Aaron Kunin sent me an e-mail commenting on my post about Milton's syntax, and has kindly given me permission to post it here:
Just a quick note to say that I hear and understand your observation about Milton and Scalapino. It's something I've thought about more than once. There is a fundamental difference in the way I think about them, though: Milton's writing seems to be motivated by sheer discomfort with the English language; the most exciting moments in his writing often feel like they're testing the limits of the language, or like they've passed beyond them—it's not English anymore. (Sometimes it's the syntax that does this. From Samson Agonistes: "Smote Cisera sleeping through the temples nailed"—where the order seems to be determined by some other language that just happens to be using the materials of English.) Whereas Scalapino's writing gives a completely different feeling: it's like the universe speaks English. She seems to inhabit the language comfortably (which makes her writing, I think, very different from most experimental writing). Like this line from one of her first books, which I'm quoting from memory: "a man going by says 'good' to himself"—that isn't quoted exactly, but if I could remember it better, it would give the feeling that each word is in exactly the right place....
Anyway, I tend to put Milton and Scalapino together for other reasons.
1) They belong to a really small category of people who once had a sense of humor, then lost it. With Milton, this loss can even be dated precisely (1659, although one might argue that "A Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth" is a brilliant political joke). With Scalapino, it's harder to pinpoint, but it seems to occur somewhere in the pages of The Return of Painting, The Pearl, and Orion.
2) They hate being misread. It's really kind of frightening, how angry they are about being misread, misquoted, appreciated for the wrong reasons, etc. And in their fury about being misread, they momentarily recover the sense of humor which they had previously lost due to excessive seriousness. For example, Milton's reply to Dryden, Scalapino's replies to her critics in R-hu, and her refrain "That's a poem" in The Front Matter, Dead Souls.
3) They hate being misread because they are radically iconoclastic. They object on moral principle to the replacement of an object by an image. They object to an image not because it's inaccurate, but simply because it's an image.
I'm not qualified to respond to some of Aaron's comments, because I simply don't know Scalapino's work well enough, at least not the books he mentions. I can say, however, that in Milton's case, although I agree with Aaron that Milton is "testing the limits" of English, I'm not sure this is the same thing as saying that he is uncomfortable with it; he is antagonistic and violent in his wresting of it, yes, but in a way that only someone who has lived for a long time in harmony with its facile beauties could manage. Read the sonnet to the nightingale, for example, or for that matter, "Lycidas": the entire early corpus is a methodical exhausting of conventional lyric possibilities. He does seem to know early on that he will move beyond this point, as he suggests in "At a Vacation Exercise," in which he addresses the English language directly:
I have some naked thoughts that rove about
And loudly knock to have their passage out;
And wearie of their place do only stay
Till thou hast deck't them in thy best aray;
That so they may without suspect or fears
Fly swiftly to this fair Assembly's ears;
Yet had I rather, if I were to chuse,
Thy service in some graver subject use,
Such as may make thee search thy coffers round,
Before thou cloath my fancy in fit sound....
English, he lets it be known, has its work cut out for it with him. And yet, the language of the late, great epics and Samson is always a pushing of English not beyond the point of identity with itself, but up against the outer boundaries of that point. As Latinate as the verses get, they always leave open a route for being unwound, straightened into elegantly conventional English syntax. English wrestles with the classical serpent, but always wins.
Finally, I wanted to mention, and forgot to, that one of the high points of the Trans Genre conference last weekend was a screening of a video by Konrad Steiner featuring Scalapino's beautiful reading of part of Way. Steiner's videography is stunning, and the two artists complement each other wonderfully. It is an extremely moving piece of work.