Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A little late in the day for me to annoucne this—Verse is the featured magazine at Poetry Daily today, where you'll find a poem by Sidney Wade and two reviews: Chris McDermott reviews Alice Fulton's Cascade Experiment while yours truly reviews Gustaf Sobin's last book, The Places as Preludes.
Got to hear M.H. Abrams lecture for the first time in my six years at Cornell yesterday, at the inauguration of a new distinguished visiting professorship with his name. The first visitor is the pioneering feminist critic Sandra M. Gilbert, of The Madwoman in the Attic fame, who gave a talk titled "Finding Atlantis: Thirty Years of Exploring Women's Literary Traditions." The talk had something of the feel of a victory lap for feminist literary scholarship, while at the same time suggesting that the real work of excavating the history of literature by women has only just begun. She recommended four strategies for feminist canon formation: 1) What Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley called for, the re-education of women in rational thought; 2) carrying on the work of recovering individual woman authors; challenging and re-educating male readers; 4) rediscovering the hidden history of a male-female dialectic. This last refers to the most interesting idea Gilbert touched on: that even though women's writing has been largely submerged and out of sight for most of history (thus the Atlantis metaphor), it has nonetheless exerted a pressure on male writers to which they have responded in mostly apologetic but occasionally interesting and provocative ways. She seems to be suggesting that in the twenty-first century, with women writers working in the open, that this ancient dialogue is being continued in a new way.

Abrams was impressive: at ninety-four, he's still physically spry and mentally agile. His talk was called, simply, "On Reading Poetry Aloud," and was mostly an opportunity to take pleasure in the cadences of the four poems he did, indeed, read aloud: Keats' "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," Wordsworth's "Surprised by Joy,", Ernest Dowson's "Cynara," and A.R. Ammons' "Mansion." Abrams called our attention to how Keats creates an entrancing silent pause in the last lines of most of the stanzas of his poem, which have two beats where the other lines have four. He pointed out how Wordsworth's Petrarchan sonnet seizes up rhythmically to convey heartache; how Dowson's louche speaker plays with the shifting possible meanings of the famous line, "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion"; and how Ammons' free verse needs to be read attentively and aloud for the richness of its tarrying with mortality to emerge. Very moving to behold a man near the end of his life who's loved poetry for all that long life, and for whom that love is still fresh.

I'm auditing a seminar on the American long poem taught by Roger Gilbert (my dissertation chair and Sandra M.'s son). Last week we began with the 1855 version of Whitman's Song of Myself; this week we're on to Eliot's The Waste Land and Four Quartets; upcoming are Pound's Cantos, WCW's Patterson, Zukofsky's "A", Oppen's Of Being Numerous, Duncan's Passages, Ashbery's Flow Chart, and Ammons' Garbage, among others (obviously we'll mostly be reading selections, which is itself one of the interesting problems and challenges posed by long poems). My evolving theory of the long poem, particularly the long poem as it's descended from Whitman, is that it attempts to transform, partly through sheer accumulation, the existential experience of an individual into the representation of social totality. Squaring the circle, the horizontal made vertical. Perhaps this is obvious; it's certainly broad—a notion of art partly derived from Althusser's famous definition of ideology: one's imaginary relationship to the real conditions of one's existence. Individuals are not usually responsible for ideologies, of course: the hubris of the long-poet (to coin an awkward phrase) rarely pays off, I think, in the formation of a brand-new imaginary, but they might very well achieve the creative destruction or at least corrosion of prevailing ideologies.

Rereading Song of Myself, I was freshly conscious of the poem as the document of a mystical experience, and the tension between such consummately individual experience and the radically democratic absorption and embodiment of the American polis attempted by the poem: a dialectic of enlightenment in the spiritual sense. Many of the other students were primarily impressed by Whitman's fantastic egotism, but I want to make a case for his radical humility, stemming from an intuition I have that spiritual enlightenment is born of the experience and embracement of one's own thoroughly ordinary and thoroughly mortal life. It's possible to mistake the speaker of Whitman's poem for some kind of superman, but when he claims, "And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier," I think the immortality he claims comes from accepting his share in the multitude, and not from some superior self-founded power (though he flirts with this only to find himself "on a verge of the usual mistake"). At least I suspect that's his drift.

In the meantime, the poem accumulates through its famous catalogs an idealized image of the American totality, circa 1855; the word "catalog" reminds me that Whitman's poem immediately precedes the age of Sears and Roebuck, through which was offered "merchandise such as sewing machines, sporting goods, musical instruments, saddles, firearms, buggies, bicycles, baby carriages, and men’s and children’s clothing." I believe eventually you could even purchase a complete pre-fab house from the catalog. Whitman's catalogs are more concerned with scenes of artisanal production and sometimes of mass expenditure (in the excessive, Bataillean sense) than they are with consumption, which makes the entire poem a kind of pastoral in my book. It's the rugged American individual producer, male or female (the women are usually depicted as mothers, their identities accessory to some virile artisan—"the mechanic's wife with her babe at her nipple interceding for every person born") that forms the ideological linchpin between Whitman's ecstatic self-image and the totality that he tellingly pluralizes in the Preface: "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." Whitman depicts himself as such a producer, but equivocally so: the famous frontispiece shows us a workingman ("Walt Whitman, one of the roughs") but the speaker's first action is religious and ceremonial ("I celebrate myself"), while his second action is the refusal of action ("I loafe and invite my soul"). It is still I think this joyous idleness, which Whitman explicitly connects with spiritual and emotional openness, that forms the core of his poem's appeal—otherwise we'd just have a free-verse Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

On now to Eliot and his spiritual solutions (I want this last word to carry its sense of that which dissolves). And I'm still pondering the baroque and the shapes it might give to postmodern poetics.

Friday, January 26, 2007

"Around this time, she also worked briefly at a butterfly farm in Luck, Wisconsin."

Late as usual climbing onto a bandwagon, in this case the music of Regina Spektor. Björk meets Nellie McKay.

Also late in using the new Blogger. I'm not going to bother adding labels to old posts, but I'll put them on new ones for a while and see what happens.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Notes on a talk given by Michael Clune, a scholar of twentieth-century American fiction, who visited Cornell on Tuesday. My comments are bracketed off from the text that constitutes reportage:

"Cutting Knots in Postwar American Fiction."

Regimes of recognition in postmodern theory: Levinas' Other, Lacan's mirror, Foucault's panopticon. The look of recognition binds the human world together. What happens when the knot of recognition is art? Sylvia Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, gives us a protagonist, Esther, unable to recognize herself in a mirror, seeing innstead unrecognizable social others (a Chinese woman, an Indian). Charles Taylor calls recognition a vital human need. Scene after Esther's sucide attempt in which she breaks a mirror, the break becoming "the jagged smile of a new kind of subject not defined by recognition." This break results in her commitment [in more senses than one!] to a mental hospital in which the cure is equated with the subject's return to the regime of recognition.

Yearning of Plath and her speakers for communication unbounded by recognition: "The freedom of her speakers endows them with expanded powers of communication with the community." "To enter into intersubjectivity is to enter the split within oneself." Plath seeks "a utopian alternative to the split subject... a new kind of consciousness beyond crisis." "From the inside this new subject feels like a god," but from the outside such subjectivity registers as insanity.

[Clune doesn't mention Deleuze/Guattari, but I keep thinking of Anti-Oedipus when he cites R.D. Laing and the anti-psychiatric movement, and more generally the Deleuzean fantasy of the schizophrenic body without organs.]

"A mode of access to collective value that does not pass through recognition." William Gaddis' JR offers a depiction of the market as such a mode: "it looks like a five-hundred page novel written entirely in unattributed dialogue." "In JR's marekt world, no clear line separates any voice from any other." JR, an 11-year-old boy who becomes a millionaire by buying and selling useless items like picnic forks, is an example of what the non-recognition based subject is capable of. Unlike entrepreneurial personalities such as Donald Trump, his success is based not on personality or branding but on his ability to recognize opportunities that others miss by being entirely oriented to [exchange-value]: "He is oriented toward the priced environment."

Classical economics holds that desire is formulated independent of price, but in JR the opposite is the case. Price shapes JR's experience as the fiction of up-down shapes the experience of an astronaut in a zero-gravity environment. This is what Clune calls "the fiction of exchange."

"Shaped by price, JR's is a collective subjectivity." "The market looks like a mode of creating desire, a subject of desire." "The price system is partly constitutive of JR's intentional acts." "The price system is an interface between an embodied individual and a global collective." Bodies have no special status in JR's world, which exists entirely in dialogue (much of which takes place on the telephone, through which a comedy of misrecognition is threaded) [and seems to anticipate the disembodied subjectivity of the Internet, or even more specifically, of eBay]. "The book produces a phantasmatic image of the agency of the price system—the voice of the market itself—the fiction of a voice without an addressee."

Hannah Arendt's Heideggerian desire for artworks to constitute the space that organizes the social world, as a table separates and connects the people who sit around it, since "intersubjectivity is constructed out of non-human objects... The things' self-identity grounds our self-identities." "The aura of the millions of gazes directed at non-human objects" organize the "between-world" that separates and relates people. Artworks are privileged as preservative of the threatened between-space. [Seems to restore Benjamin's notion of aura through the back door: artworks are no longer the products of religious ritual but the remnants of that ritual's capacity for organizing social space.]

The work of art as technology of recognition versus the "anti-recognition" aesthetic of Plath and Gaddis. "Aesthetic form interfaces with economic form." Non-recognized subjects must remain virtual [but this does not deprive them, apparently, of agency]. Heidegger's Dasein may be a name for this: neither a subject nor an object but an organization of social norms. [In Gaddis' novel, "price" replaces "norms" as constitutive of being-there.]

Clune's book project also considers the work of Kathy Acker (characterized by "intense negativity toward the social as such") and rappers [I infer that rappers practice a philosophy of "I bling therefore I am" to attack a regime of recognition that denies them personhood. Ellison's Invisible Man rapping about our inability to see him].

[Interesting implications for my own project. Although JR's seems an entirely dystopian subjectivity, the fiction of exchange constitutes a space of imaginative resistance to regimes of recognition that stratify social space, always to someone's disadvantage. (And of course it's an old argument that the (bourgeois) free market is radically egalitarian in its corrosion of (aristocratic) social norms—and how much of the new, albeit precarious status of groups like Hispanics and gays has to do with their emergence as markets?) But in any case the yearning for an anti-recognitive subjectivity seems like a powerful concept. I could characterize an Arcadian space as one in which the regime of human recognition is eroded and priority given to the human being's ability to recognize nature and to be recognized as a particpant in a natural landscape. The more radical possibility is that Arcadia and Arcadian speech are not based on recognition but in some way organize a fantasy of collective value. In Benjamin's essay "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man," such a fantasy is organized around melancholia: a negation of recognition but only because real recognition (which he connects with speech) is deferred: "There is a language of sculpture, of painting, of poetry. Just as the language of poetry is partly, if not solely, founded on the name language of man, it is very conceivable that the language of sculpture or painting is founded on certain kinds of thing-languages, that in them we find a translation of the language of things into an infinitely higher language, which may still be of the same sphere. We are concerned here with nameless, nonacoustic languages, languages issuing from matter; here we should recall the material community of things in their communication" (Selected Writings Vol. 1 73). A material community that operates free of recognition, in large part perhaps because recognition is unavailable to non-human objects.

Is recognition always the telos of the attack on any given regime of recognition? Must territorialization always follow deterritorialization?

Pastoral becomes a means of thinking this kind of fictionality: the space that operates at a critical distance from a social world organized around the exclusion of nature.]

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Nothing doing blog-wise as the new semester gets rolling. But to tide you over, here's a quote from Edmund Burke:
Those persons who creep into the hearts of most people, who are chosen as the companions of their softer hours, are never persons of shining qualities, nor strong virtues. It is rather the soft green of the soul on which we rest our eyes, that are fatigued with beholding more glaring objects.
Which recalls to my mind Canto 83: "in the drenched tent there is quiet / sered eyes are at rest / the rain beat as with colour of feldspar / blue as the flying fish off Zoagli."


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Baroque Notebook, Part Two

From Stephen Little's ...isms: Understanding Art: "What distinguishes the Baroque is its insistent movement and transformation—of bodies and emotions in particular." "drama; transformation; conflict; manipulation; rhetoric; allegory; meditation; absolute power; new genres" "To convince, to transform, to deceive through illusion: all these are hallmarks of the Baroque. It seems to move in all directions, attempting to overwhelm any psychological distance between itself and the viewer... Baroque art is often associated with political absolutism and with the Catholic Counter-Reformation... many of its masterpieces are celebrations of power and spiritual orthodoxy." Also notes the new prevalence of art in domestic interiors and painted for private collectors. Rise of the bourgeois. And a reminder that "Baroque" was originally a term of opprobrium from later critics and artists who abhorred its departure from classical style.

"A / Round of fiddles playing Bach. / Come, ye daughters, share my anguish— / Bare arms, black dresses. / See Him! Whom? / Bediamond the passion of our Lord, / See Him! How?" Zukfosky's fascination with Bach's Matthäuspassion. In which an orthodox, though Protestant, retelling of a Christian story is folded and refolded (c.f. the famous double chorus) so that the layers of music overwhelm and persuade ("bediamond") as music, far in excess of the ostensible content. Orthodoxy bends, flickers, becomes malleable.

Rebecca Loudon suggests, "It's easy, think fractals." Easier for someone who really understands math, but here's what I take from that: infinite extensibility, geometric increase of complexity, literal and Deleuzean folding, a line that exceeds what's topologically describable, rendering all maps unfinished and unfinishable. The individual fractal unit contains the whole in germ: isn't that the soul of excess, a fragment that blooms into a totality?

And Josh Hanson poses the question-fragment: "Charles Mingus' relationship to dixieland?" Yes: Mingus excess-orizes Dixieland jazz, not to mention big band and swing, with layers of sound, wild energy, a renewed emphasis on the bassline—reclaiming the blackness of what had become a bleached mode of jazz. "Fables of Faubus": overtly political, a Kurt Weill-sort of rhythm, a jeremiad you can dance to.

Deleuze's The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque resists my full understanding, but seems to be the single most influential text in current baroque theory. Leibniz's monad is the main character, conceived of alternately as an organism or an allegory of the soul as a two-story dwelling: the bottom floor is the "common room" with five windows (the senses); the upper floor is closed, private, decorated with folded drapes (evoking inevitably to my mind David Lynch's blue and red velvets). "In the Baroque the soul entertains a complex relation with the body. Forever indissociable from the body, it discovers a vertiginous animality that gets it tangled in the pleats of matter, but also an organic or cerebral humanity (the degree of development) that allows it to rise up, and that will make it ascend over all other folds" (11). Sounds like a Hegelianized body without organs in which the folded soul represents desire unbound by everything but its own nature, which is to attach itself to objects. Fractals again: "As an individual unit each monad includes the whole series; hence it conveys the entire world, but does not express it without expressing more clearly a small region of the world, a 'subdivision,' a borough of the city, a finite sequence" (25, italics original). Again I think of the task of mapping: fractal lines are excessive but not without losing contact with local facts: they are accurate.

E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, on the facade of a sixteenth-century Jesuit chruch: "The most striking feature in this facade is the doubling of each column or pilaster, as if to give the whole structure greater richness, variety and solemnity.... In Della Porta's facade of the first Jesuit church everything depends on the effect given by the whole. It is all fused together into one large and complex pattern" (389). Ornament which only looks like ornament: "it is these curves and scrolls that have been responsible for much of the censure showered on Baroque builders by the upholders of pure classical tradition. But if we cover the offending ornaments with a piece of paper and try to visualize the building without them, we must admit that they are not merely ornamental. Without them the building would 'fall apart'" (389-390).

Deleuze: "And when the folds of clothing spill out of painting, it is Bernini who endows them with sublime form in scuplture, when marble seizes and bears to infinity folds that cannot be explained by the body, but by a spiritual adventure that can set the body ablaze.... folds of clothing acquire an autonomy and a fullness that are not simply decorative effects. they convey the intensity of a spiritual force exerted on the body, either to turn it upside down or to stand or raise it up over and again, but in every event to turn it inside out and to mold its inner surfaces" (121-22, italics original)

Velazquez's Las Meninas. Impossible not to think of Foucault's dramatic analysis of the painting in The Order of Things: a critique of representation and the impossibility of representing representation. We the viewer stand impossibly in the mirror, confronting our shady reflections as the king and queen of Spain. So many eyes, including the eyes of the grotesque (a female dwarf kept no doubt to amuse the royal court) and the no-less-direct gaze of Velazquez himself, dressed as the courtier he was. The shadowy heights of the ceiling, and the presence of numerous other paintings on the walls. The mirror gleams like a movie screen or the screens that monitor The Matrix ("Do you always look at in code?"). Looking is folded that we might behold it, or mapping.

Maps are produced by a combination of imagination, which is a form of power, and local knowledge, which is a counter-power.

The spirit incorporates and responds to the pressures exerted on the body: it draws a map.

Your imaginary relationship to the real conditions of your existence.

Poems of mapping.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Baroque Notebook

“There’s been much interest lately, from a number of quarters, in a postmodern Baroque—that is, an art that accepts its dependence on previous eras and revels in it, rather than approaching it on coy tiptoes.”

Age of Enlightenment: a dance piece in which a female dancer does strip-club pole-dance-type movments while being fitted with a corset.

“Pop as the universal code, the lowest common denominator of all societies plugged into the global consumption circulation. It is the new high culture of urban, metropolitan culture, and is especially virulent at the peripheries - which is almost everywhere, today. Music and theater perhaps show the New more clearly than the visual arts do. The era of postmodern baroque seeks a sensualism; beauty as affirmation of the world means a new socialization, or at least the opportunity for a new socialization...”

Umberto Eco: “[In the Baroque form] what is denied is the static and unequivocal definition of the classic Renaissance form, of the space developed around a central axis, delimited by symmetrical lines and closed angles, connected in the center, so to suggest more an idea of ‘essential’ eternity than of movement. The Baroque form is, on the other hand, dynamic; it tends to an indeterminacy effect... and it suggests a progressive dilatation of the space, the search for movement and for illusionist effects determines the fact that Baroque plastic masses never allow a privileged, frontal, definite vision, but they always induce the observer to move continuously to see the work under always new aspects, as if it were in continuous metamorphosis. If Baroque spirituality is seen as the first clear manifestation of modern culture and sensibility, it is because here, for the first time, humans evade the habit of the canonic ... and find themselves, in art as much as in science, in front of a world in movement which demands from them acts of invention” (Opera aperta, pp. 100-101)

Mieke Bal, "Baroque Bodies and the Ethics of Vision," at www.artium.org: "[T]he first thing that characterizes 'the Baroque' is an engagement with the human body.” "The Baroque fold emblematizes the point of view in which the subject must give up its autonomy in order to become implicated in the bodies that Serrano creates." "The traces of Baroque materialism in Serrano's images of white fabric and finely wrinkled hands suggest an aesthetic nostalgia. This is nostalgia for an aesthetic and for a sensibility that never existed before the subject of the memory —here, the contemporary artist- infused it with correlative engagement. Nostalgia accounts for the subjective sentiment that substantiates cultural memory as collective yet subjective." "Nostalgia can be defined as a longing for a past that never existed; a past is called upon to provide what the present lacks. Thus, the value that nostalgia may have depends on the way this sentiment provides guidelines for a critical utopianism in the present, for a struggle towards a better future. Idealizing
the past can assume all the different values that any discursive act allows, depending on context and use."

"The baroque is a matter of projecting and reflected forms, a suggestion of possible compositions instead of the classical art of cylindrical or rounded forms arrayed on a grid constructed according to the principles of disappearing perspective.” And: “Baroque form is a matter of conic sections, piercing or warping the frame, of curls and folds barely sketched by the tip of the brush.”

From a Village Voice review of The Tears of the Black Tiger, a "pad thai Western": "This yearning to recover a lost authenticity through self-reflexive artifice—a sort of synthetic sincerity—is a quintessential 21st-century mode.”

Borges: "The baroque as that style that deliberately exhausts (or tries to exhaust) its own possibilities, and that borders on self-caricature.”

How do visual or musical motifs translate into poetry? Bach’s elaborations and transformations of the same theme: Goldberg variations. Variations on Goldberg. Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, the harpsichordist who performed them as a cure for his patron’s insomnia. “Quodlibet” the 30th variation, probably intended as a joke, according to Bach’s biographer evocative of improvisatory, bawdy musical games played during Bach family reunions. “Whatever” precedes the affecting return of the initial “Aria” which all the variations are variants of.

“hyperbolic, circular, ornate”

Baroque thought as alternative rationality opposed to the Enlightenment rationality of Ockham’s razor: instead of reducing objects to fit the available principles, multiply principles to suit the available objects.

Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier notes proliferation of columns in Havana architecture. Baudelaire's vivants piliers.

Double motion of a spiral staircase: up/down and in circles, centrifugal and centripetal movement. Baroque helix.

Baroque is a style, a form of movement: social formalism is the intention of that movement, excess recruited so as to destabilize social identities and formations as given by capitalism.

Making the invisible audible, the inaudible visible.

Baroque populism.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Sina Queyras, late of Lemon Hound, was passing through Ithaca on her way home to Philadelphia yesterday, and we got together in the morning for coffee and conversation. Topics included the insularity of the poetry world and the professionalization of the American scene (a big part of the reason she's stopped blogging, at least for now); the subtle yet in her view insuperable differences between the Canadian and American perspectives, as determined by politics ("We're socialists!") and geography (the preservation of pockets of individuality in Canada versus a more homegenized culture in the U.S.); global warming and wondering if the free market is capable of addressing it (through technology or through recognizing the high cost via insurance premiums, etc.), while gloomily agreeing that most of the damage has already been done; Canadian pastoral as a larger movement of which Lisa Robertson is just a part, though an important part, and Sina's notion that Canadian development is a century behind ours; Brooklyn versus Philadelphia (Brooklyn wins); teaching dialectical thinking to creative writing students; and the difficulty of thinking the work of Woolf and Stein in context with each other (her project in Lemon Hound) though they were certainly aware of each other's writing.

Stimulating and challenging: Sina is an unabashed idealist, who asked me, in effect: Where are our Whitmans? What are the poets doing to inspire and effect social change? Everyone's just staring at themselves on the Internet! My partial rejoinder was to point out that Whitman was a world-class narcissist, who put his narcissism to work in building an audience for himself (self-reviews, etc.), and that only so doing made it possible for him to infiltrate our larger culture. But it's not a challenge I can really dismiss so lightly. Even if you think the first task of the poet, as of course it is, is to write poetry, and that therefore the first task of the socially critical poet is to write socially critical poetry, there's still the question of audience. My standard line on this point is my desire to turn passive readers into active writers: it's fine with me if all my readers are other poets because I think you have to be a poet (and who isn't a poet? Who hasn't attempted to translate their experience into language that's memorable, at least memorable to them or to a beloved, at least once in their lives?) to really read the stuff. But from another perspective, that's bullhonky: I know perfectly well what Sina and others mean when they complain about how poets only think of an audience of other poets, or how the vast majority of writers of poetry, including those who keep the book contest industry going, rarely read the stuff. What can we do about this if we're not interested in the faux-populist stance of the likes of John Barr, who argues that people will read poetry again (it's always "again," always the gesture toward some more perfect past—pastoral as ideology is always with us) when we start writing "happy" poems (didn't he say the entire art form was "in a bad mood," after reading like, what, three books he considered representative?), preferably in traditional forms, if we don't go even further and abandon most of the resources of poetry altogether so as to produce little anecdotes with line-breaks that signify solely "this is a poem" without having any semantic or aural impact.

So the dread beast "accessibility" raises its head once again. Sina reminded me yesterday of the remarkable fact that Christian Bök's Eunoia was a bestseller in Canada, and attributed this to two things beyond the work's indisputable wonderfulness: the fact that Christian had a clearly defined project and that he took the trouble to articulate that project in the apparatus of the book (an introduction, notes, etc.). I can personally testify to the appeal of Eunoia to the otherwise unpoetically inclined: a couple of years ago on a trip with Emily's family my father- and brother-in-law both asked me what I was reading, were tickled by the concept of the lipogram, and laughed out loud hearing a couple of the poems. Emily's brother even asked me where he could get a copy later on. So I think there's a lot to what Sina suggests, and possibly a lot to lament about how most poetry books, post-avant or otherwise, provide little or no help to a reader who isn't already an initiate. At the same time, I'm wary of too many notes to poems, if only because they can act as little leashes on the imagination: I remember finding the poems in Lucie Brock-Broido's first book less interesting once I'd read the extensive notes explaining the poems' origins and allusions. And not every poetry book can or should be as "high concept" as Eunoia: first and last, I want to preserve the freedom of the poet to make what she or he needs to make, which is predicated on the wild faith that what you write will resonate with someone because it resonates with you and you are, at bottom, another ordinary human being. Still, if one does write a book with an overarching project or through-line (and a lot of books by younger poets especially do, it seems), it does seem to behoove poet and publisher to provide the materials that will make that project, and by extension the poems, more accessible to readers: introductions, notes, publicity materials, etc.

Anyhow, it was very good to meet Sina, and if you have a chance to do so I'd highly recommend it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Weekend Update

Reginald Shepherd has a blog, though it remains to be seen whether he has a posse. Welcome aboard, Reginald.

Digesting a brilliant essay of Robert Kaufman's: "Negatively Capable Dialectics: Keats, Vendler, Adorno, and the Theory of the Avant-Garde," Critical Inquiry 27.2 (Winter 2001): 354-384, in which he shows how the Keats-Shelly dialectic of monumental vs. political poetry anticipates the dichotomy between the avant-garde as an intervention into "life" and modernism as an autonomous repository of the negative. Wonder if Reginald's read it (see his post about his upcoming book of criticism from University of Michigan Press, Inventing the Muses). The article's available from JSTOR if you're fortunate enough to have access to it. I was also very impressed by Kaufman's essay, "Red Kant, or the Persistence of the Third Critique in Adorno and Jameson." I think he's striking a nice balance between a Marxian socio-cultural critique of poetry and a more formalist approach. My kind of critic.

The question of prose and its relation to or incorporation of poetry continues to preoccupy me. For example: now reading for the first time Beckett's novel Murphy, written in a Joycean style that the author later repudiated, but which I nonetheless find compelling for the rich and strange tension it creates between the lush, whimsical architecture of its sentences and the existential poverty of its subject. The novel strikes an exact and precarious ratio between content-into-form and form-as-content that is essential to its comedy. Is this necessarily a comic mode? Later Beckett (I presume, though I haven't yet read the novels, only the plays), translated from the more austere original French, is also comic, but more balletic: Charlie Chaplin rather than Mack Sennett. Comedy seems to be the basic impulse of the great postmodern novelists, no matter how dark their visions of modernity: Pynchon, Delillo, Coover.

Page 178 of David Markson's art-mad, death-haunted "nonlinear, discontinuous, collage-like assemblage" Vanishing Point reads as follows:
     Selah, which marks the ends of verses in the Psalms, but the Hebrew meaning of which is unknown.
     And probably indicates no more than pause, or rest.

     Why does Author wish it implied more—or might stand for some ultimate effacement, even?

     The 1953 Victor De Sabata la Scala Tosca, with Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Tito Gobbi—is it the greatest single opera recording ever made?

     The greatest anything recording?

     Selah. Absolutely, all the illimitable connotations of Einstein's cosmic Oy, vey Author hereby personally endows it with—a terminal desolation and despair.

     Done? Done. Beware Selah.

     Ravenaa, Dante died in.

     Brundisium, Virgil.

   Chalcis, in Euboea—Aristotle.

     For decades, at his most famous, Isaac Bashevis Singer kept his number listed in the Manhattan telephone directory.

     As did Auden. And Allen Ginsberg.
And one more quoted quotation from Markson that I often remember:
D'où venons nous?
Que sommes nous?
Où allons nous?

Friday, January 05, 2007


Why have I waited this long to tell everyone about Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry, edited by Robert Strong, featuring a selection thats range from pre-Columbian to the Puritans to Jones Very to Chinese immigrants to such latter-day contributors as Frank O'Hara, Agha Shadid Ali, Brenda Hillman, Catherine Barnett, Timothy Donnelly, and yours truly, and now available from Autumn House Press?

Why has no one before now told me about the exuberant prose of David Markson, by whom I have now read two books?

Why is it sixty degrees outside in January?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

I Went to the MLA, Part Two

More notes from "The Sound of Poetry, The Poetry of Sound" panels that I attended last week in Philadelphia:

Following Caroline Bergvall and Christian Bök on the "Sound Poetry Workshop" comes poet and critic Craig Dworkin, claiming that sound poetry can help to "open" non-sound works. Talks about units of composition beneath the level of the word and how this can relate to the particularities of a given speaker's body. Cites a piece by Henri Chopin called "Buckle Cavities." Also mentions an author whose first name I didn't catch, a Canadian poet named Scot or Scott who happens to have a stutter, who writes "a text as difficult as possible for its own author to pronounce." The stutter motivates his work and disables the reader.

Steve McCaffrey follows with a talk on the Dadist Hugo Ball, performing part of Ball's "Elefantenkarawane," which does indeed seem to be mimetic of an elephant caravan. Ball claimed to invent sound poetry or Lautgedichte in Zurich in 1916. The haptic and phatic affect of such poetry, intended to evoke "poetry's last holiest refuge" (Ball). McCaffrey suggests the non-sense of sound poetry was motivated by disgust with World War I and the linguistic environment that made the war possible. But Ball's sound poetry does not escape symbolism—semantic content trails his phonemes. Seems to suggest Ball was a Romantic in disguise. Dada as mantra—mystic meditation—the word itself as shibboleth, "tetragrammaton of a new century." Sound poetry shades into magic. Language as golem.

Rubén Gallo talks about Cocteau's film Orphée, which among other things represents an experimental poet who transmits his work over the radio, and another, more conservative poet who becomes obsessed with transcribing what he hears, ultimately transforming himself into an uncreative writer (a proto-Kenneth Goldsmith?). Talks about noise, specifically radio noise, as one of the privileged markers of modernity in the first half of the twentieth century. Marinetti said noise must come in with modern poetry. The French word for radio interference is la parasite. The German word for this is Störung. Shows us a 1913 calligramme of Apollinaire's showing the Eiffel Tower from above, which includes nonsense fragments to indicate the presence of la parasite. Clips from Cocteau's film in which a woman listens to poetry being played on the radio of her chaufferred Rolls Royce. Emblem of modernity.

The respondent is Nancy Perloff of the Getty Center in LA (any relation to Marjorie?), but by this point I'm starving (they don't seem to have scheduled much time for lunch between these panels, which are running late anyway) and take a break for some fish 'n chips. Unfortunately, this means that I miss the first presenters in the "Sounding the Visual" workshop. Fortunately, I return in time for the entirety of Johanna Drucker's charming talk, in which she asks what elements of the visual have functional analogues with sound.

Drucker seems to ask: what is the "sound" of "appearance"? Much of her talk is accompanied by visuals in which words and letters move across the screen, demonstrating the analogues whenever possible. She speaks of seven "graphic variables," the first four of which have sound analogues and the last three of which do not:
- Size (analogous to volume)
- Scale or relative size (sound can represent this through multiple voices)
- Shape (analagous to the texture of the voice—the type in which text appears is shape and thus has a function for style)
- Value (analagous to tone)
- Pattern (no analogue)
- Color (no analogue)
- Placement or orientation (no analogue)
She also talks about the modes of disappearance that are difficult to represent aurally: when a text is under erasure, when it has been censured, when it purely disappears. It's difficult to convey the elegance of how the visuals her talk is accompanied by demonstrate these ideas.

Ming-Qian Ma's talk has an imposing title: "The Sound Shape of the Visual: Toward a Phenomenology of an Interface." For poetry, Ma says, sound has historically taken the form of noise, while the visual takes priority. Mentions how Odysseus stopped his men's ears against the Sirens' song. Visuals from telescopes: astronomers produce "noisy" images of other galaxies that need to be "cleaned" or "silenced" to become legible. The split in crystallography: before the eighteenth century crystals were empirically catalogued; after they were presented as ideal geometrical forms or "projections." The visual presents us with a ratio between the focus and fringe, body and margin. "The visual demonstrates its authority by being silent." "The visual is considered to be spatially rich but temporally poor," and the opposite is true for sound.

Many of these speakers seem to suggest that sound is social, embodied, horizontal, while the visual is abstract, idealist, vertical.

Joan Retallack's talk is called "Uncommon Senses: Silence, Phonemes, Synesthetics." "Words begin for all of us as phonemes." In infants and children, phonemes in spoken language stimulate both the visual and auditory cortexes of the brain. Adult brains are modular and separate these modes of cognition. But a few people are genuine synesthetes, typically registering words or letters as somehow colored. Nabokove, Kandinsky. Synesthesia as an index of engagement with one's environment. John Dewey: when the organism gets too far from its environment, it dies. Retallack suggests that nowadays the reverse is true as well. Shows images of texts that simulate synesthesia: pages from Tom Phillips' A Humument and poems by Jonathan Skinner and Peter Inman.

The last panel of the day is "Translating the Visual" and it's kicked off by Gordana P. Crnkovic, who says she came to the sound of poetry via the novel, specifically a novel called Death and the Dervish by Mesa Selminovic that was published in Yugoslavia in 1966. Selminovic said of it, "I needed the Quran because I needed poetry" to counteract the Communist dogma of the time. Crnkovic cites a saying of Mohammed's that amounts to, "If you doubt these teachings, write better poetry than this." Selminovic uses poetry in his novel as a mode of resistance to Communist prose. But how to translate it? In the original language (what used to be called Serbo-Croatian), Selminovic's prose uses strong internal rhyming to subvert the negativity of the content—there's a liveliness that belies what's being said—and this is virtually impossible to translate. Demands poetry, if not verse, from the translator.

Richard Sieburth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to John R. Bolton, is next with a talk on his translation of a sequence of quasi-sonnets by the French poet Maurie Scève called Délie, published in Lyons in 1544. Typograhical oddities in the original that most editors and translators have smoothed over. Mentions how Basil Bunting did readings from Wordsworth's The Prelude in what would have been Wordsworth's own Northrumbian accent (and I'm reminded of the fact that Keats was a Cockney). Walter Benjamin (I knew his name would come up): "The translation is an event in the afterlife of the original." Scève was apparently a kind of anti- or skewed Petrarchan. Sieburth devised a four-stress, ten-syllable to line to work against the grain of the English sonnet's iambic pentameter, so as to preserve the strangeness of the original.

Rosmarie Waldrop, who's always a pleasure to listen to, talks about how poetic devices affect sound and vice-versa.
"The translation of sound in poetry is impossible... the translator is forced to separate what canot be separated, and to kill the original." But after this killing we must resurrect the poem somehow. Benjamin again: the translator is forced to choose between "inaccurate transmission of inessential content" and putting content first and thus producing a trot. The Zukofskys' Catullus attempts to translate both sound and sense, and is occasionally successful. But always something is lost, in this case tone, which Waldrop says comes from the joining of the two (or exists at their nexus, as in a Venn diagram). The translator must try to get at a poem's "genetic code," developing a feel for how it's put together.

Yunte Huang begins with a story about his Buddhist, semi-literate grandmother, who learned to pronounce all the words of the Diamond Sutra but remained uninterested in learning their meanings. "Homophonic translation turns every word into a proper name." Seeks to broaden "homophonic translation" to mean any practice of foregrounding the materiality of words so as to turn them into proper names. Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter": how Pound left "Cho-fu-Sa" untranslated as the poem's last word because its literal meaning, "long wind sand," doesn't have the aura of the proper name. A manifestation of Pound's nominalism. This converts words not to icons or ideograms only, but to indexes—"As indexes, proper names are foreign to any language." Nixon in China: "Oh, what a great wall!" Huang seems to suggest that proper names are free from conventional signification—that they escape the Saussurean game by which words achieve meaning only through their distinction from other words. Instead they are sutured directly to their referents. (Is he really saying this?) Pound liberates Chinese words from the context of other Chinese words to set up a direct relation between the name and the thing it represents. (I am reminded of what Yoko Tawada said earlier about how reading English taught her to empty ideograms of signification, turning them into mere counters).

Antonio Sergio Bessa talks about Augusto de Campos and the Noigandres poets of Brazil in the 1950s and 60s. His were "the first concrete poems." Talks about Anton Webern and his theory of melody. Glenn Gould saw the atonal reticence of Webern's music as heightening its emotional power rather than diminishing it. Webern's use of "mirror forms" and its infulence on de Campos. "Silence made audible as a structural element." Plays a very beautiful polyphonic performance of one of de Campos' poems (the first "line" is "diaz diaz diaz"), a page-as-field work in which different words, coded by color, are spoken/sung by different voices.

Leevi Lehto: "The cure for Babelization is more Babelization." Positive cacophony of sound. "In the beginning was translation." Opposes the dominant idea of a democracy of languages above which hovers a netural instrument called translation. Proposes a new poetry of barbaric English—English as a second language, as no one's native language (we are back with Tawada and Goldsmith) as the lingua franca of our age. "How is it Ashbery has yet to be translated into his native language?" The untranslatable text—cites Bök's Eunoia—is best translated "by not even glancing at the original."

And that's all I wrote: I spent the rest of the conference catching up wtih friends, browsing the book fair, and carousing. For much more on this past MLA and its poetry-related panels, see what Ron said and what Barrett Watten said. And if you know of other reports, please comment below to tell me where I might find them.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Buffalo Springfield

For what it's worth, here's the text of a letter I mailed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and copied to my congressman, as suggested by the Portland Independent Media Center:

Speaker Pelosi:

In spite of what the Democratic leadership may perceive as the prevailing political headwinds, it is imperative that you and your party take the initiative in restoring the rule of law, checks and balances, and our reputation as a member of the world community by introducing Articles of Impeachment against President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. They lied us into war at the cost of 3,000 American lives and what is widely reported to be more than 670,000 Iraqi lives. They have trampled our civil liberties. They have, through torturing prisoners of war and the illegal “extraordinary rendition” of suspected terrorists, made a travesty of this nation’s highest ideals. And they are guilty, at home, of criminal neglect in the case of Hurricane Katrina, whose devastation revealed deep-seated social inequities that this war is designed to conceal.

You will be receiving, I trust, thousands of other letters which detail the offenses of Bush and Cheney in more detail. I would also like to refer you to Elizabeth Holtzman and Cynthia L. Cooper’s book The Impeachment of George W. Bush: A Practical Guide for Concerned Citizens, available in bookstores everywhere.

Speaker Pelosi, the American people have given you and the Congress a mandate for change. Not for raising the minimum wage or creating new ethics rules, as laudable as those goals might be, but change at the highest levels of government. Make this George W. Bush’s accountability moment, and give us back our country.


Joshua Corey
Twenty-second District of New York

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

I Went to the MLA

...and all I have to show for it is the beautiful four-volume complete edition of Beckett that they were practically giving away at the Grove Press booth at the bookfair. Not bad, really. I also got to see friends old and semi-new, and I attended one day of panels on "The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound" theme, courtesy of MLA President Marjorie Perloff. Did not make it to the big off-site reading on Friday because none of us could remember where it was. Oh well. Next year in Chicago maybe we'll have better luck.

From where I'm typing this in the Ezra Cornell room of the Tompkins County Public Library I can see a flag flying at half mast up on the ridge, presumably in honor of the 38th president. But all I can think about is the summary execution of Saddam. I wasn't keeping up with the news in Philadelphia, but there's a long corridor at the convention center there between the hangar-like lobby and the ballroom where the bookfair was, and it was lined with TVs tuned to CNN on which I kept reading the crawl, "Hussein Execution." I had no idea they were going to do it that fast; when I read that the execution could take place within thirty days, I naively assumed there would be some kind of appeals process, or that at the least they'd want to keep him alive to testify about his other crimes. But no, the Shi'a wanted revenge and probably so did Bush, and they took it. I don't have illusions about Saddam: he did monstrous things. But the death penalty is always barbaric, and in this case they didn't just murder a defeated and delusional man, they murdered the history he might have illuminated for us. As Hamlet might have said, "O, most wicked speed!... It is not nor it cannot come to good."

What follows are some adapted excerpts from my notes on the "Sound of Poetry" panels on Thursday, December 28:

The opening roundtable at 10 AM features Marjorie Perloff, Yoko Tawada, Susan Stewart, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Kenneth Goldsmith. Susan Stewart kicks things off with some lyrical but hazy reflections on rhyme, asserting several times what strikes me as a rather naive analogy between rhyme and the forms of nature: rhyme as a by-product of our sense of rotation and return in experience. "Rhyme is a means of freedom," but her argument suggests an ideological "naturalization" of traditional forms.

Susan Howe is next with a presentation centered on her own "Articulations of Sound Forms in Time," a long poem centered on the hapless wanderings of a seventeenth-century missionary from Deerfield, Connecticut with the unlikely name of Hope Atherton. "Every mark has acoustic power," Howe says. As I've come to expect from her writing, Howe's talk mixes poetry with autobiography—she celebrates the access she acquired to Princeton's Sterling Library after her husband's job caused their move to New Haven in the 1980s. Images flash on the screen of excerpts from histories in which Atherton's expedition features, with the Indian names leaping off the page in their polysyllabic palpability: "Allinnackcooke," "Taukkanackcoss." Howe: "I wanted to transcribe words with soil sticking to their roots." Cites Thoreau's "Walking." "I wanted jerky or tectonic details to oratorically bloom." Not only a celebration of nature: "I wished to speak for libraries as places of freedom and wildness." Overall a wonderful introduction to her own work and a celebration of documentary poetry.

Charles Bernstein's is a typically virtuosic performance, beginning with clapping hands and blowing static into the mike to emphasize the subject of the day, sound. Claims an ontological difference between live reading, recorded ("gramophonic") reading, and visual reading. Why do poets always read their own work? "I would welcome cover versions of poems," and he imagnes William Shatner reciting Leslie Scalapino's "Considering How Exaggerated Music Is" or Harold Bloom intoning Ashbery's Girls on the Run. "Performance is the ultimate test of the poem," with test meaning something like "stress test." If performance is, as David Antin says, "a private occasion in a public place," then listening to a recording of a poet is a public occasion in a private place. Social materiality of the voice versus "typographic idealism." The gramophone provides a "thicker description" of the voice than the alphabet can. Paraphrasing Camus: "After a certain age each poet is responsible for his or her own voice." Quotes Zukofsky's "Brooklynese" translation of Cavalcanti's "Donna mi priegha": "A foin lass / bodders me." "Shtick" translation—a good description for what Bernstein himself does, as he well knows. A call for "midrashic antinomianism—a new field that I am launching here this morning."

Yoko Tawada is a Japanese writer living in Germany who talks about how she associates the term "native speaker" with the tape recorder that pronounced English for the classes she took as a child in Japan. Thus the native speaker is a machine, not a human being. Dubbing of actors in films as a form of shamanism. Remarks on how her experience with alphabetic language made her able to "empty" the significance from Japanese ideograms, to turn them into valueless ciphers.

Kenneth Goldsmith makes a great visual impression—nattily dressed in a pinstripe suit and purple power tie, and mustachioed to boot. Repeats, slowly, the phrase "I love speech" several times throughout the talk. "I am an American, and so I only speak one language. But I will not speak to you in my native language, but in English, which neither you nor I can understand." Seeking to make language purely formal and concrete, to bring about "the utopian situation of willful ignorance." Cites Cage who, like Thoreau, is a master of simply noticing things. "I used to be an artist, then I was a poet, then I was a writer, and now I'm only a word processor." "Because when you do something exactly wrong, you always turn out something." "I'm interested in a valueless practice." "The act of listening has been replaced by the act of archiving." "The act of acquisition [of information] becomes the content. I am my information." A paradoxically charismatic performance by a writer manifestly interested in boredom.

This roundtable is followed by a "workshop" on "Sound Poetry." (I never learn why some panels are called roundtables, others workshops, still others sessions. They all follow the same format.)

The English poet Caroline Bergvall gives a paper titled "Indiscreet Ghosts," which is apparently derived from de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life. Talks about two German artists named Heiner, Heiner Müller the writer and Heiner Goebbels the composer (disconcerting how they both have the last names of Nazi war criminals), who collaborated on a sound project, Shadow/Landscape with Argonauts that integrates texts by Müller and Edgar Allan Poe. Bergvall: "The social saliva located in the speaker's mouth adds a new layer to the text." Cites Nick Piombino on the phenomenon of "oral ellipsis... work that can act as a 'holding environment.'" Also uses the phrase "dissemination environments." She plays excerpts which include people on the streets of Boston reciting, often with puzzlement, the phrase "landscape with argonauts," which is followed up by an adaptation of Poe's short story "The Shadow" into a very beautiful Middle Eastern-sounding song. Cites Zukofsky's "upper limit music lower limit speech" by claiming that the third limit is space and the fourth limit is time. Radio as an intersection of public and private. I don't get it all, she talks very fast, but the overall impression is brilliant.

Christian Bök gives a tour-de-force performance of an excerpt from a work in progress, "The Cyborg Opera," with "Opera" being short for "operation." Very much a student and adept of beat-boxing as well as poetry. Talks about how jazz, the usual paradigm for sound poetics, has become antiquated: he prefers "spoken techno" as a descriptor for what he does. The Japanese appropriation of English words as objects on t-shirts and lunch boxes: playing with the language of globalized capital. Performs a piece called "Mushroom Clouds" that sounds just like someone playing Nintendo, faster and faster as the "level" goes on. He's as good as Michael Winslow at making sounds with his mouth—I can't believe they're sequentially scripted, because it often sounds like he's making many sounds at once. "Machinic language." Cites some of the performers who appeared on Björk's album Medulla, which features no instruments, only an electronic mix of human voices and sounds.

That's all I have time for right now—I'll present the rest of my notes later.

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