Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Today I taught my last Writing about Film class. Then I came home and took Bogie for a ramble in the woods near our soon-to-be house in the South Hill area of Ithaca. Beautiful neighborhood adjoining Six Mile Creek, which leads you into the Mullholland Wildflower Preserve. Sounds Los Angelenan (can this be a word?) but it's as East Coast as can be: deciduous trees, downed leaves, granite gorge. The East Coast, the Old Coast. It's good to get outside once in a while. And so I say goodbye for today to the virtual world.

I used to ramble in the park
Shadowboxing in the dark
Then you came and lit the spark
That's a four-alarm fire now!

Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Nada equates Language poetry with drugs, which is interesting because what kind of drugs? In an essay in Robert von Hallberg's book Politics & Poetic Value, Jed Rasula refers to the experience of the sublime in poetry as being like unto an opiate—what he calls "a venerated principle germane to the poetic tradition of the high sublime: the hypnotic reverie, the stupefied assent of the reader drugged with bewitching words" (320). So that would be bad, right? Language poetry would then presumably be more like LSD in its derangement of the senses. I guess my problem is that I'm rather addicted to the opiate of the high sublime and I don't want to cut off my longtime dealers of the stuff (Dickinson, Rilke, Crane, etc.) just so I can get hooked on hallucinogens instead. Maybe it should be heroin in the morning, LSD or mushrooms in the afternoon, and a little pot at night.

Hi, Uncle Sam! Can you say metaphor? I knew you could!
What a gorgeous poem, Catherine. Will you send me some of your recent work? I don't feel like I was ever sufficiently appreciative of it when I was living in the Bay Area. I want to make amends.

And thank you Kasey for your extremely lucid response to my response to Davidson and Mullen. (Apologies about the link: I tried to link to Kasey's archive but it doesn't seem to be working.) You've provided me with some helpful tools to approaching Davidson and Language poetry generally—I like Spahr's idea about a constantly shifting dialectic between system and detail. Your further interrogation of the meaning of logopoeia, and logopoetic play, is also very useful (and I had no idea Muriel Rukeyser was so interesting! Truth be told, I barely know who she is). I also agree that there is something Kandy Korn-like about Mullen—though you know, I like candy corn and I hate lima beans. Always have. If we're going to speak in terms of literal taste, mine have evolved not so much toward preferring bitter flavors over sweet flavors (though it's true I now prefer beer to cola, and you can only eat so much candy corn) than toward preferring strong flavors over weak flavors (I now eat all kinds of things that I thought were inedible when I was a kid: blue cheese, jalapeno peppers, etc.). I still require some melopoeia, at least in my own poetry, to inform and create engagement with the logopoeia; and as my comments about Altieri should have indicated, I'm not ready to jettison mimesis. I get a good deal more pleasure out of Watten's Bad History than I do Culture, at least so far, because Watten's text references and represents a world that I can understand—in other words, it brings its historico-textual context to the reader, its mediation of history through historical documents. Perhaps this is logopoeia as means to an end and not an end in itself—and saying that I realize there might be some value in pure logopoeia. But is that what Culture is? If so, I almost feel that the scraps of biographical context in Gary's afterword have done the reader a disservice, paradoxically forcing anyone not previously familiar with Davidson's personal context to read the book through the narrow lens of autobiography.

I'm working every day on acquiring a higher tolerance for abstraction: my entire graduate education has been oriented toward that goal, because I really started from zero after an undergraduate education in which I'd managed to avoid studying any philosophy or literary theory, much less Language poetry. I do wonder though if the pleasures of logopoeia aren't the pleasures of asceticism, of self-denial, of an almost masochistic suppression of one's desire or expectation of some kind of melo- and phonopoeia from poetry. A little self-denial is an extremely useful and necessary thing, but a sustained experience of it, which is what Davidson's text offers, makes me grab for the life ring of Mullen's richly melopoetic text. Even if it's really just a Life Saver doomed to dissolve in my mouth because I can't resist tonguing the hole in the middle. It might be true what Cage says about doing something boring long enough, which strikes me as a corollary to Blake's proverb, "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise." But the writer at least knows why he or she is persisting in doing that boring thing. How does one create, where does one find, readers whose negative capability is muscular enough to enable them to wait for the system (better: the systematic) to emerge? I'm serious here: how does one become a genuinely appreciative reader of Language poetry?

Monday, April 28, 2003

Yesterday I read Charles Altieri's "Afterword" to Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Peter Quatermain's book The Objectivist Nexus, in which he talks about how Objectivism represents a road not taken in the innovative poetry that came after—that is, Language poetry. He defines that poetry as having two poles, represented by Lyn Hejinian and Charles Bernstein respectively. As I understand him, Hejinian represents a mode of writing that emphasizes the subjective mind's engagement with its own processes of verbal perception (which Altieri is at pains to distinguish from the narcissistic symbolism of mainstream poetry): "Poetry can only be defined as a process of making and finding gaps and connections charged with the mind's awareness of a life not reducible to any other less intense, combinatory mode" (TON 306). Hejinian's commitment is to a mind forced open and kept open to the contradictions it encounters; to do this she stands at a distance from the representation of things so as to focus on mental processes: it's a phenomenological poetry in which the phenomena are strangely muted so as to focus our attention on the clearing, or openness necessary for the apprehension of those phenomena. Language is the medium for this kind of work because it is endless generative of associations: "Language discovers what one might know, which in turn is always less than language might say" (Hejinian, "The Rejection of Closure" in The Language of Inquiry, 48). By contrast, Altieri seems to see Bernstein as being more strictly obsessed with rhetoricity, with the existing languages that are so to speak already lying around (and to) us, with breaking down the supposed naturalness and authority of any given piece of rhetoric (poetry as it has been traditionally understood is just another rhetorical mode for Bernstein). "And maybe now poetry is more useful if it no longer tries to purify the language of the tribe but teaches us to hear the various tribes whose values the demotic language simultaneously expresses and exposes" (TON 309). Hejinian dreams of forms adequate to openness: "Indeed, the conjunction of form with radical openness may be what can offer a version of the 'paradise' for which writing often yearns—a flowering focus on a distinct infinity" ("Rejection of Closure" 42). Bernstein seems to be more interested in content in the sense of the diverse phenomena of language itself (as opposed to whatever that language may supposedly represent), and content in this sense is the goal of poetry: "Formal dynamics in a poem create content through the shapes, feelings, attitudes, and structures that compose the poem. Content is more an attitude toward the work or toward language or toward the materials of the poem than some kind of subject that is in any way detachable from the handling of the materials. Content emerges from composition and cannot be detached from it; or, to put it another way, what is detachable is expendable to the poetic" ("State of the Art" in A Poetics, 8).

Altieri's objection would then be to an effacement of representation from Language poetry that takes place at both of its poles: the Hejinianesque subjective discovery of forms and the Bernsteinesque objective exposure of contents. Objectivism is the middle road because words are still permitted to represent both the world as the poet finds it and the poet him or herself as they are embedded in a particular historical situation. Furthermore, the politico-ethical valence of Language writing generally seems to be conceptual, extra-poetic: the theory produced by Language writers provides the transcendent horizon within which their practice operates. (Of course Language poetry supposedly problematizes or makes irrelevant the distinction between theory and practice, essay and poem—but Bernstein and Hejinian have both chosen to publish volumes of essays that are materially distinct from their poetry.) Altieri seems to believe that the ethical and aesthetic force in Objectivism is fully immanent to particular poems:
Objectivist poets have to resist Stevens' schema [imagination versus reality] as too abstract: his sense of pressure remains philosophical and therefore invites interpretations of the world rather than acts within it. Objectivism can preserve Stevens' overall model of poetry as counter-pressure, but only by adding a demand that this pressure manifest itself within the concrete situations that specific poems project as underlying the work of poetic composition. Only then will aesthetic choice be inseparable from existential choice, and poetry literally take on immediate ethical force" (TON 311).

I find this to be a very attractive idea, though it seems open to criticism when you start thinking about particulars. It seems to me that "concrete situations" remain largely transcendent to rather than immanent within most Objectivist works; or rather, the reader is required to bring a knowledge of the concrete situation behind a poem like Oppen's "Of Being Numerous" in order to unlock the existential and ethical force immanent to it. Obviously whatever historical context a reader can bring to a poem is useful, but shouldn't a poem be able to achieve some minimal effect without such context? (The lack of immanent context is probably the number one factor behind the perceived "difficulty" of modern poetry—the ideal reader brings the necessary context to the table, while the next-to-ideal reader learns to do without it and even to enjoy the possibilities engendered by its absence.) I also doubt that Altieri's dichotomy would stand up to rigorous scrutiny of the actual work of either Hejinian or Bernstein. But I do think that he has hit upon a useful description of two major tendencies in Language writing that can also be applied to the writers who fall into the otherwise unhelpfully teleological category of "post-Language." He has also made it possible for me to perceive, at least in part, what I find lacking in both of these approaches; which brings me a bit closer to understanding exactly what it is I demand from the poems I consider good, including of course my own.

The two books we're reading for the final session of Jonathan Monroe's class "Contemporary Poetry & Poetics" at Cornell would seem to represent Altieri's dichotomy as it has manifested in the work of a younger generation: Daniel Davidson's Culture and Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary. The intensely abstract language of Davidson is only relieved for me by the context provided in Gary Sullivan's afterword to the book, in which he describes Davidson's art as "in some essential way intended to be a kind of site-specific, confrontational activity" (Davidson 121). Gary's descriptions of Davidson make him sound like an impossible person, pissing off people he met for the sheer hell of it because "Dan simply wanted himself and his art to exist in a state of total confrontation" (`122). He also sounds like a terribly sad person. The affective power of "Bureaucrat, my love" derives from this bit of biography that Gary has provided: "He had been, after all, at the mercy of bureaucrats—who doled out his SSI and Medicaid benefits—the whole time I'd known him. Reading Bureaucrat now, I see the broken man Dan was, sitting endlessly in offices, waiting to resolve this or that red tape issue, simply so he could get medication, food, rent money" (123). Here's a piece of the poem that took on considerable power once I knew this:
Staring outward she approximates a statue that thinking absorbs and
                         disgorges after all the sound of cursing and
                         denial in this interview you have forgotten
                         my eyes.

But there is one name spoken do you harm the talk you call from me?

Opening you a sheepish grin a fair brocade of red write a simple
                         letter a typical object the shape hammers away
and now we are at the center of the world link palms and predict (58).

It's funny, actually: open the book at random and read a few lines or sentences and they all seem pregnant with meaning. From Bureaucrat:
Lack is itself what is used
                         withstands justification
                         superficial definition.
Prudently one is removed from the discussion

Wouldn't want anyone, with one exception.

Shared takes the bounds, enters a distance.
Winsome within the abstract, the procession.

Attracts, handles the transgressive.
That a single body of wants disguises.

A single match is a dangerous thing. Then its light.

In the stadium of hours, the solace of the paralysed
is refreshed. Home occurs with a vengeance,
club of the mind to see.

Stands the accused, the void, the voice (71).
Words revive in union with their object, under ground and semblance.
after a fragment of success, a moment of involvement striking sound,
                                   striking earth.
Elsewhere, the prow allows as if a river of technique, triumph
                                   of assumption.

Foreign, distant, the long version spring of neutrality. Knowledge
                                   which lacks,
unfolding stories of reason and task as talk can aspire to.
To fortune bringing up a show of fingers, against the spine.

To read the book (or books) as a whole is then to follow a restless mind discovering its own experience moment by moment, with the connections to be filled in by the reader. But I for one tend to find this immensely fatiguing. If I can't find some context (and I would hate to suggest that it's only biographical context—not that there isn't an obvious political context to the spectacle of this man's humiliations at the hands of the State) for these kinds of perceptual acrobatics, I tend, literally, to fall asleep. There's nothing there to hang onto at all on a first reading; a second reading will at least take place in the context of the first, so that you might more easily identify recurring words and tropes. Davidson's language is remote from any concrete referent, while being itself abstracted from any concrete sense of the signifier. His language isn't sensuous at all, nor does he offer much in the way of images. The elusive pleasure of this work (and it's a pleasure that still more often eludes me than not) is in the suppleness of Davidson's mind, his transitions. Look at that piece of Image: the way "one is removed from the discussion" (of the "one's" fate?) and becomes an "exception." Next there's the notion that that common space suggested by "the discussion" has become the "shared" which depends upon boundaries and distance, "winsome" in the way it has been rendered into "the abstract, the procession" that the "one" is presumably no longer part of. That hovering "one" is the "single body of wants" that disguises the "transgressive" which could only be transgressive if there is an outside to the "discussion," an outside that was "prudently" created at the beginning of the poem. The "single match" of the next line suggests the lone one whose "body of wants disguises" the transgressive could also light the transgressive and hurl it like an anarchist's bomb; "single match" also implies a dangerous contact between two people. Without this fire, however, there is no light. The passage of public time refreshes "the solace of the paralysed" (the paralysed body politic?) and "home" then occurs: the spatial "home" is transformed into a temporal event which is then likened to a weapon, the "club of the mind to see." They who have the power to declare what is "home" have power with a capital P. But outside still stands "the accused [I almost typed "the accursed"], the void, the voice": the naked Other who has made both stadium and solace possible.

At least that's one reading: you can see how it's possible to closely read work like Davidson's. And Culture is short: there are works every bit as abstract whose sheer length completely defeats any desire I might have to read them. The relative brevity of Davidson's work (and the sad fact that there will be no more of it) makes it easier for me to contemplate the labor required to get some kind of context out of it. It's fairly easy for me to forego the concrete, objective, representational and/or narrative dimension in poetry. What I find much harder to do without is the beauty, euphony, wit, and sheer play of the signifier—the signifier made concrete—and this is the bountiful pleasure that makes Sleeping with the Dictionary so much more immediately delightful. Many of the poems do bring a context, a weight of reference, that I can engage with—consider this paraphrase of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130:
Dim Lady

My honeybunch's peepers are nothing like neon. Today's special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin. I have seen tablecloths in Shakey's Pizza Parlors, red and white, but no such picnic colors do I see in her mug. And in some minty-fresh mouthwashes there is more sweetness than in the garlic breeze my main squeeze wheezes. I love to hear her rap, yet I'm aware that Muzak has a hipper beat. I don't know any Marilyn Monroes. My ball and chain is plain from head to toe. And yet, by gosh, my scrumptious twinkie has as much sex appeal for me as any lanky model or platinum movie idol who's hyped beyond belief.
Mullen's themes—race and sexuality, consumerism, and the value of literature—are all obviously present in this poem, but on the way to those themes it's impossible not to yield to the sheer delight and insouciance of her rhythms, diction, rhymes, and alliteration, all embedded within a fair imitation of Shakespeare's syntax. To put it in Freudian terms, the manifest content here is a genuine carnival. By comparison Davidson's work is Lenten and latent—his carnivalesque isn't intrinsic to his language but lies transcendentally above or beyond or below his text, a source of energy that can't be traced back to its source. Mullen brings in so many things into her work: the cultural detritus of brand names, people's names, cliched phrases (she perhaps inevitably sounds a bit like Ashbery in this mode), and everyday objects. Her energy is rright on the surface, in the way words suggest each other or share letters or belong to overlapping discourses. Even where the cultural or historical context isn't clear, I feel much more permission from Mullen to bring in what pieces of context I can find. What if, for example, the Otis and Will in this poem were Otis Redding and William Shakespeare?
O, 'Tis William

—Is it Otis?
—I'm. . .
—Otis, so it is.
—Am ?
—'Tis Otis.
—I am. . .
—So, it's Otis.
—I am William.
—O, Otis, sit.
—O, I am Will.
—Sit, Otis.
—It's Will.
—Is Otis to sit?
—Is Will, so sit!
—O, will I?
—Will Otis sit?
—I'm William!
—O, will Will sit?
—I will sit.
—So sit, Otis!
—O, I will sit. I am Will.
—So sit, Will.
—I'm William. So I am! I will sit!
—So sit still, William.
—O, I am! I sit.
—Otis, sit still!
—I am still William!
—Otis is William.
—Will is William.
—William is Otis too.
—O, I am William! William is Otis! Otis is William!
I am Will! Otis too! O, William Otis, it is! I am! (55)
God, I love this poem, the sheer exuberance it finds in its carefully impoverished materials. It's very Steinlike, it's even very Will-like—Mullen's affection for Shakespeare is obvious, even as she contests the authorities that have been set up in his name. The thing about her poetry versus Davidson's is that I recognize it more intimately—it's easier to imagine the state of mind in which Mshe wrote her poems than the state of mind in which he wrote his. Maybe this is a failure of empathy on my part. I am certainly not ready to conclude that Davidson has less to offer me; I just think I don't know quite how to read him yet. I lack the impulse to reject what I don't immediately understand; I wonder if I should stop worrying about readers who do have that impulse. It's much easier for me to imagine teaching her book in my creative writing class next year than it is to imagine doing the same with Davidson: partly because I understand what she's up to better, but mostly because I believe the students will have an immediate and visceral response to her book that I can't imagine them having to Culture. Still, I've developed an affection for both books and their very different modes of comedy (their disaparate techniques for ironizing their materials are recognizably comedic). As a poet, I lean more toward Mullen, but I feel I have lots to learn from the kind of subjectivity construction-work that goes on in Davidson (Mullen's subjectivity, or at least a certain recognizable tone, is much more stable than Davidson's). Neither of them of course are working that Objectivist middle ground that continues to attract me even as I puzzle over what it might mean and how it might work. How do you democratize your materials? How do you make it clear to the reader that your words, the things they refer to, your feelings about the words and the things, etc., all exist nonhierarchically on the same playing field? How do you avoid vertical/symbolic arrangement? Is this even desirable? What I'm groping toward, here, is the poetics that explains what the instincts I already follow might lead to. And if I can articulate that poetics, it might become a more flexible instrument. And my poetry will be able to grow in ways I can't yet anticipate, because I can't yet describe them.
All the talk about the SPD open house has me nostalgic for California, as does, paradoxically, today's weather: clear, sunny, mid-seventies. It's paradoxical because here I am enjoying the weather in Ithaca so why should it remind me so intensely of Berkeley (or even Menlo Park, where I actually lived)? Can't Ithaca have its own weather, its own mental weather? Maybe after a certain age everything comes to seem like a rerun of everything you've previously experienced. I would have to move to some wholly unanticipated climate for it to seem truly new. The tundra? The rainforest? I went to Costa Rica once but only for a week, probably not long enough for that climate to have mapped itself into whatever section of my cortex that triggers "pain of/for place" (the literal meaning of "nostalgia").

Speaking of "place," Catherine's new address has been duly noted.

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Of course Sandra has already opened the door to a Big Sky hegemony. Though she's leaving Montana soon... did you hate it that much, Sandra? I really liked it there, I'd love to go back for a visit.

I tried and tried to get Richard to call his book The Liar Jacket (no apostrophe s). He didn't go for it. But I still think "carnage in the lovetrees" kicks major ass.
I'm psyched to welcome Catherine Meng to the blogosphere! Come on, Richard, Caeli, Nils! We could have ourselves a little virtual Montana going here!

Friday, April 25, 2003

A bright, edenic afternoon in Emily's backyard, where the flowers are coming to life and Bogie the dog wriggles on his back in the grass like an eel of pleasure. Down in Maryland Emily's brother and sister-in-law have just had themselves a baby girl, their second daughter, who we'll be going down to visit in a week or two. Right now I'm reading Jameson talk about Bloch and Proust, which makes me want to be reading Proust, that absurdly grand assemblage of discrete gestures that according to Jameson is supposed to present us with a foretaste of life without death, brought about by the reconciliation of the subject to his or her objective world. Or something like that—the afternoon is expansive and demands expansive gestures. I've made a couple of attempts upon Proust but never got more than halfway through Swann's Way—the prose is simply too rich to read in the normal, voracious way I read novels. An edition which broke down the book into separate paragraphs surrounded by white space would do me a lot of good—it would take forever to read the book that way, but of course my not reading it takes even longer. Now I'm going to turn aside from heady speculations on utopia and into the somewhat more concrete worlds of Daniel Davidson and Haryette Mullen, whose books Culture and Sleeping with the Dictionary are our final texts for the contemporary poetry class I've been attending this semester. Mullen's commitment to the sheer euphony of the bare signifier is much more immediately pleasurable for me than Davidson's work, but he is nonetheless doing work on me at or just below the level of consciousness. There's a pathos that emerges from the boredom of a poem like "Bureaucrat, my love" that is almost unbearable. You have to know a little bit about his life to get that dimension; it's almost the opposite of conceptual art, where you need to know what the artist's idea was to understand how he's organized the materials he's drawn from his experience.

Too beautiful outside to stay in here. Go play!

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Please run to the bookstore or click on the link and buy A Carnage in the Lovetrees by my friend and ally Richard Greenfield. It's a stunning, exploded kind of a book in which elements of often painful personal history find themselves on a level playing field with elements of public history, and above all with the language that struggles to contain them both and gets charged with a strange electricity in the process. Stephen Burt's review, though hasty, tin-eared, and obtuse (Richard's mother is still very much alive), does accurately describe what I think to be some of Richard's most attractive and daring qualities: "Greenfield’s distinctively serious mien sends him out on consciously risky searches for the obtrusively beautiful; his emotions, by contrast, emerge through understatements: 'Pale evening duns make clouds in the platinum river shine. . . . The hatch is a mass among many, you never get the girl, you live far from others.'" He'll be reading as part of the New Brutalism series at 21Grand in Oakland when he leaves Denver, where's he's currently living, to visit the Bay Area sometime in late May. "New brutalism" describes what he does pretty well in some ways. Here's one of his most scarifying poems from the book:
Cipher in Scene

Years in which the annuli of the stars imprinted on her encasement that which comes after q—.

On the desert brink the monochrome sky is in all and unseen meridians surgically cross a cement tomb.

A fire cooks the block of her, splits found to the air flecks of blood and babyteeth, a femur where a finder must retch.

What pools in the hardpan anneals with absurd reprisal; because that mold is imperfect and crueler.

I wish I were a drop of water before her buds. I wish the end of day were more than a sequence of light.

Jubilance is a corrupt noise to the dead, dark meat on the plate.

Back-paged, columned, or x'ed over a commuting shoulder, or found even at epicenter, the song will not resonate

in such a burn zone, within the absolute spelling.

But what I do love most about Richard is his instinct for the genuinely lyrical within a zone of ruthless self-questioning. Here's the poem Burt was quoting from in full:
Lives of the Hatch

Pale evening duns make clouds in the platinum river shine.

The central electric buzz is resplendent deathmate.

He climbed into the limbs of her father's orchard. He climbed her curtained proportion counterspin to the raised woody arms and the postered walls, cricket of nights, fear aureate and green on the boy's chest.

Obvious Dipper and the searing white granulate seen through gaps in the canopy, the spectacle galaxy above the witness leaves.

We imagine that all must die.
A walk among the short-serenade mules ears, blooming higher than the treeline.

In the valley the colonial poxkill of the indigenous is converted into commerce; my flawed imagination will not be sustained. Not all. Not all.

Forget the rivers drop bi-coastal from my home, the news static or old, the music the dobro dissipates on the plains.

Here are the shimmering abridged eruptions of summer.

The first person leaves us entirely to ourselves without the choir.

The hatch is a mass among many, you never get the girl, you live far from others.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Nick, I just want to say that reading Theoretical Objects absolutely laid the groundwork for some of the thinking I'm now doing about poetry and careerism. I hope you'll recognize that the fundamental ambivalence that I spoke of then is still present, is still being worked through, in the most recent post; I think there's a lot of continuity between that post and yesterday's. I'm sorry you feel that I didn't give your book the breadth of consideration or the "permission" that it deserves. But I did and do take Theoretical Objects both seriously and lightly, as I think you intended, and I'm not done thinking about the questions it raises about writing and being a writer. It's a book I'll go back to. But this is a blog, not any paper of record—it's not paper at all, nor is it a literary magazine, nor am I in the business of writing reviews here. On the blog, I reserve the right to evolution, errancy, and self-contradiction, albeit within "certain bounds... against chaos" that are not always clear to me.
Robert Duncan
Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein

that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.

She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun's going down

whose secret we see in a children's game
of ring a round of roses told.

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,

that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.

Monday, April 21, 2003

Gary Sullivan's hilarious How to Proceed in the Arts asks the question "Is it possible to feel both chastened and unregenerate?" That's how I feel about the "shocked, shocked" reaction a couple of bloggers profess to be having to my vulgar admission about my little career yesterday. Are we really supposed to pretend that we don't care about publishing, about being read and listened to, about having a job we're not completely alienated from, about desiring creature comforts and the means to raise a family? Are we really expected to wear a corset of puritanical hypocrisy under our nouveau bohemian straitjackets? Yet of course I'm extremely sensitive to charges of selling out, as I'm extremely sensitive to most charges, even trumped-up ones—I may not be religious but I've got Jewish guilt aplenty. Nobody's going to believe any claims I make about being pure of heart and I guess there's no reason they should. You know, I feel tremendous admiration for people like Gary and Nada, who are making art and making waves without the protection of professorships—though the root of my admiration lies in my appreciation of their work. But I will not accept the ridiculous notion that any poet or group of poets have the key to some kind of moral authenticity solely because they stand outside the worlds of the academy and of mainstream publishing. We're all down here in the dirt together, all, in the words of Dickens, fellow passengers to the grave. Or to turn that around, as Aunt Eller sings in the song "The Farmer and the Cowman" from Oklahoma!:
I'd like to teach you all a little saying
And learn the words by heart the way you should:
I don't say I'm no better than anybody else
But I'll be damned if I ain't just as good!


Ammiel Alcalay poses a powerful challenge to me and to all American poets in the interview section of from the warring factions, which I also mentioned yesterday:
During the "Camps War" in Lebanon, for instance, we did vigils at the al-Hakawati theater in East Jerusalem. A number of the actors had relatives caught in a situation where local religious authorities had given residents permission to eat human flesh because of starvation caused by an absolute siege. Besides the emotions of the people involved, the director had to figure out ways to incorporate this reality into the possibility of the performance. It boils down to an almost ancient view of things—art shouldn't primarily be about beauty but about pain and suffering. At the same time, one has to use positions of privilege in the structure of this society to illustrate how one can give up those privileges voluntarily, or put them in the service of things other than self-promotion. I find it deeply disturbing, for example, that you can read a lot of innovative poetry from the last decade without even getting a hint that two genocides took place in the world. I can't hink of an American poem marking the age the way Charles Olson's 1946 poem "La Préface" did, with the lines: "My name is NO RACE' address / Buchenwald new Altamira cave," and "We are born not of the buried but these unburied dead." (my emphasis, 177-78)
I've quoted at such length because I think you need that context to understand the source of Alcalay's profound seriousness and what registers as his nearly unimpeachable moral authority. But even if extracted from that particular historical situation, the boldfaced words present a two-pronged challenge that no one should be able to lightly refute.

I don't really have a problem with the first part of Alcalay's statement, because it seems to me that any experience of genuine beauty in art is only discoverable or intelligible against the background of historical pain and suffering that art is a deliberate act of estrangement from. As Adorno puts it in his essay, "On Lyric Poetry and Society," "The [lyric] work's distance from mere existence becomes the measure of what is false and bad in the latter" (Notes to Literature, Vol. I, 40). The beautiful is always a critique of the unbeautiful. Artworks that are presented in a falsely naive, deliberately dehistoricizing context (a context which might be created by the artist or simply submitted to by him or her) will not be beautiful in this sense but merely opiates, indistinguishable from and therefore in support of the status quo. It's not always easy to identify which artworks and poems are "valid" in this sense, of course, and a lot of critical dust gets kicked up when people step forward to try. This is why Alcalay stresses the importance of including that background of historical pain and suffering in the work: in from the warring factions he does this not just thematically (the book is a kind of narrative about imperialism, covering the Roman Empire, the first Gulf War, and most especially the massacre at Srebenica) but by building his text from historical materials, that is, the language of those who made that history (in every sense of the word "made"). His list of sources is nearly four pages long and includes the words and works of Percy Shelley, Dick Cheney, Hannah Arendt, Jack Spicer, Saddam Hussein, Jerry Estrin, Sacco and Vanzetti, Virgil, Dryden, Hanna Batatu, The New York Times, and many, many others. Alcalay has a vivid and visceral need to found his writing on historical consciousness, which in from the warring factions leads him to the extreme of producing a text that is not really his writing at all. Here he writes about his response to poets who were also political prisoners like Abdellatif Laabi or Faraj Bayraqdar, who in prison "wrote poems on cigarette papers with ink invented from tea and onion leaves, using wood splinters as a pen" (172):
"[W]hen writing like this enters not only my frame of consciousness but my being, I want to know how to situate myself, in my own language, at my own moment. I find myself involved in figuring out the different kinds of resonance writing can have—writing that has a collective, historical resonance and writing that resonates back in on itself, as so much American writing does, to tap our isolation. This makes history crucial for me at all levels, from the personal and familial to the collective.

One's biography becomes very much part of the story (173).
Indeed it does. Part of the interview is devoted to describing Alcalay's extraordinary childhood: playing badminton with Charles Olson; going to hear the likes of Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Dexter Gordon; befriending painters like Hugo Weber; reading through back issues of his parents' (his father was a painter) magazine collection (Black Mountain Review, Evergeen, Kulchur, Yugen, Floating Bear); writing to Ginsberg and Diane Di Prima and getting short or long replies; etc. As an adult he has been an activist on many fronts: protesting Vietnam, distributing literature for the Black Panthers, working with Palestinian activists in Israel in late eighties, etc. The work experience he mentions supplements both his political credentials and his credentials as a poet and translator, as when he writes of "my practical bent and experiences in a variety of vocations—as auto mechanic, auto body worker, truck driver, carpenter, building super, laundromat manager, etc" (190). This list exists in dialectical tension with another list of the various "positions of privilege" or "roles" Alcalay has held: "scholar, teacher, journalist, poet, critic, activist" (182); presumably his working-class "vocations" have been preserved even as they were overcome in his assumption of these intellectual "roles," synthesized into the "job" (dare I say "career"?) of "cultural worker."

This kind of thing raises my hackles a bit and brings me back into the Sullivanesque space of feeling chastened and unregenerate. It seems to me that one of the privileges Alcalay enjoys, and one which he is not prepared to relinquish, is the privilege of his background, which appears quite extraordinary to this white boy from the suburbs whose privileges are more conventional. How much of Alcalay's authority derives from the ways in which he can claim to be authentically bohemian and therefore free of the the preprocessed illusions that impede the vision of the middle class? Alcalay's stance is deeply moral, but as a stance it also appears stiff, suspicious of pleasure (look at the tap-dancing I had to do to save beauty from the first part of his formula), and more than a little humorless. And this most progressive of poets is not immune to nostalgia, in this case for the time of his growing up in an America that was less "standardized":
Time is more directed, particularly if you're middle-class, and the mass media has managed to encase experiences in a stock set of imagery that, almost literally, envelops experience. There are less chances to encounter eccentric people, less places of idleness, places where conversations can take place. There is a big difference between a Barnes & Noble and the kinds of bookstores I used to hang out at as a teenager in Boston, like the Grolier or the Temple Bar. I was somewhat of a delinquent and didn't find school very useful. There were periods when I divided my time between the streets, where a lot was happening, movies, a garage where I worked, pool halls, and bookstores. The Grolier was then owned by the legendary Gordon Cairnie, and he even encouraged me to skip school! It was quite something to be a teenager and see Conrad Aiken step[ out of his apartment above the shop in the morning, to meet the likes of Denise Levertov, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, John Wieners, and so many others (178).
I don't begrudge Alcalay his memories, nor do I deny the potentially revolutionary force of nostalgia—but I do get tense with unhappiness when I think about those who would condemn or dismiss me because I grew up middle-class in a suburb, a teenager who didn't have these quintessentially urban experiences. Nobody encouraged me to skip school and if they had I would have wandered in a wasteland of malls, backyard pools, and comic book stores (which I did anyway). School was all there was: it became my escape, it became my habit—and now I'm thirty-two years old and I'm still in school. If there's a saving grace to my situation it's that I'm in school not merely as a means to an end (though I will not disingenously claim that I'm unconscious of or uninterested in such possible ends as a good academic job) but as an end in itself, as a way to live the bookish life I desire and to connect with others who are similarly bookish. Which brings me back to Alcalay's challenge, worth repeating at this late date in the post: "one has to use positions of privilege in the structure of this society to illustrate how one can give up those privileges voluntarily, or put them in the service of things other than self-promotion" (178).

The first part of this strikes me as requiring an almost saintlike or at least Levinasian abjection before the Other. People who genuinely do this earn my awe, but they seem to have taken a few steps back from humanity as I've experienced it. George Oppen genuinely put this into practice when he stopped writing and became a labor organizer and then a soldier (putting himself into that disciplinary apparatus, much less risking his life, must have been an act of almost unimaginable self-abegnation); but he returned to a more recognizable writer's life (his career) when he began writing and publishing again. I can't think off the top of my head of other examples among American poets who did this aside from Laura Riding—who wasn't exactly a leftist and who also returned to managing her career late in life, in a far more waspish fashion than Oppen did. Me, I guess I'm just another sinner, wary of the ways in which my class privileges might implicate me in injustice but certainly at least not willing to claim I've renounced them when I haven't. That leaves us with the second half of Alcalay's challenge; and there I aspire to do some good, in spite of the nature of the MFA system I'm a product of—a system whose purest products go crazy trying to sell the nearly unmarketable commodities that they've leaned to turn themselves into. Am I doing it yet? Am I living in the best way? Insofar as I don't have a ready answer to those questions I'm subject to censure and chastening. But I am unregenerate in my belief that writing which challenges or extends conventions of thought, of language, of image processing is of immense value, and that those challenges can take more forms than Alcalay directly acknowledges: certainly he seems to have omitted laughter from his arsenal, though he has not omitted the beautiful from his heap of historical materials:
unite yourselves with us in size and grandeur
seek the plentiful harbor diligently collect
history written in bone examine these earliest
artifacts the first examples the last vestiges
keep the continent from being blank a place
of imprisonment dumb with the question
four sevenths of agricultural production
taken over corn carried on their backs
seventy miles one fo the first desparate [sic]
years as a gift long before anyone assumed
we made a mistake in trying to bear witness
all this wonder all this newness the body
wrapped in bark the vessel polished with the
tooth of a beaver a gift from the departed
smoked in a lobster claw alders lichen
bloodroot and sumac how we played
compelled and blind our claim no emptier
than questions of industry and idleness
survivors of our expectation the law of the
ladn recollected carefully in the hollow the
ambition to come to meaning before inquiry
the itinerant faces of defeated ancesters [sic] crop
up again adrift think of their names like our
hands shadows at the bottom of the sea (108)
But I'm not going to stop with "beauty needs no defense," though beauty in the critical, Adornoesque sense I've used it doesn't in fact need any defense. I am awakening to the call to be of service, to use the privilege I've been given for something beyond the mean little goal of preserving that privilege. What forms my answer to that call will take I don't know. And ultimately I will be the only judge as to whether I've answered it with sufficient fearlessness, rigor, and love.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Transcendentally good readings at Gimme! Coffe last night from Nada Gordon, Gary Sullivan, and Kazim Ali. Nada and Gary did a tag-team reading meant to be reminiscent of a kind of ancient Muslim poetry slam whose name I can neither remember nor spell if I could remember it—Gary, if you read this, send me an explanatory e-mail. Anyhow, it was terrific: they both have charisma to spare, and Nada adds an unearthly singing voice to the mix, so that the evening was much more reminiscent of performance art than of the typical poetry reading. Highlights: Gary read his great Google poem, "Fuck Bush," and a love poem about his courtship of Nada. Nada read a number of poems from V. Imp. (which I was sad to learn were not for sale, though I did pick up Foreignn Bodie and Are Not Our Lowing Heifers Sleeker than Night-Swollen Mushrooms?, both by Nada, as well as Gary's How to Proceed in the Arts and Kazim's chapbook Unravelled), the most stunning of which was, as she said, the only thing she'd been able to write in response to Sept. 11, which had then become a kind of ferocious elegy for Rachel Corrie, which has now become a kind of all-purpose mourning song for the wreckage our government has strewn throughout the Middle East. I can't remember the title but it featured two characters named Mule and Ostrich and was unbearably sad and funny by turns. I found the experience of the reading to be very moving, exciting, and a little intimidating: they're both pushing so much harder against the boundaries of what poetry can be than most of the poets I've been in contact with. Their way of reading and writing presents a challenge to me that I feel is somewhat similar to the challenge implicitly posed by Ammiel Alcalay's interview with Benjamin Hollander in the back of Alcalay's book from the warring factions, which I'm reading right now for Jonathan Monroe's class. Basically it's a demand for engaged poetry; but whereas Alcalay demands engagement with the larger, non-American, non-English speaking world, the full-throated orality of Gary and especially Nada's performances demands that the poet engage with his or her whole body in front of an audience. It's full-contact poetry and I wonder if I quite have the chops for it.

Kazim's reading came as something of a relief in this context, because his work is more conventionally lyrical—which is not to say that his reading wasn't stunning, because it was. Achingly beautiful and witty poems about desire and the ways it opens you to the world in sometimes painful ways. He also, in synch with the present-in-spirit Gabe Gudding, delivered a haunting rendition of Yoko Ono's "Mulberry." It's a one-word song in which the word is repeated and stretched and agonized and then somehow healed through repetition—moaning, gasping, orgasmic, despairing, starving, soothing. At the end of his reading he talked about a poem called "Danger" that everyone was telling him to keep out of his manuscript—because it's too simple? too naked—but damnit, it was his favorite poem and it was staying in there. Then he read the poem and all I remember are the last words, which in the constellation of his previous poems had taken on astonishing resonance: "the years the years."

After the reading (organized as usual by the indomitable Jane Sprague—Google her and read some poems and reviews, they're terrific) I got to hang out with the poets at a Thai restaurant on the Ithaca Commons, and after they went to bed I ended up having a long talk on a streetcorner with Joel Kuszai, who is filled with so many plans and ideas for things that could be done with poetry on a collaborationist/communitarian basis that he just might be a genius of enthusiasm. "What do you want to do?" he asked me, an amazing question given the context of challenge that I feel on all sides now. I mean, I've got my book coming out, I'm getting a PhD—my little career is in motion, and that leaves me with the question, What do I want to do beyond what will grant me the security of institutional affiliation? Aside from writing (a big "aside"), what kind of cultural work do I want to do? Be a publisher? Start a magazine? Write reviews? Teach schoolkids? Something I haven't imagined? What haven't I imagined? What things, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, do I not know that I don't know, and how can I find out?

Ask not what poetry can do for you, but what you can do for poetry.

Friday, April 18, 2003

Feast of the Passover

Alienation has been a major theme in my life this week. As a secular Jew, I've felt alienated from friends and family members who ask me what I'm doing for the holiday; if I'm not going to seder am I at least doing something. What this something might be is never specified. Certainly I feel alienated from the actual religion, whose language and rituals I was not brought up with. If I do happen to attend a seder or a sabbath dinner or go to temple, I'm always confronted by the spectacle of others who have a direct, intuitive response to the words and music and rhythms of the prayers, because they said them as children, even if they didn't or no longer quite understand them. How can I recapture what I've never had? Alienation, too, from the secular world, from the American mainstream. I picked up a copy of USA Today that was lying around in the library cafe this morning and the resulting snapshot of the worldview of the vast majority of my fellow Americans left me stunned by a sense of my own overwhelming marginality. It didn't help to then leave the library (I was trying to read DuPlessis and Quartermain's The Objectivist Nexus in my carrel, but a loud marching band playing such deathless hits as "Pinball Wizard" and "Carry On My Wayward Son" was penetrating even up to the sixth floor) and be confronted with smiling, scrubbed eighteen year-olds handing out free copies of the New Testament, while just down the hill a small group of people were clustered around a woman holding a nearly lifesized black cardboard cross. All my tenuous sense of Cornell as being some kind of haven for secular and independent thinking evaporated. And I was thinking as I waited for the bus a few yards from the people celebrating their Lord's death today about the article by Burton Hatlen I'd been reading in the Objectivist book; in it he comments in passing about the peculiar relationship between Zukofsky and Pound. How is it a Jewish Marxist would choose an anti-Semitic fascist as his mentor? Hatlen then makes the commonsense observation that Pound was Zukofsky's poetical mentor, not his political one, and that there was nothing inherently fascist about Pound's methods of composition. This simple observation more than any of the other rhetoric I've heard on the subject made it clear to me how there truly is no necessary connection between radical poetics and radical politics. I still believe that one might conceive, explain, and justify one's poetics as being radical and/or oppositional, but a technique or mode by itself (even Pound's collage and the Adorno-esque force field it creates between diverse elements held in suspension) is not. (Though I'm still willing to entertain the possibility that some kind of radical politics is implied by such a technique—that is, some radical rejection of normal modes of discourse, poetic or otherwise. But the direction of this radicalness is not necessarily Leftist; Pound's violent desire to remake the existing order is the transferable component here that must manifest in some sort of extreme deviation from the status quo, be it fascism, socialism, or anarchism.)

Of course this is nothing more than what Silliman, et al are arguing in the much debated Poetry Project Newsletter (you know, I still haven't read the thing itself, just quotes and people's comments on it) in which they accused the younger generation of taking up the style of Language poetry while abandoning the politics. And they're right in the sense that younger generations, including mine, have abandoned the oppositional politics peculiar to the Language poets' 60s radical style. What remains is inchoate. But I'd like to believe that not all young poets who employ techniques of collage, disjunction, the new sentence, etc., are not simply trying to ride an increasingly academically sanctioned wave into canonization or at least a career. The desire to disrupt the surface of poetical, political, and commercial discourses is still at heart a utopian one, even if there's no one program or coherent theory that more than a handful of young poets have chosen to rally around. Do we need such a program, such a theory, such a school, for purposes beyond canonization? Maybe. Anyway, this brings me back to my general feelings of alienation, which have crystallized not least around the experience of blogging this past week—an experience which showed me that the utopian desire for some kind of fuller being in and through poetry that I believe all the blogger-poets who have links at the left share has not resulted in any kind of solidarity. And why should it have? Blogging is a new form of community, and anyway all communities are subject to infighting, factionalization, ego-mongering, etc. Maybe it's a sign of health that this should be so. What I still need to believe in, in order to recover some small sense of at-homeness, of disalienation from the political, religious, academic, and poetry worlds in which I move, is that utopian spirit that moves behind the most interesting poetries. A shared practice may not be the point.

I'm going to close with a long quote from Frederic Jameson's Marxism and Form, which I've been reading and have found surprisingly inspiring both in terms of my academic project and in thinking about the possibilities for poetry today. He's talking about Surrealism, but I think for the purposes of what I'm saying you could substitute almost any poetic practice (flar, Creepism, Ellipticism) conducted with a degree of sincerity:
It is only when [Surrealist texts] are perceived as examples of Surrealism that they once again begin to take on the stronger colors of their origin. This is to say, if you like, that the idea of Surrealism is a more liberating experience than the actual texts. [This certainly describes my reaction to most Language poetry--Ed.] Breton himself could hardly have had in mind anything else when he excluded the so-called "right-wing deviationists," those Surrealists too given over to the ultimate values of art itself and of the production of an art object. But we can go further than that: for the quasiphysical enlargement of our being produced by this idea—and analogous in that, as in its causes, to the more expansive pages of Whitman or Hart Crane—is the exact correlative of the aeration of the text by the larger figural meaning or generalization which stands behind it. Thus in Whitman's catalogues, the individual finite items are released against the background of the general, indeed the universal, for which they stand. Thus in Surrealism there is at work a hermeneutic process in which Desire is identified behind all the individual and limited desires of an individual associative system, in which Freedom is felt, instinct, behind the more limiited and contingent freedoms of image and language. We are accustomed, in our time, to make a fetish of the concrete, by which we normally understand the particular: yet the effects in question here demonstrate, on the contrary, that the particular can be an enslavement under certain conditions, and that under those conditions it is precisely the movement of abstraction that can come as liberation. Thus, whoever speaks of Surrealism as a meditation on the figures of Desire is also at the same moment describing a technique for the release of the subjectivity from the single limited desire, the desire which is "only that," which is therefore at the same time the renunciation of other desires; and for the satisfaction, through such release, of all desire, of Desire as a force.

This new satisfaction, which Schiller, looking back to the state of nature, called bliss, is most adequately conveyed, in its Surrealist version, through the word mystery.... For about the feeling of mystery there is nothing to be said: it is in itself merely a sign that the long-hoped-for enlargement of our beings, release from the repressive weight of the reality principle, has taken place, that life is suddenly once more transformed in quality, has somehow recaptured its original reasons for being. If we wish to say more about this relatively ineffable value, we must somehow shift to a more precise, or at the least more articulable terminology, and it is at this point that the Surrealists have recourse to the words for the privileged experiences in which the sense of mystery is most frequently released: love, the dream, laughter, automatic writing, childhood. They describe, however, the external conditions, the essential situations, of the pleasure principle, rather than the quality of that principle itself (101-103).
Release, aeration, freedom, mystery. The Angel of Death looks down, sees the mark of writing, and passes by.

Thursday, April 17, 2003

Let me join Cori Copp in praising the poetry of Julia Tsuchiya-Mayhew! "I am seven years old and I am not a grown-up."
I'd like to quote Kasey quoting Jonathan quoting Pound:
I throwing the object (fixed or moving) on to the visual imagination.

II inducing emotional correlations by the sound and rhythm of speech.

III inducing both of the effects by stimulating the associations (intellectual and emotional) that have remained in the receiver's consciousness in relation to the actual words or word groups employed
(ABC of Reading p. 63).
When I think about my own process of writing I feel like I've moved from I to III over the course of my brief career. I think it was always III when I was a teenager because I was and am fascinated by the "stickiness" of words: the way they stick to their associations, denotative and connotative, and the way they would stick to each other when placed in unexpected juxtaposition. Then for a long time, right up through my first year at Montana, I was convinced that image was everything. I wrote lots of landscape poems which never failed to wrap themselves up in a tidy epiphany or two. It wasn't until I started encountering poets whose main tool was not the image drawn from nature (or from cityscapes) that I began to intuit that my first inchoate thoughts had been the best ones. Reading Modernists like Pound and Stevens more closely than I had as a teenager (in a poetry class I took one summer; I still use the Norton Anthology of Poetry, Third Edition that my parents purchased for the occasion), and then reading literary theory, Wittgenstein, etc., helped provide further justification for thinking about poetry what I'd always felt about it. That's why I got stuck on my WCW-patented "made of words" hobbyhorse. What experience has further taught me is that although one of my poems always has to start with verbal stickiness it doesn't have to end there. Rather than simply receiving the radio transmissions from Mars that tell me to stick X next to Y in euphonious fashion (this is where the odd man out, no. II, melopoeia seems to come in) I can also throw my own needs, or the occasion's needs, into the mix, and guide the emerging poem into a particular territory much more easily than I once could. Which is not to say that many of my best poems don't continue to stem entirely from the dictation provided by the intellectual and emotional associations stimulated by a single word or group of words (that all-important first line) without much guidance from my consciousness.

Where thinking about this—thinking as a poet—gets more complicated for me is when I start to probe the nature of those associations, particularly the "intellectual" ones. If I'm simply reaching into the web of language as it exists for me—into the network of relations that gives a particular word or phrase its meanings—aren't I simply reproducing those relations? What inner quirkiness, vision, or Martian am I relying upon to free those words somewhat from their usual patterns (especially patterns which conceal the historical and/or hegemonic nature of certain bits of language)? Is it my critical intelligence, or something more? Imagination? Inspiration? Or is it (here's that word again) a dialectical relationship between my intellectual response to a phrase (unpacking layers of association that range from Shakespeare to Pepsi ads to Donald Rumsfeld) and the simultaneous emotional responses? Two kinds of memory (it's all memory) come into conflict and produce sparks. If image becomes again important to the poem, it might be an attempt at a Benjaminian dialectical image: a presentation of contradiction that's supposed to shock the reader into a more direct apprehension of a slice of reality, like Proust's memoire involontaire. Or more simply it might be Pound's formula for the image: "An ‘Image’ is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time."

Wednesday, April 16, 2003

"Mean People Suck"

The roofers are hard at work, tearing out the old shingles, pounding on the rafters, giving me a headache, confounding and irritating my dog, all in hopes of re-covering the roof with brand new shingles that will protect it and my possessions from the unpredictable spring weather. That's as good a metaphor as any for my virtual life right now. There's a lot of pissiness about, and hopefully this experience will enable me to better protect myself from the stray jets of urine that the reservoir dogs of blogland are splashing on my stoop. After all, more heartache awaits. Exams and defenses. Mean-spirited book reviews. Malicious gossip. Departmental politics. This is life and I'm not retreating from it, much as I'd sometimes like to.

One of the things that shocked and upset me about the Stanford writing workshop was the way you weren't allowed any errantry of statement, any room for experiment with the poetic persona that you'd initially been admitted for. Everyone at that table seemed more interested in defending their little piece of turf, and angrily rejecting the attempts of others to interpret their writing, then they were in creating a space where it felt safe to try something new. I've since learned this is the typical workshop model for places like Iowa, but that wasn't my experience at Montana. If you wrote or said something half-assed people would call you on it, but they also seemed willing to look for the value in what you'd contributed; they'd give you the benefit of the doubt. I guess the difference between Montana and Stanford is that at Montana you were assumed to be a student, a learner, an ephebe; the poets at Stanford took the line from the Stegner brochure ("Fellows are regarded as working artists, intent upon practicing and perfecting their craft") a little too much to heart. The same seems true on the Wild Wild Web: it's assumed that if I've got a blog and a book I must be setting myself up as some kind of authority, another turf-pisser whose decorous pose is just that, a pose. We're all out for the main chance, we're all self-canonizers, we're all little Barret Wattens in training. It's an ugly conception of what blogging could be. It's a Hobbesian take on the poetry community that says if someone is up then my safety and well-being can only be preserved by taking them down. It's a megalomaniacal desire to control what people think and say about you or about anything. And I reject it. I won't live this way, I won't write this way, and I'm going to ignore other people who think that their grubby little world is the only one.

There's no excuse for nastiness. There's no excuse for ill-humor, self-importance, and attempts at censorship. None.

I don't always know what I'm about, poetically or prosaically. But I have an instinct that up to now has been affirmed by experience: blogging is a great way to expand one's sense of community, to get a sense of the larger social, ethical, and aesthetic enterprise that one is a part of. It's a place to experiment. It's a place to play with the evanescent spirit of authority without necessarily trying to become an authority yourself. It's a place to generalize and fall down and occasionally make a fool of yourself, though I hope not of other people, and therefore a place to make friends. In that spirit I'm going to add a new blog by Michael Helsem to my links list. I still believe in blogging and if you do too, clap your hands.

Monday, April 14, 2003

I guess I feel like someone, probably me, has misunderstood the spirit of blogging; I thought talking past each other, using one another's ideas as launching pads for one's own ideas, was part of the point. If we're simply supposed to discursively respond to one another's "threads" then we might as well have stuck with the Buffalo list. Dave, you seem peeved that I haven't responded to your writing with the kind of strict point-by-point argument that I might apply in a scholarly paper—which seems less understandable when you attack my use of academese. "Write like a poet": what exactly does that mean? See, I am and remain very sympathetic to your basically Romantic vision of what poetry's for, and I think your point about the "emptiness and contingency of authority" is very smart too. I'm impressed by your willingness to directly engage a school of thinking about poetry that seems inimical to your own, given how many poets simply choose to remain in ignorance of the "authority" accruing to Watten and company. It's not so easy for me to stick to those particular guns: I'm sorry it offends you, but I am writing like a poet when I write like this—an often conflicted poet who feels himself caught between a poetry Left whose fiercely moral point-of-view seems as irrefutable as it does cheerless, and a poetry Right which I cannot cavalierly dismiss the way people who've never bothered to pick up a copy of Lord Weary's Castle or The Dream Songs seem able to. I get a lot out of "Left" books like Watten's Bad History, or Piombino's Theoretical Objects, and there are poets and even critics on the "Right" (my mutterings about Hamlet are straight out of Harold Bloom) whose work I find deeply satisfying or at least like. The folks most often placed in the happy middle seem to be New York Schoolers, but collectively they seem dedicated to a spirit of lightness and shock (light shock?) that I don't always find satisfying. There are also mainstream poets who have a degree of reach and/or virtuosity (I'm still old-fashioned enough to prize virtuosity) that I find worthwhile, like Paul Muldoon for example. Who's in that visionary territory, though? I think of Allen Grossman, but maybe he's too fustian for you, David. Do we have an American Lorca, much less an American Blake, who's writing right now? A living Duncan, even? Who are the great mental sensualists in contemporary American poetry? I'd love to read them.

For what it's worth, I think what I said about "superstructure" (I thought all of my "answers" had a playful tone, but I guess you missed it) was perfectly clear: language as form, as opposed to the content of that language, is constituitive of and constituted by its historical moment in a way that can only be brought out through dialectics. Banal? Well, I'm new to dialectical thinking and I still find it kind of exciting, like the Earthlings in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy who still think that digital watches are a pretty neat idea. And I'm still figuring out how to write accurately about these ideas because I think it's nearly as valuable to be able to write about stuff as it is to write stuff. You're not going to be able to bully me into a more casual or more lyrical prose style, as much as it sucks to be called "boring." Maybe I should change this blog's name to "The Pedant" while I'm at it.


I'm a big boy, I can take it. But it's not much fun.
And I finally did my taxes just now so I'm in a lousy mood anyway. Even though I'm getting a refund. Filling out those forms gives me the cold sweats.
I wish I liked squabbling for squabbling's sake. Jeez, David. If I'm so boring why am I worthy of attack? Or as you apparently perceive it, counterattack? I'm simply trying to understand, in my own boring language, the roots of your objections to the Watten-ization of poetry. Perhaps I was overly reductive, given that reductiveness seems to be one of the things you're fighting against. Or maybe I'm just a convenient representative of the academy that poets of all stripes like to symbolically tar and feather once and a while, even and especially if this means they're biting the hand that feeds them.

You're so quick to react to my academic language (or is it my academic status? am I really so threatening because I don't pretend not to be a grad student?) that you didn't notice how sympathetic I am to your desire to see poetry in an extra-linguistic way. And I wasn't trying to answer your question as if you were my student; I wasn't trying to answer your question at all. I was trying to answer my question, which your musings had inspired, about what poetry's good for. Why are you so quick to feel attacked? If you, David, or anyone else reading this think it's boring, don't read it for fuck's sake.

Sunday, April 13, 2003

In his latest comment on Wallace Stevens, David Hess stakes a claim for poetry, or the poetic imagination, as constituting a larger territory than "language": he celebrates those who celebrate "the imagination, the sensuality of the mind and perception." I'm deeply and ambivalently attracted to that point of view, inclined as I am to secretly reserve the territory of poetry for those who have placed it on the most visionary and hieratic of maps: Keats, Coleridge, Stevens, Rilke. If poetry isn't a language for talking about all that's signified by the forbidden words soul, heart, dark, life, love, death, nature, cruelty, hope, and justice, what's it good for? Answer no. 1: It's made of words, it's not any other art form than poetry, it needs to be words in new constellations around the concepts denoted by that list. Answer no. 2: It's made of words, it's a mode of listening and relistening to the conversation that precedes and exceeds every individual, "the language of men speaking to men," creating possibilities for change—as Hamlet loses or gains the name of action from overhearing his own language estranged from him in each soliloquy. Answer no. 3: It's made of words, it's a piece of the superstructure of its time leading infallibly to some vital infrastructure, and cannot be made meaningful without a dialectical understanding of that relationship. Words, words, words.

"What is the matter that you read, my lord?"

Just so.

Friday, April 11, 2003

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Laura Riding:

The Victory

Without millions of pennies and millions of men
Or nations of miles or five bolts of satin
Or six reams of fame to describe it upon
Or sixteen old castles to flag the news from
Or sixty new offices and their telephones—
Yet the business is done,
The great war is won,
The world has been made to know.

That it lies and denies
Or wears woe in disguise
Of its knowing, its joy so to know—
This is such pride as battalions of fire have
When a single cool drop quells the challenging blaze:
Of the drop not a sign, there's but reek of embers.
Thus smoulders the world, spitting hate of its baptism.
The last sparks tell not of healing, of cooling.

There is no news of knowledge in the newspapers.
Impregnable screens of vision have been raised
To protect the embattled minds from themselves.
A full peace has been visited now on the world,
But the voices of time do not mention it.
Nor think I to disturb
So much noise, nor to curb
So much fleeing from quiet's event.

Like a love that is loved
In a heart stiffly gloves
Against loveless responding event:
Though the face of the world with dim pain is contorted
As if the embrace were a forfended curse,
And the gift shall demand no more thanking than this,
Yet knowledge has been given, and knowledge taken.
Whether to weep or smile that truth conquers in secret?

Tuesday, April 08, 2003


We are suffering home suffering home our red gates
splayed at random through the occupied city
our new old home passing through smoke our belovéd lungs,
suffering oxygen divided from nitrogen which goes home
into the soil heaped at the mouths of the red gates
standing open straddling the boulevard arranging air
turning the ones who enter into gods the ones entered into women
who must suffer to claim the names we’ve left for them
in bulldozed homes human bondage born of bombs
bombs embraced our suffering bombs pierced through the tongue
for a poignant pleasure red milk flowing through red gates
red sky thronging above arches and below arches
made into the interior of a plastic envelope bulked suffering
this is our task to be the wall between and among to be home.
Snow on the ground, people. Snow on the ground. Like boots....

The bloggers are dropping like flies, and I'm barely hanging on with my little posts from Benjamin, etc. But I declare to you now that I have not yet begun to blog in earnest.

I'm trying to decide right now exactly which group of poets I want to read over the summer for my 'A' exam (no, it's not necessarily an exam about "A", though that's definitely one of the books on my list of possibles). The answer I give will probably determine the course of my dissertation and beyond that, a sizable chunk of my academic career. There are three major candidates/periods/movements which I could profitably unpack within my rather loose conception of pastoral as a mode rather than a genre (though there are genre connections as well). By "pastoral as a mode" I mean a specifically utopian poetics that attempts to reclaim the "natural" by means other than, or at least not necessarily including, the Romantic egotistical sublime. There's a psychoanalytic vision of pastoral that is described, and rejected as a fantasy, by Lacan in his Ethics of Psychonalysis:
[T]hrough a whole side of its action and its doctrine, psychoanalysis effectively presents itself as [the search for a natural ethics], as tending to simplify some difficulty that is external in origin, that is of the order of a misrecognition or indeed of a misunderstanding, as tending to restore a normative balance with the world—something that the maturation of the instincts would naturally lead to…. The domain of the pastoral is never absent from civilization; it never fails to offer itself as a solution to the latter’s discontents. If I use that name, it is because over the centuries that is how it has happened to present itself openly. Nowadays, it is often masked; it appears for example in the more severe and more pedantic form of the infallibility of proletarian consciousness…. There is perhaps a good reason why we should reexamine the archaic form of the pastoral, reexamine a certain return to nature or the hope invested in a nature that you shouldn’t imagine our ancestors thought of in simpler terms than we do (88-9).
The "natural ethics" that Lacan posits are akin to the "natural law" Ernst Bloch described in a conversation with Adorno about utopia that I read in the Barnes & Noble Starbucks yesterday: "[T]here are two utopian parts: the social utopias as constructions of a condition in which there are no laboring and burdened people; and natural law, in which there are no humiliated and insulted people." Adorno goes on to point out that the most important condition of utopia is the miraculous elimination of death. But "the heaviness of death cannot be eliminated. All utopian thinking must be negative" and therefore he puts a ban on positivistic imaginings of utopia, arguing instead that "the essential function of utopia is a critique of what is present." All very familiar and what you'd expect from Adorno. I'm curious as to whether pastoral utopia is quite the pure fantasy of naturally bounded drives Lacan says it is, or the instrument of negative dialectics as Adorno appears to argue. One thing about the pastoral poetry of Theocritus and Virgil is that death is present ("Et in Arcadia ego" reads the inscription on a tomb in Poussin's painting, "Les Bergers d'Arcadie"). Is there an edge of "realism" then in this seemingly outmoded and obsolete genre?

Pastoral, as it was incisively described by Prof. Gordon Teskey in a Milton seminar I took my first semester at Cornell, is the genre in which extraneous elements (that is, the social, or at least the polis) are extracted from life and we are left with the basics: sex and death. Virgil's shepherds lounge around, pant after nymphs or other shepherds, and mourn the deaths of still other shepherds. In opposition to this definition of pastoral is William Empson's conception of it as entirely social, as "proletarian literature," in fact: "The poetic statements of human waste and limitation, whose function is to give strength to see life clearly and so to adopt a fuller attitude to it, usually bring in, or leave room for the reader to bring in, the whole set of pastoral ideas. For such crucial literary achievements are likely to attempt to reconcile some conflict between the parts of a society; literature is a social process, and also an attempt to reconcile the conflicts of an indivdiual in whom those of society will be mirrored" (Some Versions of Pastoral 19). Seeing the complex in the simple is pastoral's most basic move; the most fundamental (though too often simplistic) approach to the one-many problem. Empson writes of "the tone of humility normal to pastoral":
"I now abandon my specialised feelings because I am trying to find better ones, so I must balance myself for the moment by imagining the feelings of the simple person. He may be in a better state than I am by luck, freshness, or divine grace; value is outside any scheme for the measurement of value because that too must be valued." Various paradoxes may be thrown in here; "I must imagine his way of feeling because the refined thing must be judged by the fundamental thing, because strength must be learnt in weakness and sociability in isolation, because the best manners are learnt in the simple life."
Empson's characteristic technique of "mental paraphrasing" here is a striking demonstration of the imperative to "imagine [the other's] way of feeling"; even more striking is the thoroughly postmodern or at any rate Nietzschean rejection of "scheme[s] for the measurement of value." At any rate, I find myself compelled by the dialectical nature of pastoral that is suggested here, mirroring as it does the dialectic between Marx and Freud: the imagination of social happiness coupled with the imagination of individual happiness. Vulgar Marxism, to be sure (is "Vulgar Freudianism" redundant?), but compelling.

So back to my original problem: which poets to read? Three major possibilities:

The 19th Century Americans

Basically Whitman and Dickinson, with maybe a little Longfellow and the Romantics for background. Emerson is huge. "Song of Myself" certainly ranges between extremes of individual sovereignty ("Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am") and extremes of identification with "simpler" others ("uneducated persons"). Dickinson is more subtle and I would have to read her in a more extended way than I have to understand her brand of utopian imagination, though I sense it's there. Who else? Melville? Thoreau of course. I could conceivably range up to William James and the pragmatists, who I intuit could be connected with the kind of phenomenological clearing of complexities that is pastoral's most basic move.

The High Modernists

The usual suspects. Lots of Stein, a fair bit of D.H. Lawrence (I'm still writing a paper on those two and their deployment of roses in their poetry for Doug Mao's seminar from last semester. It's coming, Doug!), Eliot (the master of anti-pastoral), Pound, lots of Williams, Crane. H.D., probably. Marianne Moore, certainly. Laura Riding might be interesting, and we've got her papers here at Cornell, which is a kind of bonus. And—he doesn't really belong here, but he doesn't really belong with the next group, either—I find myself thinking of Delmore Schwartz, of all people, in connection with this subject. An anxious urban pastoral that always falls short, a kind of Jewish premonition of Frank O'Hara's more successful gay pastoral. Eroticism of all kinds, but perhaps especially homo, seems associated with pastoral and I won't want to discount that.

The Objectivists

This strikes me right now as the most interesting option, but perhaps an overly trendy one. Oppen, Zukofsky, and Ronald Johnson (I know he's not even remotely an objectivist but I think I could make a case for him) are most immediately attractive; Basil Bunting and Lorine Niedecker are the most obvious choices for poets who seem to write in a thematically pastoral mode. Olson would get in there, and be the hinge to contemporaries who do what you might call Romantic Objectivism: Duncan and maybe Creeley could be described that way. This would be my opportunity to hunker down with some long, strange books this summer: The Maximus Poems, "A", ARK. I like it.

Will any of my fine theories survive contact with actual texts? This remains to be seen.

And an all too apt last quotation from Ernst Bloch: "Hope is the opposite of security."

Monday, April 07, 2003

Here is a song my girlfriend Emily likes to sing that is in my head today:
Tiny Buddha
Little bitty Buddha
He is so small
Not very big at all
Variants are possible:
Tiny Buddha
My sweet Buddha
He is so small
Not even a little tall

Tiny Buddha
Who's my Buddha?
He is so small
He doesn't have far to fall

Saturday, April 05, 2003

Rumors of the demise of Joseph Duemer's blog appear to have been exaggerated by me. My apologies, Joe.

It looks like the war might come to a swift end after all, perhaps shifting the discussion about what American power can do to what it should be doing. Which is perhaps where it should have been all along. Of course the horrors of urban warfare might still await us.

What I love most about "One-Way Street" is the way it brings Walter Benjamin as lover into view:
Arc Lamp

The only way of knowing a person is to love that person without hope.


Geranium.—Two people who are in love are attached above all else to their names.

Carthusian carnation.—To the lover, the loved one appears always as solitary.

Asphodel.—Behind someone who is loved, the abyss of sexuality closes like that of the family.

Cactus bloom.—The truly loving person delights in finding the beloved, arguing, in the wrong.

Forget-me-not.—Memory always sees the loved one smaller.

Foliage plant.—In the event an obstacle prevents union, the fantasy of a contented, shared old age is immediately at hand.

Doctor's Night-Bell

Sexual fulfillment delivers the man from his secret, which does not consist in sexuality but which in its fulfillment, and perhaps in it alone, is severed—not solved. This secret is comparable to the fetters that bind him to life. The woman cuts them, and the man is free to die because his life has lost its secret. Thereby he is reborn, and as his beloved frees him from the mother's spell, the woman literally detaches him from Mother Earth—a midwife who cuts that umbilical cord which is woven of nature's mystery.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Perhaps not the least of the casualties of the war are the blogs of Andrew Mister, Joseph Duemer, and Heriberto Yerpez; now Bill Marsh is saying adieu. Where have all the flowers gone?

Some more Benjamin:
For Men

To convince is to conquer without conception.

Come Back! All Is Forgiven!

Like someone performing the giant swing on the horizontal bar, each boy spins for himself the wheel of fortune from which, sooner or later, the momentous lot shall fall. For only that which we knew or practiced at fifteen will one day constitute our attraction. And one thing, therefore, can never be made good: having neglected to run away from one's parents. From forty-eight hours' exposure in those years, as if in a caustic solution, the crystal of life's happiness forms.

Caution: Steps

Work on good prose has three steps: a muscial stage when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven.

First Aid

A highly convoluted neighborhood, a network of streets that I had avoided for years, was disentangled at a single stroke when one day a person dear to me moved there. It was as if a searchlight set up at this person's window dissected the area with pencils of light.


In summer, fat people are conspicuous; in winter, thin.

In spring, attention is caught, in bright sunshine, by the young foliage; in cold rain, by the still-leafless branches.

After a convivial evening, someone remaining behind can see at a glance what it was like from the disposition of plates and cups, glasses and food.

First principle of wooing: to make oneself sevenfold; to place oneself sevenfold about the woman who is desired.

In the eyes we see people to the lees.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

From "One-Way Street": Walter Benjamin on blogging:
Filling Station

The construction of life is at present in the power far more of facts than of convictions, and of such facts as have scarcely ever become the basis of convictions. Under these circumstances, true literary activity cannot aspire to take place within a literary framework; this is, rather, the habitual expression of its sterility. Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book—in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment. Opinions are to the vast appartus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.
Yesterday's post by Tim Yu continues the conversation about the relevance of the political/historical to Language poetry and more generally to the old question of what genuinely political possibilities exist for poetry. Tim's explanation of the position held by Watten, Hejinian, Bernstein, et al, is that it's the historical context (i.e. Vietnam, the 60s, Watergate) that its formal devices were deployed in that give Language poetry its political edge. This fascinates me: it's not what you do formally that matters, but when. Given the disaster that is our field of "current events" (as neat an evasion of history as the name they gave history classes when I was in junior high, "social studies"), does a disjunctive or New Sentencey poem that I write today take on a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E luster? What happens to the poems I'm publishing now that were written before 9/11; is their "aestheticism" more or less "mere" because of our new historical circumstances? The title poem of my new book refers to Gulf War I as "the war / that we've forgotten / mostly." How has this poem been revised by the dead hand of history? Can I resist this kind of revision? Should I even try?

We're in history and we can't write it as it happens. Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project is an archaeology of the nineteenth century, not the twentieth, because he knew he could not achieve a sufficiently dialectical perspective on events as they were happening. He hoped that his assemblage of quotations and "dialectical images" from nineteenth century commodity culture would set a stage that would make it possible to more fully understand what was happening now—that's as close as he got to writing a history of the present. Thematizing current events in poetry feels inevitable right now, but it isn't history; we lack the perspective. Barrett Watten's Bad History is as good an example as I can think of of a successful history of the present, but even he had to let a few years slip by between the events (or more properly the language of the events) he deals with and the writing, or at least publishing, of his own text. The curious thing about Watten's book is that I feel it has as much or more to tell me about the world we live in now as it does about the 1990s which are its ostensible scope. Maybe dialectical stage-setting is the best we can hope from from this kind of poetical-critical writing. Thinking about the generational resentment Tim has pointed out, a resentment I sometimes share, I find myself wondering what sufficiently dialectical histories of the 60s have been written (if you can think of some please e-mail me), because that might be a way to understand the monadically bursting NOW a little better. I see no hope for moving beyond the models of 60s-style protest (which seem so unsuccessful at the moment), both in politics and in poetry, without a strongly historical understanding of the circumstances that those models arose from, which might in turn lead to an understanding of how our circumstances differ.

I'd like to defend "mere aestheticism" but I haven't the time right now. I will say that I find Benjamin's unfinished book to be extremely pleasing aesthetically. What fascinates me the most about it is how he managed to turn the moment of sublation, of dialectical turnover, into an aesthetically tangible experience akin to the moment of waking up.
I tried to post yesterday morning about the reading I was giving Tuesday evening, but Blogger ate it. April Fool. Anyhow, it went well. I read as part of the "Lounge Hour" series that the Cornell English Department has for its grad students; it's generally an MFA-student affair but they occasionally invite scholars who write to participate, and I'm very glad they did. I was quite nervous beforehand; it had been a long time since I'd given a reading, even a short one like this (twenty minutes). There's a moment of indecision when you first get up in front of the podium: should I just muddle through this or should I belt it? I belted it. I startred out with three poems from Selah, then four newer poems from the ongoing series Severance Songs, then closed with another poem from Selah. People said very complimentary things afterwards. I love to read, actually, I'm a total ham—I learned that the first day I walked into a classroom as a teacher at the University of Montana. I can't act, I can't sing, but I can stand up in front of students or an audience and crack jokes or even declaim in a reasonably vatic manner. That's probably one of the reasons I remember my days at Montana as nigh-magical ones, because I was discovering how much greater my capabilities were than I had imagined.

Speaking of Montana, Sandra Simonds' blog has been added to the links at left. She's been posting some terrific poems by favorite poets of mine—Paul Celan, Laura Riding—along with her own work and the occasional "interview." Today it's beanie babies.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

The local classical music station makes some bizarre choices once in a while. They're playing some little orchestral suite right now, perfectly ordinary except for the intervention of bird calls, most often a low cuckoo, which makes the whole thing sound looney tunes. My girlfriend Emily and I agree that we've come to hate Berlioz because of this station, because there's some announcer who gets way too much pleasure out of pronouncing the oily syllables Hector Berlioz.

Oh yeah, there are winter wind sound effects too.

If you're in Ithaca come hear me read some poems tonight in the English Department lounge (Goldwin Smith 258). Another Cornell poet, Chanda Wakefield, will be reading, along with a fiction writer whose name I didn't catch. I haven't read for a long time and I'm kinda nervous about it. Since I can only do twenty minutes worth of damage I think I'll read just a few of the shorter poems from Selah along with a handful of the new work, Severance Songs. It's good practice for when my book comes out, but it's also a kind of "coming out." Though lots of people in the English Department know I write poetry, just as many don't, and my principal identity as far as others are concerned is "grad student." This will be an act of self-exposure that I hope I'm prepared for. I began this blog as a way of getting used to being "in public" but of course text, even the kind of text that elicits e-mail responses from strangers, is an entirely different ballgame from standing up in front of people with only a podium to protect you. I was trying to give a nutshell explanation of logocentrism to my students yesterday and found myself idiotically repeating, "The voice, it's about the voice, the primacy of the voice." Pace Derrida, et al, there is something different about being a live voice, about embodying your work. Some of my most interesting poems are not very well suited to being read aloud: almost the entire manuscript of Fourier Series would have to be read with a transparency of the text projected behind me for the audience to get the full effect. And I won't be reading the "House on Stilts" section of my book, which is page-as-field stuff and also incorporates a lot of phrases in French—have I been reading too much Cole Swenson? I should probably get some coaching in my French pronunciation before I take those poems on the road. How can someone who doesn't really speak a language use that language in his or her poems without seeming pretentious? Maybe they can't. On the other hand, I once knew a poet who was fluent in Spanish but always sounded incredibly pretentious when he incorporated Spanish words into his poems. This raises too the question of the "poetry voice." What most people mean by this I think is the kind of breathy monotone you often encounter, entirely on the other end of the scale from the preacher-like cadences of slam and performance poetry. Most of the poems in Selah seem to demand a vatic tone; I hope I can pull it off. I can't wait until I publish my next manuscript, The Nature Theater of Oklahoma (do you like how I've managed to mention all the books I've written?), because it has a lot of funny poems in it. The desire to entertain, not least because poetry readings are so often dull grinds. Some poets seem to take pleasure in punishing audiences, but my naked desire to be loved takes precedence over any hazy notions I might have about reprogramming listeners' expectations.

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