Thursday, December 30, 2004

Hello from Philadelphia en route to NYC. Have had a wonderful time here visiting with the Nozes and my job-seeking buddies Brian Teare and Richard Greenfield. Also met Joyelle McSweeney and her husband Johannes Goransson (met their friend Srikanth Reddy too) for drinks and they told us about their new press, Action!, which will be bringing out a book of translations by Aase Berg (a young Swedish poet) and a book by blogland's own Lara Glenum. You can read more about it in a letter Joyelle sent to Eduardo Corral. I also had the very great pleasure of meeting my visionary new editor, William Gillespie (of Spineless Books), and the man who made my dreams come true, the brilliant and voluble Christian Bök (he's a handsome devil, too). Got a new mock-up for Fourier Series that is, if possible, even more beautiful than the first. This is practically an art book, folks. William's investigating printers right now for the rather unusual cover; hopefully it will be in print and available before AWP at the end of March, but it could take much longer.

Nothing substantive to say on my way out the door to NYC (where Emily's visiting friends), but I do want to put in another early advance plug for Sarah Gridley's new book Weather Eye Open, which I managed to get a copy of from the UC booth even though it's not officially available until April. I've raved about her work before—for years, really (we were cameradoes at U. Montana)—but this book delivers on her earlier promise and then some. Lyric intensity of the first order, with a keenly detailed eroticism haloed by melancholy, like a more saintly and sensual Sebald—sung in the key of pastoral, too. I will take the liberty of quoting one of my immediate favorites that I read on the train coming home last night—damn hard to choose between poems facing each other in the first section, "The Body Is Placed, but the Spirit Is Emigrant" or "Rus in Urbe." The precise incongruities of the first offer more immediate pleasures; the second cuts deeper. I'll go with the second:
Rus in Urbe

A conscious
liar, an inasmuch reserver of the truth, perhaps
you too are a hoarder. Perhaps no higher than a worm
spinning your march of raw silk shrouds.

The clock is inflicting more points
than a cruse of solar marigolds. Rain is unveiling
your favorite inventory. Let no one blame you. Into well's
moss-lit emporium, lower your private damages.

Look softly: Neptune's methane wreath
sets no red loose. Finished seconds sculpt the hour a shell
of when it was. Let winnd come up to rusk the cells, rake since demolished
crowns and keels. Impalpable shepherd
you have won: less crowd

more pasture

Sarah will be teaching for a semester at Iowa this spring, I believe. Lucky, lucky Iowans.

Right. Off to New York. Will maybe post once more before the year turns over.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Oh, before I go, warm thanks to Joseph Duemer for picking Cahiers as one of his top-ten-or-eleven blogs.
Stunned this morning by the earthquake news. Tidal waves have long been a nightmare of mine—a recurring dream of running up toward the towering wave and then away again, but never fast enough.... Emily's friend Benji Feldman is vacationing in Thailand and we're worried about him. Benji, if you read this, phone home.

We're off to New Jersey today for my stepmother's world-famous day-after-Xmas dinner, then going to Philadelphia tomorrow to hang out with my dear friends Mr. and Mrs. Noz, plus two MLA job-seekers, Richard and Brian. Glad I'm not doing it this year.

Christmas is always a weird time for me. We celebrated it when I was growing up in a spirit of ecumenical confusion, so I do have the usual associations with early morning excitement, stockings, the tree, etc. But my evolving Jewish consciousness has left me somewhere between indifferent and alienated. Even more significant of course is the fact that my mother died a few days before Christmas when I was 21 years old—so probably the holiday would have been ruined for me even if I wasn't a Jew. I'm often depressed this time of year and it's a relief to have the whole thing over with and Philly to look forward to. We had a nice enough day, though, especially toward the end, when we discovered a genuinely good Chinese restaurant right here in Ithaca with our friends Aaron and Bibliogal. Saw Kinsey afterwards, it was awright.

Not sure how much blogging I'll be doing in the coming week, if any. Hope to see some of you poetry types in or around the MLA conference. I'm looking forward to the gala reading Wednesday night at the Highwire Gallery on Cherry Street: it's a stellar lineup. Also to meeting my new publisher and, with any luck, Mr. Christian Bök himself. Happy solstice, y'all.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Crawling on with Pound's weird apostrophes in Lustra—the many poems in which he addresses his own personified poems. Inching toward being able to make a plausible case for newness as nature (that is, an intellectual can make contact with nature by stripping away the concealments of the bourgeois "they"-world, which can be assisted by identification with the earthy subjectivity of the proletariat) as authenticity, before I turn it around and perform a critique of authenticity insofar as that's one of the values that led Pound so badly astray in his campaigns against usury and Jews in The Cantos. Then authenticity gets raised to the level of self-critique in the Pisans. I thnk that's how it's going to go.

G.C. Waldrep wrote to me last week about D&D; a former player himself, he wondered why we didn't turn to writing fiction given the narrative form of role-playing games. Here's how I responded:
The first answer that occurs to me is that the primary pleasure of RPGs is the sense of wonder, spontaneity, and immersion in a world, and I get more of that feeling from the experience of writing poems than fiction, which has all these encumbrances like plot. Writing a poem gets me closer to the originary experience of reading fantasy novels—the discovery of a dream-landscape where I felt I belonged—than reading such novels does now. Also, there's the sheer fussiness of D&D and its epigones—hit dice, THACO, alignments—and those constraints are perhaps akin to those we impose on ourselves in poems, the better to free the imagination. And the whole game happens in language—it's distinctly un-visual, except in the sense that radio is a visual medium—so maybe it's natural that my attention would be more captivated by the language's powers of transport
rather than any particular story. Also, the collectivity of gaming, which means that no one, not even the DM, has total control over what's going to happen, imitates the processes of the unconscious and surrender of intent that I find intrinsic to the best poetry.

The one thing poetry doesn't do as well as fiction in terms of recreating the D&D experience is probably characters (though tell that to Wordsworth)—though writing a poem from the perspective of a persona, explicit or not, serves a similar masking function. And there is the desire for epicness and scale which is hard to accomplish in a primarily lyric environment. Still, your question haunts me a little. I've sometimes thought that if I did return to writing fiction, it would have to be genre
fiction—a mystery, probably—because I'm not sure I possess the kind of insatiable curiosity about people needed to create a worthy realistic novel (one which does some serious cognitive mapping of a segment of our society) and even experimental novels demand many of the same chops. In a mystery there are conventions to play with and a stockpile of images, character-types, and dialogue to play with and try to make sing. Of course my biggest challenge in fiction has always been plot, I'm just terrible at it. Maybe if the language and characterzation were vivid enough, plot wouldn't matter so much. I've generally been more drawn to American hardboiled mysteries (whose plots are always cliched if not downright nonsensical or semi-irrelevant to the downright theological landscape of sin and glimpsed transcendence typical of such books) than the English drawing-room variety.
Finally, I want to note the good discussions of organic/nonorganic writing going on over at Out of the Woodwork and Cosmopoetica. I'll weigh in when I have the mental luxury of doing so.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

good fellow- watch me undress

That's the subject line of an e-mail from one "Gertrude Inman"—by far the courtliest bit of spam I've ever received. Very busy here at the store but I'm using spare moments to go through the new SPD catalog looking for acquisitions for our shelves. Given what Ron and others have been saying about the chapbook's being the most important unit of publication for contemporary poetry, and figuring it's at least partially true (Lateral Argument, anyone?), I've been wondering if it might be possible to create a chapbook display here at the Bookery. Space is at a premium, but I pride myself on our poetry section and the chapbooks we have just don't get enough attention when they're shelved spine-out like regular books. Anyway, I'm keeping this idea in mind and trying not to shy away from ordering interesting looking chapbooks. My ordering process is necessarily arbitrary—I'd love us to have one of everything in the catalog, but that simply isn't feasible. So I look for books I've heard people talking about, or by familiar names, or which are blurbed by poets I like, or come from publishing houses I respect. Of course this means I can never get fully outside the perimeter of the familiar; I will not discover something which is not in some way already grasped. For that I need to leave the store and maybe my comfort zone too. I'm going to Philadelphia next week to see old friends and take a look at MLA; hopefully there will be a few good bookstores to browse in.

The ice may be broken dissertation-wise: I'm plunging ahead on Pound. The trick I think is to just sit down and write every morning without reading what I wrote the previous day. Revise once there's a tangible chapter in front of you. I've devoted the first chunk to a discussion of two rather slight-seeming poems from Lustra, "Salutation" and "Salutation the Second." From there I plan to discuss Heideggerian authenticity as a lead-in to discussing The Cantos and the changing shape of pastoral imagery in that very "inorganic" poem. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

In Memoriam

Today is the thirteenth anniversary of my mother's death from cancer; she was 49. She loved poetry and in some ways I feel like I'm living out the rest of her life for her—an idea I have extremely mixed feelings about. Here is a poem she wrote for me two months before she died; I find it sweet and bitter to contemplate:
My Son
Now I know
    why I grew you
    why I snipped here
    watered there
    Then forgot you
    and continued the dance.

It was to have someone
    to talk to
    in my old age.
       to smile?

release me
for I have grown old waiting for you
this hair on my shoulders
has long been pinnned up
       turned gray
there have been many partings
She had a terrific sense of humor, too:
I have never tasted
Sweeter lips than yours

O melancholy
O patience on her monument
O jocund day
O Niobe, all tears
O the bones of rivers
O tempora, mores
O life!
Oh shit.
Safe travels, Mom.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Okay, very quickly, since Stuart asked: we've got a little campaign rolling here in Ithaca. Aaron created a half-elf magic-user/thief and his neighbor Adam created a dwarf cleric. They went (separately, as it happened) on the same mission: to go into the crypt of a recently deceased noble in the city of Cymric (the northernmost port of an as-yet unnamed empire) and retrieve an object on his body. Since they went separately and unaware of each other's existence they very nearly killed each other when they first met. Aaron's thief had to take out a nasty ghoul-rat on the way down the stairs, while Adam's dwarf had a pretty good skirmish with a Ray Harryhausen-style animated skeleton. Now they're both trapped in this tomb--somebody took away the rock that Aaron's thief was using to keep the door from closing. We'll see how they get out of this predicament—if they get out of it—when we reconvene on Christmas Eve eve.

I may have to start a separate D&D blog if this keeps up.
Henry intervenes in my musings re: Pound, pastoral, Heidegger. I find I want to resist his conflation of pastoral in the classical sense (a city person's poem about shepherds) with its religious sense (as in the pastor of a "flock"). It's too Christian for my taste, and one of the things that interests me about classical pastoral is its pagan or even secular conception of the Golden Age. Christians have insisted on reading Christ into Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, but it seems clear to me that the speaker in that poem is imagining a child whose intervention into history will not require or carry the force of divine revelation (not that I don't also have problems with the military means he envisions the grown child using to create the new Golden Age). It's a very earthly paradise that Virgil imagines the hero-child presiding over. But then I went back to Heidegger and his phrase about the poet being the "shepherd of Being." Now Heidegger's tautological language and generally apolitical position (a position he was driven to after 1945, which is roughly when he began talking like this) tend to drive out notions of the social, so I imagine a solitary shepherd alone in the clearing with "Being." But we only per/re-ceive Being through a particular world, which is always a social and historical creation—the "frame" or consensual hallucination called "reality." Poets "shepherd" Being and the earth (the ground of Being and of all worlds, never perceivable directly) through their language which "attends" (in the old senses of "waiting on" and also "listening to") Being rather than intervening into Being in the name of particular interests. (An aside: When the Bush administration scorns "the reality-based community" they are bragging about their ability to intervene, not least through their meretricious use of language, into Being and so to change the world of our perecptions, though this intervention takes the form of a violation. That's why we liberals find it harder and harder to recognize the world that the American media presents to us; the Bushies have leveled it, black-and-whited it.) The poet's aestheticist position (disinterest) is what enables shepherding. But the relationship between this manner of shepherding and the shepherding of a flock is difficult to discern—hunkering down with Being between the departure and return of the gods is not the same thing as actively leading a group toward such a return. Heidegger's shepherding "in a destitute time" can look a lot like Adorno's "hibernation" in the face of the decay of the bourgeois subject and the rise of mass culture.

Also, the versions of pastoral that I've been contemplating do not involve a narrative of returning to the promised land through the desert; in fact, they do not involve narrative at all. Arcadia is a beautiful image trespassed upon and defined by its bordering wilderness (both hostile nature & the darkness of the unconscious) on one side and civilization (capitalism & the libidinal repression it demands) on the other. It is a wholly synchronous space; the diachronies of narrative and history are alien to it and threaten its precarious existence in the imagination. Arcadia is a dream of a wholly aestheticized and limited socius, in which social recognition (who is the better poet) is the only good competed for and the exploitation of nature, one's fellows, and oneself is unknown. The pastoral mindset is one of Gelassenheit, letting-be, precisely because one can afford it (this is the high privilege of pastoral that will require some further interrogation by me—Ben Friedlander explores this idea vis-a-vis the work of Lisa Robertson here). The curious thing about Pound is that for me his most pastoral moment comes in the Pisan Cantos, where so far from being privileged he is at his lowest point. The pastoral disinterest with which he regards nature there stems from a sense of his privileges having come to an end; he is "a man on whom the sun has gone down." His is the anti-pastoral pastoral of Lear, frolicing in the flowers after his power has been utterly wrest away. Come to think of it, this is the only kind of pastoral I'm really interested in: the pastoral of the powerless and homeless (though one may return to power, hopefully wiser, after one's sojourn in Arcadia, as the Duke does in As You Like It). The other version of pastoral in Pound—his agrarianism, the Monte dei Paschi, etc.—is very much the pastoral of privilege and authority, legislated from his (mostly imaginary) perch behind Mussolini's ear. So it appears I'll have to investigate more closely the "destitution" required for this pastoral, and how it is one comes to renounce one's own interest at least temporarily. As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, the urban pastoral of the NY School and the Abstract Expressionists strikes me as stemming from the desire for a beautiful world in the face of political repression on the micro and macro scale. The flight from representation is the flight from a world one has no power to change by such representation, toward a world of pure perception: color, mass, form. The pathos of their Arcadia comes from their inability to totally exclude either the macro narratives of history or the micro narratives of their own inevitably diachronic lives (et in Arcadia ego), their unhappy love affairs (the pastoral topic par excellence), and the myth of heroic suffering. But poetic shepherding also happens in the work of Frank O'Hara (for example), where fragments of his life and locus are allowed to exist immanently in constellation with each other, as his language finds them.

Gone far astray from Henry's comments, which are astute—and I think his reading of Pound would be a profitable one. But the store's getting too busy for further speculations just now. Next post will probably be about D&D anyways.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Auberginian fruits are flowering, folks. I reprint the following letter with its author's permission:
Dear Mr. Corey,

Just yesterday the booklet you kindly sent me arrived on my desk, and I must
say it occasioned a real chuckle! Indeed, I shall have to be much more
careful about the odd aside.

There are some amusing poems in your collection--to say nothing of the fact
that its cover is the color of a Japanese eggplant, not an aubergine. It's
all been done with a great deal of wit and warmth.

I've taken the liberty of sending the copy to Dorothea Tanning herself,
figuring that she will also enjoy it all.

Every good wish for the new year--

J. D. McClatchy
Rather sporting of him, I'd say. It would be a real coup to hear from Dorothea Tanning herself about all this.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Utterly bogged down. "Pastoral" is so flexible an instrument that I cannot settle on a single approach to it, any more than I can decide what the most meaningful way to apply it to Pound is—or more to the point, why. Now I'm yawing back toward my original fascination with the language of rural simplicity that pops up in Heidegger: the notion of the "clearing" in which worldness is disclosed is the most alluring (it connects ineluctably in my mind with Robert Duncan's meadow of first permission) but of course it's also immediately problematized by what Heidegger rejects in his implausible attempt to allly himself with the Black Forest farmer: idle chatter, ambiguity, curiosity—the (rootless, cosmopolitan) signifiers of "inauthenticity." These might be read as the attributes that the "complex man" tries to discard as he tries on the virtues of the "simple man" "in touch with Nature" that Empson describes as the most basic pastoral maneuver. Now, someone like Walter Benjamin or Ernst Bloch would point us toward the redemptive possibilities inherent in the inauthentic, whose attributes resemble those of the commodity society. But is it so easy to discard the longing for authenticity, even if one accepts the notion that Heidegger did not intend "inauthenticity" to be pejorative? Although Heidegger insists on the distinction between Dasein and any particular subject, authenticity seems to be about a wish to be firmly rooted in one's subjectivity, to participate completely in one's "thrownness" into a given class. The notion of the proletariat as universal subject of history can be read as a more acutely historicized version of authenticity, whereby we see that class struggle has produced the authentic subject that the intellectual may ally himself with but can never actually be. Heidegger's notion that rigorous Denken (a thinking of one's own particular Being-toward-death) can result in authentic being for the individual subject has to be rejected as bourgeois illusion by a Marxist. But the expression of desire for authenticity continues to resonate. Pound's weird subject position shows this longing in him: his poems are never addressed toward a mass audience and in fact he insults such audiences every chance he gets. Instead his poetry imagines a readership of select individuals who have achieved something like authenticity through rigorous study—though on close examination what distinguishes the Poundian "expert" is not a learned expertise but the content of his character. So expertise and authenticity are tautologically the same for Pound, and yet the gap of their obvious difference is a source of anxiety for him. It takes his imprisonment at Pisa with people who are differently (if no less problematically) authentic—his fellow prisoners, all poor, black, and illiterate—for him to discover if not his own authenticity at least some of what was inauthentic about his previous Fascist position. Authenticity is achieved, or tended toward, through suffering. The discovery of the world in its worlding—the pastoral moment of discovering a landscape of self-sufficient figures that include oneself—is a kind of ascesis that gets dialectically sublated into pleasure and "just enough" of goods (including social goods, the currency of acknowledgment, Being-with without the "they" [das Man]). Then I could procede by examining how pastoral authenticity gets picked up and dropped again by poets after Pound, whose political commitments might lead them toward more and more acute criticisms of authenticity as a mode (no one makes more fun of the yearning for authenticity than Ashbery, for example) but can only abandon it by transforming monadic authenticity into collectivity—by attempting to realize themselves as part of a class.

Well gee, that sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Why can't I transmute that into an actual argument using poems as examples? Speculation is so much more fun than argument, but argue I must if I want those letters after my name. Sigh.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The ordinarily calm and salon-like Bookery has been frenetic this evening as people do their holiday shopping. Which is okay, because all the energy I'm expending makes me feel like less of a loser for accomplishing so little with my dissertation today. I think I wrote a single footnote.

The D&D thing is getting out of hand. I've bid for three items on eBay and won two of them--a 1977 Monster Manual just like the one I used to own, Gary Gygax's World of Greyhawk supplement, and I'm waiting to see what will happen with another supplement based on the writings of Fritz Leiber, City of Lankhmar. Stop me before I bid again. The thing is, I have all I need to play the game, and unlike the old days (like when I was 14) there are no new 1st edition AD&D supplements for me to be hankering after. But nostalgia is its own danger here—the desire to own everything I used to own, to recapture the past, is a powerful one. As I've suggested before, playing RPGs gave me my first taste of solidarity with an intensely creative minority that was scorned or simply ignored by the larger world—a minority that put a high value on humor, adventure, wonder, and a kind of honor. There's more continuity in my character than I might have guessed. Of course there's a big difference between, say, Language poetry and dungeon delving. Right? Isn't there? Maybe not. Certainly I was early to acquire a taste for arcane rules and systems that violated common sense (check out the "Pummeling" tables in the old Dungeon Masters Guide for a fine example of this) in the name of accurately reproducing the feeling we all got from reading Lord of the Rings the first time. And the rules can become a fetish that override the goals of storytelling, playing a character, and socializing ("demented and sad, but social."). I spent hours in the dormroom of my college gamemaster discussing the intricacies of ballistics and the range of gauss weapons in the game he designed and seemed to spend absolutely all of his time thinking about or playing. In spite of this, the game he created for us was truly epic: the stakes in his world seemed much higher than anything college had to offer. In fact, I very nearly flunked out my sophomore year. And of course it was more real, because my entire social world revolved around the game: I'm still dear friends with many of the other players (including noted political commentator upyernoz). I even wrote a term paper about the group's dynamics and secret language for a folklore seminar, and got an A for it too.

This is the kind of confession that, more elegantly shaped, might have gotten me into the Gamers anthology. Perhaps Shanna will do a sequel for those of us whose hearts belong to pen & paper, funny-looking dice, and too much Mountain Dew, however many computer games we may play, or highfalutin' books we may write.

Monday, December 13, 2004


And he was a son, wasn't he, firstborn, given to anchoring, to rooting a man, the father. And he had a mother did he not who was the water roots need unrooted in herself. Straw spun toward goal in the apple light—he is fruit and seed between branch and earth. They sky suffers the ground to imitate it.


All light like luck comes from elsewhere, shaped or sacrificed or spilled among shadows that need it, leaves, to breathe. By your leave I am your son. By my caul I accede to sonhood's crippling rays. Sit down and taste this meat, bare forked from the soil you sprang from. A test of sibilance, serpent to say mine.


Dream of earth in town: all brown, the streets teeming with UPS men. Everyone tracks a package into and out of doors. All strangers exchanging gifts they'll never open for others correctly wrapped and labeled. I exchange a small box for a big box, the big box for a bigger box. When the time is right I find an alley to set the box on its end in. I scan the barcode and step inside.


Hair long as a woman's, my mother, but curled. An electric field's fluid inward. She danced round a cup of coffee, eyes down. Smoke drifted from the wrists of her coat like ruffs. And what are you to me, she sang, and what are you to me. Salted away beneath the table to hear her toes tap the top. And what are you to me, my son, and what are you to me.


A sandwich stops this singing. All afternoon he watched atoms get stuck on the window like flies. Everyday the sun paints his house with another layer of thinnest light. The world becomes more visible, less accessible. Coming and going not going, wenting. As heat comes and goes with the forced air gone. The urge to count syllables. To count pairs of headlights catching the headboard, head-on collision with lights from the ear.


To play a part in the pageant bespeakes a bespoke inheritance: her hair, his lips. Her bones, his heat. Her mask, his mask upside-down. Her refraining kiss, his tennis strokes. A dry moistening of wet parchment, papier-macheing the skull. Which if made was well-made to contain and interact. Hope's a bone home balancing on top of a parade float and an arm to wave its way. Paddling to spare the creek's child.


Given: a present. A perspective-glass. Toward the son or daughter to be disclosed later. Behind a shadow getting longer: shadow of the coast, shadow of a sea. A singularity fixing to be solved by the discovery of time like parts per million of gold in a cubic mile of sea. You will be me, will to be yours, a went won't will when disclose by an advocate. My end.


Some bark for that tree. Some lunge for the falling apple. Some wait for inspiration. The pathos of this is passing.


His egg is a jail I sprang.

Dissertation stuckness + cold & rainy weekend = high geekery. Dug my old, would-be-worth-something-if-they-were-in-better-shape first edition AD&D books & bag o' dice out of the closet and started a little adventure with another brave poet. Gee that's fun. There's some powerful nostalgia value to using the old, old Gygax system, but it's the thrill of making up a story live on the spot with others that really gets me. In some ways, I think I've sought the same solidarity with fellow poets that I used to feel with members of the various gaming groups I've belonged to over the years. We could use a few more brave adventurers, though. If you're in the Ithaca area and you're in the mood for some old-school AD&D, drop me a line.

Only a few Aubergines left unspoken for!

Friday, December 10, 2004

"Nothing much to say when you're high above the mucky-muck..."

Yesterday was Emily's birthday and it rocked. Today we're being mellow and doing some housecleaning while I ponder whether Pound should share the first chapter of my diss with Williams. I need to go read The Wedge alongside The Pisan Cantos and see what they have to say to each other about pastoral and autonomy—this is part of my desire to produce a more historical argument than I had previously contemplated. Useful to my thinking lately have been Bourdieu's Rules of Art, Libby Rifkin's Career Moves: Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Berrigan, and the American Avant-Garde" (based on a dissertation she wrote here at Cornell), and Bob Perelman's The Trouble with Genius.

Meanwhile, copies of Aubergine are distributing themselves everywhere like giant purple zeppelins.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Little packets of purple goodness are winging their way to Auberginians across this great land of ours. And I have not neglected Mr. J.D. McClatchy and Ms. Jane Kramer, the latter care of The New Yorker.


Tuesday, December 07, 2004

What's purple on the outside and white and black on the inside? It's The Aubergine Anthology! I've e-mailed all the contributors whose mailing addresses I don't have, but there are two folks who are AWOL: Alan DeNiro and Tim Yu. Alan, I can't find an e-mail address for you on your webpages; Tim, I only have your old Stanford address. As for the rest of you, it's not too late to e-mail me and learn where to send $3 to snag one of just 50 copies (more than half of which are already earmarked for contributors) before they're all gone.

Brennen Wysong, a onetime Cornell fiction MFA who's now testing the waters of experimental poetry, has made a sharp comment on the organic/inorganic thing over at his blog.

Cold. Dark. Rainy. Ithaca.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Aubergine went to the printer this morning. Contributors will have copies in their hot little hands in plenty of time for the holidays. If you'd like to own a piece of literary history—only 50 copies to be printed!—send me an e-mail and I'll tell you where to send the three bucks.

David Leftwich of Eclectic Refrigerator, chimes in on the organic vs. inorganic question and gives me a chance to clarify a few things. Obviously there is nothing more or less organic, or more or less artificial, than a Richard Wilbur or Keats poem vis-a-vis a poem by Charles Bernstein. My understanding of Bürger is that "organic" primarily refers not to the degree of artificiality of a work, but to the fact that the work's elements refer primarily to itself and only secondarily to exterior contexts (whether those be the facts of its production or the work's subject matter). The nonorganic works elements retain some of their independence—which does not mean, I think, that these elements could necessarily stand on their own as artworks, only that they primarily refer to some external reality (again, the facts of production or subject matter) and only secondarily do they make a contribution to the integrity of the artwork they belong to. One thing this shows is that organic-nonorganic is more of a continuum than a dichotomy; if Bruce Andrews represents extreme nonorganicity and Robert Pinsky extreme organicity (a discursive poem such as he likes to write requires that every piece serve the overall argument), then I would put someone like Rae Armantrout to Andrews' right and someone like the later Kenneth Koch (of New Addresses, say) a fair bit to Pinsky's left.

But David has brought up a difficulty with the use of language like organic/nonorganic, and I wish I could see Bürger's text in German to know exactly what words he was using. Since "organic" does suggest the natural, I imagine Bürger means that to refer not to such an artworks' actually being more natural, but only to such a work's attempt to simulate harmony between the human being and nature—again, "The man-made organic work of art that pretends to be like nature projects an image of the reconciliation of man and nature" (78). I suppose it is largely through the force of tradition that patently artificial forms like the sonnet can come to appear (have a semblance, Schein) "natural." Also, the attitude of the author has a lot to do with it, I think: the ethos of making the poem look easy, effortless, never letting them see you sweat—the labor of concealing labor—is necessary to the organic poem, while the nonorganic poem writer must "show their work." So intent is a question, as perhaps is reception; to your average high school student a Shakespeare sonnet must look very nonorganic indeed. I need to think some more about this, because it again raises the gap between intention and work, into which questions of sociality and the cultural field tend to rush.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Speaking of Peter Bürger, he offers two useful general categories which might help untangle what Chris might call the difficulty vs. impossibility question. The serious vs. unserious dichotomy is beginning to seem more flawed to me now that I'm reading Bourdieu; according to him, "seriousness" primarily represents one's investment in a given social game. So my irritation with the "unserious" poets may simply be based on the fact that they're invested in a different game than I am, and their game is the one that most people recognize as "poetry." Maybe I should just say that I'm interested in "advanced" poetry, as some Germans are not afraid to call it. Or maybe we should look to another general dichotomy, Bürger's notion of the "organic" versus the "nonorganic" artwork. While avant-garde movements are characterized by wanting to reintegrate art into life, their works, according to Bürger, are formally recognizable by their use of fragmentation and montage. Organic or symbolist works are recognizable by the unity of the parts with the whole: each part is subordinated to that wholeness and is only comprehensible through/in it. The notion of art being a mirror to nature is one of the premises of organic art, which might also be the source of the "aura" Benjamin locates in artworks prior to our age of mechanical reproduction. By contrast, in the nonorganic artwork the parts do not form a unity: it is an assemblage of pieces between which cracks are visible, and the pieces have some degree of independence from the unity of the total work. The more minimal (or the less intrusive) the structure of the whole is, the more independence the parts have, and the "harder" the poem is likely to be—the Andrews poem Chris quotes is a good example of this. But they never achieve total independence, or fall into chaos; much of the language of Andrews' poem is recognizable as the detritus of pop culture mixed with a little theory, and a savage humor acts as the gel in which the individual pieces float. What Andrews hopes to achieve, I think, is expressed in this sentence of Bürger's: "In the avant-gardiste work, the individual sign does not refer primarily to the work as a whole but to reality" (90). In organic poems, each moment of the text refers you back to the poem, no matter what its actual content: "In the organic work of art, the political and moral contents the author wishes to express are necessarily subordinated to the organicity of the whole. This emans that whether the author wants to or not, they become parts of the whole, to whose constitution they contribute" (89). This, for me, explains the failure of most political or identity-based poems with conventional forms. But when I read Andrews, or Silliman or Watten, I find myself constantly referred back to the conditions of the text's production: the overlapping networks of cultural, political, and commercial speech that constituted its moment. Such a poem, even a "monstrous" one like Andrews', addresses the present with an urgency that I don't find in organic poems, which however forceful are always already enclosed in a perfect past. (As Homestar put it this week, "I say there, monstrosity! Do you know the times?")

So I think we're starting to answer the immediate question raised by the nonorganic text: how to read it? Bürger provides some answers. Speaking of the automatic writing of the surrealists, he writes, "It is true that at the surface level, automatic texts are characterized by a destruction of coherence. But an interpretation that does not confine itself to grasping logical connections but examines the procedures by which the text was composed can certainly discover a relatively consistent meaning in them" (79). This is another way of saying that "progress" in art has generally tended toward greater independence of means—for example, in action painting the paint is no longer primarily a means toward representation but is itself the star of the show. Bürger sees this happening at least as early as the 17th century: "It is true that Baroque art makes an extraordinary impression, but its connection with the religious subject has become relatively loose. This art does not derive its principal effect from the sujet but from the abundance of colors and forms" (41). Which is not to say that you can really separate, say, the beautiful forms audible in Bach's St. Matthew Passion from the subject of the Gospel story; but the fact that Jews like Zukofsky and myself can let ourselves be overwhelmed by this work of art might have something to do with the relative independence of its means (the spectacular effect of the double chorus, for instance) from the end of celebrating Christ. "The avant-gardiste work does not negate unity as such (even if the Dadists had such intentions) but a specific kind of unity, the relationship between part and whole that characterizes the organic work of art" (56). (The tricky thing here is that Bürger seems to intend organic/nonorganic as formal categories, while the avant-garde is very much a historical category that he at least has relegated to the past. Which means it doesn't make a lot of sense to call Bach avant-garde, but it might make sense to say that the general tendencies of post-avant writing are baroque.) Anyway, you can see how this would feed into my desire to see poetry become a field in which all recipients are also producers, since the act of reading such works directs you not to some organic unity ("this is a poem about spring," "this is a poem about the war") but to the elements that still have traces of their multitudinous contexts imprinted upon them (this is the fullest expression I know of of Pound's logopoeia, the dance of the intellect among words). The pleasure of this poetry comes from feeling these disparate contexts rub up against each other in a unity not guaranteed by the poet's intention, a received tradition, or the subject matter (all facts transcendental to the text) but by the fact of the poem (the agreement "this is a poem" conferred by the contexts of reception: a given writer, a given magazine, a given reading space, etc.) or by the fact of the person (this position is best expressed in a recent post by Nick Piombino).

Bürger's most provocative conclusion is that because the avant-garde failed in its historical mission (nothing less than utopia), the organic and nonorganic artworks are equally (in)valid for the present (or at least the late seventies, when Bürger's book was first published in Germany). The organic artwork is inadequate because it offers a false reconciliation—"The man-made organic work of art that pretends to be like nature projects an image of the reconciliation of man and nature" (78)—by seeking "to make unrecognizable the fact that is has been made" (72). The avant-garde artwork is inadequate because it has not achieved the avant-garde intention (the gap between work and intention is one I need to explore more to understand) of destroying the ghetto art is normally consigned to and so destroying the inhuman dichotomy "perfection of the life or of the work." A functional post-avant-garde would learn from the example of Brecht, who sought not to destroy the institution of art but to change it into "a new theater whose central category is fun" (89). If I understand this unfortunately unelaborated idea of Bürger's correctly, I think a number of Language and post-Language poets have grasped the idea of "fun" in a Brechtian way: they turn the poem into a three-ring circus where each ring of activity remains distinct and yet overlapping, where your attention is free to shift to the clowns on the left or the tightrope walker up above, yet there is still a kind of gestalt, "circusness."

Now I will admit that I take more pleasure from nonorganic texts whose individual components give me sensuous, lyrical enjoyment—I prefer Cirque de Soleil to Ringling Bros. But I'm interested in at least trying to experience any text that in some way foregrounds its artifice and involves or implicates me in meaning-production. And I'm much quicker to reject bad or even good organic work than I am nonorganic writing because I feel like its form is a lie that won't admit it's lying. (I'm speaking of modern and contemporary writing, of course; I can love Keats without making any claims for his inorganicity.) I'm not entirely willing to give up on the avant-garde intention; at the very least, I'm interested in writers or writing who do call our attention to the institutions of art and canonicity; that's what makes reading Bourdieu so fascinating and uncomfortable, because he really focuses your attention on art as cultural economy. Also, Bürger has given me another perspective on what I might mean by "avant-garde pastoral": what would an inorganic pastoral look like? Given how often pastoral is condemned or dismissed for its artifice, one could make a case for its having become a fundamentally nonorganic mode: a representation of reconciliation between man and nature that you can't actually believe in. It might then function to keep the wish for such reconciliation alive, providing an image of beauty and comfort that is also a palpably "false surmise" which does not therefore compensate for your dissatisfaction, but heightens it. Not such an inconsiderable feat when you consider the pressures capitalism puts on us to give up on such reconciliation (most baldly by consuming and destroying natural resources, most intimately by insisting we accept the false reconciliations and compensations offered by consumer culture).

That's another log on the fire. Now, lunch.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Been busy with the dissertation—busy dissing. Now that I've more or less sorted out what I want to say about pastoral, I find myself working on the question of what exactly we mean when we say "avant-garde." Peter Büurger has the strictest definition, which not only requires avant-gardistes to intend to destory the institution of art so as to reintegrate artmaking into the praxis of daily life, but he also insists that it is an entirely historical term for a failed movement which has come and gone. Most others seem to use the term more casually, as if its meaning were self-evident—which is also how most people use the word "pastoral." One question I'm wrestling with is that of tradition and lineage: if I want to tell the story of pastoral and the avant-garde (the 20th century American poetry avant-gardes, to be more precise), I have to focus on movements, circles, schools, and palpable influences. That might end up leaving a figure as interesting to me as Ronald Johnson out in the cold. Certainly he follows in the Pound-Williams tradition, but what influence did he have? He's sui generis, and the problem with lineage/tradition narratives is that they leave the truly unique poets out in the cold. Of course one could argue that Johnson is starting to have an influence now, and I am increasingly interested in the possibilities poets of his generation offer to those of us with the experimental itch who nonetheless do not want to join the nth generation of the New York School or the Language poets (these two are persistently cited as the most pervasive and influential avant-gardes of the postwar period—the multi-generational nature of the NY School giving it more staying power than the other New Americans: the Beats, Duncan & Spicer et al, Black Mountain, etc.). Because pastoral is a representation of happinesss and a refuge for beauty, I think it might be important to younger poets like myself who are invested in the critical negativity of the Language school but who are also attracted to Personism and the fostering of relationship within the space of poetry. It probably comes down to the attitude toward subjectivity. If Language poets are skeptical of bourgeois subjectivity and the I-cry, Personists yet cling to an I and its experience—though the amount of "noise" they permit into their poetry suggests a corresponding awareness of interpolation and skepticism on the order of "we know she's not a chickenn, but we need the eggs." The pastoral meeting place retains significance for the Language poets (who did, after all, call their great anthology In the American Tree) as a site where collectivities can assemble or be generated—the tree of communicativity that any Eve with a high tolerance for theoretical discourse can take the fruit from. That's my half-formed idea, anyway. It's all increasingly interesting and increasingly unmanageable, at least insofar as I'd been thinking of writing something with the usual single-author oriented chapters. At what point is it best to make the compromise between the book in your head and the book on paper that will inevitably be less than ideal? Do I somehow do that in advance or during the process of writing, or is it only after it's done that that moment can arrive?

Still in my PJs, if you can believe it. To work.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

My Politics

I can only describe them: the glowing numerals embedded in the pitchscape. No: I can only describe my reactions to the numerals. What colors were there? There was depleted uranium; also, cadmium blue to mark the graves in my brain. From the heights a valley and a lake that does not reflect. The human reflects, but not the perfect human. The perfect human sits down to banquet in squalor. He does a little dance with his hands. I see none of this.

Now I will imagine putting words in an envelope and sending them toward a place of use. Is that performative? Now I am imagining a red phone. Now a human twists on the ground. He's dead now, the lens buries him.

A little song between the teeth like the tip of Jordan's tongue. Place the person where I will recognize him, back to me, the face an unimaginable forward. I can only describe my reaction to the repetition. Oh. Oh again. Is it sin or symptom to be late? It is a mandate to be proud of, to go on with. When I began writing I felt it should go on. So we do.

Behold the flash of lettering, yet you must not see my face. Take these tears and imitate them without looking. Take this swallowed tongue and taste with it. There aren't enough words for surveillance. Or strawberries in a diplomat's bowl. I can only explain the obvious, which doesn't need me, which I need. The difference between tobacco smoke and air power. Summary tread of boots on the ground, where the humans are.

The lamp twists in the air like a green thought shot. The sun shows it to you. I am seated at a table eating and eyes burn the back of my head. This is noir; I'm the star, steadfast as art. That will not say thou, that takes a bow.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

After a long hiatus, Chris of Cosmopoetica has returned to blogging; he's going poem by poem through Best American Poetry 2004 and doesn't seem to be enjoying it much. Why he feels compelled to read an anthology he finds so unrewarding is beyond me. He's also engaged the "difficulty" conversation and raised some valid questions. The most urgent point I'd like to refute is Chris' image of me as some kind of humorless dogmatist (he seemed to have a similar reaction to my HCE interview). Chris, you seem to be reading me a bit selectively. I do believe that poetry has a peculiar power to access some kind of collective unconscious by opening up the writer/reader's singular unconscious through/in language and is therefore worthy of reverence. But that doesn't mean I don't like funny poems! Didn't you read the Caroline Knox poem I posted? I see the serious/non-serious dichotomy (which is of course simplistic, like all dichotomies) not being so much about serious/funny as about being ambitious, rigorous, vigorous, and reverent toward the human potential in poetry versus a writing that is only interested in comforting and being comfortable (which almost always seems to mean being anti-intellectual). And "rigor" doesn't mean "humorless" either, because the rigor should apply to the poet's overall project, not to every individual poem. (Frank O'Hara is a poet of rigor.) Rigor manifests in many ways: it can be primarily formal (I include techniques associated with Oulipo, the New Sentence, etc. in this category), it can be a shaping source of energy akin to genre (satire, for example, the energy of ridicule roused against what the writer finds contemptible), it can be a form of endurance detectable only from the poet's larger life-context (simple poems written by a poet under a repressive or violent regime, for example). Slackness, too, has many forms: shapeless free verse, unmotivated formalism, narrow tastes in reading, a ready acceptance of authority. A slack poet can be clever, a rigorous poet can be funny, and most everybody writes a good or bad poem now and then if they stick with it long enough. I'm biased toward writing that seems to come from a larger project into which some degree of conscious thought has been put, and I'll cut individual dull poems a lot of slack if I think they're part of a larger, more interesting project. (This is why I continue to esteem most of the writers Chris has addressed in his BAP review, though I agree some of the poems are not that interesting—an anthology rarely does justice to precisely this most interesting dimension of writing.)

The other point I want to take up is the "major fallacy of generalization from one’s particular perspective to the whole" that Chris accuses me of. He argues that opera and other arts continue because some people in the audience do feel called to participate in it: true enough. But there is no art I know of that has a lower barrier of participation than poetry: all you need is paper, a pencil, and a native language. So I do think there is something more universal about poetry. And while it is certainly a logical fallacy for me to attribute my perspective to a whole, I don't claim to do that: I only claim that something I've thought and felt is likely to be recognized by others (not ALL others). Furthermore, that perspective is not just somehow ejected onto the page where it flops around distastefully: it emerges from and through my experience, which includes my literary experience, and assumes a form that most would recognize as poetic. Of course poetry is a craft that has to be learned and practiced if you want to achieve the deepest and most subtle effects you're capable of. (Which can be humorous effects! I feel like I constantly have to be on my guard now against being seen as too "serious.") But craft alone isn't enough; individual details of craft are always interesting, but at some point you want to know it well enough to be able to transform it from an ends into a means toward some kind of vision. It's like that scene in Waiting for Guffman where Lloyd the music director is telling Corky St. Claire, "I want them to really learn the music, so they can forget about it," and Corky replies, "Well, they've already forgotten it!" If Lloyd equals craft and Corky equals vision, we need to harmonize them somehow—or rather, Lloyd needs to be sublated by Corky. (There's a thought.)

Expression preceding thought might make more sense to Chris if I emphasize that they are both modes of cognition. By "expression" I mean an aesthetic way of thinking, in which you judge words and other linguistic elements primarily by their appeal to the senses (sound mostly, but also their appearance and, to a lesser degree, the images they generate) and by your mostly unconscious sense of that word or phrase's context and/or history (it could be an allusion to another poem, or a deployment of language from another specialized field like medicine, or a fragment of pop culture, or the remark of someone famous or unfamous). By "thought" I mean the more ordinary cognition that does its level best to use language in a neutral way, as a means toward communication. Both forms of writing will carry unconscious messages, bits of history, etc., but the poet is open toward that unconscious in a way the communicator is not.

Okay, I really have to get my day started now.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Poetry is in the air at the turn of the year: first the New York Times Book Review, now the online center-left magazine Slate is devoting its day, perhaps its whole week, to poetry. Today already we have three articles: James Longenbach on Richard Wilbur, Dan Chiasson on Anne Winters, and Adam Kirsch on Derek Walcott. Despite the inclusion of Winters the tone of the thing seems very male to me: thin-lipped judges arranging the hierarchies just so. The Chiasson piece is the best, if only because it points me toward a poet I'm not very much familiar with and because I too am interested in Winters' combination of intricate music with (according to Chiasson) doctrinaire Marxism. The possibility that her poetic might actually derive from a dialectical approach to Winters' own position as observer does not seem to have occurred to him. All three poets chosen have a grand, high lyric style to them—I'm actually rather fond of that style, but to devote the whole "issue" to that kind of poetry begins to feel stifling. The piece on Wilbur is another attempt to rescue his reputation from the New Formalists for whom he was their chosen mascot back in the eighties; of course he's a more interesting poet than that, and "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World" is one of the great anthology pieces, genuinely beautiful. I've admired Wilbur and recognize something of myself in his formal impulse and his desire to find the beautiful (Kirsch actually writes rather well about Wilbur as praise poet in this New Yorker article), but he's not a poet of much use to me at the present time. Kirsch's Walcott article seems like a puff piece: Walcott is a very great poet who I've read with tremendous enjoyment (I like especialy his early stuff up to "The Schooner Flight" in the Collected Poems, 1948-1984), but what I've seen of The Prodigal seems slack and sentimental, not at all the Yeatsian surge Kirsch wants to see. It's good to see poetry getting some attention in a mainstream publication, but the kind of attention offered doesn't seem likely to excite Common Readers. Maybe as the week goes on they'll talk about some poets under 40; or better yet, find someone under 40 to write about some poets. (But the only critic who does this who has any mainstream cred that I'm aware of is Steve Burt, who's writing as fast as he can.)

Jeffrey Bahr over at Whimsy Speaks has done something of a post-mortem on what he's dubbed the "difficulty" conversation that was going on last week. I was struck by a paragraph that he wrote in his comments section:
There seems to be a whole lot of recent work in one of two camps: poetry that takes itself too seriously, and poetry that doesn't take itself seriously enough. The first class has a long history, of course. The second category is chock-a-block with poems consisting of line after line of ironical observation. Either can make for difficult reading, and it's particularly confusing when members of the former persuasion laud members of the latter -- say, when Ramke blurbs for Rohrer.
This is a wonderfully simple take that, rephrased, gets to the heart of what gets me so itchy about the so-called "popular poets" like Collins and Olds who have been my collective straw man. That is, I think such poets—particularly Collins—fall into the "don't take poetry seriously enough" camp. They may take their subject matter seriously, or THEMSELVES seriously (never an attractive choice), but they don't take POETRY seriously. Every line I've read by Collins (who's all about "ironical observation," after all) seemed calculated to diminish poetry as an art, to make it your easygoing buddy that would join you in mooning everything associated with High Seriousness and the sublime. At best, such poets use poetry to assume the privilege of a bardic position without actually permitting language to use them, without becoming inspired in Plato's sense. Bahr seems to worry a little more about those who take poetry too seriously, arguing that poetry is fundamentally about entertainment and not in itself important when compared to "saving lives or raising children." Well, this is kind of a dead-end argument, isn't it? Nothing in the aesthetic realm has any practical use, by definition—poetry doesn't get your shoelaces safely tied, let alone raise children. Nonetheless we talk about "needing" poetry and even "dying for lack of what is found there"—if you accept that human beings have non-material needs without which life seems not worth living, then poetry surely attempts to satisfy those needs. I have no wish to make poetry into a religion, but I do get some of that sense of participation that I associate with the religious from reading and writing poetry—participation in a collective effort toward the greater coherency of human energy, the larger extension of the franchise of personhood. (I'm going to have to spend some more time with Grossman and write about it here; but every time I sit down with The Sighted Singer [I just typed "The Sighted Signer"] I simply end up wanting to quote the whole thing.) So I'm not sure it's possible for us to take poetry too seriously, except insofar as we might come to neglect political and ethical obligations in favor of feeding our private muses. For what it's worth, I happen to think Matt Rohrer takes poetry very seriously, just not himself or poetry-as-institution. Frank O'Hara took poetry seriously too.
Nice trip to Chicago. Emily's mother and my extended family got on, as I hoped and expected, like a house afire. We escaped the suburbs twice, once to the Art Institute (where, walking backward, I noticed for the first time how Rothko quotes Monet's haystack paintings) and once to Wicker Park, where I visited Myopic Books for the second time and picked up Claudia Rankine's wrenching Don't Let Me Be Lonely and Caroline Knox's delightful first book, The House Party. I think I've talked about Knox here before, but in the context of last week's conversation I now see her as a kind of bridge figure between Tate and Ashbery—in fact this book has a blurb by Tate on its back cover. There's a lot of Tate-ian whimsy to her writing and a great deal of that surrealist frisson that his best poems manage; there's also a whiff of James Merrill's ironic take on WASP manners and privileges. But I find her language much more intense in its playfulness than Tate's, and more esoteric in its range of reference. She's capable of what can seem like a synthesis of Tate's American surrealism, Ashbery's Moebius narratives, and O'Hara's high-cultural insouciance, as in the delightful and strange "Hittites":

Hittites rode by on contemporary village machines
I don't speak Hittite; Christine does, but she wasn't there

Yaz the Distinguished acknowledged
the puffing of the populace
a Nubian held aloft his plate of kippers

Your eyes will be the eyes of the basilisk, my lamb
when you behold how I left the rice
boil over while I watched them go by

Next Saturday is Hittite Saturday!
As far away as Ravenna, people will be in touch with their feelings!
What fun she is! And the fun comes wrapped in mystery: the odd slippages of word and syntax ("left the rice / boil over"), the Biblical intonation, the silliness of "kippers," all become an objective correlative to a feeling not unlike the combination of a hiccup, a laugh, and a lump in the throat. Her writing is powered more by unusual words and word-combinations than either Tate's or Ashbery's is; Ashbery seems to think in sentences while Tate's is a prosody of the paragraph. I like it a lot. Under the influence of her book and Mary Jo Bang's latest (their senses of humor are similar, though Mary Jo's is darker) I wrote this on the plane home:
Alice, or Awkward

A game girl-shape came glimmering through the dusk,
clattering goth gestures with her spine, hair, and hands.
"Fly," she cried, "for the father of this fane has fled, alread-
y, took the books and the bricks, battered sheer matter
through force of flattery, and hatted, cored a door
in the original apple to abscond unbonded."
She whirled leaving two tears unshaped in the air
panned by her face, long lens to the brain,
foregrounding grotesque foreshortenings of a limb's
apery. To speak of bees—buzz, buzz—for Alice was not the name
of the unmasked damask dancer who twirled diagonally to drill
at an angle sure to miss the deep heart's floor.
Someone had blundered and well—meanwhile mittened Judge Toby
sniffed up snuff and withheld his sneeze
like the word from a beard—or cloud!—that fails to find its mark
in the actual dark breathing and beating room
to which our undergound girl had furled herself, from which green cellary
we would not soon choose to depart.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Well, Emily and I are off to Chicago for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and I probably won't blog again before Monday. So to tide you over, here's a dialogue that's been going on between Kent Johnson and myself that Kent thoughtfully formatted for easy perusal. No doubt it will be an ongoing conversation. Speaking of conversation, I'd like to thank all the participants and observers of the recent and I think useful argument that's dominated this page and others for the past several days: Mike, Henry, Jordan, Stuart, Jason, Laura, and Hannah. Apologies if I missed you—send me an e-mail!—and happy turkey/tofu day to all.

[On October 27, Josh Corey wrote on his blog]:

Sometimes I forget what a wonderful ear the man [John Ashbery] has. The fact of Ashbery's popularity, or at any rate his canonicity, tickles me greatly. How did such a manifestly strange writer become mainstream? There is hope for us all.


[Kent wrote back-channel]:

Though Josh, a question from one of your sympathetic readers here:

Why and in what way should we hope to become mainstream?



[Josh’s reply back-channel]:

Let me turn the question back around on you Kent: what value is there to
be derived from sheer marginality? Particularly since, as you've no doubt
noticed, the margin has its own centers.

I have not given up hoping that the circles of readership for my writing
and for the writings I care about will continually expand.

Rather than try to recuperate Ashbery for the margins, why not celebrate
the fact that his strategies of mental and textual openness have a wide

Thoughts for the day,



[Kent’s response]:

That's a good reply, Josh.

But I'm not talking about "sheer marginality," much less pumping for its "value." And I'd certainly agree that "marginality" has its "centers"-- marginal centers which are hardly innocent of unacknowledged complicities with the mainstream (you know I've written about that elsewhere and aplenty).

The question, I think, might be something like this: Is an "expanding readership," for poetries of "mental and textual openness" as you put it, necessarily contingent on becoming "mainstream" (or, put another way, does having ever-larger numbers of readers necessarily mean a drifting towards an official "center")? I don't think so.

Why not new locations/unfoldings of poetry-audience relations that might begin to lift free of the old, symbiotic binaries (traditional/experimental, S of Q/post-avant, etc.)? Opening such a space of operation would mean, in the first instance, I believe, starting to challenge certain codified beliefs about authorship and attribution and the ideologized rituals that attend them--ones upon which the "margins" depend as much as the official center: ones, indeed, upon which the whole Institution Art depends (I remember you had been reading Berger).

So how to make it new is still the question, of course. But maybe it's not so much a question of how to make it new on the page. Poetry (or so the weird voices in my head tell me) is much more than what is on the page-- or what is bound at the spine.



(On November 23, as part of a multi-blog discussion sparked by Josh’s comments on “poetic ethics” at Cahiers on same day, Kent sent two comments to Henry Gould’s blog.)

[Comment 1]

Henry, maybe not, but I think I'm following your "difficult eloquence" here. If so, then may I add in support that this is why we *cannot* reduce an "ethics of poetry" to the empirical "face." (Josh, though I may be misreading, seems to be proposing this in his substantial post of today, and I would say such would be a simplification of Levinas's notion of otherness.)

To say this is not to deny an ethical respect for or commitment to the Other, by any means; rather, it is to propose that poetry's force can transcend the "institutional correlates," including conventional demarcations of authorship, that are so easily taken (not least by our "experimental poets") as natural and inevitable.


[Comment 2]

Part of the point in my comment above would be that the empirical self (the Author, that is) is very often the most forged Other of all. No one in the poetry world should have any trouble coming up with favorite examples. (There is also the mirror in the bathroom, or one's photo on the cover of a book.)

Speaking of the "person," as Josh does, think of Pessoa, whose name, eerily, means, precisely, Person. Art is the lie that helps us to see the truth, the saying goest, and Pessoa, for one, helps us to see the truth that the Person (at least the person of the Poet-person!) may, in intense imaginative circumstances, not be defined by his or her conventional "identity."



[Josh responded to Kent back-channel]:

Thanks for the very sharp comments. I like the distinction between "person" and "identity." Maybe I am being a little too glib with Levinas--I don't mean to say that poetry can be reduced to that particular ethical mode. Actually to say that poetry is about representing personhood is nearly to miss the boat unless you say something about that mode of representation, which has its roots in language's tendency to represent/signify beyond what anyone (any one identity/author) can intend. The practice of heteronymy extends this play of language away from self-identity and toward the person-other to the name below (above?) the title. The bridge between aesthetic and ethics becomes most visible in
that sort of play, since you're introducing (in Kantian terms) the scene of judgment (enlarging indeterminacy) into the scene of practical action.

I'd like to put up our discussion on the blog, but I'm not quite sure how to format it so it will be readable. If I get time to fiddle with our collected e-mails before taking off for Thanksgiving, I'll do so.

In the meantime, happy turkeys to you,


[to be continued]

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Henry gets his whacks in on the tennis ball that Mike and I have been batting around. Henry, I need some clarification here. Are you saying that "difficulty" in poetry stems simply from the fact that words don't mean what they say—that difficulty stems from the gap between form and content? Doesn't that apply, potentially to any utterance? Or are you arguing for the importance of the framing that happens off the page—the question of poetry as an institution (Mike would double-damn it as a homogenous institution)—and deeming inadequate any approach that doesn't either attack institutionality or expand its mandate?

As for Henry's last statement about "the ethical implications or demands that words sometimes entail," I hardly think my notion of the community of writers (or maybe better, wreaders) as friends & lovers is without ethical implication. In some ways I think I'm very close to the notion of poetry advocated by Allen Grossman, who sees its sacred duty as being the representation of the person (that is, the human recognized as human, with human rights and a "face" in something close to Levinas' use of the word). Difficulty then becomes perhaps a question of not insulting the reader's personhood by creating a prefab construct to which they'll have prefab reactions. But I feel now I'm falling into the trap of exalting my side of a dichotomy when I'd rather be dialectical, or at least aware of the problems created by my position. For example, there's the question of my family as audience. They don't seem to have a great deal of trouble with the poems as such (they don't feel like they're getting the full "meaning," but they like the sound and some of the imagery—they have an experience), but they have proclaimed themselves baffled by what's been written about my work (particularly the Boston Review review and Michael Palmer's appraisal of Severance Songs in the new Conjunctions. So I went and wrote a little "translation" of what Zack Finch wrote about Selah and I'll probably do the same for the Palmer piece. I don't want to compromise on my poetry (or "communicate" with it in the sense that Jordan seems to mean) but I'm perfectly happy to compromise or otherwise try to pull back the curtain on the framework around poetry, its production, and its evaluation. It's not an avant-garde move on my part—it might even be conservative in the small-c sense—but I do have an urge to demystify the processes of publication and canonization for the Common Readers in my family and beyond it—to render visible poetry-as-institution and so take away some of its power to intimidate (which has more to do with the disaffection of Common Readers, I think, than any actual poems do). I guess the conclusion I'm drawing here brings me a little closer to what I think Mike's position may be (Henry sums it up as "work harder at it"). Yes, I do think poetry's small audience (I'm not sure I agree about its homogeneity, though) means something, but I think the demand that makes on poets to expand their audience is extra-literary or at least happens beyond the borders of the actual poem: audience-building happens primarily through reading aloud (yes, I do believe poets ought to become proficient performers of their work, though I appreciate arguments to the contrary), editing, writing reviews (here I'll confess that the two reviews I've recently written aren't likely to expand poetry's audience), teaching, doing interviews, giving talks, blogging, etc. Since I'm against audiences as such, such activities take on an evangelical cast: I'm asking potential readers to accept a personal relationship with poetry—to read it is to write it and to write it is to be written upon/in/through.

That's my best self talking; my little ego likes audiences just fine. My ego took a simultaneous beating and inflating yesterday. A beating because I didn't receive an NEA grant for the third time in a row. Inflating because I've been invited to take part in the Poetry Society of America's Festival of New American Poets next March 2nd and 3rd. You can read about last year's festival poets here. My dad will be there; my late mother, a most Uncommon Reader, will not, and I feel an upswelled mingling of pride and grief. Both good and bad news will eventually pass; my ego will continue to expand and inflate, a creature of the tides. I hope poetry will go on being a vehicle to something larger than myself—some democratic capacity for the expanding recognition of personhood.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Mike has smartly answered my questions (below), but in such a way as to confirm what probably anybody following this exchange already knew: that we have completely incommensurate ideas as to the role and value of poetry. A lot of talk about numbers: the circulation of magazines, the low sales of poetry ("No one buys poetry"—for a truly eloquent response to this, please see Jordan's comments on Mike's blog), the 500,000 readers of The Atlantic (is the circulation really that high? do they really care about the poetry that's already in the magazine? Who reads The Atlantic for the generally glib and dreary poems printed therein?), etc. I for one am not sure that poetry's impact on people and on the culture is so easily quantified—isn't the overpowering impulse toward quantification and reification something we seek an alternative to in poetry? I want poetry to be a realm in which I can freely seek my desire (as well as interrogate those desires that have been interpolated by the society around me—my desire for a huge audience, for instance), and so I stake a claim for writing out from and back to my own heart, as complex and cragged as I wanna be, having faith the whole while that others' hearts and intellects are included in that circuit.

Which is not to say that I seek a closed circuit. Maybe the difference between Mike and I can be summed up this way: he wants poetry to be an art like any other, where a small group of artists shares a wide audience of non-artists. Whereas I've believed for a while now that the common lament, "only poets read poetry" is actually cause for optimism and celebration. I've probably said this before, but: I think the purpose of poetry is to turn its readers into poets. You can read a novel or see an opera without thinking once of being a participant in the form, but I've never read a poem that stirred me that didn't also stimulate my desire to write. And again, since I'm a human being, my desire can be taken as a sign of others' equivalent desire. The set "writers of poetry" has never grown so quickly or visibly as it has in our era. Almost every day I become aware of another person who practices and/or values a form of writing that I find exciting—they start a blog, or send me an e-mail, or publish a poem in a journal, or a chapbook or a book, or I hear them read. Sure, there are lots of bad poets too, but I've never seen the widsom of sending a lot of critical energy their way. I'd rather talk about what puts my nervous system on alert, what makes me feel like I'm meeting another's fully energized consciousness on the page.

"Difficult" poetry is difficult because it can't be absorbed passively: it demands a response, an effort at completion or better, extension. It asks the reader to give up his or her secure ground and swim a little—which is exactly what a writer has to do. If I want to be reassured, or comforted, or to smile a little bit, I'd rather watch TV than read poems that only aspire to the level of TV (even really good TV). O'Hara still said it best: "If people don't need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too." I like the movies, too, but I also need poetry. And I see no good way to convince other people that they need poetry without compromising what poetry wants to be: not a commodity.

I say all this not knowing how "difficult" my own poems might seem to others, or whether Mike would judge me to be "foolishly contented" over on my little corner of Parnassus. I say all this while putting the highest value on craft; while believing in the importance of acquiring a deep knowledge of the poetic traditions of at least two languages; while delighting in poetry that works on the most childish and somatic levels of pure sound; while longing for an experience and expression of what used to be called the sublime. There's a lot of desire coalescing around "poetry" for me, and I refuse to compromise on any of it. And when I've pitched myself into the dark at the greatest possible velocity, that's when I've felt myself caught and buoyed by a surprisingly responive world. That might be luck or privilege, but it might also be that we're meant to rev up our desires to the highest possible pitch, even if what we desire might seem outrageous or out of date or snobby or in poor taste. "You just go on your nerve," Frank said, with a profound knowledge of French and American poetry and art behind him and New York spread before him like a endlessly opening network of friends and lovers. That's the vision of poetry that I'd like to live. Down with audiences, up with friends and lovers! Vive la poésie difficile.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Aubergine layout is complete. But we probably won't be able to print it out and do all the necessary folding, stapling, and mailing until after Thanksgiving.

Questions for Mike Snider:
1) Do you sincerely believe that if we all wrote poetry that rhymes or otherwise follows traditional forms and carefully avoided philosophical or "theory" references in favor of carefully unmediated-seeming narratives about daily life that poetry would become a popular art again?

2) Do you really see groups of friends who read and champion each other's work as nothing but a drag on originality and/or popularity? What's wrong with poetry as a means toward friendship?

3) Who said poetry was a guttering flame? Not me. Poetry feels more intense and more relevant and more necessary to me than ever. And I continue firmly to believe that what feels necessary to me is bound to be necessary to other people. I refuse to sacrifice the intensity of language set free from superficial intention for a wider audience that would be correspondingly diffuse in their attachment.
A further thought: isn't it possible to view the split between more "popular" poets (Collins, Tate, Olds, et al) and the "larger and even more peculiar group" (in which Mike is presumably including me) as being a split between a kind of "nativist" writing that celebrates the self and its bounds (support our troops!), creating space for that self through a kind of "soft" negative capability (the mild, quietistic bemusement that suffuses up through the last lines of one of their poems)—and a more "cosmopolitan" writing that interrogates the privileges offered to the self by the available rhetoric (you're either with us or against us) and chooses a "hard" negative capability that challenges both writer and reader to give up ground, to feel themselves regarded by the inassimilable otherness of the difficult poem?

All just a roundabout way of saying that I value difficulty in poetry. There, I said it. I can enjoy the easy stuff, the entertaining stuff, but the poetry that sustains me also challenges me, provokes me, fills me with wonder, or even makes me a little nauseous. What drives me crazy about poetic populism is that it asks us to set a low ceiling on our ambitions, to give up the dream of being apprehended at our most complex and contradictory. It asks me to devote my talent to discovering what's already known, to repeating the available wisdom—"what often was thought, but never so well expressed." That bores me. I work from expression to thought and not the other way around when I write poetry. I'm mining a basic human capacity, the deep vein of lapsus linguae. The obscurity and unpopularity of this art is only to be lamented by my ego, which demands accolades, reinforcement, tubs of money. But the me myself, whose bounds are never clear, is deeply satisfied (though not contented) by this writing—never separable, of course, from my reading. I have hundreds of companions in poetry, dead and alive—what more can I ask from this vale of fucking tears.

The love of the masses can't feed the actual heart. Just ask Elvis.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Thanks to the efforts of the indefatigable Aaron Tieger, Aubergine is nearly complete. If you're a contributor and you don't think I have your address, please send it along to jmc228 at cornell dot edu.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Oh, last night at the bookstore I read a review by Mark Ford in TNYRoB of James Tate's latest, Return to the City of White Donkeys, and also read in the book a little. Reading Tate creates a curious inversion of an experience I've sometimes had reading Language poetry: there, I'm often fascinated and entertained by the theory but bored and irritated by the practice, while with Tate the opposite is true. Or not even a theory, really (because what is his theory?>, just the aura around him and the labored surrealism of his recent book titles. Ford wrote something about how Tate hasn't attracted much academic attention because he's like Ashbery in his verbal slipperiness without the epistemological investigations we scholars like to unravel. There's probably some truth to that but I think it may have more to do with the curious slightness Tate's poetry has in the memory: there's kind of a generic James Tate poem in my mind that I think of as certainly amusing but basically just a reiteration or imitation of itself. Every James Tate poem is a copy of a copy of a copy of the ur-Tate poem that doesn't actually exist. I feel the same way about poets like Billy Collins, Sharon Olds, and Philip Levine: they're repeating a trick that ceased to be amusing or moving a long time ago. But then I actually read one of Tate's poems and I am really, really entertained by it. And I read another, and another—they're like candy. This is not a Bad Thing; I find myself thinking that this is the ideal book to give someone who doesn't think they like poetry. Which is another category in itself, isn't it, one that Collins and to a lesser extent Olds and Levine fall into: poetry for people who don't like poetry. A very peculiar demographic; I suspect a degree of self-loathing in those poets who write for it exclusively. But although Tate can be slight, sometimes he really nails the acute pleasure of poetry that Ford describes: the pleasure of something slipping through your fingers, of negative capability, of pure surprise. He's not very formally interesting, and that again makes me think of this as a genre of not prose poetry but poetry-pose, prose assuming the swiftness of poetry but otherwise basically prose. Not that there's anything wrong with that—it just doesn't give me the sublime thrill that I get from a poem whose energy derives from the resistance of its materials. Tate's mastery is a little too obvious; he makes it look easy, even though it probably isn't. He's also a little too fond of punchline endings. But here I am talking abstractly about him when the whole point is that reading his poetry provides much greater pleasure than I think it does, if that makes any sense. I no longer have the new book in front of me, but here's a little one from Shroud of the Gnome:

He was never mean to me.
I never once heard him speak ill of another.
And he was always good by his word.
If he said he was bringing over a brace of quail
you set the table then and there.
Best of all, he was punctual,
a virtue I dearly love in a dog.
And he never crept, never crept, never crept.
Rather beautiful, isn't it? And haunting, in a bite-sized way. There's something there. Anyway, I know what book I'm giving my father for Haunukkah.
Very pleased to see that the National Book Award is going to Jean Valentine this year. I would have liked to see Cole Swensen win, but insofar as they seem to have constructed the award around a career rather than a book, Valentine is certainly deserving of the recognition.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Perfect Human

Deeply stirred, disturbed, stimulated by a viewing last night of Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth's The Five Obstructions. I was attracted to it as an unusual example of constrained filmmaking, and the movie provides example after gorgeous and haunting example of how arbitrary constraints can liberate an artist from his or her own intentions in unexpected ways—even as it also proves that there is a core of subjectivity or at any rate sensibility that will not let itself be erased. It's thrilling to see art actually being created in front of your eyes; the emotion is much more intense here than it was in Ed Harris' Pollock, a collection of cliches abou the tortured artist except for the remarkable sequences in which we see the painter painting. The movie raises many incidental questions: the role of privilege in artmaking (vividly demonstrated in the Bombay sequence); questions of race and gender (the oftend dark-skinned women we see are usually overtly sexualized, the men much less so—though it's interesting how male and female get collapsed into the asexual "human" by the narration); and of course the Oedipal relation between artist and mentor, with the latter seemingly bemused by the former's urgent need to cut him open and look inside. I found myself identifying strongly with Leth's formality, his melancholia, his wry humanism; von Trier is a repellent individual (I can't bring myself to watch movies like Dogville or Dancer in the Dark, though I loved Europa and Breaking the Waves) but if I'm honest with myself I can recognize his sadism and insecurity as akin to my own. And I was totally agog at the high seriousness of the project, playful as it is; there is simply no American context for this kind of thing except maybe for the hundred-yard radius around David Lynch's head. Just to witness a conversation about art in which the stakes are matter-of-factly assumed to be high is enough to move me to tears. There is a kind of European art-esteem that buoys these men up, however acute their self-loathing might otherwise at times be. It may be an extension of the social safety net that we are also lacking in this country: a pervasive message from your society that your life and what you do with it is important. (Surprised at this juncture to remember the Richard Hugo line that is the motto of the University of Montana's MFA program: "A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters.") But there's no escaping the American grain; if I were to realize my occasional dream of exile (in Paris, in Vancouver, in Copenhagen, in Budapest) I'm sure I would only end up feeling more "American" than ever. I might go deeper into my formalism, my rage for order, whereas I think the real challenge for me as a writer now might be to get messy, to risk bathos, maybe even to write a story. But it's hard to let go of form in an era that seems to be slipping toward formlessness.

What I'm trying to say is: see this movie.

Monday, November 15, 2004


The root of luxury is light. All need. All see. Chafed from stiff, a little death flees from my arms and legs every morning. See you later. Walk to work downhill, enter a zone of horizontal aspiration. That is, breath's visible as that building they're building. We need again an unreadable home. Cinched iris. Margarine light.


So I aspire to suspire, to keep respiring, quiring, not to spite this respite. Uncertain animality's sufficient, I wreath a halo's briar. What protects my paycheck from feeding bomb-bay doors. Oh to be a drone burnt black and yellow with another's sovereign conscience. Oh for suffering, anyone's, to be of some limited use. Help me open this jar.


Reaction of heat with oil: migration toward golden brown. Careful, the plate is hot, and please pass the sour cream. New links built from molecule to molecule make a blonder bond with matter. Thanks for being a table—thanks for attracting flies. Somewhere a diorama of this moment on sale inside a souk. Blood smokes shallowly under skin, a shame. The little meal unrequited.


Sordidly the adverbs stacked chairs against the door, yet none could modify the action. Brute burst boot. Yet yellow ribbon can't be crossed like wrists. Can't see you for the streamers. Well dad I guess we got through it all right, wrote Private Issac home. He squinted through goggles engoldening the enemy as a hand from heaven fiddled with our safety.


Hell no we won't won't go. Blinders on the Clydesdales huffing their way to Canada. A Claymore's a Scottish sword, a clavier's Johann's unworldly smorgasbord. Sound, alone. Take flight toward earth like an arrow shot out of mind. I'm living for ta da. Shyly she raisd her hand: but isn't it wrong to kill? Time, that is, shivering atop a watched stopped classroom clock.


Four more years is fears: this endless ethnic music! Where possible La Contessa prefers to avoid the vulgarities of life and death. But bad taste and a bouzouki aren't enough to deblonde an empire. What's left is a boneless fillet feasting on its own blue succulence. Revulsion is the point of this shotgun mike tuned to an empty mirror. We suspect a murder while wearing a suspect's veils, and fail.


At day's end I climb uphill to just miss the setting sun. There's a fire and imported beer to remind me of within and without. What's burning at the stakes. Photos say we're sorry we can't kill you out of the frame—still you rub furiously out your name. A lamp shades this ivory page, anonymous meetingplace in which we confess we are yet afraid. That the game is yet to be played.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Please go here for a detailed report on the very successful first-ever reading curated by Soon. Me, I'm climbing into bed with Thomas Mann.

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