Losing Count and Not Caring: John Taggart's Pyramid Canon
“The test of poetry is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.”
- Louis Zukofksy
Pyramid Canon, published by Burning Deck in 1973 and dedicated to Louis Zukofsky, is a section of The Pyramid Is A Pure Crystal, published by Elizabeth Press in 1974. Burning Deck, operating out of Rhode Island since 1961, is a small press run by Keith and Rosemarie Waldrop. Specializing in experimental poetry and prose, Burning Deck also publishes German and French poetry in translation and has published many notable books, including My Life by Lyn Hejinian and Why Write? by Paul Auster (although wikipedia does not list Pyramid Canon, as a notable work).
Pyramid Canon is separated into three numbered sections. The first two sections are four pages each, one stanza per page. Each stanza contains 9 to 10 syllables. The third section is a single page, with 4 stanzas and each of the stanzas contains 16 and 18 syllables.
The poem begins with the epigram– Cantus firmus: The pyramid is a pure crystal.
Cantus firmus is a Latin term for a pre-existing melody that forms the basis for a polyphonic composition. In essence, the composer uses a set of given notes and melodies to form his or her own composition. The Cantus firmus of the Pyramid Canon functions in the following way: The poem is is made up of two sections totaling 8 stanzas. Taggart blends the words in these stanzas, which operate as the given notes and melodies of the poem, to form the four stanzas of the third section. Strangely, however, the words, “The pyramid is a pure crystal” do not appear in the poem.
The concept “cantus firmus” also operates within the poem visually. Taggart uses visual constraints by framing each of the singular stanzas in the first two sections within a square. The square recurs throughout the book in the same placement on each page including the third section, where the poem runs over the lines of the square, running through it, instead of framing the 4 stanzas individually.
An example of the blending of the stanzas is a follows. Here Taggart blends stanza 1 section 1 with stanza 2 of section 2 to form stanza 2 of section 3:
Stanza 1, Section 1
-sun’s -, a set
of faces point
Stanza 2, Section 2
Stanza 3, Section 2
sun’s a set,
Below is a color-coded diagram mapping the relationships of each stanza:
The stanzas interweave as follows:
As Paul Naylor describes on Golden Handcuffs, Pyramid Cannon develops through recombination, reversal, and repetition in order “to excavate language’s elemental and etymological particles.” The visual foundation of the text is the series of boxes that runs throughout. These squares serve as building blocks, displaying both the constraint of language in sections 1 and 2 by placing the text within the square and also the versatility of language in section three, with the text running throughout the square. The language of the poem itself references the geometry of the square, for example section 2, stanza 4 reads:
Planes through planes
The interplay of the textual and visual elements of this poem is fundamental to the strength of the work. The richness of this play is felt strongly in certain sections, for example in the first stanza of section three, the line of the square runs through the line reading, name, define, appearing as name, define, highlighting the difficulty of those endeavors.
Pyramid Canon was also published in 1973 by L Magazine out of Berkley, California (Volume 1, No. 2-3, Spring 1973). Run by Curtis Faville, L Magazine ran annually from 1972 to 1974, publishing poems by Robert Creeley, Tom Raworth, Ron Silliman, and Philip Whalen, among others. There are three fundamental changes between the Burning Deck and L Magazine printings. Firstly, the Cantus firmus epigram is placed on the same page as stanza one of section one, altering the visual sameness and repetition of the work. Secondly, each stanza does not receive it’s own page opening. Instead, the poem is printed on both the recto and verso of the pages. Thirdly, while all other stanzas of the poem are framed by the square, the third section is squareless. This third difference is a large textual and visual alteration. The constraint of the square throughout the poem is lost, as well as other paratextual experiences such as the crossing out of the words name and define. Below is a digital version of the L Magazine printing of Pyramid Canon.
The simplicity of this structure allows for the complexity of the text; the movement of the single page stanzas paired with the square forms connotes a building of the squares to an apex (or peak of the pyramid) in the third section.
After exploring this poem, even rudimently,you find that while a structure exists in this linguistic and visual cantus firmus, there is room for play, for improvisation, for beats that are not exactly the same each time. We find this play and improvisation in Pyramid Canon where we see Taggart writing through the box, find him blending the stanzas but with a few words taken out and a few put in, and that he is nearly, but not quite matching the beat count. The counting is fundamental, but so is the freedom and the feeling. It is when thinking about these things, that I remember the importance of music, and particularly Jazz, to Taggart’s work.
In the diagramming, counting, and breaking down of Pyramid Canon I came closer to understanding the structure of Pyramid Canon, but it took re-reading another of Taggart’s poems, At the Counters Ball, to re-remember how a poem looks, sounds, and feels, and to forget about the counting and re-read the work again.
AT THE COUNTERS BALL
Last dance a waltz jazzed up slowed
down out of time real easy is in three played free
and so all the time in the world
last dance for the counters it’s the last dance at the counters ball
a waltz for the counters who’ve spent all their time counting
what’s lost like
thing like favorite things not things
after the ball is over back in their counting houses
the counters will be counting what’s lost
and all the counters are laughing because I asked Emily “do I repeat
myself” and she said “very well” and they’re dancing
because they’ve lost count and
don’t care and because it’s the last
dance and I’m dancing
laughing and dancing with the oh so divine Miss Emily D.
(Taggart reading At the Counters Ball)
For readings and lectures by Taggart, please explore Penn Sound