Thursday, November 30, 2006

The other thing that bothers me about much of the contemporary American fiction I've read is the condescension shown to the characters. When Russo writes about the hapless ex-wife of his sympathetic if nebbishy hero in Empire Falls we are invited to feel superior to her, to shake our heads at her inability to recognize her folly in throwing over a good man for the sake of a blithering, dishonest chump. Perhaps that's just a function of comedy: "Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type—not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain." But even if you hold with Aristotle here, there is genuine pain in the portrait of this character—most especially in her alienation from her sensitive daughter—and pain in the book which (spoiler alert) ends with a school shooting. Empire Falls is a tragicomedy, and in an almost classical way Russo emphasizes fate, as symbolized by the Knox River whose course was changed by a local millionaire only to end up sweeping away that millionaire's widow in a flood decades later. But I find myself impatient with the schematics of this. The book is more memorable for its evocation of a small world, which is as I've said Russo's specialty. It's why I actually think the bagatelle Straight Man is his most successful if least ambitious novel, because it's almost purely comic.

I dislike Russo's fiddling with tragedy because it seems to depend on a constriction of what's possible. You might call his portrayal of poor people stuck in their ruts a form of versimilitude, but it seems willful to me, like the predicaments of some of Hardy's characters (I sometimes feel that the Wessex novels are nineteenth-century versions of the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek): the character's every chance of escape from his or her situation is cut off so that we can see them squirm. I suppose my complaint isn't much different from D.H. Lawrence's in his marvelous and idiosyncratic "Study of Thomas Hardy." And Lawrence in fact points the way toward the mode of fiction I have the most respect for. His most exciting novels are polyphonic in the Bakhtinian sense: Women in Love presents us with vividly strange characters with passionately opposed belief systems, and the novel gives us a struggle between and among those characters that seems in no way predetermined by the novelist's own convictions. The world Lawrence builds is open-ended: he does not pretend to master the fates of each character or to understand their folly as just folly. His characters strive to be as intelligent and critical and perceptive as Lawrence himself does. It's a strange sort of fiction—we aren't likely to recognize Women in Love as "realistic" in the ordinary sense of that word. But it's intensely realistic and gripping in its portrayal of the struggle to found a basis for one's own identity, and for one's relations to others, when the given social roles available to us (sometimes for reasons of class, sometimes of gender) fall short. In Aristotlean terms, Lawrence's characters are not of a "lower type" than us, nor are they the higher types to be found in Greek tragedy: they are like us, but profoundly dissatisfied with that condition. There's a rigorous morality to that, or rather the potential for transcendental morality (in the Kantian sense of discovering the necessary preconditions for morality) that attracts me.

Should I ever attempt to write another novel (a first attempt at high school tragicomedy, written in my early twenties, is hiding in a box under the spare bed), I would want it to make full use of novelistic resources: otherwise I might as well just call it prose. And it seems to me that the greatest of those resources—tantamount to world-building—is the ability to accurately describe and manifest the struggle of individuals who are permitted the same resources, and the same fundamental unknowing, as the author possesses.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

For my fellow job-seekers: a Lacanian take on the academic job search by Geoffrey Wilson: "MLAlienation."
Freakishly warm weather in Chicago and now back in Ithaca—if it's global warming, it's a case of the frog luxuriating in the pot before the first lethal bubbles form. I've been reading realist fiction by acclaimed middle-aged white men recently. First it was Tobias Wolff's Old School, because I'm a sucker for boarding-school stories (though I never attended one), then Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Wolff's is interesting because it's transparently the autobiography of the particular writer he became, one who almost literally navigates the Charybdis of personality (in the forms of Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway) and the Scylla of ideology (in the form of Ayn Rand) to strike at the heart of a kind of self-exposing authenticity achieved, somewhat paradoxically in the story, through an act of plagiarism. Really it's a book about piety, and one's patience for that sort of thing depends largely on whether you yourself have the kind of religious feeling for literature that Wolff's narrator does. Though in his case, that religious feeling is linked to a powerful case of class envy: Wolff's narrator is from, one gathers, a working-class family in the Northwest, and is part Jewish besides, so the tony Northeastern private school he attends in the early 1960s is part of a project of self-invention that is ironically completed by his expulsion. In its sly way the book is a manifesto for the kind of antimodernist storytelling that it is such a fine example of, but it's the self-consciousness required by a manifesto, even a covert one, that makes it most interesting to me.

Russo's novel won the Pulitzer and was thus almost guaranteed to be mediocre: I still found pleasure, though, in Russo's facility in conjuring the small-town Northeastern Rust Belt world that has been the main character of all his novels with the notable exception of Straight Man, a hilarious academic satire. World-immersion is for me the most primordial pleasure of reading fiction—I think of the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner called for—and it's a pleasure diametrically opposed to the Barthesian bliss of language: an imagistic dream virtually requires the disappearance of the language, sheer transparency. But it's also a distinctly bodily pleasure, if only in the negative sense: one morning, groggy from my own dreams, I picked up Empire Falls and immediately fell into the story, my eyes moving rapidly back and forth as though I were still in REM sleep, ignoring my system's cries for the usual morning dose of coffee. If dreams are, as many believe, a means of absorbing stimuli so as to keep you from waking up, then reading immersive fiction works similarly on me, so that I forget to eat or go to the bathroom or even to move my limbs. That's why such fiction is the best tonic for flying on airplanes: for several years I flew without discomfort by reading and rereading the Aubrey-Maturin novels. When I do notice the language in a book like Russo's, it's generally an infelicity, a speed bump: an ambiguous pronoun, a clumsy simile, which I'm sure the author would revise if he could so as to go back into the dream. (The single deliberate resistance the text offers to the reader takes the form of occasional italicized interchapters: but as the content and tone of these interchapters doesn't actually vary from that of the main text, one merely strains one's eyes in irritation trying to fall asleep again.)

All this is antithetical to the pleasures I seek from poetry, or from fiction that foregrounds the language through the beauty or ugliness of its sentences. Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state, and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.

So you could turn it either way: one's own stance is what determines whether a text will provide jouissance or pleasure. This is all commonplace enough. As a writer, though, I wonder about the writer's pleasure, since what doesn't please oneself probably won't please others. The pleasures of anti-absorptive writing are manifest to me, because one thinks into the language—but if anyone's a masochist in this scenario, isn't it the author of absorptive fiction, whose language is at best a tool, at worst an impediment, designed to disappear into the reader's dream? Where's the fun in that? It probably comes not from language, but from the elements of the dream: one must abstract oneself from primary concerns with idiom and syntax and instead focus on the larger linguistic constructs that we call plot, character, setting, etc. There's pleasure enough: and for me, it's the pleasure of world-building that has the greatest appeal.

What I wonder, then, is what combination of the two modes is possible. World-building would seem to require a writer to peer through language toward what he wants to represent, whether those representations are achieved through meticulous research or first-hand experience or both. The best example I can come up with of a world built out of language as such—the anti-absorptive world—is the one that's always before my eyes these days, Ronald Johnson's ARK. Here is language that wants to be literal without ever being less than itself: here is a structure that communicates, like a concrete poem, primarily its own structureness. The experience of reading ARK is the experience of wandering through a world, but one's eyes are always wide open, else you'll trip over the ambiguities of his symmetrical syntax. His is the complexity of interwoven surfaces, with none of the "depth" we seem to perceive in the submarine fictions of a Russo or an O'Brian or a Tolkien. This too, finally, is dissatisfying: but what might an ark make possible, what survives from it once the waters have receded? I aim to find out.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving from Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Today I'd like to give thanks for the moral and imaginative vision of Adrienne Rich:
But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, There is no alternative."
And we should not omit the following paragraph, which is the one many would most wish omitted:
Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images - is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism - a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom - that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the "free" market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Goodbye, Robert Altman. And thanks.
Why did nobody tell me that Rodney Koeneke has a blog? Or that he's changing the way he pronounces his name?

Also, I'd like to alert you to the publication of Danielle Dutton's Attempts at a Life, forthcoming in March from Tarpaulin Sky Press. Christian Peet sent me an advance copy: it's a gorgeously produced book, but of course it's the content that's really grabbing me. She calls them stories but I think of them as prose poems, and I'm taken with the first one, "Jane Eyre," which is a bent retelling of the novel that engages, I think, with the powerful sense of identification that most women (and quite a few men) have with its uncannily "real" heroine. It's a kind of wreading that foregrounds subjectivity as an activity, as recognition. I'm trying it myself right now with a piece called "Les Miserables"; I'll post it when it's ready.

Time to prepare for class: The Winter's Tale, which is for me one of the most moving of Shakespeare's plays: the scene of Hermione's resurrection brings me to tears every time. Not sure how well it's playing with my students.
Last week Cornell's English Department was visited by David Hinton, the poet and translator of classical Chinese poetry. I was going to blog about it but Julie Phillips Brown (an MFA/PhD student here who's read for SOON) has gone and beat me to it. Generally been slow on the trigger with blogging lately. The semester's winding down (or rather, up) and keeping me in a busy and distracted state. Normally busy-ness is an kind of aid to concentration, like the prospect of hanging, but not lately.

I am at least getting some work done on my Ronald Johnson chapter: right now I'm thinking about his engagement with Concrete Poetry, and I've been immersed in books on the subject, especially Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View, which the good people of UBUWEB have archived in its entirety along with a vast wealth of hard to find texts on experimental poetry—I never realized the depth of their collection before, it's an invaluable resource. I don't know why it didn't quite consciously occur to me before, but of course Concrete Poetry has obvious affinities with Objectivist writing, which in turn of course derives from Imagism and "No ideas but in things," etc. From another angle, Concrete Poetry (and I am mostly thinking of the texts I've found in Solt that are part of that 1950s-60s movement, not visual poetry more generally) is just a more radical form of the fundamental avant-garde art technique, montage: the constructivist syntax that determines connections between elements of a collage or constellation (Eugen Gomringer, the Swiss-Bolivian "founder" of CP, called his early work "constellations"—I don't know if he was aware of the Frankfurt School's concept of the same name) is magnified or refracted so as to break up the syntax on a level smaller even than that of the line—even the "syntax" of the individual word or phoneme. By these lights some of late Zukofsky has begun to appear to me as a kind of concrete poetry: 80 Flowers achieves its compressed and ambiguous syntax in part through the concentration of each "flower" into the space of five "words" (hyphenates permitted) and eight lines, claiming for itself something of the telegraphic immediacy of the concrete poem even as the syntax denies or rather radically slows access to whatever a "flower" might have to "say."

What has this got to do with pastoral? In part, I think it's the naivety deliberately assumed by the concrete/Objectivist/Imagist poet, and the naivety of the claim that one can transform something so slippery as language into an object as available as a billboard. This also points toward the problem all pastoral poetry has in drawing the line between critique and commodification: the image that puts us in the presence of "nature" may reject and negate capitalist exploitation or simply be another manifestation of it, like the Marlboro Man. Some form of rigor—mayhap the "slowing" I referred to in Zukofsky—is required to produce the valuable sort of pastoral. The plain-speech rebellion against rhetoric of Williams and Pound seems pretty much exhausted by now, and most plain-speech pastoral poems nowadays just read like miniature vacations, with little or no critical bite unless an oppositional context can be found for them (a chapbook of plain pastoral from a small press will seem more valid to me somehow than a perfect-bound one—but how legible is that shift, really?). Some kind of torque on the language is required. I guess this whole project has been an attempt to find a formal or constructivist affiliation for this mode of writing. It seems most likely that it would succeed when the naivety is tactical rather than genuine—when the poet is "foolish like a trout," in Richard Hugo's phrase. One may say these things about the immediate objectivity of the poem, just as one may put elegant language into the mouth of a shepherd—but in the service of some goal that goes beyond mere nostalgia for some imaginary pre-modern way of being. Nostalgia as a means, not an end—what good is it to say, with Emerson, that words are fossil poetry (and isn't that the sentiment that the desire to objectify the poem stems from)? What shall we do with these fossils, besides dig them up? Shall we use them to prove evolution? Or to claim that we haven't evolved at all? Shall these bones live? And what could that mean, what would that look like?
But no matter where the concrete poet stands with respect to semantics, he invariably came to concrete poetry holding the conviction that the old grammatical-syntactical structures are no longer adequate to advanced processes of thought and communication in our time. In other words the concrete poet seeks to relieve the poem of its centuries-old burden of ideas, symbolic reference, allusion and repetitious emotional content; of its servitude to disciplines outside itself as an object in its own right for its own sake. This, of course, asks a great deal of what used to be called the reader. He must now perceive the poem as an object and participate in the poet's act of creating it, for the concrete poem communicates first and foremost its structure. (Solt)

What, in short, to make of Johnson, whose pastoral is of the liveliest, most delightful sort—but who appears completely uninterested in critique or social engagement? What to make of someone so in love with surfaces? Do I force depth upon hiim by finding allusions and symbols and all the other "burdens" in his work that Solt claims the concrete poet wishes to discard? "Structure" is undoubtedly what interested the writer of ARK, who plainly states his desire to produce something non-discursive, an anti-Cantos. He communicates a structure. But what does this desire to communicate structure first and foremost itself communicate?

Friday, November 17, 2006

News from the Department of Unsettling Coincidences. And yes, my middle name happens to be Michael.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Someone found this blog with the search term "cheap HEADstones."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

It was a pleasure to have Shanna Compton and Ryan Murphy up to Ithaca for the SOON series last night. The mysterious Mr. Murphy read first: if you saw the profile of him that appeared in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers then you know about his "one-shots": chapbooks and broadsides that are each attributed to their own imaginary publisher. They're not available on the Web or in any stores that I'm aware of except for McNally Robinson in Greenwich Village: Ryan calls this "anti-marketing," by which I think he means that remaining a bit mysterious actually intensifies the demand for what he publishes. He was kind enough to gift me with what I presume to be one of his own one-shots of his own work, a handsome chapbook called Poems for the American Revolution whose publisher is given as "The Dutchess County Department of Occupational Training," along with the somewhat more conventionally published Down with the Ship from Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, a product of the MFA program of the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

Ryan read from both books and I was particularly taken with the chapbook, whose six short poems are titled after famous figures from the American Revolution but whose content is obliquely and tenuously determined by those titles, which serves to suggest new possibilities for what we might mean by an American revolution, even if only a turning in place. I like the incantatory qualities of the first poem, "Revere":
Bombardier, you laid the tracks
For our hundreds of eyes
Spine for flowers, spit azalea

The lush lawn of the vacant girls' school
Tuesday is Sunday only
No one is dreaming

Bunker Hill, I-98, the harbor subs
Like the face of a watch.
I should like to wake you, minute by minute

Clatter through the restless green night.
Bombardier, with your lantern eyes
And lantern head

If if
And by sea.
Shanna was next, and I've already had a bit to say about the pleasures of her work. She read a few poems from Down Spooky (including, I'm pleased to say, "Post-Texas Expressive Heat," quoted in full in my review) and then more recent work from a promising sequence called For Girls, inspired by a 19th-century manual of etiquette written by a Mrs. E.R. Shepherd which purports to tell young women how to be young ladies. Here's the poem that Aaron ably transformed into a broadside (really a trifold) for the occasion (I use asterisks to represent the breaks, but you should try to envision three columms, side by side):
You can carry, girls,
a little distance

your influence
to the new side

your awakened study
of formation, requirements


First then, girls, you should
fasten onto your shoulders

a strap for purpose
for industrious earnest

pressure, for attending
to the demands of nature

Think of it
as a uniform

outside of which
you'd be too apart


All rooms have doors
& also windows

I haven't actually
heard that said, but

a draft might come
at right angles

toward the animal
part of you

the portion you've
bitten raw
I look forward to seeing these poems collected in a book, as I suspect they eventually will be. Thanks to both our readers, their significant others Kira and Shawn, and the folks who come out to hear a little poetry on a very rainy Saturday night.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Caustic empathy.
Poetry does a far better job of coming to grips with contradiction than the political prose I've been hacking at all morning. To wit: Rick Snyder's exceptionally useful "The New Pandemonium: A Brief Overview of Flarf" that's up at Jacket. His take on Nada Gordon's V. Imp—really, the poetry itself that he reproduces there—moves me deeply. I'm going to reproduce the passage from “Foreword: The End of Greed, Imperialism, Opportunism, and Terrorism" that Snyder quotes here:
Mule and Ostrich took a walk in the vale of tears. Their minds were elsewhere.

“Tread lightly and accurately,” Ostrich reminded Mule. Mule nodded solemnly.

The hoi-polloi stormed around them, rending their garments: Brooks Brothers suits, red suspenders, tallises, green headresses, burkas. Everyone was spewing so much vital fluid that their faces, hands, and chests had gone all viscous.

“No one had a clue,” said Mule, lowering his head and pawing at the rubble, his mane and eyelashes thick with white dust. “I feel so mournful.”

“Don’t you still want to take the language somewhere else?” Ostrich asked, swerving his head around to stare cross-eyed at Mule.

“Of course I do,” sighed Mule, “I’m a beast of burden. That’s all I know how to do. But right now I wish we had hands so we could hold hands.”

“That’s liberal humanism,” said Ostrich, looking ruefully at his leathery talons and Mule’s splayed, yellowing hooves.

“So?” said Mule, his lip quivering.
Yes, Mule. Yes, Ostrich.
In what could be the biggest policy divide on the panels, Senator Barbara Boxer, the liberal California Democrat and environmental advocate, is in line to take control of the Environment and Public Works Committee from Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has disputed the existence of global warming.

“He thinks global warming is a hoax and I think it is the challenge of our generation,” said Ms. Boxer, who said she has a cordial working relationship with Mr. Inhofe. “We have to move on it.”

You can't tell me that's not, at least potentially, a change for the better.
For two posts in a row, Joshua Clover laments the foolishness and ideological blindness of other poets (and, as his second post makes clear, this poet in particular) who ran out to vote for, as he puts it, "candidates more conservative than the Republicans they found beyond revulsion twenty years ago" and who now dance pathetically in the end zone celebrating a Democratic Congress. Apparently I didn't express nearly enough skepticism to satisfy him: indeed, his tone makes me think he lives in a world comprised of a virtuous Berkeley-Marxist-anarchist minority who are all "in the know," and who behold the majority of marks and suckers with mixed pity and contempt. There's hardly any distinction to be made between liberal marks and conservative suckers in the bargain, since both by voting at all vote to perpetuate the system. Those of us who, in spite of our misgivings about a badly damaged political system, joined the less-than-half of the eligible population who voted (does that mean in fact that 60 percent of the electorate are Marxists and anarchists rather than apathetic? Would that it were so!), discover that we did not in fact vote for change, for some kind of brake on an incoherent, compulsively violent, and reckless administration, but for more of the same. The "personnel," as Joshua would have it, are all empty signifiers, so that by his own lights he can plausibly plug in "Condoleeza Rice" for my "Nancy Pelosi." It's a gross misinterpretation: I am not celebrating the rise of any old woman to the post of Speaker of the House, but the rise of a specific woman who is probably more sympathetic to Berkeley-style politics than anyone in the new Congress (with the notable and welcome exception of Bernie Sanders, I-VT). Joshua takes such a long view of our admittedly disastrous era that individuals and institutions scarcely matter: we are all fiddling while Rome burns and it signifies little who takes the part of lead violin.

Perhaps he is right. And I have nothing to say to anyone who is actually pursuing an alternative politics: who doesn't just stand aloof with jaundiced eye but actually works for radical change. I don't see myself as someone who does this, at least not yet: I am at best a sympathetic fellow traveler, reading Rexroth and Bookchin, trying to formulate an adequate response to the crises of the world I find myself in, while at the same time unwilling to make the complete separation from the mainstream—the world where most of my friends and family and ordinary people live—that the radical position seems to demand. I criticize myself constantly for not being more active, more courageous, more clear-sighted. But when I look at the world I find more questions than answers. I am not satisfied by any single political program that I've ever become aware of. And I persist in seeing difference where Joshua sees identity: Democrats, even conservative Democrats, are not Republicans, for the simple reason that they've been out of power for the past six years and have had no significant influence on the ghastly policies of Bush-Cheney. I want opposition to those troglodytes on almost any terms, because I think they are way, way beyond the ordinary ghastliness of neo-liberalism: they are fanatics personally responsible for the loss of more than half-a-million Iraqi lives. And maybe I really have been suckered—"please don't throw me in that briar patch!"—maybe the neo-liberal machine will simply function more smoothly and destructively now that we have divided government. But maybe not. I'm taking a chance on "maybe."

We Americans do need to imagine something new, we do need to take on responsibility appropriate to our power to affect the world. But right now I want to slow down the pace of destruction: when the big crisis comes, the Depression-equivalent that I'm expecting sometime in the next decade or so, I don't want the damage to our environment to be utterly beyond repair. I don't have the answers, or a fully consistent political philosophy. But given the simple choice between casting a vote that might do something to impede the flow of greed and and arrogance and fanaticism, and not voting—irrespective of what other activities or criticism I might be able to muster—I chose to vote. And I am provisionally pleased with the results.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reading the Kenneth Rexroth issue of Chicago Review. Put off to some degree by the man's old-fashioned displays of sexism and machismo: these seem rote, tiresome, and predictable, but his affinity with Lawrence (who I feel has genuine insight into the workings of sexual desire and sexual difference, however obscured these insights might be by talk of loins and plasms) might point toward an at least partial redemption of these unattractive qualities. More impressed by his seriousness and sense of mission: though wary of messianisms, I think poets with a genuinely elevated sense of what poetry is for preserve the art as a whole from the inconsequentiality it's perpetually teetering on the brink of—though at the same time I'm glad not everyone thinks this way, it would severely restrict poetry's imaginative range. I can only think of two living American poets who convey a Rexrothian depth of seriousness in all they say and do (without, I hasten to add, sharing Rexroth's essential poetics or politics): Allen Grossman and Jorie Graham. Both produce work that can edge into self-parody, but it's easiest to parody those who actually stand for something: call it the Old Sincerity. Anyway, Rexroth has this to say on the subject in a 1931 letter to Louis Zukofsky that seems startlingly relevant to our present situation:
The poet has, after a few perfunctory struggles, acquiesced in the judgment of capitalist civilization: that he is a weak, lazy fellow, incapable of rational thought, merely a convenient dispenser of vicarious spasms of emotion. The unconscious efficiency with which a class preserves itself is uncanny. The greatest enemy of social stasis is the subterranean transvaluations which go on in the arts, and this enemy operates most efficiently in the art of poetry for the reason that poetry is, or can be, most intimate with the values concerned. Poetry is the symbolic criticism of value and because this criticism can garb itself in even the most random subject, it is specifically inapprehensible. Many a panegyric, written as a set subject for the enthronement of a monarch has been part of the exploration of avenues of thought which has led to the overthrow of his dynasty. Therefore, as the range of value for poetry reduces to a minimum the security of the prevaliing ideology approaches a maximum.
This seems entirely consonant with Adorno's argument in Aesthetic Theory and elsewhere that the critical power of an artwork resides in its "subterranean" negativity, its implicit rejection of things as they are—Rexroth's remark about the panegyric would extend that possibility of rejection even into a poem that superficially affirms "the prevailing ideology." At the same time he seems to say that when poetry is not valued dominant ideologies go unchallenged, but maybe he's saying something else: that poetry needs to be able to address the entire "range of value" or be a test of value in general if it is to have critical and I daresay (for the 1931 Rexroth) revolutionary power. Read that way, Rexroth's paragraph would affirm a diversity of seriousnesses and a variety of means by which poetry can act as "the symbolic criticism of value"—which itself might encompass anything from an attack on prevailing values to a conservative call of return to forgotten or negelected values to a fully Blakean transformation of values. Rexroth seems to have managed all three in the course of his career and I may have more to say about him when I'm finished reading the issue.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Two Cheers for Democracy

I am skeptical of the Democrats' power to deliver change—or their commitment as a party to the kind of progressive values and socialist programs that I favor. Our political system seems all but bankrupt and broken to me: for a long time it's been a servant of short-term business interests and poorly defended against the tyranny of the majority. God knows what kind of voting problems are going to come out in the wash over the next few days. And the Senate, which is still too close to call, will be in the power of "moderates" who are in fact serious social conservatives even if it swings to the Democratic side.

That said... "Nancy Pelosi, first woman to serve as Speaker of the House," has a nice ring to it.

I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I voted. Ithaca is a left-wing bastion and all the Democrats are a lock (with the possible exception of our sheriff, who's got two opponents this year), but the more votes recorded for non-Republican candidates, the better. Plus I voted the Working Families ticket to give genuine progressives a boost.

Nonetheless, the heavy lifting is up to you folks in red states/districts. I hope your voting machines work (we have the old-fashioned lever system in Tompkins County, it works just fine).

Why isn't Election Day a national holiday?

Monday, November 06, 2006

The week's getting off to an ugly start: Republicans are gaining in the polls, and I just learned that Adrienne Shelly, star of two of my favorite movies from the early nineties, Trust and The Unbelievable Truth, apparently committed suicide last week.

Gimme some sweet redemption, sometime.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ever since 2001 when it first came out and I read Elvis Mitchell's review, I've wanted to see Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's film What Time Is It There? and last night I finally did. The plot is extremely simple: a man dies, and his wife and adult son are cut adrift from themselves and each other. The son, who sells watches on streetcorners, sells his own personal wristwatch to a young woman on her way to Paris; thereafter, the film intercuts between the lives of the son and mother and the young woman's alienated tour of Paris. The son becomes obsessed with Paris and specifically life lived on Parisian time, resetting every clock he encounters seven hours behind Taipei time. The mother obsesses over the possible reincarnation of her husband, shrouding their apartment in darkness so as not to "frighten" the father's spirit and making meals for him in the middle of the night. It's a slow film: one unsympathetic critic said it was like watching paint dry. The literature on Tsai confirms what the style of film suggests: a man in love with cinema, particularly what we might call its high European Modernist period—the Italian neorealism of the forties and the French Nouvelle Vague of the fifties. Not only does the male lead watch Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows but the female lead actually ends up sharing a park bench with Jean-Pierre Leaud, the star of Truffaut's film. Sounds pretentious, no? But what drew me into the film was its adaptation of the estranging devices of modernism—in cinematic language that means medium shots held by a static camera, no music on the soundtrack, a cast of uncharismatic actors or non-actors (on the DVD Tsiang claims that Lee Kang-shen, who has been the Leaud figure to Tsiang's Truffaut in many films, is not really a professional actor, and that Lu Yi-ching, who plays his mother, keeps a coffee shop between films), and long, long takes—in the service of a kind of realism. Or to put it another way, if the conventions attending a Hollywood film are artifices of absorption, the static, painterly frames of Tsiang's film (but "painterly" isn't quite right, it suggests a degree of aestheticization belied by the banality of what most often holds his camera's attention) foreground their artifice so as to foster both a deeper and more superficial level of absorption in the viewer.

Watching Tsiang's isolated characters struggle for some sense of connection in the wake of the father's death (a moment that is beautifully and hauntingly elided in the opening scenes: first we spend several minutes watching the father sitting around in his Taipei apartment, then we cut to the son being driven in a car with—it took me several moments to realize this —a cannister containing his father's ashes in his lap), my eyes glided across the screen, noticing details of the composition (often one character is foregrounded and isolated from another character in the same frame but in the background, in deep focus), while the characters do things like wait for trains, eat, lie in bed, go to the bathroom, or watch TV. Yet these details have a curious cumulative power. In the final scenes, the young tourist, Chen Shiang-Chyi, has failed at making a sexual connection with another Taiwanese woman she met in a cafe (simultaneously with similarly frustrated connections on the part of the other characters—Lu masturbates while a photo of her dead husband stares at us, and Lee has sex with a prostitute who later steals his case of watches). She lies asleep in a chair by a pond while some youths make off with her suitcase. In the next shot, while she is still sleeping, the suitcase floats across the pond from left to right. Then we see a well-dressed gentleman standing nearby who retrieves the suitcase from the pond with his umbrella and sets it back upright near, but not too near, Chen. When he turns we recognize the figure of the dead father. In the last shot he is standing with a Ferris wheel behind him in the distance: he lights a cigarette and walks off toward it, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Chaplin, as the clocklike Ferris wheel slowly begins to turn. I was moved nearly to tears by this unexpected and silent resurrection: the effect was not unlike what I feel reading The Winter's Tale when Hermione comes back to life at the end.

Though the characters are lonely and sorrowful, the film has a lightness of touch: there's nothing ponderous about the long shots, only a kind of mysterious dwelling with what feels like the shifting reality of human experience when strong emotion pulses under the banality of everyday life. Where opera or melodrama use dramatic confrontation and arias of feelling to illuminate character, Tsiang subsitutes more obviously formal devices—principally the sheer looking of the still camera, which when extended over time both invites and frustrates penetration of the characters' subjectivity. We cannot touch them but find we have been touched by them, lightly yet hauntingly, without seeming to move. I find myself likening this to the effect that a pattern in language can have on our emotions almost irrespective of the content of the words in that pattern. The rhythm of iambic pentameter, or the pulse of white space, or the sinuous sustaining of a sibilance, does secret work on my emotions while the poem seems to dwell on something ordinary—a red wheelbarrow, maybe, or a blackbird in a tree. Sometimes too a poem will work on me because I'm moved by its scale: the intensity of its presence whether almost instantaneous or drawn out over many pages. Pound's work demonstrates both ends of this: "In a Station of the Metro" can almost never be read, only reread, because it's over before you've properly begun it, and yet the kernel of experience that it contains has been transmitted straight into you; while The Cantos provoke, enrage, and move me to pathos almost by their mere being, their massive and monumental ambition, the scope of their failure. There isn't really a sufficient language for the affective dimension of formal devices—but I recognize and am drawn by works of art that foreground the means by which they were made, and the passion of the maker for those devices, while encoding more immediately recognizable human experience with those devices. I am moved by the very fact of the objective correlative, a variation on the pathetic fallacy: that objects rendered with a sufficiently exact attention might weep for us, or with us.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

November has come. Thanks to Mark, Craig, Jonathan, and Arthur for their comments on the poet-critic question. (All boys! Is there something inherently masculine about this kind of fretting over categories?) Certainly a big part of my interest in this question is professional: if I weren't an academic-in-training I wouldn't be quite as affected by the rather peculiar disciplinary demand of having to put my interests more or less in order. My list of "research interests" seems arbitrary to me, with a lot of overlap: Modernism, Twentieth Century, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, American Literature, Literary Theory, Critical Theory, Creative Writing. And where in there do I cram my love for Joyce and Woolf and Lawrence, or for Boswell's Life of Johnson, or Andrew Marvell and George Herbert, or Keats?

Love is the question (the answer?). While part of me instinctively accedes to the notion that the practitioner has insights unavailable to the non-practitioner, I fall back on my belief that poetry, more than other verbal arts, calls upon all its readers to become practitioners: to think and feel from inside the poem they read (especially a poem they read aloud). Lyric especially demands this, given how much it leaves out. Nearly everyone has at some time or other written poems (even if only between the ages of thirteen and seventeen) and feels the impulse to encode some momentary experience in memorable language; at the same time, the implicit demand of poetry that it be responded to with writerly impulses helps to explain why most people find poetry to be intimidating. Even if you don't buy this reading-is-writing argument, most readers of poetry will concede that it demands a different range of mental activities than prose does. But the question for me has always been: given that my most instinctual response to poetry is a desire to write, what sort of writing shall I do?

My purest impulse—the one resulting most directly from the stimulus of a good poem—is to write a few lines of my own. But I also have the choice of writing something more or less critical, ranging from sincere puffery ("You have to read this!") to close analysis and historical contextualization. The sort of writing called "poetics" divides and includes these impulses: critical writing intended to enable the production of new poetry. And when I look at the first draft of my Zukofsky chapter, for instance, I find I have produced something closer to poetics: a largely affectionate treatment of Zukofskyan pastoral that has stimulated my more global desire for what I loosely call postmodern pastoral poetry. My reading of Zuk helps me read for that impulse in other poets, and nudges my own work in that direction. Very useful to me as a poet—but as a critic, I must sit down now with a colder eye and rework that chapter to be more dialectical, more skeptical, about Zukofsky and pastoral both. The illumination my writing/reading accomplishes, if it does, will then be less personal and idiosyncratic, but arguably more useful for those less interested in furthering their own projects than they are in arriving at some clearer view of Zukofsky and his engagement with pastoral.

That's as near as I can figure it, for now. Further comments are always welcome.

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