Aaron Kunin

Note on Method

The following poems are part of a translation of Ezra Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberly" into a severely limited vocabulary of about 170 words. For Pound, "Mauberly" had provided an occasion for disavowing his earlier "aesthetic" work, and also for meditating on the uses of beauty for poetry. It was a way of asking the question: how could Pound write shallow poetry if he were not essentially a shallow person?

My translation is conceived as an inversion of Pound's psychological experiment. Instead of using "Mauberly" to go outside myself, to gain access to unfamiliar uses of language--which, for Pound, is the value of the poetic persona--I wanted to inhabit my personal 170-word vocabulary as fully as possible. Because I really believe that the part of yourself that you're most ashamed of is interesting and can be used as material for art.

The vocabulary derives from a nervous habit: for several years, I've been compulsively transcribing everything I say, hear, read, or think--in short, all the ambient language that I can pick up--into a kind of sign-language (technically a "binary hand-alphabet") that looks more or less like fidgeting or piano playing. The inception of this practice can be dated quite precisely at February 14, 1993 -my twentieth birthday. I soon discovered that the compulsion was not directed exclusively toward ambient language, because my hand continued to form words in the hand-alphabet even when there wasn't, apparently, anything for it to transcribe--no one was saying anything, and I wasn't reading or even thinking anything that I was aware of. At these times, my hand tended to fixate on some phrase of indeterminate origin, which it would then repeat until I made a conscious effort to stop it. The tone of the phrases was predominantly melancholy--e.g., "it won't be easy and can't be a pleasure, it won't be easy and can't be a pleasure." I started keeping a record of the phrases, and when the record included about 170 different words, I decided to try writing with them.

In a sense, I was already writing with them-wasn't the hand-alphabet a form of writing? So you could say that my project in these poems was to combinea rigorous formal constraint (writing within the limited vocabulary, and as much as possible--which is to say, not much--within the paraphraseable content of "Mauberly") with a kind of automatic writing (since the hand-alphabet represented, at least to me, a direct connection between my hand and my unconscious).

Aaron Kunin

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