Monday, March 31, 2003

I've added Tim Yu's blog tympan to the list at left. He's got a wonderfully smart post on the whole Lang/postLang controversy in the Poetry Project Newsletter a few months back. I think he hits the nail on the head about its being more a generational than an ideological conflict, though I'm sure there's those who would attack such a distinction.

Here's a piece of another interesting e-mail from Reginald Shepherd and my response to it. I respond to some stuff from his e-mail that I haven't reproduced here; hope it's not too confusing.
from Reginald:

I recently read Myung Mi Kim's Commons, which is an interesting book, rather severe and fractured (though rather conventionally syntactical for the most part) but with a strong lyrical strain running through it. I must say, though, that I'm beginning to think that fracture is too easy and even evasive, that rather than just cutting things up or claiming that they just _are_ cut up (a simplistic view of art as a reflection of the world which is shared by many soi disant avant garde writers, at least in America: didn't Picasso say that art is called art because it is not life?), it's much more difficult and interesting to put things together despite or in the face of fragmentation, not to create false whole or a false confidence in wholes, but to see and show that things _are_ related, how random and chaotic their surfaces and appearances may be. That randomness is an ideological illusion, and this response is as much the Marx in me as the John Crowe Ransom. Totalities may be (always are) contradictory, but they are totalities, and we live in, among, and with them. Part of the work of thought, and the work of poetry, is to trace out their lineaments-for me, poetry, language, and thought (to obliquely refer to your beloved Heidegger) are about relating things, about making the connections among disparate things often seen as disconnected or even opposed or contradictory, because contradiction is a relation too, as is opposition.

Sometimes I tire of experimentation for its own sake--it comes to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion, never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you're wearing next season's clothes. Those trendy outfits also bear a strong resemblance to the clothes they wore in the teens and twenties, which people too often forget. So many of the 'experiments' in which our avant-garde engage were performed by Eliot, Pound, et alia, long before any of us was born. There's nothing wrong with using techniques that have already been developed (the English language is one of those techniques, after all), but there's something rather unseemly about claiming that you came up with them yesterday. The avant-garde frequently forgets that Pound's injunction to "Make it new" contains two parts-they concentrate so much on
trying to be new (which ends up as a cult of novelty that mirrors the planned obsolescence of the consumer culture it claims to critique, a
consumer culture my main criticism of which is that it isn't in fact available to all) that they neglect the necessity to make something, that
newness is not a value in itself (no human being is 'new,' though each is unique) but a means to the rejuvenation of aesthetic experience (and thus, analogously at least, of our experience of and in the world).

Et moi:

I envy, or think I envy, your attitude--I won't call it detachment--toward this dismal war. It seems like a healthy peasant's attitude, the attitude of someone who keeps doggedly plowing their field while the latest warlord, as in his father's father's time, conducts the latest bloody and meaningless war in which the peasant is too wise to let himself be conscripted. Of course wisdom in itself is no defense, and there is a narrow but deep generational
gap here. I inherited my parents' (really my mother's) skepticism about government more or less uncritically: Reagan was obviously and manifestly evil in her world and so in mine, which is why it puzzles me to this day to see how venerated he's become. I was a toddler when my parents watched Vietnam and Watergate on TV: my cynicism about that era is a hand-me down from their old satirical albums and Doonesbury comic books. The horror of the present is fresh and I feel implicated when I wake up to the news, and when I see a flag, and when I pay my taxes. The situation does make me feel more acutely every day the insufficiency of any poetic response and the lack
of any significant ethical privilege that could possibly be accorded toward avant garde forms. What an aesthete, what a formalist I am! Perhaps I simply find most conventional poetry boring because it's not formally interesting, and not because it reifies a dead, scabby language. Not that much experimental poetry isn't boring too: disjunction for disjunction's sake, as you point out. So I'm trying to get closer to your headspace: in Tom Waits' words, to get behind the mule and plow. Even though my blogging has slowed to a crawl I am at least writing poems, which perhaps share the same miniscule yet crucial value of any protest: a sign of life, a glimmer of the unadministered world.

...Your message has me thinking about the question of experimentation for experimentation's sake, and about the word "experimental" and how it's being loosely applied as a genre classification. I wonder if it would help if there were openly acknowledged genres of poetry--if there were signposts to direct the general reader. Would this be a meaningless exercise in subdivision that would only further insure that different camps can remain in happy ignorance of each other, or would it stimulate poets to try and work in genres whose existence they hadn't quite intuited before? We already have the strange division "Poetry" and "Popular Poetry" at Barnes & Noble: the latter's where you'll find books by Mattie Stepanek and Kahlil Gibran and the like, whereas the former somehow manages to encompass everything from Angelou to Zukofsky.
Perhaps we could avoid invidious subdivisions of "experimental" poetry and "formalism" by taking over the categories of genre fiction. What would "crime" poetry look like? "Thriller" poetry? "Romance"? "Fantasy"?

At any rate, while I appreciate your suspicion of the very real tendency some poets have to fetishize the new, and their tendency to forget the "it" in Pound's formula, I myself will not utter a discouraging word about formal experimentation. New forms are constantly being discovered, and 20th-century techniques like disjunction and the new sentence are already transforming themselves beyond prescription and mannerism and into the tradition: one more tool in the tool-box next to alliteration and enjambment. Perhaps the question is not where to draw the boundaries but rather how to teach young poets the uses of boundaries. How do you instill students with a desire for formal rigor--how do you get them to discover their own limitations so that they might eventually transgress them? This is not an idle question: I'll be teaching creative writing this fall for the first time in years and I want to empower and challenge my students in equal measure. I'm not going to pretend to be unbiased, but how can I create an atmosphere that encourages a student who does the kind of writing I find boring to at least articulate his or her assumptions and expectations? Is it enough to demand a statement of poetics from them after showing a few
examples? This is a wandering paragraph, but you can see why I'd move from the general question of experimentation to the question of teaching. I feel reasonably well-equipped as far as my own creative explorations go, but what are the best and most useful tools I can give to students? What's a creative writing classroom for, anyhow?

Saturday, March 29, 2003

Friday, March 28, 2003

I don't post a lot of poems on this blog. I personally find poems hard to read online unless they're short—that is, I like to be able to see the whole poem at a glance. There's something about the way one might otherwise have to endlessly scroll down that makes it hard for me to concentrate. Maybe I secretly hate poetry and want it to end quickly; but if that isn't true then it must be that brevity is part of the experience of reading poetry for me. It might be even more accurate to say that for me the poem really is an object, that old machine made of words, and if I can't hold it in my hands (the book) then I want to hold it with my eyes. Because after all I do read long poems and enjoy them, in book form.

That being said here are three fairly recent poems from my series-in-progress, Severance Songs. Events have inevitably and overwhelmingly invaded what was intended to be an experiment in pastoral. It still is, but the parameters of that experiment have undergone a painful and unwilled dilation. Incidentally, these are supposed to appear with a 1.5 spacing but I can't figure out how to do that in blogworld:


I'm hip to coelacanth, to refinding the spines
that were never really lost. The bloom is off again,
on again the oil wells. History: its “comportment”?
Its circulatory system? Its bald mechanics
abstract us from our distraction, distract us from our abstraction.
Its “dialectical images”? Its all-surrendering swoon.
Pace the present’s televisual fires, remember:
digital means by hand. Its too easy AWACs?
Its hard-to-sustain homecoming? Again with the island
abstaining its ill wind. The tropical sky was.…
The Mediterranean... All-volunteer hermeneut, I'm a-tumble.
Sustained by a crawl, vicious weather balloon.
The Missouri... breaks.… The rag ladder has started.
Heavy on my head the home inflammable’s my own.


Sun breaks sixty and the tattering blooms appear,
human and graceless. Heads down, eyes up, churning
muddy children and long boys, the lawgivers.
Beauty depends on concept, spring shrieks, Araby.
We brought our wintry candles unto the maw,
we stilled our voices, let sleeping language lie.
True and town’d together in our black array of masks,
behind each sun darkly downed, its breath that stirs the branches.
Concept relies on fire from elementary, empty hands.
Shake them and the head, the nod for no that goes unheard.
O vigilance, oh you kid, o the desert above our heads,
o awe and shock cathecting gleams from shattered glass.
What comes to candlepower’s ours. Grotesquely on the sand.
Mothering sun by night that masks our hearing human screams.


Soon I am confronted by a powerful youth.
He is camel-colored, a biceps, bear-hugger.
A terrible busload of boys is arriving
in the chocolate chips. You were mine
they say are mine to be mined caterwauling the wall.
Upside-down in his iris the Watts Towers rise.
Packed his suitcase, packed heat. To go.
Bedside fury, a terrible bustle at sleep.
That is all Turandot, all memory, head and torso striking
and sinking in a pool of lamentable oils.
All hands at hand, are mute replicas required?
Seeming? Humorous fluids inside and out
the body that flints some fire, denied and beside
the point of entry, swank blamery, bulleted.
Mental paralysis. One foot in front of the other. Grim hope that the completely unnecessary sacrifices our military and economy are making will come back to haunt our leaders at election time.

My New American Library Stevens is still on my desk, and I open it to the post-war book Transport to Summer. From "Dutch Graves in Bucks County":
There are circles of weapons in the sun.
The air attends the brightened guns,
As if sounds were forming
Out of themselves, a saying,
An expressive on-dit, a profession.

And you, my sembables, are doubly killed
To be buried in desert and deserted earth.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Nothing to say about Topic A. Nothing to say. Helpless with anger and guilt. Nothing to say.

Acquired two last books before leaving SF at City Lights: Laura Mullen's The Tales of Horror and an essay on Oppen by Susan Thackrey, George Oppen: A Radical Practice. This will probably pull me deeper into my Heidegger fixation. Had to return an overdue book to the library today that I checked out a year ago and never read about Heidegger called Poetic Thinking. Of course glancing through it before returning it I wanted to read it. I've acquired all these books and I don't want to read them, I want to read an academic book on a topic I already know. Being willing to encounter only what one already knows is of course the quintessential Heideggerian situation, and the origin of Sartre's bad faith. Being human is a surrealism.

I do find myself able to read Matt Zapruder's American Linden for some reason—they demonstrate a kind of humane surrealism (Surrealism Is a Humanism). Here's a short poem of his that speaks very well to my own process of writing, when I'm able to write, when I'm able to think. I like how it starts with morning, because I find that mid-morning between ten and noon is my own peak creative time:
Before the Poem

Morning plays a fine false tune in the crook of the tree.
I get up to dance, I sit down.
Each leaf is a possible ending.
Great events are taking place in the house across the street.
Four actors rehearse a play I have written and left on their threshold.
Their shadows move from window to window, disappearing and reappearing.
I could shrink the world into a clouded watchglass, this is proven.

No matter which way I swivel my head,
there is light on the edge of the teacup.

I turn back
from a great abyss.
What separates this from the kind of domestic strangeness that characterizes much of James Tate's work, or Ashbery's? Maybe its quietness, maybe the sense the poem conveys of there being a great deal at stake, even as it thematizes the poet's solipsism. Or maybe it's in the voice of a reader, moving from poem to poem ("I get up to dance, I sit down. / Each leaf is a possible ending") looking up out at the window, looking down at the page. So not only does the poem speak to my sense of the creative process—the hush that takes over my mind when I'm trying to read, a kind of papery stifling, which suddenly opens and becomes the choice of writing or not writing, a choice that didn't seem to exist before that moment—it also recreates the sense I get when reading poems. I read poems like this—I mean a whole book, leaf by leaf—very rarely. It reminds me of what it was like to sit on the couch last fall and read through all of Harmonium. Zapruder's poems doubles the experience of the reader into the experience of the writer, so that the poem is a kind of rewriting or rediscovery of the territoryof this Wallace Stevens poem:
The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Hey, Joe Massey. Remember when you were browsing in the poetry section at Green Apple yesterday? Remember the tall guy with glasses who was kind of cramping your style (you were browsing M-S while I was browsing F-L)? That was me. It's funny too, because I saw the books you were carrying (that's how I know for sure it was you) and I found myself thinking, "I ought to say hi to this guy. I mean, this guy is interested in interesting poetry. We probably have more in common than not. Here's a probable poet at Green Apple and why don't I know him?" But I didn't of course because that would have been too aggressive-geeky-stalkerlike. I also just missed meeting your friend Kristen, though I saw you and her conferring at one point. Too bad.

I didn't smell any garlic.
...and meanwhile the war.

In no particular order, here are the books I've acquired during my visit to the Bay Area. So many wonderful used bookstores here, incredible poetry selections. The poverty of what's available back east is what makes me want to move back here as much as the natural beauty does. Even in New York City I've been unable to find stores with poetry selections this good, though perhaps I haven't looked very hard. The books are:

Raphael Rubinstein, The Basement of the Cafe Rilke
Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination
Erin Mouré, Search Procedures
Tripwire No. 6
Joseph Lease, The Room (one dollar at Cody's!)
The Baffler No. 15
Kenward Elmslie, Moving Right Along (with original Joe Brainard cover)
Mark Salerno, Method
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictée (yes, I know I should have already had this)
Tom Mandel and Daniel Davidson, Absence Sensorium
Laura Moriarty, Symmetry
Tomaz Salamun, Feast (another Cody's remaindered special)
Poetics Journal No. 10
Robert Glück, Margery Kempe
Chain No. 8, "Comics"
Simon Perchik, Autochton
Kenneth Koch, Hotel Lambosa

How I'm going to lug all this stuff home I'll never know.

How I'm supposed to look at anyone else who's not American in the face ever again I'll never know.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Sadness. There was a picture in the Times today of an Iraqi soldier literally cowering in fear before an armed American soldier, shot from behind seemingly at waist-level, akin to the way most heterosexual porn renders the man anonymous. It's revolting. And there's an irrepressible sense of excitement that builds when reading—just reading! I don't have access to a TV—about military action that comes without my willing it. I may have to give up video games for good.

Didn't make it to the readings last night. Instead went out with the family to a French cafe called Le Zinc, where I gorged myself on cassoulet and wine. Then couldn't quite stay awake for a dance performance at Yerba Buena. Home and to bed. This morning it's finally gray outside, befitting my mood. And yet of course it's March 22 and my sister is 30 today. Let me switch gears for a moment:


Okay, back to your regularly scheduled gloom. I'm going to take my sister's car and head up to Green Apple for a little more browsing before crossing the Golden Gate into Marin where the big party is happening this evening. I've seen a little bit of the protests but I haven't been tempted to join them. There's a strange carnvial atmosphere around protests here, and in any case the last thing we need are antiwar protests in San Francisco. We need protests in Durham, Grand Forks, Denver, Des Moines, Houston. Especially Houston. And in New York and Washington, the only cities that can speak with any authority about what it's like to be attacked, and what they think the proper response is. There have to be sizable minorities, if not majorities, in both places which have not been deceived by Bush's ability to metonymically link Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the same breath. It makes me doubt the basic postmodern stance that metonymy is more democratic, materialist, and immanentist than metaphor. There may not be any transcendent metaphoric horizon, but Bush's rhetoric certainly shows that metonymy as a device enjoys no necessary moral authority.

The war poem that Stephanie has posted speaks most directly to my Beckettian sense of helplessness today: "Protesting is useless. I'll go on protesting."

Thursday, March 20, 2003

This is what it's come down to: "Expectant mothers were scheduled for Caesarean births to reduce birthing time." Can we even imagine what we're doing right now as a nation? We can't.

I'm sitting in my sister's boyfriend's apartment on Carl Street looking out the window at the Most Beautiful City in the World. It makes me ache with homesickness even though I've never actually lived here—I suspect that even if I did live here it would cause that same ache. Last night I went out to dinner at a restaurant called "Home" in the Castro with my old friends Catherine Meng, Caeli Wolfson, and my new friend Stephanie Young. There's no TV where I'm staying and no sense of urgency in the streets here—no protesters, no obvious anxiety—so I set out in the rain last night and was shocked to discover, when I walked into the restaurant, the President making his little announcement on the TV over the bar. I immediately ordered a scotch and sat there staring at the war until my party arrived. Then we had the interesting experience of having a really nice dinner, a really good time, and meanwhile the war. In this moment and for the next sequence of foreseeable moments each and every thing I do, say, or experience will have this invisible catchline at the end, "and meanwhile the war." Wow. Caeli and I were talking about how the city has changed since I left in 2001, when the boom was starting to fall, but it was funny—there we were eating and drinking surrounded by other laughing happy people eating and drinking and it felt like nothing had changed at all: laissez les bon temps roulez. The good times are gone, but the Nineties are back. I wish Bill Clinton, with all his faults, had come with them. At one point a cheer rose up from the bar and we all looked at each other. What would a classically Castro crowd be cheering? I got up to look at the TV but could learn nothing. Were they cheering the so-called "decapitation strike"? Were they cheering somebody's birthday? Life goes on and on here. Caeli hates her job and says she isn't sure how happy she is because it's so beautiful here; the beauty numbs her. Perhaps it's good that I'm back to visit and not to stay—though the housing market has loosened up so much it makes me want to cry. When I was here finding a studio or one-bedroom that I could afford that would take a dog was impossible; now it would be no problem. Of course the money I had back then is gone too.

Stephanie Young, you are a most excellent dinner companion and all-around gal, meeting you was an early high point for my trip. She and my Montana pals know each other from a writing group they set up, which has to be one of the most high-powered small writing groups around; another reason to feel homesick for the Bay Area is the proliferation of scenes. There's no scene in Ithaca that I'd want to be part of, though Jane Sprague is laboring mightily to create one—Jane if you're reading this I will start helping to publicize your West End Reading Series, yes. Anyway, the four of us talked about our lives, and po-biz, and the Oscars—not much love lost for Catherine Zeta-Jones at that table, I can tell you. I'm trying to decide whether or not I should beg out of this dance performance my sister wants to go to on Friday and instead go to the reading where I can see her again and meet Joe Massey; that's kind of what I'd like to do but I am here to celebrate my sister's birthday, after all. She turns 30 on Saturday; when I turned 30 a couple of years ago she threw this major surprise party for me, so I owe her. Today I'm going out into what looks like a gorgeous blue day, perfect temperature (I think anything above 68 degrees is sweltering), to make my way over to Berkeley and pay a pilgrimage to Moe's and Cody's. This evening I'm having dinner with my sister and then I'm going to see an avant-gardey play called Ursula: Fearn of the Estuary. It's being produced by my old friends John and Kimball Wilkins, with whom I used to work at a semi-defunct dot-com (they're still hanging on, actually: and who have their own theater company, the Last Planet Theatre. John is a playwright himself and his play The Lament of the Wolf Bat was one of the oddest, funniest, and most riveting pieces of theater I've ever seen.

It's so beautiful out! I'm stunned, numbed, enthralled by beauty. And meanwhile the war.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

The talented and gentle Sandra Simonds will be posting a little e-mail interview with me at some point, so check that out if you want to know which dead poet I'd most like to kiss. In her latest posting she expresses her ambivalence, or former ambivalence, about the anti-war movement among poets, and wonders if that has something to do with her being an American Jew. For what it's worth, Sandra, I'm an American Jew and I'm against the war—I'm also against Sharon and his government, which many good Israelis are. For a little while I wavered on the subject--Saddam is a brutal dictator and I didn't and don't want my antiwar sentiments to be construed as support for him. What it boils down to is that I wouldn't trust George Bush to take out the trash, much less take out a dictator. He has squandered all that post 9/11 goodwill abroad and almost completely foreclosed any possibility of this nation's coming to reflect on how it might wield its power more justly (I'm not much for slogans but "No Justice, No Peace" makes total sense to me). He is obsessed, simply obsessed, with Saddam, whose power to threaten us or his neighbors is miniscule compared with that of, say, Kim Jong Il. What frightens me most about our president, and what makes me mistrust him, is that I believe he believes what he's saying. It's not about oil for him, at least not at the gut level. He truly is on a Christian crusade. And we are going along with him out of fear, because we don't believe in our own strength and cling automatically to someone so self-assured. The headline in the local paper today is BUSH DRAWS THE LINE. The relief in those big black letters is palpable, as it is in the jump upwards of the stock market. Meanwhile ordinary Iraqis are frantically buying up all the bottled water they can, looking nothing so much like we did a few weeks ago when duct tape and plastic sheeting became the order of the day. Fear plus lies equals complicity in terror. It's a black day for democracy.

Still life goes forward, as it were automatically. I'm flying to California tomorrow to celebrate my sister's 30th birthday and to meet up with some old friends from Montana, the talented and charming poets Catherine Meng and Caeli Wolfson. There's also a good chance I'll get to meet their friend and mine Stephanie Young. And it's spring. I am going to celebrate life in this time of death because really what choice do I have?

One thing that makes me feel like celebrating life is Armand Schwermer's Tablets, which I just read an old chapbook of (Tablets I-XV) at the Cornell library. Thrilling, funny stuff—the rare book of poems I have a physical, Dickinsonian reaction to (less the top of my head coming off than a rush of warmth in my chest). I wonder if the poems' hyperbolically "primitive" sexuality is meant as a send-up of the fuzzy picture most of us have of Sumeria and ancient civilizations generally—the Willendorf Venus, etc. Sumeria, of course, is one of the places we'll be bombing in the next 72 hours. Wow. That buzz didn't last too long.

Gotta pack. Will post from San Fran if I can.

Monday, March 17, 2003

Over the weekend I've had a lively and engaging exchange of e-mails with the poet Reginald Shepherd, who used to teach here at Cornell. With his permission, I'm going to paste the relevant excerpts from the messages here for perusal by you, my gentle readers:

First message, from Shepherd to Corey:
...I am writing because I was quite disturbed by some comments you made regarding the relationship of poetry and politics in your recent entries. I have already written the substance of these comments to a friend who pointed out the comments, so I thought that I might as well share my thoughts with the comments' author.

Your assertion that a conservative poetics leads to a conservative politics shows a simplistic view of the relationship of literature and politics (I
had thought that deconstructing such one-to-one correspondences, art as mirror of the world, was one of the tasks of the avant-garde--certainly the Modernists were hard at work at it) and furthermore ignores the history of Anglo-American modernism. The Anglo-American moderns are notable for their conservative and even reactionary social-political stands: Yeats's contempt for democracy and the mob, Eliot's Anglo-Catholic monarchism and anti-Semitism), Pound's fascism (including massive doses of anti-Semitism). Gertrude Stein's hatred of FDR, socialism, or any egalitarian political programs. There are certainly exceptions, William Carlos Williams most prominent among them (with Stevens occupying a kind of middle ground but still, with regard to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, being in his words on the side of the coons and the snakes versus the Dagoes). It's interesting, because aside from the Italian Futurists, Celine, and some but not all of the German Expressionists, most continental European modernists were socio-political leftists (though often of a rather amorphous variety),
which got them in trouble with Herr Hitler and, earlier, with a Russian Revolution which after some hesitation decided that it liked its art safe,
accessible, and obedient to orders social, cultural, _and_ aesthetic.

In academia today, pseudo-political talk too often substitutes for talk about poetry (and literature in general)--and it's certainly easier than
actually reading and thinking about poems. And of course political talk about culture ('cultural activism') is _much_ easier than political action, which might require _doing_ something in the real and messy world. Though I am no admirer of his poetry (quite the opposite), I actually thought that it was rather brave of Billy Collins to come out publicly against mauling Iraq, given his government sinecure. Since Congress is busily renaming french fries (which are actually Belgian) "freedom fries" and "french toast" "freedom toast," along with enacting various economic measures against France (how dare they have an opinion of their own!), they will no doubt soon get around to abolishing the post of poet laureate as punishment for Mr. Collins' impertinence. Or perhaps, though, they'll just strip him of his laurel crown, like Vanessa Williams deposed as Miss America and sent off in disgrace, though not nearly so attractive...

My point is that such simple and simplistic correspondences between art and society do not exist and never have. It is odd that an
aesthetic-intellectual tendency which insists so on poetry as an autonomous language practice also so often insists on a view of literature as nothing more than an ideological epiphenomenon of society (which, as Marx reminds us and too many soi disant leftists forget, is _not_ a seamless totality, but riven, rifted, and conflicted). Adorno, for one thing, presents a much more nuanced view of the complex and shall we say over-determined nature of the relation between these two entities. Even Althusser's tautologically totalizing system allows for the semi-autonomy of art.
I should point out that Mr. Shepherd's comments were preceded and followed by some complimentary and courteous gestures that I see no need to reprint here. Here is the bulk of my reply:
First of all, I'm not sure I ever conflated conservative poetics with conservative politics in the way that you say. I'm fully prepared to concede that there are poetically conservative poets with impeccable left-wing credentials, who have found the language and the tradition more or less as given adequate to their purposes, and of course the Modernists you mention were no democrats (more on this below). There is of course no one-to-one correspondence between one's aesthetics and one's politics. But I do recognize a continuum between the big-P Political language that is being utterly debased for quasi-fascist purposes ("regime change," "shock and awe," "possible war") and the small-p political or cultural language that may be coming from the East Wing of the same White House ("there's nothing political about American literature") or from the desk of a self-appointed cultural commissar like Joseph Parisi who "sees just about everything" at his $100-million magazine. I think a poet who approaches language with a remaking rigor, with a desire to either show how dirty it's become (what I've elsewhere called "re-representation") or else to break through its clotted surface to express what's been covered over, is better equipped poetically, and _perhaps_ politically, to produce a text adequate to the crisis. I'm glad you mention Marilyn Hacker, whose work I respect a great deal: I'm not sure I would call her poetically conservative because I feel her formalism (aside from having a great ear behind it) has that breaking and resetting rigor that I demand from a poem right now. I am passionately interested in formalism, which is why I once wrote sonnets like "Kimono"; it's just that I became interested in different sources and traditions of formalism (from Baudelaire's prose poem to Pound's poem including history to Olson's projective verse to Language poetry) than those espoused by the New Formalists.

Your point about the generally fascist tendencies of many of the high Modernists is well taken, but relies perhaps on an overly symptomatic
reading of their work. As I initiate myself into Modernism studies, I am continually struck by the connections to be made between the poetry and prose of Stein, Eliot, Lawrence, et al, and the thought of Martin Heidegger, both early and late. The late Heidegger's arguments for aesthetic autonomy, for the world-founding powers of art, resonate with the early Heidegger's insistence on achieving authenticity in one's life through one's Being-towards-death, which is supposed to perform the work of "clearing" that makes it possible for Dasein to shape its individual destiny--a destiny that is most vivid outside of the socio-phenomenological boundaries that form the ordinary distracted person's world. A large part of the Modernist project seems implicated here, and the dissertation I'm working toward formulating will probably be devoted in part to showing how Heideggerian the poetics of the Modernists is. Of course, invoking Heidegger exposes and makes more plain their fascist tendencies, and I do not want to shy from this. Fascism has left an ineradicable stain upon the Modernist project, but I want to argue that there are strains of repressed resistance in Heidegger that manifest similarly in the poets. Just as Levinas' ethics of the face is
impossible without working in, through, and against Heidegger's thought, the poetically and politically radical work of the Objectivists, the Black Mountain poets, and of course the Langpos is inconceivable without the high Modernists. Whatever the political sentiments of Eliot, Pound, and Stein (sentiments that I would concede are not extrinsic from their work), they have opened an aesthetic realm in which the poetical and the political can make contact and influence each other in new ways. Stein may have rejected the New Deal, but her work clears a space for a powerful feminist and lesbian poetry far more radical than anything Roosevelt dreamed of. Pound was a fascist and an anti-Semite but his work makes Charles Olson's rediscovery of lost American histories in his poetry possible. Eliot's politics were stultifyingly conservative and his loathing of the sexual body almost comical, but "The Waste Land" is probably the first and best model in
English of a poem that deconstructs different socio-political registers through an almost Benjaminian dialectical pastiche.

...The poetics/politics or aesthetics/ethics nexus has been troubling my sleep for years, now. The dissertation is one place where I'm hoping to work out some kind of strategy for dealing with the divide, and the blog has become another.
Okay, now here's what he had to say to that:
You have misinterpreted my point about the Anglo-American Modernists, with whom I have lived in a happy agon for quite a long time; my position regarding the relationship of their too-frequently very dubious politics (the conservatism of which often involved a recoil from the unfamiliar and the Other seen as threat to the integrity of the beleaguered self) to the interrogations and explorations of their poetry (which occurred and for readers still occurs in exactly that land of unlikeness) is exactly the opposite of that which you seem to impute to me. I also wish to make it clear that I don't consider conservative or even reactionary positions as equivalent to 'fascism,' a term that is thrown around all too casually as an all-purpose political pejorative. Conservatism, at least in Europe, is often antithetical to fascism, which is after all a phenomenon of modern mass society, exactly the thing that someone like Yeats despised. I call Pound a Fascist because he proclaimed himself one, and did the work for Rome Radio to prove it. I don't think that precise thinking can occur without precise speaking and writing.

Allow me to clarify. I disagree vociferously with those--unfortunately a dominant party in the current academy--who dismiss the work because of the personal or political failings of its author, or at best read the work as a symptom of the author's opinions, feelings, or social position: in fact, regarding literature itself as a social symptom. (As Eliot wrote, poetry is not the expression of personality and emotions but the escape from these things--with the understanding that only having these things, occupying and being occupied by a subject position, could impel one to wish to get out of or out from under them). I would argue strenuously (and in several published essays have done so) against those who read Eliot's poems, say, as symptoms of his politics (or his misogyny or repressed homophobia or what-have-you), or what could be called (borrowing from Dali) the paranoiac-schizophrenic collage method of The Cantos (in which each element automatically calls to mind an association that the poem, whatever the fragmentation of its surface, insists is intrinsic and intrinsically meaningful) to Pound's clear personal need to control everyone and everything around him, which is obviously one source of his attraction to Fascism and its specious claims to order and make meaningful every aspect of life. On the contrary, I consider those aspects of these writers to be the most mundane and _uninteresting_ things about them (as I responded when one of my Cornell students asked whether Yeats was a misogynist, "Yes, and that's the least interesting thing about him").

The Anglo-American modernist cohort was not and is not distinguished the mass of people of their time or, sadly enough, of ours by their socially normative racism, homophobia (sometimes internalized, and with the conflicted exceptions of figures like HD and Hart Crane), sexism, classism, elitism (which I mean in the social and political sense rather than in the too-loosely tossed around high cultural or artistic sense, in which latter sense, 'cultural elitism', I as a gay black man who grew up in Bronx housing projects and was to a large extent rescued by Eliot, I just don't believe--whatever the frequent and specious assertions to the contrary, poems don't oppress people, though social, political, and economic systems, including other people wielding and/or being the instruments of power, certainly do) (at the risk of being hyper-parenthetical, in this regard I quite object to pseudo-political pejoratives like 'cultural commissar,' as Mr. Parisi has no state-sanctioned or otherwise power to censor or silence, simply because he chooses only to publish certain kinds of work, work in which you might not be interested, in his journal--that is, actually, a part of rather than antithetical to freedom of expression). It's that their work, while rising out of their subject positions as socially situated individuals, also rises above those limitations (while still of course bearing their scars--Adorno calls style in art one of the scars of history), reflecting them in negation. As Adorno says (and I find Adorno a much more salutary thinker on art in itself and on art's relationship to society than Heidegger, who is too often deliberately mystifying and obfuscatory about
frequently banal notions of authenticity and truth, his articulations of which I do often find disturbingly conservative in their social implications), art takes the alienation on which capitalist social relations are based and sublates it, in the Hegelian sense, into the objectification on which aesthetic relations are based--with regard to lyric poetry, it alienates language from its alienation in everyday use, negating exactly that debased use of language (with the emphasis on use, and thus on mis-use) that we both, I believe, despise and fear in its power over our daily lives and the lives of millions of other people who are not lied to on a minute-to-minute basis but cut off from the means of apprehending and articulating their own experience in any terms but those shoved down their throats and ears. Certainly some poets (hello, Billy Collins, and goodbye too) and other 'cultural producers' (a telling term) also participate in that process of debasing language and thus occluding the world and our experience of it, however honorable their political intentions (I would grant no honor to Mr. Collins' poetic intentions).

For William Carlos Williams, poetry was a mode of attention--anything could become not only the subject of a poem but a poem in itself (a note pinned to the icebox, for example) if the proper attention were paid to it, and this is a model of living in the world and actually seeing it (the life springing up along the muddy borders of the road to the contagious hospital that is death), that realm of things existing not as the objects of what Horkheimer and Adorno call instrumental reason and Lyotard calls performativity which Kant calls the kingdom of ends, freedom itself. Whatever Eliot may have "thought" (and his best poems, at least, exhibit a mind too find to be violated by ideas, as he wrote of Henry James, in the sense that they enact the process of feeling/thinking rather than laying out the conclusions to which one comes after one has discarded that process--this latter state of certainty afflicts the Four Quartets, much to their detriment), his poems enact that same exploratory openness to an experience of word and world. Having recently taught "Prufrock," "Preludes," "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," and The Waste Land, I was struck by the way in which the last section of The Waste Land, What the Thunder Said, in contrast to those other poems which are willing to enact their multiple dilemmas--social, historical, psychological (and, yes, spiritual), economic, sexual, aesthetic--without claiming to be able to resolve them, pulls back from the presentation and exploration of situation into the attempt, however tentative or tenuous, to claim possession of A Solution, which turns out to be "Find God": a real let down from the rest of the poem's willingness to explore rather than merely answer questions. As Yeats said, poetry is what we make out of what we _don't_ know. But again, as I tell my students all the time, we only care about any of these author's personal or social opinions (including Eliot's Christianity--even if one were a believer, Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu, to name the three possibilities the end of The Waste Land offers, one wouldn't need to read Eliot's poetry for the sake of faith) because we care about their poems.

It's exactly art's semi-autonomy that allows it to both posit a realm beyond the imperatives of capitalism in particular and social/political/economic power in general and to acknowledge and even insist on that realm's impossibility or at least its present inaccessibility--when it doesn't acknowledge this, when what Adorno calls art's promise of happiness claims that it can be fulfilled in the world as it is, it's not art but mere escapism, a lie that tells a lie rather than a lie that tells the truth. Speaking of Barnes and Noble, to which I myself much prefer Borders, and speaking also of the odd and unexpected circumstances in which one can find a glimpse of truth (and only, as in Frost's poem, a glimpse, and momentary--for once, then, something), last week a banner in the music section of Pensacola's local branch displayed a remarkably and apparently utterly accidentally Adornian quote from someone of whom I've never so much as heard, one Edward H. Howe: "When people hear good music, it makes them homesick for something they never had, and never will have." I would say that thing is freedom, where people and things exist for their own sakes and not for the sake of profit or power or some other end extrinsic to the actual existence of the entities of the world.

So on the issue of the Modernists and their heritage, I believe that we are in agreement. I was simply questioning the implied equation I read in your web log between aesthetic tendency and political tendency.
Still here? Okay, here's the latest and last component of our exchange, sent by me:
It does in fact look like we are in fundamental agreement about the importance of the Modernists and the "happy agon" (a happy phrase) many contemporary poets have with them. I was interested and moved by your statement that you felt yourself to be "rescued" by Eliot--he and Stevens were the two poets who had the most impact on me when I was a teenager and it's a tribute to poetry as an art form that they can and do stimulate and provoke "a gay black man who grew up in Bronx housing projects" as much as they did this straight white Jewish boy from an affluent Jersey suburb.

I've been planning to read Adorno's Aesthetic Theory for some time, and your e-mails only make my encounter with his thought seem that much more urgent. I'm familiar with Adorno--I've slogged my way through Negative Dialectics and Minima Moralia is one of my favorite books of philosophy--but it's becoming clear to me that his contribution to aesthetic theory will be crucial for my understanding of the topic. One reason Heidegger has appealed to me, for all his wilfull obscurantism and Nazi utterances, is that his notion of art is one that builds something (bilds something?) in the world, something that newly arranges human relations both to other humans and to the self, as well as to that vexed and nearly forgotten thing called Nature (this is what he calls somewhat ponderously the "fourfold" of man, the gods, the sky, and the earth). Adorno's essential negativity frustrates me, even as his "corrosive postmodern no" provides a devastating and necessary
critique of the administered world (something nearly equivalent to Heidegger's "world-picture" or technological "enframing"--he has a lot more
in common with Adorno than the latter would like to admit). So I haven't given up on the notion of art's at least having an influence on the actual world (as much, surely, as the actual world has upon it), on its ability to press back on "reality" with all the considerable force of the Stevensian "imagination," and on its role as a vehicle for imagining other possibilities, even if a genuine utopia must always be no place. This is why pastoral interests me and will probably become the organizing trope for my dissertation. I believe that Modernist poetry contains the seeds of both a negative pastoral and an erotic pastoral. "The Waste Land" might be a negative pastoral, in that it suggests an unrecoverable but much-longed-for whole through its mosaic of fragments--a mosaic which as you point out is falsely resolved in the poem's final section. This kind of pastoral is death-haunted, constructing a Being-towards-death for the speaker who arrives at his authenticity at the cost of a sociality which always contains an erotic dimension ("Prufrock" is another good example of this). Erotic pastoral is the strain in Modernism that celebrates rather than recoils at the tropes of the Heideggerian inauthentic (idle chatter, curiosity, ambiguity), that finds new worlds in which the possibility of a heroically "inauthentic" sociality become possible. Stein and Woolf's opening of a field for women, the domestic sphere, and a specifically feminine/lesbian eroticism is a good example of this kind of pastoral. Perhaps the most paradigmatic Modernist for what I'm talking about would be D.H Lawrence: [in Women in Love] Birkin's weird conception of marriage as two stars locked in orbit around each other yet somehow "unaffected" by each other is a tortured attempt at a compromise between a valorization of the authentic self
being-towards-his-death and a valorization of being-with-others, of erotic and ethical engagement with them. Negative pastoral rejects the inauthentic, which means it rejects all possible political spheres except perhaps for a single collective blut-und-boden; erotic pastoral does engender an ethics but it puts an emphasis on privacy that can make the political seem irrelevant. Williams might offer a useful alternative: his Arcady is Paterson, N.J. and grounding erotic pastoral in a particular place with a particular history might open up non-authoritarian political possibilities. I'm still working these ideas out, obviously, and I expect they will change considerably, perhaps beyond recognition, as I continue to research pastoral, aesthetics, Modernism, and Modernism's Romantic/Victorian precursors.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

In response to John Erhardt, aka The Skeptic, I wrote a long post arguing that the School of Quietude exists and poses a continuing threat, and how unwilling I am to cede the high ground of prominence to those who make cavalier claims of their importance in non-specialist media outlets like The New York Times, where they are believed by Joe Reader and my grandfather Howard alike. But I became so bored with my own argument that I started to think maybe he was right, that the SoQ simply isn't worthy my energy and attention. And yet they keep being brought to my attention because theirs is still the kind of poetry dominant in academia, by which I mean theirs is what educated nonspecialists are most likely to think of as "contemporary poetry." As an academic who will probably be teaching in a creative writing program someday I can't afford to ignore them or their continuing and pernicious influence on the young people who pass through their clutches. Perhaps I've sidelined myself from the most interesting and important battles within post-Langpo by committing myself to a teaching life. But I'm not yet willing to concede the mainstream—I want as much cultural pie as I can grab for myself and those whose work I find compelling and relevant to our lives now.

All small potatoes on the brink of war. More marching is going on today without me, but tomorrow I plan to participate in the worldwide candlelight vigil. If by chance you haven't heard about this you can read all about it here.

Thursday, March 13, 2003

Andrew Mister is trying to get a rise out of me. It's interesting to see the people who apparently felt themselves to be addressed by my remarks about "Oedipal angst" earlier today and what a hot button that is for them. I can feel myself becoming now one of the daddies who must be knocked off for Andrew, though I'm probably only half a decade older than he is. Whence this authority? I'm just a guy like you, Andrew, posting his opinions and seeing who gives a damn. Maybe the loyalty oath for Andrew and others is determined by one's willingness to tell somebody, anybody, to fuck off in one's blog. Well then. Consider yourself told, Mr. Mister.

David Hess, the Heathen in Heat (does the plural come when you, I, or anyone, click on him?) also takes issue with my post on his blog, though he's more courteous about it. There seem to be two issues here: 1) who we (the nature of this "we" is a little unclear, but I take it to be the self-selecting group of young post-avants) should be opposing and 2) should we even be using paradigms like "oppositional poetics." Dave rejects the wanton "mixing of literary and political values." Maybe I'm too much of a theory-reading academic (I've never pretended not to be one) but I wonder how that would be possible. At the same time, I'm ready to support most anybody's non serviam. If you want to opt out of this particular fight over the scraps of cultural capital, go right ahead. But it seems to me that Dave's wrong to think that his poetry and his blog don't exist on some continuum of dissent from the cultural values routinely expressed in The New York Times and by our poet laureate. He's so deeply in dissent with that mode that he discounts its relevance:
Spooge on Billy Collins and spooge on W.S. Merwin. Are they truly relevant? To devote one's time to exposing the fraud of Collins would be like wasting your time criticizing Amy Lowell in the early '70s -- that's not where the debate is anymore. The langpos have already done that work of criticizing someone like Merwin or Collins.
I wish I could be quite so sanguine. I'm an academic, and I teach undergraduates, and they are imbibing a notion of culture in which Modernism, much less Langpo, never existed. The fight against the School of Quietude (it's far too Sillimany a name, but let it stand) is not over. And if people are going to get in a twist over Jorie Graham awarding prizes to her students (which I agree is gross and unfair), shouldn't they be in just as much a twist about the fact that Dana Gioia, that unpolitical Republican, is going to be handing out the dribs and drabs of NEA money for the forseeable future? I understand Dave's frustration about the mode of political/poetical discourse that the Langpos have left us with, and I think we might even be in agreement at bottom. Weinberger, Bernstein, et al are all caught up in a paradigm that was born out of the 60s, a paradigm that looks nostalgic, ineffective, and surprisingly unhistoricist when transferred to 2003. There's something antiquated about their approach to an oppositional poetics—as dated and antiquated as the solipsistic, hippie-ish tone found in most of the poems from the Poets Against the War chapbook. What would be new? What will work now? What can we do with a president who can blithely say that he never listens to protesters? At the moment we can only protest, and I share that frustration and anger, which I find all too easy to dump onto the shoulders of the cultural and intellecutal workers who are supposed to be leading us right now. And I don't think I can separate my own frustration and anger from a desire to do a better job, somehow, a desire to seize the megaphone from the bald or bearded men (why always men?) who grip it in their tremulous fingers. Feels kind of...Oedipal.

You're Oedipal, I'm Oedipal, we're all Oedipal. Everyone wants the biggest slice of pie they can get—even or especially if they want to share out that pie with someone else—and they don't want to stand in line for it. I'm not asking anyone to play nice, though it would be, er, nice. Fight the good fight against what you see as Bernstein's deception, Dave. Fight me or the image of me if that gets you off, Andrew. But I for one can only fight an enemy that I can see clearly. Which is maybe how we all got into this mess in the first place.
There's a lot of Oedipal angst going on in Blogland lately, most of it directed by young male poets against older male Language poets. I suppose I'm guilty of this myself with my claim that Nick Piombino is Emerson rather than Whitman—though it's hardly a dishonorable position to be in, in my book. Why so much anger and invective directed against Silliman, Bernstein, etc.—is it because they're more accessible to us than the poets who provide the real public face of poetry these days? W.S. Merwin and Sam Hamill were on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer last night, and my reaction to that is somewhat complicated. I fully support Poets Against the War, no matter how much solipsistic drivel it's fostered, because it's made politics relevant to poets who'd never really considered their relation to politics before. And of course it's worked in the reverse direction—I find it remarkable that people at The New Criterion and even The Weekly Standard (whose influence at the White House is substantial) have felt it necessary to denounce this poetry. There's no better indication of its influence, of the threat that it poses to the nakedly imperial ambitions of what Norman Mailer, in a surprisingly cogent and coherent article), is calling the "flag conservatives." Debates about whose poetics are more righteous in this context are not unimportant; nor am I going to call for a more judicious tone or nostalgically recall the tact, good taste, and good fellowship that supposedly once characterized the discourse of poets. There have always been and always will be turf wars, and one generation's fight to escape the perceived yoke of the older generation (a strange yoke in this case, for it is the yoke of license, of having been granted permission to rebel—again I think of Piombino's wonderful notion of Freedom as tool) is inevitable and healthy.

That having been said, I wish we could start directing the energy that we're putting into invective against our Dutch Uncles and start redirecting our energies against the still-oppressive poetics of the School of Quietude. Even as Merwin and Hamill and even Billy Collins deserve our accolades and respect for the political stances they've taken, the poetics they represent is what's really keeping all us young folks down on the farm. And of course it is true that their conservative poetics cannot help but infect their politics, and that the broadly oppositional strokes they're painting now have only the crudest and most momentary utility. If we ever pass out of this moment of unignorable crisis back into the pre-prewar state in which our government's assault on freedom and the genuinely democratic was more stealthy and innocuously natural-looking, that will be the moment when we will need more than ever to assert a diversely oppositional poetics against the Collinsesque writing which forever proclaims its innocence and irrelevance. If we can't let go of our resentment and bitterness let's at least channel it in the direction where it will do the most good and make the most meaningful noise.

And how about some more estrogen in Blogland, huh? I'm tired of all these men, young and old, trying to shout each other down. If you're a woman and you're reading this, please start your own blog today.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003


I have to confess to a lot of ambivalence about Piombino and his project. Thematized in the book, and nakedly apparent in the correspondence between Piombino and the unfortunate Ramez Qureshi (available at Piombino's EPC page), is his powerful desire for recognition, even canonization, along with a certain bitterness at not having yet received that recognition: "At times it seems the whole world contrives to escape my warm embrace" ("Aperitifs"). I'm interested in my own discomfort about this, and in the powerful imperative I feel to conceal my own ambitions—ambitions which cannot easily be separated into categories of artistic ambition (which is generally valorized in both the mainstream and avant-garde communities) versus careerism (commodity culture/AWP is more or less brazened to this, but anyone who wants to be invited to the post-avant party is required to make a show of disdain for this kind of thinking). Piombino's work offers us a dichotomy between "the author" and "the person" in a piece like "Fourth Silent Manifesto (01/01/01)," but both are of course constructs within the "silent" writing of a nonauthor who wishes to dissolve such distinctions in his ironic acids. Still, his writing is stained with an anxiety about his readership and his necessarily limited ability to control his reception, or even to be received in the first place.
ANOTHER VOICE: You cannot command me to speak. I am silent by your definitions. I am posed against you. I could watch you no matter how long you continue to reveal what you think you are. If you try to invent me for your sake, you'll get only my laughter.

      —from "Unidentified Theoretical Object"
Theoretical Objects deliberately muddies and mixes both writing about epistemological issues and writing about writing. This latter catgory further subdivides into writing about what we might call the graphological possibilites that follow from epistemological openness (knowing what we know, or knowing what we don't know, what can we write about?) and writing about "scenes," po-biz, the means of (re)production. Navigating between "silence" and "music" is the "freedom" that he imagines not as a condition or state of being but as the artist's primary tool for saying something, given the resistance offered to saying anything by both silence ("Although silence and understanding are not the same thing, their mtuual rejection of warring particularities unites them in harmonizing all things ineffably, and completely"—"Silence") and music (which I read as the texture of an overdetermining culture that pregoverns or predigests the tradition of lyrical language). What Piombino might be interested in saying is not clear to me; unlike Watten he does not display, at least in this book, a desire to come to grips either with actual historical events or the language through which historical events are being (mis)represented). He strikes me in some ways of following in the Emersonian tradition of calling for a poetics, or a poet, without actually being able to fully enact that poetics or be that poet. Would Piombino be willing to greet some posse of young post-avant Whitmans at the beginnings of their great careers? Difficult to say. But the book's intense testing and questioning of all the normal criteria for "literary value" make me wonder how his or anyone's poetic career can take shape in the absence of claims for producing that value. His position would seem to be more that of the critic than that of the poet, though like most binaries he seems intent on deconstructing that.

The poet notices it is no longer possible to read. Even a few minutes of looking at words and even briefly considering their meanings produces a prolonged reverie. A recent bout of this allowed the poet to "think for hours" "idly circling familiar thoughts" like a child on a "merry-go-round." In any case, reading itself invariably leads back to the original motivation—this is "the categorical avoidance," perhaps. The poet then observes with chagrin that even Beauty itself is not a consolation for unread poems which are "unseen shadows" the inevitable and "undemanding shleter" of "meager and unfed thoughts." But just as a "room is rarely noticed and almost never the foundation" the poem is the "rock of ages, the ground from which we spring." Yet it is one in which "the singing's not in the voice but in the deep breaths arising from the song."

    —from "Explications"
Why can't Nicky read—because we have critics, or publishers charging $20 a pop, or Eliot's Tradition, to read poems for us? Piombino hints at no positive scheme of values for poetry except perhaps something grounded in bodily experience (a body which he imagines as "one third appetite, one third shelter, one third history" in "The Lapsed Reader (Automatic Manifesto #8—a clear companion piece to "UNREAD"). Again this strikes me as Emersonian: the Sage of Manhattan valorizes and calls for a poetry of "original relation to the universe" but "'refuses to dirty his hands even in flowing water'" ("Explications")—the cerebral aridity of his language possibly paving the way for poets willing and able to commit themselves to those objects of the world that have concrete, messy materiality as at least one component of their existence. Piombino's body of text incarnates appetite and shelter, at least in a privative sense, but history is absent, except perhaps in the necessary silence that the reader brings to the page. It's kind of a do-it-yourself book in that way.

I can't separate out my ambitions for this blog. I began it because I wanted to create a public persona for myself, and I've succeeded: there is now this surprisingly concrete virtual creature, "Josh Corey," who pops up as a character in other people's blogs, is taken to task for misreadings or challenged to back up his assertions, and perhaps even cited as an authority. He has a recognizable tone—more academic than the angry-young-man bloggers, less pompous than those whose projects of self-canonization are decades old. In recent days the number of hits I've been getting has doubled from about 50 to more than 100, and as I become more conscious of having an audience the mask that is "Josh Corey" is threatening to stiffen my "real face" like a shot of Botox. How to maintain flexibility and freedom—the oxymornic discipline that is freedom?
Where freedom is employed as a tool (illustrated in painting by Jackson Pollack, let's say, and in science by psychoanalysis) the tool itself tends to put severe demands on those who employ it. Like life itself, it is far easier to create it than it is to preserve it.... Time lifts things out and puts things back differently. Although this is hard to "contain" it offers morsels, tid-bits of a kind of satiety that reality deems impossible. This can be seen as the split from the phenomeonological mind/garden to institutional maintenance of the subletted sub-plot. But, gradually, in a more and more sinister way, it becomes clear to Freedom that it too must sometimes punish, in order to define itself as separate from her sister Chaos. This punishing itself, though, becomes a heady elixir to Freedom, who soon is wounding Reality indiscriminately—but this monarch is more impersonal than the King or Queen. Time is its ally and time is more liquid, soon it is surrounding every pore of Freedom's grandiose schemes, and late and soon large chunks of Freedom's monument are in ruins.

     —from "The Writing on the Wall Is Off the Wall"

Monday, March 10, 2003

I'm sick to death of talking about Joshua Clover but I'm going to go ahead and post an e-mail that I sent to Andrew Mister on the subject. Then I'm going to back off from the echo chamber that Blogworld has become for a while and concentrate on saying something intelligent about Nick Piombino's Theoretical Objects.

Okay, I'll talk to you about Joshua Clover, but I don't feel like putting this on my blog, at least not right now. You can post what I say if you feel like it. [Obviously I've changed my mind--Ed.]

First off, an abecedarian poem is a poem that uses the alphabet as its organizing principle. It's a very Oulipo/John Cage thing to do, but when I first read Clover's poem "Zealous" I hadn't really heard either of them so this rocked my world. (The first letter of the first line of the poem is A, the second is B, and so on down to Y--the Z is in the title.) Childish? Derivative? Maybe. But I'm a sucker for these kinds of neoformalist (as opposed to New Formalist) devices, and the fact that I didn't even notice the first time I read the poem really tickles me. As for the rest of the book, I'd have to sit down and read it again and there's all this new poetry (not to mention Kant) demanding my attention, but flipping through it I see a poem like "The Autumn Alphabets (3)" which appeals to me because it manages to convey a certain burden of emotional affect while engaging in sly ways with the metonymic exchanges language makes possible and not incidentally within a larger historical context. That kind of thing rocks my world and still does. He learned a few of his tricks from Mark Levine, who learned his tricks from Allen Grossman and James Tate, who learned their tricks from the Surrealists, kabbalah, Heidegger, and so on back and back to somebody like your namesake Andrew Marvell, who managed to produce poems within a complex and oppressive political context that still delight today with their savage and witty indeterminacy (q.v. "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" with its double-edged "What may not others fear / If thus he crowns each year!"). He does, or seems to do, one of the things I'm most interested in: produce a historicized poetry ("historicized" is a more useful word to me than "political," even though it is political, even and especially when the history presented is a history of the now) that preserves a certain Romanticism in the lushness of its language and the anxiety of its ironies. So I'll always owe Clover for being the first poet I encountered who made this kind of thing possible for me to imagine, even if others do it better and even though he does portray an irritating too-cool-for-school image, literally.

So there,


Friday, March 07, 2003

David Hess is SHOUTING at me!
Much ado in blogland and beyond this morning, and I'm supposed to be brushing my teeth and getting ready to teach. A few quick thoughts:

On his blog David Hess takes me and Jonathan Mayhew to task for misinterpreting his parody of Jorie Graham's over-the-top blurbstyle—he even threatens to stop responding to what people blog on his blog because of frequent misunderstandings: "E-mail me if you want to get all dialogic." I'm personally in love with the talking-past-each-other perpetual-cocktail-party mode that blogging enables and misheard words, awkward silences, drunken babbling, and taking away of keys are all par for the course. So I will here dialogically implore you, David, to keep overhearing other people's monologues within your own. S'more fun. And his essay (to return to the fiction of addressing some Kantian disinterested reader) is good, go read it. Mea culpa if I misrepresented David's position in my little presentation, but of course I was using it as a springboard for my own thoughts about one particular book, having read little besides Bad History (which I do highly recommend) though I have Frame and plan to spend my next nonexistent chunk of free time reading it. And I was relying largley on the ideas in the first half of the essay, which is probably irresponsible of me; the second half is where things get really interesting as David starts exploring the autonomy/engagement gap in literary works beyond Watten's, principally and surprisingly the "blank generation" fiction of Raymond Carver (Raymond Carver, get out of my blog!), Frederick Barthelme, Bobbie Ann Mason, and most especially Bret Easton Ellis. It's the best and most spirited defense of American Psycho that I've ever read, a book I've been willing to consign unread to the scrap pile of 80s decadence before now. (I still have too weak a stomach to go read it, but maybe I'll rent the movie, which I'm told is as good in its way as Fight Club.)

Alan DeNiro posted an interesting comment on the D&D thread at his new brand-new blog at Taverner's Koans. For the record, Clark Coolidge is an 18th level half-elf cleric, Ron Silliman a 9th level dwarf fighter, Barrett Watten is a 15th level gnome fighter/illusionist, and Barbara Guest is a 20th level elf magic-user.

Walking home from my Finnegans Wake reading group last night (it was Savory Night—usually we bring sweets but last night there were two kinds of pasta salad, a bacon-and-blue-cheese quiche, nachos, and cold cuts. Joyce is making me fat) I found myself thinking about Heriberto Yepez's desire to kill off authorities and the category "reader"—his utopia is a utopia of writing. The Wake strikes me as a step in Heriberto's direction, because we are all of us "writing" the book as we read it word by polysemic word. There is no genuine authority who can tell us what it means, including Joyce himself. The foe that Heriberto would like to slay is the craven desire within each of us for the authority who will tell us what it all means. This is why Deleuze & Guattari celebrate the schizophrenic and certain readers of Lacan celebrate the psychotic and/or pervert positions: these are people for whom the Law does not obtain. I've always been wary of the valorization of madness that their thought, and Foucault's thought, seems to enable—not that these thinkers truly endorse madness as a genuine alternative to discourse/power, but that they lend themselves very easily to being read that way.

Last thought: before I went to bed I read the interview section with Benjamin Hollander at the end of Ammiel Alcalay's From the Warring Factions.* It's a stimulating and disturbing discussion of his poetics, which for the first time clearly illuminates for me how to describe the value of poems from other cultures that might seem trite or sentimental from my invariably formalist perspective. Here's a paragraph worth quoting in full on Mahmoud Darwish:
Writing and form in the United States, while incredibly rich and unique, are only beginning to grapple with the historical burdens of being part of the world, figuring out why the world is structured the way it is. It is hard to think, for example, of passages that resonate with the absolute particularity and timelessness of the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish, as he writes about himself as "the poet" retracing the routes of his exile, searching not for "the homeland" but for "the boy that used to be in him, whom he had left behind some place and forgotten." I can think of many writers whose first reaction to such a passage might be that it is "sentimental." But if you know soemthing about the poet's personal history, about the historical circumstances of the people he is a part of, and about the time this text refers to, the passage is both revolutionary and lacerating. It is revolutionary in the sense that it opens up personal history in a tradition of writing that has largely concerned itself with the fate of a people; it is lacerating in that it tears open the loneliness and emotional suppression so often woven into a national history.
I really have to go teach now, but the gist of Alcalay's approach for Americans would seem precisely to invert the first part of that last sentence: an American poetry would be revolutionary insofar as it opened up the history of a people's fate within a tradition of writing that has largely concerned itself with the individual. The second half of the sentence would be preserved intact within Alcalay's poetics. His trumpet call is a real challenge to a decadent like me whose ideas of what poetry is were permanently shaped by encountering Wallace Stevens at age 14 (a prime D&D age). Not that such a poetry precludes concerns with history, but It Must Give Pleasure, damnit. Of course, one must be awake—dialectically?—to really experience pleasure.

More on this later, maybe.

* I would use an SPD link but I don't really know how.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

Gee, I played Dungeons & Dragons in high school, and beyond. Does that make me irredeemable? It makes me a geek, but I'd wager everyone reading this right now, much less anyone with a blog of their own, is on the same geeky plane. Try to deny it and I'll sic my sixth-level elf fighter/magic-user on your ass.

Don't know if it was because I mentioned him, but Joshua Clover has been taking a beating on Andrew Mister's blog (scroll down for the link) and David Hess' too (Heathens in Heat at left). The man stirs up a lot of ire, but then so do most poets who have been anointed by Jorie Graham. She is so consistent in choosing to publish former students that it must be a conscious policy; I even have a hazy memory or delusion that I've read her saying something to that effect, that she even considers it a duty to get her best students published. I also happen to think that a lot of the enmity directed toward Jorie stems from her being a powerful (in po-biz terms) woman. So there's a lot of sour grapes involved, I dare say. At the same time, her hyperbolic blurbs (if you think Clover's is over the top grab a copy of Mark Levine's Debt) are something no first-book poet could possibly live up to if his (it's usually a he) name isn't John Keats. As for Clover specifically, his book was important to me when I came across it, but that was before I understood his roots and influences—I'd never seen an abecedarian poem before, for instance. I think it's high time he came out with another book so we could judge him good and properly.

There's the poetry wars and the real deal. This morning on the radio I heard the announcer say something like, "Because of concerns about Arab allies, military planners are doing everything they can to minimize civilian casualties." Hey now, that's a relief. It's nice to know that our concerns with pacifiying our uppity puppet states are the only reason we can come up with for not slaughtering thousands of innocent people (though it won't stop us from selling out the Kurds, one group of Iraqis who will decidedly NOT be liberated by American action). Shock and awe—terror and death is more like it. It's digusting. I'm disgusted. What else is new? If it weren't for "Old Europe" I'd lose whatever remaining faith in Western civilization that I had.

Worth repeating: Reporter says to Gandhi, "What do you think of Western civilization?" Gandhi: "I think it would be a good idea."

Wednesday, March 05, 2003

Andrew Mister has been thinking about my list of books at his blog, for minor sky. Damn, but does he have a lot of records. So...what book or books have I had a kind of unmediated, or synthetically unmediated, shining response to? That seems a tall order, but I've read plenty of books that are decidedly post-langpo which rocked my world, even if I wasn't entirely willing to admit that that's what they were doing at the time. For better and worse my namesake Joshua Clover's book was big for me. I've already mentioned Tessa Rumsey. Jeff Clark's The Little Door Slides Back is a fave and I suspect it's been much imitated. Barbara Guest has a luminous quality—her poems seem the most sheerly beautiful of any that I can think of, without being visibly attached to a paricular school or other mediating device (her vexed status as a New York School poet notwithstanding). Hm. I can never make a list like this without feeling that I've utterly missed the point, that I'm saying exactly the wrong thing. Reminds me of a bit in the Piombino that I was reading this morning:
from Third Silent Manifesto

You've said many things, you've thought a lot, you've visited people and places, you've wondered. You imagine that someone stops by and you try to explain. But what comes out are words that have nothing to do with what you had planned to say. You planned to say that the tropic sky is definitely blue against all that yellow. And the parakeets twitter so beguilingly that the jungle bends itself to surround them in an orange-green veil. And that the veil is then lifted and, after a shatter of lightning and rain, you fall asleep on a cot on the dark, damp porch. Your dreams contain mostly ancient images, great gods made out of stone, a woman dressed in white, an empty plate. But what actually comes out is a long sigh, a few complaints about who had said or done what about something or other, and a couple of slightly more than minor disappointments. That's all. Then you hear someone laughing—and you start to think about dinner.

Truer words were ne'er spoke. Or blogged.
For your delectation a presentation of my derivation on Barrett Watten's Bad History that I gave to the Monroe class yesterday:
In his article “No Surprises: On Barrett Watten” (Jacket 12), David Hess argues that Stein and Williams represent the art that seeks “to undermine that petrification of language, thought, and feeling” caused by capitalist production. Their poetry is designed to liberate and enliven language and the ways of life dependent on that language, implicitly resisting industrial capitalism’s tendency to reify ways of being into commodities. Hess sees Watten as pursuing the only viable alternative for progressive writing: his work attempts to dialecticize the slick, bland surfaces of the representations generated within capitalist production. To re-represent the representations of reality in bureaucratic, commercial, legal, and military languages. In some ways his project resembles Ashbery’s, but whereas Ashbery seems content to open up a space of play in which the reader might enjoy some momentary breathing room, Watten’s project is explicitly socio-political and has a revolutionary intent. As a “poem” attempting to uncover and overthrow “history” (the accumulation of narratives about events, or Geschichte), Bad History resembles Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project.

This book was intended to put Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image into action. In The Arcades Project attempts through primarily visual means to uncover the mythologies of fashion, progress, and commodification which concealed the true nature of industrial capitalism in the 19th century. A cultural phenomenon, such as the dust in the streets of Paris, reveals itself under Benjamin’s gaze as dialectical, simultaneously signifying boredom (Paris is dusty and dead) and intense conditions of production (the dust comes from innumerable construction sites). Benjamin called his project “An experiment in the technique of awakening. The dialectical—the Copernican—turn of remembrance” (AP 838). He believed that the conditions of industrial capitalism put people into a kind of dream state: by examining the world of commodities he hoped, in a revolutionary gesture, to awaken them from the dream in a moment of dialectical reversal.

Watten’s method is language based rather than imagistic, but he has the same purpose: to uncover the reality of 20th century late capitalism in America by discovering the dialectical properties of the language (and to a lesser extent, the images) produced by the culture. Everything is grist for his mill, as demonstrated by the “Sources” section at the end of the book, where “Persian Gulf War (1991)” is listed as a source on a nearly equal basis with newspaper articles, scholarly articles, poems, “personal communications,” and other texts. Watten’s dialectic is juxtapositional: by arranging these fragments seemingly at random, they work upon each other and reveal one another’s status as a sign obscuring its truth. His method is very close to Benjamin’s dream of a book composed entirely of quotations.

Watten partially explains his method through two quotations at the end of the “Sources” chapter that closes Bad History (p. 151). The Hegel quote suggests that what’s bad about Watten’s “bad history” is the confusion that’s occurred between “history” as events that actually occur and “history” as the narrative of those events, which inevitably emphasizes and conceals those events that it would be inconvenient for the dominant ideology to remember. Watten reveals himself to be very much concerned with the poet’s traditional role as tribal rememberer, but the Nietzsche quote takes his intention a step further. An unbridled historicism destroys the illusions of ideology but also threatens “existing things of their atmosphere in which they alone can live.” Only a creative, “constructive drive”—utopian energy—can justify this kind of historicism. Watten is certainly interested in destroying the illusions of ideology and I am not certain whether or not he wishes to preserve the habitus of the people and things in his book, as Benjamin did with his obvious affection for the commodity world of the Paris arcades. Of course, Benjamin was writing of the 19th century whereas Watten’s “bad history” is of the now. The most useful thing about the book, for me, is how it has "activated" what I already knew about the 1990s—a decade I, like the rest of the country, seem to have sleepwalked through.

Of course, the rest of the country doesn't have the excuse of having been in its twenties, now does it? It was exciting for me to finally really plough all the way through a Language-oriented book and feel like I really understood what it was up to and how and why it worked. I've read plenty of Language poetry but rarely have I pushed as hard at one of these books as I feel it demands. We're on to Nick Piombino's Theoretical Objects next, and the experience with Watten has helped make Piombino's project seem a little more transparent to me. Still stuck on the question of what precise relation my generation's work has to Watten's generation of soixante-huitards. I was struck by the broad, generous margins of Watten's book, which contrast sharply with the ascetic, almost mingy space that the Green Integer books provide for their texts. Meanwhile I'm fetishizing the beautiful covers of the new books I acquired at AWP (with a few exceptions: Eshleman's book could almost pass for a Black Sparrow book, and Doug Powell's book has an appalling, almost nuttily bad cover. They're both from Wesleyan) and my own book, of course, will be as beautiful an object as I can make it. Beauty and the social. Socialized beauty, that's what this country needs. That and a foreign policy that won't have billions of people dreaming of our destruction every night.

Monday, March 03, 2003

Oy. I was writing a long, long post about all the books I got at AWP and how the book fair made the whole thing worthwhile and all the great deals I got and then I was going to start musing about this presentation I have to give on Barrett Watten tomorrow and how opposed his work probably is to the kind of cultural work or parasitism that AWP stands for which would have all turned into a lengthy self-justification of my desire to get the old kind of sensuous, semi-commodifiable pleasure from poems in addition or apposite to the kind of deliberately bland and depthless political intensities to be enjoyed in classical Language poetry, only to accidentally click away and return to this page and find it all gone. Damnit. I'm reduced to a mere list without commentary now because I reallly really must get to work:

Jenny Boully, The Body (Slope Editions).
John Cage, Silence (Wesleyan).
Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan).
Jocelyn Emerson, Sea Gate (Alice James).
Clayton Eshleman, Companion Spider: Essays (Wesleyan).
Robyn Ewing, Chemical Wedding (Center for Literary Publishing).
Merrill Gilfillian, The Seasons (Adventures in Poetry).
Pierre Joris, Poasis: Selected Poems, 1986-1999 (Wesleyan).
Katy Lederer, Winter Sex (Verse Press).
Sarah Manguso, The Captain Lands in Paradise (Alice James).
Geoffrey Nutter, A Summer Evening (Center for Literary Publishing).
D.A. Powell, Lunch (Wesleyan).
Bin Ramke, Airs, Waters, Places (Iowa).
Laura Solomon, (Slope Editions).
Karen Volkman, Spar (Iowa).
Joe Wenderoth, The Endearment (Short Line Editions).
Matthew Zapruder, American Linden (Tupelo Press).

Not bad for a hundred bucks. More or less.

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