Sunday, April 30, 2006

Killer SOON reading last night, with a record number in attendance—more than seventy people crammed every corner of the State of the Art Gallery to hear Dan Beachy-Quick and Matthea Harvey read. (Publicity works.) The two readers made for a nice contrast: Dan's work has an affect of reverence and a kind of scholarly intensity, while Matthea's peoms tends to be jaunty up front and melancholy behind. Dan read from his forthcoming book Mulberry and also from a work-in-progress. I don't know why I never noticed this before, but his writing has many affinities with the work of Donald Revell (who's a friend of Dan's and who offers a blurb to Mulberry): they're both practioners of an astringent nearly Puritan pastoral (I always think of New England when I read their work, even though Revell lives in the Southwest and has for many years). It turns out that Dan's father lives in Ithaca and he summered here when he was a kid, so for him this is very much his childhood landscape of inspiration. Matthea read three poems from Sad Little Breathing Machine and then work from a new manuscript, which included prose poems on the adventures of RoboBoy and some darker lyrics all bearing the title "Terror of the Future" (an inversion of a phrase that stuck in her mind, "the future of terror"). Aaron produced beautiful broadsides, as usual (though he himself was unfortunately laid up by a bad back and couldn't attend), and afterward we all went to Ithaca's new fake Irish bar and had $2 pints of Bass. Another evening for the books.

Next month: Aaron Kunin and John Coletti. ADDENDUM: On Saturday, May 20.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

On an utterly different note: Doonesbury's BD-in-Iraq storyline has been amazing this week. Today's strip captures the hideous paradox that putting our soldiers into the "kill zone" of occupation has produced. "We had to burn the village in order to save it" becomes: we had to burn ourselves.


How strange the change! Just catching up with the discussion of major vs. minor literature over at Johannes' blog (find the relevant entries here, here, and here). The first thing I notice about introducing Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka book into this conversation is how it illuminates what a problematic category "minority" is. Hasn't it already become both un-PC and increasingly inaccurate to speak of people of color, queer people, Hispanics, etc. as "minorities"? If "major" and "minor" are stances taken toward a language, doesn't that de-essentialize what we mean by "minor"? And indeed we can find writers of every "minority" group writing "major" English, grafting their experience onto/into the language by the most conventional, lyric-I-centered means available. Johannes quotes D&G as saying, “We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary condition for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature.” How are we to understand "revolution" if "the minor" does not designate a particular group or class, but a mode available to groups and classes willing to occupy the position of the minor? So I think it's the desire for revolution itself, even on the micro scale (literary revolution, local revolution), as opposed to the reformist/liberal impulse to change the power structure from within (accepting a certain co-optation of oneself as the necessary price for this) that must define the minor not as any sort of category but as a tactic, another name for the tactics of ordinary life that Michel de Certeau talks about such as bricolage or la perruque (doing your own work on company time).

That suggests that the "major," as befitting a "center" or "mainstream," has its own divisions: there's a liberal wing that attempts to define the major or "the great" as being under the sign of humanism, and a conservative wing that operates under the sign of tradition. To a minoritarian revolutionary these differences are unimportant, because both wings seek to strategize literature as a territory, with the liberals parceling out tokens to the minorities they are able to recognize and the conservatives besieged and besieging. Minor literature's deterritorializations are supposed to hollow out and destablize the pluralist humanism (with all its accommodations to and imitations of the operations of capital) of the liberals as well as the white supremacist patriarchal tradition of the conservatives. Excellent: that's the kind of critical work postmodern writing is good at, acting as if there were no use in a center. Yet we, or at least I, am haunted by the center, even as a void. Without some notion of the universal, how can real change take place? How can we have anything but a steady devolution into ever-more fragmented minorities? Viva la difference doesn't bring 'em to the barricades.

That brings us to community vs. consensus. I read community—or better, collectivity—as that which aspires to the universal but doesn't make the mistake that liberal and conservative majoritarians do, which is attempt to situate their contingent values in the center so as to conceal and erase their contingency; instead, taking my cues from Zizek and Laclau, they see the universal center as a space that they can only provisionally occupy, for it has no content of its own. Historical actors step into the universal for a moment (the moment of Badiou's "event") and claim their right to it: so for example in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement blacks and their leaders demanded to be treated not just as human beings, but the human beings or being: we recognized ourselves and our highest aspirations for dignity and freedom in the faces of the marchers, and were shocked into redefining our polity (which is not to say that powerful residual forces don't continue to try and force black people back out of the category of the human). Perhaps the newly empowered immigrant rights movement will prove in hindsight to have been the beginning of a similar moment, in which the "minor" (and a "minor" language, Spanish) became "major" long enough to alter our sense of what it means to be major, and of who shall be admitted to be a fellow subject rather than an object.

A lot of people can't envision community as being other than governed by consensus, which is a fine word for the will to transform the Other into the Same. Some people look at a small town and see intimacy, shared burdens, a participatory identity; others see cramped quarters, gossip, and small-mindedness. Sometimes I think we just have to take the good with the bad. But collectivity tantalizes me with its promise of a mode of action and organization that can ride the tiger between major and minor, neither seeking turf for itself nor struggling futiley against the very concept of turf. Obviously this is beyond the work of any individual writer—but I do think, when I called Dan Beachy-Quick's writing "major," that I was unconsciously expressing my desire for this provisional zone. Dan's work is engaged with the major and the idea of the major, yet I don't think he wants either to be assimilated by or completely deterritorialize his chosen turf (canonical nineteenth-century American literature, in the case of the piece I discussed). He's opening up cracks in the major where new words and desires might sprout, while also assuming that the major/center/universal is something to be valued as a means to the end of expanded subjectivity. This is risky: the major will, Borglike, always try to grab you and make you part of it, or else spit you out with even greater (or at least more obvious) violence. What might save Dan is his fellow adventurers: others' intersecting projects, others' critical attention to his project, and an increasing tendency toward active participation (what I might call pro-jection) that all might help to keep him honest and keep him supplied with imaginative resources. Such, anyway, is how things work in my utopia of poetry, which I swear to you actually exists for long moments, even here, even now.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sorry to have missed the flarf festival—but Anne's report helps me to imagine it.

In other news, apparently my poet name is "Atticus Buxton." I kinda like it.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Happy as a pig in you-know-what with the journals that have come in this weekend: the Lisa Robertson issue of Chicago Review (which includes among other goodies an essay by Cal Bedient, "The Predicament of Modern Poetry (The Lyric at the Pinch-Gate)" that I'd like to see become part of a larger conversation) and the premier issue of PRACTICE: NEW WRITING + ART, which is both a beautiful object and shrewdly edited—a lot of the work featured there straddles that line between my two favorite modes, the postmodern baroque and social formalism. On the one hand there's the poems from Christi Kramer's sequence titled Reading 'The Throne' that purports to be "an ethnography-in-poetry of Iraqi Kurds exiled and living as refugees in Harrisonburg, Virginia"; an interview with and two poems by the Bosnian poet Semezdin Mehmedinovic, who advocates a strongly "documentary dimension to [his] work, which hopefully brings us closer to the truth"; and an essay by Betsy Andrews called "A Huge and Important Thing: The Body P\oet/olitic." On the other hand, there's a poem from soon-to-be-SOON reader Dan Beachy-Quick that he says is "the result of a fusion of Plato's Phaedrus and the event to come" (the "event" being the birth of his first child); a collaboration between G.C. Waldrep & John Cross that ranges gorgeous words and phrases in ragged columns down the page; and some acutely synesthetic poems by Eleanor Graves: "Sweet flowers sweat bitterly in the mouth." In the comments box of my last post, "Spicergirl" complains that I didn't really answer "Snapshots'" question about how theoretical poetry might be made available to the common reader: I might now direct both of them toward PRACTICE, because most of the poems are preceded by one-page statements about the work that are designed to make it more accessible.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

I've been thinking about a comment that was posted to the His Speech to the Graduates Post a couple of days from someone calling him or herself "snapshots." Here's the comment:
I’m am neither in academe nor will I ever be; although I do write poetry, or at the very least, like to think I try. I work in mortgage banking as a profession. I am familiar, to a certain extent, with Language Poets and am strangely intrigued by their approach to writing, what constitutes poetry, aesthetics, etc. I’ve read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus multiple times, as well as other texts that may or may not (depending on who you’re talking to) be important to Language Poets. But when I read Language poetry I feel slightly confused. I wonder where the poetry begins and the philosophy ends or vice versa. Call me naïve, and I admit, my question is rather categorical and thus, not leaving much room for the liquidity of Language poetry. Another question I have is, how would a Language Poet (or someone with a more theoretical bent, like yourself) explain poetry to a non-academic who is interested in poetry, but has no interest in writing poetry? Is it important that they (i.e., the non-academic) understand? And if not, how does that effect the purpose and aim or the “theoretical poet”?
This has me thinking about "theoretical poetry" or perhaps "conceptual poetry" (the one term leans more toward literary theory, the other more toward the art world) as perhaps a more useful term for the specific strain of contemporary poetry sometimes referred to as "post-Language poetry" or more broadly and notoriously, the "post-avant." (Though the latter might be more accurately called "post-New American" since it includes the nth generations of the categories Allen devised for his anthology: the Beats, Black Mountain, San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School, and miscellaneous fellow travelers.) "Theoretical poetry" is as nearly oxymoronic a term as "philosophical poetry" (thinking here of the classical opposition between philosophy and poetry that goes back to Plato and which a great deal of now itself classic literary theory devotes itself to thinking about) and invites attack from those who object to the muddying of the division of labor the term implies. Some of this is plain laziness, I think, or else a sentimental denial of the reality of intellectual labor, driven by nostalgia for the artisanship and unalienated labor (said nostalgia being as it were auratically embodied in the workshop term "craft"—not to mention "workshop"). But savvier anti-theoretical poets may actually be responding to the intensification of the dis-integrating effect of the division of labor that theory makes visible: they object, with some justice, to the imperative to become a specialist with a specialized vocabulary, bringing about a process precisely opposite to the word made flesh: the word that abstracts its writer from world and self. From fear of this it's a short leap to fear of irrelevance, fear of the walls of the ivory tower that these critics believe they can breach or render transparent through appeals to the authenticity of their identity or their affect or "their" literary tradition. To critics like D.W. Fenza, theory is parasitic monster that threatens to eat all of these things, having already devoured the vocabularies of diverse intellectual disciplines (psychoanalysis, economics, sociology, ecology, feminist theory, etc., etc.).

Speaking for myself, I'm attracted to theoretical poetry because of the tension that it articulates between reflective discourse and a discourse that claims to somehow exceed, subvert, undermine, or transcend discourse itself: the word made flesh, or to use a more Jewish metaphor, the word as maker (the kabbalistic power of the letter). Many if not most poets cling to the possibility of a "pure" poetry: language that transforms itself into a kernel of reality, sheerly through the agency of the poet and/or reader's faith in that transformation. If you like, that's the Christian-Protestant notion of poetry: through faith alone in the Word shall I/my poem be saved. Theoretical poets are more like Jews, who believe in the literal unspeakability of the Word (YHVH), and whose horizon of redemption is determined by a messiah who will always only arrive "next year." At the same time, the Word (the discourse that is more than discourse, more than just words) is written into the very fabric of reality, and to employ discourses critically and musically (the emphasis on intellection vs. music as the means of reflection signals one's basic aesthetic orientation: to cite the names of a few well-known theoretical poets, I'd propose this continuum: Watten-Scalapino-Hejinian-Silliman-Armantrout-Palmer-Harryette Mullen) is a means of creating force fields of resonance between discourse and reality: reality becomes visible as the negative space around reflective linguistic artifacts. Of course most theoretical poets conceive of this (directly) unrepresentable Real as social, whereas non-theoretical poets tend to be more openly theological about their quest for contact with the ineffable. Readers may here recognize what I previously categorized as poetries "A" and "C" here—and maybe Fenza adopts something like the "B" position by advocating for the "accurate description of reality," as though description alone can do anything other than reify what's already there, and already ideological. At least the "C" poets believe in some sort of beyond, which opens the possibility for a second-order reflection: in Aodrnian terms, the world revealed as ruined through apprehension of the messianic light. But "C" wants the light to be positive, which looks hopelessly naive from the "A" position.Bad theoretical poetry lets the poetry be swallowed by the theory (though this should not be confused with the poetry that most militantly refuses representation of language's non-discursive possibilities—such sheer negativity is rare and can actually compel through the intensity of its Bartlebyan affect), while the reverse situation leads to grumbling about how theory is just being used as a kind of prestigious spice to flavor the same-old same-old.

I am afraid this is not likely to be very illuminating for Snapshot, who quite reasonably asks for some kind of user-friendly introduction to theoretical poetry, while at the same time recognizing that such user-friendliness might be entirely beside the point. (Joshua Clover's Fence article, The Rose of the Name, also declines to be such an introduction, but it's fun to read and provides a number of resources for further investigation.) As for the question of theoretical poetry's relationship to the non-academic, well, as Kent Johnson insists, one need not be an academic to study or write poetry. But it definitely demands a degree of intellectual labor that most readers are simply not willing to peform: most people instinctively reject the theoretical poet's claim to make the reader an equal or at least junior partner in meaning-generation (in Zukofsky's terms, to become "subject of the poem's energy"). This may have something to do with the internalization of the division of labor: a poet is supposed to reveal some aspect of the (domestic or emotional or religious) Real—the someone-supposed-to-know, to toss in another Lacanian term. And yet: a great deal of theoretical poetry offers musical or affective pleasures that can be enjoyed for their own sake, and which ideally serve to seduce the reader into a reflective position. So the best answer to Snapshot might be to point him or her toward theoretical poets on the more overtly playful and musical end of the scale: I've already mentioned Harryette Mullen, and I'm guessing some of my readers might be willing to name more names in the comment boxes below. As Pound said, "Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man." The theoretical poetry I value most proceeds by gladness and delight to produce reflections of what might indeed appear very gloomy—but to seize and win reality, even a dark reality, with that energy seems preferable to me to wearing blinders.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Just a quick note from the end of the first week of the revived Bookery II (aka Bookery Too) here in Ithaca—the store's been beautifully refurbished, and the poetry section now has its own corner with a selection that, I daresay, is second to none in the region. Very happy how it's all worked—I think Ithaca owes the new owner and my new boss, Gary Weissbrot, a debt of thanks.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

His Speech to the Graduates

One of the perks, if you can call it that, of being a member of the Cornell English Department is that there are often copies of the AWP's magazine The Writer's Chronicle, lying around. Usually it's a case of the bland leading the bland, and this issue looked to be no exception. But then I turned to a piece called "The Words & the Bees: Advice for Graduating MFA Students in Writing," adapted by D.W. Fenza, the Executive Director of AWP, from a commencement speech he gave to the graduates of the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. (I don't remember even having a commencement for my MFA, but oh well.) Not a terribly promising title, nor on first glance is the article's conceit as described in the opening paragraph: "instead of grappling after literary wisdom, I will tell you a few things about honey bees and insects. I have nine suggestions for you, nine musings, couched in the world of the honeycomb and the hive. This way, if I fail to tell you anything new about your life as a writer, I might at least tell you something interesting about the life of a bee." Okay, that's a fair enough bargain. And for the first two sections, I found the piece to be rewarding. Part 1, "Embrace the Swarm," is a defense of the proliferation of MFA programs that compares the number of bees in a typical hive to the number of students who have earned MFA degrees in creative writing over the past ten years (that's between 20 and 30K, believe it or not). To Fenza, these hivelike numbers represent a good thing: "As a graduate with the MFA degree, you are part of a great democratic experiment in public access to higher education and the arts." That means diversity: "Our literature, finally, contains multitudes." Well and good, and better is this incisive critique of the American sense of history, or lack thereof:
There are many reasons for the current lack of consensus over who should be admitted to the pantheon of great authors. American lives in an eternal but shallow present; there is little progress, among members of the public, in the formulation of enduring opinions of any kind, especially opinions about books. The past is mostly a place where American seeks to be reassured by its nostalgia; it's not a place to exercise judgment and criticism. One year, in his State of the Union speech, the President declares we will be traveling to Mars. The next year, neither he nor the federal budget provide any mention or support for an expedition to Mars. The discontinuity goes mostly unnoticed. Last year has already disappeared. We live amid the mass-production of hyper-kinetic episodes of amnesia.
So far, so elitist—but it smacks of truth. All righty. The next section, "Describe the Hive Accurately," is a nearly inspiring paean to the power, and the task, of "the accurate description of society" that Fenza deems to be the primary responsibility of the writer—a responsibility that both aesthetically and morally requires the deferment of the politics of the present: "We are social animals, and as such we can't help but to be political, though politics must remain subordinate to a writer's efforts to describe our society accurately. An accurate description may have political efficacy that surpasses the politics of the day." Yeah, but it's not necessarily not effective in the present, is it? So far, so quietistic—but I'm inclined to give Fenza the benefit of the doubt for his rewriting of a Yeats quotation that reads as follows: "All literature created out of a conscious political aim in the long run creates weakness by creating a habit of unthinking obedience. Literature created for its own sake, for some eternal spiritual need, can be used for politics. Dante is said to have unified Italy. The more unconscious the creation, the more powerful." There's some sense and a lot of malarkey there. Here's how Fenza follows it up:
But liberty, certainly, may be understood to be "some eternal spiritual need." I would reformulate Yeats's pronouncement slightly: The more accurate a writer's creation, the more beautifully subversive it may become. Dante's description of Florence was accurate and comprehensive; its people, its Church, its corruption, its charity, its malevolence, and its idealism are all rendered there in The Divine Comedy. It is one of the books that made the Reformation inevitable. What America is now, the Holy Roman Catholic Church was then; yet Dante put the Church in its place. Now, that's real political subversion. That's beauty and power attained through accuracy and the sonic virtues of language.
There's much here that I find seductive, even though I mistrust the deferral of the present once again implied here. Plus maybe I don't fully understand it: is Fenza saying that Dante's Catholic catalogue damned what it meant to praise? It's a counter-intuitive understanding of epic, that's for sure. Still, though I'm hardly willing to endorse Yeats' "unconscious creation" (except as the kind of dodge that writers sometimes need to employ in order to preserve the autonomy of their work—I screened a documentary on Susan Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog with my students on Monday and Parks played just that sort of dodgem game, claiming that the play had no particular allegorical meaning—more malarkey, but necessary at times to prevent one's own writing from being drowned by one's own overdtermining remarks), I'm taken by the notion of "liberty" as the kind of spiritual need that can drive writing without over political content toward one or more political functions. Why, it's a downright theoretical approach, which made me very surprised to read part 3, "Beware the Ichneumonids." Say what?
Ichneumonids are parasites with peculiar habits of breeding. An ichneumonid wasp, for instance, uses her ovipositor to inject her egg into the back of a caterpillar. The poor caterpillar goes off to spin a cocoon; meanwhile, the larva of the wasp devours the caterpillar from the inside out. What will emerge from the cocoon will not be the lovely flutter of colorful wings, but the rasping escape of a newborn wasp.
Ichneumonid section 3 is as long as the other six sections put together—longer if you count the number of footnotes it produces. And who are the ichneumonids in this scenario, you may well ask? Who are the parasites injecting hapless literary caterpillars with their rasping progeny? Why, literary theorists, of course:
Since the 1970s, academe has become home to a new breed of literary specialists. Literary theorists and cultural critics will happily use a novel as fodder to feed and propagate their own kind. They inject strange new messages into stories and poems to affirm revolutionary ideas—profoundly important ideas that, nonetheless, the theorists are always erasing, obscuring, and leaving in dissassembled heaps for newer ideas. They would tell you that accuracy in writing is a naive delusion. At the expense of storytellers and poets, theorists sustain a parasitic lifestyle with baffling extremes of sophistication. Of course, many departments of English are staffed with wonderful people who work generously to keep expertise alive inn various epochs in literature's long history; many cultural critics have provided us with startling re-readings of the Bible, myths, and neglected works of literature; many have helped to open the canon to many new voices; but a few theorists have dedicated themselves and their departments to the systematic humiliation of literature.
Note the unconvincing gesture toward the ecumenical—unconvincing, because if we're only talking about "a few theorists," why spend fourteen paragraphs warning the callow young graduates against their depredations? Now, it's not that Fenza's claims are entirely without accuracy: there are fashions in academe as there are in most other areas of human endeavor, and the discarding of last year's theory in favor of this year's model is no more edifying a spectacle than America's Top Model, and less colorful. But what working literary critic or theorist today seriously claims that "accuracy in writing is a naive delusion"? I've certainly been held to rigorous standards of evidence in my own scholarly writing. I'm guessing Fenza eagerly devoured David Lehman's excoriation of DeMania, Signs of the Times, but has never bothered to read any Derrida or DeMan himself—nor, what is more to the point in 2006, considered the work being done by those who have digested and critiqued DeMan as opposed to simply holding their noses. It's the last sentence that shows us where blood has been drawn: is it credible to say that "literature" is being systematically humiliated by theory? Moby Dick and company are doing just fine—it's not literature, not even contemporary literature, that's being humiliated by theory, but litterateurs—specifically, writers in the academy who are terrified at seeing their anti-intellectual prerogatives (established mostly I think in the 70s, in the heyday of deep image Blyviating) worn away by a new generation of writer-scholars who are as comfortable in the Adorno seminar as they are in the writing workshop. This is I think confirmed by the fourth and fifth paragraphs of Fenza's screed-within-a-speech:
Theorists perform these castigations of literary works in order to quicken the dawn of a revolution for social, political, and economic equity. If there ever was to be a revolution, however, the literary theorists have failed it. While the disparity between rich and poor in the US grew wider and more abysmal, while France and the rest of Europe created an underclass of Muslim immigrants, while the US became an empire and exported its industrial jobs to its de facto colonies, while the Christian right demonized homosexuals, while English departments grew yet more exploitative of its adjunct workers—wile all this happened, the tenured class studied Wittgenstein, Marx, Foucault, hooks, Fanon, Lacan, Spivak, Lyotard, Kristeva, Poulet, Butler, and Gertrude Stein and felt subversive.
    While intellectuals of the right engineered the conservative control of the House, Senate, White House, federal budget, tax codes, state courts, federal courts, news media, public opinion, and a few foreign nations, intellectuals of the left seized the Norton anthologies. Never before in the history of liberalism have so many words been spilled to accomplish so little.
Fenza's attack here fails to demonstrate how the anti-theoretical purehearted devotees of literature that represents have not also failed the revolution, if they were not in fact wholly indifferent to it; but that's not the real issue. This may look like a substantive critique, but the "Norton anthologies" line is a dead giveaway: it's precisely the seizure of cultural capital by left theorists that Fenza is choking on, not their failure to live up to their own ideals. If there's a Holy Roman Catholic Church being subverted by a writerly practice here, then Fenza is the Pope and the theorists are the Dantes, renovating and remaking the house of literature which has grown top-heavy with writer-teachers who hysterically reject not just Theory (aka French Theory, aka Antediluvian Marxism, et al—c.f. the "roll of honor" that ends the first paragraph above) but theoretical reflection in general: who refuse utterly the task of reflection except in the musty vocabularies of the biographical. We can see this in Fenza's fantasy about putting criticism—note his use of that word here rather than "theorists," it shows his hand—back in its place: "My little survey of literary politics here is only the view of a solitary reader, who believes an author's work should be of primary value, while criticism remains of third or fourth importance, after textual scholarship that seeks to preserve the author's best intentions, and after biographical and historical scholarship that animates an author's life, influences, times, and sensibility." Yes, it's definitely literary politics that most preoccupy Fenza here—whatever's legitimate in his criticisms of the theoretical left (pun intended) is obscured by the mounting hysteria of a man whose hegemonic cultural position is slipping—may have already slipped—into the residual rear-guard. Check out the William F. Buckley-ish locutions that take possession of Fenza's speech a little later in the same paragraph, when he starts addressing the most dangerous traitors to literature of all: "The Language poets would argue that theory, criticism, and poems all complement one another in an endlessly efflorescent and pomiferous symbiosis (and [sic] ecology that, to me, resembles the horror of a never-ending seminar in a PhD program that aims to incarcerate poetry in academentia forever." Phew! "Pomiferous" is actually kind of a neat word: it means "bearing pomes," and what are poems, according to "A fleshy fruit, such as an apple, pear, or quince, having several seed chambers and an outer fleshy part largely derived from the hypanthium. Also called false fruit." But honestly, I don't know what to make of this combination of ten-dollar words and blatant anti-intellectualism, especially from a man who's the executive director of an academic organization. I can only conclude that Fenza feels directly and personally threatened by this newfangled "ecology" of theory-criticism-poetry that is actually at least as old as Pope's Essay on Criticism:
A few of the Language poets and critics, such as Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff, ooze with condescension, unless you talk their kind of theory-infused talk, which, of course, must interrogate the whole notion of talk and problematize the materiality of the text, as our lingua franca has been tainted by the commodifications of consumerism—francs, marks, yen, and dollars—devalued by capitalism, clouded over by the hormonal brainstorms of gender, and trivialized by "official verse culture," or any other culture that has not yet been disassembled by Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, and their peers, who will point out that "talking turkey" betrays the compromised origins of American vernacular as it was crushed under Plymouth Rock and then served up by the Puritans for subsequent Thanksgiving dinners (please pass the cranberry bog) because poetry may not aspire towards simple represenation or a puritanical accuracy of depiction, poetry must not be a product—no, no, no—but a PROCESS, liberated by the upheavals of its perpetual making and re-making and by the exhaustive extrapolations of trained specialists with PhDs in "radical" poetics.
Poets with PhDs! The sky is falling! Seriously, this is embarrassing: as a parody of the positions taken by Perloff and Bernstein it is woefully, utterly inaccurate (the man can't even grasp that the franc and mark have gone the way of the dodo). At least he cops to his own Puritanical leanings: to paraphrase the famous definition, Fenza is someone who is desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time thinking about writing. It's downright weird to lump Bernstein and Perloff together the way Fenza has done here, especially if he's as exercised as he claims to be about the ineffectiveness of the theoretical left (Perloff's politics are center-right, as closely as I can determine them; Bernstein's a Marxist but probably more Groucho than Karl), and then to attack them for launching "a critique that would throw a sack over each of the heads of so many authors to make them indistinguishable from one another in group denigration." Uh, pot? The kettle wants its black back. Anyway, it becomes clear once again that what really works Fenza into a lather is the academic success of Language poets and theorists and all their fellow travelers: "The Language poets have established a current of poetry that is now one of the main currents in the pluralism of American poetries, although the Language poets wear their badges of martyrdom, misrepresentation, outsider status, rebellion, and bleeding hearts (for bravery in the French campaigns) more ostentatiously than most poets." You mean they're whiners, D.W.? Fenza then grudgingly concedes that "Many theorists and postmodernist poets have opened possibilities for literature; they have elevated readers to the status of co-collaboration with authors. A few theorists have, by a few small increments, facilitated the great social changes of our time. They have made a new kind of beauty and its appreciation possible" Sorry, Mr. Fenza, but your ass is not covered: you've been tossing around the phrase "a few theorists" and "a few Language poets" for pages now without naming any names except for Bernstein and Perloff, and there you showed yourself to be woefully ignorant of what it is these writers actually have to say. (I would have been more persuaded, actually, by the denigration-of-a-group accusation if instead of Bernstein's name he had written Ron Silliman.) Why should we believe you now that you're suddenly willing to concede that some of these good-for-nothing theorists have in fact delivered on the social potential of their work? No, you'd better just put the broken record back on: "But other theorists and a few postcoherent poets stand among the greatest pretenders, hypocrites, and ineffectual advocates of liberalism, the humane virtues of literature, and aesthetic renewal. They have abused books and authors. They have tortured our poor mother tongue. And perhaps their abuse has contributed to the decline of the English major and audiences for literature." Poor Mother English! How WILL she survive those nasty poets and theorists and their language games—but it seems to me the real torture, of English and human beings, comes from the mouths of politicians and not from the academics who criticize hegemonic ways of speech (I am tempted here to call Fenza's generalized calumny an "extraordinary rendition" of the literary scene). The one claim we might take seriously comes in the final sentence, which is footnoted with a claim that the number of English majors has fallen "from 7% in the 1970s to slightly less that [sic] 4% today," and that "The decline of the English major coincides with the ascendancy of literary theory as well as higher education's growing specialization in vocational training for politics, law, public administration, communications, business, engineering, etc." This sounds a little like the kind of theorizing about the role of socioeconomic forces in the cultural field that you'd expect Fenza to be leery of, but in any case if you think about it for ten seconds you can't blame theory (much less "a few postcoherent poets") for the tendency of late capitalism to push its labor force toward ever-more refined modes of specialization. Which suggests that the crisis in reading leads us directly back to the crisis in our workplaces, our voting booths, our families—the continuum the postcoherent recognize as constituting our aesthetic, quotidian, and political life. But I forgot: only "a few theorists have, by a few small increments, facilitated the great social changes of our time." Gosh, that DOES sound bad—that's nothing I'd ever want to be a part of.

I don't think Pope Fenza will be launching any Counter-Reformations with this speech, nor will the other six parts of his advice (brief and exhausted exhortations for new MFAs to write reviews and essays, write a little each day, cultivate a sense of wonder, leave enough space between projects, read dead writers, and break away from the community of the MFA program [this last implying the rejection of literary community as such in favor of "your own separate enterprise"—community is for sissies, I mean for students]). But I do worry that this kind of thing will reinforce the estrangement of writers and intellectuals in the academy (the target audience of this strangely anti-academic speech). Not every writer need read literary theory or Language poetry; not every writer should or can be an intellectual. But to come down this hard, before a relatively young audience, on the frutiful cross-pollination of writing and theory in the academy will I think only contribute further to the decline of the prestige of the MFA degree as providing insufficient training in the habits of critical reflection that a university ought to demand from its faculty. We don't necessarily need more poets with PhDs, though I for one welcome the proliferation of such (and maybe that's what's got Fenza mad at Perloff: though the subtitle of a 1999 article she wrote in Boston Review suggests that they ought to be natural allies, calling as it does to put the literature back in literary studies, it also suggests that the academic future belongs to poets with PhDs—not because we're soldiers for theory but because we tend to be literary scholars with a real interest in literature). But we do need MFA students, and MFA programs, that don't take pride in know-nothingism, and who are willing to stretch their comfort zones, and who criticize what needs criticizing from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance and fear of the new.
World famous in Ithaca, once again! Paul Hansom of the Ithaca Times has written an article about SOON Productions. (Hopefully the SOON website will be updated, er, soon, with info on next week's reading by Dan Beachy-Quick and Matthea Harvey.)

Also, for those of you in the Ithaca area, I will be reading tomorrow as part of the Lounge Hour Reading Series in the English Department Lounge at Cornell at 5 PM with Jerry Gabriel, fiction writer and honorary SOONster.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

My dissertation committee chair Roger Gilbert has loaned me a marvelous book apropos Johnson: The Order of Things: An Anthology of Scottish Sound, Pattern and Concrete Poems, edited by Ken Cockburn with Alec Finlay. I will need my own copy. A poem from the back cover:

Siesta of a Hungarian Snake

s sz sz SZ sz SZ sz ZS zs ZS zs zs z
In the home stretch with Zuk. Although neither he nor Adorno might strike one as particularly pastoral in their orientation at first glance, in conjunction each illuminates the other's concern with nature as the ultimate ground which the technique of collage-constellation seeks to reveal and rescue from the epistemological habitus of late capitalist civilization. Or at any rate I feel the first pages of "A"-22 lend themselves startlingly well to such an interpretation. Will follow this up with my thoughts on 80 Flower as more or less the zero degree of Zukofskyan ecolage, and that should form a natural bridge into my Ronald Johnson chapter. Which I'm starting to think might be the last chapter of the dissertation proper as an exploration of a specifically late modernist pastoral. The question of what I believe to be the postmodernist pastoral (Post-Modernist Baroque Pastoral?) practiced by the likes of Lisa Robertson might be enough of a separate subject to require a project all its own.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Let me sing the praises of the brand-new issue of the University of Montana's literary magazine, CutBank Poetry 65, to which I have contributed a short review of Shanna's delightful Down Spooky. Back in the day, for one year, Nicole Cordrey and I (Nicole, do you still have a blog?) were co-editors, but the magazine the current students have put out edited by Brandon Shimoda (of the ongoing poemblog Peek Thru the Pines) and Devon Wootten, is a horse of a different color. With this issue CutBank leaps into the forefront of student-edited literary magazines, though it's anyone's guess if they'll be able to maintain continuity after Brandon and Devon graduate. The poetry selection is both tasty and filling, with standout work in full-blown Post-Modernist (or maybe just Late Modernist) Baroque mode from Cal Bedient ("It's what Messiaen calls active rhythm, as when one character / punches another in the face"), Jennifer K. Dick ("Unabashed resting place for castor oil and musk sacks"), Katy Lederer, ("Once plucked, the happy self will run, the parts will move in unison, at once!"), Jill Magi, ("those croaking frogs equal bad weather approaching / so come // look at my quilting"), Gina Myers ("indescribably arrives something / in the mouth"), Amy King ("This is a badass bar you can bring / your children to"), Peter Richards ("thinking it unnatural as his mouth / sought out my fingers in the metals / ribbons and bright hooks I undid"), Elizabeth Robinson ("The cistern dries out into a primitive lantern"), Janet Holmes ("Confronting / the Adamant ////////// Mind"), Stacy Szymaszek ("fuck your little / bottle of saffron / even if it did induce / a significant cough"), Karen An-hwei Lee ("a window of time opening slowly / to the road of an open hour, rallentando or an allotrope of carbon with gradual / intensifications"), Jon Thompson ("Oh Sarah, Landscape is vague how to hunt the beast with corrupted nature, see signs of salvation, the world is to spew us out"), Adam Clay (with possibly the best title/first line in the issue, "The sad Russian Masters are sad no more"), Joyelle McSweeney ("The seed vision runs like rain or money into the periphery"), and many more. Plus many pages of reviews, long and short; translations of Vietnamese poems by Linh Dinh, translations of Virgil's Georgics by Kimberley Johnson, plus an interview with D.A. Powell which includes two prizewinningly provocative paragraphs:
Oh, I hate talking theoretically about poems as if they're in any way governed by theories—theories don't write poems; they very often don't even help to explain poems. I suppose we have to say something more about a poem than "I like the image of the cow" or "you sure know a lot of dirty words." But at the same time, I keep hearing O'Hara's marvelous aside each time I say something remotely lofty: "but I hate all that crap." The balloon of speech should never be more than twice the size of the character's head; I think that's the rule for cartoonists. When I feel the balloon swelling, I want to go back and let out some of the hot air.
I think it's time for the pendulum to swing back. I think it's time for poets to reclaim the power of words and to use langauge in a manner that is precise. It doesn't mean we can't still comment on our distrust of authority; it doesn't mean we can't still call into question the cognitive domain of language. But at some point we also have to understand that words do mean. If I say "the US has been hijacked by corporate monkeys" it's not the same as saying "the language is a trope." (Thanks, Barrett Watten, for pointing out the most obvious thing and pretending you've given us insight.)
A sneer and a smear, maybe; but the thing I like about Powell's comments here is my sense that he's actually gone through all that stuff and found it wanting: this is not the knee-jerk response of someone who doesn't want thinking to mess up all the pretty pictures in his head. Finally, there's a chapbook length poem in the center of the issue by Dan Beachy-Quick (next up, with Matthea Harvey, on April 29 in the SOON reading series here in Ithaca) titled "This Nest, Swift Passerine: 3rd Movement." Beachy-Quick's writing is often deeply yet idiosyncratically engaged with American writing from the nineteenth century and earlier; his second book Spell swallows Melville's Moby Dick flukes and all (see my review of it here) while the crabbed and sensuous lyrics of his first book, North True South Bright, which I am coming to think might be the more original of the two, pool and eddy in the sensibilities of Thomas Traherne and Thomas Hariot. This new poem makes me think that Dan is pursuing old-school American Studies to its limit through verse: centering on the epistemologically resonant image of the stream that both reflects what's around it and is clear to the bottom, he pulls in texts and fragments from the American Renaissance: Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, perhaps others. Its forms are various: one passage, a kind of self-unwriting, reminds me of Ronald Johnson:

Echo, I pine.                           *    o  pine

Looking up. Over the water. My voice * watermyvoice
has no edge. I am the edge. I pin * I am edging
My voice to a leaf. The water is * leafthaw eros
not thin. Light betrays the surface. * inlight yourface
Will you be seen? Over the water. * bein water
A wave is thin. The shore is no sound. * away is now
Pine bough the empty sleeve. I am * empty eve
Looking up. My voice. If I am alone. * voice my own

I pine, Return. * in Return

I think this is major work: it returns to these texts in something like the spirit in which Anne Carson returns to the Greek myths: rediscovering their contemporaneity, in part through freshness of form. A wholly unironic form of disjunction. I'm happy to have read it, happy to know that my alma mater's magazine is, at least for the moment, in such good hands.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The looktouchblog comments are worth a, uh, look.
I feel slightly constrained in commenting about the gender disparity in Craig's article, since after all Craig was kind enough to include me in it. Some useful commentary from Anne and Tony. To my mind the absence of women in Craig's article connects directly with the absence of women on the panel Tony and I participated in at AWP (with the exception of the organizer and moderator, Robin Schaer). As some of the women in the audience at that panel pointed out, many female poet-bloggers do not practice the sort of compartmentalization that male poet-bloggers do: that is, their blogs tend away from the essayistic-critical mode that Ron and I mostly follow. Instead their blogs have a more holistic feel, integrating poems and commentary on poetry with images and anecedotes from their daily lives (I think this especially true in the case of bloggers who are also mothers). Such blogs are less likely to be recognized as "poetry blogs" by those on the lookout for the kind of compartmentalized commentary that men tend to be comfortable with, and which more closely resemble the look and feel of the existing print journals (with their columns and demarcated pages, their tables of contents, and so forth) which Craig's article in particular reifies as the "center" of the poetry world. It would have been taking a further step than I suspect the institution represented by Publishers Weekly could be comfortable with to insist that "poetry on the internet" is not an imitation of the now-residual forms of print poetry culture, but for many younger writers the new "center" (if the endlessly reticulating network of blogs and zines can be so labeled). So Craig's article perhaps inevitably becomes part of a project to assimilate the poetry net into the print mainstream. I do not endorse this project, yet I am still happy to be recruited as an evangelist for the poetry net: if more people discover what's happening here thanks to Craig's article, that's all to the good. One of the first things they'll learn is that it may be the women who are pushing most insistently against the residual "print-think" that I would be the first to admit has a hold on my consciousness: bloggers like Anne, Robin, Alli, and many if not most of the writers linked to at ~*~W_O_M_B~*~ are taking fuller advantage of the medium's polyphonic possibilities than male bloggers like myself whose practice is easier to recognize from the perspective of print culture.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Publisher's Weekly Interview (Extended Mix)

I thought people might be interested in my full answers to the questionnaire that Craig came up a couple of months ago in order to write his PW article. The thoughts these questions provoked were very helpful in preparing my talk for the poetry-on-the-net panel that I took part in at AWP. I haven't for the most part turned names and publications into links, but most should be readily available from the linkroll & blogroll at right:

1. How, when, and why did you get started blogging?

It was January 2003. I had become aware of various poetry and poetics blogs through their being mentioned on the Buffalo Poetics List, which I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with, and I was impressed by rigor and whimsy of the thought there, and the sheer variety: Ron Silliman is not Jordan Davis is not Nada Gordon is not K. Silem Mohammed, yet they all participate in the same wide-ranging and ec-centric conversation. I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to contribute to that conversation, but I thought I’d give it a try. And I had a more practical consideration: since my first book, Selah, had recently won the Barrow Street Book Contest and would be published that year, I thought I’d try blogging as a means of developing the public persona and thick skin that I imagined to be the necessary attributes of a published author. Which, as it turns out, they are. But I’ve gotten so much more out of blogging than I’d ever expected, and have kept it up for longer than I would have predicted. I’ve made friends (and a few enemies) from literally all over the world; I’ve discovered poets, books, and journals I might not otherwise have encountered; and above all I’ve participated and in some small way helped to steer that conversation about poetry and poetics. It’s one of my chief modes of access to the life of poetry in our time.

2. Do you enjoy reading poetry online? Do you miss curling up with a book?

I’m not actually a big fan of reading actual poems online, and I usually have to be pointed toward something exceptional (recently for example there was Helena Bennett’s remarkable “chapbook” you don't have to call me Merle Haggard, (anymore), which you can read at before I’ll summon the patience to read a poem of any length on the screen. Short poems are okay, but the quality of attention I like to bring to poetry seems antithetical to the experience of a glowing screen.

3. What online publications / blogs do you read? What are some favorites?

There are some truly terrific online magazines and I’ll just list a handful here: Shampoo, Can We Have Our Ball Back?, Octopus, Tarpaulin Sky, Typo, word for/ word, GutCult, and let’s not leave out everybody’s online granddaddy, Jacket. But I confess to spending most of my online poetry time reading blogs, because it’s conversation about poetics that I’m hungriest for. The bloggers I mentioned above are long-time favorites; others who helped introduce me to the possibilities of the genre are Catherine Meng, Jonathan Mayhew, Gary Sullivan (who shut his virtual doors recently, sadly), John Latta, Jim Behrle, Nick Piombino, Stephanie Young, Henry Gould, and Steve Evans (not really a blogger, but definitely a web presence). Slightly newer kids on the block: Anne Boyer, Jasper Bernes, Ange Mlinko, Joshua Clover aka Jane Dark, and Tony Tost. Lists are invidious and I’m leaving out lots of folks whose rants and ruminations form the texture of my sense of “the literary life” in 2006.

4. Do you read many print literary publications? If so, which ones?

The Poker, The Hat, Chicago Review, CARVE, 1913: a journal of forms, NO: A Journal of the Arts, jubilat, American Letters & Commentary, Logopoeia, The Tiny.... I will confess to skimming issues of Poetry (Chicago) at the local Barnes & Noble in search of irritation; I generally find it, too.

5. How many books of poetry would you say you read in the average week?

Varies from none to three or so. This week I read Joshua Marie Wilkinson’s Suspension of a Secret in Abandoned Rooms from Pinball Publishing, Karla Kelsey’s Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary from Ahsahta Press, and David Larsen’s The Thorn from Faux Press.

6. What effects do you think the internet has had on poetry overall? Are more people reading it? Does it become, in some way, more accessible?

I would argue that the poetic means of production—of publication—have been made much more accessible by the Internet: anyone can post poems on a website or blog and, if they’re good enough or savvy enough to interface with a larger Web community, find readers for those poems. On the other hand the Internet remains largely a medium of the privileged, and insofar as poetry is no longer taught in our public schools (or taught badly, as a kind of puzzle designed to make the reader feel stupid and out of it), it’s probably become less accessible to readers. But I’m very hopeful about the democratization of writing that the Internet promises and to some degree has already delivered on—it’s becoming more and more difficult for academic poets and institutions to ignore the vitality of non-academic and small-press poetries now that blogs are bridging that gap, while at the same time I think the Internet, as a “free” means of distribution and collectivization, helps to preserve the autonomy of the non-institutional communities and makes it less likely that they’ll simply be co-opted and absorbed by academia.

7. Is the Internet affecting poetry aesthetically?

I think its most significant impact comes as a means of community formation and debate, as I suggested above: it’s become less and less likely that a young poet will emerge from an MFA program, as I did, almost completely ignorant of the non-academic poets and small presses that have really got it going on today. But people are also making direct use of the Web in constructing poems and language-artifacts, and I think we’ve probably only just begun to explore the possibilities. The most visible and interesting Internet-enable poetry that I’m aware of is flarf, which had the honor of being excoriated recently by the poet Dan Hoy in a Jacket article titled “The Virtual Dependency of the Post-Avant and the Problematics of Flarf: What Happens when Poets Spend Too Much Time Fucking Around on the Internet.” Hoy’s argument is reductive and ultimately misguided, I think, but its mere existence speaks to the growing power of Internet-oriented poetics.

8. Do you think more books of poetry are being sold because of the increased presence of poetry on the web?

Hard to say generally, but I think absolutely more small press books are sold now thanks to the Web. These books rarely if ever make it to the shelves of bookstores, so the Internet has become their primary means of purveyance. Which doesn’t mean that I, perhaps anachronistically, don’t keep wishing to encounter these books in more physical, browsable forms.

9. What factors do you think contribute to the proliferation of online journals and blogs?

The blogsosphere as I first encountered it in 2002-2003 had a decidedly left-wing bent, both aesthetically and politically: it was an invaluable resource and point of contact for anyone interested in non-mainstream poetries who didn’t already have a foot planted in some scene or other. Since then blogs have exploded and you can now find poet-bloggers of every conceivable tendency, sometimes linking to each other across aesthetico-political lines. Many of the newer blogs exist solely to promote the authors and their work, to make themselves more “Googleable,” and recently we’ve seen the appearance of corporate poetry blogs from the likes of HarperCollins. Nostalgia for the Wild West days of the Internet is as old as the Internet itself, and I don’t want to indulge in it here. The conversation among poets, the 21st-century salon, is ongoing, and there are new and interesting voices emerging all the time. This medium, like others, will ultimately belong to those who discover its ownmost possibilities: what can the Internet do for poetry that the troubadours didn’t do, that Gutenberg didn’t do, that Ginsberg didn’t do? We are only just beginning to guess.
Had a nice breakfast with Jonathan, his wife Akiko, and their young daughter Julia, the briliant poet—she didn't talk much, but she did show me some very accomplished manga drawings. Then down the hill for an organizational meeting about the new improved Bookery Too, which will be opening on April 17. Soon up the hill to teach my first class on Susan Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog. Sun's bright, hellzapoppin'.

Craig Teicher's Publishers Weekly article on poetry and the internet is now findable here—it includes a few choice quotes from yours truly.
Please consider signing this Petition to Save Iraq's Academics. And now I'm off to breakfast with Mr. Mayhew.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Feeling a rare rush of pride for my congressman.

Fourier's Birthday

Speaking of the Post-Modernist Baroque, here's a message from Spineless Books:
Happy Charles Fourier’s Birthday

April 7th is Charles Fourier’s 234th birthday and the first birthday of Joshua Corey’s singular Fourier Series. Fourier Series is a magnificent work of poetry and book art, the winner of the Fitzpatrick-O’Dinn Award For Best Book Length Work of Constrained English Literature (2005), judged by Christian Bok, published by Spineless Books.

In celebration, Spineless Books has updated the Fourier Series web suite to include recordings of the author reading (recorded in the offices of Burning Deck Press), a PDF excerpt of the book’s inventive layout, and Fourier Electronique, a ten-minute electronic MP3 remix.

Spineless Books is an independent publishing house dedicated to the production and distribution, in print and electronic forms, of innovative literature with an emphasis on collaborative writing, formal experimentation, and utopian thought.

To date, Spineless Books has published seven books with spines including

2002: A Palindrome Story in 2002 Words by Nick Montfort and William Gillespie, with illustrations by Shelley Jackson and book design by Ingrid Ankerson

Drawn Inward, poetry by Mike Maguire

Letter to Lamont, by William Gillespie

and Mars Needs Lunch, by Jimmy Crater, based on a screenplay by June Crater Crash.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Post-Modernist Baroque

So I've been mulling over the above phrase since encountering it in James Bertolino's introduction to Anselm Partalore's new chapbook from Hot Whiskey Press, The Squalicum Harbor Suite. Bertolino met Parlatore in 1971 when they were both graduate students at Cornell, and although only Bertolino was in the MFA program here (Parlatore was an Anthropology PhD student), apparently both fell under the influence of Archie Ammons. Bertolino puts Partalore into an interesting lineage, citing Charles Olson's concept of "the kinetics of the thing," and claiming:
While Parlatore's poems are typically written in stanzas, and thus appear conventional, the actual dynamic is closse to Olson's ideal—enclosed within the lyric envelope. The sentences accrue item after item, reference upon reference, and all are related through the fact of being present there, in and as language. The richness of these texts recalls for me such dazzling books as Paul Metcalf's Apalachee, Evan S. Connell's Points for a Compass Rose, and A.R. Ammons' Sphere: The Form of a Motion. Every thing is connected to all things.
When I hear the word baroque I generally think of elaborate enfolded structures, often informed by the mathematical—Bertolino cites the Concise Columbia Encylopedia (1983), which claims for the baroque style that the "essential characteristic is an emphasis on unity, a balance among diverse parts" and which refers to Christopher Wren's churches as having "compelled order upon overwhelming multiple forms." The baroque also implies a certain degree of abstraction or liberation from instrumental reference—in a modernist context one thinks of Louis Zukofsky's fascination with Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. Surely this atheist New York Jew was less attracted to the religious content of this work than its "overwhelming multiple forms," most obviously situated in requiring two full-sized chorales for its performance. But what can such a thing mean for poetry with the awkward moniker "Post-Modernist" attached to it? Bertolino seems to superimpose this term on Olson (who arguably introduced it to American poetry) and his claim that "one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception." I take this to mean that the postmodern demands successive perceptions without end, without totality; the baroque then would refer to an ordering principle congenial to that refusal of totality, the (precarious?) balance of multiple forms. It's an implicitly expansive aesthetic, perhaps contrary to the spirit of an avant-garde (or at any rate the avant-garde pastoral I've lately been concerned with) that makes do with largely "found" linguistic materials—I'm thinking of this negative Village Voice review of Matthew Barney's latest film, Drawing Restraint 9, which concludes with this admonition from the reviewer, Ed Halter: "What Barney does not grasp is that the greatest avant-garde filmmakers astound us by conjuring powerful visions with limited means. Attempting to approximate this kind of poetic cinema with blockbuster production values becomes as absurd an endeavor as writing a haiku with ten thousand syllables." I haven't seen the new film, but certainly the Cremaster cycle strikes me as an excellent representative of Bertolino's "Post-Modernist Baroque," sparing no expense to weave its ambiguous yet soaring architecture.

I don't know what a ten-thousand syllable haiku might look like, but here's one of Parlatore's poems from the new chapbook:
Squalicum Nocturne

Pavilia of the moon's aperture tonight
the veined lineaments of desire to the Bering Strait
beyond. This is jealousy's perfection, the aftermath
of the pack-ice. I only mention it because

reticulated into the stratified, the beatific.
& there are raptors along the high ridges
nomadic Clovis hunters of the Cascade Crest
ostensibly a promenade of phalanxes

for the skulls of ungulates, the bare white plinths
scratches, indentations, scrolls
of predation's delirium, a validation,
the frescoed trellising obviously its grim stain.

& so it goes here in these rainshadow archipelagos.
The humped backs & hooked snouts of the dark ones,
invalids of the parapets, the fish ladders...
of the holding ponds. The climax conifers soothe

somewhat, as does the vale & warp of the moon.
But the gaudiness of the death-rattle remains.
Here are some things I notice about this: 1) The "lyric envelope" of the four-line stanza Bertolino refers to: a flexible yet solid container for lines crammed with words alternately polysyllabic, elegant, and crabbed (sometimes Parlatore uses a three-line stanza which seems even more finely balanced between stability and instability); 2) one five-dollar word being used to modify another—"veined lineaments," "frescoed trellising," "rainshadow archipelagos"—the effect being to obscure imagery in favor of complexly interweaving sounds; 3) a melancholy affect intensified to the point of exuberance, to the point of blurring the distinction between melancholy and exuberance, that we might characterize as an affect of the sublime. In Parlatore that sublime is achieved in part through the contemplation of the harshly beautiful manifold forms of nature "reticulated into the stratified, the beatific." But it's also the orderly profuseness of language that generates this feeling. Trying to uncover a more than analogical connection between these two sublimes is a bit of an obsession with me. But that's not necessarily the preoccupation of the Post-Modernist Baroque (how different to write it out in all caps like Bertolino does—it summons us to a kind of dignity, or perhaps pretension—I'm reminded of Jorie Graham's pursuit of the sublime, a fearless that can sometimes render her ridiculous, or at least radically out of step with both the social-theory oriented discourse we inherit from the Language poets and the wooly-minded anti-intellectualism often found in mainstream poets' prose.) I'm strongly attracted to this mode, and I see it in the practice of a number of my favorite contemporaries. One of my teachers, Mary Jo Bang, writes this way, and I think recognized me as a companion in baroqueness. (Here's a sampler of her work from Jacket 12.) A more restrained baroque is practiced by Geoffrey Nutter, who's done two books now in which a crammed Latinate beauty presses up against the bounds of generally short poems. (John Yau has a blurb for his latest, Water's Leaves and Other Poems, that kind of sums up the stylistic preoccupations of the Post-Modernist Baroque: " “Could it be that Wallace Stevens and Gertrude Stein met in Elysium and had a son named Geoffrey Nutter?”) Then there's a book that sat long on the Bookery's shelves, tempting me, until I finally snatched it up: Carl R. Martin's Genii Over Salzburg. This book irritated and fascinated me in equal measure as I paged through it during slow times, precisely because it seemed to stand so far apart from what is generally put forward now as the most energetic or at any rate persistent strain in American poetry, namely poppy post-New York School pastiche. What to make of the first poem in the book?
The Vision

The shrill, miltaristic scream
Of a bird
Over the Baltic sea
Is as dented, gray
As a warboat's hull, its white wind

Captain's compass, in the pilot-
Cabin console reflecting clouds.
A witch's memory
Of Walpurgisnacht, conjured up.
Needle and ice.

Watchfires at sea are an illusion,
A desert's swill mirage
Spilling into the sailor's eye.
Homeward to port the sickness leans
Off balance like a drunk.

The ropes are fouled
That anchor cloud to sea, gull to ocean
Like wings of Bismarckian gold.
Rain seeds the waters with red.
A corpse like a scarecrow rises into the sky.
Maybe this has more to do with a hungover German Romanticism than it does the with the Post-Modernist Baroque. Certainly some of the characteristics I isolated in Parlatore seem to be missing: Martin's diction is nowhere near as elaborate and images are often foregrounded, though we still have a regular stanza-form as building block. Yet Martin perhaps demonstrates that the Post-Modernist Baroque can also be achieved not only through the manifold forms of the dictionary, but by drawing upon other equally manifold contexts: "wings of Bismarckian gold" is as confounding an image—really an anti-image, how to visualize it?—as Parlatore's "promenade of phalanxes." You can usher an image out from this language, but it takes repeated reading: the first hit is the strange and estranging language that conjures an atmosphere of mystery, of surging abstract forms. And some of Martin's lines are as richly choked as Parlatore's: "Inviolate cadre of dominating feathers," "Epaulets of gloomy lipstick-red," or another poem that conjures a tragic European landscape as vividly yet obscurely as Partalore conjures Squalicum Harbor:
To Die Regularly

Too many ancillary confections
Are at the table.
The tweezered insect, the ant,
Sublime breeding of the hive,
Is chocolated with thoughts:

Murder, primarily, succeeding
To the throne.
What delights though are ensconced
In the railings of the semi-rich,
Given over so easily to violence!

The fine leg of the daughter
On the stair. The carved head
On the stairpost.
Royal insignia, pewter arms
Of the Prince-Bishop of Fulda.

My darker body's trapped
In the flashed glass of a Wiener Bronzen
Lamp, like a woodland landscape.
Black tree of bronze supporting our blood,
A hungry spaniel beneath.
This poem seems almost ekphrastic, evocative of some work of art that we can't quite bring to full presence, like much of the imagery in Post-Modernist Baroque poems. (Though the third stanza in particular reminds me of Balthus.) There are meanings and contexts to be found for these works, like anchors tied by a slender chain to elaborately ensailed ships, but it takes some plumbing to find them out. First the sublime forms, then the content; first the mystery, then the meaning. It's an imitation, if not an enactment, of visionary contact with the divine—or the hellish.

It will take some more reflection on my part before I can figure out what, if anything, my attraction to this mode has to do with my interest in lyric generally, and with my opposed or apposite interest in what I've called "social formalism": I don't think I invented this term in the context of contemporary poetry, but by it I mean to broadly define both poems and extra-poetic acts of positioning intended to foreground our awareness of the social production of meaning. Language poetry certainly, but also to a degree New York School work (I'm thinking of the many poems by O'Hara, Berrigan, and there many and various followers that assert through proper names and biographical details their emergence from a particular sociopoetic context) as well as those provocations designed to raise our consciousness of the politics of the poetry world. It's difficult for me to imagine a poetry that would reconcile social formalism (with its implicitly purgative function) with the reticulated post-Stevensian aesthetic I've desribed here, but perhaps it exists. Or maybe the two modes are a crossroads that I and some others stand at, and which will propagate something as yet unforseeable.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Jonathan's perfectly reasonable outrage at the condescension of the New York Times aside, I find the latest article on the new Elizabeth Bishop book to be even sillier, designed from the first sentence to make "the insular world of poetry" look trivial. (I don't much like their new format, either—and what happened to the "Washington" section?) It's a textbook example of ill-informed and parochial cultural reporting, which makes me feel doubt about all the other subjects they cover—if their knowledge of the poetry world is so shallow, can we expect them to know much more about theater and televsion (much less world events)? It's not about poetry, or even about Elizabeth Bishop, but about a perceived catfight between Helen Vendler and Alice Quinn, as though Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton had had a public spat. The director of the Academy of American Poets, Tree Swenson, apparently "had a difficult time finding a poet willing to talk to a reporter about the contretemps," because we are all apparently afraid of saying something critical about Alice Quinn. If you are willing to go on record as being so critical, you are ipso facto not really a part of the article's "insular poetry world," in which it's inconceivable that being published in The New Yorker wouldnot be your highest and most precious aspiration. So the poetry world described in the article is inhabited solely by middle-aged white folks: Vendler, Quinn, and Swenson, with a peanut gallery consisting of Frank Bidart, J.D. McClatchy, and Billy Collins. (The gendering of this is odd: with the apparent exception of Bishop, in this world men write the poetry and women fight over the scraps.) The article's supposed actual point—whether it's right or wrong to posthumously publish the work of a notably reticent poet—is just a figleaf for a sociological sketch designed to make poetry seem petty and pointless.

When I was a sophomore at Vassar I took a writing workshop taught by Eamon Grennan, and he showed us the "One Art" drafts in the archives there: dozens and dozens of pages went into getting that single villanelle exactly right. I was duly impressed by the spectacle of Bishop's perfectionism—but nowadays, though I still believe in the importance of craft and rewriting, I'm suspicious of what I see as the cultural authorities' attempts to put poetry out of reach of the living. What is the message to be absorbed: that Bishop worked hard and sweated and so should/can you; or that poetry is sister to perfection, classical, and therefore beyond the limits of living writers? The murmur over the fitness of publishing Bishop's leftovers is akin in spirit to David Orr's casual declaration that Bishop was the greatest American artist of the second half of the 20th century: this woman was not a living writer participating in a yet-living tradition, but a canonized and untouchable saint. So I suppose I'm more glad about the publication of Edgar Allan Poe & the Jukebox than not. Let the poetry breathe. If by so doing we transgress against Bishop's wishes, that's regrettable—but I'd like to think that her notion of the "One Art" had little or nothing to do with the art of embalming.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Today I received spam e-mails from a Prefatory S. Steamrolling and a Consciousness H. Enviably, along with the more prosaic Giuliano Waggener. Maybe a poets' union should organize against spammers. They're going to put us all out of work.

Busy compiling the new poetry selection for the revived Bookery, I noticed that Amazon provides the following publisher's information for Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets: "Penguin (Non-Classics)." WTF?

Yesterday I actually got to spend some time with a few of my Austin acquisitions, namely the chapbook I won at the Unassocaited Garden Party raffle, Anselm Partalore's The Squalicum Harbor Suite from Hot Whiskey Press, and Brenda Hillman's Pieces of Air in the Epic from Wesleyan. Comments will follow, but I just wanted to mention now how the introduction to Partalore's book describes him as a practitioner of "the Post-Modern Baroque." I've always liked the sound of that appellation, even if I only have a vague notion of what it means: know it when I see it, etc. But it seems like an accurate descriptor of most of the work to be found in 1913. Producing difference by folding (beautifully) the impermeable silk skein of totality, mayhap.

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