Thursday, January 30, 2003

As a rare winter sunset paints the bare trees red through my window, it's dawning on me that my post of yesterday was nearly incoherent. Do I contradict myself? Is the function of a blog to celebrate incoherence or only tolerate it as the price of doing business? Certainly it's a celebration of process, but which process exactly? Does this kind of writing at all resemble the other kinds of writing I do—poems and academic writing? It's far more rigorously shaped than any other notebook I've ever kept. Of course this notebook is kept in public, and as many as forty people a day are peeking at it with my invitation. It's been a fantastically successful experiment thus far—I feel immersed in a dialogue about poetry much larger than any I've found in classrooms or bars, plus it keeps my sense of myself as a poet alive after wearing my PhD hat all day. Perhaps I should begin posting actual poems. What I'd be most interested in putting out there are the poems from my unpublished manuscript Fourier Series, but they are formatted in a way that would be difficult to reproduce with my extremely limited knowledge of HTML. Perhaps the next time I have a spare hour I'll try it.

There are issues of substance to engage with, but right now I have to go to Target and buy some corduroys. A warm blogger is a happy blogger.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

John Erhardt wrote another thoughtful e-mail to me which I will repost here with his permission. It begins with a quotation from an e-mail I sent him: "One question I didn't address in my post is why you spent so much time reading Palmer if you found him so unrewarding. Was it just the sense that other people like him and he just has to be good? Or was there something there that provoked you into further investigation until you became satisfied that there was nothing going on that you could value? I'm curious."
Well, I think you answered it at the bottom of the post, when you write "I do believe that Palmer and poets like him are extending our sense of tradition and newness, simultaneously, even as they begin to pass, through familiarity, from the sublime to the merely beautiful." I would be more aligned with the "poets like Palmer" than I would with Palmer himself, though I'm willing to hear you out on why he himself is important. When I say that I spent a lot of time reading Palmer, I don't mean, of course, that he was the ONLY poet I was reading extensively who was challenging me -- I read a great deal of Leslie Scalapino, and Fanny Howe, and Ann Lauterbach, and Rae Armantrout, and a few others. While yes, I do like Shakespeare, and Donne, and Yeats, and Frost, and Wordsworth, I also know that an Elizabethan diction (or a Romantic one) doesn't really seem appropriate in 20th or 21st century America. We've got other things on our mind.

So I don't read Palmer (or others) because other people do and therefore, by extension, he must be good. I read them for alternate exposure, I suppose. I love reading Heaney and Auden, for example. But the questions I ask myself while reading their poems are largely the same questions I ask myself while reading Yeats. And so I move on to Medbh McGuckian for an entirely different experience, an entirely new set of questions that I haven't even learned about yet. Hopefully they are questions that I can use to illuminate something AWAY from the world of poetry, but this is all too often a pipe dream. Frank O'Hara has written: “I dislike a great deal of contemporary poetry – all of the past you read is usually quite great – but it’s a useful thorn to have in one’s side.” I agree with that in many ways, but I also know I took the quotation out of context. I think he's right -- I don't always like or admire what current poets are doing, but I'll give 'em a shot. There's a lot I admire, for example, in the poetry of Ann Lauterbach. Palmer, more often than not, writes about writing. A blurb like "{Palmer's poetry} makes possible a place where words initially engage their meanings..." doesn't tell me a whole lot. It tells me that he has language issues. But what poet DOESN'T have language issues? Isn't that what a poet is? Someone who explores discrepancies in meaning? Someone who is perpetually saying "hey, wait a minute..."? The only difference is that Palmer is largely one-dimensional.

Though I'm glad you cited from AT PASSAGES, which contains a poem by Palmer I actually like. If you read "Seven Poems Within A Matrix For War" with the Gulf War, Iraq, George I, and Operation Desert Storm/Shield in mind, it's a poem that reaches outside of its own language to attempt something decidedly non-literary and completely human/e. I suppose it's that flicker that keeps me going back, sometimes, to Palmer and others; there's at least a CHANCE they can/might write about topics I would be interested in that DON'T involve postmodern litcrit buzzwords. Perhaps they've already written about these things somewhere in their poetry and I'm simply missing them. Most of the time, though, it's as if they're carpenters who insist on using funny-shaped tools, and then they complain that all the houses they've built are unbearably ugly.

The quote from O'Hara reminds me of another one I like from Mark Twain: "Every time I read Jane Austen I want to dig her up and beat her about the skull with her own shinbone." This is cute, naturally, but it also implies something crucial -- he continues to read her even though he doesn't always like the experience. That's called "reading," frankly. Dana Gioia famously whined about American poets increasingly turning inward. I don't think ALL of them do, but enough do so that they give the whole lot of 'em a bit of a tarnishing.

I think I want to let the debate rest here for now, but I do feel compelled to make one observation. I find myself wondering if Michael Palmer's Gulf War poems, which strike me also as more immediately engaging than some of his earlier work, seem to reach "outside its own language" only because it was written for/about an event that I myself experienced. Palmer and his generation are a generation of '68: I suspect there is a highly politicized context enframing books like Notes from Echo Lake and Sun, and the even earlier books (Blake's Newton, The Circular Gates, Without Music—that last title sums up Palmer's poetics even if it doesn't adequately describe his poetry) that is simply not terribly accessible to poets in their twenties and thirties (I'm making a large presumption here about John's age in assuming he's a peer). How poetry like this expects to "live" beyond its original context is a question; no doubt some poets of Palmer's generation would immediately deny that their context has passed despite all evidence to the contrary.

This raises a larger question for me as a (relatively) young person entering the academy, where most of my professors are in their late forties to early sixties and so belong to or are affiliated with the generation of '68 or the more "Big Chill"-like group that came to consciousness with Watergate and radical feminism in the early seventies. Coming to cognizance during the Reagan administration left me with a political cosmology that is already nearly useless for life under Bush II—how much more adaptable can someone be who used to chant, "LBJ, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" Of course the day after the State of the Union a number of pundits are calling Bush, "Reagan Jr.," but that says more about the will of the baby boomers to repeat familiar history than it does about history itself. Bush himself, along with his cronies, have managed to replicate the Cold War by finding other faces for the absolute "evil" that crumbled into something more recognizably human around 1989. This will to repeat puts us once again in the situation of being terrified into submission by our leaders, and yet it completely ignores how radically different the world has become since the Berlin Wall fell. The right hasn't had to adapt because the old wine looks so good in the new bottles. The left is in utter disarray because it has accomplished all its positivisms—negative dialectic is its only remaining weapon, and a weapon is not a tool for building. Marxism, the engine of left wing thought for the entire 20th century, still serves as a viable critique—it's as useful as it ever was for pointing out the Man to you in the crowd and telling you what he's up to. But a postivist Marxism—the Marxism that builds institutions—has lost all credibility. Oh sure, most Western European countries look socialist compared to the U.S., but their socialism flourishes under our nuclear umbrella. A socialism that depends indirectly on a capitalist country to survive is compromised, to say the least. Which is not to say that those countries shouldn't criticize us for not living up to our own values. But moving to Paris or Amsterdam, as I occasionally daydream about doing, would solve nothing, not even for me personally. I live in America and have to bear my share of responsibility for American power. It isn't the solution for me or for my benighted country to lay that power aside in exchange for ethical cleansing.

Whew. Where was I? I guess the point I wanted to make was that some of the most politically inflected poetry is of necessity married to its moment, and Palmer may be less comprehensible, mayhap even less pleasurable, to us than he is to his contemporaries. The fact that he addresses and references and puts his contemporaries into the poems is another indication of this—though someone will now point out that Frank O'Hara is constantly talking about his friends and it doesn't make it any harder for us to enjoy O'Hara's work. To which I say, Basta!

One poet who engages the impact of changing times on her poetics and politics is Adrienne Rich, who we discussed yesterday in the Contemporary Poetry & Poetics class I'm taking with Jonathan Monroe. I don't always love Rich's work. Her tone can be self-righteous and her means of "writing the body" primitive: I feel like I get a much stronger sense of a specifically feminine eros from poets like Lucie Brock-Broido, Susan Mitchell, Chelsey Minnis, or even Björk. Much of her language has passed, in the way I described, from the sublime of startlement to the merely beautiful, or even the merely unbeautiful self-consciously plain: there's simply no way she can alert all my senses to something new and ferocious the way she could for those encountering her in the 1970s and 80s. In spite of this she remains an indispensable public poet, whose engagement with aesthetic and political history is broad and deep, and all over the poems in her latest book, Fox. In class yesterday we spent most of our time discussing the 13-section poem "Terza Rima," in which Rich not only engages in an agon with her poetic forefathers (as we might expect of her) but also with herself as her own poetic foremother. This poem, and the book as a whole (also the preceding book Midnight Salvage and its crucial final poem, "A Long Conversation"), rigorously questions the role of the poet in history, who begins by describing a new territory (in Rich's case, the territory of women's writing, which the poem implicitly compares to the gigantic territory described in the Divine Comedy) and ends in finding herself trapped there. How long a leap is it from Diving into the Wreck to Oprah bestsellerdom and victim's lit? Not long enough, Rich discovers: "theater of love   Ninth Circle / there are so many teachers / here no fire can shrink them." The teachers, who include Rich herself, are in the circle of betrayers. How to escape the cycle of commodification, as relentless an ourobouros as Heidegger's hermeneutic circle? Rich sees hope in the everyday:

Where the novice pulls the guide
across frozen air
where the guide suddenly grips the shoulder

of the novice   where the moss is golden
the sky sponged with pink at sunset
where the urine of reindeer barely vanished

stings the air like a sharp herb
where the throat of the clear-cut opens
across the surrendered forest

I'm most difficultly
with you   I lead
and I follow

our shadows   reindeer-huge
slip onto the map
of chance and purpose   figures

on the broken crust
exchanging places   bites to eat
a glance

Rich is both guide and novice, Vergil and Dante, and the moment when the guide grips the novice's shoulder is, I believe, the moment of arrival in Paradise—the place no guide can enter. Rich's Paradise is earthly and magical at once, stained with "the urine of reindeer," and its paradisal nature is found in the ordinariness, the communion, the publicness of the activities that go on there.

It's not a beautiful poem; it's not a beautiful book. Nor does it carry with it the sting of the new; the language is altogether flat. Yet I'm impressed with the rigor of Rich's self-questioning: she has a lot to teach us in that regard. How does a poet, especially a political poet, grow old? Restlessly, painfully, unsparingly. Like this.

Monday, January 27, 2003

John Erhardt wrote me a long, considered, and exceptionally courteous reply to yesterday's post. I'll excerpt what strikes me right now as the heart of the matter, which starts when John explains that formalism is not what he demands from a poet like Michael Palmer, though he does point out that Palmer has written a sonnet or two. He goes on:
I've put an awful lot of time into reading Palmer over the last few years. I've read all of his books, and I've hunted down most of them. But the reward I get from reading him is almost nil. Most of the time I haven't the slightest idea what he's talking about. I remember nothing from his books; I don't remember any lines, I don't remember any thematic similarities between individual poems, and I don't remember any differences between volumes of poems. His lines aren't musical, and, if not for the titles, I wouldn't have any idea where one poem ended and another began -- it's simply arbitrariness at most levels. And that's what I object to the most -- the fact that once a young poet learns about signs, signifiers and the signified, they combat the arbitrary relationship between those three with poems that are totally arbitrary, and then they wave their results around the room as if we should all be floored by their discovery. They then wield a Derridean vocabulary and talk in circles all semester. Reading Palmer, I get the feeling that I'm being exposed to an utterly pointless intellectual exercise.

Now, that's not true in all cases, obviously. But I get the feeling that many poets proceed as if the greatness of a poem is directly related to how much discourse it can produce. I hope I'm not coming across as if this is an ad hominem accusation of Palmer being a "discourse slut." I am personally not interested in writing about every poem that I read, nor am I interested in reading an endless library of supplementary material to explain each new poet to me. I am more interested, frankly, in being a casual reader of poetry; someone who enjoys the cultural/literary/intellectual experience of reading a poem, someone who enjoys witnessing a craftsman wield his/her tool: language. I read poetry for pleasure. "Pleasure" in this case doesn't mean "entertainment." I don't read poetry for a good laugh (a la Collins), nor do I read it for a quick emotional fix (Sharon Olds or someone). "Pleasure" also does not mean "easy to grasp poems that are probably prose anyway." I read it because it gives me the intellectual stimulation of thinking about an issue that exists away from the page, and I don't think Palmer exists away from the page.

Is it not possible, then, to be a "casual" reader of poetry? I have quite a few intellectual interests -- politics, science, philosophy -- and if I require too many peripheral "helpers" in order to understand ONE book of Palmer, forget it -- my bookshelf is filled with books I haven't read, and I'd rather move on to something else. Keeping up with current poetry alone is a Promethean task -- I simply can't continue to do it if I need to keep up on each volume of criticism as well. Poetry, for me, needs to have its own legs. Palmer has always relied on the legs of others, as has Watten, some Silliman, etc.
I think John has done an excellent job of re-posing that perpetual and ornery question, Who reads poetry? Most of us are, of course, poets ourselves; but the meaning of this is changing. More and more of the poets I'm aware of and interested in are, like me, also scholars or would-be scholars: the number of poets seeking PhDs seems to increase hourly. This is partly derived of course from the exigencies of the job market; I wonder too about the ressentiment beneath the surface, as poets with books and PhDs struggle to get jobs in institutions where baby boom poets with MFAs and anti-intellectual attitudes are commonly senior faculty. John is not disclaiming his status as an intellectual in his message—he may not want to write about every poem he reads but he has produced at least one smart review that I'm aware of (read it at the Contemporary Poetry Review, an online journal whose other reviewers often indulge in profound smugness). Nor is he a populist of the more vulgar sort. He simply wants to be able to read some poems "casually," and for this to be possible the poem in question must have some existence "away from the page."

I happen to be a huge Michael Palmer fan (full disclosure: I took a workshop with him at Bread Loaf, of all places, the summer of 2000). Glancing through The Lion Bridge: Selected Poems 1972-1995 I do indeed detect a certain aggression in the subterranean way Palmer deploys his allusions (which are legion), a certain exclusivity in the way he conducts conversations with other actors not present who the reader is presumably supposed to know. The pleasure of his poetry, for me, is precisely the pleasure of renunciation, of an austerity surrounded by a rich, only partially visible sense of engagement with a tradition. That tradition seems more Continental than Anglo-American, more Mallarméan than Eliotic or even Poundian. He indulges himself and the reader with a speaking that is always on the tightrope, always on the verge of falling into silence. It's flirting with, if not death, then the death drive as it resists being spoken—in other words, Palmer's heritage is Dickinsonian rather than Whitmanian. He's Dickinson with a political agenda and, yes, a lot of Derrida under her belt. Yes, he does write an awful lot about writing, probably too much. Yes, he makes a fetish of flatness. But some of his more recent work is downright rollicking in its multiple engagements with history, philosophy, and the other poets he's always addressing:
Autobiography 2 (hellogoodby)

The Book of Company which
I put down and can't pick up

The Trans-Siberian disappearing.
The Blue Train and the Shadow Train

Her body with ridges like my skull
Two children are running through the Lion Cemetery

Five travelers are crossing the Lion Bridge
A philosopher in a doorway insists

that there are no images
He whispers instead: Possible Worlds

The Mind-Body Problem
The Tale of the Color Harpsichord

Skeleton of the World's Oldest Horse
The ring of O dwindles

sizzling round the hole until gone
False spring is laughing at the snow

and just beyond each window
immense pines weighted with snow

A philosopher spread-eagled in the snow
holds out his Third Meditation

like a necrotic star. He whispers:
archery is everywhere in decline,

photography the first perversion of our time
Reach to the milky bottom of this pond

to know the feel of bone,
a knuckle from your grandfather's thumb,

the maternal clavicle, the familiar
arch of a brother's brow

He was your twin, no doubt,
forger of the unicursal maze

My dearest Tania, When I get a good position in the courtyard
I study their faces through the haze

Dear Tania, Don't be annoyed,
please, at these digressions

They are soldering the generals
back onto their pedestals

I come not to praise Michael Palmer nor to bury John—nor do I want to cry, "Can't we all get along?" and make another empty plea for pluralism in po-biz. I guess I want to understand more about this creature, the casual reader of poetry. The causal reader of poetry is an easier concept for me to grasp: witness the instrumental deployment of poetry as comfort (especially that Auden poem, heard everywhere) after 9/11. Presumably the casual reader is not interested only in comfort—nor is he or she automatically opposed to being made uncomfortable, as most will agree the best art often does. S/he wants "pleasure," which John is at pains to distinguish from "entertainment," and rightfully so. Anyone who chooses to entertain by writing poetry is playing a mug's game, in my opinion: there are better laughs and quick emotional fixes to be found at the movies, as Frank O'Hara would be the first to point out. O'Hara said, "If they don't need poetry, bully for them." What, then, is the special pleasure we need from a poem? John wrote, "I read [a poem] because it gives me the intellectual stimulation of thinking about an issue that exists away from the page." Intellectual stimulation, yes, but it's more than that—for me it's a stimulation that crosses the line between intellectual and bodily pleasure. The poems I value the most excite me because the language is operating on me, often in ways I don't immediately apprehend, in order to enlarge my sense of what's possible. It's an electric feeling or chill (frisson) that frightens nearly as much as it emboldens and expands, in good Wittgensteinian fashion, the limits of my world. It is sublime. I need to study up on my Kant before I start flinging these terms around, but poetry which provides what is primarily an experience of beauty—poems that are mimetic of something in the world "that exists away from the page"—isn't quite as valuable to me. It's interesting to realize that a poem of the first type inevitably becomes a poem of the second type when it becomes familiar enough—when one has accumulated enough interpretive context to discover its existence, its relevance, its participation, "away from the page." Of course this process of increasing familiarity is highly individuated, especially in a culture which doesn't teach poetry well or at all; people are coming across Yeats' "The Second Coming" as adults and getting that chill of the sublime from it. Which is fine except insofar as it retards innovation: and yes, I do believe in innovation because art is historical. The art of today is by no means "better" than the art of any other period—it's only the art that's newest to us, and that speaks to where we stand or sit, and ideally grabs us by the ear and pulls us up out of our cozy chairs and to the window where the world stands revealed as it most urgently is in all its particulars.

Yes please, let's read Tennyson and Stevens and Shakespeare and Donne—let's know our tradition, absolutely. A young poet who knows only Palmer is bound to be a bore. But I do believe that Palmer and poets like him are extending our sense of tradition and newness, simultaneously, even as they begin to pass, through familiarity, from the sublime to the merely beautiful.
Just discovered that in 1970, the year of my birth, a film was released called You Can't Win 'Em All, which features a character named Josh Corey played by, of all people, Charles Bronson. It gets better: the film co-stars Tony Curtis (playing someone named Adam Dyer—now there's a great name for a poet) and they play American mercenaries in 1922 Turkey hired to guard the daughters and gold of a Turkish bigwig named Osman Bey (played by the great French poet Grégoire Aslan).

Self-googling: it's narcissistic and fun!

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Josh Corey knows my friend Eric, I think. Josh is a Ph D. student at Cornell, and it’s too early to tell what his site will be like. I read his manuscript once and I didn’t find it nearly as experimental as his tastes would indicate, for whatever that’s worth. I know very little about him other than that. He was a Stegner Fellow.

Who the heck is Eric? The above is quoted from The Skeptic, the blog of John Erhardt, who has chosen to specialize in the close reading of various modern poets. When I first became aware of the blog "scene" (to use a problematic word—I continue to be interested in and provoked by the blog of Heriberto Yepez, which I'll probably talk about later) he was working on Spicer; now he's moved on to James Schuyler, who's a poet I appreciate a good deal (though I'm really only familiar with later Schuyler; it was a minor revelation for me to read on John's blog about the very O'Hara-esque "Freely Espousing." Schuyler's urban (and not so urban) pastoral has interested me with its curiously gentle intensity. The title of his blog would seem to refer to his skepticism toward the avant-garde pieties that are sometimes unreflectively repeated in places like the Buffalo List; at the same time, it's clear that he doesn't feel he can dismiss the "experimental" out of hand, or could be described in any way as a New Formalist or other reactionary, though his deepest instincts may be conservative. Here's another paragraph from the blog worth quoting in full:
This is perhaps why I’m so uncomfortable with a lot of “innovative” poetry. Because when I read Michael Palmer, I don’t see someone who is a credible artist with a familiarity with the poetic past; I see someone who writes this envelope-pushing stuff. I notice it most directly in the classroom. When I bring in Palmer, or Susan Howe, or Scalapino, or even Jorie Graham (her poems with all the ______’s), I invariably get a few students who take that as an opportunity to start writing flat-out lazy poetry, with a complete disregard for everything that has happened up until ten minutes ago. They justify it by dropping buzzwords like “signifier” and “syntax,” but that doesn’t really excuse it. DeTocqueville once wrote that Democracy has no place in the arts, because it comes very close to being chaotic. I believe him. I think discovering DeKooning’s aptitude with the sketchbook made me drop my “hey, man, stop oppressing my art – who are you to judge?” conception of him. I’m not sure what it’ll take in poetry – every time I feel I’ve made some progress with an experimental writer, a guy like Bernstein will come along and write an incredibly stupid long poem with random capital letters strewn about. Jonathan Mayhew recently wrote how he likes more language in his language poetry – I guess I like less Poetry in my poetry.
I'm very sympathetic to this, up to a point—what I don't understand is how Languagey poetry necessarily induces any more "flat-out lazy" writing in students than the kind of writing they're more typically influenced by: the Confessional poets (why do so many young poets choose Anne Sexton, that pale and envious imitation of Plath, as their favorite poet?), the Deep Imagists, and the ubiquitous Billy Collins? Perhaps what Erhardt longs for is a contemporary poetry with a perceptible formal rigor—I gather from his example about DeKooning that he'd be happier reading Palmer if Palmer published a notebook full of sestinas. We're back to the "At least s/he can really draw" question.

My taste in reading these days definitely runs toward the experimental, but I'm also a big fan of Berryman and Plath and early Lowell; and the poets I consider experimental don't always get hagiographed on the Buffalo List (Allen Grossman is increasingly important to me and I think he's experimental as hell). As for my own work you, gentle Reader, are the best judge. If I can ever get my manuscipt Fourier Series published then people will probably start lumping me in with the Clark Coolidge crowd, but of course Selah is coming out first and I regard it as a thoroughly mainstream book. Of course one poet's mainstream is another's avant-garde: I was interested in Erhardt's inclusion of Jorie Graham, whose intellectual curiosity has led me to class her as having much more in common with Susan Howe or Ann Lauterbach than Louise Glück or Linda Gregerson. Curiosity --> Experiment: that's the most valid reason I can think of for terming any poem "experimental": if it's intended to discover something. Which leads me to the shibboleth "all good poems are experimental poems," which leads me to want to think about something else for a while.

Speaking of the mainstream, check out this funny "poem" (the scare quotes put me a bit closer to Erhardt, perhaps) on the subject at Kasey Mohammed's always excellent blog, lime tree.

Friday, January 24, 2003

Daily review of the other blogs: a discipline or a distraction? There's something distinctly 18th-19th century about making the rounds on the Internet (NY Times, BBC, Salon, Poetry Daily, and the poetry blogs) and then posting your own response to it all. Like devoting the morning to correspondence and the afternoon to your own work. Of course it's afternoon now. A before-bedtime blog would of course takes us back to Pepys, who has been resurrected as a blogger at

Bogie dislikes his fleece, but he HATES the booties. They weren't cheap, either. He was unresisting when I put them on, but when I carried him outside (stairs were clearly beyond him) he just stood there in the snow and shook. I moved him to a sunnier spot (it's a balmy 18 degrees today) and he still wouldn't move. Finally I took them off and he was able to walk about half a block before his toes froze. What to do? Move back to California?

Ron Silliman, writing today about Robert Grenier, clarifies what he meant when he claimed that "Grenier's Sentences still qualifies as the furthest anyone has pushed poetry & form in the investigation of the world [word?]." Grenier goes further than someone like Stein because "What Grenier did was to focus on what linguists still call parole, the language as she is spoke by them what speak it." He then goes on to make a provocative aside:
Neither Stein, Pound, cummings nor Saroyan focus on that particular dimension, although Stein comes closest & has a sense of grammar & discourse as developed as anyone has ever had. However, like Joyce, she has a 19th century-centric sense of language as infinitely plastic & malleable that language itself does not bear out (hence the failure of Finnegans Wake). Unlike Joyce, Stein seems to have had a stronger sense of self-confidence in her own analytical skills with regards to the language – she never is in thrall to the 19th century concept of language as historic philology, which bedevils both Joyce & Pound (&, I dare say, Kenner).
The "failure of Finnegans Wake"? In what sense is it a failure? I suppose I should just ask Ron directly; he seems to be suggesting that Joyce is not sufficiently analytical (sufficiently deconstructive?) in his approach to language, whereas Stein and Grenier achieve a more "aerial" approach. Maybe I'm misunderstanding him, but I fail to see how the total immersion in myriad polysemantic and polysyntactic possibilities that the Wake offers—very much a "street level" approach to English and the history of English and its interactions with other languages and dialects) is necessarily inferior to Stein and Genier's analytic. I find myself thinking here about the dismissive way Deleuze & Guattari speak of Joyce—he is the straw man knocked down in favor of the "minor literature" of a Kafka or Becket:
For these two possible paths, couldn't we find the same alternatives [Max Brod vs. Franz Kafka], under other conditions, in Joyce and Beckett? As Irishmen, both of them live within the genial conditions of a minor literature. That is the glory of this sort of minor literature—to be the revolutionary force for all literature. The utilization of English and of every language in Joyce. The utilization of English and French in Beckett. But the former never stops operating by exhiliration and overdetermination and brings about all sorts of worldwide reterritorializations. The other proceeds by dryness and sobriety, a willed poverty, pushing deterritorialization to such an extreme that nothing remains but intensities.
       —Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, p. 19
Perhaps Joyce's "overdetermination" is what Silliman objects to—what he calls Joyce's failure to free himself from philology. But surely he can't object to exhiliration? I participate in a Finnegans Wake reading group (we met for the first time for the new semester last night) and exhiliration certainly describes the way we feel as we plow through those amazingly wittty and dirty approximations of sentences. And "dryness" (if not sobriety) certainly describes the affect, or lack of one, that I usually get from a classic Language text such as Grenier's (though I've only encountered him in Ron's anthology and not in what is apparently its "natural" form, a box of index cards). Why is "exhiliration" not an "intensity"? Anyway. I'll e-mail Ron about this and perhaps he'll reply.

This weekend I'll be reading Adrienne Rich's new book for the poetics class. She gave a powerful reading from Fox at Stanford a couple of years ago and I remember being impressed both by her charisma and by the fierceness of her political commitment—it's hard to think of another American poet of her prominence whose poetics and politics are so clearly and self-consciously built upon one another. But the book thus far has been a disappointing read—just not linguistically exciting. I'll give it closer attention and post my humble opinion later.

And so to bed, or not.

Thursday, January 23, 2003

My uncle Steven Montag is a Messianic Jew—kind of like Jews for Jesus except no handing out pamphlets in airports. He used to be a Christian minister and has just created something called "Living Rivers Ministries" whose slogan is, "Bringing the life and healing of Messiah Yeshua to a hurting world!" The exclamation point is original; what you don't see is the strange pseudo-Hebraic font the name of the ministry appears in—it looks at first glance like Hebrew but is actually English read left-to-right as usual. He is a deeply religious man who is passionate about Christianity while also apparently reaching for his Jewish roots. Both of his parents were Auschwitz survivors and his father, my grandfather Ernest, was an atheist till the day he died (he loved pork chops and so do I). I suppose Judaism has tended generally to disperse into a vague "Jewishness" as the generations grow more distant from the old country—bar mitzvahs and weddings being nearly the only times I've been inside a temple (I myself was never bar mitzvahed), leaving the children of immigrants with little more than a taste for chopped liver and an anxiety for the fate of Israel that, until the latest intifada, I for one was barely conscious of. My grandfather said that he was never particularly religious, but he became a die-hard atheist after the war; I wonder it was like for him to live with his Christian son. My mother rejected what she saw as Judaism's entrenched patriarchy and became a Unitarian Universalist—so I was raised a Unitarian Jew. How much of this religious fallout is due to assimilation and how much a reaction to the Holocaust is difficult for me to determine. As I grow older I become more interested in Judaism, but I lack the sense memories to really bind me to that experience—no Hebrew school, no keeping kosher, no cantor's voice rising and falling. Without that special knowledge, acquired without conscious cognition—a bodily savoir, I don't understand how I might arrive at faith (though one of the most attractive things about Judaism as I understand it is the way doubt and debate are intrinsic to being a Jew). My sense of myself as a Jew is attracted to the history of secular Jews, who were engaged with the larger world and/or the world of art: Marx, Freud, Benjamin, Adorno, Celan, Chagall, Arendt, Jabes....

But as Arlo Guthrie says near the end of "Alice's Restaurant," "That's not what I came here to talk to you about." My uncle the Messianic Jew likes to send jokes, sometimes blue ones, usually bad ones, to his friends and relatives via e-mail. I mostly delete them, but I've just got to share today's batch with my loyal readers:

Notes to the Milkman

"Dear Milkman, I've just had a baby, please leave another one."

"Please leave an extra pint of paralysed milk."

"Please don't leave any more milk. All they do is drink it"

"Milkman please close the gate behind you because the birds
keep pecking the tops off the milk."

"Sorry not to have paid your bill before, but my wife had a
baby and I've been carrying it around in my pocket for weeks."

"Sorry about yesterdays note. I didn't mean one egg and a
dozen pints, but the other way round."

"When you leave my milk knock on my bedroom window and wake
me because I want you 'to give me a hand to turn the mattress."

"Please knock. My TV's broken down and I missed last nights
'Sopranos' . If you saw it, will you tell me what happened."

My daughter says she wants a milkshake. Do you do it
before you deliver or do I have to shake the bottle."

"Please send me a form for cheap milk, for I have a baby
two months old and did not know about it until a neighbour told me."

"Milk is needed for the baby. Father is unable to supply it."

"From now on please leave two pints every other day and one
pint on the days in between, except Wednesdays and Saturdays
when I don't want any milk."

My back door is open. Please put milk in 'fridge, get
money out of cup in drawer and leave change on kitchen
table , because we want to play bingo tonight."

"Please leave no milk today. When I say today, I mean
tomorrow, for I wrote this note yesterday...or is it today?"

"When you come with the milk please put the coal on the boiler,
let dog out and put newspaper inside the screen door.
PS. Don't leave any milk."

"No milk. Please do not leave milk at No. 14 either as he
is dead until further notice."

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

My dog is going to have to get booties. It's the final humiliation—he already looks like he wants to sink into the ground when I put his fleece on—but with the thermometer hovering around 0 degrees Fahrenheit and all the salt on the sidewalks he literally can't walk. Right now I have to pick him up, carry him over to some bushes, put him down, and hope he gets the idea. My dog's name is Bogie and he's a Boston Terrier and he's simply the best dog on the planet, but he's not winterized. I will post a picture of him if I figure out how.

At Cornell the last hurdle to jump through before you begin your dissertation is an exam called simply the 'A' exam (I think it stands for the A in Advancement to Candidacy). The exam consists of three 20+ page papers written on topics that will hopefully coalesce into a dissertation—the idea is to be already launched on that project by the time the A papers themselves have been written. Here is a little document I wrote and sent to my advisors about the areas I want to explore:

Areas of Inquiry for the ‘A’

My most basic questions are, what does poetry do and how? Where is its sphere of influence? How does it act? In order to get to these primordial questions, which boil down to the question of the being of poetry, I need to ask more tangible questions based upon various pre-understandings. How intrinsic is the act of self-fashioning to poetry? How well or ill-suited is poetry, particularly 20th century lyric, to negotiating the boundaries between self and other, individual and polis, artist and community? What special privileges can we grant to poetry, and why? Possible privileges: a more acute and accurate correspondence of signifier and signified; a phenomenological clearing that discloses the experience of authentic Being concealed by everyday language; a language that honors and acknowledges the Other without presuming to know/objectify/appropriate that other; a means of resisting the commodification and reification of language (restoring the aura to the artwork); a manifestation of the materiality and instrumentality of language as a direct attack on totalizing systems (destroying the aura and transforming works into texts).

My basic prejudice and desire is to find a way back to the poem as work (with the Heideggerian dwelling in and caring for the world that that implies) without yielding to a reactionary blindness that pretends poststructuralism didn’t happen. This is less out of a desire to be hip and more out of my fear that a poetry which depends upon a metaphysics of presence, or metaphysics, period (if language is in fact a means toward being and not an autonomous, indeterminate zone of perpetual play) will fall into the same ethical vacuum that philosophy itself did. Adorno’s dictum about poetry after Auschwitz is always on my mind. Another way of putting this is that I’m interested in the pursuit of Romantic goals (put most broadly, a quest for authenticity—though there is a radical difference between a poetry that fosters the authenticity of a speaking self and a poetry that seeks authenticity for its subject, as love poetry arguably does) under the conditions of modernity. What I’m unsure about is how to define the ethical pressure that that modernity puts upon poetry. What is the nature of this pressure, and how can I define it without erecting a straw man? Does it derive its force primarily from the debunking of metaphysics, the rejection of Cartesian binaries, and the imperative of openness to the Other? Or is it more specifically a Marxist-materialist critique that sees “authenticity” merely as one’s proximity to the dominant ideology, and all poems making claims for an “I” are inevitably commodities? This would make any poet who claims that he or she can disalienate language without resorting to Marxist dialectic either a fool or a liar. In some ways the former (the critique of logocentrism) would be the conditions of poetry under postmodernism, while the latter would be a more classically modernist situation (especially when put in terms of the critique of industrial capitalism found throughout the work of the high Modernists).

Here are the topic possibilities for my three ‘A’ questions as I currently see them, along with a preliminary list of relevant authors:

I. American Renaissance/Victorian

Whitman will be central to one of my questions, because I see him as setting the gold standard for poets who task themselves with the quest for authenticity while mindful of the pressures put upon him by history and by language (a language in Whitman’s case whose possibilities are rawly undiscovered insofar as it is American, and whose possibilities are reified and dessicated insofar as it is English). He is also perhaps unique in seeking authenticity both for himself as “poet of these States” and for the States themselves and their inhabitants—he is both celebrator and celebrant. In order to understand Whitman’s territory I will have to read his contemporary practitioners and theorists and see if and how they approach the same questions. I would also have to understand the roots of Romanticism, which might mean a return to the major English Romantics and also require the reading of some key German authors:

   * Whitman
   * Emerson
   * Dickinson
   * Melville
   * Wm. James
   * Poe
   * Hawthorne
   * Longfellow
   * Carlyle
   * Tennyson
   * Swinburne
   * Nietzsche
   * Hegel?
   * Goethe
   * Hölderlin
   * Heine
   * Wordsworth
   * Coleridge
   * Shelley
   * Keats

II. Aesthetics and Ethics

The more I read, the more interested I become in aesthetics, and the stronger my intuition that the realm of the aesthetic must be the ground for any claims I make about poetry’s ability to disclose authenticity and Being. It must also be the ground that I defend from the ethical imperatives of the Other. But I know comparatively little about aesthetics so my work is cut out for me, both in getting a handle on the subject and in seeing how it applies to my interests as I continue to define them.

   * Kant
   * Schiller
   * Burke
   * Nietzsche
   * Kierkegaard
   * Santayana
   * Heidegger
   * Benjamin
   * Adorno
   * Levinas
   * Raymond Williams
   * Terry Eagleton
   * de Man
   * Blanchot
   * Derrida

III. Modernism/20th Century

Perhaps the simplest way of defining the zone of 20th century writing that I want to explore would be to concentrate on writers who were following consciously in Whitman’s wake. But that would shut down other zones of inquiry. There are two shapes I can see this topic taking. One would be to focus only on poetry, in which case I might range throughout the 20th century, looking at poets who persist in the Romantic quest while resisting or accommodating themselves to modern ethical imperatives:

   * Stein
   * D.H. Lawrence
   * Rilke
   * Pound
   * Eliot
   * Stevens
   * Laura (Riding) Jackson
   * H.D.
   * Williams
   * Oppen
   * Zukofsky
   * Celan
   * Jabès
   * Olson
   * Spicer
   * Duncan
   * Ashbery
   * ?

The other would be to focus on Modernism, which would free me to examine prose writers, particularly those interested in discovering authentic being in unheroic everyday lives, and who achieve this uncovering primarily through the lyrical force of their language:

   * many of the above, plus
   * Lawrence (the fiction)
   * Stein (the prose)
   * Woolf
   * Djuna Barnes
   * Joyce
   * Forster


One of my committee members wrote "[O]n a brief look it appears to be about as ambitious a set of questions as I've seen. Whether too ambitious I'm not sure yet, but it does have a bit of the look of a life's work rather than a proposal for researching and writing three essays. I'd like to undertake each of these three projects myself, given world enough and time." She's right of course—it's way too much. But I figured I might as well open big and specialize later. One thing I haven't talked about here is my interest in the persistence of pastoral poetry, which I see as a continuing tradition of lyric that attempts to create a privileged space (there are no politics in Arcadia, only sex and death) in which an "authentic" self can emerge. This is obviously a hugely problematic formulation for poetry, and yet the attraction of poets whose work is implicated in this kind of schema (Stevens, my most inescapable influence, immediately comes to mind) remains strong.

Tuesday, January 21, 2003

I got all exercised by Dinitia Smith's article about Anthony Hecht in yesterday's New York Times and was going to write something incendiary about the incredibly stultified and overstuffed entities that pass for poets and poetry in mainstream media. Fortunately, Kasey Mohammed has beaten me to it: check out today's blog at

I don't know Kasey personally, but that's how he signs his posts to the Poetics list. The speed and casualness of today's Internet communication make articles like the one in the Times ("yesterday's Times"—what meaning does such a phrase have today?) seem all the more poignantly outdated—a total lack of imagination when it comes to the medium as well as the message.

It's bitter cold in Ithaca and getting colder.

Monday, January 20, 2003

Check out the webpage of Josh Corey.
Cornell in its infinite wisdom ignores federal holidays, and seems particularly okay with giving a thumb in the eye to its African American students and employees by holding the first day of classes today, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Now on one level, the whole Great-Man's-Birthday thing strikes me as a little odd. It's always a man, isn't it—are there any national holidays named for a woman? I can't think of any, at least not in this country. There's something thoroughly patriarchal and anti-communitarian about the whole institution. I suppose "President's Day" is a weird compromise—Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays collapsed into one easy-to-use bank holiday that, by implication, is also Chester A. Arthur's Day and William Jefferson Clinton's Day. Have a cigar, boys!

Some fraternity has put a poster over the Cornell Bookstore (actually it's just the Cornell Store—the de-emphasis of books seems slightly sinister to me, even though everyone calls it The Bookstore) announcing something along the lines of a "National Heritage Reconciliation Day." On the poster is a crude drawing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert E. Lee shaking hands. I think it falls more into the category of offensively ridiculous than ridiculously offensive, but if it weren't for the howling winter winds I'd swear I was living in a state governed by somebody with a name like Fob James.

My first class is top-heavy with male engineering students. I like engineers, actually: they have keen analytical skills and have less to unlearn than your average Arts and Sciences freshman. Very quiet, almost sullen, as I go over the requirements, the films we're studying (see below), my draconian attendance policy, etc. Maybe they're just tired. Or maybe they were reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday and how they weren't being allowed to celebrate it in the usual fashion (i.e., sleeping in).

Got the reading list for the Contemporary Poetry & Poetics class that I'll be taking. It's an exciting and eclectic list, including many writers who I'm only glancingly familiar with from journals and a number I've never heard of. I've certainly never read an entire book by most of them. In what I believe will be the order of encounter:
Nick Piombino, Theoretical Objects
Juan Goytisolo, State of Siege
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
Agha Shahid Ali, Rooms are Never Finished
Billy Collins, Nine Horses (do I actually have to buy this one?)
Adrienne Rich, Midnight Salvage: Poems 1995-1998
Zoe Angelsey, ed. Listen Up! Spoken Word Poetry
Meena Alexander, Illiterate Heart
Joy Harjo, How We Became Human
Ammiel Alcalay, From the Warring Factions
Daniel Davidson, Culture
John Ashbery, Chinese Whispers
Lucille Clifton, Blessing the Boats
Barrett Watten, Bad History
Phew! It's going to be a hell of a ride. If I can give even half of these serious attention I think it will seriously broaden my poetry horizons. Despite the best intentions, being in a PhD program where you've chosen to focus on Modernism tends to create blinders. The only contemporary poetry I'm really "up" on are the new books being produced by my peers and the semi-canonical old New American stuff. I'm shaky on hardcore Language poetry and shamefully ignorant of what I suspect falls under the umbrella of ethnopoetics. And except for France (somewhat), I know next to nothing about contemporary poetry in other countries. Physician, heal thyself.

I do have a rather sizable and diverse poetry collection (more poetry books than I have CDs, to evoke the odd standard put forth on the Poetics list not too long ago), accumulated when I was living in the Bay Area. I just haven't had time to read every book that I acquired in that mad and hazy period where I was making enough money to buy all the books I could eat but couldn't afford a decent apartment.

I would like to say a word or two here about the last book of contemporary poetry that I managed to read in its entirety: Stephanie Strickland's V. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to access the online portion of the book ( but the printed portions, "Losing L'una" and "WaveSon.nets" are very beautiful and lyrically rich, crammed with an erudition whose condensation makes it possible for the reader to skim over its surface in a pleasantly cerebral fever. The book is in large part an encounter with the work and life of Simone Weil, who I know little about—but I feel, after reading this book, that I know a little more. A book of poetry that actually teaches you something is a rare and special pleasure, one that I've also gotten out of Susan Howe and Brenda Hillman. Weil's Judeo-Christian (I think this term should be applied as literally as possible) ethics, as rendered by Strickland, are reminiscent of Emmanuel Levinas' impassioned philosophy of otherness. Here's a taste of "TITA: The Incandescent Thought About" from "Losing L'una" that I wish I could quote in its entirety:
As the reed, torn from its roots
and cut to a flute whose whole song is longing, so too
the heart, made to be broken. Consent

to be broken is difficult
to give, for we imagine

either powerful or powerless. Passion
the beloved, life, superdense

globular clusters, dispersing universe and the stars
it harbors, a nuclear forge
in the carried along scattering fall, multiversical

clones—or open clusters
like the Pleiades, the motion of a starfish
arm. Isomorphic?
Isn't that gorgeous? In her braininess and intense focus upon desire and the way it unfolds within a system or systems of thought (here the astronomical mingles with the theo-philosophical) she reminds me of Anne Carson, but with a much sharper ear.

Saturday, January 18, 2003

An article in this morning's New York Times proves, if proof were needed, that poetry in and of itself offers no resistance to paradigms of war.

The general sounds like a thoughtful man—a Princeton PhD, no less—probably even a good man. But the notion of poetry instrumentalized as a kind of psychological cushion or preparation for the field of battle is extremely disturbing.

Jeffrey Jullich sent me an interesting e-mail today welcoming me to the experimental blogging community:
Your perspective, or situation, in regards to the "experimental" poetry that you're newly attracted to, that is, that you seem relatively new to it all apparently and coming out of a recent "conversion experience," was much the source of interest and what defines or localizes the contribution of your position. That fragile, somewhat dewy-eyed, sensory overload, Ovidean phase of discovering and transition into experimentalism is rarely chronicled or spoken about, especially in fluent prose like yours, ---as though poets have some sort of embarassment or shame, not having been sprung full-blown into it, having once been green and provincial.
Welcome to the Poetry Ghetto, ephebe.
"Ephebe" indeed. I have to say I don't feel much like an ephebe, though it's true that I didn't really discover the experimental/New American possibilities in poetry until roughly three years ago. I know much, much less about that "scene" or "scenes" (the proliferation of which Heriberto Yepez objects strenuously to—check out his blog) than your average poster to the Poetics List—but I would have to say my knowledge of experimental poetry greatly exceeds that of most of the poets I knew at Montana and Stanford, and is geometrically greater than the knowledge of your average literate person. But it's true that I'm not afraid—or trying not to be afraid—to appear naive, or to restrain my enthusiasms. There was a terrific This American Life show a while back called First Day—about people's first day on the job, or in a relationship, and how someone in that situation inevitably tries to pretend that it's not the first day, that they've always been there. This sounds not unlike what Jeffrey is talking about.

One thing I disliked about the Stegner program was the general attitude people seemed to have there—broadcasting their sense of having "arrived," of being indeed the "working writers" the program claims to be for, whose ideas and aesthetics were already settled and written in stone. It was not the kind of atmosphere that encouraged any kind of experimentation, as I saw it—rather, one brought in one's poem and then had to be prepared to defend it against all comers. My workshops at the University of Montana were much more congenial—everyone there was an ephebe, and knew it, and it felt safe to bring in something new and say, "This is new—I don't quite understand it myself—could you help me out?" If I ever get around to leading a creative writing workshop that's the kind of atmosphere I want to foster, even if the students all have books and regularly publish reviews in Poetry and Parnassus.

Friday, January 17, 2003

Clayton Couch has invited me to publish "Notes" in his e-journal sidereality and I'd certainly like to invite my readers (it astonishes me that I have readers, but half a dozen friendly e-mails (so far) and my Site Tracker counter inform me that this is indeed the case) to check them out. Mr. Couch describes himself as being interested in "speculative poetry" as well as experimental and good mainstream poetry, which would appear to mean poetry with a science-fiction bent (the fanboys used to say "SF" which stands in handily for either "science fiction" or "speculative fiction"). Fascinating to encounter or re-encounter a genre which suggests that the kind of geek I morphed into (literary geek) is not so far from the ur-geek devoted to Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons, and the works of Ursula K. LeGuin. I would have to confess to being both, but I'd long ago built a firewall between the two theaters of geekdom: my passion for books (and now movies! I love 'em) like The Lord of the Rings has seemingly had little to do with my literary interests. The very existence of such a genre as "speculative poetry" suggests that this firewall has more to do with my own desires and neuroses than any inherent contradiction. It's disingeuous of me, of course, to suggest that Tolkien, etc., have had no influence on my work—his influence is all the more pervasive for being unconscious (I internalized his archaisms and his Britishisms long ago, and didn't stop spelling "color" without a u until I was a teenager).

Science fiction has lost its hold on me more decisively, though at one time I was sufficiently into Isaac Asimov to read both mammoth volumes of his autobiography in the air-conditioned reading room of the Morristown Public Library one muggy summer when I was 14. I was never very interested in "hard" SF—what I really loved was world-building, the detailed imagining of entire cultures with their own history, languages, peoples, and landscapes. This is what compelled me about Star Wars and Dune, and what I most loved about games like D&D. Playing those games was great, but what I really loved was sitting in my room listening to Mister Mister's "Kyrie Eleison" on the pop-40 radio station carefully drawing the outlines of imaginary continents onto graph paper.

I suppose the impulse for world-building could be satisfied in the long poem. From Keats' letter to Bailey, 8 October 1817:
I have heard Hunt say and I may be asked - why endeavour after a long Poem? To which I should answer - Do not the Lovers of Poetry like to have a little Region to wander in where they may pick and choose, and in which the images are so numerous that many are forgotten and found new in a second Reading: which may be food for a Weeks's stroll in the Summer? Do not they like this better than what they can read through before Mrs Williams comes down stairs? a Morning work at most. Besides a long Poem is a test of Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder. Did our great Poets ever write short Pieces? I mean in the shape of Tales - This same invention seems indeed of late Years to have been forgotten as a Poetcial excellence.
The "shape of Tales" seems to have re-manifested itself in these latter days as a kind of masqueraded narrative—Mark Levine for one is a master of creating the impression and flow of narrative without in fact leaving the reader able to answer that basic narrative question, what happens next (check out, just glancing at random through his book Enola Gay, his poem "Unlike Graham"). He is not the inventor of this technique but he may be one of its popularizers. Oh I digress, or I would if digression were not the heart and soul of blogging. What is Tristram Shandy but a massive masterpiece of 18th century blogging technique? "The Life and Opinions." Now a blog that managed to pull a Tom Jones—to be truly the "Life and Adventures" of soemone—that would be an accomplishment. Or would it just be another computer game?

Not that Tolkien is without his "languagey" moments:
   "Good morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it. The sun was shining, and the grass was very green. But Gandalf looked at him from under long bushy eyebrows that stuck out further than the brim of his shady hat.
   "What do you mean?" he said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"
   "All of them at once," said Bilbo....

Thursday, January 16, 2003

Walter Mosley has contributed an interesting article to The Nation on world peace in a time of terrorism and the contributions that Americans, specifically African Americans, might make to that peace. His argument seems to be that American blacks are endowed with a sense of history that other Americans don't share. Read more here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Here is my longest post yet: an essay I wrote out of frustration with the Stegner workshop a couple of years ago and never found a home for (never tried that hard, really, though Rebecca Wolff of Fence was kind enough to have a look at it). I apologize for all the asterisks but HTML footnotes are as yet beyond me.


Notes Toward the Dramatic Lyric

The crucial question is whether a man escapes from the life of his time into a realm of abstraction—it is then that angst is engendered in human consciousness—or confronts modern life determined to fight its evils and support what is good in it. The first decision then leads to another: is man the helpless victim of transcendental and inexplicable forces, or is he a member of a human community in which he can play a part, however small, towards its modification or reform?
              —George Lukács, The Meaning of Contemporary Realism


Too often, in the institutionalized workshop world I [used to] inhabit, have Huffy Henry’s words occurred to me: “Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.” Only substitute “poetry” for “life” in those lines and you’ll see the truth of it—how dreary much of the work that confronts us in workshops and literary magazines and readings is, and how reluctant most of us are to say so. Too many of the poems I read are eager to inform me that some “I” or other flashes and yearns in the manner of the great sea. This stance strikes me as being woefully inadequate to the situation of poetry—of the human—in our times.

It would be easy to permit myself to believe that this naïve, belatedly Romantic verse serves a vital purpose in late-capitalist American society. When you live in the United States, writing anything at all upon which the status “poem” is conferred—a status that, ipso facto, has no economic value—can seem downright heroic. And yet poetry as an institution does exist in this country, and has considerable value insofar as it provides a diversion and comfort for a bourgeois audience that needs to believe that their flashing and yearning souls stand somehow inviolate and undeformed by the pressures of capitalism. In fact, what Charles Bernstein combatively labels “official verse culture” can be accurately described as a symptom of those pressures and no kind of escape from them at all. All uncritically conducted artistic genres serve late capitalism’s goal of distracting audiences (in poetry’s case, a small but significant audience of intellectuals and middle-class elites) from perceptions that might inhibit their progress toward becoming more perfect consumers. The artistic genres whose means of production are in the hands of giant corporations (music, television, film, mainstream publishing) are the most obvious examples of this, and it might be argued that poetry, which is as famous for making no money as it is for making nothing happen, is somehow less of an opiate because the profit-minded have no interest in its production.

The institutions of capitalism have no conscious interest in poetry, and yet capitalism (a hyrda-headed entity as pervasive and yet traceless as to be practically synonymous with Foucauldian Power/Knowledge) exerts an influence. The medium is the message: poetry’s apparent lack of economic value is very much a part of its attraction to the elites who consume it. That perceived purity is as carefully maintained by poets and readers as Proctor & Gamble administers the perceived purity of Ivory Soap. And so poetry enters consumer culture through the back door: picking up a copy of Poetry or The Georgia Review or any of the dozens of magazines produced by the students of graduate writing programs is an easy way to declare one’s identification with purity, sophistication, and a smugly higher consciousness than that enjoyed by the faceless suits that everyone (especially the actors in commercials for AT&T and General Motors) loves to despise. These poets reassure the harassed urban intellectual who wants to believe that it is still possible to look out into a Wordsworthian natural landscape and find one’s self magnified tenfold in it. Beside these bourgeois pleasures are offered similar reassurances for the rest of poetry’s fragmented constituencies: affirmation for the abused, empathy for the ethnic, and sympathy for the standpoints of sundry sexual orientations.

The provocations of such poetry are simplistic and its transgressions conventional and inoffensive. Even those poets who are commit to raising readers’ social consciousness are hamstrung by their commitments to narrative and the poet-identified “I.” However vibrant their language, the formal decisions these poets make confine experience to easily recognized, easily digested packages of meaning that can be swallowed without thinking. The resulting poem is anesthetized and anesthetizing. And poetry as a means of speaking the true and difficult and unspeakable is supplanted by a poetry of reassurance and distraction, of matter-of-fact mimesis, of easy identity politics. The poets that literate people (readers of The New York Times Book Review unacquainted with the fractious world beyond Poetry) are most likely to encounter have abandoned their roles as prophets and provacateurs; some of them even specialize in mocking such ambitions. Who, seeking some kind of shakeup to their ordinary perceptions, or some break from the stream of pap that tells us to pay no attention to that author behind the curtain, wouldn’t turn from the pages of Poetry to the rowdy dystopias offered by films like Fight Club or The Matrix? At least when we shell out nine bucks for these movies we know that no expense has been spared by the studios to stimulate our jaded braincases. If I must be narcotized, I’ll take the cocaine rush of a John Woo movie over the opium daze of a literary magazine any day of the week.


Nothing in my critique thus far will be news to readers aware of the numerous innovations and challenges offered to “official verse culture” by the avant-garde movements of the past thirty years, most especially that of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and their fellow travelers. I find much to admire here: relentless formal innovation, disdain for the sentimental, awareness and application of literary theory, and deep political engagement. At the heart of this poetry are two inextricably intertwined concepts: a direct engagement with Wittgenstein’s inescapable language game, and a profound suspicion of the integrated speaking self presumed by traditional lyric. The first has been cogently summarized by the proudly pomo Joshua Clover:

This riddle is the riddle of our century's philosophical investigations. Husserl's phenomenology and Einstein's relativity offer much the same revelation as Cubism: we exist not in g-d's green meadows but within our own perceptive boundaries. Language proposes and vows to bear experience across such thresholds, but this solves nothing; if we're not trapped within ourselves, we're still trapped within language itself.*
These poets have made, in their work, a declaration of equivalency between the words they use and the objects in the world those words usually refer to. They follow Gertrude Stein’s famous proposition: a “rose” (letter R, letter O, letter S, letter E) is an object equivalent to a “rose” (a thorny flower of the genus Rosa colored on a spectrum from aspirin white to arterial red) which is an object equivalent to a “rose” (symbol of passion, of romance, of cliches about romance, of the ephemeral) which for that matter is an object equivalent to “rose” (past tense of “rise,” to move from a lower to a higher position, to get out of bed, to come into existence). Language poets wrestle with, bemoan, and celebrate the Word’s tangible mutability or Protean concreteness. A Language poet, or any poet who writes in full consciousness of what the 20th century’s disasters and innovations have made possible and necessary, sees the Word as being like the thin wall between rooms at a cheap motel. Through the wall comes the unignorable, obscure sound of an Other talking, fighting, making love. The wall prevents us from a complete experience of the Other’s subjectivity, but it is also the agent, the connector, the transmitter that makes it possible for us to recognize the reality of the Other’s subjectivity in the first place. We can’t get out of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, but we can at least put our ear to the wall.

The yearning for contact with others, for intersubjectivity, is identical with the yearning for unmediated contact with reality, for what Emerson called an original relation with the universe. This rootedness in the subjective leads us to the other dominant strand in Language poetry: viewing the traditional unified self posited by lyric as an untrustworthy vehicle for speech. These poets contradict the assumption made about the self in mainstream lyric poetry: that the self is an integrated whole in the world, capable of addressing reality within the hearing of a listener. That the self is not an integrated one is something we’ve known since Freud (though today’s conventional lyric flouts that knowledge in its evocation of a singular speaker as if Modernism, much less postmodernism, never happened). I have already discussed the impossibility of unproblematized speaking; the Language poets have set out to write in full awareness of the paradoxical implications of Wittgenstein’s notorious tautology, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Finally, and for me most admirably, the Language poets are suspicious of the monocultured self as a necessary precondition for speaking. Where mainstream narrative lyricists imagine they enjoy unquestioned the American creed of individualism (as if the extra-linguistic Real were achieveable without struggle), the Language poets see a solipsist without any metaphysically secure home in the world. They recognize that narrative lyric, in its relentless representation of the poet-self’s experience, resists intersubjectivity or any sympathetic identification with others that is more than fleeting or sentimental. Even Elizabeth Bishop, hardly a Language poet, felt the poignancy of this:
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
         — “In the Waiting Room”
These suspicions have shaped much of the avant-garde work produced in the post-Language era, and I find their intellectual adventures, informed by Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and Derridean deconstruction exciting, at least in theory. It is in fact that “in theory” that is so gratifying—the willful ignorance of theory (part and parcel of the generally rampant anti-intellectualism) prevalent in creative writing programs is utterly disheartening, a spectacle of so many ostriches smothering the potential of otherwise fine verbal gifts in the sand. But the manifold pleasures of avant-garde poetry can sometimes fall into the same solipsistic trap as mainstream poetry, with only this slight improvement: the poet is fully aware of the situation. Worse, their sense of language as tangible can fail to produce tangible language—the conversion of theory into praxis overrides the poem’s need to become itself through following the paths of music and association.** Hewing to a particular party line, as many self-conscious experimentalists do, can result in language that is so abstract, convoluted, and divorced from verbal pleasure that one can scarcely locate the thought, much less the feeling, that was the occasion of the poem’s cry. I’m not speaking of the kind of pregnant mystery that delights and instructs in a nonlinear, nondiscursive fashion here, but rather of the kind of flat obscurantism that is every bit as dull to read as the heartfelt banalities of conventional lyricists. Poetry should create a state like dreaming in the reader, but if at all possible it should not put the reader to sleep first.


Lyric poetry in English has been midwife to the creation of the modern self. It has traditionally been an individualistic and Cartesian mode (though efforts to resist individualism and dualism within lyric have been productive). I do not really expect that any kind of communitarian lyric is possible or even desirable. Insofar as genre distinctions are useful, I expect that writers will continue to be drawn to the lyric because it is produced by an individual’s voice. But that doesn’t mean that there is such a thing as the individual's voice; nor is it necessary for the speaker of a poem to be identified with the poet’s “I” in order to reflect his or her subjectivity. The subjective remains the ultimate and exclusive territory of the lyric: it enacts a human voice’s attempt to create a relation to the world outside him or herself through the hopelessly flawed, exhilaratingly concrete medium of language. That human voice usually belongs to an individual; in the lost genre of epic poetry it belongs to a culture; in religious scripture it is institutionalized and lies waiting for those willing to break open the tomb and give new life to it with their own living voices.

It is difficult for the pure lyric to escape the trap of solipsism, and almost impossible for the narrative. One possibility for lyric subjectivity today is what I’ll call the dramatic lyric, which originates within the Shakespearean soliloquy. In these soliloquies, as Harold Bloom observes, a kind of self-overhearing takes place: the Shakespearean hero speaks from the heart only to hear his heart being changed by what he speaks.*** There is a sense of discovery and exhilaration in the representation of this kind of thought, even when that thought leads to frustrating or frustrated conclusions. This kind of poetry, which is as critical of self as it is revelatory, strikes me as being a brand of lyric that needs to be revived. Its vitality seems in part to stem from the genre paradox of “lyric” statement within the framework of dramatic poetry. The speaking self gets a valuable shot in the arm from being a player in a larger dramatic community, conscious of his or her place as one voice in the simultaneous babble of poetry from Beowulf to The Tennis Court Oath: the speaker is one character among several who also get to speak (and transform) their minds. This mode refuses, or at other times directly engages, the solipsism that encumbers most contemporary lyric poems. It is a mode of self-declaration that manages to be other-aware, if not other-directed. Most compelling for me is this mode’s engagement with matters of the heart: in the speeches of characters like Lady Macbeth, Lear, Cleopatra, Gloucester’s sons Edgar and Edmund, and above all Hamlet, we are privileged to hear powerful intellects applying all their verbal cunning to the task of baring, even transforming,**** a complex heart. There is a richness of feeling here that I don’t find in the transparent, sentimental, “authentic” language of the narrative lyricists.

Of course I’m not making a bid for the resuscitation of iambic pentameter.***** I am only suggesting that the richest and strangest poetry being written today comes out of an awareness of all that both Bloom's canon and the canon of the postmodernists (vividly represented by the New York School, the Black Mountain Poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Language poets, and what might be the newest kids on the block, the Ellipticals******) have done to make it possible for us to confront our 21st century predicaments. Within the locked room of language the self fragments and re-coalesces in the presence of the world, achieving, against tremendous odds, an original relationship with the universe.

The Lukács quotation at the beginning of this essay represents my yearning for some next step that will bring artists out into community with one another. The camaraderie of a university workshop, however valuable, is only a synthetic gesture toward the free and elective communities artists were forced to create before the institutionalization of creative writing. It is not too exaggerated to say that the atomized individual poet, flitting from teaching job to teaching job, publication to publication, is forced into Lukács’ “realm of abstraction” where his or her autarchy is diminished. All we have to fight this trend with is each other. We can create a space outside the university, well outside state sponsorship, where real interaction and intersubjectivity becomes possible. We need to create our own magazines and small presses and nonhierarchical writing workshops. We need to fight boring poetry. There’s a criticism abroad today that says poets write only for other poets. I say turn that on its head by finding a way to turn more readers into poets—to somehow lend readers our negative capability, our freedom to play, our secret judo holds. We need to create what Oscar Wilde called “the temperament of receptivity” in our readers.******* Poetry isn’t difficult. Poetry only exerts pressure on the language (of politicians, of advertisers, of churches, of power) that otherwise obscures experience of the Other and the Real. If we can’t create readers willing to apply that same pressure, it’s not poetry that’s doomed. It’s our whole sense of reality. As Wordsworth wanted a poetics of “a man speaking to men,” I want a humanism of poets creating poets.

* Joshua Clover, “The Rose of the Name,” published in Fence, v. 1 n.1., Spring 1998.
** Clayton Eshleman has recognized, in Harold Bloom’s schematic of the agon between a strong poet and his (always his, of course) forebear, something more useful: a schematic of the creative process. In that process he identifies the stage Bloom calls Kenosis, or Emptying, as the moment where the poet clears away the conventional (received) ideas as to how the poem’s theme should be completed. He calls this Emptying the “willingness to introduce contradiction and/or obscurity via sound-oriented or associational veers” (emphasis mine). When I find Language poetry unsatisfying, I can usually attribute it to a failure of Kenosis: the contradiction and obscurity that the poet introduces derives not from music (tangible word as phoneme) or association (word as node in a web of both linguistic and referential associations) but from some received theory, however interesting, that the poet is force-marching his or her lines out of. See Eshleman's Novices: A Study of Poetic Apprenticeship (Los Angeles: Mercer & Aitchison, 1989), p. 24.
*** Bloom’s obsession with the so-called “School of Resentment” has made him tiresome and shrill, and he has always been shockingly narrow-minded as to what he will admit to be poetry. He remains a shrewd and enlightening critic of Shakespeare and the Shakespearean, which is as good as to say poetic process. Bloom’s central insight about Shakespeare derives from an unpacking of Hegel’s famous remark about Shakespeare (“he confers on [his characters] intelligence and imagination; and by means of the image in which they, by virtue of that intelligence, contemplate themselves objectively, as a work of art, he makes them free artists of themselves”). He has also usefully assigned two poles of selfhood which may stand as fundamental attitudes for the speaker of a dramatic lyric, represented by Hamlet and Falstaff: “For Hamlet, the self is an abyss, the chaos of virtual nothingness. For Falstaff, the self is everything.” From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p. 5.
**** “Some good I mean to do, / Despite of mine own nature.” King Lear, 5.3.244-45.
***** The New Formalist approach is neither here nor there in this discussion; it is merely the most dogmatic and conservative strain of the dull poetry that I’ve been deploring. Whatever credit they get for their rigorous study of the tradition (as opposed to the slack ignorance of many free verse lyricists) is quickly dissolved by how narrowly they conceive that tradition (it seems to begin and end with late Auden) and by the poverty of the sentiments they enclose in their received formal straitjackets. I am not opposed to traditional forms, but they only make sense to me when the form is as tangible an object in the world as individual words, phrases, and lines are.
****** See Stephen Burt, Robert Mueller, Claudia Keelan, Cole Swensen, and Edwin Frank in American Letters & Commentary, Issue 11, 1999, pp. 45-76. Burt's invention of this group, to which he assigns a number of disparate poets (Liam Rector, Mark Levine, Lucie Brock-Broido, Susan Wheeler, C.D. Wright, Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, August Kleinzhaler, and Thylias Moss), is problematic. But many of them are favorites of mine and I believe that they practice what I’ve chosen to call the “dramatic lyric.” Compare what I’ve been saying to Burt’s summary: “Elliptical poets are always hinting, punning, or swerving away from a never-quite-unfolded backstory; they are easier to process in parts than in wholes. They believe provisonally in identities (in one or more ‘I’ per poem) but they suspect the Is they invoke: they admire disjunction and confrontation, but they know how a little can go a long way. Ellipticists seek the authority of the rebellious; they want to challenge their readers, violate decorum, surprise or explode assumptions about what belongs in a poem, or what matters in life, and to do so while meeting traditional lyric goals. Their favorite attitudes are desperately extravagant, or tough-guy terse, or defiantly childish: they don’t believe in, or seek, a judicious tone” (46-47). The Ellipticals as Burt describes them strike me as being largely the love-children of the New York School and the Language movement.
******* “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” Speaking of the ideal audience for art, Wilde writes about a playgoer: “The honest man is to sit quietly, and know the delightful emotions of wonder, curiosity, and suspense. He is not to go to the play to lose a vulgar temper. He is to go to the play to realise an artistic temperament. He is to go to the play to gain an artistic temperament. He is one who is admitted to contemplate the work of art, and, if the work be fine, to forget in its contemplation all the egotism that mars him—the egotism of his ignorance, or the egotism of his information” (emphasis mine). tells me that the mercury will not rise above freezing here in Ithaca until, well, March. As people around here like to say, it's not the cold but the grayness that gets you down. The winter I spent in Helena, Montana was bitterly cold—I would get up in the dark, put on about eight layers, and stagger the block and half to my job at a little publishing house specializing in outdoor guides and "Americana," whatever that is. From late December through February it would routinely be zero degrees Fahrenheit when I did this—not counting wind chill. At five 'o clock I would reverse the process, again in the dark. BUT, if I did manage to poke my head above ground at lunchtime, there would be bright freezing sunshine shattering everywhere. Life was much better in MIssoula, where it wouldn't be nearly as cold and we still got that winter sun, which is a good deal better than no sun at all, I can tell you.

The semester begins on Monday. I think I'm prepared. I'm teaching more or less the same class—a first-year writing seminar on Frankenstein movies (the films: Bride of Frankenstein, La Femme Nikita, Blade Runner, Hedwig and the Angry Inch (what do you suppose Cornell freshmen will make of that?), Memento, and Fight Club). My last group of students was talkative and engaged; I hope I can do as well the second time around. (But Cornell students are as affected as anyone else by the gray winter, especially the first-years.) I'm taking precisely one seminar: Jonathan Monroe's Contemporary Poetry & Poetics (read his course description here) and the rest of the time is for researching my dissertation. Well, not all of the time: I'm low on funds and need some kind of part-time job. Maybe some tutoring, or maybe in the local independent bookstore (or if necessary the local dependent bookstores).

Today I might work on the paper I've been procrastinating for last semester's Modernism seminar. I'm writing about the parallel uses Stein and D.H. Lawrence put the emblem of roses to in their poetry. Stein of course discovers a constellation of signifieds in the signifier "rose" and in the process tries to reawaken its function as an erotic signifier in lyric. Lawrence features roses in a little cluster of poems that appear in the dead middle of his first major collection, Look! We Have Come Through!. Although these poems are far more conventional in appearance than Stein's, he is equally interested in rescuing language, especially poetic language, from reification. By likening himself to a rose (in "I Am Like a Rose" and "Rose of All the World") he sets up a kind of feedback loop, by which he acquires erotic power through identification with the rose and the rose acquires a regrounding in authentic human being through identification with him. By "identification," however, I don't mean that either rose nor man precludes or wipes out the other's otherness. The disjunction between them, the "force field" created by the violent yoking together of rose and man, is precisely that zone of excess which is characterized as erotic (erogenous?).

Or I might just go read and drink coffee until my brain is thoroughly caffeinated. I might even write a poem. Now that hasn't happened for a while.

Tuesday, January 14, 2003

But of course I love Frank O'Hara. And I've written three books of poems myself in the past five years (I would say I began writing poetry in a serious way in 1997) and am halfway through a fourth. I just haven't been able to publish so prolifically because I've been a typical post-MFA monad dependent on book contests (how many of those damn $25 checks have I written?) to get my work out there. And, let's face it, I haven't been immune to what is perceived in most quarters as the greater prestige of a perfect-bound book published by an established house and/or chosen by a prestigious judge (Selah splits the difference, I guess).

I think I object to long poems more than I do to prolfiic publishing; very long poems, especially those which don't foreground a musical vocabulary, bore me out of my tree. Maybe what impedes my pleasure is a neurotic desire to be able to read enough of a poet to feel that I have some "grasp" of them, and if they're intensely prolific this is more difficult to do. That's what's nice about dead poets who died young: I can relax when I pick up Keats or Hart Crane or Plath because there's only so much of them and I know that what there is will sit still long enough for me to become intimate with it. Even Whitman, who was nothing if not prolifically avant garde, seems manageable because there's just the one book, however long.

Do poets write so much because no one is reading them?
One thing that's always puzzled and frustrated me is the prolixity, if that's the right word, of so much avant garde poetry. There seems to be an ethic out there set up in opposition to the "well-made poem" (well-wrought urn) whose principal means of opposition is to produce five books in the time that ordinary poets produce one. Or maybe I should say "publish," since part of the avant garde project I'm talking about is to seize the means of publication: these books appear through the small presses associated with the Language movement and New York School (you can find a good list of them here at Duration Press) and seem quite prepared to shower bookstores (at least bookstores in NYC and the Bay Area) with the entirety of a given poet's production. Individual poems, especially prose poems, often seem to me unforgivably long—and yet they're not necessarily any less "crafted" than a short lyric by, say, Louise Glück, who would certainly be considered a prolific poet by mainstream standards at one book every two to three years or so. Maybe my attention span was irretrievably damaged by the Norton Anthology (3rd ed.), which comprised my first serious encounter with poetry at age 15 or so and seems to have nothing longer in it than Pope's "Rape of the Lock." It's even harder to read this stuff online; I like books because you know where they end, whereas a poem posted online could scroll on infinitely, or terminate in a next button.

Am I trapped in some paradigm akin to that of the museum spectator who appreciates Picasso only because s/he knows that Picasso could "really draw"? Do I mistrust that which is written quickly and at length? (A quote that I've seen attributed to Cicero, Pascal, and Mark Twain: "I apologize for the length of this letter, but I didn't have time to make it shorter.")
Back from an evening screening of the final two episodes of The Prisoner, the classic '60s TV series starring Patrick McGoohan. Two highly theatrical hours of television worthy, I think, of Beckett—whose plays on film I now have a chance of seeing because my friend Sam is an inveterate and indefatigable collector of cool media (in addition to the Beckett he has the entire first season of Twin Peaks on DVD, and he also has a vintage low-res Nintendo unit with a stack of classic games like the original Legend of Zelda). I had the pleasure of introducing Sam to The Prisoner and was gratified and slightly alarmed when he proceeded to collect all seventeen episodes. So Sam and his wife Maryam and their enormous and enthusiastic yellow Lab Blünchen (spelling, Sam?) sat and watched the show deconstruct itself. My take on the bizarre final episode, "Fall Out," is that No. 6's quest for individuality has literally gone as far as it can go. He has utterly rejected the coercive community of the Village but at the price of internalizing it into himself (as indicated by his retention of the Butler's services). The Prisoner cries out for a Lacanian interpretation: No. 2, standing in for le nom du père attempts by hook or crook to get No. 6 to admit that he's castrated ("Why did you resign?") and No. 6 simply won't do it, arguing from either the perverse position, as he seems to do in most of the episodes (there is no natural "no," no bar he will recognize to his desire) or the psychotic, as in "Fall Out." In that episode the mysterious No. 1 is "revealed" as a man wearing a black-and-white mask, under which is an ape mask, under which is No. 6's own face, and language breaks down into either incoherent laughter or the mindlessly repeated lyrics of three intersectings songs: "Dem Bones," "Pop Goes the Weasel," and the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love."

What a great show. I've been hooked on it since I watched the entire run at a friend's house (Andy Plotkin, are you still out there?) on bootleg VHS tapes when I was in college.

Monday, January 13, 2003

So I was inspired to start blogging by all these other poets, all of them "languagey," but my commitment to, hell, I don't even know what to call it, "innovative poetics" is certainly not as strong as theirs. What am I committed to, really, other than critical thought, interesting language, and a vague intuition that one must engage fully with one's environment (your town, your school, your family, your art) in order to live right?

I think I and many other poets of my acquaintance are forming a new mainstream in poetry, one which has learned a good deal from the (ongoing) work of the Language poets and the New York School and the San Francisco/Black Mountain nexus—but some of us also like, say, Lowell and Berryman and Bishop and Plath—the poets I was brought up thinking were the only poets. I know now that isn't the case, and I heartily lament the fact that they continue to be the only poets for so many people (either in themselves or in their continued imitation, as documented for example in Jed Rasula's The American Poetry Wax Museum) but damnit, I still find that works (works, yes, not just texts) like "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket," The Dream Songs, "In the Waiting Room," and Ariel still hold for me some of the same dark, originary exuberance that I get from the language of Shakespeare and Marlowe. Language that is young and strutting its stuff. I guess I'm talking about pleasure and pleading a case for a polymorphous perversity of poetics. I can get pleasure from these poets and Leslie Scalapino too. Of course I know it's not that simple, and that the means of production and publishing are still largely in the hands of the willfully senescent. Every book of poetry that makes it to the pages of the New York Times Book Review makes me want to cry, it's so boring. And when Joe Parisi says that his magazine "sees everything" and that therefore they always and only print "the best"—it simply isn't true.

Living poetry. Liveliness. Stein: "Verbs and articles and conjunctions and prepositions are lively because they all do something and as long as anything does something it keeps alive."

Sunday, January 12, 2003

Heidegger, my muse and bane, is famous for saying that "Language is the house of Being." I identify the basic tension I feel as a poet in that statement and its reverse, "Being is the house of Language." On the one hand you have Heidegger's basically Romantic view of things: the poem uses language to disclose the experience of Being—an experience which, as near as I can tell, is something like that of the sublime. The poet's language, which is lifted out from ordinary language and purged of its instrumentality (language which is always for something, language as resource or "standing reserve," the language of industry, commerce, and production), becomes an experience in its own right, language for its own sake, which somehow (there's the rub! somehow) creates for the reader an intuition of experience that is not normally speakable. This is the "order of angels" behind ordinary experience, available only to the poet who can perform that act of "clearing" the language, who can deinterpret the world:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them pressed me
suddenly to his heart: I'd be consumed
in his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we can just barely endure,
and we stand in awe of it as it coolly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrifying.
   And so I check myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobs. Alas, whom can we turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and the sly animals see at once
how little at home we are
in the interpreted world.
—from Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow (New York: North Point Press, 2000), p. 5.
So there's that. On the other hand, angels have been done to death, and Rilke's dark sobs banalized through repetition, and Derrida and the Language poets and even Heidegger in a different mood will tell you that subjectivity, the "I" of the poet is a fiction useful primarily to the dominant ideology, and Romantic poetry questing for an indvidiualistic experience of Being is mostly a cover for the solipsistic reification of what has become under late capitalism an emptor ergo sum. Thousands of poets stand in their backyards with a glass of wine in their hand, experiencing the last-line epiphany bestowed by a language that, in cleansing itself of everyday associations, has accidentally and by-the-way been removed from any conceivable context of encounter, sociality, or politics. These are the folks nodding along to Auden's "Poetry makes nothing happen" and thanking their lucky stars. Standing in righteous opposition to them are a bunch of Marxists every bit as concerned as the Romantics with renovating ordinary language. But they aren't chasing the sublime: they want to rub your face in the toxicity of language in the service of ideology so that you'll wake up from your carceral slumber, Matrix-style, and be moved not into some (necessarily?) depoliticized sublime but into political action. The best expression of this point of view (a point of view explicitly hostile to art if art is conceived in any way as a palliative or compensation or commodity), in content if not perhaps in form, is from Michael Palmer's "Baudelaire Series":

A man undergoes pain sitting at a piano
knowing thousands will die while he is playing

He has two thoughts about this
If he should stop they would be free of pain

If he could get the notes right he would be free of pain
In the second case the first thought would be erased

causing pain

It is this instance of playing

he would say to himself
my eyes have grown hollow like yours

my head is enlarged
though empty of thought

Such thoughts destroy music
and this at least is good
—from Sun (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1988), p. 19.
The irony of both poets' being published by the same press is another suggestion to me, though an irrational one, that these two opposed positions might not be inseparable. Perhaps it's just a question as to which point you privilege when you negotiate your piece of turf between them.

I haven't really expressed here what "Being is the house of Language" might mean, but I imagine it has something to do with an insistence upon the experience of the signifier qua signifier as being central to poetry. That is, it's a quasi-theoretical way of insisting upon something I haven't touched on at all, which is the transformation of language into a rich and strange sensory experience as being the crucial component of the poetry I value most. Both of these texts partially fail that test: the Rilke because it's in translation, the Palmer because it isn't sufficiently divorced from ordinariness. Of course Rilke does succeed wonderfully in the original (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?) whereas the dryness of Palmer's language is very much part of his point.

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