Documentary Poetry and Historical Recovery

This essay discusses my attempts to meet the enigmatic character of Percy Grainger in writing—namely, through the intersection of poetry and biography, in the composition of an original work, Suite for Percy Grainger. This work extends from, and contributes to, the tradition of documentary poetry. To locate my work within this tradition, I will first look at three distinctly different works of documentary poetry—Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust (1975), Mark Nowak’s Coal mountain elementary (2009) and Susan Howe’s The nonconformist’s memorial (1993) —each of which draws on, and utilises, historical/archival documents in order to explore real-world subjects and events through poetic frameworks. The first half of this essay will discuss how each of these three poets retrieves, selects, incorporates and adapts archival source material, in order to present Suite for Percy, in the second half of the essay, as a work that both draws on a varied tradition of documentary poetry, whilst also establishing its own pathways as a poetic exploration of the past.


Gloss of Terms:1

catalogue: thrown over the house—
score: deeply, manifold
free: lust, like platonic love, leaves people absolutely
stave: I’ve been here before—in the wake of the space-absent-space
quaver: light touch, disturbance; quivering tail
chord:  | discord
bar: impediment; cause for leaping
prelude: which brings us to a brief, tentative overview

This essay discusses my attempts to meet the enigmatic character of Percy Grainger in writing—namely, through the intersection of poetry and biography, in the composition of an original work, Suite for Percy Grainger. Melbourne-born Grainger was one of Australia’s most innovative and diversely accomplished musicians and composers. But alongside his immense musical output—including original compositions and folk-song arrangements—he was also a keen essayist, a voracious reader, a dedicated letter writer, and an eager archivist, establishing the Grainger Museum2 as a repository for over 100,000 items including correspondence, clothing, musical manuscripts, instruments and everyday objects (not to forget his infamous whip collection). With such a rich archive of source material, how does one collate a life within the pages of one book? Furthermore, as a poet with one eye wandering into historical archives, how might I write a biography sympathetic to Grainger’s personality, lifestyle and philosophies? The following essay therefore traces a process of unconventional biographical research and writing, and inevitably confronts the difficulty encountered by the academic essayist attempting to explain a project that, given the nature of its subject, attempts to defy conventional classificatory boundaries.

Suite for Percy Grainger extends from, and contributes to, the tradition of documentary poetry—long-form poetic works that usually involve extensive research, be that historical, archival, site-based or interview-based research, on the part of the poet. To locate my work within this tradition, I will first look at three works of documentary poetry that are stylistically very different from one another—Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust (1975), Mark Nowak’s Coal mountain elementary (2009) and Susan Howe’s The nonconformist’s memorial (1993).3 What these works have in common, however, is that each draws on, and utilises, historical/archival documents in order to explore real-world subjects and events through poetic frameworks.4 The first half of this essay will discuss how each of these three poets retrieves, selects, incorporates and adapts archival source material, in order to present Suite for Percy, in the second half of the essay, as a work that both draws on a varied tradition of documentary poetry, whilst also establishing its own pathways as a poetic exploration of the past.5

Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust: survivors in the archive
Reznikoff and Nowak work similarly in that their works appropriate historical documentation extensively in the construction of their poetic accounts. Much of what appears in Holocaust comes from transcripts of survivor testimony and courtroom affidavits from the Eichmann and Nuremberg trials. Yet Reznikoff absents the first-person perspectives; the poems present the traumatic experiences of the survivors through a third-person narration. The fact that these poems draw from evidence given during courtroom trials is also withheld from readers, with the effect that the poems take on a sense of distanced objectivity. Dan Featherston notes that this technique means that Reznikoff avoids imposing judgments, and instead ‘allows for the testimony to exist as an event in itself whereby the poet’s role is not to speak over the testimony, but to listen’ (n.p.).

Together with other Jewish workers
the lad was made to go through an exercise:
an officer would come on Saturdays
and would take four at a time out of a group of fifty
and say, “You see this finger?
If I move it this way, stand;
and if it moves that way,
lie down.” It was up and down and up and down
until they were completely out of breath.
Finally, the officer took out his pistol
and shot those who did not stand up and were still lying down.
                                                                              (Reznikoff: 73)

This poem strips away the overt emotional content and instead presents a fairly detached account of torture. Of course, the seeming objectivity of the poem, and of Holocaust as a whole, is itself demonstrative of Reznikoff’s skill in manipulating his source materials. As Janet Sullivan notes in her brief overview of the poet’s sources (in the 1984 and 2007 editions of Holocaust), Reznikoff ‘reduces the story to its dramatic essentials’ through a process of ‘selection, style and understatement’ (italics in original, 93). Todd Carmody writes that Reznikoff ‘appropriates language in order to demonstrate the limits of appropriating emotion or experience’; that is, he provides an alternative to more ubiquitous trauma narratives, which require us to identify with the survivor in order to understand or appreciate the gravity of their experiences (Carmody 2008: 89).6 As a collection of poems that ‘foregrounds historical particulars over subjective expression’, Holocaust’s lack of emotional manipulation leaves the text open for the reader’s own emotional response to the activities depicted (Carmody 2008: 89). (It also, disturbingly, expresses something of the cool objectivity with which the Nazis carried out their cruel torture and murdering of the Jewish captives).

But despite the success of Reznikoff’s approach,7 the question remains: why is poetry the chosen vehicle for expression here? What can poetry do that prose nonfiction cannot? Cole Swensen’s articulate and thoughtful discussion of documentary poetry in her book Noise that stays noise suggests that:

through interstices opened up by figurative language, ambiguity, juxtaposition, sound relationships, and rhythmic patterns, room can be made for those aspects of truth that can’t be articulated … the fully complex version [of truth] must incite the imagination of the reader, must get the reader beyond simply absorbing facts and into a responsive engagement with them because that engagement is a crucial part of truth. It’s the emotional part, which can’t be told; it must be felt, which can be achieved through imagination, but not through idea.’ (2011: 58-9)

Swensen points to the ‘work’ that poetry does in urging the reader’s engagement with facts that are presented in this manner. In this sense, I might argue that Reznikoff heightens this urgency in Holocaust by depicting ‘emotionless’ sketches in poetic form, in the sense that the poetic form propels a readerly negotiation between fact and emotion.

In the above-quoted poem, tension is created as we move down the page, line by line; each line break carries the effect of a breath held in suspense: ‘“You see this finger?/ If I move it this way, stand;/ and if it moves that way,/ lie down.”’ These instructions from the prison guard to the inmates are fractured by line breaks. Each line is abutted by empty space, uncertainty. We ‘see’ this finger and think to ourselves: this guard is pointing the Jew in the direction of certain death. We ask: is his finger on the trigger? We read down the page and the cruelty is revealed—the finger is a weapon of torture, an instrument with which to amuse the Nazi guards as the Jewish inmates were made to do this repetitive, pointless ‘exercise’ of standing up and lying down. Indeed, the word ‘exercise’ becomes doubly menacing for its seeming innocuousness. We know that it signifies torture rather than fun and/or healthy activity.

There is much more that Reznikoff achieves through his poetic work in Holocaust, which I do not have space to address here, though we can see even in this single example how, as Swensen suggests, the ‘interstices’ opened up by poetic language help us to feel the emotional part of truth, that which cannot be articulated. In this instance, the poet provokes anger, upset, disgust, disbelief and shock, and the aftereffects resonate long after one closes the covers of the book.

Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary: a poetic mining
Nowak’s Coal mountain elementary employs similar techniques of appropriation, though to a greater extent, in the sense that much less is altered between the point of appropriation and final presentation of the text.8 Nowak interweaves newspaper accounts of coalmine accidents in China, first-person testimony from the survivors of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, USA, lesson plans for elementary school students on coalmining (written by the American Coal Foundation) and photographs from mining towns in China and the US. Text that appears ‘poem-like’ is presented alongside blocks of prose, as seen in the following excerpts, displayed on facing pages:

1. Review the costs
associated with coal mining:
land acquisition, labor,
equipment, and reclamation.
Coal companies
are required by federal law
to return the land they mine
to its original, or an improved, condition.
This process, known as reclamation,
is a significant expense for the industry. (Nowak 2009: 94)

An explosion tore through a coal mine in northern China on Wednesday, leaving at least 62 workers dead and another 13 missing, the government said, the third disaster in recent weeks involving scores of miners. The latest accident highlights the Chinese government’s continuing battle with mine safety despite repeated crackdowns and pledges by the leadership to improve conditions. Wednesday’s explosion occurred at the run Liuguantun Colliery in Tangshan, a city in Hebei province, when 186 miners were underground, said an official with the Tangshan Coal Mine and Safety Bureau who would only give his surname Zhang. Zhang said 82 miners escaped on their own and 32 were rescued, but three of those later died. The bodies of 59 other miners had been recovered by early today and rescuers were searching for 13 people still trapped in the mine. (2009: 95)

The juxtaposition of the lesson plan, which Nowak has presented in poetic lines, and the news report leads us to ‘Review the costs/ associated with coal mining’, which are not purely to do with ‘land acquisition, labor,/ equipment, and reclamation’, all of which affect the bottom dollar of mining companies. More significantly, the cost of mining extends to loss of life, and also long-term damage to the natural environment.

Nowak creates tensions between poetry and prose, documentary and artistic portrayal, image and word. Extracting his own voice from the mix (at least explicitly) aligns the project with Reznikoff’s, in the sense that each ‘poet-historian’ allows the events to speak for themselves.

Coal mountain elementary returns me to the words of Swensen, who asks: ‘how to reconcile the language of information with the language of art’? (2011: 53). Swensen highlights some disparities between these different ‘language’ spaces:

So a newspaper article tends to seal the issue shut. Documentary poetry reverses the process: its account comes at the beginning of something, and its purpose is to inform you of something that should happen. It does not accept the closure effected by the newspaper, does not accept that “there’s nothing we can do about it now.” By refracting the same material through a different lens, a completely different demand is made. The language on the page is not only trying to convey this; it is also trying to incite it, which makes it no longer sheerly descriptive language, but pushes it into the performative, making it an action with the potential for real effect in the world. And that real effect will be another action, this time on the part of the reader. Language that causes action is itself action. (2011: 57)

Coal mountain elementary operates according to Swensen’s characterisation; the documentary texts are drawn into a complex relation with the poetic form, so that these past events are not presented as ‘closed’ cases, but are ‘refracted,’ as she suggests, ‘through a different lens’—that is, the poetic lens. The tension created by the proximity of these different forms ‘accomplishes something by positing an incommensurability at the center of the work, an irritant that demands attention and refuses complacency’ (2011: 55). In the above examples, Nowak’s juxtaposition of the dry reportage of the newspaper article and the classroom plan, and of ‘found’ prose with ‘found’ poem, has the effect of provoking a response from readers: we ask ‘what is the cost associated with mining coal?’ and are roused into consideration of human loss and devastation that is frequently swept under the rug or obscured by powerful industries. Nowak does not ‘reconcile’ the languages of information and art, but fuels the tension between what ‘has happened’ and what ‘should/could happen’—it is a poetics not merely of documentation and reflection, but of action.

Susan Howe’s The Nonconformist’s Memorial: voices between archival lines
Susan Howe is another historical poet whose ongoing project involves the investigation of new ways through which forgotten dimensions of history may be recovered. Mary Magdalene, one of the most important characters at the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, whose significance was downplayed in the synoptic texts, is at the centre of Howe’s The nonconformist’s memorial.9 Revisiting the Gospel according to St John and the Book of Revelation, Howe seems to agree with feminist biblical scholars that, despite the possibility that Mary was the disciple most loved by Jesus and probably had followers of her own, her role in biblical narratives was diminished by the early Church Fathers who believed (in accordance with the thinking of the times) that women ought to be silent and submissive to men.10 Throughout The nonconformist’s memorial, Howe suggests just how difficult it is clearly to see the actions or hear the ‘voice’ of Mary Magdalene: ‘Citations remain abbreviated,’ ‘Silent the one sought,’ ‘I cannot hear your wandering prayer/ of quiet,’ and so on (NCM 5, 25, 31).11 This long poem conjures a textual space in which the feminine/nonconformist might be encountered.

Although Howe makes explicit use of the writings of St John, she borrows the title of her work from a 1775 ‘twisted old puritanical tract’, a redaction by Samuel Palmer of Edmund Calime’s abridgement of Richard Baxter’s narrative of his life and times.12 As Howe notes, ‘my unoriginal title is from … another unoriginal, abridged and corrected precursor with still another title.’13 Although these various source texts and related materials record ‘2523 names and abridged light stories of dissenting Protestant Ministers’, the names and stories of dissenting women who were preachers ‘have been ejected by all of them’. She continues:

This is particularly ironic because the original nonconformist in the New Testament, the person who first told the story of the resurrection, is Mary Magdalene in the Gospel of John … She is the first immediate witness. She is Christ’s first messenger. She tells the other disciples what she has seen and what he has told her to tell them … Only John names Mary Magdalene as the first witness of the risen Jesus. By the time of the Book of Acts, she has been ejected from the story, or silenced.14

In Howe’s own ‘redaction’ of ‘The Nonconformist’s Memorial’, she attempts to restore Mary Magdalene to a more prominent place in biblical history. But Howe also hopes that many other spirits of nonconformists will enter her text—the voices of those (particularly women) who spoke, as did Mary.15 So Howe attempts, in this work, to find a way to evoke the threads that still link us to, or provide paths able to take us back to, what has been lost.

In Figure 1, the poem comprises ‘couplets’, more-or-less consisting of one upright and one upside-down phrase, which encourage us to rotate the book in order to read the lines more easily.16 We might read these pages from the top to the bottom, from the bottom to the top (having turned the poem around), or interweaving (left to right, right to left). Whichever way we choose to read these lines, the reading process imitates the act of weaving, a feminine pastime (think of Penelope, Arachne, Ariadne, the Fates), while also suggesting that if we are to read this poem we must again and again change our point of view.


Figure 1: Susan Howe, ‘The Nonconformists Memorial,’ in The nonconformist’s memorial (New York: New Directions, 1993), 6-7.

These alternating lines contribute to the ironic subtext of the poem: ‘She was coming to anoint him’, for example, doubles backwards with ‘As if all history were a progress’. These pages complicate the conventional idea of ‘progress’; the poems encourage a reading process that, coupled with the words of the poems (she, anarchy, nothing ideal, thread, anoint), evokes a more ‘feminine’, multiple landscape. The text does not give preference to the feminine (the lines containing ‘she’ are not always ‘on top’); but as I observed above, the process of producing meaning (of reading the text) is coded feminine. We are given a sense of the weaving together of the disparate threads of Mary’s life/experience, thus bringing her story into sight through the verbal/visual text and the performance it demands.

Rather than reading a text that is fully formed before we pick it up, the reader of this text plays an active role in its creation. There is also a sense, perhaps, that we (the readers) are coded by the text as feminine (or perhaps more accurately, nonconformist) as we participate in the ‘creation’ (or ordering) of the poem. In other words, not only might we be writing/finding Mary as we ‘shape’ the text, but we may also be ‘acting the part’ of Mary as an active, nonconforming voice.

If the text is a narrative fabric, then arguably the reader’s ‘turning’ of the text brings the metaphorical ‘seamy side’ of historical and biblical narratives to the foreground. Howe suggests that women have been woven into the ‘seamy side’ of this canonical text, as its hidden ‘under’ side. As the line ‘nether John and John harbinger’ suggests, these pages address the problem of what lies in the foreground, and what is hidden in the background. The relation between the upper and seamy side of a narrative fabric is developed by the slight but important differences between the two pages. The lines on the left-hand page are more or less neatly arranged in three couplets (with every second line upside down). The text on the right-hand side is similar to the left page, if it is turned upside down; but nevertheless features several important differences: rather than displaying uniform spacing from the left margin, the lines are unevenly indented, and one has the sense that the tidily ordered couplets are beginning to unravel (the patriarchal structuring of the Gospel begins to break down as Howe questions Mary’s silencing). The space between ‘Actual world nothing ideal’ and, the now upside-down, ‘In Peter she is nameless’ creates the impression that the ‘enclosure’ of patriarchal history is being opened up as the ‘understory’ (the seamy side, mentioned above) that shelters ‘other’ voices is reconsidered. It is as if the ‘single thread of narrative’ (an authoritative history) has been ‘split open’ to reveal other threads, missing threads, multiple threads.

This page, therefore, could be taken as evidence of Howe’s feminist epistemologies: the three sentences ‘She was coming to anoint him’, ‘headstrong anarchy thoughts’ and ‘In Peter she is nameless,’ all of which Susan Schultz associates with a feminine speaking subject, ‘show up’ the masculine voice ‘for all its typographical certainty about itself’ (Schultz 1994: n.p.) Howe’s poetic lines encourage a feminine practice, a textual weaving that brings the feminine to the foreground.

Suite for Percy Grainger: trawling the democratic archive
The above-mentioned works each find unique ways to document historical subjects and events—Reznikoff adapts first-person testimony into third-person narration in order to allow the events to speak for themselves; Nowak draws documentary into the domain of the poetic in order to probe what poetry can do to arouse our sense of justice; Howe interrogates biblical history and attempts to find an appropriate method and form through which to recover the obscured feminine presence. These works are united in their attempts to evoke or ‘give voice to’ dimensions in history that are obscured or difficult to access. Suite for Percy Grainger joins these poetic works by representing its own intervention in biographical writing. Similar to Reznikoff and Nowak, I harvest, collect and appropriate snippets of letters, compositions, photographs and news items, and I take them with me on an expedition through poetic fields of thought. But while Susan Howe frequently confronts a lack of extant traces of her historical subjects, I encounter what might be considered the inverse: Grainger’s rampant auto-archiving is apparent not only in the Grainger Museum (with its 100,000 plus articles), but at Grainger House in White Plains, where two basement vaults and several rooms are stacked with musical manuscripts, documents, photographs, correspondence and other artifacts. This is not to forget the many wonderful volumes dedicated to encapsulating Grainger’s life, music, correspondence and other personal writings.17 What is one to make of such an abundance of information? How does one pay homage to Grainger’s various accomplishments, his diverse and (what sometimes seem to be) conflicting interests, the sheer breadth of his works, ideas, philosophies and writings?

Michael Piggott18 suggests this dilemma in a recent article in the Grainger Studies journal. He identifies ‘the sheer scale of Grainger’s many-sidedness, which is compounded because his universe expands with each research question asked, project funded, thesis presented, composition reinterpreted, document catalogued and journal launched,’ and further, notes that ‘compressing a life like Grainger’s is not easy to do and not easily done quickly’ (2011: 15). As Grainger’s significance in musical history continues to intensify with each new edited volume and study, the anxiety as a potential ‘biographer’ also intensifies.

I ask: How might Grainger have envisioned his biography be written?

I shift about the archives haphazardly, feelingly, through the dark.19

The experience is personal, my eye drawn to detail.

I read your letters for the first time—and here is a sewing needle stitched through my breast—with blood painted carelessly on the reverse side. Those physical wounds were slight and repaired swiftly. Such YOUTHFUL RAPTURE scored and checked by a mother’s love—

After the ceremony we are planning to take a tramp in Glacier National Park, Montana, together with my concert manager and Secretary (Mr. and Mrs. Frederick E. Morse of White Plains, N.Y.) and my Spokane friends Mr. & Mrs. George H. Greenwood. – March 13, 1928.


I found this photograph of you
on your honeymoon
dressed smartly as the Wanderer
with that same windswept hair
and one leg cocked to virtuosity.

But you—you devilish man—
chose to turn your back on that
interminable void
to face the galaxy of a human truth
with instrumental fists.

My eyes avert your steady gaze
but still it cuts through the fog
to trigger my reaction—
and there you lie—snapshot
in the archive.                

Where the various practices of documentary poets—their different methods of appropriation, selection, incorporation and redaction of historical source materials—urge me forward into this territory, and give me the confidence to appropriate Grainger’s turn-of-phrase, it is the composer himself who leads me to points of composition. As Grainger pushed the boundaries of aesthetic creativity and convention, my biography is written in an experimental poetic mode.20 The process of writing has been also a process of searching for an adequate lexicon through which to communicate the life of this character, who—at least, for me—is difficult to reduce to the page.


line: sonic function; waves against a little boat; grazing wayfarers

trace:        Wilkinson_music_0.png    

composition: a skirmish on the decking
opening: “Beginner—and interested in beginnings” (Olson)
counterpoint: house on wheels; peas on the fork
baton: australian/american
letter: leafing through
pedal: percy with a high-heeled shoe
conductor: “hell is full of musical amateurs”
conduct: electric! one word can lead into rapid eye movement—

Susan Howe says that ‘[t]he conditions for poetry rest outside each life at a miraculous reach indifferent to worldly chronology’ (1985: 13). Suite for Percy is a scission in the cataloguing of a subject’s accomplishments. Chronology folds into synchronicity and folds into—

Europe. Thundering like Jupiter in Bach-Busoni’s Great Fugue—countless recalls lead to repeated encores—like a soulful philosopher in Brahms—thundering applause—like a child of nature in Grieg’s folkpoems—storms of applause—like a world conqueror in Stanford’s Irish Dances—the hall is ringing—in Schumann’s Romance he reveals deeply tender spirituality—recall after recall again and again his hands seldom rise a hand’s breadth from the keys yet have we ever heard such intensity of volume such refined sonority such extreme pianissimo—a whisper of sound yet thoroughly distinct. Between these extremes

I came: a voyage into realms of the impossible
I played: a sovereign of my instrument
I conquered: a manysidedness approaching universality
King of the musical world he has built for himself, Percy Grainger flouts musical convention with delightful unconcern—

I regard experimental forms of poetry to be appropriate to the pioneering spirit of much of Grainger’s own work. The Warriors, for example, requires up to three conductors; in the fourth part of the work, the various sections of the orchestra play in conflicting tempos, and so it is recommended that three conductors take part in the performance.

Conceptually, Grainger conceived of his music in amusing ways. In his notes to his Hill-Song, for example, he writes: ‘What I wanted to convey … was the nature of the hills themselves—as if the hills themselves were telling of themselves through my music, rather than that I, an onlooker, were recording my “impressions” of the hills.’21 He wants to channel the hills, rather than merely to describe them.22 Another fascinating piece The Immovable Do (also known as The Ciphering C) was composed after Percy discovered the high C of his harmonium had broken and would cipher through everything he played. The composition makes use of this fault—the C can be held for the entirety of the piece without sounding out of place!

In later life, Grainger developed his concept of ‘Free Music,’ which he wanted to be able to express the irregular sounds of nature, as opposed to the stiff and limited sounds available through traditional western music and notation. He wanted to liberate music from ‘the bondage of scales and fixed intervals’ (Tan 1972: 23), and to create instruments/machines that would be capable of producing gliding tones.23 His foray into Free Music machine-making with physicist Burnett Cross places his work decades ahead of later developments in electronic machines, such as synthesizers and music generators.

Multiple tempos and conductors, in-between bits, philosophical musical ideas, sideways steps, unexpected shifts and glides. If the life itself was lived challenging customary modes, then ought not the biography challenge these modes too? In presenting my biography of Grainger in this way, I do not intend to discount the remarkable and attentive works that have been produced to date. Rather, I am interested in addressing Piggott’s comment, noted above, as a launching point for an alternative mode of biographical documentation. If I liberate myself from the need to ‘compress’ the complexities of Grainger’s life into a narrative of facts, and instead find ways to celebrate his eclectic outputs and eccentricities, I may achieve for Grainger what Reznikoff, Nowak and Howe achieved in relation to their respective subjects; that is, to move beyond the biographical account which documents that, as Swensen says, ‘something happened’, and towards an account which prompts something to happen. In Suite for Percy Grainger, I encourage readers to engage with the poetic performance in a manner befitting Grainger’s own performativity. In this sense, I hope to evoke not a static portrait or memorial to Grainger, but a future performance, realised at the meeting of text and reader.

string: always string—string—string
virtuoso: out of the egg and fully grow
biography: darkness into light; how the eye draws against reality
museum: of errors; little flighty things; bells in the crate

This unstable, shifting portrait of Grainger might be aligned with Wolfgang Iser’s concept of an ‘aesthetic semblance’:

neither transcend[ing] a given reality nor mediat[ing] between idea and manifestation; [the aesthetic semblance] is an indication that the inaccessible can only be approached by being staged. Representation is therefore both performance and semblance. It conjures up an image of the unseeable, but being a semblance, it also denies it the status of a copy of reality. The aesthetic semblance can only take on its form by way of the recipient’s ideational, performative activity, and so representation can only come to full fruition in the recipient’s imagination; it is the recipient’s performance that endows the semblance with its sense of reality. (1989: 243)

Moving beyond biography as description of a ‘dead past’, Suite for Percy encourages a new kind of biographical representation/portrait of the subject and of the multiple frames that shape—without ultimately imprisoning—such a subject.

A biography begins at death
cut loose the cords
and polish off the spine

I hold out my hands
and call to the gathering

{{thwart chronology thwart}}

portraits in an ever drifting frame
how we love a rarity|

counterpoint composition

Hang the rigid score. Follow these lines, and drift:

((This is part of the experiments made by Burnett Cross and Percy Grainger to provide or adapt musical instruments to play Grainger’s Free Music, using very close intervals and gliding tones. In this case the instrument is: a poet!))



George Oppen states that ‘[t]he meaning of a poem is in the cadences and the shape of the lines and the pulse of the thought which is given by those lines’ (quoted in Longenbach 2008:  vii). The above visual poem unblocks the ‘DEAF’ ear of traditional western music and traces wave patterns to Percy’s pulse. These lines are not straight; the cadences do not indicate an end point, but a continuation.

In The content of the form, Hayden White tells me that historical narrative ‘strains for the effect of having filled in all the gaps, of having put an image of continuity, coherency, and meaning in place of the fantasies of emptiness, need, and frustrated desire that inhabit our nightmares about the destructive power of time’ (1987: 11). What happens when objectivity, coherence and continuity give way to the subjective, chaotic and discontinuous? I read Tim Ingold’s Lines, and he helps me to comprehend Suite for Percy as ‘a journey made rather than an object found’ (2007: 16). The writing on the page could be interpreted not ‘as the specification of a plot, already composed and complete in itself, but rather … as comprising a set of signposts, direction markers or stepping stones that [enable readers] to find their way about within the landscape of memory’ (2007: 16).

I become a collector of movements-through-space. I travel to London, Los Angeles, New York City, White Plains, finding pieces of Percy ‘here and there’. Here is a suite of signposts, posies of musical wildflowers. This Suite is arranged for my Percy Grainger, and I submit to his irreducibility. We move toward the specific, the wayward, the emotional encounter:

                                 JUNE 22ND 2008

                                     “Will explain this joke when we meet.”

A spot on a brick façade in Chelsea, Kings Road, marks:

Signs like these are littered here and there throughout London          I want to
get inside this feeling of present pastness               of possession


Scholastic and practical research requires a leap from inquisitiveness to
confidence and finally to pursuit. Casting failure to the winds

                                                I’ll not be banished to the forefront

says Percy, and he glides

across the cobbles to Sloane Square

arm full of letters                    I approach a shop front and go back

(feelingly)           soften

            towards your half-blunt tenderness

As Percy moved against the rigid principles of western music and society, I move away from a preoccupation with facts and accuracies and accomplishments unfolding in linear time. This movement brings me, as Percy might say, ‘hugely to the fore’, as I follow tracks made by other Graingerites—John Bird, Malcolm Gillies, David Pear, Kay Dreyfus—and swerve at the site of shared interest, finding correlatives in imagined spaces:



Grainger’s experimental original compositions fill an old 2002 iPod, and I walk to and from work with Percy in my ears: ‘Train Music’, inspired by ‘the irregular rhythms of a “very jerky Italian train” going from Genoa to San Remo on February 10, 1900’, or ‘Arrival Platform Humlet,’ composed by Grainger to conjure a sense of ‘awaiting arrival of belated train bringing one’s sweetheart from foreign parts; great fun! The sort of thing one hums to oneself as an accompaniment to one’s tramping feet as one happily, excitedly, paces up and down the arrival platform.’25



Eccentric Percy; restless Percy; Percy meets his guests at the train station and runs home with their luggage in his wheelbarrow. Percy, refusing regular transportation. Wayfaring Percy. Deviant lines.

Which brings me to a characteristically abrupt conclusion:

Oh so nice at morning Recital.
here was
Percy’s last concert
then a “fiasco” with Bas…
in the afternoon – also nice



End notes

  • 1. All material drawn from Suite for Percy Grainger will be attributed through the abbreviation ‘SPG’. The book-length work, Suite for Percy Grainger, will be published by Vagabond Press (Sydney) in 2014
  • 2. The Grainger Museum was built on the grounds of the University of Melbourne and officially opened in 1938
  • 3. This text is found in a collection of long poems by Susan Howe, which shares the same name: The nonconformist’s memorial (New York: New Directions, 1993), 3-33
  • 4. There are many other poetry works that I do not have space to discuss in this essay, but which I consider to be equally remarkable in their explorations of ‘poetry-history collisions,’ including Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, Ed Sanders’ Chekov, Rosmarie Waldrop’s A Key into the language of America, Kate Middleton’s Ephemeral waters and Jordie Albiston’s The hanging of Jean Lee and Botany Bay document
  • 5. For more on the topic of ‘poetic biography’ and ‘poetic autobiography’ see my article ‘Beyond Facts and Accuracies: Long Form Poetry as Biographical Method’ in a forthcoming issue of Axon. This essay includes an extended discussion of Australian poet Jordie Albiston’s The hanging of Jean Lee, which might be termed a ‘poetic biography’ of Jean Lee, the last woman hanged in Australia
  • 6. Carmody’s article provides the text from the original transcript upon which this poem draws, and he demonstrates the ways in which Reznikoff has adapted the original, and to what effect
  • 7. Of course, the book has also received much criticism from writers such as Susan Gubar and Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, who suggest that the book does not adequately express the subjective experiences of Holocaust victims, nor contain a moral message
  • 8. I am grateful to my PhD student Benjamin Laird for bringing my attention to this book, and its value as documentary poetry
  • 9. References to this work will be cited parenthetically in the text, preceded by the abbreviation ‘NCM.’
  • 10. See Esther A. de Boer’s ‘Mary Magdalene and the Disciple Jesus Loved,’ lectio difficilior 1 (2000): n.p. (accessed May 8, 2014)
  • 11. Howe’s focus on the Gospel of John points to the contemporary debate surrounding that text: some scholars have suggested that it was written by Mary Magdalene herself; others consider her to be the ‘disciple Jesus loved’ the most, referred to several times throughout this fourth gospel. Howe’s poem doesn’t explicitly support either of these possibilities; instead she opens a space in which the reader can deliberate upon the figure of Mary Magdalene and other nonconformists who were marginalised by society and/or history
  • 13. ibid.
  • 14. ibid.
  • 15. Howe said this in discussion with Charles Bernstein on the LINEbreak radio program
  • 16. Indeed, Memorial appears in the book of the same name in a section entitled ‘Turning’
  • 17. See John Bird’s seminal biography Percy Grainger; Kay Dreyfus’ massive volume of edited letters from Grainger’s London period, The Farthest North of Humanness: Letters of Percy Grainger 1901-1914); Self-Portrait of Percy Grainger, edited by Malcolm Gillies, David Pear and Mark Carroll; and The New Percy Grainger Companion, edited by Penelope Thwaites
  • 18. Michael Piggott, ‘Brief biography and the “all-round-man”’, Grainger Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, no. 1 (2011), 5-20
  • 19. This project has involved research in the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne, and at Grainger House in White Plains, New York (where Percy lived for the final 40 years of his life). I am particularly grateful to Astrid Britt Krautschneider, Curator of Collections and Research at the Grainger Museum, who gave me access to several of Grainger’s adapted instruments, and to Stewart Manville, who hosted me at the house in White Plains and revealed many exciting original documents for my perusal on Grainger’s working table
  • 20. Several creative responses to/representations of aspects of Grainger’s life have been produced, such as Therese Radic’s Two Act play A Whip Round for Percy Grainger (1984). To my knowledge, no extended poetic work on Grainger has been produced
  • 21. This reminds me of Hayden White’s comment: ‘Why should not, in the domain of the imaginary, even the stones themselves speak—like Memnon’s column when touched by the rays of the sun?’ (1987: 3)
  • 22. One anonymous reader of this article alerted me to the fact that Grainger lifted this idea from Ferruccio Busoni’s Entwurfeiner neuen Aesthetik der Tonkunst
  • 23. Grainger also wanted to free music from the limitations of human performers. As he notes in his Free Music Statement, written in 1938: ‘Free Music demands a non-human performance. Like most true music, it is an emotional, not a cerebral, product and should pass direct from the imagination of the composer to the ear of the listener by way of delicately controlled musical machines. Too long has music been subject to the limitations of the human hand, and subject to the interfering interpretations of a middle-man: the performer. A composer wants to speak to his public direct.’ (1972: 16)
  • 24. Grainger’s musical scores are curious and demonstrate an almost Hitlerian racial prejudice—he refuses Italian terms and substitutes them with what he called ‘Blue-Eyed English’—we see, for example, fleetingly, flowingly, louden lots bit by bit on his scores, and in his correspondence he uses hyphenated phrases such as ‘tone-works’ (musical compositions), ‘mind-stirred’ (interested), ‘time-beat’ (conduct) and ‘mind-print’ (impression)
  • 25. Specific notes such as these accompany many of Grainger’s compositions
  • 26. This poem, ‘Arrival Platform Humlet,’ was published in the May 2014 issue of Australian Book Review, and was winner of the 2014 Peter Porter Poetry Prize
Works cited: 

Albiston, J 1996 Botany Bay document, Melbourne: Black Pepper

Albiston, J 1998 The hanging of Jean Lee, Melbourne: Black Pepper

Bird, J 1999 Percy Grainger (revised edition), Oxford: Oxford University Press

Carmody, T 2008 ‘The Banality of the Document: Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Ineloquent Empathy,’ Journal of Modern Literature 32.1 (Fall issue): 86-110

De Boer, E 2000 ‘Mary Magdalene and the Disciple Jesus Loved.’ lectio difficilior 1 at  (accessed 6 January 2014)

Dreyfus, K (ed.) 1985 The farthest north of humanness: letters of Percy Grainger, 1901-14, Saint Louis: MMB Music

Ezrahi, S.D 1980 By words alone: the holocaust in literature, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Featherston, D n.d. ‘Poetic Representation: Reznikoff’s Holocaust,’ Electronic Poetry Center at (accessed 10 January 2014)

Gillies, M and D Pear (eds) 2002 Portrait of Percy Grainger, Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press

Gillies, M, Pear, D and Carroll, M (eds) 2006 Self-portrait of Percy Grainger, Oxford University Press, New York

Grainger, P 1972 ‘Free Music,’ Recorded Sound No. 45-46, January-April, 16

Gubar, S 2003 Poetry after Auschwitz: remembering what one never knew. Bloominton: Indiana UP

Hejinian, L 2002 My life, Kobenhavn & Los Angeles: Green Integer

Howe, S 1993 The nonconformist’s memorial, New York: New Directions

Howe, S 1995 LINEbreak radio program with Charles Bernstein at (accessed 30 April 2009)

Howe, S 1996 Audio cassette 1309: Reading at UCSD (November 13)

Howe, S 1985 My Emily Dickinson, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books

Ingold, T 2007 Lines: a brief history, London and New York: Routledge

Iser, W 1989 Prospecting: from reader response to literary anthropology. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press

Longenbach, J 2008 The art of the poetic line, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press

Middleton, K 2013 Ephemeral waters, Sydney: Giramondo

Nowak, M 2009 Coal mountain elementary, Minneapolis: Coffee House Press

Piggott, M 2011 ‘Brief biography and the “all-round-man”’, Grainger Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, no. 1: 5-20

Radic, T 1984 A Whip Round for Percy Grainger, Montmorency, Vic. : Yackandandah Playscripts

Reznikoff, C 2007 (1975) Holocaust, Boston, Massachussetts: Black Sparrow Press

Sanders, E 1995 Chekov, Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press

Schultz, S 1994 “Exaggerated History” Review of The birth-mark and The nonconformist’s memorial by Susan Howe, Postmodern Culture 4.2 at (accessed on 10 January 2014)

Sutherland, J 2007 ‘Reznikoff and His Sources,’ in Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust, Boston, Massachussetts: Black Sparrow Press: 91-4.

Swensen, C 2011 Noise that stays noise: essays, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press

Tan, M 1972 ‘Free Music of Percy Grainger,’ Recorded Sound No. 45-46 (January-April): 21-38

Thwaites, P (ed.) 2010 The new Percy Grainger companion, Woodbridge: Boydell Press

Waldrop, R 1997 A key into the language of America, New York: New Directions

White, H 1987 The content of the form: narrative discourse and historical representation, Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press

Whitman, W 2007 Leaves of Grass, Radford, Virginia: Wilder Books

Williams, W.C 1995 Paterson (revised edition), New York: New Directions