Poetry Seminar: Michele Leggott

[Michele Leggott: Reading Zukofsky's 80 Flowers (1989)]

My seminar is about the poetry of Michele Leggott. I am going to look at two poems. One from her second collection Swimmers, Dancers, published 18 years ago in 1991 and one from her recent collection Mirabile Dictu, published in 2009.

But first I am going to look at Leggott’s work as a whole. As Jack Ross said in an online review of her 1999 collection as far as I can see, Leggott’s poetry “challenges my notion of poetry to the limits”. With this in mind, I believe it may be helpful to examine the kind of poetry Leggott was reading and writing about before and during the time she started to write poetry of her own. This influence may help us to find a way into her lyric.

Leggott’s first collection, Like This, was published in New Zealand in 1988, three years after she completed a PhD dissertation at the University of British Colombia in Canada, and one year before this research was published in America. Titled Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, it is a 432-page, dense interrogation of the last work of an obscure New York poet named Louis Zukofsky.


Zukofsky was a younger contemporary and friend of renowned American imagist poet Ezra Pound, but, because of the difficulty of his work, he was largely unrecognised until after his death at the age of 74 in 1978. Leggott’s research was published by The John Hopkins University Press in Baltimore in 1989, two years before the same publisher released The Complete Short Poetry of Louis Zukofsky with a foreword by Robert Creeley. Clearly Leggott was at the forefront of the wave of renewed interest in Zukofsky’s experimental modernist poetry. I believe her own work was, and continues to be, influenced by his poetics.

80 Flowers, the subject of Leggott’s research, comprises 80 poems plus an epigraph, each ostensibly about a flower, but in fact containing a dizzyingly complex range of associations, meanings, references to earlier works, quotes and phrases from other poets and places, transliterations of words and phrases from Greek and Latin – in fact it is a raft of esoteric word-play. Coupled with this is an intriguing fascination with numbers which opens a world of possible associations between numbers and literal meaning. For example, Zukofsky planned to finish 80 Flowers over ten years by his 80th birthday, an intention which Leggott notes would have made “a fourfold groundswell – winter, spring, summer, fall – ten times over … Forty seasons (whose generation?), 4 + 0 or “Four for balance”” (Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers,17). Each poem is eight lines long with five words per line - forty words per poem. Leggott writes: “Number-tumbling is usually near the heart of Zukofsky’s poetry” (14). “Eight is the Pythagorean number of love; turned on its side, it is the infinity symbol” (16). Add the integers of 81, 8 + 1 = 9 “another of the mystical numbers. One strand of Pythagorean thought asserts that man is a full chord of eight notes, and deity is therefore nine … There are nine spheres in the Ptolemaic universe, and inventions such as Muses to the order of nine derived from this scheme” (78). And so on, just to scratch the surface of the way numbers interact with linguistics and with deriving meaning from the poetry under Leggott’s microscope.

[Michele Leggott: Mirabile Dictu (2009)]

Now lets consider Leggott’s recent collection. The title, Mirabile Dictu, is a Latin phrase. The poem with that title which describes a descent into a lonely world of despair, darkness, blindness, loss and death, is situated third in the collection. Its opposite, a poem named (in translation from Latin), "wonderful to relate", about the miraculous discovery of what was lost, a daughter, and a wedding scene of fruitfulness and joy, is situated third to last in the collection. The title itself, Mirabile Dictu, appears in Leggott’s research book, as part of a Zukofsky exercise in phonetic transliteration found in the 69th poem in his collection, titled Yarrow:

leg it
toles odd astral eaves rust
sticks urban miraculous ditty whinnied
to a few gains …
knows weathers flame

Leggott tells us this is a “potpourri of Horace (“leg(it) … tollis ad astra levis … rusticus urbem” and Virgil (“mirabile dictu … hinnatu fugiens … adgnosco veteris vestigia flammae”) (359) extracted from Zukofsky’s notes on his reading of the two Roman poets. He has formed English words from the phonetics of the Latin words, making “mirabile dictu” into “miraculous ditty”.

All this may sound outside of anyone’s normal notion of poetry but, undaunted, Leggott writes excitedly about the task of unpicking Zukofsky’s poems. She notes they are practically indecipherable without the working notes which the aging poet ensured were archived before his death. “Having been thirty years ahead of his time once, and having paid for it” (33) by alienating “all but the most persistent of readers” (34) with the baffling movements in his lifework, a long poem titled A, Zukofsky was shrewd enough to blueprint the process of writing his final work by having the notebooks of all his draft material housed in a public collection, she says. It is these notebooks, stored at the University of Texas, which Leggott trawls through to decipher the work. Reviewer Michael Bernstein describes the task she undertakes as “exhaustingly detailed archival research” (443), and a “microscopic, laborious scrutiny” (445). This perhaps helps us to illuminate the process behind Leggott’s own work.

Here is a poet who pays intricate attention to detail, who is prepared to carry out a painstaking analysis of archival material, who is attuned to the possibility of convoluted and elaborate connections between words, between sounds, between meanings and between etymologies, who may cross-reference her poetry with previous work of her own and with the language of other poets and other poets. Although her work is far less opaque than Zukofsky’s, these linguistic manoeuvres are the kind which we may expect to uncover and which may open Leggott’s work for easier interpretation.

At this point, it may be helpful to investigate the type of poetry Zukofsky wrote and how it may have influenced Leggott. He coined the word “objectivist” to describe his style. According to Tim Woods in The Poetics of the Limit, objectivism was an attempt to resist “the intrusion of the controlling imperialist ego in writing that enforces its own perception on objects” (22). It has “affinities with the visual arts in using language and shaping the poem on the page as ideogram” and “relies heavily on auditory and musical effects” (21). In the preface to his essay, A Test of Poetry, written in 1948, Zukofsky said: “The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound and intellection. This is its purpose as art” (quoted in Robert Creeley’s foreword to Complete Short Poetry of Louis Zukofsky, vii). Note that sight and sound are given priority over meaning. In his 1946 essay “Poetry, For My Son When He Can Read”, Zukofsky compares poetry with song and with dance. Robert Creeley says of objectivism “the parallel with music is very clear” (xi). He quotes Zukofsky: it is that way of saying something “wherein the ideas present themselves sensuously and intelligently and are of no predatory intention” (xi). In "Entertaining Possibilities: Six Contemporary NZ Poets", Andrew Johnston says Leggott’s poetry “explores the power of language to enact experience rather than to formulate abstractions from experience”. He describes it as is “a torrent of sounds, sentiments, situations and sensory details” (Meanjin, 1992). Paula Green, in her review of Mirabile Dictu, says Leggott “never relinquishes her need for music. It is there in the evocative detail and the sumptuous language” (NZ Herald, Aug 8 2009). Like Zukofsky, Leggott uses sight and sound to create poems which are themselves the experience, which like music can be enjoyed again and again.

Leggott discusses Zukofsky’s emphasis on sight and sound. She describes 80 Flowers as “the tour de force of Zukofsky’s late style of condensed lyricism in which words freed from conventional syntax invite or demand that an audience make what aural or semantic connections it can” (357). Remarking on the fact that the work is unpunctuated, she says: “Zukofsky apparently wants to push us, readers, back to the sound of these words, wants us to sound them in the effort to establish the sense (or multiplicity of sense) our ears, hearing melody … insist is there” (357-8). She says her research book “attempts to account for the breath-taking aural delight that draws listeners long before the poems need to be understood intellectually” (xiv).

Lack of punctuation is a feature of Leggott’s poetry. Green describes Mirabile Dictu as “a glorious continuum with neither full stops to mark ends, nor capital letters to denote beginnings. It is as though we, too, can absorb the stumbles, the dark patches, the richness and the heavenly light”. It seems that Leggott has adopted Zukofsky’s technique in order that we too are pushed back to the sounds of words as melody in the same way that “the endless kinetic lines of 80 Flowers” (357) was written to provide aural delight to its readers 34 years ago. Leggott is now succeeding in delighting her readers with Zukofsky’s ground breaking techniques.

A similarity between the poets’ works can be found in Leggott’s discussion of her poem peri poietikes in Mirabile Dictu. It contains the lines:

apo koinu
they reply enigmaticallyjump from the join
that is a possum in the corner

Leggott says: “There is something to say about the spring and twist of the line that likes to look back even as it looks forward” (script for the BBC Radio 3 series A Laureate’s Life in ka mate ka ora: a new Zealand journal of poetry and poetics (September 2009, 71)). This echoes her interpretation of the first line of Zukofsky’s poem "Honesty": “lunar year annual anew”. She says: “What starts out as a largely aural transformation then turns into “lunary era a new all anew” and the double use of the initial “a” of “annual” (“era a new all”) is the result of the eye casting back even as the voice reads forward” (Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, 357). In the 2009 article, Leggott offers an explanation of her lines: “Line-break is what the ancient Greeks knew as apo koinu, literally away from the join. Koinu is almost corner, apo as in apohelion away from the sun or apocalypse breaking from cover, revelation. Not that the possum, now very smelly, is apocalyptic but it does give me the chance to align apo koinu with the almost-translation a possum in the corner” (71-2). Compare this with Leggott’s analysis of the first line of Zukofsky’s work: “Heart us invisibly thyme time”. She says: “”Heart us” is transliteration of artos “artos” (Greek for leavened loaf) plus part-translation, part-transliteration of thymos, thyme’s warm Greek heart. The connection is invisible, lovely, apparently breadless, and a perfect touchstone for 80 Flowers as it sets about resuming the “hidden melody of A” (78-79, brackets mine).

The confluence between an intellectual world view and a focus on the domestic is another area Leggott’s poems intersect with Zukofsky’s. His son Paul and wife Celia appear in his work, as do Leggott’s family in hers. “Learning to Swim” from Swimmers, Dancers, contains husband Mark, son James, Mum, Dad, sister Jane, even Mrs Lange the bach owner and builder Charlie Hana. “wonderful to relate” focuses on the wedding of a new-found niece. When Robert Creeley says: “No poet is in touch at so many points with so much of the world around him; no poet has written so comprehensively of domestic life” ix) he could, if we changed the gender, be talking about Michele Leggott, not Louis Zukofsky.

So now, when we look at the poems, we can approach them from the perspective of the beauty of their sight and sound as words wash over us and meanings are pulled from the melody of the words, from the associations they evoke. These are poems to be enjoyed for the experience of them, as much as for the experience they describe.

We are invited, more than invited, compelled I would say, to attribute the first person “I”, and in some cases the second person “you”, of the poems to the poet herself. Swimmers, Dancers is studded with family photos, as if the poems are further snapshots in the album. Mirabile Dictu is a personal record of Leggott’s journey into and out of darkness due to her deteriorating sight.

“nice feijoas” is a self-reflective poem which swims from one topic to another with the barest of connection yet creates a whole. It describes writing poetry in the heat and clamour of an ordinary life. There is a roadside feijoa stall, daylight saving, swimming in a tidal sea, being stung by jellyfish and a sick dog. These stories are very New Zealand. The lack of capitals and punctuation aid the flow of lines and loose, languid association of ideas. The increased spacing between some phrases adds air and a momentary pause between the stories as they spill out. The first and last lines, about poets and poetry, are the drawstrings that pull the poem together.

There are phrases which look back as they look forward. “a good trade” refers back to daylight saving’s “dark mornings/ for long evenings” and forward to the feijoa stall: “gold coins/ for bags of fruit”. Language alternates between the ordinary: “shakes a leg”, “she is ok”, the academic: “September’s Baccalaureate”, and the poetic: “elegant connections of continents and light”. These techniques make the ordinary extraordinary without pretension.

“Learning to Swim” reflects on itself as Leggott describes childhood swimming lessons: “for two months I could do nothing with this but remember it” she writes of the memory and of writing the poem. In the third stanza she moves forward a generation to her own young son’s first trip to a black sand beach on a journey back to her Taranaki home town. In the penultimate stanza Leggott is pregnant – have we gone back in time or forward, it is impossible to tell? She considers morning sickness and her domestic surroundings. The final stanza moves towards consideration of the unborn and, like “nice feijoas”, brings the poem back to its beginning. The memory of the poet’s own childhood resurfaces in lemonade iceblocks as she considers her unborn child about to begin its own voyage into life.

The poem is a celebration of life and of growing up within a family. The domestic is written about with intelligence and detail: the black sand of the Mokau beach, the jellybabies frozen in lemonade, the mandarins in the blue bowl, Mrs Lange’s bach - again this is a celebration of New Zealand summers. The “hidden babies inside” the iceblocks foreshadow the pregnancy revealed later in the poem. In the final stanza, the resonance of the German baroque composer Pachelbel played on the stereo adds the dimension of classical beauty and intellectual appreciation. The word play “for the rescue for the record” a pun on the colloquial phrase and the music being played on vinyl (this is 1991 remember), and “full of wind” evokes the wind instruments, the breeze and the breathing of labour as the poet celebrates and salutes the journey to life of a new baby.

Though separated by 18 years in publication, there is thematic similarity between these poems. They address the domestic, mingling memory, thought, dialogue, the day to day and the art of writing poetry. Like streams of consciousness where the mind is flooded with thoughts that do not always follow logical continuity, they lure the reader into participating in creating meaning. The voice of the poet is unobtrusive so the poems are more like works of visual or aural art, than those where we expect meaning or narrative to be central. Fragments are associated in a context which creates an overall emotive image, rather than a lyric with an epiphany at the end. The reader is able to soak the poems up and enjoy them, rather than to feel they have pieced together a neatly fitting jigsaw, understood a message, or looked inside a bag which is zipped up at the end. With Leggott’s poems the contents of the bag are unleashed and you float around amongst the contents.

The poems I have looked at contain a singular narrative voice which makes them easier to access. Now I can go back to Leggott’s more complex poems and try not to make sense of them.

  • Bernstein, Michael Andre “Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers by Michele J. Leggott,” Modern Philology, Vol. 89, No.3, The University of Chicago Press: Feb 1992 (442-445).

  • Leggott, Michele. Reading Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers . Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1989.

  • Zukofsky, Louis. Complete Short Poetry. Foreword by Robert Creeley. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1991.

- Janet Newman

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