Sunday, July 31, 2005

So far a lovely weekend in NYC. It's not too terribly hot, and I get to enjoy the beautiful Upper West Side apartment of my cousin and his partner while they're on Fire Island. Friday was dinner with my dad, who came in from Jersey; yesterday I went up the Cloisters for the first time. It's a bizarre pastiche of medieval art and architecture; I guess any museum practices pastiche, but the monumental nature of the friezes and portals and tapestries and so forth just make the construction of a quasi-medieval church on the northern tip of Manhattan Island seem much more bizarre than, say, the Met. I love the 15th-century Merode Altarpiece by the Dutch artist Robert Campin, an oil on wood triptych with fantastically vivid colors that the web image doesn't nearly capture. To me it seems an uneasy attempt to synthesize religious devotion with the trappings of the rising bourgeois; what are we to make of the grumpy husband figure practicing his craft of cabinetry in the right panel while his wife is visited by an angel in the center? And the extraordinary detail through the windows of city streets (though the wife's window looks out just on blue sky in a way that makes her panel seem on a higher elevation than the others). You probably can't quite make out the little crucifix flying at an angle above the angel's head like a thrown dagger. Angels are such a literal way in which to represent the idea of the divine; I love to see the later medieval pieces that enflesh them into men with wings. There's a wooden statue of St. Michael in there which, the tag informs us, is "missing his wings," so that he's just a man in armor with suspiciously red lips. The most famous pieces in the Cloisters are of course the Unicorn Tapestries; as it happens the previous evening I'd wandered into the Barnes & Noble near my cousin's apartment and glanced through the new Chicago Review, which includes an interview with my old Vassar classmate Camille Guthrie, author of a remarkable book called The Master Thief and who's written another largely inspired by said tapestries. I was amused to see her describe herself in the interview as a "D&D poet." Anyway, the tapestries are quite striking though their narrative is dismal: a group of hunters set out, they find the unicorn, pursue it, it counterattacks, and they kill it and drag it to their castle. The odd man out is the famous tapestry of "The Unicorn in Captivity"—when would they have captured it if they've killed it? Did it escape and have to be killed? Or is there some alternate reality or second unicorn being depicted? Unicorns are cornier than angels, of course, and perilous subjects for poetry; I'll be curious to see what Camille does with them. One of my favorite books as a kid, which I still have powerful affection for, was Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which manages to capture the wonder of myth while also presenting us with a cast of characters who have been entirely let down by myth in the past and only unwillingly allow it to recapture them. Wonderful characters: Molly Grue, Schmendrick the Magician (with whom I unabashedly identified), King Haggard, his son Leir, and of course the unicorn herself, forced to embark on the adventure of humanity by Schmendrick's rogue spell. The movie's not bad but I do recommend the book; great Scott, there appears to be a live-action remake in the works. Makes sense given the current fantasy resurgence (Christopher Lee as Haggard! Perfect!) but will the movie be able to capture the book's wry and melancholy tone? It is to be doubted.

So after the Cloisters I met my old friend Chris F. at her hotel (she's in town to do some work for the Department of Justice at the UN) and we hung out, visited St. Marks Bookshop (where I resolved to order books by Jeff Derksen and Linh Dinh for the Bookery posthaste), had dinner, and discussed how life out to be lived, as usual. Today I'll see her again and my dad and stepmother; we might make it to MoMA to see the Lee Friedlander exhibition. And tonight I'll see all you New York peeps (that word hasn't seen the light of day for a while, for good reason probably) at my reading with Peter Markus.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

This Sunday Peter Markus and I will take turns sitting in The Burning Chair. Sadly, this means I'm going to miss the epic Lucipo reading that will be happening Saturday night here in Ithaca. Here are the details for those who will be here:
WEST END READING SERIES...

Saturday, July 30, 7pm, at the Lost Dog Cafe & Lounge:

Brian Howe
Todd Sandvik
Marcus Slease
Greg Delisle
Gabe Gudding
Randall Williams
David Need
Ken Rumble
Party on, gents—I'm sorry I'll miss you.
Amazing picture over at the robot this morning. The angel of history?

I've been pondering my discussion with the other Joshua, which has continued via e-mail, and while I'm not yet entirely willing to abandon voting Democrat his points have impressed me. Returning to where I'd left off weeks ago in The Ticklish Subject, I discovered a discussion of "postpolitics" exactly simpatico with what Jane's been arguing. It's all very quotable: here I'll excerpt a little bit of Zizek's argument against postmodern identity politics. This comes after a passage in which he describes the shift from the Civil Rights movement that "suspended the implicit obscene supplement [paralegal intimidation] that enacted the actual exclusion of Blacks from formal universal equality" to a "post-political liberal establishment" that administrates "a vast legal-psychological-sociological network of measures, from identifying the specific problems of every group and subgroup (not only homosexuals but African-American lesbians, African-American lesbian mothers, African-American unemployed lesbian mothers...) up to proposing a set of measures ('affirmative action,' etc.) to rectify the wrong." He continues:
What such a tolerant procedure precludes is the gesture of politicization proper: although the difficulties of being an African-American unemployed lesbian mother are adequately catalogued right down to its most specific features, the concerned subject none the less somehow "feels" that there is something "wrong" and "frustrating" in this very effort to mete out justice to her specific predicament—what she is deprived of is the possibility of "metaphoric" elevation of her specific "wrong" ito a stand-in for the universal "wrong." (pp.203-204)
This is a brilliant critique of interest-group politics and explains the failure of the Democratic "big tent." Zizek's claim is that real politics—the politics that interrupts hegemony, that do not automatically translate any group's demands into "the Western liberal-democratic notion of freedom (multiparty representational political game cum global market economy)" (207)—require a subject able to assume the mantle of universality, whose fight for freedom becomes our fight; what "Etienne Balibar calls egaliberte (the unconditional demand for freedom-equality which explodes any positive order)" (207). I'm particularly struck by the important role Zizek gives to metaphor in authentic politics: "This is politics proper: the moment in which a particular demand is not simply part of the negotiation of interests but aims at something more, and starts to function as the metaphoric condensation of the global restructuring of the entire social space. There is a clear contrst between this subjectivization and today's proliferation of postmodern 'identity politics' whose goal is the exact opposite, that is, precisely the assertion of one's particular identity, of one's proper place within the social structure" (208). Zizek's example is his participation in a committee defending four journalists arrested by the Yugoslav Army in Slovenia in 1988: demanding "Justice for the four accused!" was not a demand for "fair" arbitration within the existing system but an attack on the system as such, which it was recognized as (and which of course eventually succeeded). The demand for justice for the four metaphorically condensed the demand for justice for all.

I have some problems with the call to the universal given the Christian language into which Zizek puts it, but it seems compelling, especially when put into a historical framework. (Example: "Badiou draws an interesting parallel here between our time of American global domination and the late Roman Empire, also a 'multiculturalist' global State in which multiple ethnic groups were thriving, united (not by capital, but) by the non-substantial link of the Roman legal order—so what we need today is the gesture that would undermine capitalist globalization from the standpoint of universal Truth, just as Pauline Christianity did to the Roman global Empire" [211].) Just to re-orient on American politics: I interpret this as the need for some group on the Left to rediscover itself as a (metaphoric) universal class. One reason there's so much hang-wringing about "Kansas" is because we on the Left have largely conceded to some largely mythical group of redneck Red-staters the right to universality: they're the "real Americans" in the "heartland" and we're a bunch of effete latte-sippers clustered on the coasts. Is it our job to somehow enlist these people in our cause through a revived labor movement—to swallow whole the construct of Red-State-as-America—or is it our task to break up this fictional monolith and discover a new group with a valid metaphoric claim (a group that would of course include a large number of so-called Red Staters—WalMart workers, perhaps).

For Zizek, real politics only break out occasionally in the form of unpredictable Events in which some class or group assume the mantle of universality ("the people") and take the lead. A situation of permanent Event would look a lot like anarchism: "the people" (the actual identity of which would always be shifting) would supplant politics-as-administration (acting in the name of but rarely on the real behalf of the people). I'm not sure I believe that state of affairs to be actually possible, but it certainly feels like at least one Event transcendental to the existing order is desperately necessary right now. Perhaps all a poet or intellectual can do is keep his or her ear to the ground, John-the-Baptist style: listening, diagnosing, translating, anticipating. Boy howdy, it sure does sound like messianism. I need to finish the book before I comment further on it; before I conclude that Zizek is really saying what he seems to be saying.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Finished my Pound chapter today. By "finished" I mean it has a beginning, middle, and end; that doesn't mean it won't require tweaking and reworking. Worried now that I'm paying insufficient attention to what makes him and the other poets formally distinctive, "avant-garde," or what have you. In some ways mine is an old-fashioned genre study, in which I try to make explicit the peculiar territory covered by "pastoral," neither private-lyric nor public-epic in its orientation. The "social private"?

Over at Sugarhigh, Joshua/Jane takes apart the Times' article about the Bush Administration's attempt to retool its language from G-WOT (Global War On Terror) to G-SAVE (Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism). Now I couldn't agree more when it comes to Jane's analysis of their motives; yet I'm curious to learn what game beside "symbol management" is available to a national political party given our current system. Yours truly gets picked on for not stepping outside the heinous rhetorical mode that is the Debordian spectacle: "if one pursues a strategy of images, for example, one has committed to a politics in which capital itself remains the unchallenged power." I'm uncertain about this proposition because I'm uncertain where it leads. As anarchist thought it's all well and good because anarchists want to explode or at least ignore the normative political process, which certainly has a lot wrong with it. But I was mostly talking about what the Democrats ought to do, and let's be honest: the Democratic party is not about to begin an attempt to disassemble the machinery of capital. However, the best instincts of its members, and its roots in the labor movement, lead it to try to mitigate capital's worst effects, of which the Bushies are a particularly painful symptom. I don't want to perpetuate the system that perpetuates capital, and yet I can't help but think that having a Democrat in the White House would have real and immediate good consequences for the safety of our people, the safety of other nations' people, the environment, Social Security, and individual rights—just for openers. That's the prisoners' dilemma of the left: vote for the Democrat and maybe get nothing, maybe get a little; don't vote for the Democrat and get nothing, period, at least for the foreseeable future. Of course it's a radical's job to say there's no such thing as the foreseeable future, that the future might erupt into the new thing at any moment if we work for it. Perhaps I'm not radical enough, or perhaps I'm worried that we are once again (I realize this comparison came up a lot in the eighties, too) in Germany in the early thirties, and on the cusp of a fatal decision: to fight the Nazis, or to fight capitalism by permitting the Nazis to accelerate things toward the supposedly inevitable crisis. The devil we have has a face, at least; "can't move 'em with a cold thing like economics." But of course, Jane would say, this is exactly our problem.

So if the answer is not a withdrawal from politics as we know it, it must have something to do with a change in the language that's far more radical than anything George Lakoff proposes: a politics that transcends the "symbol management" that leaves real material and power relations safely in place. I find myself wondering if what we need might be some good old-fashioned rhetoric: the kind of eloquence summoned in living memory mostly by civil rights leaders like King and Malcolm X, who in stirring the passions and aspirations of their listeners broke through the eternal "wait a little longer" framework set by the establishment. Or maybe what's important is who's doing the speaking, a focus on ethos. After all, as Joshua/Jane implies, the present scandal of symbol management has come about through the seamless merger between the political and national security apparatuses of the Bush White House. It's politics wearing the mask of the state, and the iron fist of the state in the crushed velvet glove of politics. I would submit that who is doing the speaking does matter: that even if Democrats are practicing symbol management, they are doing it from a position of relative powerlessness that many of us identify with, and that changes the content of their speech.

I don't have a simple answer. Jane maybe does: thinking the "material history" that both sides, in his analysis, insist must remain unthought. But I'm not sure that's wholly true: don't we accept the Democrats' basic ideology, though distorted, as being closer to the truth of material history than the Republican ideology is? Any ideology has to be at least partially immanent to its particular circumstance, right, and it seems to me that the Democratic party does a better job of responding to the material needs of its constituents than the Republican party does. (That is, to the majority of its constituents: the Republicans serve the interests of wealthy corporations just fine, it's the working class people whose emotions Republicans appeal to that get screwed.) That doesn't mean the Democrats don't cling to capital's coatstrings in an unsightly way: I have to laugh every time I hear Hillary Clinton being described as some kind of pinko, when the woman is working hard to keep every one of New York's military bases open (by far the most regressive way of providing social benefits through government spending). Hillary's way too conservative for my tastes, and yet if she's the candidate in '08 I'll be out there campaigning for her because the alternative is too ghastly to contemplate and a REAL alternative hasn't yet emerged (Ralph Nader, anyone?). BUT: I do think material history might work on the state and local level; I think it is possible for local politicians and community leaders to educate people about the material consequences of, say, a new WalMart, or building yet another prison, or cutting down a patch of woods for a parking lot (as, depressingly, happened recently here in Ithaca in spite of protesters chaining themselves to trees, etc.). From there the effects might trickle up, so to speak; and if, as seems likely, the federal government becomes both more intrusive and more irrelevant to people's daily lives, the chance exists for real political change on the state level. "States' rights" is starting to sound pretty good to this young socialist.

Well, I'm not going to solve the problems of the American Left in a single blog post. It's time maybe to return to some of the poltical theory that I found so stimulating a few months ago. Finish Zizek's >The Ticklish Subject for starters. And I was glancing into Ernesto Laclau's new book The Populist Reason at the Bookery this evening; I think he's someone I might want to spend more time with.
Have I got a deal for you: if you're interested in owning a copy of Fourier Series but haven't got the sixteen bones, slightly damaged copies are now available at half-price here (just click on "these sellers"). Although listed as "used," these are actually brand-new copies that came slightly blemished from the printer (the covers are a bit smudged, the insides are fine) and paired with imperfectly cut French Revolution folds (that's what we're calling the funky dust jacket the books come with). Handcrafted charm can be yours!

Monday, July 25, 2005

Well, here's a list for you. After ordering new SPD books in the morning, it is my painful duty to return books to SPD in the afternoon, many of them Pressed Wafer chapbooks. Here are the ones I'm snatching from a fate worse than warehousing:
Beth Anderson, In Residence
Jim Behrle, City Point
William Corbett, Back and Forth
Del Ray Cross, Cinema Yosemite
Joseph Torra, August Letter to My Wife and Daughters
Tina Darragh, Striking Resemblance
Michael Gizzi, My Terza Rima
Carla Harryman, Memory Play
Ben Lerner, The Lichtenberg Figures
Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, Ceci n'est pas Keith Ceci n'est pas Rosmarie
Bernadette Mayer, Two Haloed Mourners
The public's loss is my gain, but really still more my loss. As much as I'll enjoy having and hopefully reading these books (but it can take me years to go through a pile like this one as it filters through my clogged charcoal library), I'd rather they have gone to browsers. Perhaps the Internet is the best hope of small presses now.
Said goodbye to Jasper Bernes on Friday: he's bound to Berkeley this week where he'll be joining his partner and child and starting as a PhD student this fall. Ithaca wishes you well, Jasper, and we'll miss you.

Might have guessed I'd get into trouble tossing the word "duende" around like that. For the record, I recognize that it's a term specific to Lorca and his essay on cante jondo or "deep song." I was just trying to get across an admittedly superficial reaction to much of the Spanish-language poetry I've encountered in translation, which I'm positive is the merest sliver of what's actually out there. What I was trying to convey was my sense of what the people who I see gravitating to Neruda again and again when I'm manning my post at the register near the poetry section are looking for: a poetry of authentic "deepness," a key to unlock some ill-understood notion of soul. The Neruda of Twenty Loves Poems and a Song of Despair, most usually; that book seems to stand in many people's imaginations for poetry itself and its (minor) role as gateway to an inner, private life. Though to be fair some of them probably want to use the book to get laid—to my mind a nobler or at least more traditional role for poetry. Damn few folks ever come in looking for The Heights of Macchu Picchu or Canto Generale, that's for sure. Anyway, my point wasn't really to talk about Spanish-language poetry; it was to demonstrate how difficult it is to read poems that don't come embedded in some sort of legible context, whether that be provided by a scholarly/editorial apparatus or by the reader's own knowledge. But I will take the advice offered by both Guillermo and Tony and seek out Clayton Eshleman's translation of Vallejo's Trilce. Eshleman has some translations from The Black Heralds in the latest New American Writing and I could see at a glance that they were superior to the Seiferle translation that have. There's a sample here, "Fresco," that builds to one hell of a last line.

Ordering some new books for the shelves from the SPD catalog, including many titles bound to pop up in Steve Evans' "Attention Span 2005" project: new books by Aaron Kunin, Stephanie Young, Bernadette Mayer, etc. It's hard to get excited about contributing my own constellation of eleven books because I feel like I've already discussed most of my enthusiasms here on the blog; do people need to hear me going on again about This Connection of Everyone with Lungs or The Joyous Age? Making lists of any sort has never been my favorite activity: it's an anxious-making exercise in limitation generation. Though I will read others' lists with enthusiasm, this year, at least, I decline to make one of my own.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Mostly dazzled by the display of careful thought and erudition shown over questions of canon-making by Kasey and Jordan. I too am attracted to "hot eclecticism," though as a concept it sounds like an attempt to provide Jamesonian postmodern pastiche with something resembling a motivation, or at least meditation on motivation. Sincerity could be one such but I'm not sure italics and exclamation points are sufficient; I suspect any sort of New Sincerity will require both innovations in form and some conversation about its intended social space if it's going to succeed. Possibly related: I find I have a difficult time reading Spanish and Latin American poetry in translation, even that of the greats: Lorca, Vallejo, Neruda, etc. I just have tremendous resistance to how thick they lay on the duende: they're chockablock with exclamation points (though in Spanish they're much cooler looking) and operatic emotions that I can't help but want to read as camp. Opening at random the Copper Canyon edition of Vallejo's >Black Hearlds, I find this stanza, the opening to "Oracion del camino" ("Prayer of the Road"):
    I don't even know whom this bitterness is for!
O Sun, you who are dying, you take and hang
my bohemian pain on your chest
like a bloody Christ.
            The valley is bitter gold;
            and the journey is sad, long.
Now I know this may come off as a giant display of cultural insensitivity, but I just have a tough time taking this as straight as I think it's intended. I had the same trouble reading Baudelaire until I studied him and his era fairly closely, and did my best to read him in my pidgin French. This speaks to the general trouble I have with translated poetry, which is similar to the problem created by anthologies that provide insufficient context or argument for its selections: just because the words have been rendered into English doesn't mean I know how to read it. I have to know a little something about a poem's environment, what it's reacting to, what preceded it, what it's contemporaries are like, to really get a grip on it. UNLESS the poem bears a resemblance, in translation, to poems in English whose traditions or "embedments" I already have a handle on—though such resemblances are likely to be misleading. (This is all apart from the question of language: even if I understood Spanish I would still need some kind of introduction or education to fully "get" a Spanish poet's milieu: the difference between langue and parole, mayhap.) As it happens, the Vallejo poems in this volume that I can have some immediate appreciation for are laden with irony, though less glidingly than the imaginary normative post-avant poem the New Sincerists are reacting against. I love another first stanza from the book, this from the poem "El palco estrecho" ("The Narrow Theater Box"):
    Closer, come closer. I feel great.
It rains; and that's a cruel limitation.
Advance, advance the cue.
In three short lines there's a lot of dark wit, like a marriage between Frank O'Hara and Edgar Allan Poe. Anyway, my point is that any American poet who wants to create a readerly context in which we can take their emotionality "straight" has their work cut out for them. Only a semi-organized movement has any chance of pulling it off. Of course you could bypass poetry's normative audience and go straight to "the people" who fully expect sincere emotion to be the alpha and omega of a given poem, and many do. But most of the satisfactions I take from poetry (reading it and writing it) depend on the pressure it puts on me to expand my verbal and mental resources: an emotional response (or a Poundian "image," an emotional and intellectual complex) will spur me to make use of those resources but what they unfold will hopefully extend beyond sincere expression into an aesthetic experience of some kind. If you as a poet or reader are also interested in those experiences, you may have to admit to yourself that "sincerity" must always be a means to or component of something larger that may also need to incorporate stances and images that create interesting friction when rubbed up against the demands of expression. This is all getting a little abstract and analogical, so I'll stop.

Up until two AM last night reading Harry Potter 5: those books are as addictive as they say. A pleasurable return, as the Sunday NYTBR puts it, to "a half-remembered state of childhood rapture," devouring and being devoured by a completely imagined otherworld. An experience that seems to be necessary to my well-being, and which thankfully has numerous avenues, from D&D to poetry.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Heaved a big sigh this morning right before I opened my e-mail inbox: sure enough, it was crammed with frantic missives from the Human Rights Campaign and New Democratic Majority and MoveOn.org urging me to step up and oppose the Roberts nomination. Now I'm sure ANYBODY Bush nominates meets neither with my approval nor with the members of these fine organizations, but the whole thing strikes me as a knee-jerk response that hasn't really taken the measure of how cunning Bush's pick is and how easily this guy will be confirmed. I'm with Lawyer Abramson on this one: the nomination of a nonentity like Roberts is actually a measure of Bush's diminishing political clout, and it's designed to be a big distraction from a scandal that, until 9 PM yesterday evening, was entirely out of the administration's control. Yeah, I'm upset this guy's going to be influencing our laws and lives for the next thirty-odd years. But I'm more upset that the loyal opposition isn't smarter about opposing. It sounds at least that, according to Seth, the people at The American Prospect have their priorities in order.

Deep in Harry Potter 4, the first book I remember there being a media frenzy about, and a big leap in complexity and darkness (and length!) from the first three. Rowling is no prose stylist, but she's an absolute master of plotting, the element of narrative that always struck me as the most difficult: she really keeps a story hurtling along. She's also very good at making you care about a character who could come off as an overprivileged whiny prat in less careful hands. Even more impressive, she makes you care about the wizarding world, which in this book now appears to be under serious threat, not least from the fact that it's coming more and more to resemble our own.

Also read last night a fascinating article in the new issue of Critical Inquiry by Sianne Ngai called "The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde", an abridged version of which concentrating mainly on defining "cuteness" is available on their website. Ngai is an interesting figure for me: she's the author of two Language-y books of poetry, who, I've heard, has given up poetry for criticism. She's the author of a new book that I'd like to read called Ugly Feelings, a study of "minor affects": that is, aesthetic responses other than the much-gone-over ones of beauty and the sublime. The article seems to be an example of how she's cornering this field, studying in this case not an ugly feeling but one that appears entirely antithetical to the "hard," masuclinist aesthetic we associate with modernism and the avant-garde. She makes a convicing case for the role of the cute in Stein, and by the end of the article I was seeing cuteness as playing a potentially similar role in contemporary poetry to the one played by camp. I was reminded of my own work in her I think successful attempt to reconfigure Adorno, of all people, as spokesman for the role of the cute (his word would be that from the title of his essay, "Is Art Lighthearted?"), focusing on how for him the weakness and powerlessness of the artwork is its paradoxical strength, through which it indicates and criticizes a social world dominated by power and the lust for power. Fascinating stuff that I may end up citing; both this and Nealon's essay seem like puzzle pieces I can use to help assemble my own chapter on contemporary avant-garde pastoral. I wish the article was availble in full on the web: I'm losing patience with these academic journals. I suppose they need subscribers, primarily libraries, to stay afloat; but I wonder too if they throw up roadblocks to reading in the name of preserving guild controls and keeping the intellectual riffraff out. You shouldn't have to pay more than the price of a movie and popcorn to read a single article.

Monday, July 18, 2005

From the major papers: my near-namesake Joshua Clover and Joel Brouwer have written some reviews of poetry that doesn't suck in The New York Times Book Review, of all places. And in the Washington Post, there's a Terry Neal article about a book by Stephen Flynn, America the Vulnerable, whose description makes it sound like the most plausible and common-sensical argument on fighting terrorism that I've yet heard. Naturally the man has zero influence in the halls of power where they insist on fighting the kind of conventional war that's good for Halliburton and almost nobody else. I was also interested in the big Times Magazine article about George Lakoff; I haven't read his book, but the article's critique of him and how Democrats are fetishizing the notion of "framing" strikes me as plausible. Yes, Republicans are hijacking the language and we need to take it back; but the "ten words" Lakoff has come up with to counter the Republicans' ten words ("strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government, family values") seem very, very weak by comparison: "Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility." As the article writer says, the one is an argument, the other an assemblage of platitudes. I don't speak for the Democratic party, but I wonder how much of the problem might be that the ten or eleven words I might come up with (multinational leadership, economic justice [I might be willing to keep Lakoff's "mutual responsibility"], ecologically responsible growth, universal health care, personal freedom) are harder to sell in a time of war and paranoia. I'm not sure waiting around for the Republicans to shoot themselves in the foot (they've already blown a couple of toes off, it seems) is sufficient; we need our own "Contract with America" and a new generation of lawmakers to lead the charge for 2006. Gerrymandering has made it almost impossible to unseat incumbents: people blame Congress but excuse their own representative. Only by tying a local election to a narrative of national importance (and here maybe I'm vindicating Lakoff after all) do the Democrats have a chance at making serious gains in the midterm elections. It's time to take a page from Newt's playbook.
A gentleman came by the store this morning who I mistook for a retired farmer—actually he's a retired high school teacher, former divinity student, and Robert Duncan scholar, looking to find out when or if the University of California Press was going to release its promised complete Duncan series. (Anyone know anything about this? All I could find was Lisa Jarnot's Duncan page.) Anyway, he gave me an impromptu lecture on Duncan, the poetics of addressing a choir or parliament (with two choirs or benches to the left and right of the speaker—I think that was part of his point), and the significance of pastoral to the work of Max Weber—pastoral as a mode of consolation for social suffering, which brilliantly illustrated for me the now obviously intrinsic relation between pastoral and elegy. Sometimes you get these little gifts handed to you.

Tony Tost's resurrected Unquiet Grave has some useful musings on two basic types of literary journal: the omnibus of "arrival" (here comes the omnibus!) and the mag that seeks to advance a particular aesthetic or communitarian position. I'm sympathetic to his desire for something new, something more self-interrogative, than either existing model seems able to provide. More like a diary in which the entries are written by other people; an unrefereed blog (or e-mail list) will obviously fail to achieve this. What is the guiding principle of such a diarist? Something beyond the merely personal, as Tony says: something more about knowledge and investigation. Investigation of a particular theme or topic would be one way—I find myself thinking of Jonathan Skinner's ecopoetics (I recently learned the back-issues are available as PDFs; worth a look). But Tony's idea sounds even more idiosyncratic than that. Anyway, I'm looking forward as I'm sure we all are to seeing what his Fasicle project will be like.

And now, to lunch.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Jonathan spots some incoherencies in my thinking in yesterday's post. Of course Levinas belongs in that roster of writers, especially with Jabes, as does Rosenzweig whose great work The Star of Redemption fascinates me even as it mostly resists my comprehension. I guess what I was trying to say is that I'm troubled by the intersection of the practical ethics of Judaism (which more or less describe my personal ethics) with the ecstatic tradition of the via negativa, which all those "thou shalt nots" are foundational to, particularly the third one that denies graven images to the Jews. (Though in the Hebrew tradition the first commandment or "statement" is, "I am the Lord thy God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." So the ur-commandment requires belief in God's existence and his personal relationship to his people—that's hardly negative.) I mean, it fascinates me, but given my distance from Judaism as a living faith (Jonathan's word, "alienation," is a little too definitive and harsh to fully describe my confused feelings), it's much easier for me to relate to Jewishness as an ethical tradition that smacks as little as possible of the transcendent. I've always been attracted to Judaism's this-worldliness, its emphasis on how we should behave now, and its almost total disregard for the question that hangs over its brother Christianity, that of life after death. Of course the messianic strain does displace attention from now, but not spatially to Heaven—temporally, to the future of redemption. And that does tend to shine a transcendent light on things: I return continually to this great passage from the ending of Adorno's Minima Moralia, which I think I've quoted here before:
Finale — The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the word, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects—this alone is the task of thought. It is the simplest of all things, because the situation calls imperatively for such knowledge, indeed because consummate negativity, once squarely faced, delineates the mirror-image of its opposite. But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hair’s breadth, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, if it shall hold good, but it is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.
I find this tremendously moving: the desire for the redemptive perspective coupled with the grim determination to wrest any possible knowledge from what is—the world of now. Devotion to this idea is the closest I've come to articulating a religious faith. But I think what I was trying to say with all my pop culture references yesterday is that faith is not enough: spiritual feeling depends on some kind of lived experience of community. And my culture at large provides a (distorted) lived experience based upon Christian narratives. Strangely enough, I've found a community oriented toward faith in redeeming the present through knowledge and imagination, not in shul, but in academia and in poetry. But that counterculture is fragmented and fractious, never really rising to the level of the religious as such—which is almost certainly a good thing. I've sometimes thought that I would eventually seek out some kind of religious community, because I sense that as much as I get out of the community of intellectuals and poets it will never provide the solid foundation we all tend to yearn for (the most committed postmodernists have that in each other, and arguably in the state-sanctioned intellectual cultures of nations like France). Of course not believing in God or G-d is a bit of a stumbling block; and if I'm with a bunch of Unitarians or Reform Jews who are taking pains to explain that it's all metaphors anyway, I might as well stay with the poets, who have much better metaphors. Anyway. I hope that goes some ways toward clarifying what can't yet become clear and perhaps never can.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Oh, and we saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last night. Recommended! And Deep Roy deserves an Oscar.
It's all Harry Potter all the time here at The Bookery, where I'm filling in for someone who was up late running the Harry Potter Party. I've resisted this phenomenon for a long time—I read the first book and found it derivative and a little dull. But now the second book is sucking me in and I've decided I don't want to miss out on one of the defining literary events of our times—the last ride, perhaps, of the 19th-century novel as we've known it.

Following the discussion of what we might call the spiritual turn in American poetry from Jane and Jordan and Jasper. The notion of ethics-as-transcendent strikes me, as it strikes Jordan, as Levinasian—Levinas' radical ethics seems to offer something like an experience of the sublime through the abasement of the self before the other (which in turn makes me think of Kristeva). But abjection isn't quite the right way to describe the posture of vibrating "I" that's always an other to itself in the poems of the camp messianists. Certainly they resist the enforcement of abjection, the mandatory modernist melancholia, even in the face of tetchy serotonin receptors. I'm suspicious of the conflation of ethics and transcendence, ethics as pathway oceanic feeling: maybe that's my latent Judaism coming to the fore, feeling ethics is more negative (Thou shalt not) than positive (the experience of contact with the divine). Or at least more a matter of behavior than spiritual posture. Like Jordan, I often read theological gestures in contemporary poetry in a materialist or semi-materialist fashion, and overtly Christian poetry is a turn-off. But like Jasper I can be fascinated by someone who really plumbs the depths of Christian experience, or fascinated/repelled. It's easier for me to take George Herbert's faith over that of a contemporary. Not sure what the role of the spiritual is in my own poetry; obviously I take a certain amount of language from the Bible, and I'm heavily influenced by the messianic strain in the great modernist Jewish writers: Benjamin, Kafka, Adorno, Jabes. (I have special affection for Benjamin for his this-worldliness, his uneasy affection for consumer culture—Benjamin is the major player in the "camp" side of camp messianism prior to the coming of the gay devotees of the New York School.) I've never set out to write a "spiritual" poem, not one that was any good, anyway; yet my poems are riddled with metaphysical speculation, gestures toward the invisible, and the like. I'm often uncomfortable with how much Christianity has infiltrated my thinking: it's so much the water you swim in as a Westerner that it's nigh-unavoidable, especially in this country where the supposed secularism of our postmodern age is far less visible than the innumerable emblems of the "Buddy Christ." You can't be an assimilated Jew without, well, assimilating. There are specifically Christian notions—that of being born again, for example—whose emotional power is difficult to deny, even though I'd rather affirm the sentiment on a bumper-sticker I've seen, "Born O.K. the first time." Stories of resurrection and redemption are endemic in our culture, and they reach you when you're young: the fantasy narratives that have meant the most to me are strongly, if latently, Christian (and I'm shivered with ambivalence over the new Narnia movie—it looks fantastic and the books meant a lot to me as a kid, but they're now being celebrated by the same people who made Passion of the Christ a hit). Whereas the ecstatic side of Judaism is only available to initiates and I don't speak a word of Hebrew. Yiddish has always held more appeal for me as the living language of my actual flesh and blood, and for its own remarkable, often deprectaory flavors: schmaltz, schmendrick, schmuck. I loved Leo Rosten's books when I was a kid, and I still remember most of the dumb jokes in The Joys of Yiddish. But see, I'm already straying back across the blurry line between Judaism and Jewishness, between religion and culture. Where I live, more or less, when I'm not just inhabiting the skin of another blundering American.

Via The Reading Experience I've read Timothy Burke's intelligent discussion of the infamous anti-blogging article at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Naturally I'm a little nervous about the negative impact Cahiers might have on my professorial prospects, though I think most readers would agree that it has more of an academic than a diaristic tone (not necessarily a strength qua blogging, but oh well). But the point about "guild controls" is what interests me the most, and gets more directly at what I was saying the other day about literary journals with what we might call "guild apparatus" versus those that don't (not that a journal like The Hat doesn't have an apparatus—it's just a more casual one, implicit in the particular social and aesthetic networks whose intersection it is, mostly invisible to those not in the know). The uproar about poetry contests tends to envelop those who have a stake in the guild authorization being selected by Judge X provides; it has little or nothing to do with publication for the sake of being read. Though it may also have something to do with wanting to be guild-affiliated for its own sake: for those without adequate social skills or opportunities it may seem like the only path. Naturally this produces a divide between academic poets and non- or anti-academic poets, them as has a c.v. and them as has a resume or a head-shot or who are without portfolio entirely. I'm firmly esconced in academia, obviously, and I think the college classroom has an important and necessary role to play in the dissemination of poetry; but I have a strong dislike for any sort of restriction on the flow of poetry and its social energies (I'm reminded of Ezra Pound's hatred of passports). So I will continue to operate in the twilight zone between professional necessity and the socio-aesthetic imperatives of blogging, small presses, independent reading series, etc., hoping that no one I respect or would want to work with will hold it against me.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Beautiful Baby


I am very grateful to the Spineless folks for all the hard work they've put into producing such a beautiful, "sculptural" book. It's a tremendous honor to be one of their authors.
Building a better Fourier Series cover over at Spineless Books. (The photo of me at the bottom is a little unfortunate, however: next to William and Christian I look like I top 250 pounds.)

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Gary and Nada both respond to my speculative remarks about Bollywood as "discover[ing] the surplus value in an outdated mode of production." I bow to their deeper knowledge of the subject (it's hard to find anything besides Bollywood lite in this small town); I will say, however, that I did not mean to refer to the films themselves as making use of the outdated mode of production of Hollywood musicals, rather that I imagined that Westerners would inevitably receive them as doing so. Nada and Gary's insistence on these musicals as their own creature (I am especially appreciative of Gary's point about the ingenious solution musicals provide to the problem of creating a national cinema when there isn't really a single national language) is both forceful and persuasive; still, Gary does admit to a degree of "camp pleasure" and I wonder if the taking of such pleasure doesn't involve a perspective like the one I'm adapting from Nealon. I don't think the taking of such pleasure requires what Nada calls a "cult stud" approach to the films; the "surplus value" manifests itself pretty blatantly (as when we say of an artwork we find campy that it's "over the top").

I'll be in New York at the end of the month for the Burning Chair reading series and while there I'll keep an eye peeled for some cheap Bollywood DVDs. It's high time I really watched a few of these films.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Despair over the confusion of uninterested with disinterested. Even The New York Times routinely gets it wrong. C'mon, people now....

The heat is turning me into Strong Bad.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Jeffrey Bahr has posted an appreciation of Chris Nealon's article "Camp Messianism," which he actually paid twelve bucks to read—yet his attitude toward the article's premises strikes me as a cynical one. Following a debunking of Marxism as "simplistic," that I, needless to say, find unconvincing (yes there have always been concentrations of power—what's interesting about capitalilsm is how it broke up old structures, promising the freedom of "choice" along the way, and then set up new ones that seem more entrenched than feudalism ever was—which is not to say that I prefer feudalism), there is a much more serious claim that neither he as a Sixties activist nor my generation attempting to construct a usable critique of capitalism and the structures of domination it promulgates, had/have any idea what we're talking about. He has a point about how we tend to form interpretive cliques that more or less agree with us—but such cliques are constantly clashing, encountering resistance, breaking apart and reforming. (For example here we are, Jeffrey and I, part of the same blog circle, disagreeing.) Such groups aren't static and I think calling attention to the social dimension of thought doesn't automatically discredit it. I rather think many of the Sixties radicals had a very good idea of what they were talking about, even if the jargon they used at the time now seems inadequate. The proof is in the pudding: those marches were effective. The war was discredited and stopped, and a new counterculture (which had already absorbed its most important impetus from the Civil Rights movement) made the widespread critique of patriarchal authority possible (I see feminism as a direct result of the Vietnam War protests, not least because women came to question the dominance of men in the peace movement as well as in government and business). On a pratical level, as Chomsky points out, structures of resistance were put in place that made it much, much harder for the government to wage open war on poor countries for nakedly imperialistic ends; so that in the 80s for example most of the warmongering had to take place in secret. As bad as the Contras were for Nicarugra, U.S. troops on the ground there probably would have been worse. Only with 9/11 has our national paranoia meter been ratcheted high up enough to make open warmaking possible again, and hopefully as the truth about the venality of the current Administration continues to emerge such actions will again become politically unafffordable. (Though lately I take a darker view: that we're going to have to enter a new era of theocratic repression that leads to a level of popular revulsion if the Left is to be revitalized.)

Even so, the claim "you don't know what you're talking about" doesn't obligate you to sit down at your cubicle and get back to work (doing as much furtive Internet shopping as possible when your boss isn't looking), much less take out a subscription to Poetry. It obligates you to find out. Claims that "this is all very complicated" may be true on their face, but they tend to be employed for quietistic ends: "we know so much better than you do, and after all you're just a student/housewife/entertainer/poet. Best leave these matters to those who understand them." Furthermore, finding out about things this complicated doesn't require you to take some sort of "objective" position outside the system where you can observe it empirically—'cause such a position doesn't exist. We're all in this together in Clover's Totality for Kids. So you try to become conscious about the position you occupy and the vectors you're already moving along, and you commit yourself to understanding the contradictions of a system that wants you to be an efficient servant of power and privilege (a task made more complicated by the fact that you directly benefit from being such a servant). I happen to think poetry is a very good means of raising and exploring such consciousness; after all, lyric poetry has traditionally been a way to discover and give voice to one's subjectivity in all its complexity and contradiction. Now that many of us understand our subjectivities as at least partially constructed, interpolated by flows of the Big Other's desire ("capital" has proved a useful shorthand for this), what better means than lyric poetry to try and discover what it really means to be an "I" in a world that wants to recast all choice as consumption, that arbirarily denies "I-ness" to the nonmale and nonwhite, and that corrupts language into a mere instrument of control? I see no contradiction between this conception of a critical poetry and Keats' conception of poetry as a means of engaging with the world as "a vale of soul-making." Furthermore, writing and reading this poetry can be supremely entertaining, as Nealon's article demonstrates. Jeffrey's insistence on poetry as entertainment strikes me as another quietist move—and if poetry were only a mode of entertainment I'd give it up, if for no other reason than that its audience is so small. Fortunately, no mode of entertainment is always only that: even the most ridiculous TV shows carry a burden of obligation toward reality, if only as a point of departure. An alien anthropologist could learn a lot about us from something like American Idol. However, I choose to turn the idea of poetry as entertainment on its head, and say that poetry as political thought is continuous with poetry as source of pleasure—it's a superabundance of pleasure in fact, on top of poetry's fundamental resources of pleasure (sound, image, wordplay).

I'm reminded of the story about Robert Duncan and Barrett Watten doing a reading together; how Duncan, exasperated with Watten's hypercerebral acrobatics, complained, "Can't we just have fun?" "But Robert, this is how we get our fun," Watten replied. A poetry that combined Duncan's theosophical ear with Watten's critical Marxian intelligence would be a formidable one. It would probably look a lot like camp messianism.

Monday, July 11, 2005

So we'll go no more a-Roveing?
Many poems of distinction in the new issue of CROWD by friends (Brian Teare!) and blogger-friends (Catfu!) and innumerable poets whose work I like: Eric Baus, William Fuller, Forrest Gander, Barbara Guest, Brenda Hillman, Katy Lederer, Chelsey Minnis, Karen Volkman, Elizabeth Willis. Catherine's poem is from her Tonight's the Night manuscript and it has one of the most beautiful last lines in recent memory: "flaking off toward the mouth of the flue." Brian's poem "The Word from His Mouth, It Is Perfet," is erotic and baroque and very Catholic. You could say something very similar about Forrest Gander's series "Present Tense" but add natural history to the mix. Unutterably sexy or sexy unutterables: "In English there is no word for the dip of your waist." Chelsey Minnis' poem is one of the remarkable "Prefaces" that I heard her read at the PSA Festival last spring: "The poet I worship is Edward Dorn, because I adore his disgust..." Salutary revulsion! There's some good black-and-white art, too, including a very cool comic about pigeon-breeding in Bushwick by Sara Varon; photos of sculptures that look like exploded stolen shopping carts and milk crates by Jane South; and some witty ink drawings by Raymond Pettibon. I like the use of art pages to break up the poems (there's prose too). I feel that CROWD strikes a middle ground between the established semi-avant mags and the magazines of "the few poets undescribed and therefore undestroyed" (a distinction being drawn at the revived blog of Tony Tost—welcome back, Tony, and congrats on getting hitched!). It has all the apparatus of an establishment mag (author names on the back cover, author bios, ads in the back), however. I've come to prefer the stripped-down, intimate feel of magazines like The Tiny and Carve; but something glossier that carries a whiff of the marketplace arguably has more appeal for casual readers who might be put off by the smaller mags' coterie aura. What really counts for me is the vigor and idiosyncracy of a journal's editorial vision. I tend to read magazines that lack the stamp of personality with much less care and interest, even when they contain good work.

Our friends Bonnie & Terry have invited us out onto Cayuga Lake on their boat this fine summer evening. Looking forward to it.
In response to a discussion of poetry's distinction as language-thinking launched by Jonathan and extended by Nick, please read Kasey's brilliant Twinkie defense of "meaningless" poetry, or rather of poetic language's priority to meaning. From his post I have also acquired a new favorite word in a quotation from Wittgenstein's Zettel, nearly as good as "Zettle" itself: "routle."

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Via Eric Selinger the marvelous sounds of poetry in Arabic at the Princeton Online Arabic Poetry Project. (Curious what upernoz, the only student of Arabic I know personally, will make of it.)

Friday, July 08, 2005

Henry asserts that "the astounding expansion of (relatively) free enterprise economies and (relatively) private property relations rendered pseudo-Marxist terms like "late-late-capitalism" meaningless." I don't understand how the expansion of "free enterprise" in India in any way contradicts the thesis that capitalism has entered a new stage (so-called globalization—a term at least as obscurantist as "late capitalism") or the undergirding thesis that capitalism evolves. We might agree or disagree on whether this is a wholly good thing—I suspect we do—but his irritation at the terminology only challenges us to use it less glibly, or better yet, come up with different descriptors. No one will be happier than I if we can move past the era of post-this and late-that. The fact remains, however, that there is an existing discourse for talking about the intersections of culture, capital, and politics (which is radically different from the state-sponsored cultural demagoguery Henry deplores) and I find it useful for describing certain tendencies and certain problems which poets I'm interested in are trying to figure out.

Perhaps Henry has a better model to propose by which intellectuals can "contribute to the actual reform & betterment of society." I'd be curious to hear about a possible program that is not merely anti-intellectual: that is, which doesn't simply tell all the eggheads to come down from their towers, renounce theory (I don't mean theory in the fashionable sense but theory as that which requires distance from practice in order to exert critical power), and get their hands dirty. (As if all our hands weren't already dirty, bloody in fact.)

It may or may not be poetry's job to reform & better society, but it does have the task of responding to that society and discovering bases for action and emotion in its language. Which means not just the skillful and ingenious deployment of everyday language, but the introduction of languages—academic, Marxian, ethnic—that put the "everyday" under revelatory pressure.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Not Melancholy Enough

Horrible news from London. Can't help wondering if their winning the Olympics bid had as much to do with it as the G-8. I don't have a lot of use for the concept of evil, but this is an evil action. I wish we knew how to respond to it with justice rather than retribution and hatred.

Ran into Jasper at Gimme this morning: his partner and child are leaving for California today and he'll be following at the end of the month. He reminded me of his own short review of Fourier Series, which fully anticipates the objections raised by Joyelle McSweeney in her review of the book. Anyway, I find it useful to put them in dialogue with one another.

Jasper also reminded me of Henry Gould's response to my gloss of Christopher Nealon's "Camp Messianism". I think Henry's within his rights to find the relations between capital and cultural production oppressive or depressive; maybe that melancholia is what marks him as a dyed-in-the-wool modernist (though I'm certain he'd grouse about that or any label). But he ought to read some Jameson. Yes, I do think there's a correlation between post-1989 politico-economic conditions and literary utopianism: as capital tightens its grip on our collective imagination in the absence of any substantive opposition, I think many American poets are coming to grips with the crisis that Steve Evans grimly and succinctly describes (in the "Field Notes" section of the latest Poker) as finding it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It's odd of Henry to gesture toward China and India as examples of the "irrelevance" of an admittedly cheeky term like "late-late capitalism." First of all, I was talking about American poets and their experience of hyperdevelopment, total mediation, and heightened consciousness of the disconnect between our political system and the multinational economic system that dictates terms to it (instead of the other way around). But second of all, if late-late capitalism means anything it means the tightening of international networks of capital and labor flow: we have Indians in Bangalore with perfect American accents taking customer service calls from Peoria, we have Chinese laborers a half-generation from the soil making Swedish cellphones for a dollar a day. Some of us seize upon the cultural production of these developing nations (Chinese martial arts epics, Bollywood musicals) because they show us what happens when a culture that has not yet shed its precapitalist foundations encounters the transforming power of a freetrading capital that demands in an ironic recapitulation of Whitman, "Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" To us a Bollywood film looks like camp for the reasons Nealon describes: it discovers the surplus value in an outdated mode of production (in this case, the Technicolor Hollywood musicals of the 50s and early 60s). But in this case our ironic embrace rides atop the fullthroated embrace of an entire culture whose ambivalence about capitalism's solvency (I use that word in both its major senses) is palpable, so that in an odd way to be a Bollywood fan is to be somewhat in touch with with energies that become radical when transferred from the a scene of "high" capitalism to our own late-late capitalism. (Any thoughts on this, Gary?)

Anyway: if Henry finds this kind of thinking depressing or restrictive to his own creative practice, by all means he should cultivate whatever theories he finds generative. But it's no use his pretending that Marxian-influenced poetics hasn't a leg to stand on. And any poetics is best proved or disproved by the vitality of its practice: something Nealon's example poets, not to mention Nealon himself, demonstrate in abundance.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

So I finally got around to reading, at Jasper's suggestion, Christopher Nealon's wonderful essay, "Camp Messianism, or, the Hopes of Poetry in Late-Late Capitalism." (Jordan was talking about it last fall, but I'm slow.) I wish I could just copy the whole thing for you (you can find it on Project MUSE if you have access to a university library), but that's almost certainly against the law. It's one of the smartest assessments of the post-Language, post-NY School situation typified by the work of major younger poets Joshua Clover, Kevin Davies, Lisa Robertson, and Rod Smith. I love his maneuver of deploying the mid-century modernist concept-assemblages of camp and the Frankfurt School to peer beyond postmodernism toward our present engagement with "late-late capitalism." The essay is in part useful for its supple characterization of the earlier generations in the postwar avant-garde tradition: a lot of dazed latter-day argument about "what X movement was" could be settled or at least grounded by paragraphs like this one:
Language school poets later developed a crtiique concerned not with the poet's cultural isolation as much as with the authenticity of lyric utterance—and, ultimately, of language itself—as a transparently truthful medium. Language poets, like the poets of the New York school, were interested in the relationship between mass culture and poetry, but rather than mining mass culture as a referential and affective resource, they tended to focus on its capacity to obscure social truths, especially the truth of the commodification of language. Deliberately fracturing syntax and troubling reference, Language poets developed a relationship between the poetic and the political not so much by striking the implicitly political posture of insouciance toward an official culture as by tearing away at its lies. If the relevant political backdriop for the New York school poets was the Cold War, for the Language poets, it was Vietnam.
Succinctly put. And onfiguring the NY School poets around the Cold War and the Language poets around Vietnam leaves open a space for the present that we must perhaps inevitably fill in with the Gulf War (parts I and II), or more simply the Oil War. (Though this model turns a blind eye to the role of reactionary religious fundamentalism both in this country and in the Middle East.) Equally useful are these sentences describing how Language writing actually works by directing attention to what Nealon calls "the aspectual":
While it is true enough to say that Language writers are concerned with linguistic materiality (since they are poets, it is nearly tautological to notice this), what's distinctive is their relation to the aspectual character of this materiality. Language writing argues for understanding the medium of language as a kind of perpetually mobile surround, which Hejinian typically calls "context": placement, situation, conjunction, animating constraint—the "net" and the "frame"—all serve to establish a scene that invites the reader to experience the toggle between material and referential aspects of langauge as curious, as "a little question frame" that "nets" content but lets it go. Poems like Hejinian's articulate linguistic materiality in terms much like those of a monist Deleuzian plenitude, where difference are not metaphysical or categorical but "implicated"; they are folds. The relationship between form and content in Language poetry takes on the character of a materio-linguistic snapshot, where what is form one minute might be content the next. It is a poetics of fluidity, and if we listen for it, I think we can hear in it the echo of the post-1968 hope for a new, more fluid politics.
Elegant, again. That notion of the "aspectual," of the attention paid to shifts in denotational movement (as he puts it later, a deManian "movment between the figural and the performative"), is a useful critical tool, more acute than "logopoeia." And now he presents us with the next (I am tempted to call it dialectical) move, that of the rising generation:
The post-Language poets to whom I now want to turn, however, exhibit neither a postrevolutionary political apathy nor a specific set of anti-globalist affiliations. They are not "movement" poets. But they do write with an acute knowledgte of the susceptibility of their materials to historical change. What I would like to suggest in the rest of this essy is that the recent affective and strategic shift in American poetry can be described as a shift in attitudes toward the character of late-capitalist totality. We might say that where the Language poets discoverd a reserve of uncapitalized materiality in the lively, "aspectual" character of language—so that the open-endedness of texts might outpace their superscription by languages of power—the post-Language poets, battered by another generation's-worth of the encroachments of capital, are not so ready to rely on those aspectual reserves. They can discern them in language, of course, and in material objects, but it's not their focus; instead, as I'll try to show, they expend their considerable taletns on making articulate the ways in which, as they look around, they see waiting.
Implicit here is an argument that the "aspectual reserves" discovered by the Language poets have already been raided by capital, in the phenomenon of indeterminacy as career move. But the poets under discussion here are, as Nealon remarks, attuned to "waiting," to attuning their viewfinders to operate under conditions of messianic light (c.f. the "Finale" to Adorno's Minima Moralia and of course Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History"). I won't try to paraphrase Nealon's discussions of the actual poems, though I will say I now long to get my hands on a copy of Clover's The Totality for Kids and Rod Smith's The Good House (I've already got the Robertson and Davies books). There's some good stuff on Robertson's use of pastoral and I expect this essay will be very much on my mind when I'm writing the final chapter of my diss. Finally, there's an inspiring push at the end for a "contemporary reading practice of a sympathetic, content-focused aesthetics" that to my ear is nothing less than a call for blogging: "When I read a text that interests me, especially for its political-affective comportment, my impulse, my critical impulse, is: pass it on. Highlight it as best you can, read against the grain, or with it where you can, and make sure others take a look. This is as true for texts that I find repulsive as for those I admire: I don't imagine myself, as a critic, judging by myself." Credo! Finally, I suppose by omitting a discussion of the poets I've omitted what their "poltical-affective comportment" might derive from: their about. You can't generalize too much about that, other than to say that a fine-grained attention to increasingly transient modes of materiality is common to all the poets Nealon discusses. But I respond with alacrity to what Nealon recognizes as their practice of "polemical affection." To wit:
It is the polemical character of this poetic stance that interests me most right now, since it is something we might imitate in our emerging critical practices. And what seems freshly polemical about some of my favorite post-Language writing—what I think we might treat as a model—is its sense that polemic is the lement of the negative in affection, or in judgment. A critical or artistic attachment is polemical, dangerous even, not because of which protagonist it has chosen but because it models what it's like not to know the whole story of its object. The dream of a redeemed matter, that is, doesn't entail a positive vision of what that redemption will look like so much as a resistance to the idea that it will look like any one thing we know.
Practically a paraphrase of my attempts to formulate a meaning for my term, "negative pastoral"! But I'm completely moved by that phrase, "what it's like not to know the whole story of its object." Isn't that where we all are—doesn't that put the poet in the same captain's chair as the Warchowski Brothers' attempting to map the hollow hyperscape of late capitalilsm, but without the paranoia or lousy sequels? It's refreshing. This essay deserves at least as much attention, more, as Steven Burt's Elliptical Poets essay—not only because it seeks the truth-content of a style rather than merely describing it, but because it advocates truth and content as that which drives style or ought to. I can't resist closing with the same quatrain Nealon closes with, from Davies' Comp.:
These cheesy little hypertexts
are going to get better.
I don't know
how much better, but we'll see.
Vertigo of shrinking, like Alice, in the face of the reduction undergone in the face of a review, good or bad. Suddenly confined to a specific array of tropes, tendencies, swerves of character. I gasp for air and try to remember that I am not the book, not even the unwritten book. We must dwell in potential or die. At the same time I am responsible for what I've written, though not for how it's read. I am as it were legally responsible: ego scriptor. But to go on, to become new, to write anew, I claim the scandalous privilege of unaccountability: whether ill or skilled at these numbers, they don't add up to a whole. Hoping the conversation is just beginning. Hoping in the poem.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Joyelle McSweeney reviews Fourier Series over at The Constant Critic.

UPDATE: I can't resist remarking in the book's defense that its treatment of the West is meant to be highly mediated, as West-ern; thus the significance of John Wayne, and of what we might call Breton's Reno (his interest in Native Americans was both sincere and sentimental). I suppose if you don't register the presence of The Searchers, by far the most ambiguous and interesting of Wayne's performances, then you might mistake my approach to Wayne as a valorizing one. Perhaps in the wake of Bush's cowboy diplomacy (the bulk of Fourier Series was completed in 2000), tolerance for that sort of play is at an ebb. I certainly didn't intend the book to read as recuperative of manifest destiny! I do stubbornly insist on the Arcadian and the utopic—as Joyelle writes, "What is utopic thinking, after all, but desire writ very, very large?" But I fully acknowledge the dangers of such thinking. The book endorses neither Fourierism nor Western expansion; it seeks instead after the energies and consequences of desire writ large.

The prospect of hanging certainly does concentrate the mind wonderfully—perhaps posthumously in this case.
It's the Fourth of July, and by gum The Bookery is open. Here's what I've got on the store stereo to celebrate: Copland's Appalachian Spring; Charles Ives' Three Places in New England; Leonard Bernstein's Candide, and Virgil Thomson & Gertrude Stein's opera about Susan B. Anthony, The Mother of Us All. I think the Bernstein is particularly appropriate to our blinkered moment, a time when disillusionment is failing to translate into action or even useful paranoia. It ain't the best of all possible worlds by a damn sight, but we seem determined to behave as if it were. If the best lack all conviction, are they still the best?

Good article by Anthony Lane on Weldon Kees, a poet I have some affection for though I'm more than a little put off by those who call themselves his friends and advocates—Donald Justice, Dana Gioia. (This is related, perhaps, to my finickiness about book covers: packaging signifies.) If Raymond Chandler had been a poet (and he would have liked to have been, I think), he would have written like Kees. Spent part of the weekend rediscovering Joyce: I've reread all of Dubliners and I read "Eveline" and the first few pages of Ulysses out loud to Emily. Joyce was a powerful influence on me in my early twenties when I was trying to write fiction: at the time I was in love with the imaginative vigor of his prose and his willingness to let language o'erleap the requirements of realism. Nowadays I think the lesson to be learned from him is much harder: the restless drive to overcome what one has already mastered. Think about it: one perfect volume of short stories and never another. One masterful modernist take on the coming of age novel. One novel to end all novels and one feast of prose to end prose itself, maybe even to end English. (I mean "end" the way the Tarot deck means the "Death" card: the moment of transformation and renewal through destruction.) Joyce taught me contempt for artists who find a pleasing groove and stick to it for life. More important, he taught me through the representation of representation how language shapes my world—or put more humbly, how an artist or anyone makes choices (kind of like what David Foster Wallace said to the new gradautes of my cousin' alma mater). It's a lesson in freedom; not a bad subject ot meditate on today. Joyce ruined fiction for me: no other writer seems as capable of folding both the whole world and all the ways of writing about that world between two covers: everything else is miniatures. I prefer the adventure of signifiers to following some tedious construct called a "character" through his or her "setting" driven by a "plot." I can still enjoy what novels are best at, the vivid representation of a complex social milieu; I also like funny books (Gaddis manages to combine these things). Maybe it's just hard for me to find good novels because I'm so much more interested in form and style than in what a given book might be "about." I'm happy to learn "about" some subject or other (novels are a painless way to learn history), and I recognize that "about" is crucial to a novel; to any writing, maybe. But I wasn't drawn to pick up A Frolic of His Own because I'm particularly interested in a satire of our litigious culture in the Clinton years; I was drawn to it because of Gaddis' reputation as a master stylist. The hero of a novel by Joyce or Gaddis isn't so much a person as the English language as it is spoken at a particular time and place by a particular group or groups. That's the kind of adventure I'm invested in.

Picked up the latest New American Writing on Sunday: it's a humdinger of an issue, with translations from Darwish and Vallejo; poems by Elizabeth Robinson, Donald Revell, Andrew Joron, Stephen Ratcliffe, Dan Beachy-Quick, Sally Keith, Lara Glenum, and many other Americans; a little anthology of "The New Canadian Poetry" that includes work by Lisa Robertson, Christian Bok, Sina Queyras, and others I'm about to become familiar with; and another little anthology, "Nine Vietnamese Poets." An invaluable compilation, serving a broader function than the other magazines I've lately been immersed in (The Poker, The Tiny, Effing, etc.), which specialize in more local intensities of the moment. The wide and narrow ends of the telescope are equally valuable.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Blindingly sunny weekend with the cousins and with Emily. Sitting by the lakefront in Skaneatles (skinnyATlas) getting sunburned. Worry over the husband of a friend of Emily's who was in a car accident in Montreal on Friday. (They say he'll be okay.) Dog chasing sticks. Worry over the mother of another friend of Emily's with breast cancer. And grilled swordfish with salsa on top for dinner.

Wonderful stuff at the new Tarpaulin Sky: new work by Juliana Spahr, one of my north star poets, and an interview with some illuminating discussion of Spahr's unusual use of pronouns (I'm tempted to dub them "active pronouns"). There's also a terrific piece on the ecopoetical work of Jonathan Skinner and Jane Sprague. A copy of Political Cactus Poems has been lying on my desk for a month now waiting for me to review it: I'll get to it soon, it deserves a wide readership. Jane has a poem in the issue (it appears to be a continuation of her remarkable long poem The Port of Los Angeles) and there's great stuff by Joyelle McSweeney and others. Finally, Deanne Lundin contributes a well-written review of Heidi Lynn Staples' Guess Can Gallop, the kind of review that actually makes me want to read the book—in this case even to disregard New Issues' lamentable cover design (yes, how shallow of me to care about such things, but there it is). One of our finest online mags.

July Fourth. Whatever. The cover of this week's New Yorker just about sums it up for me.

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