: "I'm careful / make sure I miss the corners / just coax it / into a mere pretense of / clean lines to reassure us / this world is ours." "Single Vision" evokes the complicity between stasis and signification: "sedentary / the world makes sense / all lines converge / take their position without / gap." For Waldrop, who would summarize her poetic method in Lawn of Excluded Middle as "gap gardening," the absence of a gap is tantamount to the absence of transformative possibility, a condition she associates in "Confession to Settle a Curse" with the "good German household" in which she grew up, where "wardrobes dressers sideboards / bookcases cupboards chests bureaus / desks trunks caskets coffers" all ominously came equipped "with lock / and key." Reviewer Janet Bloom, writing in the Fall/Winter 1972 issue of Parnassus, pointed to "Confession to Settle a Curse" and "Remembering Father's Death" as the volume's most powerful poems, calling them "very deliberate and unflinching ... expression[s] of major horrors."
While mainstream reviewers tended to focus attention on the discrete, relatively conventional free verse poems of the volume's opening two sections, it is the long sequence composing the final third of the book that represents a genuine and profound breakthrough for Waldrop, looking forward as it does to two other important works, Nothing Has Changed (1981) and The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body (1978). "As If We Didn't Have To Talk" belongs to the exciting period of intellectual community that she and Keith experienced with Royet-Journoud and Albiach in Paris, and it is almost as though the generative energy of that encounter propelled Waldrop beyond the confines of the individual poem as primary compositional unit. What is certain is that, henceforth, Waldrop's most characteristic works were of a different scale: "Ever since 'As If,' I've hardly written single poems," Waldrop has said; "I have some, but I never do anything with them. I seem to want a larger space, larger structures." If her experiments with visual effects in books such as Camp Printing represented one way of pressing beyond the conventions of the expressive lyric (in that case, by redistributing the ratio between the graphic and semantic registers of reading), the serial form first used by Waldop in "As If" permits the author to experiment with duration, with the quasi-musical effects of variation over time, and with structural repetitions as significant compositional elements. And if the term "serial" also evokes a certain linearity, it must be said that the structure of works such as "As If" can as easily be conceived as a ring of elements equidistant from a common central point (which in Waldrop's work must be considered empty) as it can a strict procession of points along a straight line.
In addition to the conspicuous shift in scale, "As If We Didn't Have To Talk" introduces a second formal innovation, the "reversibility" of certain phrasal clusters within a given unit of the sequence. This means that a given word or phrase can simultaneously conclude one utterance and initiate another or function as object of one verb and subject of the next. Witness the "tumbling" of grammatical case and syntactic function in the eleventh section of the series: "In order not to / disperse / I think each movement of / my hand / turns / the page / the interval has all the rights." The themes of this passage are among those most central to Waldrop's work: the "interval," the struggle to bring a flexible order to experience without foreclosing the dimension of the unexpected or surprise, the act of reading, the significance of the minuscule but consummately human gesture. These themes converge at "my hand," at once the hand of the writer ("I think each movement of / my hand") and that of a reader ("my hand / turns / the page"). In the first eight lines of the twenty-fourth section, similar themes are evident: the interval is now conceived of as a "kernel" in the periphery of which that most surprising occurrence, the advent of another human, is apt to take place: "A flexible periphery / around / a kernel / might grow / tentative traces / take body / 'you' / let me touch you." The key transitions here are between the fourth and fifth lines, where "tentative traces" are what "might grow," and the fifth and sixth lines, where the same traces are shown taking body.
This use of reversible words and grammatical units culminates in the book-length sequence The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body. Beyond sharing a central device, "As If" and The Road Is Everywhere also share a benefactor, Eleanor Bender. In her capacity as editor of the magazine Open Places (in which Waldrop had published regularly since 1966), Bender had been instrumental in bringing the manuscript of The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger to the attention of Random House editor Nan Talese. It was Bender who published The Road as the fifth in a series of Open Places books.
Although written in the mid 1970s and published in 1978, The Road Is Everywhere has its roots in the years 1968 to 1970, when Waldrop was making the commute from Providence to Wesleyan University, two hours away in Middletown, Connecticut. The seemingly endless hours spent in her Corvair gave Waldrop ample opportunity to study road signs (which are directly incorporated as textual elements in The Road) and to steep such abstract concepts as "circulation" and "traffic" (dictionary definitions of these words act as epigraphs for The Road) in concrete experience. In this eighty-poem sequence Waldrop explores concerns also raised in Emma Goldman's 1910 analysis of the "traffic in women" (and see also Gayle Rubin's 1976 article of that name) and the literal fact of being a "woman in traffic."
If Waldrop's first chapbook, A Dark Octave, appears in retrospect to be uncharacteristically static, it is in great part because of the sheer velocity--a full decade later--of the writing in The Road Is Everywhere or Stop This Body, which clocks in at "200 miles of nerve per hour with the guardrails down." And while speed (and its psychological complement, vertigo) remains of crucial thematic importance in almost all of Waldrop's subsequent work, only A Form / Of Taking / It All in 1990 can rival the sheer acceleration this work achieves at a formal level. "Speeding down the highway doesn't allow you subordinate clauses" is how Waldrop herself characterized the relation between her subject matter and the form her text took. This acceleration is the result of the device discussed earlier of fusing subject and object clauses, which becomes ubiquitous in The Road. Waldrop discusses the significance of this move in "Alarms and Excursions":
[T]he constant flip-over of object into subject in The Road (e.g. "the dawn" in "toward the always dangerous next / dawn bleeds its sequence / of ready signs") addresses [a feminist theme], though not as theme. On the surface I talk about our car culture--though also about sexual relations. But indirectly, on the level of grammar, this technique attacks a rigid subject-object relation by practicing reversibility. And since the woman as "love-object" is a prevalent archetype in our culture I think this technique has definite feminist/political implications. Of course, this is hindsight. Consciously, I was working on a formal problem, on eroding the boundaries of the sentence, sliding sentences into one another. This has been my experience: on form you have to work consciously, whereas your concerns and obsessions surface all by themselves.
Critic Nigel Wheale points out in the 1981 Poetry Review (no. 4) that the absence of punctuation and capitalization also contributes to the book's attainment of "maximum fluency of signal interchange." Praising the skill with which Waldrop maps the points of overlap and contradiction between "traffic system," "language system," and the "network of the body and its relations," Wheale concludes that Waldrop's "interpenetrated text immediately allows its author much more complex and novel statements than poems that are predicated on tight metaphorical observance, issued from the censorious 'I.'" Other reviewers were impressed by Waldrop's ability "to fuse movement with immediate sensation," as James Naiden put it in The Minneapolis Tribune . And Bruce Andrews, writing in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the magazine he coedited with Charles Bernstein between 1978 and 1982, praised Waldrop's "ability to frame and reframe the flows around us, and the explosions which fracture the present. Body becomes its own flow; the person is a matrix of those flows & exchanges & messages. Person is a communicative system, a traffic."
With The Road Is Everywhere Waldrop took to its limit the form she had developed in the final third of The Aggressive Ways of the Casual Stranger. (Another work, the thirty-five-poem sequence Nothing Has Changed--not published in book form until 1981 but which appeared in its entirety in the periodical edited by Paul Auster, Mitch Sisskind, and Lydia Davis, Living Hand, in 1975--also belongs to this period of Waldrop's work.) Recalling the genesis of her next project, The Reproduction of Profiles, published by New Directions in 1987 and among the most critically acclaimed of her works, Waldrop says: "While I had loved that speed, by the time [The Road] was done, I was a little bored with it. I thought subordinate clauses might be nice. There was a sense that I had cut that out so much that it was time to go in the other direction, to start meandering. That is partly what made me turn to prose. Also my lines had gotten rather painfully short."
Waldrop speaks of a "turn" to prose, but it is perhaps still more accurate to speak of several such turns: to the novel with The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter; to the serial prose poem with The Reproduction of Profiles and Lawn of Excluded Middle; to the collage with Differences for Four Hands and A Form / Of Taking / It All; to the procedural text in Shorter American Memory (1988). What is clear is that her work in the sentence, especially in the expertly transmuted propositional sentences of Reproduction and Lawn, represents a major contribution to the American prose poem at a time when that form has been significantly advanced by writers such as John Ashbery, Creeley, Ron Silliman, Hejinian, and Barrett Watten. While Waldrop can in no way be said to have "abandoned" the poetic line--volumes such as When They Have Senses, Streets Enough to Welcome Snow (1986), and Peculiar Motions (1990), as well as the chapbook Morning's Intelligence (a moving contemporary take on the aubade published in 1986), are not only contemporary with the work in prose, but they also represent a variety of innovative solutions to the problem of the poetic line--it is nevertheless true that she devoted increasing attention to the sentence and especially to the project of bursting what she calls in "Alarms and Excursions" the "closure of the propositional sentence."
The title sequence of Reproduction is comprised of five sections of between five and eleven prose poems each. The titles of these sections--"Facts," "Thinkable Pictures," "Feverish Propositions," "If Words Are Signs," and "Successive Applications"--allude to key concepts from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), a work renowned for its almost uncanny clarity. But Wittgenstein is not Waldrop's only source in this sequence. The other primary source, from which Waldrop derives the narrative device of paired interlocutors (the "I" and "you" of the poem), for example, is the earliest known sustained piece of writing by Franz Kafka, A Description of a Struggle (circa 1902-1903), composed when Kafka was only twenty years old and left unpublished in his lifetime. The relation between the unnamed "I" and "you" is one of the most effective elements of Waldrop's text: it makes for a relationship of dizzying complexity, at once contentious and tender, antagonistic and erotic, intimate and impersonal. It is interesting to note in this regard that Waldrop recasts Kafka's central pair of characters, two men, into a cross-gendered pair for her poem; that is, she transposes the male social dynamic in Kafka's story (in which two men engage in an erotically charged rivalry over a female third party) into a dynamic of jealousy and the placing in jeopardy of a monogamous heterosexual couple.
Waldrop's ability to synthesize materials from sources that seem at first glance not merely diverse but diametrically opposed is the reason her sentences take on such a tense brilliance in Reproduction. A passage from "Successive Applications" provides an illustration of this ability:
Suppose, I said patiently, I am given all the details at once. Then I could construct all possible stories out of them, and that would be the end of it. Annoyed you bit your native tongue. But I knew well enough that if one leaves things alone they get less clear by themselves.
This passage takes a sentence out of Wittgenstein ("Suppose that I am given all elementary propositions: then I can simply ask what propositions I can construct out of them") and fuses it with sentences from a key scene in the Kafka story, where the protagonist shouts to his interlocutor: "Out with your stories! I no longer want to hear scraps. Tell me everything, from beginning to end. I won't listen to less, I warn you. But I'm burning to hear the whole thing." By tracing two cognate structures, the logical (Wittgenstein) and the erotic (Kafka), to their common fulcrum in the subject's desire to know, Waldrop throws a communicating wire between two areas of human endeavor that are often kept at a tidy distance.
It is difficult to indicate by a single example the variety and multiformity of Waldrop's approach to the materials that she collages. Seldom does her process come to rest after splicing together this or that isolated phrase; it is more common for elements to influence compositional decisions at structural, narrative, and thematic levels, as well as basic lexical and phrasal ones. Both Reproduction and Lawn (which again turns to Wittgenstein, this time bringing the Philosophical Investigations into contact with Robert Musil's stunningly subtle reconstruction of an aging couple's love for one another in "The Perfecting of a Love," 1911, and a textbook of quantum physics from the 1930s) manage to subordinate their source materials, to manipulate and transform them to such a degree that a relatively unified linguistic object emerges from the process.
In texts such as Shorter American Memory and A Key into the Language of America Waldrop works transformations of a different order on her source materials. The former is a fairly unadulterated instance of procedural method. The twenty-two pieces in the chapbook are derived from sources originally brought together in Henry Beston's 1937 volume American Memory. Commenting on "Shorter American Memory of the American Character According to Santayana," Waldrop notes that she "set out to write an abecedarium, limiting myself to the words used in Santayana's essay 'The American Character.' The only freedom I allowed myself was the arrangement and articulation of the words beginning with the same letter." (Notice Waldrop's inconspicuous but brilliant conflation of "character" in the sense of personality with "character" in the sense of letter of the alphabet.) While the technique yields such wonderful lines as "All Americans are also ambiguous" and carries a surprisingly critical political charge ("Nature? Never. Numbers. Once otherwise. Potential potency, practical premonitions and prophesies: poor, perhaps progressive. Quick! Reforms realize a rich Rebecca. Same speed so successfully started stops sympathetic sense of slowly seething society. Studious self-confidence"), Waldrop concedes that "this kind of extreme formalism rarely works to my satisfaction. More often I use a pattern (e.g., the grammatical structure of a given text), but also let the words push and pull in their own direction. Since I make the rules, I also feel free to break them." Such a freer use of collage materials can be seen in Differences for Four Hands, an early prose poem that refunctions details from the legendary shared life of Clara and Robert Schumann while simultaneously entering into dialogue with Lyn Hejinian's Gesualdo (1978), a similarly motivated but differently textured piece about the sixteenth-century "musician and murderer" Don Carlo Gesualdo, whose late madrigals are often considered harbingers of modern-day experiments with dissonance.
A Key into the Language of America is Waldrop's most recent book and the one that offers perhaps the most complete synthesis of her major themes and formal techniques. Each of the book's chapters (which take their titles directly from Roger Williams's text) is composed of four elements. There are initial sections in prose (parallel to Williams's anthropological observations) that deal with "the clash of Indian and European cultures." Every chapter also has a "narrative section in italics, in the voice of a young woman, ambivalent about her sex and position among the conquerors." Interposed between the prose elements come word lists, partially drawn from Williams's dictionary entries, partially improvised by Waldrop. And each chapter concludes with a poem that remobilizes linguistic elements introduced in earlier sections, recontextualizing them with new material.
For example, in chapter 24, "Concerning Their Coyne," the poem reads: "legal and tender / a condition called / darling or Netop / which might as well purchase emotion / as yield interest in / I must explain my body / does not differ." Visually this poem is reminiscent of the major serial poems of the 1970s, "As If We Didn't Have To Talk," Nothing Has Changed, and The Road is Everywhere. Even some of the themes from those works can be seen to recur. The prose sections in italics, on the other hand, strongly recall the prose poems of Reproduction and Lawn. Here is a passage from the same chapter:
I learned that my face belonged to a covert system of exchange since the mirror showed me a landscape requiring diffidence, and only in nightmares could I find identity or denouement. At every street corner, I exaggerated my bad character in hopes of being contradicted, but only caused an epidemic of mothers covering their face while exposing private parts.
Making the synthesis still more profound is Waldrop's use of typographical devices as semantically weighted elements of the text, for example, different fonts and degrees of inking serving to differentiate the chapters internally and to signal the use of source material from Williams's document. This use of typography recalls the early work in visual poetry, such as Letters from Rosmarie and Keith Waldrop (1970); the collaboration with Nelson Howe, Body Image (1970); the experiments in print-design, Camp Printing; and the direct incorporation of signage in The Road Is Everywhere. Finally, Waldrop's juxtaposition of historical, philosophical, aesthetic, and anthropological materials in this work recalls A Form / Of Taking / It All and, to a lesser extent, Reproduction and Lawn.
In Roger Williams, Waldrop finds a fascinatingly contradictory anchor point for a sustained meditation on her adopted country. Exile and translator, a figure of radical independence (to the point of being labeled a heretic), Williams was a man whose prototypical act of sympathetic anthropology slipped into an appalling and unsought complicity with the process of colonization. The ubiquity of Williams's image and name in modern-day Rhode Island, where she makes her home, leads Waldrop to say in the extremely useful introduction to the Key: "I live in Roger Williams's territory. By coincidence and marriage I share his initials. I share his ambivalence."
The generative nature of this ambivalence is something Geoffrey O'Brien captured well in a 20 January 1987 review of Waldrop's Streets Enough to Welcome Snow in The Village Voice. "She fuses the schemas of history and the randomness of the immediate," notes the critic, "in writing which for all its sensual richness has the tough-mindedness of an ongoing investigation. Above all this is writing so rooted in human presence that it can permit itself any displacement, any permutation, without losing its course.... However far inward or outward the poem goes, it never abandons the world." While O'Brien had some cause to lament that Waldrop was not better known at the time of his review, it was precisely in 1986 and 1987, when Station Hill brought out Streets and The Hanky of Pippin's Daughter and New Directions published The Reproduction of Profiles, that Waldrop's work was passing into wider recognition; and her reputation has continued to grow.
In 1994 the editors of two major anthologies of post-1945 American poetry, Paul Hoover in his Norton anthology Postmodern American Poetry and Douglas Messerli in his Sun and Moon volume, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry, 1960-1990, concurred in including sizable excerpts from Waldrop's work among their selections. On the international scene, The Reproduction of Profiles, already translated into French by Jacques Roubaud in 1991, is slated to appear soon in German translation. Waldrop's own work as a translator continues to garner recognition; she received a National Endowment for the Arts translator's fellowship in 1993 (having already received an NEA fellowship for her creative work in 1980) and was awarded the prestigious Harold Morton Landon Translation Award in 1994. Editor since 1986 of Série d'Ecriture: Recent French Poetry in Translation (initially published by the British press Spectacular Diseases and taken over by Burning Deck in 1992), Waldrop recently began editing a similar series of German writings in translation, Dichtung = . Burning Deck's thirtieth anniversary in 1991 was greeted by wide acclaim, including a special issue of the O'blek magazine dedicated to celebrating the Waldrops. Michael Palmer was among those who paid eloquent tribute to the press, noting that "without Burning Deck and a very few others, we experimental poets would, simply, not exist." Finally, looking ahead at Waldrop's own work, it appears that a third installment of the project begun in Reproduction and continued in Lawn of Excluded Middle is well under way, sections having appeared in Abacus 80 (under the title "Cornered Stones / Split Infinites") and in other magazines. A substantial volume of selected writings has been slated for publication by Talisman House in 1997. In short, Waldrop's activity, always just shy of staggering, shows no sign of subsiding. This writer who declared her arrival in American letters by adopting the "aggressive ways of the casual stranger" is, in fact, a stranger no longer; she has become a familiar and welcome fact in the American literary tradition.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ed Foster, "Interview with Rosmarie Waldrop," Talisman, 6 (1991): 27-39.
Wendy J. Burch, "Interview with Rosmarie Waldrop," Poetry Flash, 243 (1993): 1-13.
Jefferson Hansen, "Interview with Rosmarie Waldrop," Poetics Briefs (1993).
Joseph M. Conte, Unending Design: The Forms of Postmodern Poetry (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 280-281.
O·blek, special issue on the Waldrops, 9 (Spring 1991).
Marjorie Perloff, "Towards a Wittgensteinian Poetics," Contemporary Literature, 33, no. 2 (1992): 191-213.
Joan Retallack, "Non-Euclidean Narrative Combustion, or What the Subtitles Can't Say," Parnassus, 14 (Summer 1988): 24-49.
Retallack, ":Re:Thinking:Literary:Feminism: (Three Essays onto Shaky Grounds)," in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, edited by Lynn Keller and Cristanne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), pp. 345-377.
Written by: Steven R. Evans, Brown University
Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 169: American Poets Since World War II, Fifth Series. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Joseph Conte, State University of New York at Buffalo. Gale Research, 1996. pp. 284-296.