Tuesday, November 30, 2004

After a long hiatus, Chris of Cosmopoetica has returned to blogging; he's going poem by poem through Best American Poetry 2004 and doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. Why he feels compelled to read an anthology he finds so unrewarding is beyond me. He's also engaged the "difficulty" conversation and raised some valid questions. The most urgent point I'd like to refute is Chris' image of me as some kind of humorless dogmatist (he seemed to have a similar reaction to my HCE interview). Chris, you seem to be reading me a bit selectively. I do believe that poetry has a peculiar power to access some kind of collective unconscious by opening up the writer/reader's singular unconscious through/in language and is therefore worthy of reverence. But that doesn't mean I don't like funny poems! Didn't you read the Caroline Knox poem I posted? I see the serious/non-serious dichotomy (which is of course simplistic, like all dichotomies) not being so much about serious/funny as about being ambitious, rigorous, vigorous, and reverent toward the human potential in poetry versus a writing that is only interested in comforting and being comfortable (which almost always seems to mean being anti-intellectual). And "rigor" doesn't mean "humorless" either, because the rigor should apply to the poet's overall project, not to every individual poem. (Frank O'Hara is a poet of rigor.) Rigor manifests in many ways: it can be primarily formal (I include techniques associated with Oulipo, the New Sentence, etc. in this category), it can be a shaping source of energy akin to genre (satire, for example, the energy of ridicule roused against what the writer finds contemptible), it can be a form of endurance detectable only from the poet's larger life-context (simple poems written by a poet under a repressive or violent regime, for example). Slackness, too, has many forms: shapeless free verse, unmotivated formalism, narrow tastes in reading, a ready acceptance of authority. A slack poet can be clever, a rigorous poet can be funny, and most everybody writes a good or bad poem now and then if they stick with it long enough. I'm biased toward writing that seems to come from a larger project into which some degree of conscious thought has been put, and I'll cut individual dull poems a lot of slack if I think they're part of a larger, more interesting project. (This is why I continue to esteem most of the writers Chris has addressed in his BAP review, though I agree some of the poems are not that interesting—an anthology rarely does justice to precisely this most interesting dimension of writing.)

The other point I want to take up is the "major fallacy of generalization from one’s particular perspective to the whole" that Chris accuses me of. He argues that opera and other arts continue because some people in the audience do feel called to participate in it: true enough. But there is no art I know of that has a lower barrier of participation than poetry: all you need is paper, a pencil, and a native language. So I do think there is something more universal about poetry. And while it is certainly a logical fallacy for me to attribute my perspective to a whole, I don't claim to do that: I only claim that something I've thought and felt is likely to be recognized by others (not ALL others). Furthermore, that perspective is not just somehow ejected onto the page where it flops around distastefully: it emerges from and through my experience, which includes my literary experience, and assumes a form that most would recognize as poetic. Of course poetry is a craft that has to be learned and practiced if you want to achieve the deepest and most subtle effects you're capable of. (Which can be humorous effects! I feel like I constantly have to be on my guard now against being seen as too "serious.") But craft alone isn't enough; individual details of craft are always interesting, but at some point you want to know it well enough to be able to transform it from an ends into a means toward some kind of vision. It's like that scene in Waiting for Guffman where Lloyd the music director is telling Corky St. Claire, "I want them to really learn the music, so they can forget about it," and Corky replies, "Well, they've already forgotten it!" If Lloyd equals craft and Corky equals vision, we need to harmonize them somehow—or rather, Lloyd needs to be sublated by Corky. (There's a thought.)

Expression preceding thought might make more sense to Chris if I emphasize that they are both modes of cognition. By "expression" I mean an aesthetic way of thinking, in which you judge words and other linguistic elements primarily by their appeal to the senses (sound mostly, but also their appearance and, to a lesser degree, the images they generate) and by your mostly unconscious sense of that word or phrase's context and/or history (it could be an allusion to another poem, or a deployment of language from another specialized field like medicine, or a fragment of pop culture, or the remark of someone famous or unfamous). By "thought" I mean the more ordinary cognition that does its level best to use language in a neutral way, as a means toward communication. Both forms of writing will carry unconscious messages, bits of history, etc., but the poet is open toward that unconscious in a way the communicator is not.

Okay, I really have to get my day started now.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Poetry is in the air at the turn of the year: first the New York Times Book Review, now the online center-left magazine Slate is devoting its day, perhaps its whole week, to poetry. Today already we have three articles: James Longenbach on Richard Wilbur, Dan Chiasson on Anne Winters, and Adam Kirsch on Derek Walcott. Despite the inclusion of Winters the tone of the thing seems very male to me: thin-lipped judges arranging the hierarchies just so. The Chiasson piece is the best, if only because it points me toward a poet I'm not very much familiar with and because I too am interested in Winters' combination of intricate music with (according to Chiasson) doctrinaire Marxism. The possibility that her poetic might actually derive from a dialectical approach to Winters' own position as observer does not seem to have occurred to him. All three poets chosen have a grand, high lyric style to them—I'm actually rather fond of that style, but to devote the whole "issue" to that kind of poetry begins to feel stifling. The piece on Wilbur is another attempt to rescue his reputation from the New Formalists for whom he was their chosen mascot back in the eighties; of course he's a more interesting poet than that, and "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is one of the great anthology pieces, genuinely beautiful. I've admired Wilbur and recognize something of myself in his formal impulse and his desire to find the beautiful (Kirsch actually writes rather well about Wilbur as praise poet in this New Yorker article), but he's not a poet of much use to me at the present time. Kirsch's Walcott article seems like a puff piece: Walcott is a very great poet who I've read with tremendous enjoyment (I like especialy his early stuff up to "The Schooner Flight" in the Collected Poems, 1948-1984), but what I've seen of The Prodigal seems slack and sentimental, not at all the Yeatsian surge Kirsch wants to see. It's good to see poetry getting some attention in a mainstream publication, but the kind of attention offered doesn't seem likely to excite Common Readers. Maybe as the week goes on they'll talk about some poets under 40; or better yet, find someone under 40 to write about some poets. (But the only critic who does this who has any mainstream cred that I'm aware of is Steve Burt, who's writing as fast as he can.)

Jeffrey Bahr over at Whimsy Speaks has done something of a post-mortem on what he's dubbed the "difficulty" conversation that was going on last week. I was struck by a paragraph that he wrote in his comments section:
There seems to be a whole lot of recent work in one of two camps: poetry that takes itself too seriously, and poetry that doesn't take itself seriously enough. The first class has a long history, of course. The second category is chock-a-block with poems consisting of line after line of ironical observation. Either can make for difficult reading, and it's particularly confusing when members of the former persuasion laud members of the latter -- say, when Ramke blurbs for Rohrer.
This is a wonderfully simple take that, rephrased, gets to the heart of what gets me so itchy about the so-called "popular poets" like Collins and Olds who have been my collective straw man. That is, I think such poets—particularly Collins—fall into the "don't take poetry seriously enough" camp. They may take their subject matter seriously, or THEMSELVES seriously (never an attractive choice), but they don't take POETRY seriously. Every line I've read by Collins (who's all about "ironical observation," after all) seemed calculated to diminish poetry as an art, to make it your easygoing buddy that would join you in mooning everything associated with High Seriousness and the sublime. At best, such poets use poetry to assume the privilege of a bardic position without actually permitting language to use them, without becoming inspired in Plato's sense. Bahr seems to worry a little more about those who take poetry too seriously, arguing that poetry is fundamentally about entertainment and not in itself important when compared to "saving lives or raising children." Well, this is kind of a dead-end argument, isn't it? Nothing in the aesthetic realm has any practical use, by definition—poetry doesn't get your shoelaces safely tied, let alone raise children. Nonetheless we talk about "needing" poetry and even "dying for lack of what is found there"—if you accept that human beings have non-material needs without which life seems not worth living, then poetry surely attempts to satisfy those needs. I have no wish to make poetry into a religion, but I do get some of that sense of participation that I associate with the religious from reading and writing poetry—participation in a collective effort toward the greater coherency of human energy, the larger extension of the franchise of personhood. (I'm going to have to spend some more time with Grossman and write about it here; but every time I sit down with The Sighted Singer [I just typed "The Sighted Signer"] I simply end up wanting to quote the whole thing.) So I'm not sure it's possible for us to take poetry too seriously, except insofar as we might come to neglect political and ethical obligations in favor of feeding our private muses. For what it's worth, I happen to think Matt Rohrer takes poetry very seriously, just not himself or poetry-as-institution. Frank O'Hara took poetry seriously too.
Nice trip to Chicago. Emily's mother and my extended family got on, as I hoped and expected, like a house afire. We escaped the suburbs twice, once to the Art Institute (where, walking backward, I noticed for the first time how Rothko quotes Monet's haystack paintings) and once to Wicker Park, where I visited Myopic Books for the second time and picked up Claudia Rankine's wrenching Don't Let Me Be Lonely and Caroline Knox's delightful first book, The House Party. I think I've talked about Knox here before, but in the context of last week's conversation I now see her as a kind of bridge figure between Tate and Ashbery—in fact this book has a blurb by Tate on its back cover. There's a lot of Tate-ian whimsy to her writing and a great deal of that surrealist frisson that his best poems manage; there's also a whiff of James Merrill's ironic take on WASP manners and privileges. But I find her language much more intense in its playfulness than Tate's, and more esoteric in its range of reference. She's capable of what can seem like a synthesis of Tate's American surrealism, Ashbery's Moebius narratives, and O'Hara's high-cultural insouciance, as in the delightful and strange "Hittites":

Hittites rode by on contemporary village machines
I don't speak Hittite; Christine does, but she wasn't there

Yaz the Distinguished acknowledged
the puffing of the populace
a Nubian held aloft his plate of kippers

Your eyes will be the eyes of the basilisk, my lamb
when you behold how I left the rice
boil over while I watched them go by

Next Saturday is Hittite Saturday!
As far away as Ravenna, people will be in touch with their feelings!
What fun she is! And the fun comes wrapped in mystery: the odd slippages of word and syntax ("left the rice / boil over"), the Biblical intonation, the silliness of "kippers," all become an objective correlative to a feeling not unlike the combination of a hiccup, a laugh, and a lump in the throat. Her writing is powered more by unusual words and word-combinations than either Tate's or Ashbery's is; Ashbery seems to think in sentences while Tate's is a prosody of the paragraph. I like it a lot. Under the influence of her book and Mary Jo Bang's latest (their senses of humor are similar, though Mary Jo's is darker) I wrote this on the plane home:
Alice, or Awkward

A game girl-shape came glimmering through the dusk,
clattering goth gestures with her spine, hair, and hands.
"Fly," she cried, "for the father of this fane has fled, alread-
y, took the books and the bricks, battered sheer matter
through force of flattery, and hatted, cored a door
in the original apple to abscond unbonded."
She whirled leaving two tears unshaped in the air
panned by her face, long lens to the brain,
foregrounding grotesque foreshortenings of a limb's
apery. To speak of bees—buzz, buzz—for Alice was not the name
of the unmasked damask dancer who twirled diagonally to drill
at an angle sure to miss the deep heart's floor.
Someone had blundered and well—meanwhile mittened Judge Toby
sniffed up snuff and withheld his sneeze
like the word from a beard—or cloud!—that fails to find its mark
in the actual dark breathing and beating room
to which our undergound girl had furled herself, from which green cellary
we would not soon choose to depart.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Well, Emily and I are off to Chicago for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and I probably won't blog again before Monday. So to tide you over, here's a dialogue that's been going on between Kent Johnson and myself that Kent thoughtfully formatted for easy perusal. No doubt it will be an ongoing conversation. Speaking of conversation, I'd like to thank all the participants and observers of the recent and I think useful argument that's dominated this page and others for the past several days: Mike, Henry, Jordan, Stuart, Jason, Laura, and Hannah. Apologies if I missed you—send me an e-mail!—and happy turkey/tofu day to all.

[On October 27, Josh Corey wrote on his blog]:

Sometimes I forget what a wonderful ear the man [John Ashbery] has. The fact of Ashbery's popularity, or at any rate his canonicity, tickles me greatly. How did such a manifestly strange writer become mainstream? There is hope for us all.


[Kent wrote back-channel]:

Though Josh, a question from one of your sympathetic readers here:

Why and in what way should we hope to become mainstream?



[Josh’s reply back-channel]:

Let me turn the question back around on you Kent: what value is there to
be derived from sheer marginality? Particularly since, as you've no doubt
noticed, the margin has its own centers.

I have not given up hoping that the circles of readership for my writing
and for the writings I care about will continually expand.

Rather than try to recuperate Ashbery for the margins, why not celebrate
the fact that his strategies of mental and textual openness have a wide

Thoughts for the day,



[Kent’s response]:

That's a good reply, Josh.

But I'm not talking about "sheer marginality," much less pumping for its "value." And I'd certainly agree that "marginality" has its "centers"-- marginal centers which are hardly innocent of unacknowledged complicities with the mainstream (you know I've written about that elsewhere and aplenty).

The question, I think, might be something like this: Is an "expanding readership," for poetries of "mental and textual openness" as you put it, necessarily contingent on becoming "mainstream" (or, put another way, does having ever-larger numbers of readers necessarily mean a drifting towards an official "center")? I don't think so.

Why not new locations/unfoldings of poetry-audience relations that might begin to lift free of the old, symbiotic binaries (traditional/experimental, S of Q/post-avant, etc.)? Opening such a space of operation would mean, in the first instance, I believe, starting to challenge certain codified beliefs about authorship and attribution and the ideologized rituals that attend them--ones upon which the "margins" depend as much as the official center: ones, indeed, upon which the whole Institution Art depends (I remember you had been reading Berger).

So how to make it new is still the question, of course. But maybe it's not so much a question of how to make it new on the page. Poetry (or so the weird voices in my head tell me) is much more than what is on the page-- or what is bound at the spine.



(On November 23, as part of a multi-blog discussion sparked by Josh’s comments on “poetic ethics” at Cahiers on same day, Kent sent two comments to Henry Gould’s blog.)

[Comment 1]

Henry, maybe not, but I think I'm following your "difficult eloquence" here. If so, then may I add in support that this is why we *cannot* reduce an "ethics of poetry" to the empirical "face." (Josh, though I may be misreading, seems to be proposing this in his substantial post of today, and I would say such would be a simplification of Levinas's notion of otherness.)

To say this is not to deny an ethical respect for or commitment to the Other, by any means; rather, it is to propose that poetry's force can transcend the "institutional correlates," including conventional demarcations of authorship, that are so easily taken (not least by our "experimental poets") as natural and inevitable.


[Comment 2]

Part of the point in my comment above would be that the empirical self (the Author, that is) is very often the most forged Other of all. No one in the poetry world should have any trouble coming up with favorite examples. (There is also the mirror in the bathroom, or one's photo on the cover of a book.)

Speaking of the "person," as Josh does, think of Pessoa, whose name, eerily, means, precisely, Person. Art is the lie that helps us to see the truth, the saying goest, and Pessoa, for one, helps us to see the truth that the Person (at least the person of the Poet-person!) may, in intense imaginative circumstances, not be defined by his or her conventional "identity."



[Josh responded to Kent back-channel]:

Thanks for the very sharp comments. I like the distinction between "person" and "identity." Maybe I am being a little too glib with Levinas--I don't mean to say that poetry can be reduced to that particular ethical mode. Actually to say that poetry is about representing personhood is nearly to miss the boat unless you say something about that mode of representation, which has its roots in language's tendency to represent/signify beyond what anyone (any one identity/author) can intend. The practice of heteronymy extends this play of language away from self-identity and toward the person-other to the name below (above?) the title. The bridge between aesthetic and ethics becomes most visible in
that sort of play, since you're introducing (in Kantian terms) the scene of judgment (enlarging indeterminacy) into the scene of practical action.

I'd like to put up our discussion on the blog, but I'm not quite sure how to format it so it will be readable. If I get time to fiddle with our collected e-mails before taking off for Thanksgiving, I'll do so.

In the meantime, happy turkeys to you,


[to be continued]

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Henry gets his whacks in on the tennis ball that Mike and I have been batting around. Henry, I need some clarification here. Are you saying that "difficulty" in poetry stems simply from the fact that words don't mean what they say—that difficulty stems from the gap between form and content? Doesn't that apply, potentially to any utterance? Or are you arguing for the importance of the framing that happens off the page—the question of poetry as an institution (Mike would double-damn it as a homogenous institution)—and deeming inadequate any approach that doesn't either attack institutionality or expand its mandate?

As for Henry's last statement about "the ethical implications or demands that words sometimes entail," I hardly think my notion of the community of writers (or maybe better, wreaders) as friends & lovers is without ethical implication. In some ways I think I'm very close to the notion of poetry advocated by Allen Grossman, who sees its sacred duty as being the representation of the person (that is, the human recognized as human, with human rights and a "face" in something close to Levinas' use of the word). Difficulty then becomes perhaps a question of not insulting the reader's personhood by creating a prefab construct to which they'll have prefab reactions. But I feel now I'm falling into the trap of exalting my side of a dichotomy when I'd rather be dialectical, or at least aware of the problems created by my position. For example, there's the question of my family as audience. They don't seem to have a great deal of trouble with the poems as such (they don't feel like they're getting the full "meaning," but they like the sound and some of the imagery—they have an experience), but they have proclaimed themselves baffled by what's been written about my work (particularly the Boston Review review and Michael Palmer's appraisal of Severance Songs in the new Conjunctions. So I went and wrote a little "translation" of what Zack Finch wrote about Selah and I'll probably do the same for the Palmer piece. I don't want to compromise on my poetry (or "communicate" with it in the sense that Jordan seems to mean) but I'm perfectly happy to compromise or otherwise try to pull back the curtain on the framework around poetry, its production, and its evaluation. It's not an avant-garde move on my part—it might even be conservative in the small-c sense—but I do have an urge to demystify the processes of publication and canonization for the Common Readers in my family and beyond it—to render visible poetry-as-institution and so take away some of its power to intimidate (which has more to do with the disaffection of Common Readers, I think, than any actual poems do). I guess the conclusion I'm drawing here brings me a little closer to what I think Mike's position may be (Henry sums it up as "work harder at it"). Yes, I do think poetry's small audience (I'm not sure I agree about its homogeneity, though) means something, but I think the demand that makes on poets to expand their audience is extra-literary or at least happens beyond the borders of the actual poem: audience-building happens primarily through reading aloud (yes, I do believe poets ought to become proficient performers of their work, though I appreciate arguments to the contrary), editing, writing reviews (here I'll confess that the two reviews I've recently written aren't likely to expand poetry's audience), teaching, doing interviews, giving talks, blogging, etc. Since I'm against audiences as such, such activities take on an evangelical cast: I'm asking potential readers to accept a personal relationship with poetry—to read it is to write it and to write it is to be written upon/in/through.

That's my best self talking; my little ego likes audiences just fine. My ego took a simultaneous beating and inflating yesterday. A beating because I didn't receive an NEA grant for the third time in a row. Inflating because I've been invited to take part in the Poetry Society of America's Festival of New American Poets next March 2nd and 3rd. You can read about last year's festival poets here. My dad will be there; my late mother, a most Uncommon Reader, will not, and I feel an upswelled mingling of pride and grief. Both good and bad news will eventually pass; my ego will continue to expand and inflate, a creature of the tides. I hope poetry will go on being a vehicle to something larger than myself—some democratic capacity for the expanding recognition of personhood.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Mike has smartly answered my questions (below), but in such a way as to confirm what probably anybody following this exchange already knew: that we have completely incommensurate ideas as to the role and value of poetry. A lot of talk about numbers: the circulation of magazines, the low sales of poetry ("No one buys poetry"—for a truly eloquent response to this, please see Jordan's comments on Mike's blog), the 500,000 readers of The Atlantic (is the circulation really that high? do they really care about the poetry that's already in the magazine? Who reads The Atlantic for the generally glib and dreary poems printed therein?), etc. I for one am not sure that poetry's impact on people and on the culture is so easily quantified—isn't the overpowering impulse toward quantification and reification something we seek an alternative to in poetry? I want poetry to be a realm in which I can freely seek my desire (as well as interrogate those desires that have been interpolated by the society around me—my desire for a huge audience, for instance), and so I stake a claim for writing out from and back to my own heart, as complex and cragged as I wanna be, having faith the whole while that others' hearts and intellects are included in that circuit.

Which is not to say that I seek a closed circuit. Maybe the difference between Mike and I can be summed up this way: he wants poetry to be an art like any other, where a small group of artists shares a wide audience of non-artists. Whereas I've believed for a while now that the common lament, "only poets read poetry" is actually cause for optimism and celebration. I've probably said this before, but: I think the purpose of poetry is to turn its readers into poets. You can read a novel or see an opera without thinking once of being a participant in the form, but I've never read a poem that stirred me that didn't also stimulate my desire to write. And again, since I'm a human being, my desire can be taken as a sign of others' equivalent desire. The set "writers of poetry" has never grown so quickly or visibly as it has in our era. Almost every day I become aware of another person who practices and/or values a form of writing that I find exciting—they start a blog, or send me an e-mail, or publish a poem in a journal, or a chapbook or a book, or I hear them read. Sure, there are lots of bad poets too, but I've never seen the widsom of sending a lot of critical energy their way. I'd rather talk about what puts my nervous system on alert, what makes me feel like I'm meeting another's fully energized consciousness on the page.

"Difficult" poetry is difficult because it can't be absorbed passively: it demands a response, an effort at completion or better, extension. It asks the reader to give up his or her secure ground and swim a little—which is exactly what a writer has to do. If I want to be reassured, or comforted, or to smile a little bit, I'd rather watch TV than read poems that only aspire to the level of TV (even really good TV). O'Hara still said it best: "If people don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too." I like the movies, too, but I also need poetry. And I see no good way to convince other people that they need poetry without compromising what poetry wants to be: not a commodity.

I say all this not knowing how "difficult" my own poems might seem to others, or whether Mike would judge me to be "foolishly contented" over on my little corner of Parnassus. I say all this while putting the highest value on craft; while believing in the importance of acquiring a deep knowledge of the poetic traditions of at least two languages; while delighting in poetry that works on the most childish and somatic levels of pure sound; while longing for an experience and expression of what used to be called the sublime. There's a lot of desire coalescing around "poetry" for me, and I refuse to compromise on any of it. And when I've pitched myself into the dark at the greatest possible velocity, that's when I've felt myself caught and buoyed by a surprisingly responive world. That might be luck or privilege, but it might also be that we're meant to rev up our desires to the highest possible pitch, even if what we desire might seem outrageous or out of date or snobby or in poor taste. "You just go on your nerve," Frank said, with a profound knowledge of French and American poetry and art behind him and New York spread before him like a endlessly opening network of friends and lovers. That's the vision of poetry that I'd like to live. Down with audiences, up with friends and lovers! Vive la poésie difficile.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Aubergine layout is complete. But we probably won't be able to print it out and do all the necessary folding, stapling, and mailing until after Thanksgiving.

Questions for Mike Snider:
1) Do you sincerely believe that if we all wrote poetry that rhymes or otherwise follows traditional forms and carefully avoided philosophical or "theory" references in favor of carefully unmediated-seeming narratives about daily life that poetry would become a popular art again?

2) Do you really see groups of friends who read and champion each other's work as nothing but a drag on originality and/or popularity? What's wrong with poetry as a means toward friendship?

3) Who said poetry was a guttering flame? Not me. Poetry feels more intense and more relevant and more necessary to me than ever. And I continue firmly to believe that what feels necessary to me is bound to be necessary to other people. I refuse to sacrifice the intensity of language set free from superficial intention for a wider audience that would be correspondingly diffuse in their attachment.
A further thought: isn't it possible to view the split between more "popular" poets (Collins, Tate, Olds, et al) and the "larger and even more peculiar group" (in which Mike is presumably including me) as being a split between a kind of "nativist" writing that celebrates the self and its bounds (support our troops!), creating space for that self through a kind of "soft" negative capability (the mild, quietistic bemusement that suffuses up through the last lines of one of their poems)—and a more "cosmopolitan" writing that interrogates the privileges offered to the self by the available rhetoric (you're either with us or against us) and chooses a "hard" negative capability that challenges both writer and reader to give up ground, to feel themselves regarded by the inassimilable otherness of the difficult poem?

All just a roundabout way of saying that I value difficulty in poetry. There, I said it. I can enjoy the easy stuff, the entertaining stuff, but the poetry that sustains me also challenges me, provokes me, fills me with wonder, or even makes me a little nauseous. What drives me crazy about poetic populism is that it asks us to set a low ceiling on our ambitions, to give up the dream of being apprehended at our most complex and contradictory. It asks me to devote my talent to discovering what's already known, to repeating the available wisdom—"what often was thought, but never so well expressed." That bores me. I work from expression to thought and not the other way around when I write poetry. I'm mining a basic human capacity, the deep vein of lapsus linguae. The obscurity and unpopularity of this art is only to be lamented by my ego, which demands accolades, reinforcement, tubs of money. But the me myself, whose bounds are never clear, is deeply satisfied (though not contented) by this writing—never separable, of course, from my reading. I have hundreds of companions in poetry, dead and alive—what more can I ask from this vale of fucking tears.

The love of the masses can't feed the actual heart. Just ask Elvis.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Thanks to the efforts of the indefatigable Aaron Tieger, Aubergine is nearly complete. If you're a contributor and you don't think I have your address, please send it along to jmc228 at cornell dot edu.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Oh, last night at the bookstore I read a review by Mark Ford in TNYRoB of James Tate's latest, Return to the City of White Donkeys, and also read in the book a little. Reading Tate creates a curious inversion of an experience I've sometimes had reading Language poetry: there, I'm often fascinated and entertained by the theory but bored and irritated by the practice, while with Tate the opposite is true. Or not even a theory, really (because what is his theory?>, just the aura around him and the labored surrealism of his recent book titles. Ford wrote something about how Tate hasn't attracted much academic attention because he's like Ashbery in his verbal slipperiness without the epistemological investigations we scholars like to unravel. There's probably some truth to that but I think it may have more to do with the curious slightness Tate's poetry has in the memory: there's kind of a generic James Tate poem in my mind that I think of as certainly amusing but basically just a reiteration or imitation of itself. Every James Tate poem is a copy of a copy of a copy of the ur-Tate poem that doesn't actually exist. I feel the same way about poets like Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, and Philip Levine: they're repeating a trick that ceased to be amusing or moving a long time ago. But then I actually read one of Tate's poems and I am really, really entertained by it. And I read another, and another—they're like candy. This is not a Bad Thing; I find myself thinking that this is the ideal book to give someone who doesn't think they like poetry. Which is another category in itself, isn't it, one that Collins and to a lesser extent Olds and Levine fall into: poetry for people who don't like poetry. A very peculiar demographic; I suspect a degree of self-loathing in those poets who write for it exclusively. But although Tate can be slight, sometimes he really nails the acute pleasure of poetry that Ford describes: the pleasure of something slipping through your fingers, of negative capability, of pure surprise. He's not very formally interesting, and that again makes me think of this as a genre of not prose poetry but poetry-pose, prose assuming the swiftness of poetry but otherwise basically prose. Not that there's anything wrong with that—it just doesn't give me the sublime thrill that I get from a poem whose energy derives from the resistance of its materials. Tate's mastery is a little too obvious; he makes it look easy, even though it probably isn't. He's also a little too fond of punchline endings. But here I am talking abstractly about him when the whole point is that reading his poetry provides much greater pleasure than I think it does, if that makes any sense. I no longer have the new book in front of me, but here's a little one from Shroud of the Gnome:

He was never mean to me.
I never once heard him speak ill of another.
And he was always good by his word.
If he said he was bringing over a brace of quail
you set the table then and there.
Best of all, he was punctual,
a virtue I dearly love in a dog.
And he never crept, never crept, never crept.
Rather beautiful, isn't it? And haunting, in a bite-sized way. There's something there. Anyway, I know what book I'm giving my father for Haunukkah.
Very pleased to see that the National Book Award is going to Jean Valentine this year. I would have liked to see Cole Swensen win, but insofar as they seem to have constructed the award around a career rather than a book, Valentine is certainly deserving of the recognition.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Perfect Human

Deeply stirred, disturbed, stimulated by a viewing last night of Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth's The Five Obstructions. I was attracted to it as an unusual example of constrained filmmaking, and the movie provides example after gorgeous and haunting example of how arbitrary constraints can liberate an artist from his or her own intentions in unexpected ways—even as it also proves that there is a core of subjectivity or at any rate sensibility that will not let itself be erased. It's thrilling to see art actually being created in front of your eyes; the emotion is much more intense here than it was in Ed Harris' Pollock, a collection of cliches abou the tortured artist except for the remarkable sequences in which we see the painter painting. The movie raises many incidental questions: the role of privilege in artmaking (vividly demonstrated in the Bombay sequence); questions of race and gender (the oftend dark-skinned women we see are usually overtly sexualized, the men much less so—though it's interesting how male and female get collapsed into the asexual "human" by the narration); and of course the Oedipal relation between artist and mentor, with the latter seemingly bemused by the former's urgent need to cut him open and look inside. I found myself identifying strongly with Leth's formality, his melancholia, his wry humanism; von Trier is a repellent individual (I can't bring myself to watch movies like Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, though I loved Europa and Breaking the Waves) but if I'm honest with myself I can recognize his sadism and insecurity as akin to my own. And I was totally agog at the high seriousness of the project, playful as it is; there is simply no American context for this kind of thing except maybe for the hundred-yard radius around David Lynch's head. Just to witness a conversation about art in which the stakes are matter-of-factly assumed to be high is enough to move me to tears. There is a kind of European art-esteem that buoys these men up, however acute their self-loathing might otherwise at times be. It may be an extension of the social safety net that we are also lacking in this country: a pervasive message from your society that your life and what you do with it is important. (Surprised at this juncture to remember the Richard Hugo line that is the motto of the University of Montana's MFA program: "A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.") But there's no escaping the American grain; if I were to realize my occasional dream of exile (in Paris, in Vancouver, in Copenhagen, in Budapest) I'm sure I would only end up feeling more "American" than ever. I might go deeper into my formalism, my rage for order, whereas I think the real challenge for me as a writer now might be to get messy, to risk bathos, maybe even to write a story. But it's hard to let go of form in an era that seems to be slipping toward formlessness.

What I'm trying to say is: see this movie.

Monday, November 15, 2004


The root of luxury is light. All need. All see. Chafed from stiff, a little death flees from my arms and legs every morning. See you later. Walk to work downhill, enter a zone of horizontal aspiration. That is, breath's visible as that building they're building. We need again an unreadable home. Cinched iris. Margarine light.


So I aspire to suspire, to keep respiring, quiring, not to spite this respite. Uncertain animality's sufficient, I wreath a halo's briar. What protects my paycheck from feeding bomb-bay doors. Oh to be a drone burnt black and yellow with another's sovereign conscience. Oh for suffering, anyone's, to be of some limited use. Help me open this jar.


Reaction of heat with oil: migration toward golden brown. Careful, the plate is hot, and please pass the sour cream. New links built from molecule to molecule make a blonder bond with matter. Thanks for being a table—thanks for attracting flies. Somewhere a diorama of this moment on sale inside a souk. Blood smokes shallowly under skin, a shame. The little meal unrequited.


Sordidly the adverbs stacked chairs against the door, yet none could modify the action. Brute burst boot. Yet yellow ribbon can't be crossed like wrists. Can't see you for the streamers. Well dad I guess we got through it all right, wrote Private Issac home. He squinted through goggles engoldening the enemy as a hand from heaven fiddled with our safety.


Hell no we won't won't go. Blinders on the Clydesdales huffing their way to Canada. A Claymore's a Scottish sword, a clavier's Johann's unworldly smorgasbord. Sound, alone. Take flight toward earth like an arrow shot out of mind. I'm living for ta da. Shyly she raisd her hand: but isn't it wrong to kill? Time, that is, shivering atop a watched stopped classroom clock.


Four more years is fears: this endless ethnic music! Where possible La Contessa prefers to avoid the vulgarities of life and death. But bad taste and a bouzouki aren't enough to deblonde an empire. What's left is a boneless fillet feasting on its own blue succulence. Revulsion is the point of this shotgun mike tuned to an empty mirror. We suspect a murder while wearing a suspect's veils, and fail.


At day's end I climb uphill to just miss the setting sun. There's a fire and imported beer to remind me of within and without. What's burning at the stakes. Photos say we're sorry we can't kill you out of the frame—still you rub furiously out your name. A lamp shades this ivory page, anonymous meetingplace in which we confess we are yet afraid. That the game is yet to be played.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Please go here for a detailed report on the very successful first-ever reading curated by Soon. Me, I'm climbing into bed with Thomas Mann.

Friday, November 12, 2004

In other good news, I'd like to introduce you to the new official web site for Soon Productions, a band of poets, impresarios, and troublemakers that includes Karen Anderson, Theo Hummer, Aaron Tieger, and myself. Zippydidoodah! (Is that how you spell that?)
Yay and yay—my contributors' copies of Conjunctions 43: Beyond Arcadia have arrived! What a thrill. I'm in extraordinary company, both in terms of being picked out by Michael Palmer and in terms of my fellow "emerging" poets: Christian Hawkey, Frances Richard, Peter O'Leary, Graham Foust, Sarah Lang, Justin Lacour, Michelle Robinson, Eve Grubin, Tammy Gomez, Michael Ives, and Genya Turovskaya. There's a remarkable variety of styles and concerns here. I wish I could break up each poet's contribution into individual chapbooks so I could leave them scattered around the house and read only as I encounter them in my daily movements. Really the ideal way of reading poetry. But I'll take this great big anthology too—it's nice to have two of 'em.

Very exciting, as good as a new book's coming out, in some ways better.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Mr. Mayhew has been talking about Karl Shapiro (a former prof of his) and others of that generation of poets: what he calls "that Lowell/Jarrell/Berryman/Schwartz generation." I've never read any Shapiro, though I did pick up an old harcover of his Essay on Rime somewhere and may give it a look one of these days. But I'd just like to speak up for the relevance some of these poets have to me personally, especially Berryman. He was a big influence on me: he was the first poet I read who promiscuously allowed other poets' writing (Shakespeare especially but also Eliot and Yeats) shine between the letters of his, teaching me that one's sheer love for literature was itself the primary means for producing it. And I loved the vigorous combination of dialects, the expression of multiple voices within the flexible but still recognizable form of The Dream Songs. Also, his habit of including and addressing other poets, political figures ("The Lay of Ike"!), and so forth in his writing served to warm me up for the same kind of casual address signifying poetic fraternity in poets like Ted Berrigan. And I did and still do groove on that kind of mid-century Freudianism when it's expressed so freshly and urgently—which is why I also have a soft spot for Delmore Schwartz. The whole id-ego-superego arrangement may be old hat to us nowadays, but he made that model of the mind come alive for me in funny, lusty, abject poems like Dream Song #4: Prufrock with an erection:
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her

or falling at her little feet and crying
'You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry's dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.' I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. —Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.

—Black hair, complexion Latin, jeweleed eyes
downcast ... The slob beside her     feasts ... What wonders is
she sittingon, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
—Mr. Bones: there is.
Berryman continues to attract me because he found a way to be personal ("confessional," if we must) without sacrificing formal intensity; the Lowell that others found so innovative mostly bores me because the verse is slack. I much prefer the rocky, Anglo-Saxon rhythms of "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket" to anything in Notebook. Jarrell: well, mostly I know Jarrell from his essays. But reading a bit of Steve Burt's book on him has made me a little more curious about the poetry. Berryman is essential, though. I plan to teach him every chance I get—maybe in a course with My Life. Wouldn't that be something?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Joseph Duemer has led me to the blog of one Timothy Burke, who has some very smart things (warning: it's a PDF) to say about the election—his suggestion that Republican elites are taking a dangerous ride on the untamed horse of class resentment is very powerful. He's definitely spotted the flaw in Thomas Frank's otherwise brilliant analysis (I'm pleased to say that this book is currently #8 on Amazon's sales list). The concept of a "moral economy" that supersedes or at any rate mitigates the perceived self-interest of red state folks (yes, I am succumbing to the stereotype for convenience's sake; I realize that most red states gave at least 40% of their vote to Kerry) makes a lot of sense to me. It's kind of the dark side of the pastoral economy I'm always going on about—though I think it might be more accurate to say that these people are suspicious not of "wealth achieved through individually differentiated effort" but of the consumption patterns that blue-staters model for them and force on their children through the media. The "latte libel" used in that infamous anti-Howard Dean ad actually has some teeth to it, if not much truth. I'm a little slower than Burke to reject the notion of some kind of full-employment program for the economically hurting red states: it seems clear to me that extremes of religiosity are inverse proportional to economic prosperity. This is an argument accepted by no less an authority than the Wall Street Journal, which had a story today on how Pakistan's improving economy might diminish the effects of Islamic militancy there. Burke is probably rightly suspicious of conceiving of the problem as economic security, to be solved with a massive jobs program; after all, the red states are already taking in more federal money than they put into the system (who's subsidizing them? The blue states!). But there's also reason to be suspicious of conceiving the goal as economic prosperity, which has to be created through investment and other capitalist tools that I have to admit I have a poor understanding of.

We have to address the economic needs of people in the South and West; we also have to find a way into their abyss of irrationality. One way to start might be exploring our own abyss—that's humility. Even I, a Jewish atheist (a-deist is probably more acurate) recognize my own participation in something larger than myself, a something most people choose to call God. At the same time, there can be no compromise on the basic human rights that the fanatical Christian right wants to see drastically curtailed. Homophobia is real, white supremacy is real, the patriarchy is real. We can appeal to fairness. But I feel more than a little helpless to address these forms of ignorance and evil. Those progressives who speak the language of Christian salvation had better start speaking up now. We need another Martin Luther King to speak up for human equality in the name of Jesus. Another Malcom X wouldn't be a bad idea, either.
It's too cold to blog today.

Monday, November 08, 2004

First snow's on the ground here in Ithaca.
A spiffy new journal is on sale here at The Bookery: 1913: A Journal of Forms. There's a helpful list of the accomplishments of that year on the inside cover both great and dubious (in the first category we have Edison developing the first talking motion picture; Stein's writing of her portrait "Braque"; and the "Imagiste" issue of Poetry; in the latter category we have the 300-year anniversary celebration of the Romanovs in Russia and the first mass-production line at Ford) that centers its aesthetic proudly within the tradition of Modernism. Fitting therefore that one of the contributors should be Cal Bedient, who has written elsewhere about his desire to recapture the energies of Modernism; he continues that critique in a poem titled "The Red Letter (~ Contemporary Poetry ~)." Other notable contributions come from the usual if highly estimable suspects of pomo lit: Barbara Guest, Cole Swensen, Nathaniel Mackey, Brenda Hillman (a harrowing elegy for the men of the Kursk), Joshua Clover, Steve McCaffery, Jed Rasula. There are also some younger poets, including beautiful baroqueness from my old friend Sarah Gridley (what a pleasant surprise to see her work popping up here! and do keep an eye out for her first book, Weather Eye Open, forthcoming from California), a relatively expansive piece by Graham Foust, a bit of "Closet Zoologies" by Eric Elshtain, and stuff by poets as yet unfamiliar to me: Louis Armand, Steve Willard, Billy Gomberg, Sarah Riggs. Also a very interesting textual art piece by Chris Chen, "no name on the bullet," inspired by the remarkable Alternumerics project by artist Paul Chan over at a site new to me, National Philistine (I see a project on Henry Darger and Charles Fourier there that I'll have to spend some time looking at). So you can tell, I hope, that 1913 is an exciting magazine, if somewhat hard to read (it's wider than it is long and many of the poems require you to turn the book on its side), and I'm glad to make its acquaintance.

I really can't say enough about Sarah's work: if you haven't already, please go read the amazing "Grist" right now.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

I am pleased and proud to announce the inauguration of a new reading series under the auspices of Soon Productions:

Who: Boston poets Jess Mynes and Christopher Rizzo

Where: At the State of the Art Gallery at 120 W. State Street in Ithaca, NY.

When: 7 PM this Saturday, November 13.

A bit about the poets:

JESS MYNES lives in Wendell, MA with dog and cat. His poems have appeared in Pettycoat Relaxer and Carve magazine. Two chapbooks of his poems, Thin and The Zookeeper’s Nostalgia, were published by Staple Gun Productions. He is an expert sausage maker. He has a forthcoming collaboration with Aaron Tieger, as well as a forthcoming chapbook from Anchorite Press. He works as a librarian.

CHRISTOPHER RIZZO earned his M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2001. His poems have appeared in several publications, most recently in Art New England, Can We Have Our Ball Back?, and Shampoo. After receiving the S. Andrea Brown Memorial Award in poetry, a short collection of his poems, The Turn, was produced as a play by the Oral Interpretation Society at Emerson. His latest chapbook, Grim Little, is a long collaborative poem written with Mark Lamoureux. He is also the founder and editor of the Anchorite Press, which publishes chapbooks, pamphlets, and broadsides by both established and young poets. He lives in Brighton, Massachusetts.

Come and get it while it's hot!

Saturday, November 06, 2004

For those of you who don't read the Buffalo Poetics List, or who unsubscribed long ago (as I'm perpetually thinking of doing), it's totally redeemed itself this week with some of the most acute analysis of the election results that I've seen anywhere. I particularly recommend Alan Sondheim's Notes on the election and today's post from Haas Bianchi, Politics of Religion. You can read more messages here.

Consolation comes today in the form of blue skies and temps near sixty degrees. I'm going to go read some poetry.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

"I gasp in absence, trying to be winged."

It's funny how all the pundits are talking now about the unsuspected role of religion in the election, because I've been reflecting on the election as religious experience. By which I may mean nothing more than the reverence and loss of ego I experienced by participating in a mass movement for a better world, something much bigger than me. For the first time in a public way I felt myself ecstatically disappearing the way "I" do when I'm writing a poem. And I felt such warmth and fraternity for all my fellow volunteers and the devoted Democrats I met going door to door in these little Pennsylvania towns—discovering something like my own heart beating in old folks and Vietnam veterans and Teamsters. Writing for me is also a dream of such unity: when I'm writing well, when I've truly forgotten the petty desires and vanities of my everyday self, then I'm making contact with something that unites me to my fellow creatures. Call it, simply, a faith that something I'm feeling or thinking has been/will be felt or thought by others. No poem is so difficult or obscure that it's incapable of making contact, as long as it was made from a moment of obliterated intent. To believe that through writing you might move yourself is to believe in the deepest communication; it's the total opposite of solipsism.

So I'm sad and depressed and angry, but also energized, more engaged: a player, a participant.

Wonderful stuff in my contributor's copies of Fulcrum and 88. The latter has a chunk of Fourier Series in it and a remarkable "grant proposal" by Joe Amato that I'll be thinking about pretty closely. Here are a few propositions (it's got a Tractatus sort of arrangement) that struck me:
1.26 Being an artist does not make one a good human being, anymore than does reading a book or voting Democrat. I generally prefer the company of artists who read books and are Democrats.

1.40 You can fake it for only so long before you become genuine. This is source of great consternation for those preoccupied with origins.

1.47 Upper limit craft, lower limit manufacturing = the range of ordinary constructions. Extraordinary constructions (such as art) require an additional integration. And please to note that the ordinary is a necessary part of the extraordinary.

2.26 Poets do a great disservice to themselves and to their publics when they pretend to have no obligation to one another and to their publics.

2.37 Making money remains a vital concern. No money, no eat. Me like eat.

2.38 If you don't believe me, write poetry.

2.42 Careerism can be defined, roughly, as stepping on someone else's head in order to get where you're going.

3.65 Always take your art more seriously than you take yourself. This way, if you put on weight, your art won't suffer the consequences.

3.67 All art should aspire to the condition of hootenanny.
I'm increasingly enarmored of this kind of writing about the conditions of writing, tongue half-in-cheek. The Alan Davies book, Gary Sullivan's great How to Proceed in the Arts, Lytle Shaw's The Lobe. Writing that frames the conditions of authorship, thinking on the page off the page, writing into the margins not in the sense of marginality but in the sense of the frame, the experience driven by expectations and the situation of encounter. (Of course, I'm feeling pretty fucking marginal right now in the old-fashioned sense, confirmed in my minority status as 1 of the losing 55,384,497—see Gary's map). Consider these key Amato propositions:
1.52 The arts comprise highly ritualized practices. Though anything can be deemed a work of art, its success will ultimately be measured by its embodiment of those practices and the meaning and actions attending thereto.

2.23 Those writers for whom I have the most resepct, as writers, are keenly aware of the ritualized nature of art, its deference to past forms and contents as well as its requisite nod toward future possibility. The written work of these writers exhibits equal measures of care and wild abandon. In the twentieth century, on the North American continent, most of these writers, but not all, have been poets. These poets have given equal attention to form and content, but for most, form and content are indistinguishable, finally.
Is a keen attention to the context of one's ritualized practice form or content? And though one might write about that practice, to really practice practice requires metapoetry, whether through theory or collaboration or teaching or publishing or stunts. Careerism is malign metapoetry, but any poet's activity meant to enlarge her audience or transform the notion of audience or simply making herself heard constitutes metapoetry. Which can almost substitute for poetry in providing a glimmer of that vital connection (or connection to vitality) that I was talking about earlier. But it's TV on the radio, it's lower-limit speech/manufacturing; at some point we go penduluming back toward the musical heights or we cease to write poetry.

A last last Severance Song: this would make 81 and then I could have nine sections of nine in the book, one for every muse:

November of the falls. Of the falls. Beer bottles,
plastic bags. Of the exilic tone. Rush to moan.
The garden fails as a zone, it's consumptive--water falls
without destination. Avoiding the oozy eye
of my countrymen's chosen martyr, pinned high.
Where none do hang, they hang. Voicing falls
into the chest, piece of earth that carries me--
that blooms and tightens breath, then buries.
Self loamed, the air kicking up white, frothed sky.
You are part of my solitude till I meet you again.
Leaves in the falls, writing finger in the stream--
parts parting, winter coming. We're alone with the unmade.
We made it. Of fire now gallowsing the leaves.
That fall, we'll say that fall, we parted. Sang.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

What's the Matter with Kansas?
I don't have a great deal to say today. But I will post the text of an e-mail I wrote in response to a very generous e-mail of solidarity and support from Julie Dill:
Hi Julie,

If you weren't a friend of mine before, you are now. Thanks for your note.
Obviously we're heartbroken here in Ithaca. But I also feel a strange kind
of quiet resolve today, even a sort of relief. Because now, at last,
finally, Democrats will HAVE to have the serious conversation about what
they stand for that they mostly didn't have in the past four
years--largely because we could tell ourselves that we didn't really lose,
that the election had been stolen. Well, this time we lost. We really,
really lost. And that's GOOD--because only a loss that we feel to our
bones is going to make it possible for a real Left with its own vision of
"moral values" to rise again in this country. It wasn't enough to be
against Bush. It's certainly not enough to blame Kerry. We need to look at
ourselves, and then come out fighting again in two and four years time.

Sorry to preach at you--it's a tone that's coming easily to me these days.
But yeah, thanks for supporting what I and others tried to do. We're going
to go on doing it.



Monday, November 01, 2004

I promise to start talking about poetry again on Wednesday. Or Thursday. Or next month. Or whenever the election is over. Or, more accurately, whenever I'm over the election.

When I get around to it, I might clarify my thinking on Ashbery, since that raised some questions for a few folks. I'd also like to say a word about Alan Davies, a poet that The Poker turned me on to. Just picked up a 1990 book of his, Candor, which I'm really enjoying. It's a mix of prose and often erotic poetry, with much of the prose being ruminations on particular books, authors, and essays—commentary on Languagey writing and writers like Kit Robinson, Robert Grenier, and Robert Benson's Blue Book, which Jonathan has mentioned. In other words, it's a blog avant la lettre. But a really good one. Two useful sentences I've plucked from it: "No one writes well because someone else writes badly." And: "I always thought I would lose my virginity during a piano lesson, like everybody else."

Okay, I guess that is a word. That I said.

Vote, goddamnit.

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