Saturday, March 22, 2008

A Letter

Even now that I'm an actual professor, even though I've been working toward the ultimate goal for almost a decade, I still can't quite believe I've made it through. But as this piece of paper attests, I've finally crossed all the Ts and dotted all the Is. All that remains is to go to Ithaca (hurray!) in May to pick up the more durable piece of paper in the horribly expensive doctoral regalia I'd better hurry up and order. These new identities, so rapidly and recently acquired—professor, father, PhD—sit uneasily upon my shoulders, though I'm probably the only one who thinks so. (Least of all my daughter, currently wrapped up in her sling against my chest, fast asleep.)

About halfway through Moxley's The Middle Room, and I am surprised anew by her commitment to a thoroughly romantic (and Romantic) poetics—or not only or not merely a poetics, but a way of living. It reads like a nineteenth-century memoir of the late twentieth century, if such a thing were possible, dotted as it is with archaic prepositions like betwixt and o'er—a testimony to the author's nostalgic passions (a phrase that, like wicked interior spy, recurs frequently throughout the book, and always in italics).

Over at Parsifal Press, Simone dos Anjos has posted a review of the book that recommends it "to those literary persons who take themselves too seriously." It's true that the book is characterized by the dry yet tender irony of the adult Moxley toward her younger self—yet "irony" doesn't seem quite right, because Moxley still seems perfectly capable of stepping back into her younger self's skin, so that only the barest daylight shows between "Jenny's" taste for melodrama and the older poet's frank savorings of that drama. Perhaps it goes hand in hand with her romanticism, but Moxley has always impressed me precisely because she does risk taking herself too seriously, a risk many of us are unwilling to take because it would make us too vulnerable. You need a thick skin, or a lot of arrogance, or most simply the courage to risk being hurt, again and again, to present yourself to the world as a serious person who believes in the significance of his/her own life and work (particularly a poet's life and work, which provide few if any social appurtenances with which to shield oneself). Moxley impresses and disturbs because her courage is coupled to what seems like the thinnest of skins: to spend time in the company of her poetry or her prose is to watch her bleed.

It's a lushly written book, very pleasuarable on a sentence level, once you've gotten used to the archaisms. As an account of one poet's sentimental education it gratifies my curiosity to understand from the inside what it must have been like to come to poetry from the communitarian and experimental stance that Moxley encountered as an undergraduate, and which she naturally took to be the path of the poet—very different from the thoroughly quietudinous education I received at Vassar, where the creative writing students pored over Elizabeth Bishop's drafts of "One Art," sat at the feet of bearded male profs, and felt at best a prickly rivalry with each other, at worst indifference. At least that was my experience—maybe I was sunk too deep in Dungeons & Dragons to partake more actively of Vassar's literary culture, such as it was. The two other poets who were there when I was, Camille Guthrie and Renee Gladman (I knew Camille pretty well; I've never met Renee, that I can recall), did go on to be associated with the avant-garde (Camille's first book, as it happens, is published by Subpress, the publishers of Moxley's memoir), so maybe they found more a more challenging aesthetic and a more involving community (with all the attendant romance, rivalry, and performative opportunities) at Vassar than I did.

Why do we become poets? Moxley is able to pin it down to one moment: when she brought the first poem she ever wrote to her mother Jo—the guardian and arbiter of all things literary in that household—and she pronounced it, "very impressive." I can find no single primal scene in my own background to match that, but in the house where I grew up it was my mother as well who was the litterateur and arbiter of taste when it came to books and aesthetic questions generally. Her attention was not always easy to secure; so when she responded positively to my own early attempts at poetry I was goaded to carry on with it. At a perilously young age—fourteen? twelve?—I was determined to become a writer. But I didn't settle, or resettle, on poetry until my middle twenties after failed attempts at a novel sent me back to, yes, the one form of writing that had consistently garnered praise from teachers, friends, a lover or two, and, yes, my mother—who had died some years previous, while I was still in college.

Perhaps it's that intimate response that, if we're lucky, we can get from a reader of our poems, that blooms into a vocation for an art form that your average person seems to hold in a strange mixture of awe and contempt. (Awe because they knew what it could or should have been when they themselves were writing it, as adolescents—contempt because it was they themselves who had written, and they nor nobody else they knew could possibly be a "real poet"?) You need to be an egoistical tyrant to sit down and demand that someone who matters to you read your novel; but we've all sat across from beloved or respected faces and scrutinized them as they read our lines, waiting for the reaction that will bless or damn us.

So poets write for/to/with lovers—a truth as embarrassing and necessary as the artist's bare self-seriousness. Both of these facts Moxley refuses to mask even with the garb of eccentricity, and I'm amazed by that. And compelled into following her many-branching paths—I'll be ordering The Line when I'm done with this.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Lapse

Not much left over. Can't resist the baby talk: we start out speaking normally but by the end of the sentence our inflections shoot way, way up, like those of teenage girls.

Hello world.

With Emily at Starbucks.


My father wants to be known as Sadie's "Poppy," but he may be changing his mind now that he knows our president calls his own father by that name.

Reading Silliman's Ketjak, pronounced keh-chak. A ketjak is a Balinese "monkey dance" intended to exorcize evil. It's a long poem in prose in which the same sentences and sentence fragments keep recurring in longer and more complex iterations as each paragraph swells to become much larger than all the preceding paragraphs. An anticipation, it seems, of Ron's employment of the Fibonoacci sequence in writing Tjanting (pronounced chanting, so he didn't move all that far from that idea). Written in the mid-seventies, it was his first demonstration of the New Sentence, something I'm actually more familiar with in practice from reading Lyn Hejinian's My Life. Reading it is like sitting down to listen to one of the jazz CDs—Thelonious Monk, say—that contain many tracks of variation on the same tune, so that your head nods at the return of a phrase, now freshly contextualized by the tide of new text that surrounds it. In that respect it's also like hitting the "refresh" button on the browser of a website that's constantly updated but which always retains some of the same basic elements.

I can see why it would have outraged and titillated and bored when it first appeared; I can see now why some would now find the technique to be uttery canonical, if not old hat—but I never lose sight of the fact that the majority of readers today would find the poem as strange and tedious as the readers of 1975 did. In that respect there is no advancement for art: the avant-garde is permanently avant-garde for everyone except the cognoscenti, the ones invested in expanding (shrinking?) the market for different modes of writing. Once you have your sea-legs, so to speak, there's pleasure aplenty to be found in a text like Ketjak, and very little of the Brechtian dissonance of the New Sentence comes off as dissonance, just as those Monk tunes no longer startle by their breaks and halts. The trouble is that few are interested in acquiring such sea-legs themselves: people are content with the pleasures they already know, for the most part, and don't wish to be seasick before they can stand. The only mechanism currently in place for growing the audience for such writing is the press gang of academia: I can assign Ketjak or a portion of it to my students and explain why it matters and a few of them, at least, will consider the possibility of its being a source of pleasure. But most will not pick up such a text again, I think, and we're back to the non-system of eccentrics' finding their misshapen way toward what they'll discover they need from poetry (bully for them). Perhaps that's best.

My copy of Jennifer Moxley's massive memoir The Middle Room has just arrived; The Irasicble Poet has whet my appetite for it. I'm hungry for a narrative of my generation's (very nearly—I think Jennifer's probably four or five years older) infatuation with and abandonment of and commitment to poetry. Why did we get here? How did we do it, or not do it? Has there been, shall there be, anything new?

Hungry again, in other words, for narrative: red meat. Telling my students this morning Eliot's line about meaning being the meat the burglar gives the guard-dog so that he can accomplish his work. What is that work? The poet as second-story man: he that tells us a second story. Let the first story languish; kick the ladder away.

From the back cover of The Middle Room:
There was a secret force deep in my psyche which, like a Cold War double agent, worked in tandem with my insecurity, a sort of wicked interior spy that emerged at the most inopportune moments to make sport of all my fears and fill me with crippling self-doubt as regards my natural fitness to live the life of the mind.
I feel almost entirely opposite: my wicked interior spy works to make me doubt my fitness to live the life of the body. Life, the life sentence.

Silence, then a lapse into speech, then silence. Rock-a-bye.

A movement, a lull. "Just keep walking," drive, he sd.


Monday, March 03, 2008

Utopian Poetics

One can like what one has written while feeling dissatisfied with the way one writes.

I am dissatisfied.

Saw the rough draft of a new documentary about artist-mothers last night. The real cost women have always paid to create. But I was distracted by the art itself and how its expressiveness exceeded whatever the artists themselves or the various talking heads had to say about it. That old envy of the visual, coupled with a swelling disgust for discursivity. Talking heads: stop making sense.

And a longing for the spoken, its power to punctuate a narrative. "How's my hair look, Mike?"

The avant-garde impulse gets swallowed in mists of cynicism. Or is it just historicism? Over at Action, Yes, Per Bäckström offers what appears to me to be a faultless analysis of the use and misuse of the term "avant-garde" in the twentieth century, and makes especially valuable distinctions about the changing face of the term depending on which country (or more broadly, which linguistic tradition—Romance, Germanic, Anglo-Saxon/Anglo-American) speaks it. It's an extremely useful and clarifying intervention in the distinctions we must draw between terms like "avant-garde" and "high modernism"; it will help me when I write my pastoral book. But the piece leaves the poet in me feeling dispirited, a marble in a milk carton bobbing in a millpond, because it all adds up to the end of history, again. Or as Modris Eksteins puts it at the end of this review of Peter Gay's new book, "Stunde Null, zero hour, 1945, with its iconography of the end, stacked corpses and mushroom clouds, is a strong candidate for the last act of Modernism. At that point, Adorno said, history had outdistanced any possibility of representation. Art, historiography, indeed any attempt to capture meaning, had been humiliated by events. Perhaps shopping is indeed all that is left."

Strategies of anti-representation followed Adorno's declaration about lyric poetry after Auschwitz, but Eksteins, taking the long view, sees nothing in the postwar avant-garde (which, per Per, seems to be a term he takes as interchangeablewith "modernism") that isn't a retread of the post-WWI period: for John Cage read Malevich, for Jim Dine read Picabia. Bäckström takes a more nuanced view, writing that "the neo-avant-gardes did not react against modernity, as the historical avant-garde did, but against late modernity. Therefore, they could not possibly use the same strategies as the historical avant-garde," the folks who, to paraphrase Peter Bürger's argument, struggled "to include art as a natural component of life (a richer life)."

That has always struck me as the fundamental goal for art: or, I have always demanded of art that it transform my life. If art doesn't intervene in life, it no longer interests me. Which, thanks to the clarification of terms Bäckström provides, leads me to reject postmodernism: it is a purely aestheticized reaction-formation, lacking "the Utopian urge to merge life and art, which is the prime mover for an avant-garde." But does that resuscitate what I do as avant-garde? Or neo-avant-garde? Or (shudder) "post-avant"?

I have a visceral response to Ian Keenan's claims that "the act of traversing new territory of expression is both tied to the spirit of the forms that preceded it to that end, but not dogmatically to the forms themselves"; and, "I believe in the avant-garde both as a matter of faith and as an objective analysis of phenomenon." The first statement is both pragmatic and a covert statement of faith in the spirit of the avant-garde that the second statement makes manifest. But I think I have a more useful term, at least for me, and Bäckström gave me the clue for it: utopian poetics.

Form is one intervention. I tell my students how parataxis can punctuate a text, can let fresh air into writing, can let alternatives to the master narrative filter in. Prosody is everything that diverts, spills, overflows, smothers, trickles around, and shines on that relentless question, "What happens next?" But my students still want to know what happens; they want, themselves, to happen. I too want this, and so we are utopians together. But what's the technique for this? What's its content?

This second singing a mangled medley of Beach Boys tunes to my daughter. "Sloop John B." "Good Vibrations." "Wouldn't It Be Nice."

If the thinker swallows the writer, if the formalist swallows what aches. Discomfort of several skins. Two heads. Then, "other horrible workers will come."

Mon coeur mis à nu. What Poe wanted to write.

We want the poem to be something, to take us somewhere. To have some life beyond both ordinary language and artsy self-awareness. To mean and be, or at least go.

(Is an addiction to generalities my difficulty? People cry, "Enough generalizing, let's talk about poems!" Yes, but there's an obvious hunger for the general, for perspective, for mapping our moment so as to live it/write it better. "The theme is creative and has vista.")

Typing one-handed, my left pinky finger in Sadie's mouth. Bodies in real time.

Utopia is negative and positive at the same time: it's noplace, and it's also always a negative image of whatever it is in our actually existing world that inhibits human flourishing. We write from and toward what we can't inhabit, except retrospectively. Now Sadie's being nursed by her mother, and the moment of misremembered songs and my finger-substitute (dry breast of the father) is in the past. It's got a half-life now, a glow.

How to write my way back toward lived experience, something messy, precious bodily fluids. The Narrativity writers, whose Biting the Error has been the main text in my creative writing seminar, also strive for this. As theoretical essays they show how their lives—often queer lives, or women's lives, or Marxist lives—have changed their writing. Between the lines—and in some of their non- or extra-theoretical texts—we read how their writing changed their lives. Utopians, every one. (Canadians, too, some of them, or denizens of the Bay Area—national and quasi-national spaces that have taken on a utopian luster for me in the past seven years.)

"The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem." I love the themselves. I love the are.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Baby Blogging Bonanza

Any thoughts I might have about poetry will probably have to wait until spring break. In the meantime, for famished Sadie Gray fans:

My cousin Rachel instructs Sadie in the finer points of flying.

And here she is with us practicing her best Superman moves.

Proud papa and mama and a somewhat stunned-looking Sadie.

Emily models her baby sling (baby not included).

At brunch this morning with my grandparents at a hole-in-the-wall cafe in Skokie.

That sling is more comfortable than it looks.

Your faithful correspondent at the computer with his special assistant standing by.

Reading to Sadie. That's either The Green Lake Is Awake or Hotel Lautreamont.

The New York School works as well or better than Mother Goose when it comes to soothing the little ones.

The flying Wallendas--I mean, Ross and Kerry, our dear friends from Ithaca who stayed with us a whole week cooking us meals, rearranging my books (really), and making us laugh.

Here are Kerry and Emily adoring the little one in all her naked glory.

Sadie and her sleepy daddy sharing a moment (and a robe).

Ross, Sadie, and Sadie's hat.

Since we moved in there hasn't been a moment to arrange my books more than haphazardly. Kerry brought her welcome rage for order to the task of alphabetizing my poetry books. Here I am, checking her work.

When all else fails in the sleeping baby department, our trusty friend the clothes dryer usually does the trick.

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