Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Somehow I can justify submitting poems to Poetry for myself. It was once as central as it claims to be, and so many fundamental poets, American and otherwise, made critical appearances there. It's the name: I won't cede the ground of poetry to any single camp. Without abandoning a necessary degree of skepticism, I'm hopeful that the Lilly gift will eventually become meaningful to poetry and not just Poetry. Or rather, that there should no longer seem to be such a gap between them. Besides, I take a certain perverse pride in having both Poetry and Can We Have Our Ball Back? on my resume.

This may seem like a dreary topic for New Year's Eve, but I promise you that drink and festivities do in fact lie ahead. Farewell, 2003. In many ways it was a good year for me. But I hope that the larger nightmare it has been for the rest of the world is almost over.

So give 'em hell, Howard!

Monday, December 29, 2003

A useful clarification from Gary on the question of disruption—one which carefully amplifies the meaning of the term so that the notion of a "disruptive poetics" becomes a contradiction in terms. The contextual and historical nature of disruption is made much clearer by his latest remarks, though: where you're coming from entirely determines your judgment of how disruptive a thing is or not. Barrett Watten, to use one of Gary's examples, was certainly disruptive to me when I first encountered him—my educational background up to then had persuaded me that the only "experimental" poetry worth noticing was that of the Beats, whom I dismissed as naive, sloppy, and jejune. There was no room on my map for someone like Watten: I had to get used to the idea of him, and Language poetry generally, before I could actually read him. The poetics, the new map, had to be assimilated before I could make any sense of the poetry itself. Which doesn't speak very well for my capacity to react like the ideal reader sometimes hinted at in the statements made about those poetics: someone who accepts, who yields, who completely opens to the work, not finding it any more or less "strange" or "difficult" than a Shakespeare sonnet or a Burma Shave ad. These statements, which "empower" the reader to understand Charles Bernstein while taking away his or her ability to make sense of NBC news, have always struck me as disingenous in their effect, though not their intent. Nonetheless I myself find myself paraphrasing this idea with my writing students, urging them to abandon all their usual props and contexts. As if I myself were capable of doing this—as if I've ever been able to bring myself to just look at a painting in a museum without studying the little printed card next to it! (I usually do refuse the recorded exgesis that you hold to your ear, though.) But we keep exhorting readers to discard their need for ground to stand on and see freshly, probably because we so strongly desire to do this ourselves. Yet so much of the game of poetry, the intellectual part, the interest, comes from logopoeia: the foregrounding play of etymological context in one's poetry. Naievty is always faux and unconsciousness has to be interpreted by consciousness. I've been reading too much German aesthetics, I think.

Still you have to applaud a statement like this one of Josef Albers', which I find in the beautiful coffee table book that we're selling here: Black Mountain College: Experiment in Art (edited by Vincent Katz; Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002). It seems entirely applicable to the way I want to teach poetry. He said this in 1928:
To experiment is at first more valuable than to produce; free play in the beginning develops courage. Therefore, we do not begin with a theoretical introduction; we start directly with the material. . . .

The most familiar methods of using [materials] are summarized; and since they are already in use they are for the time being forbidden. For example: paper, in handicraft and industry, is generally used lying flat; the edge is rarely utilized. For this reason we try paper standing upright, or even as a building material; we reinforce it by complicated folding; we use both sides; we emphasize the edge. Paper is usually pasted: instead of pasting it we try to tie it, to pin it, to sew it, to rivet it. . . .

Our aim is not so much to work differently as to work without copying or repeating others. we try to experiment, to train ourselves in "constructive thinking." . . .

. . . an essential point in our teaching is economy. Economy is the sense of thriftiness in labor and material and in the best possible use of them to achieve the effect that is desired (22-23).
Well, that last bit could go. Baroque excess often leads to the palace of wisdom, or at least freshness. But the fundamentals are very sound. I do wonder though what might constitute the "edge" of language.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

I'm struck by the question of classification that Gary has raised, partly in response to the perennial division of post-avant vs. School of Quietude that Ron has again reaffirmed as pertinent to the case of Marianne Moore. Whereas Ron posits what he must see as two reasonably coherent traditions (or at least SoQ is coherent, to the point of being ahistorical; its "Other" seems to vary according to period, from Pound's Modernism to Objectivism to Projectivism to the Beats to the New Americans to the New York School to Language Poetry, etc.), Gary distinguishes between the distinguished and the distinguishers: many of us carry potentially paralyzing "maps of poetry" around inside us and work to expand the borders of whichever map we think is best; but another breed "force us as readers & poets to completely rethink it"—it I suppose referring both to existing maps and the territorializing impulse that is the transcendental precondition for mapping in the first place. It's an anxious-making distinction for the likes of yours truly, who against Ms. Moore's advise has gone to pursue a PhD and who is therefore necessarily obsessed with this kind of mapping. There is no particular tradition whose borders I claim to be expanding, Meriwether Lewis-style; but this may simply mean my actual position is undertheorized and my ideology covert.

To even think this way reinforces my sense that I am probably not one of Gary's "disruptive" poets, and this makes me sad. In spite of the technocratic lineages that have become available since Mallarme, I like most people can't help but think of poetry as being at heart this fundamentally disruptive activity that "force[s] us to rethink what we thought we already knew"; and by a kind of metonymy this seems to require one to have a kinship beneath the skin with the visionary likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Blake. This is romantic nonsense to a degree: the practice of poetry may have a kinship with the systematic derangement of the senses in its effect, but that doesn't mean you personally have to blow your brains out with chemicals. Nothing in Gary's post suggests that the contemporary poets he mentions are personally cut in such a Romantic mold. But there does seem to be something intrinsically Romantic about the notion of a poetic force so strong that "you simply have to make room for it, regardless of how you imagine the world to have been composed previously." That kind of writing isn't experimental, at least not in the white lab coat sense: it seems in Gary's formulation to be something innate, a kind of charisma (the OED says: "A free gift or favour specially vouchsafed by God: a grace, a talent"). The word "commitment" does suggest other possibilities: it makes me wonder about cases of poets who begin in a tradition, perhaps even achieve success in that tradition, only to make a decisive break. Whitman and his place in poetry comes to mind, as Lawrence wrote:
Whitman, the great poet, has meant so much to me. Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer-poets. In Europe the would-be pioneers are mere innovators. The same in America. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman. Beyond him, none. His wide, strange camp at the end of the great high-road. And lots of new little poets camping on Whitman's camping ground now. But none going really beyond. Because Whitman's camp is at the end of the road, and on the edge of a great precipice. Over the precipice, blue distances, and the blue hollow of the future. But there is no way down. It is a dead end.
A dire formulation, to be sure. Even if Lawrence's pessimism is misplaced, Whitman's path, or any teacher's path, leads us to just another camp, however strange. But listen to what the man said:
I am the teacher of athletes;
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own, proves the width of my own;
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.
You can't destroy the teacher until you have accepted the teacher, at least for a time. There's some hope for me then, and for all of us who've learned it by book. But you can't simply choose this kind of commitment, any more than you can choose to have your work read by the standards of another period. This is our moment and we can't make that moment any bigger or smaller. I struggle so hard every day against the myths of the giants of old. Let there be no more giants if that means tyranny—but not all charisma is evil. We need it—it's the beginning of something. Charisma, confidence, commitment—opens a way. More: it makes ways imaginable.

Saturday, December 27, 2003

Here is what I wrote in response to the Nader survey that Ron called to the attention of the Poetics List:

There is much that I appreciate about Mr. Nader and his politics. However, as a Democrat with socialist leanings I feel that we are in a state of emergency in this country. The actions taken by the Bush administration since September 11, and even before it (such as their catastrophic environmental policy) have been ample proof to my eyes that there would, in fact, have been a significant difference if Gore had prevailed in the 2000 election. He bears most of the blame for his failure, but Mr. Nader played a part. I think that third party candidacies are and will probably continue to remain meaningless except as spoilers given our winner-take-all system; if we had a parliamentary system in this country I would feel very differently. You will not easily persuade me that a Nader candidacy will have any real effect beyond siphoning votes from the Democratic nominee, and I cannot support this. I will consider supporting the Green Party on a local level; I think grassroots organizing for the Greens could in a generation's time create a powerful third party or else recall the Democrats to their roots. But a presidential run is premature and potentially disastrous. In fact, the disaster is more than potential; it is ongoing. I urge you to desist.


Joshua Corey
Ithaca, NY
Needless to say, I urge you to click on the survey link and fill it out for yourself.

Friday, December 26, 2003

I hope everyone's been having nice holidays. We're enjoying the vast stretches of parking on our street, normally crammed with the overpriced vehicles of Ithaca College students. Now you could park RVs on our street. We did nothing yesterday, which was delightful. Emily lit candles and said the prayer; I watched. Raised by Unitarian Jews who saw nothing objectionable about Christmas trees and who didn't teach me a lick of Hebrew. I'm a man without a holiday.

Today I'm settling into my daily routine for winter break: 1) Sleep later than is good for me. 2) Walk dog later than is good for him. 3) Go to coffee shop and drink powerful coffee and read about German aesthetics or Olson's essays or something to do with pastoral--surely more than is good for me. 4) Come home, have lunch. 5) Futz around with computer, maybe submit something to somebody. 6) Go to bookstore and read more, more, more.

Next week Emily and I are going to rent a cabin in Spencer for a couple of days for New Year's. It's only about 45 minutes away but it feels like the deep woods. All we really want is a fireplace, especially now that it's turning cold again. For a while there everything was melting.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Mea culpa, Nicole.
Fab online journal Tarpaulin Sky has just published some poems of mine. By sheer coincidence another Ithaca poet, Fred Muratori, who I shared a stage with at Jane Sprague's West End Reading Series last July, also has work in this issue. And there's a prose poem by a poet named Danielle Dutton called "S&M" that kicks major ass. Beth Anderson, Ginger Knowlton, Heidi Peppermint (mm, ginger and peppermint), Zachary Schomburg, and a painter named Rebecca Silus are also featured with excellent work. Check it out.
It probably doesn't need saying that I am a huge Lord of the Rings fan. Grew up with the books, became thoroughly involved with the movies. I feel actual grief now that I've seen Return of the King and have to stop traveling with those characters, as I have more or less since I first saw the preview for the first film while goofing off at my dot-com job in 1999. Along with all the raves there's been some backlash: I found this Caryn James article both typical and baffling. Aside from the anecdotal evidence of my girlfriend Emily's love of the films (and she's never read the books), I was struck by this sentence: "The well-calculated hype and exaggerated praise (the New York Film Critics Circle last week voted "Return" best picture) has obscured what the series really is: an FX extravaganza tailored to an adolescent male's fear of sentiment and love of high-tech wizardry." This runs wholly counter to my experience of the films, even as I freely admit that experience is rooted in lingering adolescent maleness (for an NY Times article on that topic click here). The movies are an opportunity to absolutely wallow in sentiment, even as the latent homoeroticism (very much present in the books) goes practically undisguised to our cynical eyes. In fact they're all about love, and not just the romantic heterosexual variety that provides the only compensation for women like Ms. James (in the admittedly irresistible figure of Viggo Mortensen). The movies celebrate friendship and filial love (such as that between Merry and Pippin, Eowyn and Theoden, and the triangle of Boromir, Faramir, and their father Denethor) as well as a love for a country and a way of life. Of course the absolute evil of the Enemy (nasssty orcsis, as Gollum would say) is more than a little problematic and, I hope, should prevent the films from being treated as simple analogs for the war on terror (as some have tried to do). George W. Bush is no Aragorn, that's for sure—not only does he do all his ass-kicking by proxy, but he possesses none of the latter's humility or capacity for introspection. Man, do I digress. My point is that the movies are as crammed with sentiment (if not as sentimental) as any "chick flick," and much less afraid to cop to that sentiment than, say, the male bonding we see in a John Wayne or Mel Gibson movie is. And the love these characters have for each other make the spectacular battles matter in a way they almost never do in movies (the closest most of them manage to come to having an emotional justification for violence is the very cheap one of revenge), which has the effect of pushing the special effects into the background, where they belong. When I gasped at the spectacle of the giant siege machines laying into the walls of Minas Tirith, my emotion wass underlaid with anxiety for the welfare of the characters (in spite of my knowing the ultimate outcome). When Frodo fled from the giant spider, I share the feeling of the woman sitting next to me who cried out, "Run, Frodo!" Most of all, I was moved by the pivotal grouping of Sam, Frodo, and Gollum: Frodo's need to believe in Gollum's redemption, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary; Sam's deep, suffering loyalty for the friend who has moved past his understanding; and Gollum, whose slimy need is part and parcel with the remnant of humanity visibly flickering in his CGI eyes. In that central triangle the film achieves its truth content, becoming ambiguous and conflicted in a way the larger story of a battle against absolute evil could never be.

Now it's all over and I'm in holiday shopping hell, at the nadir of imagination where people keep buying Rumi calendars and copies of The Da Vinci Code. At least tomorrow the days start getting longer.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Here is a response to the scurrilous attack on Kent Johnson in the latest issue of The Believer. Perhaps they'll print it in their Snarkwatch section, perhaps not:
Venue: Your esteemed magazine, December 2003/2004
Author: Michael Atkinson
Title: "Hyperauthor! Hyperauthor!"

You want to talk about snark? Look no further than your own pages, in which Mr. Atkinson deliriously takes on any number of academical straw men, hooting at the notion that Language might speak us rather than the other way around--as if such theories didn't always take into account as their main premise that we are socialized into a pre-existing language. It's easy to mock the "death of the author" premise--I am sure the author of the piece is alive and well and staying very far from New Mexico indeed. But Atkinson seems wilfully ignorant of the fact that authors and readers don't meet each other in some kind of democratic dandelion field: up until very recently you couldn't be an author without being anointed as such by someone with the means to print and distribute your work. Institutions and publications like the Academy of American Poets and American Poetry Review are constituted by their power to turn Joe Schmoe, or Araki Yasusada, into an Author to Be Recknowed With by Those That Care--a group Atkinson grumpily and marginally counts himself a member of. He writes that "the Yasusada verses are not literature anymore." But what made them "literature" except the authorization of an outfit like APR? And does the attachment of the name of a "literary author" which happens to correspond to the name on someone's cultural credit card, guarantee that their writing will not be "motivated by sardonic smugness or misanthropic disdain"? Out of the literary pool, Charles Baudelaire! Go back to your cliff house, Robinson Jeffers! No spleen, please--that could never be "true" (the scare quotes are Atkinson's) "to any genuine emotional experience."

I happen to believe that the Yasusada hoax was nothing less than a piece of performance art--a genuinely avant garde act because the object of its critque were those same authorizing institutions that made its own "authorization" possible. Yasusada's work makes us think as well as feel. (And yes, I do happen to think that the poems themselves have aesthetic merit.) Of course, this can only happen to its fullest extent if the hoax is revealed, and there's a great deal of evidence to suggest that Yasusada's eventual unmasking was all part of the plan. Atkinson writes that "Literature is our record of being, and to defraud it is an act of nihilistic mutiny." Stirring words: but to proclaim literature to be some immortal repository of "our" values is one of the oldest strategies of the cultural conservative, by which he attempts to persuade us that the record of his being is or should be ours. Elsewhere in the article, Atkinson writes of the high modernists (who, despite their thorniness and difficulty and, yes, "nihilistic mutiny" must be recuperated for "our record of being" or the whole house of cards will tumble) that, "in breathlessly witnessing a feat of brilliant daring, we long to glimpse the big brain at the controls, to see how different he or she is from us." This is the same author who writes "I know some women who only read women, and I can't think of a single reason why they should do otherwise." Because in spite of all his high talk about community and our being, Atkinson cannot imagine a mind or self truly different than his own and the idea of people crossing demographic lines, much less pretending to be dead Japanese Hiroshima survivors, appears to make him woozy. Joyce, et al, "were silly like us," to quote Auden, and the privilege bestowed upon their big brains to unsettle our notions of the "literary" (and, in so doing, to change or challenge the borders of community, which are always guarded by gatekeepers of one sort or another) is not withdrawn simply because it would make the narrow-minded more comfortable. Atkinson claims to write on the behalf of readers, but readers need no defense from Araki Yasusada or Kent Johnson. It is the self-appointed guardian of the narrow strait of "literature" who must bite at the flea, and glance around fearfully, and bark as the caravan passes him by.
It's Dan Lin, one N. That's final. Read a poem of his over at AGNI.

Finished my grades and my paper on Heidegger and Adorno and their theories of the artwork, which concludes with a consideration of Charles Olson. Now I have nothing to fear but waves of holiday shoppers. Yes... we DO have The Da Vinci Code! Gurgle.... choke....
Boy, this blog is ugly now. Can't figure out how to get rid of that hideous orange stripe. Links are more or less back, though.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

I've been forced to change my template in order to get my site up and running again. Will restore blog links, etc., someday soon.

That's all for now except to note that the latest issue of Poetry is obsessed with the Isaiah Berlin's old saw about the fox knowing many things and the hedgehog knowing one big thing. The phrase is applied to both Nemerov and Jarrell and probably pops up in one of the poems too. It's A Very Special Issue of Poetry: The Hedgehog Issue.
Posting into more of a void than usual because Blogger won't acknowledge the posts. Makes a person feel a hint of existential despair, or maybe that's just a fluctuation of my standards. First Poetry doesn't look so bad. Then looking through some more promising magazines just makes me tired. If you can't be Rilke, why bother?

Someday someone will read this. Is it you?
Still can't get my posts to appear!
This month's Poetry seems slightly improved over the old ones. Reginald Gibbons has a reasonably sharp "Confession" by Reginald Gibbons, a nice meditation on Robert Lowell and the current disastrousness by John Koethe, a rhythmic little number from Rebecca Black, a Dean Young-ish piece of apocalyptic whimsy by Matthew Doherty, and even something post-avant looking by a Christine Garren (such a staid magazine that anything even close to page-as-field, that hoary old innovation, looks fresh). Still, the magazine has a whiff of the mausoleum about it. Somebody suggested they should use their millions to start giving the magazine away free, an idea I like. If they must be editorially stodgy they could at least choose a radically democratic means of distribution.
I've tried to add comments and a couple of new posts to the blog, but so far, nada. (And not the Nada we all love.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Trying to add comments....
I'm told that Dan Linn (whose name I misspelled below), one of the happily unexpected purchasers of Selah at St. Marks last week, is actually a friend of Emily's friend, the esteemed poet Amy Whitney (who herself bought a copy of the book while I was on duty at the Bookery yesterday). The wheels go round and round.... Dan, if you're out there, send me an e-mail and say hi!

Barrow Street has corrected the price of the book to $14, incidentally, so you can now buy it from them or from Amazon. Dealer's choice, though I suspect it might come quicker from Barrow Street. For some reason Amazon is taking one to three weeks to deliver. No picture, either. Grr.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

The holiday season is upon us. I never feel more Jewish than this time of year. The bookstore has suddenly become crazy busy, which is good for business but bad for busyness. I second everything that Jim has to say on the subject.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Can't believe I posted without a word on today's Big News. But what is there to say? Saddam's capture is unequivocally good news for the Iraqi people. However human and sad he looks in the photos, he has committed monstrous crimes and must be punished for them. I hope he gets a fair and public trial. That said, the politicial boost this will give Bush saddens and infuriates me. People, Saddam's a bad guy, but he's the wrong bad guy. In fact, it's not about bad guys. It's about systemic repression and injustice on a global scale. Wake up!

Preaching to the converted, alas and alas.

Same mixed feelings about the good economic news: a genuinely good thing that obscures our vision of the profounder evil.

The snow is falling....
The snow, it blows. Actually, with no particular place to go, like the songs say, it's nice to sit here and plan a mug of cocoa while the white stuff is general all over Ithaca. I'm back and it's been a whirlwind. The reading went very well—you couldn't wish for a more posh space to read poetry in than the National Arts Club. Good turnout, many people left clutching copies of Selah and Barrow Street and Western Humanities Review. Richard Howard read first in his trademark red-framed Coke-bottle glasses. He's a very entertaining stage presence. Jacqueline Osherow read after a break, and then me. I think I'm getting the hang of using a mike. People were very nice afterwards; I met Timothy Liu, Sharon Dolin, Kathleen Ossip, and Stephen Cramer, emerging poets all (well, Mr. Liu has fully emerged, I think). But the real thrill came the next day. After a fairly disastrous first meeting between Emily's dad and stepmother and my dad and stepmother, and a recuperative viewing of the expanded first chapter of Lord of the Rings at the Loews on 42nd and 8th Avenue, I made my usual pilgrimage down to the St. Mark's Bookshop. There, I was accosted—I believe accosted is the word—by a young man holding a copy of my book that he'd found on the shelves—I didn't even know the book was on shelves yet. His name was Ted Mathys and he was/is a poet (he has three good prose poems in the latest Fence and he was a fan. And he bought the book and had me sign it. More incredible than this was another poet, Daniel Lin, happened to be nearby, and he bought the book and had me sign it, leaving St. Marks with a single copy on their shelves. You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. It was a genuine rockstar moment and fulfilled most of the secret fantasies I've harbored since I first attempted a novel in the sixth grade. What to do for an encore?

Well for one thing, there's a reading at the Ear Inn coming up: Saturday, February 21st at 3 PM. Mark your calendars, New Yorkers: there's no avoiding it. You will hear me read eventually. Bwa-ha-hah!

Oh me. Oh my. I promise to get back to substantive commentary in the not too distant future. Yes indeedy.

Monday, December 08, 2003

My book is finally available for purchase from Amazon, where it is mysteriously $.95 cheaper than it costs from Barrow Street's website. Go figure. Also go figure why it has a 1 to 3 week availability. Hopefully that will improve very soon.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Reading in NYC Wednesday

In spite of being sick as a dog I promise to be well in time for this event on Wednesday, December 10:
Fifth Anniversary Barrow Street Party - - - and a celebration of the Winter
2003 issue...

Please join us...!!!

Readings by Jackie Osherow, Richard Howard, and Joshua Corey

Suggested donation:
$25 includes copy of the winter 2003 issue
$15 for contributors

7:00 PM
National Arts Club
15 Gramercy Park South
New York, NY

Friday, December 05, 2003

Did you know Percy Bysshe Shelley's grandfather was born in Newark, New Jersey?

Stay off the roads, you snowy ships at sea.
From Duncan's first letter to Denise Levertov in June 1953, "An A Muse Ment":
            song of the languagers
What are the signs of life? the breath, pulse,
  the constant
sloughing off of old disguises in
  creasing, increasing—
Notes— to hesitate, retract:
  step by step— to be idiot-awkward
  with it— to take care
by the throat & throttle it—
  bottle that genius
for mere magic or intoxic
it is sober he stumbles
  on truth? Hell, no—
this he sober gnaws
the inconsequential
  eternity of his skull.

His appetite is not experimental.
If it's not too late I'd like to second Tony Tost's self-nomination for the editorship of Best American Poetry 2004. His taste is impeccable.
Got a cold, but I'm here at the Bookery anyway. Enjoying the slightly surreal experience of sitting behind copies of my own book, on display in the impulse-buy zone at the back register here. A middle-aged man buying a card picks up a copy, starts browsing. Do I tell him? Do I don't tell him? I tell him. "You must be very excited," he says. "Yes!" I say. He's still browsing. He puts it back. "Maybe I'll come back for it," he says. I don't want to put the poor guy on the spot. "We'd be delighted," I blurt. We. Well, we would, wouldn't we?

My sickness seems to discharge me of my usual obligation to do some serious work while I'm here: Adorno or whatever. There are some new books I've ordered for the shelves to browse through instead. Silliman's Tjanting has arrived (and I'm so intrigued by his anointment of Lisa Jarnot today. I'm a Jarnot fan myself, but what has she got that, say, Jennifer Moxley hasn't got? Her fearless ear, perhaps—while I've found Moxley's The Sense Record to be one of the most involving and provocative books I've read this year, I'm not going to that work for her sense of melopoeia. What a long parenthetical), as has the correspondence of Levertov and Duncan. Right now I'm leafing through Joe Sacco's new graphic novel about Sarajevo, The Fixer. And drinking lots of Gypsy Cold Care tea.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Denken durch Dichtung

"At times when we believe we are studying something, we are only being receptive to a kind of day-dreaming."
                        —Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space

I used to be a much more unconscious writer. Only my ear, tuned inward to the thousands of books I'd uncritically absorbed, guided what I wrote. I did very little thinking about my writing or what I've learned to call "my poetics." Asked the meaning of a poem I'd shrug and say, "Hey, I just work here." A number of undertheorized notions helped to determine the decisions I made while writing. Rhyme was good but internal rhyme was better. Couplets are more beautiful than quatrains. A poem exists to unfold one or more striking images. Banish cliches. Syntax should be regular unless a linebreak or rhyme demands otherwise. "Prose poetry" makes no sense. The poem should conclude with an epiphany, a reversal, or else dovetail neatly into the beginning. All poems are love poems—or to put it another way, praise is more challenging than negativity. A poem should be beautiful. Poetry = beauty.

The critical attitude which led me to reject these doxa came gradually to me as I began my first grapplings with literary theory (Derrida, Foucault, Said, Nietzsche), and accelerated once I began reading poets working outside the narrow Levine-Hugo-Wright axis I'd defined as "contemporary poetry" (Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, C.D. Wright, Lucie Brock-Broido). I was 27 years old when this process began, so I'd already been writing for a while: poems, plays, screenplays, my Romeo & Juliet vs. Queen novel. So these notions, that I'd gathered who knows where—from reading and re-reading the third edition of The Norton Anthology of Poetry?— were not quickly or easily dislodged. Even now they remain as the deep background which I write against, or toward almost helplessly. Couplets are more beautiful. Of course, "beauty" is now a suspect category and the role of negativity within the most authentic poem of priase is much clearer to me. Probably my sense of being a more critically reflective writer is tied to my growing interest in syntax as the engine of language estranged from communication (which is poetry in one direction and jargon in the other). I'm re-inventing the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E wheel in some ways, of course, and struggling against the fact of my belatedness as each member of a rising generation must do. One must figure these things out for oneself—at least I must. I can't and couldn't be told. Still, I hope my consciousness of syntax and the dialectical knot of logopoeia that it provides access to will save my students a little bit of time. And I mustn't overestimate that critical consciousness I've acquired. "Maturity" always dates itself six months down the line.

Bachelard: "When we are lecturing, we become animated by the joy of teaching and, at times, our words think for us. But to write a book requires really serious reflection."

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Deep in Daniel Nester's God Save My Queen (buy it!). Feeling of admitting too much when I say how deeply I understand it. We grew up in neighboring worlds, still live in them.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Back from Nantucket where the wild wind blew. My girlfriend has two nieces, one of whom is in love with me. We're going to run away together. She's three.

As of today there are now forty-eight Severance Songs. A book! But I'm going for an even sixty. It might be time to get into prose. I feel the sonnet form (usually but not always unrhymed) that I've been working in has become perhaps too instinctive. It doesn't offer as much resistance as it once did. Maybe I should start writing Petrachan sonnets with an octave and sestet. In Provencal.

Received: Noah Eli Gordon's The Frequencies (speaking of prose), Sara Veglahn's Falling Forward, Juliana Leslie's Pie in the sky, Nick Moudry's A Poem , a Movie & a Poem, Oska Pastior's Many Glove Compartments, Daniel Nester's God Save My Queen, Kent Johnson's The Miseries of Poetry (a haunting hoot), and, edited by Norma Cole, Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France. I don't usually "receive" books (I have to buy them) but lately I've been lucky enough to do so, usually by exchanging a copy or two of Selah. Still don't know when that book will have a distributor, but I hope those of you ordering copies from Barrow Street are getting them.

More later perhaps when I'm safely ensconced behind my counter at the Bookery.

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