Monday, May 26, 2003

I can't seem to access my links right now but you should go check out the charming blog of my old Montana classmate Deborah Wardlaw Pattilllo, Chimera Song Mosaic.

And finally to set the record straight, or at least to have a record, here is the complete and unedited series of exchanges between myself and the formidable Gabe Gudding.

First, the e-mail he sent to me after I mentioned A Defense of Poetry on my blog, sent May 15:
"I find thinking about the book as rereading reduces the stakes the same way a book of funny poems deflects and subverts the highest and headiest
expectations of 'being Poetry' (that's why I can give a pass to Gabe Gudding's book, or Loren Goodman's Famous Americans, or even Gary's How to Proceed in the Arts: tweaking the nose of our internalized Harold Blooms is central to their project). These books present themselves as being primarily engaged with the literary (including, in the latter books' case, the "literary world" or po-biz),"

Hi Josh. Just in from long trip and reading blogs because have insomnia. Have to wonder, since so little of my book is about lampoon and parody (despite the back cover's description), if you've read the book. Very little of it could be considered intertextual in that mere "rereading" sense. If one key "thing" is tackled in the book, it is less poetry per se that is tackled than violence and dignity (and the book only comes at dignity via the violence necessary to maintain dignity). The review that STephen Burt gave my book in Boston Review would suggest the book is on the whole parodic, which it isn't. Am becoming increasingly amazed -- as you will when yours is published -- how few reviewers or commentators actually *read* the book. [in re dignity, too, i find your use of teh metaphor "high" to describe what are implicitly better? features of poetry interesting and telling, and am reminded of Aristotle's inherent bias {and maybe the source of our inherited bias?} against comedy in his poetics -- he used the same up=noble comedy=low metaphor]

If you don't have a copy, I'd be happy to send you one, my book not A's poetics, along with an essay about some of the key ideas in the book. That way at least you could know what the hell the author intended (am assuming you care abouut that -- you mentioned my "project" so you might be curious about what I've stated about my project).

But I understand that blogs are in many ways desultory records of passing thoughts, so it's groovy if you're paragraph about gudding, sullivan et al was just meant to be read as more or less impressionistic.

Take care,

I replied to Gabe the same day:
Hi Gabe,

I must confess to lumping your book in with others impressionistically, but I have read it, or at least large swathes of it, though admittedly in
manuscript form--Jasper Bernes gave me a copy. Do you really think poems with titles like "Richard Wilbur" "Robert Lowell," or "The Lyric" aren't intertextual, aren't satirical in intent (especially "Robert Lowell," which in spite of being dominated by your favored tropes of animalistic violence [or at least violent animals] seems like a satire of one of Lowell's poems about his Winslow forebears)? And the book is called "A Defense of Poetry," for goodness sake--under that rubric the book signals its major mode will be inter-, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say hyper- or paratextual. That it might have something else to say, something more serious to say, I don't necessarily doubt--though why should it have to, actually? I mean, I believe you--what you say about violence and dignity resonates with my
experience of your poems. But when I go on about "highness," although I suppose such a term inevitably privileges a certain kind of poem (I remain a lover of Romantic lyric, as I suspect you do, though I am perhaps less disillusioned for the moment) I certainly don't mean to express that I think that's the only kind of poem worth doing or worth reading. I rather like the paratextual mode--and you have to admit that you opened the door for critics to read you that way, in any case.

I'm sure you're right about the sloppiness of revewers, etc.--Burt gave my friend Richard's book an extremely cursory read. Trying to brace myself to somehow retain my dignity amidts the violence of sloppy or ill-willed critics. But though I may count myself amongst the former, Gabe, in your case I'm certainly not one of the latter.

Mind if I post this exchange on my blog? I'm a little hard up for material these days.

On May 18 Gabe kicked it up a notch:
Hey Josh,

It's true that 6 or 7 poems out of 40-some poems are actually referencing former poets or overtly literary matters, yeah. The book also has poems "about" the HUAC hearings, a Roman soldier, Ronald Reagan, the history of Oklahoma, the Norse attack on Lindisfarne, family matters (often *violent* family matters), being a deckhand, Sept 11 -- and the one or two themes subtending all of these pieces (including the "literary" ones) is/are dignity/indignity, violence/suffering/endurance. As for the title: given that the title poem in no way overtly references literary matters once one steps past the title and the epigraph, it might be useful to consider why I'd open the book with a string of insults. Maybe the title of the book is suggesting a hinge be made of the word "of," as in the genitive versus the objective of?; maybe not. What matters is that you've not read the book: The copy of the MS that jasper gave you looks nothing like the book. So, yeah, I do find it weird that you'd feel free to make a public comment about the book when (1) you've not read it and (2) are basing your impressions on 6 or 7 poems out of 40 or more poems.

Since when is a book's title enough to judge it by. Is _The Tennis Court Oath_ really about tennis courts or oaths? The "major mode" can't really be found via a title lifted free of the book's contents; content and title work as a pair, not each alone.

I don't mind if you post this exchange, so long as you post my response to your response.

I responded to this from my girlfriend's father's house in Bethesda on May 19, which may or may not have had an effect on the tenor of what I wrote:

I've got to say your desire, even your obsession, with getting people to read your book "correctly" puzzles me. From the post you made to the Poetics list complaining about your Amazon reviews to statements you've made on your own blog to this, it seems like the fact that your book has made a considerable splash and has led lots of people (even those who by your estimation haven't read it, like me) to talk about it and have powerful responses to it only makes you miserable. I thought at first it was just another paratextual blague on your part--this is the defensiveness of the poet after the defense of poetry, some kind of situationist comment on the scene not just of the production of poetry today, but of its reception. In a sense, then, your very public frustration with people's "misreading" your book has contributed to
this particular (non?)reader's misreading.

It can't be fun to feel you've been misunderstood, but damn, Gabe, if you wanted to be "understood" in that way you should have included some kind of essay (I have SEEN the printed book so I know there isn't one in there) explaining, a la Bloom, how to read it and _why_. The fact that you didn't do this suggests to me that at some point, consciously or not, you signed the devil's bargain every writer makes with his or her (always to some degree imagined) readers: you labor and sweat to create the book with a hundred different drives motivating you to do it, and they read it. That's all. They read it, and they have any and every possible reaction to it, and if they're writers themselves they will talk about that reaction. And I don't understand why you don't feel lucky about the fact that you do have readers, lots of them, and they're all talking. Somebody (even if it hasn't yet been me) who wouldn't have otherwise has probably bought your book because it was mentioned on my blog. Or at least they've thought about it. Maybe I'm less ambitious than you are, but if my own book is misunderstood by as many people as yours has been, I'm going to be really surprised and grateful.

For the record, I never claimed that there wasn't more to your book. And you may be right to chastise me for talking about something I haven't read in the author & publisher approved form (I hope I haven't exposed Jasper to an angry e-mail from you). But when and if I read it, and comment on it, I may still not "get" it by your lights. And that's my prerogative as a reader, damn it. Your prerogative is to smile or snarl or shrug, and write another book.

So there you have it—we were both obviously getting a little testy there at the end. For what it's worth, I certainly do plan to go out and get the book (or would you still be willing to send me a copy of it, Gabe?) and then I'll say what I think of it. This has been a useful conversation for me because it's made me think a bit harder about the extra-poetic means at a poet's disposal to shape the reception of his or her book. There's something very old-fashioned, very Addison and Steele, about Gabe's willingness to engage each and every critic of his work in print, which I kind of dig, even though I can't see myself following the same practice. It's also once again opened up the question as to what exactly my responsibilities are as a blogger. Certainly if I had based a book review on a manuscript I haven't even read all of I would be subject to censure. But am I a critic? Is this criticism that I'm writing right now? (Morpheus: "You think that's air you're breathing now, hm?") Gabe certainly seems to think so. For the present, I'm treating this blog as if impressions and immediacy were higher values than careful scholarship, which makes it a kind of vacation from my PhD work or from any review or article I may eventually try to publish ("publish" in the sense of passing through some kind of editorial or peer review process). But maybe that will change. In any case, people can and will continue to call me on the things I say, and I have to welcome that even if it makes me nervous. There's something at stake in even this most virtual of worlds.

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