by Burt Kimmelman

Quantum Syntax:
John Taggart's Discrete Serialism

    Twentieth-century American poetry can be divided into two camps, one conventional, the other avant-garde, one adhering to tradition, the other to experimentation. This categorization, however, is finally not very useful. A poet like John Taggart shows us why this is. Taggart’s work is traditional, on the one hand, most obviously in its insistence upon the spoken, indeed the performative, voice; there are also his invocations of Christian doctrine and symbology, frequent expression of antiwar sentiment, and unabashed echoing of rhythm and blues, gospel and jazz—all of this organized under the aegis of spirituality. On the other hand, Taggart’s poetry is, finally, a radical endeavor, which is evident immediately when considering its formal aspects, and most of all its foregrounding of syntax; individual words in the typical Taggart statement reside on their own, apart from the syntactical units of which they are elements; overlapping waves of clauses free them to stand uniquely and to be regarded with a view that is purely objective. This foregrounding has one important effect, which is to draw our attention away from what Taggart’s words are saying, and even how they are saying it, and to direct our attention toward the sheer materiality of the words themselves, much as occurs with abstract painting. To be sure, Taggart’s poetry operates according to a paradigm other than that which informs traditional verse. This paradigm, moreover, guides postmodern innovative art of all genres even at times when the artists creating it are unconscious of a greater aesthetic and intellectual context. I would suggest that Taggart’s poetry, like the work of his mentor George Oppen, means to transform words into objects rather then have them be mere signifiers—and its point of view, that is to say its poetics, is one of a radically undetermined world that is brought to our awareness, perhaps brought into its very being, through the reading aloud of the poem—because of its radical syntax.

    Taggart is not alone. He contributes to a unique chapter in our literary history along with three other poets—Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Ronald Johnson and Armand Schwerner—all of whom are younger members of the what collectively can be called the Black Mountain / Origin / Objectivist movement. Hence they are credentialed in the avant-garde and in fact they are truly avant-garde when all is said and done, but they all partake of certain traditions to great effect. It is possible to understand the later manifestations of this movement as having three branches. The first and perhaps most obvious branch is what can be conveniently referred to as NeoObjectivist, such as describes the poetry of Michael Heller, Hugh Seidman, Norman Finkelstein, and others. This branch adheres to traditional prosodies, although by no means are these poets to be thought of as being anything remotely akin to those of the present-day New Formalist school, for example; the NeoObjectivists also believe in voice-based poetry and in a literary-historical imperative, a common language and set of gestures inherited from older poets, which they then modulate. A second branch is Language poetry, perhaps best represented as regards my argument by Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten. These poets are situated diametrically opposite to those of the first branch. Language poetry rejects traditional prosodies, seeks to invent a new poetic language, and, more importantly, repudiates the very concept of voice-based, and even subject position-based, poetry. The third branch is where we find Taggart.

    Overall, what unites all three branches is, I would further argue, their collective attempt to abandon metaphor. All three branches may variously represent the present-day literature of antiestheticism, and all three ultimately inhabit a post-metaphysical philosophical world. In essence, Taggart’s poetry questions the very idea, indeed, that language is, at heart, metaphorical. No mere coincidence, such a working principle is shared by contemporary physics, especially the respective theories of Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Chaos, which can be summoned to aid us in understanding Taggart’s enterprise. It is in this framework that the uniqueness of Taggart’s poetry may be appreciated, insofar as its surface structure foregrounds repetition and seriality by way of syntax while, filled by incantation, it is radically indeterminate and uncannily similar to the world posited by Quantum physics. And it is worth comparing Taggart’s achievement with another, more recent, science, the study of the human genome, which challenges us to think in new ways. Consider this recent comment by Stephen Jay Gould:

From its late 17th century inception in modern form, science has strongly privileged the reductionist mode of thought that breaks overt complexity into constituent parts and then tries to explain the totality by the properties of these parts and simple interactions fully predictable from the parts. ("Analysis" literally means to dissolve into basic parts). …. The failure of reductionism doesn’t mark the failure of science, but only the replacement of an ultimately unworkable set of assumptions by more appropriate styles of explanation that study complexity at its own level and respect the influences of unique histories. (A15)

Taggart’s syntax, embodied in long looping lines whose clauses break off and then are picked up again from another point within them, reveal traditional science’s need to break overt complexity into constituent parts—after all, when the statement never quite ends, the reader or listener has recourse to the elements of the statement in a search for significance and closure, for satisfaction. Taggart’s volumes of poetry, moreover, are organized much like his individual poems and individual lines, one book spilling over into another. Perhaps the best example of this overlap is the volume appropriately entitled Loop some of whose lines anticipate the ensuing volume Standing Wave. Here, ironically titled, is a section from the poem called "Not Quite Parallel Lines":

The waves spread out and out from one source of power
the question is where will you and I position ourselves
there is the source of power and there is the wave
the waves spread out to become one standing wave


the wave may become a blade broad as the horizon itself
or it may become narrow with a sharp point wrapped in fire
whether horizon or wrapped point the question remains

(3.1-4, 16-18, Loop 184)

And now, here is how the title poem in Standing Wave begins:

Line to line connection of line to line with line to line
one line to line with one line to line at a time
connection of one line to line with one line to line
I connect one line to line with one line to line
(55, 1-4).

The "standing wave," we are told, exists in "folds […] in perfect obedience […] folds upon folds of the wave in perfect obedience" (11, 13).

    This poem likens its author’s creative process to the act of writing (and by extension of reading or hearing the written or spoken). The simile becomes unavoidable when reading the waves upon waves of clauses in the poem, which change slightly as they go along; for instance, the word "connection" is transmuted in later sections of the poem into "disconnection" and finally into "demarcation." Later in this book, one comes to the poem titled "Rereading":

He has closed the door to his room and he is reading
he has closed the door and he is reading a poem
he is reading a poem he is rereading one of his own poems
it is one of his own poems a poem about singing
it is a poem about singing about reasons for singing
reasons one of the reasons for singing
the reason was to light the most quiet light
the reason was to light the light that was radiantia
radiantia that was a singing light in darkness.
("Rereading" 1-9, Standing Wave 65)

The light, presumably existing in waves, radiates in the darkness, like the voice, like the word, like the scene of writing or reading. Taggart’s ars poetica is spelled out somewhat differently in Loop and yet the affinity here is plain. His poem "In Itself" insists on the utterance, whether the line as word or word as line, being all the metaphor poetry requires. The poem has an epigraph from Robert Duncan—"The line exemplifies, embodies; it is in itself metaphor." To this Taggart adds,

In itself it is in itself that the line is metaphor
in repetition in the repetition within the line
repetition is choice each repetition a choice rechosen
constant repetition in the line a constant choosing
what is chosen is the metaphor image of the metaphor.
Image of the metaphor image product of metaphor process


the image breaks through closed spaces clouds and fences
I had thought these forms of words could not be opened [….]

(205, 1-6, 12-13).

There is surely an attempt going on here to present and/or to fathom what Gould has called the natural complexities of the world. And yet it is not the genome project but quantum field theory that ultimately aids an explication of Taggart’s poetry when examining lines like these. This science eschews metaphor; in fact, Werner Heisenberg had to create an imaginary mathematics in order to formulate his Uncertainty Relations principle. Taggart’s standing wave of light, in any case, is also light as particles. The idea of the standing wave resonates Oppen’s idea of a Discrete Series, the title of his first book; that and his later volumes, as well as his other writing, reveal a keen interest in quantum field theory. Taggart, nonetheless, is to be distinguished from Oppen’s poetics and conscientiously distinguishes his work from it as in this telling comment from a recent interview:

George Oppen defines poetry as a process of thought. I’d say it’s a process of resistance to the poem’s own thinking as a form wishing to complete itself, to make a circle, to be complete. No resistance = no thought, no thought that could be called one’s own, that could matter as one’s own. And of course there has to be form—inherited or otherwise—for there to be resistance. Difficult to open or break a window that isn’t there.

("Written Interview" 24-30).

Resistance occurs through what Taggart, in his essay "A Preface," has named "’atomic’ phrases," which will mean "no one of them complete as with a sentence, but kept continually in motion toward completion" (72). His view of poetic reality is strikingly similar to Neils Bohr’s view of physical reality as typified by his theory of Complementarity. Bohr abandoned the aspiration for a grand theory of everything, which was made famous by Einstein, a theory that would unite Newtonian physics, Relativity theory, and Quantum Mechanics. Bohr simply said that different phenomena as well as different laws complement each other and that this complementary relationship, though unnamable in itself, was the truth of nature; there could not be any transcendent truth. In other words, there is an inherent incompleteness in the world, one that is insurmountable.

    Likewise, Taggart, in discussing his own work, theorizes an "impurity/variegation," which he desires to have reflected in his "irregular accretional rhythm of the line adding to itself as it [goes] along," and which contributes to "a constant shifting motion" ("A Preface" 74). But as he writes in his poem in Loop, titled "Return to Dehiscence" (another looping link, this time back to earlier poetry in a volume of that name)—he is probably thinking of Oppen’s silences or gaps in his verse, as Taggart has described them in a number of essays—"In the end words have been taken away certain no words / taken away to leave gaps as the result of procedure / gaps of no words gaps of silence in a weaver’s notation" (75, 1-3). The weaver or rhapsodist stitches words together. What is especially remarkable is how Taggart appropriates the traditional signifiers for writing and poetry especially—the train tracks in many of his poems like the classical and medieval furrows of the plow, the plow meant to indicate the pen or stylus, the vintage of Judeo-Christianity meant to denote the fruit of that plow, and so on—in order to show how language mediates a world that is by definition indeterminate. Or as Taggart says in the refrain of the poem "Inside Out" from his book Peace on Earth, "The sound is there the sound is not there the sound / is there the sound is not: you will plead and sigh for it" (26, 73-74). In a particularly Bohrian moment Taggart notes, in his essay "The Poem as Woven Scarf," that "however dense the weave and however enlarged the area, the poem must contain a perceptible pattern of openings, composed silences, within itself" (78).

    Taggart’s lines are there for all to see and hear in their sheer materiality, and so are the words in those lines that come to our attention as they are repeated in seemingly endless, slightly permutated phrases, as if to say that the here and now is the truth of the matter, that the present is the world—to borrow from Heidegger who is often echoed or cited by Taggart (and who was influenced by Heisenberg)—that the word in its phrase is the moment of gelassenheit or releasement.

    Wave or particles, Taggart’s lines dramatize the moment of complementary truths, when revelation is of the present, the here and now. Like Johnson, DuPlessis and Schwerner, Taggart has seen the limitations of tradition but has also seen the limits of the postmodern moment, and so he has fashioned a new poetry that is authentic to the conditions of language and truth. "We are made parts of a consuming process of repetition," Taggart writes in his essay "Of the Power of the Word," "through our appropriation of the past. We are made readers and rereaders." There is a "spider-web connectedness of […] sources" in which Taggart works to create his own voice in apposition to those sources. And what is the nature of this voice? He says that

[a]t best, our displacements might operate as clever enough variations on previously laid down themes. But what is finally repeated is an absence. The search for the originating source of an experience in language—in effect for its first telling—is honorable, but futile. It only serves to expose the arbitrariness of the enterprise. (127-28).

That language is what Taggart embraces in its apparent emptiness, and in doing so he enacts what is only an idea in Oppen’s work, thereby making it the central concern of this avant-garde yet historically faithful and enduring poet.


Gould, Stephen Jay. "Humbled by the Genome’s Mysteries," The New York Times (19 February 2001): A15.

Miller, Arthur I. Imagery in Scientific Thought: Creating Twentieth-Century Physics. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1986.

Taggart, John. Loop. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon P, 1991.

_____. Standing Wave. Providence: Lost Roads, 1993.

_____. "Written Interview: John Taggart," Harrisburg Review: A Literary and Visual Arts Journal, Spring 2001, 26, pp. 24-30).

_____. "A Preface." Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. For. Marjorie Perloff. Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabam P, 1994. 70-75.

_____. Peace on Earth. Berkeley: Turtle Island Foundation, 1981.

_____. "The Poem as Woven Scarf." Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. For. Marjorie Perloff. Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabam P, 1994. 76-78.

_____. "Of the Power of the Word." Songs of Degrees: Essays on Contemporary Poetry and Poetics. For. Marjorie Perloff. Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabam P, 1994. 123-30.