Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Nicole's amendment of "composing" to "composting" in the notes below is brilliant, necessary, and seconded by me. Please read "composting" for "composing" from now on.

Sick again. Stomach bug this time. It seems to be going around....
Can't seem. To do any. Work.
There was waaaay too much happening in Chicago for me to do and see everything, but I still have some regrets. One was never getting in touch with the man I like simply to think of as The American Billy Collins. Tim, I'm sorry we didn't get to meet. Perhaps if I come back to Chicago for the annual Thanksgiving feast we could grab a beer (or a turkey) then.
From "The Churn," an article by Katherine Boo in last week's New Yorker about displaced workers in Brownsville, Texas:
Lupita longed to have at her command, in any language, "those big round words that explain better what goes on in your mind, and which help people know who you are. I mean, those proper words that come from the deeps of aperson, and that burn a little when they're spoken."
Just got around to reading this. Mike, here's the thing: I fail to see the connection between democracy and unbridled capitalism. Marxian thought remains valuable to me for its roots in Fourierism, which dares to imagine an end to exploitation—including self-exploitation. But we will likely never agree on this. The politics of Pound, D.H. Lawrence, etc., are obviously atrocious; but their rage against a system which turns the earth, human beings, and time itself into quantifiable units for consumption is something I strongly empathize with. The struggle now—yes, I see it as poetical as well as political—is simply to imagine other possibilities (not necessarily other systems—systematic, totalized thinking is very much part of our human problem) than those currently available. More and more rarely do acts of genuine political imagination make it into the mainstream—Dennis Kucinich has his Department of Peace, but this has been ignored and derided. It's barely possible to imagine something as humane as universal health care in this country, or an end to capital punishment. As Noam Chomsky said in a New York Times Magazine profile not that long ago, "This is the best country on earth." But I see that as more an indictment of the way life is lived on earth than an excuse to preen. "Literacy is universal"—really? How about eating properly? If capitalism is the law which says that the market alone must be permitted to determine who eats, who gets health care, and yes, who learns to read, then in the words of Mr. Bumble, "The law is an ass!"

I will not be content with any poetry that reflects, reinforces, or represents the status quo. Things as they are must be changed on the blue guitar.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Here are the notes I took at the two most interesting AWP panels I attended (very disappointed to have missed Jordan and Shanna's panel, but there was simply too much going on). In the first panel's case, actually, only one presentation caught my ear; and wouldn't you know that it came from blogland's own Mairead Byrne. The second was the predictably interesting "Outsider/Insider" panel featuring presentations by Eileen Myles, Bob Perelman, Roberto Tejada, Elizabeth Willis, and Peter Gizzi:


Mairead Byrne—inspiring talk on the cross-fertilization of poetry and scholarship (or as she prefers to call it, "research"). Writing on Frederick Douglass' four months in Ireland in 1845 (the the beginning of the potato famine).

Propositions: little headlines which often get repeated in the body of her text.
I prefer writing to reading.
I prefer writing to teaching.
I prefer writing to speaking.
I do not prefer writing to eating.
Research could result in poetry, a song cycle, a paper, "even a novel."

Breaking down binary "constructs": poetry is emotional, scholarship is rational, etc.

How is hers an immigrant's story?

She has "a particular love" for the work of Paul De Man.


Eileen Myles—individual as institution (Ginsberg, Berrigan, et al).

poetry as neighborhood—MFA poetry as "prepared neighborhood" (gated community)

university as corporate workplace—c.f. The University in Ruins

mission: to unprepare students

Bob Perelman—"Avant-Garde, Avant Grade, I Want a Grade"

Proceeds alphabetically.

"free-born joy, the moment of desire"

"creating writers" rather than "teaching creative writing"

progressive vs. avant-garde
democratic vs. anti-democratic (an interpolated eltie, "those who get it")

cites Steve Evans and the Fence controversy—not necessarily "the narcissism of small differences" but a product of the contradiction that exists between the demands of the (authoritarian, oppositional) avant-garde and the practice of (democratic, progressive) pedagogy. "Blasphemy" of asserting continuity between the two projects.

academy as production site for one's literary values

neither literature nor creative writing have coherent intellectual structures—lit crit is a succession of scholia

tact, modeling—teaching

"students who have written poetry are better equipped to read it"

"Ern Malley as ideal creative writing student—discuss."

site of deepest conflict between democratic-progressive impulses and avant-garde exclusionary community. . . could it be. . . pastoral?

Robert Tejada—

"the waning of the conditions of possibility for bohemia"

"obsolete before it has ossified"—a Marx quote applied to the historic avant-garde. What was the avant-garde?

"ethics of the translator as a possibility" (not necessarily referring only to one who translates)

"modern culture is critical culture"
"over-investment in the rhetorical"—?

Elizabeth Willis—"an inveterate crevice-monger of academic situations"

Academia as "a form of employment that may come to prey on our artistic production"

"I'm not sure if teaching is any more or less ethical than working on a chicken farm." Is this a dig at Purdue (every possible Purdue)?

using institutions rather than being used by them—to be conditioned by the possibilities of the academy is "a failure of imagination"

"Al Sharpton World"—when asked how he felt about not being taken seriously he said, "That's not the point—none of us are being taken seriously."

liberal arts education as an absolute good

Montaigne: "A strong imagination creates the event, saith the scholars."

(In "Lycidas," isn't the pastoral scene that has been disrupted by death academic? The Cambridge of "old Damoetas.")

Stein: "How do you like what you have? Anybody can ask anybody."

Peter Gizzi—"I came here today out of friendship."

Chomsky: "The American language is a dialect that contains an army and a navy."

"the field is haunted"—field as scene of military operations (penetrated by an avant-garde?) but also a scene of freedom and, natch, opening

editing & teaching—"reading in a plural way"

The writers one reads "give one coverage in the world." Integration of one's mental life into one's daily life—it just happens. "Composition" as essential to life.

Teaching & editing as additional means of "composing" than writing.

"war is the constant and we are the variant"


Bob—"the university is an amplifying device." Quotes Hejinian: "the avant-garde is always pedagogical." But teaching is "always remedial," "expansively democratic."

(Jefferson as democratic pastoralist embedded in fascist Cantos?)

Bob: "We teach judgment."

Willis—increasing professionalization of everyone (in response to a question about the professionalization of poetry)—the internet—importance of blogging from work? stealing time from the machine. [My thoughts, not her words.]

Bob: the market for visual art makes innovation desirable—but isn't this the perpetual revolution that perpetuates that market? Whereas the reward system for poetry isn't geared that way. But rather than a truly alternative economy, the current system means that un-innovative poetry is what gets rewarded.

Gizzi: Mentions essay (not his), "Give My Regards to Eighth Street." Basically saying character is destiny—Bob finds this a dangerously regressive concept—character changes into itself.

Eileen Myles: "Every poet who doesn't write poetry gets famous."
Gruesome difficulties returning from Chicago: a thunderstorm delayed my plane to Pittsburgh, causing me to miss my connection. I spent the night, or at any rate abous six hours of the night, at a Red Roof Inn near the airport and then caught an early flight to Philadelphia and finally to Ithaca. YUCK. But the conference was tremendously fun and interesting; I was going to drop a bunch of names here with a thud but I think instead I will take a nap and then provide you with some notes later. It's good to be home, though I already miss being surrounded with friends and the more or less enlightened folk temporarily populating that strangely windowless hotel (Vegas without the bells and lights, but plenty of gaudy decor and smoke). A glance at the front page of USA Today (complimentary in the lobby of your local Red Roof) was sufficient to depress me deeply about the state of the world and consider relocating to Mars, or perhaps Provence. High time to resurrect Lawrence's "Rananim" plan.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Feeling slightly under the weather today. Nonetheless, tomorrow I must rise very early and board a plane to Chicago, to spend two days hanging with my grandparents before AWP begins. What books should I take? I'm taking the Clark biography of Olson, though I'm expecting to get irritated with it; I've also got Peter Burger's Theory of the Avant Garde, which I never read all the way through. Some poetry? Jennifer Moxley—she continues to fascinate me because of how much of her thinking, even and especially her neurotic thinking, gets transmitted to me by the poetry. She is following Olson's imperative to get her energy all the way over to the reader in interesting ways. Either I'll keep working at The Sense Record or go back to her first book, Imagination Verses, which I picked up when I lived in the Bay Area but never got around to reading. I read a good essay about that book by Chris Stroffolino in an old Chicago Review in the library the other day, while reading up on Ronald Johnson—found a fascinating ancient issue of a magazine called Vort devoted to him and to Guy Davenport. There's so little written on Johnson that this felt like a treasure trove; I'll be going back to it if Johnson ends up in my dissertation. In the meantime, I've finished hacking out my little appreciation of him for Octopus. I'm very nervous about it; it's basically pure rhapsodic opinion, with none of the protective armor of either scholarship (i.e., footnotes) or the assumed casualness of blogging to protect it. Oh I am hoping for the best.

What else? I've been dipping into Deleuze and Guattari a fair bit lately, but either volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia is a bit cumbersome—one big book is enough. Maybe. . . a novel? Hey, how about a novel? Who reads novels nowadays? Maybe I'll pick one up in the Pittsburgh airport, where I have a ghastly three-hour layover.

All right, this is an entirely inconsequential posting. If I get the chance to blog from the conference, I will; otherwise you'll have to content yourselves with a digest upon my return. Looking forward to some face time with Dan, Shanna, and any other members of our electronic posse who migth happen to show up.

PS: Did you see this in today's Times? Very cool.

Saturday, March 20, 2004

It looks like Chris Lott and I will have to agree to disagree after all, at least for the time being. One reason we keep "missing" each other might have to do with fundamentally different attitudes toward poetry. Chris seems ultimately concerned with what makes a poem good; I like good poems too (though not "Good Poems") but I ask them to do a certain kind of work (political work, but also or simultaneously what I have to call "soul work"). I'm interested even in unsuccessful poems that try to do this kind of work.

I thought on the eve of departing for Chicago, where I hope to hoist a glass or two with him, that I'd write one of Dan Nester's poems for him:

Regrets of an Impresario

They faulted my taste for bubblegum in the time of the sty;
they faulted my pig when its sweet pink deflated.
O aerial view of the swamp, Zippo jets of methane saluting me!
I stood behind my work and its uncircumcisions;
I laughed when required by the pasty-faced prompter.
Inflatable women curtsied to me, became girls—
pierced with pins I tickled pills fancily.
A hummer and a hummer and a hummer and a hummer.
Don't cry for me, my flesh will not be wasted.
My bones are bequeathed flutes for Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
My veins tie a swing for the comeback of Mr. Mister.
My cash floats the lost isle of glam sexuality.
Kyrie eleison on the ground that's now my bed,
burnt by guitars that foretold the porker's end.
I don't think I've made a habit of "shredding" anybody's poems. But thanks to Chris for refusing the temptation to shred my poem all the same. Still, I have to wonder: is he really proposing "there's no accounting for taste" as an adequate replacement to the binary thinking he accuses me of? Would it be a better world if every blogger and critic simply quoted poems they liked with the obsequious headline, "For your consideration. . ."? Wouldn't the proper answer to binaries be not an agreement to disagree but something more dialectical? I also think the word "new" is being used by Chris in a way that I find limited and limiting. I would never propose that "newness" is the sole value to assess a poem by. That's absurdly reductive. But the contemporary poetry that I find most engaging ("what I like") is usually trying to break up reification (a more social way of describing "the frozen sea within us")—ways of seeing and imagining the world that have become fixed and dead and which therefore tacitly support the world/consciousness/the dominant ideology as it has been given to us. Because we are social creatures, and because a certain amount of filiation is inevitable and necessary, traditions or counter-traditions which attempt to break up the dominant ideology are bound to arise. Of course these counter-traditions can then and usually do become reified themselves; and much of the ire directed at Ron and his epigones results, I think, from poets and readers who find his brand of reification more palpable and threatening than that of commodity capitalism, patriarchy, etc.—the guiding structures of a normative discourse in which people still routinely use "man" to mean humanity and poets looking to publish their work have a tome called Poet's Market to guide them. Still, I return again and again to the Pound/Williams/Olson tradition because it is that paradoxical thing, a tradition of the new—or more precisely, a tradition of discovery, which foregrounds the destruction of reification as one of its primary values. (Having broken up the pattern of reification the question, Now what? does tend to arise; and it's here I think that this tradition runs into the most difficulty; the utopias of Pound, et al, are not particularly appetizing or even very democratic; and the Marxism of the Language poets, while to my mind constituting a nigh-irrefutable critique, does not in itself seem to point the way toward a viable polis, in poetry or elsewhere. That's why I'm interested in pastoral as a description of the impulse to resist totalization in the name of bodily, contingent experience.)

Many poets and readers of poetry, of course, have no interest in criticizing the existing structures of feeling (the attacks on political correctness or so-called "schools of resentment" as practiced by Dana Gioia or Harold Bloom are directed toward consolidating existing power). Others who do have such an interest may feel that poetry is already marginal enough, or that their own work is self-evidently sincere enough, to function effectively as an axe against that frozen sea. Some pick their battles. A poem of mine like "'Desire, and Hurt Not'" (the quotes are part of the title) is, I would agree, not particularly "new." A fair number of the poems in Selah rely on sheer lyricism in their attempt to overcome habits of mind and feeling in myself which would otherwise prevent me from having full access to the experiences that occasioned those poems. Others, I believe, are meant to bring larger ideological contexts and questions into the space of the book: Jewishness, masculinity, the family, and the wholly inadequate cultural formations within which we deal (or fail to deal) with death. But plenty of people will read the book and see nothing "avant" about it, even if they're aware of such a category. Does that reduce the question of the new to a fallacy of intention? I rather choose to think that my engagement with several traditions—Language poetry, confessional poetry, Stevens' philosophical lyricism, Whitman's "language experiment," Miltonic grandeur, 17th-century metaphysical poetry, and Elizabethan drama (all of which, in their day, were innovations upon literary forms that were no longer adequate to represent the full range of intellectual and emotional expression) does mark me and the unfinished arc of my writing. For me, articulating a poetics is an act concurrent and concomitant with the writing of poetry, and I hope to cease not until death. "I like it," "I don't like it"—that's not good enough; I need to explain these decisions to myself and I've chosen to do it in public because I'm a poet (that is, I'm like everyone else but more so) and I read poetry and poetics and blogs because I live for those fleeting moments of genuine whole-heart whole-mind connection. Wholeness requires sophistication and articulation; otherwise you have to leave things out.

I'll stop there. There's plenty of other good stuff on Chris' blog to think about. Like whether there can be arcs and functions on the axes I've proposed as approximations of my gut reactions (but my math skills are nonexistent!). And though I've defended thinking in terms of traditions and filiations here, obviously he's got a point about how quickly we pass over individual poems, and even whole poets, because either our attention spans or our vocabularies for close reading (better, "close appreciation") have become so impoverished. So I too regret the apparent lack of hits Jonathan's appreciation project has gotten him. I think his admire/hate list is probably more accurate and user-friendly than my own grids have been for describing my general reactions to poetry.

Incidentally, I'll be off to Chicago on Monday (to hang with my grandparents in Skokie, then AWP on Wednesday). Internet access will be spotty, so get your licks in while you can if you're want me to reply.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Excellence Abounding

Just received a surprise visit here at the Bookery from Aaron Tieger of fishblog and CARVE and his girlfriend Wendy (whose last name I forgot—sorry, Wendy!), who is about to become a literature professor at Ithaca College. So the innovative poetry community of Ithaca will be acquiring some powerful new allies in the months ahead. Huzzah for community! Down with scenes!

Still in a quoting mood; here are some choice bits from Robert Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer which I feel ineluctably apply to the writing of poetry. Sometimes let "images" be images; sometimes let them be words or sounds:
The faculty of using my resources well diminishes when their number grows.


No actors.
(No directing of actors.) No parts.
(No learning of parts.) No staging.
But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (action).


Two types of film: those that employ the resources of the theatre (actors, direction, etc.) and use the camera in order to reproduce; those that employ the resources of cinematography and use the camera to create.


Respect man's nature without wishing it more palpable than it is.


An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other colors. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation.


Flatten my images (as if ironing them), without attenuating them.


To create is not to deform or invent persons and things. It is to tie new relationships between persons and things which are, and as they are.


Radically suppress intentions in your models.


Your imagination will aim less at events than at feelings, while wanting these latter to be as documentary as possible.


One recognizes the truth by its efficacy, by its power.


A whole made of good images can be detestable.


Dig deep where you are. Don't slip off elsewhere. Double, triple bottom to things.


No absolute value in an image.
   Images and sounds will owe their value and their power solely to the use to which you destine them.


Where not everything is present, but each word, each look, each movement has things underlying.


Let it be the intimate union of the images that charges them with emotion.


A too-expected image (cliche) will never seem right, even if it is.


Don't run after poetry. It penetrates unaided through the joins (ellipses).


Let it be the feelings that bring about the events. Not the other way.


Forms that resemble ideas. Treat them as actual ideas.


Not artful, but agile.


Of lighting
   Things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them.


Debussy himself used to play with the piano's lid down.


Reorganize the unorganized noises (what you think you hear is not what you hear) of a street, a railroad station, an airport. . . Play them back one by one in silence and adjust the blend.


Retouch some real with some real.


To find a kinship between image, sound and silence. To give them an air of being glad to be together, of having chosen their place. Milton: Silence was pleased.


Image and sound must not support each other, but must work each in turn through a sort of relay.


Voice and face
   They have formed together and have grown used to each other.




The eye (in general) superficial, the ear profound and inventive. A locomotive's whistle imprints in us a whole railroad station.


The true is inimitable, the false untransformable.


Quality of a new world which none of the existing arts allowed to be imagined.


Be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as is a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing rod. (The fish that arises from nowhere.)


In your passion for the true, people may see nothing but faddism.


Laugh at a bad reputation. Fear a good one that you could not sustain.


Is it for singing always the same song that the nightingale is so admired?


Production of emotion determined by a resistance to emotion.


Those horrible days—when shooting film disgusts me, when I am exhausted, powerless in the face of so many obstacles—are part of my method of work.
Reading "Death in Venice" for the first time. Some delicious quotes; asides on art, mostly, which remind me of similar things in Henry James:
The observations and encounters of a loner who seldom speaks are both more nebulous and more penetrating than those of a gregarious man; his thoughts are more intense, more peculiar, and never without a touch of sadness. Images and perceptions, which might easily be brushed aside with a glance, a laugh, an exchange of opinions, occupy his mind unduly; they are deeper in silence, take on significance, become experience, adventure, emotion. Solitude ripens originality in us, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude also ripens the pererse, the asymmetrical, the absurd, the forbidden.


Innate in nearly every artistic nature is a luscious and treacherous penchant for acknowledging the injustice that creates beauty and for sympathizing with and paying homage to aristocratic privilege.


Now he had to go on wanting what he had wanted yesterday.


Was it not written that the sun diverts our attention from intellectual to sensual things? Supposedly, it so thoroughly benumbs and bewitches our reason and memory that the ecstatic soul completely forgets its own state of being and, with astonished admiration, dotes on the most beautiful of the sunlit objects; in fact, it is only with the help of a body that the soul can then rise to a more sublime contemplation. Amor truly emulated the mathematicians who show tangible pictures of ideal forms to children still unable to think abstractly: the god of love did likewise when, to make the spiritual visible to us, he used the shape and color of human youth, adorning it with all the reflected luster of beauty as an instrument for the memory, and making us burn with pain and hope at the mere sight of it.


And then [Socrates] uttered the very subtlest statement, the cunning wooer: he said that the lover is more divine than the beloved, because the god dwells in the one but not in the other—the tenderest, most sardonic thought, perhaps, that was ever thought, the wellspring of all the roguery and most secret voluptuousness of yearning.


Now Eros, we are told, loves idleness, and that alone is why he was created.


It is most certainly a good thing that the world knows only the beautiful opus but not its origins, not the conditions of its creation; for if people knew the sources of the artist's inspiration, that knowledge would often confuse them, alarm them, and thereby destroy the effects of excellence.


Who can decipher the nature and character of artistry?! Who can grasp the profound instinctual merger of discipline and dissipation on which it is founded?! For inability to desire salutary sobering is itself dissipation.


He was more beautiful than any words could say, and Aschenbach painfully felt, as so often before, that language can only praise, but not reproduce, the beauty that appeals to the senses.


For an instant he had dreamed of tender happiness, but what was that compared with these expectations? What use were art and virtue against the advantages of chaos?
Props to Jeff Clark on the republication of The Little Door Slides Back by no less a press than Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Ever since I first read that book around 1999 or so, I've considered it a small masterpiece of contemporary surrealism—reading it is like walking on a razor rising from the acid pool of Clark's unconscious. A book as influential for me as my namesake's big-deal book Madonna anno domini. Both struck me, and still strike me, as doing post-Language writing that takes gender at least partly into account. It's my belief that the varieties of ecriture feminine that have manifested in this country and Canada is the best demonstration available of the actual efficacy of the Language project—I think the poets associated with How(ever) and How2 have actually partly realized the goal of destroying and remixing patriarchal language, making possible new modes of being in writing and thinking. The work of male poets who participate in some way in this project often seems to me to be more strongly motivated than that which has no further goal than manifesting edginess for its own sake. There's a certain self-conscious Baudelairean sadism that manifests in both of these books—Clark even has a number of poems with the title, "Demonologue," which makes me think he's playing with the maudit's brand of Satanism as a way to talk about the intrusions of the Real. Anyway, it's a great book and you should pick it up if you don't already have the Sun & Moon version (which has a better cover; but I think the design of the text is much nicer in the FSG version). FSG! Seamus Heaney, John Ashbery, Carol Ann Duffy, Derek Walcott, and now... Jeff Clark. Who'dve thunk it?
I love sonnets (q.v. the ongoing discussion between Mike, Jonathan, Kasey, and Tim). I probably got into the University of Montana because of some very New Formalisty sonnets I wrote about my distant cousin, the boxer Barney Ross. I still like some of the maneuvers I had to make in order to force narrative into the essentially lyric/argumentative form of the sonnet; I think, too, that I demonstrated a little bit of the necessary self-consciousness Tim talks about by attempting to reproduce Chicago gangsterese in some of the poems—a dialect as stylized to our ears as Renaissance thees and thous. Mike (and Chris Lott) says there's no intrinsic value to the new, which makes no sense to me, because our moment is new, or at least contemporary. But either you believe there's a conversation to be advanced or you don't. Either you believe that the 21st century must be addressed in a 21st century idiom (which is never purely new, of course, but the accumulation though not the culmination of every previous century's idiom), or you don't.

My ongoing project Severance Songs consists entirely of mostly unrhymed sonnets (though I've been introducing Keats to the Cremaster Cycle in some of my most recent poems, adapting Keats' rhyme words to Barney's bizarre fleshscape). Sometimes I play with narrative, or more often refer to narrative; but I have to say that I think the sonnet is ill-adapted to narration, and in any case narrative is precisely the thing I go to poetry to escape from. The linear story with a beginning, middle, and end is so much the dominant mental formation of our culture that even slight deviations in the forms where it is most expected (as in Pulp Fiction's chopped-up chronology) are praised and vilified for seeming radically new. The imperatives of narrative ("then what happened?") obscure what I think of as poetry's much broader mandate, now unavoidably summarized for me by Drew's aphorism, "Poetry has the capacity to deal with the nonevents of life in a way that other art forms couldn't possibly manage." So why drag events (or rather, the representation of events) into an art form supremely well equipped for the kind of epistemological and ontological investigations that representational forms can only pursue in the most incidental fashion?

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Happy birthday, Deborah!

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Big fat books purchased from the discount rack at the Cornell Store for just $6.98 each:

Tom Clark, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet's Life (North Atlantic Books, 2000)
Lewis Ellingham and Kevin Killian, Poet Be Like God: Jack Spicer and the San Francisco Renaissance (Wesleyan UP, 1998)
Ekbert Faas, Young Robert Duncan: Portrait of the POet as Homosexual in Society (Black Sparrow, 1983)
Carl J. Guarneri, The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America (Cornell UP, 1991)
Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen, eds., Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence (Wesleyan UP, 1999)

Lord knows what all these books were doing remaindered together at Cornell of all places—but I'll take 'em.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Many new blogs join the blogroll. See for yourself....

I never used to pay a lot of attention to Drunken Boat, but it just became fabulous. Check out work by my old Montana friend Sarah Gridley, plus blogland's own Aaron McCollough (you can actually hear his voice!). Beautiful, beautiful poems, from both of them. Plus nifty videos and web art and photos and audio and an interview with Norman Mailer (whose relevance I am re-assessing post-Cremaster).

Also, I took Tony Robinson's quiz. Perhaps he'll post the results soon....

I am justly chastised by Jordan for "perpetuating the funny-serious binary." He's right: humor is more of a continuum, with the explicitly sidesplitting (and perhaps vulgar) on one end and the unintentionally funny at the other—not necessarily in a camp sense, rather that a "strong reading" is required to literally "see the humor." Oh, and I screwed up, Gary, I did mean to put your book (not YOU, not even all your poetry, just that book) as -x, +y. My mistake. No one describable as "the Lester Bangs of poetry" could ever be -y.

Here's another, perhaps equally tendentious version of my grid:


This obviously leaves humor completely to one side, but it's a homologous x-axis in that it seems to have something to do with tone, which is closely tied to intent, as opposed to the y axis which is more empirically recognizable. What strikes me about this grid is how much of what I can loosely call postmodern poetry is weighted toward the sublime end. To invoke Kant in a literal-minded way, the sheer volume of avant-garde production (compared to the one book every five years or so model that seems typically quietudinous) (and which tends toward maximalism without being identical with it, since one can publish many many short poems) presents readers with the mathematical sublime, while the action of indeterminacy (still the major move in post-Language poetry, though I think poets like Jarnot and Moxley are choosing a more tangled, "metaphysical," even Donne-ian approach, which fascinates me) imitates the dynamic sublime in confronting the reader with the awesomely unlimited abyssal power of the signifier. Beauty is more often the obvious goal of quietudinous poets, but I'm always drawn to innovative poetry that demonstrates a commitment to beauty in sound and/or image: Barbara Guest strikes me as a n exemplary -x, -y poet on this new grid. Ronald Johnson's earlier poetry seems -x, +y (and yet he so often works by subtraction!); ARK is an interesting limit case because the monumental whole is +x, +y while the individual components, which don't really "add up" to anything but a sense of mathematical/cumulative awe, are exquisitely turned -x, -y poems.

I don't intend these grids as anything other than images of the provisional ledges by which I gain a toehold on the new poetry I come across. They are meant to come dialectically undone under pressure.

Monday, March 15, 2004


You will sink in a mire. You like to think you're
normal, but deep down you really just want to
strip off your clothes and roll around in
chicken fat.

What horrible Edward Gorey Death will you die?
brought to you by Quizilla

Check out Deborah's gorgeous Queen of Chain poems, posted in response to my question about poetry based on Cremaster. I haven't seen the Queen yet, but I will on Wednesday. Come to think of it, Deborah's poems have always been Barney-esque; I'm thinking especially of Cremaster 2 with all the bees.

Also a belated blogroll welcome to the st*ar nosed mole.

Yow, customers!
I like Aaron's little dog grid quite a bit, though I can't quite "read" it. I can see it as an index of the image, with the different dogs suggesting different emphases: the lower right dog seems to represent allegiance to the experience of representation (with the flash preserved); the upper left dog is a version of pointillism; the lower left dog is cubist or perhaps simply the will toward abstraction; and so on. But how these little dogs speak to "the mind's ear" is unclear to me; I can't hear them barking. Gary's version is more of a black hole (remember that Disney movie from the early eighties, The Black Hole? With the faceless robots? Scary!) representing perhaps poetry's infinite ability to lightlessly absorb grids. Which can hardly be gainsaid.

Flipping through Clayton Eshleman's new book Juniper Fuse, enraptured by his use of this Hart Crane quote. It's from a prose poem, "Havana Rose":
And during the wait over dinner at La Diana, the Doctor had saiid—who was American also—"You cannot heed the negative—, so might go on to underserved doom . . . must therefore loose yourself within a pattern's mastery that you can conceive, that you can yield to—by which also you win and gain that mastery and happiness which is your own from birth."
A beautiful dialectic of mastery and surrender; a twentieth century updating of Wyatt's "Sithens in a net I seek to hold the wind."

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Anthony Robinson joins my blogroll, and has some bones to pick about my little grid below. I already said it was subjective, but with that major caveat out of the way:

1) Feel free to put Chaucer on the grid, but the thing about most dead poets, especially the long dead, is that their historicity tends to trump this (obviously spatial) method of classification. I already know what Chaucer is "for," and don't need therefore to "place" him this way. Which doesn't mean I couldn't learn something from doing that or that it isn't kind of too bad that I can no longer read Chaucer "naively." The naivete of my little grid is, I think, its primary virtue and limitation.

2) Chaucer and Koch are both -x, +y. Do they have anything else in common? A more interesting comparison that comes to mind is Spenser and Koch; I'm thinking of Koch's book of apostrophes to abstract entities, which for me parallels the oddities that result from the extreme anthropomorphization that goes on with Spenser's allegorical figures. (Spenser is +x, +y though).

3) "Funny" and "serious" are for me entirely questions of tone. To be more precise, in the "experimental" work that I'm applying this grid to, the x axis describes the spirit in which logopoetic play, in all its varieties, is embarked upon. When Susan Howe etymologizes a word, she tends to be +x; when Lisa Jarnot structures a Steinian repetition of "little hot chickens," she's being -x. Which does not mean that the poem in which she does this has no "serious" or political intent. I'm tracking a particular effect (or affect) which helps me manage the ever-expanding library of contemporary poetry that I'm carrying around in my head.

4) I have no idea if anyone other than me would find this model useful. But I put it up because I'm curious about the means people employ to manage the sheer prolificness of the innovative poetry scene. When you attune your antennae to small press publishing, it's hard not to feel overwhelmed. I should point out too that I do not particularly favor any one of these vectors—there are poets in all four that I value. Plus the setting of bounds immediately creates a zone beyond bounds: poetry that defeats this mode of classification becomes immediately especially interesting to me. Jarnot is already complicated, as I noted below—and you can see how I've tried to domesticate her a little bit above; an unfortunate side-effect of systems-making, even a deliberately crude and rudimentary system such as this one. But I'm intrigued by poets who might dialectically confound these categories. Are there Baroque Minimalists? Austere Maximalists? The x vector seems more a question of that tone/intent distinction: funny writing for serious ends (the reverse is hard to imagine, except as parody).

I hope people will come up with/admit to their own grids and post them!

Friday, March 12, 2004

Here's the method of classification I tend to find most useful for contemporary poetry (apologies for the way your browser may screw this up; it's supposed to be a classic squared + sign):


Obviously this purely spatial model omits the question of history and lineage. But I sometimes wonder if we're all not a little too obsessed with history and lineage—why am I always grubbing around looking for parents (or better, grandparents)? Why my Anxiety to Proclaim My Influences? This little axis is a much better representation of the way in which I tend to "place" a given poet when reading their work. The historicism/lineage approach tends to come into play prior to this, when I choose a given magazine or book to read because it bears the traces of a history which I'm already interested in. But when I'm actually reading, somewhere inside my brain that poet gets assigned a point (a single poet may hit multiple marks of course, especially across a career). Michael Palmer scores +x, -y; a book like Gary's How to Proceed in the Arts is a -x, -y; hardcore langpos like Ron or Barrett Watten score very high in the x, y zone; Jarnot's Black Dog Songs is -y but highly motile along the x axis; and so on.

Not sure how much analysis this structure will bear, but it's a fairly accurate representation of my most visceral subjective judgments.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Finally took the time to make my blog less ugly. Now it has that icy feel that most people find so welcoming. I am sadly constitutionally incapable of figuring out what colors look good together, at least in blogspace.
Okay, maybe it's not really a good poem, and I didn't realize how old it was. I don't know why I should find myself in the position of defending Ploughshares, but check out the table of contents for their Winter 2002-2003 issue. C.D. Wright was the guest editor and poets I admire in the TOC include Caroline Crumpacker, Christopher Janke, Erin Moure, Brian Teare, and Liz Waldner (there's also some nonfiction by Eleni Sikelianos and a marvelously strange play by Thalia Field). So there.
Aaron's ruminations on Patchen and satisfaction have got me thinking. The attraction to a poet who's no longer on the avant radar reminds me of my own attraction to Delmore Schwartz's work—although Patchen's brand of creaturely affirmation is rare there. It's more the unabashed Freudianism linked with the quasi-Shakespearean language and the ethical handwringing that gets me—Delmore Schwartz as the Jewish Berryman.

The question of satisfaction might be rephrased as one of affirmation. One of the reasons I'm obsessed with pastoral is that I see it as being opposed to the (capitalist/patriarchal/war-ridden) world-as-given and thus profoundly negative; but it is also a positive representation of creaturely enjoyment and satisfaction (though not luxury). Patchen's poem is a perfect little urban pastoral that way. But I'm also convinced that the most interesting 20th century pastoral is found in the work of the Objectivists and their heirs--that the poem which prioritizes being over meaning is closer to the fantasy of natural fulfillment that pastoral represents.

I tend to find affirmation/satisfaction more readily in language that conveys lushness rather than that which attempts to represent a situation of satisfaction—such as Stevens' divine but near-meaningless lines, "Chieftain Iffucan of Azcan in caftan / Of tan with henna hackles, halt!" But then of course we're pushing past mere satisfaction into the realm of the sublime (the mathematical overflow of semantics, the dynamic power of sound). So "satisfaction" tends more toward the Kantian beautiful when it's in a poem—that which pleases universally without a concept. Within the poem it's more like the pleasing, since the speaker has an interest in his own sexual and gastronomic satisfaction. But as a representation culminating in the line "Our supper is plain but we are very wonderful," it might be beauty.

No, I don't think satisfaction with the world-as-given is "allowed." But plenty of poets provide visions of a functioning microworld (based in the body but not in biopower) that implicitly rejects Ideological State Apparatuses, or the Deleuzian "segmentary," or total administration, or whatever you'd like to call it. The New York School poets were very adept at this; particularly O'Hara and Schuyler but I also see it in Barbara Guest and of course Ted Berrigan. I'm sure this list could be expanded. But again, I think the divide comes between a representation of direct, sensual satisfaction and language which pleases in this way—which is beautiful rather than sublime via indeterminacy or excess. Is "Our supper is plain but we are very wonderful" a beautiful line? I think it might be for me if it weren't the last line, or if through some other means it didn't have to bear the weight of an epiphany, the solution to the riddle of the poem. I prefer my riddles unsolved—better, unriddled.
My lord, what's happening in Spain?

And as long as I'm talking about the news, RIP Spalding Gray. The news was as sad as it was unsurprising, especially after I read this. I saw him perform his monologue "It's a Slippery Slope" in Missoula about six years ago. He was always one of those artists who excited me because the seeming simplicity and directness of his approach made what he was doing seem radically new. I have similar feelings now about Matthew Barney, having seen Cremaster 3 last night. Wow, man. Of course there's nothing simple or direct about what Barney does in his films; they're as baroque and complex as an cut-up of Escher prints and Eraserhead would be, in full color yet. But I do get a strangely similar feel of the most direct possible access to the artist's unconscious—which is not to say there isn't a considerable amount of ironic and formal mediation, wildly on display in Barney's work and visible as visual discretion (the plaid shirt, the table, the glass of water) in Gray's. Seeing them in action gave me that feeling I get from the best poetry, a feeling called inspiration by any other name.

As near as I can tell, Cremaster 3 is "about" the aggression behind the masculine cabal that stands behind masculine/capitalist acts of creation, however beautiful the works themselves, such as the Chrysler Building, might be. Anyway. Astonishing images, some quite disturbing. Quite a bit of verbal humor too, in the credits and in the levels of "The Order." Has anyone written poems inspired by Barney? It seems too obvious an angle to pursue, but you could do a lot with the figure of Aimee Mullins (the beautiful model/athlete with no legs below the knee) alone. And there's two more movies to go!

Monday, March 08, 2004

My knee-jerk reaction to Ron's test is to try and find something interesting in Ploughshares. How about this? Wouldn't be that out of place in Kiosk, I'm thinking.

Ron's constant categorization of poetry into us & them (there seem to be multiple "usses" but only one "them") strikes me as an example of how what starts as a convenient method for winnowing chaff becomes an end in itself—it's the dialectic of enlightenment all over again. I myself am swayed by the names of authors, blurbists, publishers, and the look/feel of a given book, magazine, or website. There's just too much stuff being published to not do this. But I think it's my responsibility as a reader to extend the antennae a bit further, to be at least prepared to receive signals from other sources. The anonymous "test of poetry" is too artificial; far from directing my attention more to the text itself, both Ron and Zukofsky's tests return me to the compulsive catbird seat of identity establishment: who wrote this? Better I think to listen to the advice of friends (and I certainly count other bloggers as friends, at least for this purpose); and better to not entirely shut one's ears to the "official" culture, however maddening the episodes this exposes you to might be. I certainly don't expect to do without Lucie Brock-Broido just because she's published by Knopf (and has several times appeared in Ploughshares!), reviewed in the New York Times, and dissed by Ray McDaniel (though I grant he makes some valid and interesting points, particularly about the "anonymity" of Brock-Broido's own work—that is, the exclusion of the language and furniture of modernity). Which is not to say I'm interested in pluralism for its own sake: I think the energy mustered by partisanship is too valuable a resource to be squandered. I'm just more interested in partisanship for kinds of writing than in partisanship against other kinds.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

At the beginning of the seminar he taught last semester on Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, Prof. Peter Hohendahl said that he believed Adorno had become a "classic," by which he seemed to mean a text that no longer directly engaged our intellectual environment (it was no longer an "intervention"), but rather had become part of that environment's foundations, the necessary backdrop for understanding that which was not yet classic (he seemed to imply that this was the status of Habermas' text) and which was still active in the struggle to make/understand our world ("how everybody is doing everything," in Gertrude Stein's parlance, which incidentally goes to the root of the too-easily effaced Aufhebung between making and understanding). I believe a collorary to this proposition is that one may take two basic approaches to reading a "classic": reading it as background, as intellectual history, as a secondary source to a more primary (that is, contemporary) text; or one may engage it directly by reading it "against the grain," which is to say "close reading"—treating the text as a literary text. Literary texts themselves may be read as classics—I take any straightforward explication of, for example, what Eliot and Pound were up to in The Waste Land as a "classic" reading; they may also be read against the grain, which is probably ninety percent of the Eliot explication industry (New Historicist readings, postcolonial readings, and so forth). The problem that I'm experiencing now arises from trying to write about texts which have an undeniably "classic" status for the post-avant community (Oppen, Zukofsky, Olson, Johnson) but are still virtually unknown to the literary community at large (represented synecdochally in this case by English departments). A fair amount of interpretive labor is still required on my part simply to understand and explicate what someone like Oppen was up to: I have to distinguish objectivist from symbolist modes of writing, explain the often negative presence of the political, trace the influence of Heidegger, etc. But a large number of poets and a smaller number of critics have already more or less internalized all this stuff: they have been influenced by Oppen, often in fundamental ways, without having mustered the kind of large-scale critical investigation to transform him into an acknowledged classic. I guess I'm talking about the unfinished labor of canon formation, which becomes especially problematic in the case of writers (and their self-appointed descendants) who seek to undermine the hierarchical and institutional structures that make canons possible in the first place.

This is the sort of problem that disappears if you look at it from the right angle, and this angle is easily accessible to me when I wear my poet's hat: it's enough to me to intuit and respond to the nearly astral influences shed by a canonically "unknown" (unknowable?) poet like Ronald Johnson without producing a treatise on his poetics. But my other hat, that of the literary scholar, is really only fun to wear when I'm able to assume a text's classicness so I can skip the labor of explication and go right to the kind of speculative improvisation that reading-against-the-grain encourages. It is my continued and perhaps naive hope that it's posssible to do this sort of writing as a scholar, footnotes and all. Certainly a large part of the pleasure I've already derived from my dissertation research ("research" never seems like quite the right word, since I'm not delving in archives; it's almost more like a highly disciplined variety of daydreaming) comes from reading texts against the grain of their "classical" context: when I turn Lawrence into an Objectivist or locate a momentary rejection of Christian transcendence in Eliot's Four Quartets I get a lovely little frisson. It's also true that the status of these texts qua classics means that I can do what I like to them without fear of "damaging" them or inhibiting their canonicity; this might even be my explicit goal. But when I write about Johnson, I do want to enter him into the canon, or at least a canon: I want my reading to lead to further readings. This might be a fundamentally different critical task, requiring other faculties than those the clever graduate student generally relies upon. It's probably no coincidence that the best writer on Johnson I've been able to locate is Guy Davenport, whose style is erudite without ever being academic, and whose essays invariably make me want to read whatever writer he's discussing, be it Johnson or Archilocus. This genre of writing is closer to the review than it is to the critical essay. But what does it mean to write a "review" of Discrete Series or RADI OS? A willful travesty of temporality in answer to the travesty of these writers' having gone unreviewed in their own time?

I am starting to put together a little essay on Johnson's ARK, and perhaps thinking of it as a review will provide me with the elbow room that I fear treating him as an undercanonized classic will deprive me of.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

New work is up at the elegant webzine 42opus.
Hear, hear Yingpow's eloquent defense of blogging, and, more importantly, her expression of the general American loneliness which I would argue besets poets all the more strongly because they are unwilling or unable to drug themselves out of feeling it the way most folks do. Nobody gets to "be a poet" without living with the pain of a limb in perpetual thaw. I've had the good fortune of institutional support now for years after finishing my Montana MFA, which has given me time to figure out a strategy for living as a poet (also time to run up thousands of dollars in debt, but that's another story). I wonder if it would be possible to teach the stuff I've picked up in a directed way—perhaps the best an MFA program could do would be to foster an atmosphere in which people felt safe enough to express these concerns and fears. Must think more about this.

Saw the first two movies in Matthew Barney's Cremaster cycle last night. Very intense, very David Lynch in Eraserhead mode. (I wonder if they can be said to have mutually influenced each other.) My favorite moment comes at the end, when (a surprisingly effective) Norman Mailer as Harry Houdini leans down from the stage to inquire of the mysteriou Fay, "Madam, what is your discipline?"

What indeed.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

So I'm standing there in the polling booth, looking at all the switches, and I realize: I don't want to vote for Edwards. He's just as weasely as Kerry is on gay marriage and Iraq; he just doesn't have as long a record of weaseliness. Who is the candidate who most closely represents my own views (short of a complete restructuring of our government into a parliamentary system)? Who is the candidate who won't do any damage to the eventual nominee (Kerry), yet who just might push the party a bit further to the left if he can bring some delegates to the table? It's Kucinich. It was Kucinich the whole time.

I voted my heart and it felt good.

Monday, March 01, 2004

Need a narrative to sustain me now. Drifting among pieces of poems from Norma Cole, Lisa Fishman, Rosmarie Waldrop. Brief scalding baths in their intelligence. But I spent most of the evening finishing a novel by Charles Baxter, Saul and Patsy. A book of modest ambitions, I thought as I was reading it, but it turns out to be yet another response (less bloody than most) to the Columbine massacres. A satisfyingly miniature world. So many novelists depend on the construct of the village to make their plots work: a limited number of characters mattering to each other. But how many of us still live in villages? Maybe we all still do and what dissatisfies me about these works (and most fiction) is how it doesn't pay the right sort of attention to how nowadays we make and will our villages. Blogland the obvious example, though the Buffalo-listers (won't you stay home tonight?) decry us as boutiquists to their public square, which somehow in their rhetoric manages to combine the virtues of manfulness with vulnerability. We are all vulnerable enough already, I think. It bores me. The problem bores me. No: not the problem, but its setting. An insufficiency of foil.

Rosmarie Waldrop, from her poem "In a Flash" in Love, Like Pronouns:
There were fragments. I was born.
It was not justified. I
learned: the impenetrability of bodies.
But a penetrating look? To "surge
before." To haggle ill-equipped.
And "that other" opposed to.
Desire. I was calm between my selves.
Reminds me of the beginning of Clark Coolidge's At Egypt: "I came here. I don't know you here." Brilliant. The givenness, the inheritance, of position. This goes back to what Gary was saying about marking. Which has sent me back to Bruce Andrews from the library today. I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up. Exactly. or, Social Romanticism. Yes. Writing is fighting is the already holey body, hiding the reader's face in its sleeves.

Barney's Cremaster cycle has come to Cornell Cinema this week, and it sounds like I'm ready for it.

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