Palmer, Michael

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PALMER, Michael

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 11 May 1943. Education: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1961–68,B.A. in French 1965, M.A. in comparative literature 1967. Family: Married Cathy Simon in 1972; one daughter. Career: Editor, Joglars Magazine, Providence, Rhode Island, 1964–66; contributing editor, Sulfur magazine, Los Angeles. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1975. Address: 265 Jersey Street, San Francisco, California 94114, U.S.A.



Plan of the City of O. Boston, Barn Dream Press, 1971.

Blake's Newton. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1972.

C's Songs. Berkeley, California, Sand Dollar, 1973.

Six Poems. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1973.

The Circular Gates. Los Angeles, Black Sparrow Press, 1974.

Without Music. Santa Barbara, California, Black Sparrow Press, 1977.

Alogon. Berkeley, California, Tuumba Press, 1980.

Notes for Echo Lake. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1981.

First Figure. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1984.

Sun. Berkeley, California, North Point Press, 1988.

For a Reading: A Selection of Poems. New York, Dia Art Foundation, 1988.

An Alphabet Underground: Poems. Viborg, Denmark, After Hand, 1993.

At Passages. New York, New Directions, 1995.

The Lion Bridge. New York, New Directions 1998.


Radio Plays: Idem l-4, 1979.

Dance Scenarios (collaborations with Margaret Jenkins Dance Company): Interferences, 1975; Equal Time, 1976; Video Songs, 1976; About the Space in Between, 1977; No One But Whitington, 1978; Red, Yellow, Blue, 1978; Straight Words, 1980; Versions by Turns, 1980; Cortland Set, 1982; First Figure, 1984.


The Danish Notebook. N.p., Avec Books, 1999.

Editor, Code of Signals: Recent Writings in Poetics. Berkeley, California, North Atlantic, 1983.

Editor, with Régis Bonvicino and Nelson Ascher, Nothing the Sun Could Not Explain: 20 Contemporary Brazilian Poets. Los Angeles, Sun and Moon Press, 1997.

Translator, with Geoffrey Young, Relativity of Spring: 13 Poems, by Vicente Huidobro. Berkeley, California, Sand Dollar, 1976.

Translator, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (screenplay), by Alain Tanner and John Berger. Berkeley, California, North Atlantic, 1983.

Translator, with Norma Cole, The Surrealists Look at Art. Venice, California, Lapis Press, 1990.

Translator, Theory of Tables, by Emmanuel Hocquard. Providence, Rhode Island, O-Blek editions, 1994.

Translator, with John High and Michael Molnar, Blue Vitriol, by Alexei Parshchikov. N.p., Avec Books, 1994.

Translator, Three Moral Tales, by Emmanuel Hocquard. N.p., Noble Rider, 1996.


Critical Studies: By Michael Davidson, in Caterpillar 20 (Sherman Oaks, California), 1973; Steve McCaffery, in Open Letter (Toronto), fall 1975, April 1978, and fall 1978; David Chaloner, in Poetry Information (London), summer 1976; William Corbett, in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E 2 (New York), 1978; Martin Dodman, in Montemora 5 (New York), June 1979; George Lakoff, in Poetics Journal 2 (Berkeley, California), 1982; Alan Soldofsky, in Ironwood 19 (Tucson), 1982; Language Poetry: Writing As Rescue by Linda Reinfeld. Baton Rouge and London, Louisiana State University Press, 1992; "Important Pleasures and Others: Michael Palmer, Ronald Johnson" by Eric Murphy Selinger, in Postmodern Culture (Cary, North Carolina), 4(3), May 1994; "Language Poetry, Language Technology, and the Fractal Dimension: Michael Palmer Prints Out a Kingdom" by Tan Lin, in A Poetics of Criticism, edited by Juliana Spahr and others, Buffalo, New York, Leave, 1994; The Poetics of Resistance: A Critical Introduction to Michael Palmer (dissertation) by Lauri Scheyer Ramey, University of Chicago, 1996; "Without Measure: Duration in Palmer and Willis" by Joshua McKinney, in Denver Quarterly (Denver, Colorado), 31(4), spring 1997; "Making the Dust Rise: Michael Palmer's Interrogation into Being" by David W. Clippinger, in Salt Hill Journal (Syracuse, New York), 2, spring 1996.

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It has long been a dogma of poetic criticism that it is impossible to paraphrase a poem. Most poems, of course, can be paraphrased, and it is frequently useful to do so, especially when the reader is making a first acquaintance with a work. The poetry of Michael Palmer, however, cannot be paraphrased. Its meaning is strictly a function of the complex interrelations of specific linguistic details.

A typical poem—"On the Way to Language," for example—is a linguistic environment in which poetic particles, phonemes, rhythms, rhymes, images, and bits and pieces of found language perform a complex dance. The present example shares its title with a translation of one of Heidegger's philosophical treatises. The reader must assume that this is no accident, and it is clear that Palmer is a reader of modern philosophy. Having made this somewhat arcane connection (it is not one of Heidegger's better-known works), however, one by no means has a key to the poem. In fact, the information seems to lead nowhere. The poem takes the form of answers and questions, upsetting normal expectations of order, and although it suggests certain Heideggerian themes, it is noncommittal. The poem closes when the abstract title produces an image of a concrete "way"—"the valley of desire / crossed by the bridge / of frequent sighs"—but in context this is really another enigma rather than a resolution.

The theme of Palmer's work, to the extent that it may be said to have a theme, is a Heideggerian or, perhaps more to the point, Wittgensteinian astonishment at the existence of phenomena. We are presented with a world and a language that are endlessly fascinating. It is possible to trace local connections and to follow this or that line of thought to its frequently absurd conclusion, but there is no closure except for the confrontation with the inexplicable and irreducible stuff of language and the world.

It is demanding poetry. The ideal reader is one who can combine intense concentration with willingness to play—in all senses of the word—to play as a child and also, perhaps more importantly, to play as a musician. Despite the fact that Palmer's most interesting volume is entitled Without Music, all of his work is best read in the spirit of a musician studying a score, trying different tempos, different phrasings, and so forth.

Palmer is involved in an exploration of possibilities in language that have been largely disregarded. He takes a passage from Géza Rohéim's Magic and Schizophrenia as the epigraph to Without Music, and he also names Louis Wolfson's Le Schizo et les langues as one of his important sources. We are beginning to learn that traditional syntax and traditional forms of poetic organization are merely laborsaving devices that allow a vague, careless attention to language. When such simple strategies are exposed, however, and attention is brought to bear without reservation, it begins to discover possibilities for the production of meaning far more powerful than those we have previously known. One of the unexpected turns in this situation is that we learn the schizophrenic's bewilderment to be a result of wandering unaided into this difficult and exciting realm of experience.

In his later work Palmer seems to declare a significantly new direction. The objectively distanced tone of the earlier work now gives way to an intellectually denser texture, in the vein of poets as different from one another as Paul Célan and Robert Duncan. The poems, as in this one from the late 1980s, seem almost to erase themselves:

of counterlight
in the fluid window
a dog sings songs
asking nothing
we cannot speak.

The ambiguity of these lines seems to have touched a terminus of the ironic possibility that is central to Palmer's project. His elegant and beautifully crafted work now enters the contest of visionary poetry with silence.

—Don Byrd

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Palmer, Michael

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