Saturday, December 31, 2005

I am not quite sure how I managed to miss Scoplaw, but his post responding to Seth (which in turn triggered another post from Seth, The Sociology of Poetry Part II: Toward a Lexicon, in which he attempts a schema somewhat similar (but more nuanced) to the distinction I once tried to draw between Careerists and Professionals) has put him on my personal blogosphere map. I think his dissection of the difficulties with the "School of Quietude" moniker is pretty good (and parallels what Robert Archambeau has recently had to say about it). What I most appreciate about the post is less its "sociology" dimension but his sensitive and acute description of Language poetry, the claims it seems to make, and why he finds it to be an inadequate and unsatisfying aesthetic—his criticisms are intelligent and, nearly as important, couched respectfully. I don't fully agree with him, of course, since I am dedicated to the idea that one of the functions of poetry is to be writing that does not condescend to the reader; so when Scoplaw writes that "you need an advanced aesthetic training to parse and judge" a Language poem, my first response is, Not necessarily, and my second response is, What if one of such a poem's functions were to inspire some readers to seek out such training? I think of a remark Pound made about The Cantos: "I admit there are a couple of Greek quotes, one along in 39 that can't be understood without Greek, but if I can drive the reader to learning at least that much Greek, she or he will indubitably be filled with durable gratitude. And if not, what harm? I can't conceal the fact that the Greek language existed." Hubris, maybe; elitism, certainly—but far less insulting to me as a reader than the notion that all I can tolerate is the already-familiar. One could construct a kind of hierarchy of tolerances, I suppose: familiar content in familiar forms; unfamiliar content in familiar forms; unfamiliar content in unfamiliar forms. (I'm not sure I believe that familiar content in unfamiliar forms is actually possible.) The real trouble with Language poetry may not be with the hapless common reader but with its initiates: inevitably if you spend enough time with the stuff you end up find a given poem's forms and strategies to be more or less familiar. That's the dead end of the avant-garde as I understand it: the shock of the new wears off and the alienation effect does not lead to discovery on the part of audiences but translates into a very literal alienation of the artist from the audiences he might otherwise expect (in the case of poetry, all the highly literate folks who either don't read poetry at all or who stay safely within the orbit of the major publishers—readers of the various book reviews with "New York" in their titles).

But of course this is why hardly anyone is now writing what I'd recognize as "straight" language poetry and why Ron has coined the term "post-avant." At the moment I tend to think of the value of a strong poetics/aesthetics as acting like a kind of gravity well, which may itself have all kinds of interesting characteristics (a planet with life on it), or may radiate a powerful and singular energy (a sun), or may be some kind of untranslatable personal mythos of the unconscious (a black hole), or may be something that was once alive but is now dead (a white dwarf). Purists lob their verbal objects straight int their wells with nary a tremor in their trajectories (or at least such appears to be their goal; I don't think it's actually possible—but they try to correct the flights of their poems through a sort of body english, the profuse production of writings on poetics that can remind me of a bowler trying to turn a gutterball into a strike by twisting and gesturing). Most poets end up with orbits of one kind or another (and an orbit is nothing more than the arc assumed by a body that misses the target it's attracted to); the most interesting of them are slingshotting poems in wide parabolas as they test the limitations of their hard-won poetics. (Poets who can't or won't articulate a poetics are either being sly, which is sometimes necessary, or naive in a way that is bound to make their writing uninteresting in the long run.) To put it in Lacanian terms, a poetics is like one's Thing, and you derive jouissance (your poem derives energy) based on the distance or orbit that your desire assumes in relation to it. For many of the writers I find most interesting, the politico-aesthetic complex called "Language poetry" is a significant component of their Thing—but none of them are pitching their desires in straight lines at it.

None of this has much to do with the sociology of poetry, but it probably says something about what my values are and what I think building a "career" is all about. Not very different in substance, I think, from "You write the best fucking poems you can."

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Short Takes

- Craig Teicher posts a nice response to me and to Seth.

- Read Coltsfoot Insularity, a collaboration between Jess Mynes and Aaron Tieger. Originally written on postcards to each other, the poems have the freshness and intimacy of two lonelinesses rubbing each other the right way. The individual poems aren't attributed but their styles are readily distinguished. Jess' poems are distinguished by a kind of surrealism of syntax—I kind of imagine this is what French hip-hop sounds like:
"It may be the
yarrow in his
fields Sealed pensive
purple under
its concern."

hip hop thud-thud passes
(yes, even in the sticks)
wild turkey scrum struts
feathers blue green
sheen electric in sunlight
                     the little ones
                     lose their way

people put me down
caust that's what's it
in this part of town
Aaron's poems are more conversational and diaristic, snapshots of a daily existence adding up into something numinous and barely glimpsed. :
         Got this
from a bookstore
had a section on
"Blacks."

         Outside
tasty hot dogs
on which I passed.

        Rain
on the byways, sun
while shopping.
- Almost done with the first volume of Neal Stephenson's mammoth Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver. This is the kind of encyclopedic postmodern yarn I loved ten years ago, when I was infatuated with the likes of Pynchon and Barth. Turns out I still dig this kind of excess of immense prose that is saturated with ideas and sensuous details (you really get the muck and dust and incandesence of the 17th century all over your hands reading this book) while never actually disappearing as writing, never becoming the experience of blank pages on which a movie magically unfolds. He's not quite Pynchon (whose Mason and Dixon covers some of the same territory) but he comes close, filling the pages with letters, plays, philosophickal discourse, self-conscious picaresque, and indelible portraits of persons fictional and non. Most contemporary fiction bores me; historical fiction I'm used to thinking of as something of a cheat, a retreat from the here-and-now. But the fiction I get the most pleasure out of right now is historical fiction in a varied and flavorful prose.

- Hoping someone, maybe Jonathan, will eventually write "What I Saw at the MLA," or words to that effect.

- Raining.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Bah, Humbug Edition

Seth Abramson's cri de coeur, The Sociology of Poety: A Rant of Sorts has been partially answered by Ron Silliman, the poet most prominently featured in the "rant" portion of Abramson's post. Tremendous anxiety seems to exist about whether or not American poetry has a center—look at this Adam Kirsch piece about Poetry (Chicago) that proclaims, with an air of complacency that doesn't quite conceal the sense of relief, that "Poetry has done what long seemed impossible: It has reclaimed its place at the center of American poetry." To Kirsch, Seth, and, to a lesser extent Ron, I want to pose the question: why this almost metaphysical anxiety about a center, base, or foundation for the practice of poetry? I don't put Ron at the center of my inquiry because I see him as a kind of revisionist historian, actively promoting an alternative to the mainstream that, as he puts it, poses as the "unmarked case, as if Robert Pinsky and John Hollander wrote poetry, but Kasey Mohammad wrote post-modern or New Brutalist poetry, Geof Huth wrote vispo, Erica Hunt & Harryette Mullen wrote langpo." I think Ron is often misread as wanting to turn the array off difference that the latter poets represent into the new mainstream of the "post-avant"—to be sure it is easy to misread him this way in large part because of the confidence, the white-maleness if you will, of his writing style (this seems to be the major component of Seth's unease: Silliman's tone causes him to imagine that Ron is setting imself up "at the center of American poetry" without authorization—maybe "professionalization" would be his preferred term). But I'm pretty sure Ron doesn't want a new center: he wants the word "poetry" always to carry an appropirate socio-historico-communitarian modifier, and if he took the time to distinguish more closely the various differences and strains within what he too often lumps together as a School of Quietude he might encounter a little less resistance to his project. (Not that such resistance seems to faze him even slightly.)

I see Ron as a counterforce, which suggests that those who don't see him this way either don't recognize the power of the forces Ron is attempting to counteract, or that they themselves are consciously or unconsciously aligned with those forces. I'm not sure where Seth falls on this continuum: he is bothered by what he perceives as a total lack of any sort of standards by which individual poems can be judged—that "beauty" may be a child of chaos and not truth and order, to use his rather romantic language. Now I'm not a student of sociology, but I imagine that the order to be found in any socius is more likely to take the form of flows and counterflows, with the stability of a given social body always likely to be more apparent than real. It doesn't seem impossible to me to track these flows with some specificity when confronted with, for example, a given magazine or anthology or MFA program (a part of Seth's rant is devoted to deploring the impossibility of judging the value/values of these entities). I can pick up almost any magazine off the rack at the Bookery or Barnes & Noble or the St. Mark's bookshop and immediately have a sense of what it values (what it considers a good poem, what social subfield it situates itself in) and its value in a number of fields (the effect a publication credit in that journal is likely to have to such diverse groups as, say, the audience at the Bowery Poetry Club and an audience of an academic hiring committee). In short, I see no chaos: just a diversity of flows and counterflows, individually quite legible, and often interacting to form at least partially legible patterns. The stock of the counterflow "language poetry," for example, has been rising for some years, and there are now practioners and fellow-travelers who seem to have as firm a claim to the thoroughly imaginary center as anyone—Ann Lauterbach, to take one example, has been publishing now with Penguin for many years; Bob Pereleman teaches at Penn; Lyn Hejinian has edited a BAP; etc., etc. But the center is imaginary, make no mistake about that. What often gets mistaken for the center is simply the power of institutions, which always have a substantive material base to accompany and bolster their cultural capital. Insofar as they have actual capital to spend they have actual power—the Lilly millions are only the most blatant example of this and it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Poetry (Chicago) has paid to be placed "at the center of American poetry." As for cultural capital, what unnerves many people nowadays is how uncertain its paths of accumulation and distribution have become—but I think that uncertainty is more apparent than real. Where does Ron Silliman get off setting himself up as a cultural capitalist? I hear people cry. Well, he's actually been slowly and patiently accumulating whatever capital he has by writing sometimes dull, sometimes glorious poetry for decades; by numerous affiliations, friendships, and editorships; by consciously mixing poetical and political activism; and so on. Ron didn't emerge full-blown with Santa beard and all from the head of the Internet. What the Internet has done has made it possible for him to convert the considerable capital he's accumulated over a long poetico-critical career into currency. And this understandably alarms those Scrooges whose capital is locked up in less liquid forms, and who if forced to make the conversion would reveal to us all that they have considerably less put by than they would like us to think.

Seth is not such a Scrooge: he's another young poet trying to figure out how (and whether) to make his way in the poetry world as he finds it. It seems to me he's doing a more than adequate job: he's writing poems, he's editing a magazine, and he's keeping a blog whose left-wng political commentary carries a refreshingly sharp edge. In the age of the Internet, one accumulates cultural capital in public—very poor taste to be sure, very nouveaux riche, and, even more damning, very democratic, very unrestricted by membership or lack thereof in feudal hierarchies, and highly corrosive of the old clothes paraded around as new by the Emperor of the Center. For a moment—who knows how much longer it will last—it's more obvious than ever that we all enjoy or ought to enjoy the "substantive and procedural flexibility" as readers and writers that Seth worries may only be the province of John Ashbery, aka "genius," aka those sitting upon a concealed iceberg of capital accumulated by winks and nods at the Harvard Club. Let's enjoy the ride, and think hard about ways we can organize ourselves so that this electronic avenue for counter-institutional forces and ideas can be preserved for the poets who come after us.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Information

Fallen into holiday silence. But a few things worth noting:

- Cathy Park Hong, author of Translating Mo'um, a strange, sly book of poems, some of which I got to hear at the PSA reading last spring (check out this terribly sad fable of otherness, Ontology of Chang and Eng, the Original Siamese Twins), has written a manifesto announcing, "I think poetry could be a bit more fabulous" and urging poets to return to the ear in the new American Letters & Commentary (I'm providing a link but it's the old issue), "Fabula Poetics." Finding Language poetry and the MFA-version of it that's becoming more prevalent to be exhausted, Hong holds up Christian Bok, Harryette Mullen, and Eugene Ostashevsky (aka MC Squared, aka DJ Spinoza) as models for poets who "are more aligned with the world." It's an invigorating essay and I'm frustrated it's not available on the Web; when it comes to manifestoes, I no longer believe print is where it's at. But the issue is well worth reading (Hong's piece is part of a feature called "Wedding the World & the Word" that includes work and thinking-out-loud by Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff (finally coming clean about politics in poetry! and in a word, she too dislikes it), Mary Jo Bang, Linh Dinh, Kamau Brathwaite's desperate Cowpastor letter, plus there's plenty of terrific poetry), so go ahead and subscribe already.

- Avid poetry reader and writer/teacher of creative nonfiction Catherine Taylor stopped by, bought some excellent books, and chatted. If she reads this... hi, Catherine!

- It looks like the post-avants have almost completely assimilated Poets & Writers. Not only has Daniel Nester established a firm beachhead there, but this issue includes an article on poets' theater that mentions the names of Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, Leslie Scalpino, Gary Sullivan, and K. Silem Mohammed; a small press feature on Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Goransson's new press, Action Books; a piece by David Hollander with the mild-mannered title "Imperative: Finding Community Outside of Academia" that is actually both a savage attack on conformism and consensus-thinking in MFA programs and a litany of praise for postmodernist prose (I like this indie band-style note he imagines: "Fiction writer seeks to form small workshop with like-minded individuals. Influences include Italo Calvino, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus..."); a piece by Arnold Weinstein called "A Novel Lesson: The Value of the Modernist Gambit" that's considerably more turgid than Hollander's but ends up, after what seems to be a more genteel Dale Peck/Jonathan Franzen style lament for the breach of faith between fiction writer and audience, praising modernism as fervently as Hollander praises postmodernism; a medium-clever non-interview with David Foster Wallace; and a profile of a Scottish fiction writer named Ali Smith who looks more than a little like the actress Cherry Jones whose prose appears to be more than a little influenced by Gertrude Stein. Okay, there's a fair amount of the usual boring stuff too, but it looks like Hong is basically correct to see that the most popular veins of experimental writing have become perfectly mainstream. Not necessarily a cause for lamentation, but not something to ignore, either.

- Check out the new issue of Tarpaulin Sky. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered.

Okay, back to bed.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Thursday, December 15, 2005

It's been a good brisk week of dissertation work. I hope it won't attract the notice of vindictive gods when I say I hope to be halfway through the Zuk chapter by the end of the month, and finished with a draft by the time classes resume.

This evening at the Bookery between customers I've been enjoying the hell out of Michael Coffey's cmyk, whose title (it stands for the basic colors used in offset printing: Cyan Magenta Yellow blacK) pretty much explains the book's logic: substitution, recombination, reshading, rereading. There's a tour-de-force series, "Imagism," in which the verso page features Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" transliterated into binary code (the poem eventually materializes over 40 pages) and the recto features, as Coffey helpfully tells us in a note, "21 sonnets made of snippets of sonnets by Shakespeare, Ted Berrigan, Bruce Andrews, and Jackson Mac Low, along with quotes from Andy Goldsworthy's Time, The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Trees, The Book of the Book, edited by Steven Clay and Jerome Rothenberg, and some of my own scattered notebook entries." These are thoroughly remarkable; the interlocking ghosts of the source texts are like the webbing that contains something porous and fungible, like snow or tree branches:
Either the sky swings or we do.
Incapable of more, replete with you,
inspiratory oneness may re-insert wailing, yes.
David Wojnarowicz talking on TV,
and my great mind most kingly drinks it up:
Alterable moonlight! Fencible warden!
Able-bodied Laburnum!
He took his skin off.
Love is a babe: then might I not say so.
Lost item an awl; therein
military hymns are normal, saving soak.
I chose forgetting. I forget the noun
olvido. Weeds flourish among weeds,
flowers with flowers gather.
That series is the heart of the book alongside two diaristic sequences. "Holiday a la Carte" begins, somewhat disconcertingly, as simply a day-by-day accounting of what Coffey ate and drank while on vacation—but gradually the catalog of consumption expands to include "one / adverb of resignation — / or is it concession? — / nevertheless"; artworks; the not-quite consumed tools of art-making in the form of a "La petite peinture" box; and tourist sights, including a 13th-century castle built by the Cathars, which is probably key to the consumer-tourist poetics being practiced:
They
believed that God reigned over the spiritual world
of beauty and light
and that Satan ruled the world
of things, and that it was by some
satanic ruse that man was trapped
in materiality. This idea
for the Cathars
had a fateful implication: that Christ,
word made flesh,
was not divine.
Pope Innocent III preached the first
crusade, Gregory IX
mopped up. Could no one
see that spirit is revealed in things?
    For example,
Paul Cezanne is on the
100 franc note.
The poem registers its consciousness of the consuming self without shying away from the sheer pleasure of the catalogue of beautiful sights, good food and beer and wine—reading it has made me very hungry. (Though there comes a moment where, having lost control of his name by turning it into an adverb, Coffey writes, "Skipping dinner ce soir." I [don't] eat, therefore I am [not]?) Something very Catholic at work here—elsewhere Coffey speaks of missing Mass—that acceptance of the bodily that is one of the most attractive dimensions of that religion, at least as some have practiced it. Ultimately I find—how could I not?—a pastoral consciousness at work: "'These are the wines of Langue d'Oc,' says Robert. / 'Our job is to stay out / of the way.'" But the dates build toward the ominousmidway through the poem we learn that the otherwise anonymous end-of-August of Coffey's poem is August 2001. A terrible puncture is on the way, the inevitable subtext (if you can call what won't stay down sub) of the second diary-sequence, a year in the poet's life: "Datebook 2002." It has the rare quality, for a journal, of actually conveying the affect of the time—of transferring that mixed energy of horror and sorrow and blankness and euphoria, over to the reader, instead of merely recording it. Art, plays, sex, the weather, and in between the attempts to find words—to process the words of the witnesses (a description of the play that Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray did in which the one played a reporter and the other a Brooklyn fire captain; a chopped-up monologue from an assistant fire commissioner) and the resistance—intensely moral—to rebuilding too quickly, too glibly: "I propose instead / that we stay our hand // that another generation rebuild the site / it should remain empty for mine — perhaps acres of wild grasses, no / more." It's a lovely, painful, moving book, synthesizing for me some of the best of the New York School's lust for life and Language poetry's care for construction and the political valences of syntax. It's going on my Best of 2005 list, or would if I had one. Maybe one book is enough.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Found nearly by chance, a 2003 interview with Susan Stewart that I find very appealing.
"Disinterest is modernity." Fascinating, plausible. And I'm delighted to learn that there's a "Coleridge's Milton" to stand alongside Blake's.
The temperature drops, the holidays approach, things get quieter. Working on the Zuk chapter—seems like there's always a mountain of preliminaries before I can make the big points I think I need to make. The real writing seems to happen in between these big points, these highlights, which come to seem rather obvious because I've been thinking about them for so long. Maybe a lesson in there somewhere.

The WTO is on in Hong Kong—you could do worse than to sign this petition and make a donation to Oxfam to support the protesters.

Reading about the execution of Tookie Williams I saw that witnesses were instructed not to "sob too loudly" or face removal from the execution chamber. Isn't that a parable for politics and protest in this country? You can cry but not too loudly or you lose your place at the table—itself a ghastly affair of blood and bones posing as the antiseptic everyday.

Yet still we must delight.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

It's probably safe to say that you missed out on Soon Productions's presentation of Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich last night, damn fine poets, accomplished publishers, and delightful people to boot. Anna started off with a series of poems titled "Critical Writing," "Critical Thinking," "Critical Loyalties," etc., and followed them up with "thirty percent translations" of a series by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Then excerpts from a long work titled The Future or, Optimism: An Epic, ringing a hotel bell (the kind that you want to shout "Front!" when you ring it) to mark the section breaks. Her epic hero's name: Anodyne. "The book of doubt is a terrible comedy," "Nothing is happening so they make something happen," "Why can I only feel bodies through the glove of interpretation?", "I don't know what I believe about speech versus writinng which makes me unfashionable." Cool, discursive, sharply perceptive.

Matvei was charmingly disorganized, riffing at what seemed like high speed through a broad swath of material. Prose poems: "Your face seems to have an expression that should be wearing a bonnet," "And each one holding up a shoe phone to cry closer to your ear." Antic, sly. A poem dedicated to Doug Rothschild in thanks for having told him that an early New Yorker named Preserved Fish had been buried on 2nd Street. "Words fear their nature." A poem from CARVE, "Crow Fictions"—"Smart quotes resemble smart crows." A highlight were a selection of the translations of the Russian Absurdist poet Daniil Kharms, most of whose work was never published in his lifetime. A great poem about an unpronounceable bird's name. A subversive and very funny pean to Pushkin from 1937, when Pushkin was being remade by Stalin into the Great Soviet Poet—in one section Pushkin is irritated by his inability to grow a beard. Then back to Matvei's own work: a terrifying poem called "Buttons" about death and the unnameable, some poems addressed to "Boris," and finally a selection of short Bar Poems—"Let me go, notebook—let me breathe without thinking why I do it." Finally finally four of us were invited up to help perform a play Anna and Matvei had written together called A Spade A Spade, a kind of dark pastoral parabolic twist on the Gravedigger scene from Hamlet. I got to play a character named Pagan who tends to speak her own stage directions aloud, c.f.:
PAGAN
[loudly]
Polite applause!
Anna and Matvei deserved much better than polite applause. It was a treat to have them here and I hope we can pay them a visit in Red Hook before too many months pass.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Come One, Come All

SOON Productions presents poets Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich at the State of the Art Gallery in downtown Ithaca, NY tomorrow evening at 7 PM.

Anna Moschovakis has published translations of Henri Michaux, Claude Cahun, Blaise Cendrars, Théophile Gautier and others, and her first full-length poetry collection is due out in 2006. She holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bard College/Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts. She is also an editor, book designer and letterpress printer at Ugly Duckling Presse, an art and publishing collective.

Matvei Yankelevich is founding editor of Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn, where he publishes and co-edits 6x6, a poetry periodical. His translations and original work have appeared in LIT, Open City, Greetings, New York Nights, New American Writing, canwehaveourballback, Shampoo, neotrope, Dirigible, and others. His book series, Writing In The Margin, is published by Loudmouth Collective. He is currently working on a book of translations of Daniil Kharms.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

And then to pick up Carla Harryman's Baby and read sentences like these:
A twinned Sierian iris on a spindly stalk is what she knew. Something larger, absent in her consciousness begins to grow.

Or.
The hand is an insect perched on pee. Forgetting forgetting forests. This matter swelling in glee.

...................................

Knowledge.
Knowledge was being processed. It was in the argument machine and the driver of the machine was a god with the face of a man and the body of an inkbottle.

Knowledge.
White fuzz in the air froze on a screen. Baby danced the cancan which she'd seen imitations of on daytime television. Monarch butterflies hatched that day blanketing the scruffy shrubs with anxiety. Baby danced on the sidewalk. She choked a coke can with a jump rope. Then blew up a plane with her semi-automatic spitballs. The butterflies wanted nothing to do with her. When she trapped them with her little hands, they played dead, and when she opened her hands, they wobbled on air pockets off into the trees. These children, these children, screamed baby. What do they know?
The world is here, recognizable yet estranged. It's as stark as the difference between awake and asleep.
The Bookery now carries The New York Quarterly so I've been browsing through it. It feels like a journal from another planet—certainly a long ways from anything poetic or otherwise that I associate with the words "New York." There's a long "craft" interview with W.D. Snodgrass which I suppose might be more interesting if I already cared about his poetry—yet I feel that the format of the interview is almost designed to be uninteresting because it keeps everything relentlessly on the level of personal history; larger historical and poetic movements are excluded except insofar as they lend themsleves to personal anecdotes about the likes of Lowell or Frost. In the back, a Justin Marks has written an article that's part of an series with the immensely pretentious title, "The Present State of American Poetry." The three poets Marks considers are all dyspeptic white men—one of whom, Denis Johnson, doesn't even write poetry anymore. That means that Marks ends up using The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems, published in 1982, to talk about the present state of American poetry! (And he isn't interested in Johnson's influence on the contemporary scene, either; all three essays are devoted close readings to the poets' work that reference no living poets as either contemporaries or antecedents.) Then he writes this sentence in his second section: "August Kleinzahler is known—to the few who knows his work—for mixing registers." What "few" can Marks be talking about? If he means the general reader who mostly ignores poetry, fine, but can that possibly be his audience? How unknown can someone like Kleinzahler—who's won the Griffin Prize and is published by FSG—really be? Perhaps Marks has bought into Kleinzahler's own aggressive outsider rhetoric, but still. I can't find any such egregious faults with his treatment of Franz Wright for his third and final section, but the whole project seems to hover in some weird margin to the "American poetry" I'm familiar with: it feels ritualized and irrelevant, the antechamber to a tomb. It's probably not Marks' fault; if his piece didn't have the enormous burden of expectation that "The Present State of American Poetry" puts upon it, I'd think it was a basically unobjectionable example of the close reading many readers claim to want in the stead of airy theorizing and compulsive categorization.

The magazine has a fussy feel to it, from the editor's note, which deplores abstraction in poetry as a flight from emotion, to the detailed submissions guidelines that remind you to "Proofread your poems before sending them to us. Misspelled words and typos may bias screeners against your work." The poems themselves are a mixed bag: the editors seem to favor heterosexual eroticism (they've even got a Timothy Liu poem about a married couple's sexual ennui!), anecdotes about sick parents and sexy waitresses, and superannuated jazz references (not one but two poems mentioning Coltrane in the title); but there are also some word games, like David Lehman's "SF" ("SF stood for Sigmund Freud, or serious folly, / for science fiction in San Francisco, or fear / in the south of France") and Richard Kostelanetz's "Within 'Richard Kostelanetz'" ("Centralized OK trash. / Crazed, loath stinker. / Stink crazed loather," etc.). These and a few other lively poems (Jonne Joseph's deadpan parody of the Poetry.com folks, "Eugene McCarthy, How Could You?"; Emily Brungo's genuinely sexy "Love Is a Puppy from Purgatory"; Justin Marks' own short poem with a fine, crusty title: "Carbonate Precipitation on Sand") are exceptions to the overwhelmingly sentimental rule—too often the product of poets and editors who harp on about how there's not enough emotion in contemporary poetry. There's affect galore yet I'm unaffected.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Saw a little bit of that TV movie about Pope John Paul II Sunday night—missed seeing Joe Buck in the role, but did see a bit of the preternaturally handsome and beatific Dread Pirate Roberts in the part of young Karol Wojtyla, mooning about Nazi-occupied Krakow. This is the second American TV biopic about the late Pontiff—Albert Finney played him last time. Anyway, it must have gone deep down and stuck somewhere (perhaps meeting up with my strangely vivid memories of the Marvel comic about the Pope that my mother kept around the house as a joke when I was a kid), because last night I dreamed I was Karol Wojytla, or the actor playing him, in a strangely coed seminary scene, about to take an exam on some book by Reinhold Niebuhr that I hadn't actually read. The other priests (and, er, priestesses) in training were kidding me about it, while a very Irish-looking James Cromwell admonished me sternly in his wavery Polish accent. I woke up with a weird sensation of empathy. Maybe it was my sense of the Pope as minor Polish poet (there's a scene in the TV movie I caught where young Wojtyla is scene reading Polish poetry to his fellow rock quarry workers, trying to inspire them with the greatness of the cultural heritage the Nazis are trying to destory), but in retrospect he seemed easier to identify with, at least as a young man, than most of the other people I see on television. Especially the ones who talk about God.

The cold has my body contracted and my mind adrift. I will try to warm both with my brand-new copy of Vanitas. Say, wasn't I writing a dissertation or something?

Monday, December 05, 2005

It's the Rain Taxi 10th Anniversary Auction!
Maybe it's only American novels that I find tiresome nowadays. Delighted with Austen; delighted with Hughes; was just delighted by the first four pages of D.H. Lawrence's The Lost Girl.
And here is an excellent review of Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems (available from Palm Press, a book that I've been strangely tongue-tied about since I received a copy with intent to review it many months ago. Chris Pusateri takes the approach of contextualizing Skinner's (eco)poetics, which is undoubtedly useful; what has strangely stymied me are the poems themselves, because I'd like to talk about them and their effects and not simply read them as symptomatic of his larger project, if that makes any sense. I still have hopes of saying something useful about PCP someday, but in the meantime I hope you will read the review and buy Jonathan's book, in that order.
Aside from D&D derring-do and a movie of considerable heartbreak (The Squid and the Whale), Emily and I spent the weekend doing as little as possible. Now mostly recovered from holiday travels I have to recover from the end of the semester and the pile of things to read and grade that keep slipping over the transom.

Here are some blurbs I've written for the Bookery newsletter about books I'd like to see in people's hands here in Ithaca and beyond:

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, edited by Alice Notley with Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan. University of California Press, $49.95.

"Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m. / dear Berrigan. He died / Back to books." No lover of contemporary poetry will fail to be delighted by the work of this most exuberant, scintillant, and transcendental of poets, who over the course of his too-short but amazingly productive life kept up dual citizenship in both New York City and "the incredible static of time-space-language."

Anne Carson, Decreation: Poetry, Essay, Opera. Knopf, $24.95

The author of Men in the Off Hours and Autobiography of Red returns with a veritable smorgasbord of the genre-bending writing that has made her perhaps the most popular and acclaimed serious poet writing in English today. The sparkling light of her intelligence illuminates the work and personalities of Simone Weil, Gertrude Stein, Abelard and Heloise, Michaelangeolo Antonioni, and Monica Vitti, while an elegy for the poet's mother creates a voice for the voiceless: "Your glassy wind breaks on a shoutless shore and stirs around the rose."

Brandon Downing, Dark Brandon. Faux Press, $15

For those who need poetry in their movies and movies in their poetry, Dark Brandon is a great night out: imagine a half-abandoned drive-in theater on the plains of North Dakota that alternates David Lynch movies with silent films and you'll have an idea of what reading this book is like. Energetic, angry, conveying both the investment we make in the movies' dream life and the disorientation of leaving the matinee to find broad daylight, for Downing poetry is "Not a great statue untouched by the caustic millennia" but an urgent response to the life we dream and the dreams we try to live.

Sarah Gridley, Weather Eye Open. University of California Press, $16.95

Heir to Dickinson and Hardy, Sarah Gridley writes poems of uncanny beauty like spotlights that change the ordinary world into rich and extraordinary words: "Blue makes a vast endeavor / for a spider’s verbing rungs." Phrases coalesce unforgettable images of "Winter citrus in opulent rinds" while "The mirror drinks and spends / bright coins." This is a poetry of yearning that makes yearning itself a pleasure, that transforms the pain of nostalgia into something like illumination: "Choose where you are moved. Do you love the air / its forms too small to rescue? Could you bear the sound / of any empty field?"

Thursday, December 01, 2005

McDaniel writes of Hamilton's "formality." Is that "nobility"? As a reserve, a concealment, no. As a slowness, perhaps. Slowing the everyday rather than immersing oneself in its stream.
It's colons that the new BR has brought to my attention: a piece of punctuation whose epistemological implications I haven't pondered since reading Ammons' Sphere a few years back. But Hughes' prose, at least in the sliver I quote below, is driven by colons; and now in a review of Divide These by Saskia Hamilton written by Raymond McDaniel (branching out from his regular gig at The Constant Critic), I find these sentences:
[W]hat concerns Hamilton is not the story of what happens, but the ways in which we seek and fail to shore ourselves against those stories' consequences. In that sense, the wreck and ruination embedded in the daily, the epistemological pressure it applies, stands in for what occurs to the left of the colon's promissory mark. And what we wish to occur to its right is clarification, or a cure.
I love this kind of intelligence, the discovery of Archimedean points in language's smallest units. One of the many possibilities for inscribing not story, not narrative, but movement—surest evidence of life—in a sentence, a stanza, a paragraph. Most prosasically, I think of the convention of title and subtitle in academic books and papers, in which most often poetry—a fragment from the text under consideration—is followed after the colon by a description of the work the author intends to do to/on/with that text. It's a snapshot of the relationship between artwork and critic—the colon in its anatomical sense, a place of digestion. A purgative? Not especially pretty, colons, but they have their uses. The least "poetic" of punctuations except perhaps for its bastard brother, the semicolon, who has found new life in the Internet age as a sideways eye and wink in countless Instant Messages. Some graybeard once prohibited the use of semicolons in poetry when I was young, and I've mostly heeded his advice—dashes are more romantic, smack more of deletion, via negativa, the leap into breathlessness. To see a semicolon in an old edition of Dickinson is to wince. Perhaps they shall rise again as creatures of flarf and the anti-aesthetic; but for now I will confine my semicolons to prose. And my prose...?
I had never before heard of Richard Hughes, but this piece by John Crowley in the new Boston Review sent me to the shelf here at the Bookery to read the first chapter of A High Wind in Jamaica (which in other editions has the subtitle, "The Innocent Voyage"). It as remarkable as Crowley claims for its unerring depiction of childhood innocence in its true, unsentimental sense—an innocence that does not preclude cruelty. The prose is vivid and dreamlike at once, as in this description of a Jamaican earthquake:
The water of the bay began to ebb away, as if some one had pulled up the plug: a foot or so of sand and coral gleamed for a moment new to the air: then back the sea rushed in miniature rolers which splashed right up to the feet of the palms. Mouthfuls of turf were torn away: and on the far side of the bay a small piece of cliff tumbled into the water: sand and twigs showered down, dew fell from the trees like diamonds: birds and beasts, their tongues at last loosed, screamed and bellowed: the ponies, though quite unalarmed, lifted up their heads and yelled.
What an extraordinary pair of sentences! In richness and the territory covered Hughes' chapter reminds me inevitably of Peter Pan (darker, as I recall, in its original form than in the Disney or stage versions—and similarly obsessed with "Good form," an extra-moral sort of discipline or style aspired to by Captain Jas. Hook); and I also suspect it was in the back of the mind of Mark Richard when he wrote a gorgeously grotesque novel called Fishboy, one of the last pieces of fiction I remember inspiring me when I myself was trying to write fiction in the mid-nineties (only ten years ago: is't possible?). Encountering now this hallucinatory prose, in back of which is the most mature and comprehensive understanding of the human and inhuman longings that can possess and drive us, makes me think of writing fiction again. But it will probably have to wait for a few years. The habits of poetry are not so easily overthrown, presuming such is needful. Poetry should, as an experience, part of the foreground, change prose—but how exactly remains to be seen.

Chessboxing!

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