Monday, August 30, 2004

Oh, I totally forgot to mention that Karl Parker, one of the finest poets to come through Cornell, is featured this week over at No Tell Motel.
Improbable quantities of rain continue to fall on us. Still deep in the Lacan-made-simple (or at least practical) book. It's funny how psychoanalysis has fallen into disfavor in the U.S. On the one hand, it obviously operates at a great distance from our positivist, show-me, WYSIWYG attitudes when it comes to the exercise of rationality. Classify every little disorder and isolate its location in the brain or nervous system, then concoct the appropriate pharmaceutical. But on the other hand, psychonalysis is a terrific example of pragmatic principles in its operation: it's true because it works. So psychoanalysis seems to open up a fault line in the American intellecutal character between positivism and pragmatism. Maybe. The dismaying thing about Lacan is the strongly implicit social conservatism, most visible here in a long footnote of Fink's where he reflects on the potential damage done by societal changes that diminish the role of the father (both the literal and Symbolic father) and the Law he's supposed to lay down, such as single parenthood, gay couples, etc. Here's the end of the note:
If we are to preserve some notion of a just Law above and beyond the particular laws of the land—given the current legitimation crisis of the legal, juridical, and executive branches of government [note that this was written a half-decade before the Supreme Court crowned Bush]—a just Law that is equitably and uniformly enforced, we must have an experience of Law at home which at least approaches that ideal to some degree. As rare as this experience may be in the stereotypical nuclear family, practices currently being advocated seem likely to make it rarer still. As Lacan once said, in a pessimistic vein, "I won't say that even the slightest litle gesture to eliminate something bad leaves the way open to something still worse—it always leads to something worse" (Seminar III, 361).
I have a complicated response to this. On the one hand, I recognize in my own life the importance of the operation of Law, though there a number of different Laws or Law-schemas operating in my life in contradiction with each other, causing a certain amount of confusion (the Ten Commandments generally hold sway with me, but there's an even more basic Law that I took in at a very early age which might simply be called "fairness." Interesting that it was my mother who would most often trot out the old saw, "Sometimes life isn't fair" when she was laying down a contradictory Law, like me needing to go to bed before the guests arrived. Was my father then the guarantor of fairness? Hm). And I think there are a number of good laws on the books, like the basic ones prohibiting crimes against persons, against property (though when someone possesses too much property—how to define it?—I have Robin Hood-like instincts), and the fulfillment of contracts freely and knowledgably entered into. But I'm also attracted to more utopian, anarchist systems: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." Fink and Lacan would call that a recipe for psychosis on a massive scale, and perhaps they're right. It seems like anarchy could only be trustworthy in the hands of those with more or less traditional, non-anarchic upbringings, because if anarchy isn't brought out of the realm of the Symbolic (that is, language) then it will surely be anarchy in the pejorative sense (produced by the Imaginary, realm of rivalry and violence). Which doesn't mean anarchy doesn't transgress the Symbolic; its whole point is to contest arbitrary systems of hierarchy and value. But the state of being that we would live in if the Symbolic were destroyed is literally unImaginable. It seems that if you accept Lacan, you have to reject the notion of a revolution in the psyche and settle for reform, amelioration, and coping. And in what meaningful sense could you pursue a political revolution while leaving the psyche founded upon the nuclear family and the Father-function as is?

Clearly when I'm done with Fink, who is making so much that was obscure about Lacan's ideas clear to me (though I have congenital difficulty with the mathemes), I'll have to return to Deleuze and Guattari and Anti-Oedipus, probably the best known rejection of psychoanalysis' reactionary tendencies. But from what I recall of their work, it always again makes the most sense as a means of subverting existing structures. Nobody has a plan for the new structure within which we will experience total liberation and redemption. I instinctively gravitate toward the notion that the redeemed world will look exactly like this one, only with some slight yet all-determining difference. A difference in the orientation toward nature, both inside and outside the human being. Lacan derides this idea as "pastoral," as the notion of the drives coming to have a "natural" home, as opposed to having them written onto the body; D & G celebrate the possibility of a schizophrenic "body without organs." I'll have to think on this some more. What it will eventually have to do with Pound or Williams or Zukofsky or Johnson or Lisa Robertson, God only knows.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

What a lovely if muggy weekend. Farmers' Market yesterday morning, a nap, They Might Be Giants for free on the Cornell Arts Quad (have you seen this video?), then a fine reading by Ithaca's newest poet laureate (one out of three ain't bad) and dinner afterwards. This morning we walked the dog up the hill to have brunch at ABC Cafe (I loathe its extreme hippiness but they make a hell of a cheddar-guac omelet) and home to deal with bills and some housecleaning (less fun, but very necessary). A quiet evening with pizza and Diablo II (Aaron got me nostalgic about hack-n-slash—no, not in his poetry) followed. A nice weekend.

And yet there's that nagging feeling of missing out on history. Still, just reading about it is inspiring. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Republicans' utterly cynical choice of New York completely and utterly backfired on them? Huge, peaceful protests like today's every day are going to steal the Bushies' thunder. And it sounds like the crowds are dominated by ordinary looking (though overly white) folks who won't easily be dismissed as elitist or leftist freaks. Meantime, I'm hoping that the "compassionate conservative" varnish has eroded enough so that people will be able to see these people for who they are: not just corrupt, not just fanatical, but mean. Blue Meanies!
Tee hee.

Thunderstorm coming. Here and in NYC.
I ain't going anywhere near the Republican National Convention. Actually, I'm a little worried about how the Republicans may make political hay in Middle America with the antics of the protesters. But I'm more worried about Orwellianisms like "Free Speech Zone," so—go to it.
Apropos of Lacan, Kent Johnson sent me this link. Yoru'll love it.

Friday, August 27, 2004

An example of how Fink cuts to the chase vis-a-vis Lacan:
Demand is, of its very nature, repetitive. The patient's insistent, repetitive demand for an instantaneous cure gives way to something that moves, that is intrigued with each new manifestation of the unconscious (or "unconscious formation"), that attaches itself to each new slip and explores it; in a word, the patient's demand gives way to desire, desire which is always in motion, looking for new objects, alighting here and there but never sitting still. In a sense, the patient has exchanged demand for desire—not completely, of course, since patients make further demands on their analysts throughout their analyses, demands for interpretation, recognition, approval, and so on. But the patient has been willing to let go of certain demands, and a demand always involves a kind of fixation on something (which is why one repeatedly asks for the same thing, that thing one feels one cannot do without). Thus, the patient has given up a certain fixation for desire, for the pleasure stemming from the metonymy of desire, the term "metonymy" here implying simply that desire moves from one object to the next, that in and of itself desire involves a constant slippage or movement. Desire is an end in itself: it seeks only more desire, not fixation on a specific object. (26)
Among other things, this paragraph helps make tangible for me Barthes' distinction between the text of pleasure and the text of jouissance: the former yields to the reader's pre-existing demands (one of the strongest of which being that the text "recognize" the reader and the way she constructs her world) while the latter provides the pleasure-in-pain of renouncing demand and instead flitting from one object to the next—a movement or interval of flitting (I think of Fourier's papillone passion) taking place within the book, paragraph, sentence, or word (the shorter the interval the more intense, to speak literally, the frequency is: so Finnegans Wake [note: this is the corrupt edition; if you want the real deal track down a copy of the one with the green-and-white cover] remains the ne plus ultra of les textes de jouissance). I think I still prefer as a reader those texts which provide one or more anchor-points of demand or pleasure around which the vertiginous play of desire can romp, like a dog tied to a stake. The high frequency free play of desire experienced when I read a text like the Wake or Tjanting (which is, fittingly, slightly broader in band than Joyce; that is, the movement is more often from sentence to sentence rather than within a word, between letters and languages) is something I can only handle in small doses. That's why it's taken me and my Finnegans Wake reading group three years to read maybe one hundred pages.
The primitive and overtaxed computer over here at The Bookery just ate a long post I did complaining about not having time to think about anything, about feeling overwhelmed by all there is to read, both academic, non-academic, and poetic. The longing I feel for some empty space, just me and a window looking on something lovely and a blank notebook, so as to exchange its blankness for the junk in my head. And I was going on about how the pressure to read BAP 2004 feels like the proverbial straw—as good as it looks, I can't hold that anthology without feeling a manic desire to rush through it, to absorb it with the minimum of time and effort, because there are so many other demands upon my attention. I often feel that way about poetry books that are entirely worthy but which don't have an immediate and electric grab on my attention. Which is a shame, because there's lots of poetry which works entirely against the grain of that kind of sensationalism. I find I can't even read the criticism I need to absorb for my dissertation without monumental impatience these days. I wish I could just sit down and write it without reading another blessed word about anything. But it's not to be. It's always disconcerting when I get tired of reading because reading is so entirely my default mode; I literally don't know what to do with myself without a piece of print handy. It's easier to give myself permission to read things that might be tangentially related to my interests than it is to read completely unrelated things (like novels) or the core stuff. For example, I'm completely absorbed by Bruce Fink's A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. I guess it's obvious that Lacan was a practicing psychoanalyst and that psychoanalysis is something that still goes on, in France and elsewhere, but my principal reaction to this book's existence was: who knew? Anyway, as a practical guide it's the clearest and simplest explanation of Lacan's ideas that I've ever encountered. What has this got to do with my dissertation? Almost nothing. It's that "almost" which makes it possible for me to read a knotty text like this and enjoy it. Because I can justify to part of my brain that "this may come in handy someday, maybe even in your dissertation!" While the part of my brain that wants to play hooky does its darndest to turn the book into a longwinded version of one of those Cosmo quizzes. (And the answer so far appears to be that I and everyone else I know are garden-variety neurotics. It seems a lot cooler to be perverted, and not at all cool to be psychotic. But c'est le guerre.)

Anyway, that's what I was gonna blog about. But now I won't.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Saw an ad today for the slew of new books that Brenda Hillman has chosen for publication by New Issues. I like her taste; I'd probably like these books. I'll even order some for the Bookery. But why, oh why, is their design so ugly? The Green Rose books (for poets on their second book or later) look okay, but the New Issues series lacks even the homely appeal of Black Sparrow's crude designs and rough cover paper. It's mystifying. They ought to hire Jeff Clark away from FSG. If they must use the same template for the whole series, maybe he could come up with one for them on a pro bono basis.
The Cornell campus is swarming with day-before-classes-start energy. It's kind of sticky.

I'd like to welcome Laura Carter's blue revisions to the blogroll. She has a marvelous post today on gender in writing which distills some of the quasi-essentialist and/or metaphysical theories on the feminine I'm mostly familiar with from French theory in a very clear way. The Evdokimov quote is terrific. I'm very conscious, largely because of my mother and various women I've known in my life, of how "the types of women created by history" are probably not true, not "normative." It's difficult to posit a notion of the feminine that isn't assembled in contradistinction from the masculine. But on a more pragmatic level, I demand access to feminine modes of being, thinking, and writing for myself (though not in a drag show kind of way) and for everyone—I don't think a woman should have to be/think/write "like a man" to be heard, to be successful. Men who insist on always writing like men are cutting themselves off from the unconscious of the language (a "content" in language that some but not all feminist projects are devoted to foregrounding, making conscious). So I too am drawn to poets, male and female, who consciously or unconsciously (consciously is more interesting if it's not overdetermining) search out the feminine. (A recent book that does this to spectacular and queasy effect is Catherine Wagner's Macular Hole.)

Where I part ways with Carter (isn't that terribly "masculinist," referring to someone by their last name only? It smacks of prep school machismo. But "Ms. Carter" is even worse) is on Stevens and his alleged "musclarity, secularism, priggishness." Are we talking about the same poet? I suppose one could characterize the later Stevens that way, but the effete, sybaritic persona that presides over Harmonium? His language in those poems is so delectable, so delightful, and so mischievous that even the heavy sonorousness of "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven" or "Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction" echo, to my mind, the earlier work's brightness, like a flicker of sunlight reflected by the reverse of a coin.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Inspiration is in short supply today: there's nothing I even want to read, let alone write. Which is a shame since I'm working in the bookstore today, surrounded by books, notebook at the ready. The news is distracting—is this Najaf thing going to turn into the equivalent of blowing up the Temple Mount? (In some ways my views of Middle East politics are still guided by the not half-bad analysis performed by Tom Robbins in his 1995 novel Skiny Legs and All.) And although I still want to see Kerry elected, his strategy of hewing to the mainstream and refusing to make any big gestures—like, say, denouncing the war he's still on record as supporting—depresses me. It's like we, the liberal base of the Democratic party, are being winked at: just go along for now and I'll take care of you when I'm elected. But if he doesn't verbalize a commitment to the left, it doesn't exist. The phrase "rightward drift of the country" irritates me so much. Is it really true? Who decides these things? Is there really a progressive tradition in this country or are we just living in the increasingly tattered remnants of a New Deal that represents a mere deviation in the history and policies of a nation whose national motto up to that point was, and now seems to be again, "I've Got Mine, Jack"? Faugh. It doesn't help that Ithaca, island of liberalism in a working-class Republican (that ought to be an oxymoron, damnit) region, has been re-invaded by students who radiate oblivousness, entitlement, and raw destructive force (in their parents' SUVs, in the broken bottles on the sidewalk). We're our own Little Baghdad, invaded by ourselves.

So it's hard, as ever, to concentrate on the dissertation, though I did do some actual thinking about it yesterday for the first time in weeks. Also read Rosmarie Waldrop's wonderful essay "Alarums and Excursions" in The Politics of Poetic Form. One of the most lucid statements proponing experimental poetry that I've ever come across. I wish I had known about it in time to have my creative writing students read it last year.

Still feeling a desire to do something with narrative, eventually. But not like a fiction narrative with characters and backstory and all that. More like the way a dance can be narrative—the way any two people on a stage have a relationship just because they're on the stage together. Or how any one person alone on the stage has a relationship with themselves and their movements and the audience. First, though, I'd like to finish Severance Songs. How to do it? Just pick a number and stop there? Or do all those sonnets need some kind of frame—some prose, somewhere? What if I gave them all titles? Lots to ponder, little time or space to do the pondering in.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Yes? Is that a question in the back?

I started blogging in January 2003 after having discovered the blogs of Ron Silliman, Gary Sullivan, Jonathan Mayhew, K. Silem Mohammed, and Stephanie Young. Initially the idea was to get used to being in public, to grow a public "skin" for myself. My first book had recently been accepted for publication and I knew that meant I had to get used to the idea of me and my work being reviewed and being talked about—something which both excited and appalled me. (Wilde: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.") There were other factors. I live in Ithaca, New York ("centrally located in the middle of nowhere") and while there is a lively (and growing) poetry community here, I was starting to feel a bit isolated. The kind of conversation that blogging encourages, less confrontational or dialogic than polyphonic, greatly appealed to me. I love the act of voluntary filiation that happens when you link to someone or something that you like (or hate!). Filiation, community, and plain old friendship are, for me, the most important byproducts of writing, enlarging the ramifications and possibilities of communication (though they also run the risk of putting fetters on one's imagination). I also thought that the casual yet intense discourse that blogging fosters provided me an ideal way in which to explore my jagged academic identity—to disover, stumblingly and in public, how to be a poet who's also an intellectual. Finally, the events of the past few years have served to radicalize me politically. Although I am as yet in no sense an activist, I am at least I think no longer merely an aesthete. The blog has provided a forum in which I've described my contact with various strains of leftist thought. Who knows? I might even have influenced a reader or two.

The remarkable thing about the blog is how richly it has repaid me for the effort of doing this sort of mental doodling almost every day. I've made dozens of new friends and acquaintances I might never have met otherwise. I've corresponded with poets and readers from all over the country and the world. I started the whole Aubergine thing (and I promise it will materialize in one form or another before the snow starts flying). I've turned myself into a more rigorous reader and thinker (having an audience for one's musings, like the prospect of being hanged, concentrates the mind wonderfully). I've also learned that one can in fact recover from saying stupid things in public; it's not the end of the world. And the negativity and blowback that I expected has mostly failed to materialize.

In some ways blogging is nothing new under the sun; it's another version of the columns in Blackwoods or The Tatler, or the feuilletons in nineteenth-century newspapers. What is radically new about them is the relative democracy involved: anyone with access to a computer and the desire can turn themselves into a writer and contribute to the ongoing, ever-ramifying conversation about poetry. My circle of correspondents (co-respondents) is growing every day. At some point I suppose that might become overwhelming, but for now it's an exhilirating way for a basically shy guy to enlarge his social, intellectual, and imaginative world.
Jeremy Bushnell comes to my rescue (along with several other helpful folks, including Kevin Davies himself) and informs me that those who would rather not read Lateral Argument on screen or from a printout can purchase a copy from Barretta Books. I'ma gonna give it a try.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Here is an edifying exchange between me and Stuart Greenhouse apposite to the discussion I was having with Josh Hanson:

8/19/04 2:46 PM
I, like everyone, I imagine, greatly enjoy your blog. It has a great balance of personality and deep intelligence, very friendly.

I write because there is no comment field on your blog, and I am confused by the Heidiggerian circlings of your most recent post, regarding Oppen and a poem’s ‘objectitude’ vs. its ‘transcenditude’. You seem to by trying hard to avoid something I can’t pin down as to the nature of yet; but I do feel impelled to ask, out of curiosity, what object of the world doesn’t both refer beyond itself and exist separately from that it refers to? Isn't that a quantum balance, in that it can't partially refer unless it is partially separate? Who posits the existence of such a thing as other than theoretical (i.e. immoveable object)? Isn’t that what Olson means when he says “ENERGY”?

I don’t know if the horizontal v. elevated modeling of ‘transcendental’ is your construction or Heidigger’s (well, either way, it is very Heidigerrian, etymologically based, so I guess it doesn’t matter) but I think it is a little simple; it’s setting up a straw man maybe, though I don’t think you intend to. Again, I’ll rely on Olson, who relies on “SPACE” (yes, I think his caps are funny, too). Space is more than the two dimensions of your model-of-language. It’s more than three, also (Einstein etc.). More than four, too. Transcendent is a word (god, I know, super-famously etc.), a signifier which is not identical to what it signifies. I think it is best to let it do its referential work and, idea-experience gained or communicated, even if not verifiably exactly, let it go. Maybe that’ll help you advance on your interrogation.

This probably sounds really simpleminded. I’m sorry I’m not well-read-enough in the philosophical basis you are writing out of. I suppose it’s a hazard to write into a philosophical thought-process of another with one’s own writing-gained sense of how these things pan out, without the vocabulary matching & figured out. Please indulge me, I would like to understand where you’re coming from.

But I want to be clear: I don’t mean I don’t follow the logic, I do. Again, it’s what it avoids, what gives it its centripetal anchoring, I’m confused by. That is, it seems to be a construct, a self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system, one which is trying to isolate, as if a pearl, not admit, what it ostensibly wants to. (fancy: is the argument itself trying to be the example against itself? A syllogism?)

I hope this helps (or at least is intelligible), and also hope I’m not being boneheaded in some fixation I’m blind to the easiness of. & I look forward to your further excursions.

And, finally, I wish you the best of luck with your dog’s health.

All best,


Stuart Greenhouse

8/20/04 6:04 PM
Hi Stuart,

You have a nice blog as well--earnest and intelligent. Plus I empathize
with your dislike of Jersey humidity--I grew up with it.

Let's see if I can address your questions with a semblance of pertinacity.
You write that all objects refer to something beyond themselves, but that
doesn't make sense to me unless you're a Platonist. As a more-or-less
materialist, I think that only language refers to something beyond its own
material thingness. Of course, non-linguistic objects can be brought into
language--we can all agree that a mug of coffee is symbolic of friendship,
for example--but that still leaves language in its position of uniqueness
as that which both is and refers. What I puzzle over is how language does
in fact manage to refer--that is, how does its referral or "resemblance"
operate? To insist on a word's difference from what it refers to leaves
open the question as to how it got attached to its object in the first
place. Sassure would say it's completely arbitrary, but nothing that
humans do is completely arbitrary--nor can it be totally determined. This
is when I get interested in Rimbaud's idea that individual letters have a
color--when people try to determine and describe the attributes that
signifers have apart from reference, through which they only refer to
themselves. We can make language, or an Objectivist poem, as much of an
object as we can, but it seems neither possible nor desirable to totally
disable the referent function. The slippery thing about language is that
it's transcendent and immanent at once: as a thing, it's part of the
object world that it refers to, but the act of referring always implying a
transcendental origin OUTSIDE the sphere of things that referred to. That
looks to me a lot like Spicer's Outside, or Lacan's Real: it generates
language but can itself only be located indirectly in the form of the gap
between signifier and signified.

Yet these words do keep pointing at things we can pick up and put down: "I
gotta use words when I talk to you!" I'm interested in meanings of
connection, or being-with if you like, that supersede or bypass the
subject-object relation. If we take language and use it to make a concept,
then we have something that grabs its object firmly (though it will still
wriggle out of the concept's grasp if we look closely enough). But maybe
the relationship of language to its object can be nonconceptual, can be
something--well, friendlier than subject-object. I was reading an article
today about something called "ambient poetics"--the poetics of a
perception that happens prior to conceptualization--the aesthetic, that
is, in the most strictly Kantian sense. Which brings us back maybe to
Olson and SPACE. I don't strictly know where his ENERGY comes from. The
unconscious, probably--that part of us most in touch with the
unconceptualizable Real. Somehow the energy gets transferred over ("all
the way over") through language, is recognizable in the force field of the
poem (which the constellary appearance of page-as-field makes visually
explicit, making manifest the non-syntactical relations between words and
phrases). Inside, outside; horizontal, vertical. There's no getting away
from dualities and dichotomies. The best you can do is dialecticize the
terms and keep moving. Truth is what happens in the flow between
conceptual polarities.

I don't know if any of this is remotely coherent; I'm very much in a
see-what-I-said-to-know-what-I-think mode nowadays. Hopefully I'll get
enough of a grip on the ideas I've absorbed to produce something
resembling an argument. Abstract thought doesn't come quite naturally to
me, though it's fascinating; that's why I'm a poet first and a scholar

Let me know if I can post this whole malarkey--your question and my
rambling reply--on the blog.



8/20/04 10:23 PM
Hi Josh,

Thanks for the cogent reply. Of course, please, feel free to post anything you feel worthwhile. I'm pleased to think you want to, though I do ramble.

I'll do my best to frame my next response as best I can. You say ". . . unless you're a Platonist. As a more-or-less materialist, I think that only language refers to something beyond its own material thingness." I see--I am writing not (intentionally) as a Platonist, which strikes me as hopelessly top-down. I tend to think of material, absent consciousness, as a physicist (or someone with college classes in such) would, if one were me. I'd say, for example, that a magnet amongst iron filings refers to those filings, and that a tree refers to the sun, too. In a more Platonist and Stevensian mode I might say we all refer to the sun, but the sun doesn't necessarily refer to us. But that is an aside.
But you're right, this is not linguistic reference. I've never heard of Rimbaud's color theory, though it does neatly complicate things, I like it. And I like where you go in your second paragraph, the one beginning "Yet these words . . ." I find it very coherent, though I have little response to it yet.
As far as the general drift goes, I'm afraid we may be debating the old tree in the forest thing. You seem to be saying nothing can refer unless it is in language, and I'm saying language may be one of many referential systems--and that any referential system must be as well. Because, again from a physicalist point-of-view, if space and time are contiguous, then all interacts with all in some form or another, and gravity says it is constant on any scale. Let alone the quantum realities by which no object is as discrete as it appears; though there is reliability within scales, there are plenty of interactions between scales as well. And so on. I apologize for what over-assurance is in my argument; I mean it as possibility, supposition. I really don't know yet. Abstract thought confuses me too, especially where language is concerned. I have in mind what Perry Meisel says regarding James Joyce, that he wrote of a universe where there was only copies, and no originals (same could be said of Andy Warhol). But in mind confusedly.
Especially now. I haven't had this much consistent thought-trying in a very long time, and my brain is very tired. I apologize for the patchquilt's inadequacies, above. And thank you.

&: Jersey, huh? Whereabout?


Which is just about where we've left it. FYI: Morristown, NJ, a strategically hilly spot where Washington and his troops wintered during the Revolutionary War. They had an even grimmer winter there than they did at Valley Forge.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Hey, I got The Poker Issue 3 today. I love this magazine. Right now I'm grooving on the interview Marcella Durand did of Kevin Davies, which has turned me on to Quid, among other things. The poetry is also topnotch: I especially like the bit of Alan Davies, who I hadn't heard of before, "This Is Thinking"; it reminds me a little of the kind of aphoristic energy in Martin Corless-Smith's book Nota. There's also a chunk of Fanny Howe, including an essay reminiscent of those in her memoir, The Wedding Dress. A fiercely ethical animal, Fanny Howe. Don't love the Catholicism, though. I have less and less use for any sort of religion, though the terms of theology seem inescapable. I contradict myself, etc.

The small rain down doth rain, though it's not too frickin' small. I was soaked to the skin walking home from the library this afternoon. Plus the students are back, with their parents in tow. The summer's already over and we had maybe three sunny days the whole time. Phoo. Phooey.

I love the K. Davies interview. It's like having a beer with him. Maybe several beers. Where can I get a copy of Lateral Argument? I can't read something that long on the web; plus I'd like to stock it in the bookstore. SPD doesn't have it.

If any of my old students are reading this: I will finally be sending your portfolio comments to you this weekend. I swear.
We here at Cahiers de Corey specialize in baffling musings. Sometimes I wonder if I should go ahead and install a comments field—Stuart Greenhouse of the world a letter recently intervened in the Josh & Josh discussion, but he did it by e-mail. If I get permission, I will post his question and my reply. I've been leery of the comments field because the first time I tried it with Old Blogger, I compeltely destroyed my hard-earned template. The second time I tried it with Newstyle Blogger, nothing seemed to happen. Plus I hear terrible things about comment-spam and the like. So even though it's more than a little undemocratic, I'm continuing to resist the comments field. If folks tell me that it's easy and won't mean reconstructing my template again, I'll consider putting one in. In the meantime, I'll keep responding to any "Letters to the Blogger" (I'm certainly not an Editor) that I receive.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Josh Hanson, whose blog I've just become aware of, has this response to what I said about Oppen yesterday. Got all that? Hanson (to avoid confusion I won't call him "Josh") argues that since Oppen operates from a presumption of Heidggerian "in the worldness" or "being-with," the transcendental dichotomy that I extrapolated from his letter doesn't make sense. Of course, Heidegger's position is, literally, hard to determine: always already in the hermeneutic Kreis? It's been impossible for me to determine the vantage point from which Heidegger is able to make his observations about authentic being, etc.—how did he manage to escape the conditioning of modern inauthenticity? Sheer geniusness? Poetic thinking? Etymology? But anyway, we don't entirely escape dichotomy even if I accept Hanson's description of Oppen's stance, because the poem takes on a dual nature: it's an object (another object in-the-world on the same playing field as the objects that compose it—both the words and their referents) but it's also a "sincere document" of being-in-the-world (which is more or less synonymous with object-ness, no?). So already the poem is not identical with itself; a document is another object-in-the-world, but one that refers. I guess now I'm wondering if the act of referring is not automatically transcendental; even on the linguistic level, the semiotic is transcendental to the semantic, or vice versa. One could insist, I suppose, that the poem-as-object and the poem-as-document-as-object exist on the same horizontal plane. But the passage of time—the retreat into the past of the event-objects documented by the poem while the language the poem does its documenting in remains perpetually present-tensed—irresistibly introduces an elevated vantage point occupied by the reader, and probably the poet too. Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility" becomes Oppen's "object recorded in language." Oppen can then, through a kind of rhetorical force of skepticism or scorn, push language back down onto the level of its objects. But he goes against language's grain to do this, and it pushes back.

Well, even if I have managed to make a case for the (resisted) transcendental in Oppen, this doesn't address Hanson's point that Oppen's nominal poetics precludes anything resembling engagement, leaving us with the paradox of a leftist man with an artistocratic or decadent artistic stance resembling l'art pour l'art. This actually makes a good argument for Oppen as a pastoralist in Empson's sense of pastoral being about but not for "the people." Oppen's politics can only manifest in the poetry as another object for sincere documentation. Or perhaps they can manifest in/as language, which insists on its difference from the object-life it refers to. Stripped nude, almost obscenely so, his langugage nonetheless continues to manifest the strange Odradek-life that words display more antically in the mouth of a "Radical Dogberry" (to borrow a title from Chris Stroffolino), expressing themselves as objects almost simultaneously with the objects they express. Insofar as language always exceeds intention, it retains at least a subversive potential. But "subversive" isn't democratic, is it? I'm merely making the same argument by which Ezra Pound can be found to be deconstructing his own Fascist project for coherence. Language asserts its own autonomy and attacks all intentions, good or bad. I'm not prepared to accept this argument, which is too simple by half, but I can't think my way out of it just now.

Funny though to realize how I've taken Oppen's extreme aesthetic ascetism, which famously led him to renounce poetry altogether for decades, as a badge of his political goodwill, if not his efficacy: the existence of a leftist politics coupled with a refusal of the usual luxuries of poetic subjectivism led me to assume a causal connection that may not actually exist. It could even be read as a moment of classically Modernist snobbery. The refusal of poetry's usual pleasures does and will exclude many readers; I am reminded here of Adam Kirsch's claim in the new Poetry that a "poetics of authenticity" (back to Heidegger?) has been the dominant one in the past half-century of so; I don't agree with him at all that it's a failed project (Kirsch focuses willfully on a conception of totally bourgeois, individual authenticity, excluding alternative political possibilities and social imperatives) but I do think he might be on to something when he refers to the acesticism of such a poetry, its Puritan refusal of pleasure. Of course the pleasures he refers to are very specific ones, primarily the pleasures of meter and rhyme that we associated with conventional poetic beauty. That beauty might take other forms does not seem to occur to Kirsch, and he is also clearly uninterested in the notion of a sublime or Brechtian anti-beauty or unpleasure that does another kind of work on its reader. I'm tempted to call Kirsch's conception of beauty aristocratic, but if so it masquerades as populism—"it's not a real poem if it don't rhyme" and so forth. But here I am again using political metaphors to talk about aesthetic questions whose separation from politics (a capital-M mode of being-in-the-world) I've just demonstrated. It's a powerful habit which may itself have something to tell us about how language manages to both be in-the-world and also about-the-world. More on this later, maybe.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

This all makes lyric sound like a form of pragmatism. Though to be more than a see-what-sticks approach it has to come equipped with a historical imagination, so as to do the critical/destructive work required for fresh vision.
Then there's this quote from a letter of George Oppen to Serge Fauchereau in Michael Heller's book on the Objectivists:
The image for the sake of the poet, not for the sake of the reader. The image as a test of sincerity, as against: "the sun rose like a red-faced farmer leaning over a fence", which last is a picture intended for the delectation of the reader who may be imagined to admire the quaintness and ingenuity of the poet, but can scarcely have been a part of the poet's attempt to find himself in the world—unless perhaps to find himself as a charming conversationalist.
If we are still in the realm of lyric (Objectivist writing as a direct descendant of Imagism, itself intended as a break from the no-longer-functional undemocratic vistas offered by Victorian poetry's transcendental reflexes) then Oppen's caution refers to the "test of sincerity," the poet's full investment or venture of his or her subjectivity. "The poet's attempt to find himself in the world": in the world may be a refusal of transcendence, but the emphasis here is on finding, on making images that acurately render the individual's position re: the whole. This is not done dialectically but through sincerity. But who shall judge sincerity? And if there's a "you" over here and a "world" that you have to "find" yourself in, your position is transcendental, is it not? Perhaps the test of sincerity is the poet's willingness to renounce that transcendental locale the moment it is achieved.
Today is Definitions-of-Lyric Day at Cahiers de Corey. Leonard Schwartz: "Transcendental lyric, then, involves an art in which language is used in such a way as to produce at least the illusion of the presence of regions of being outside personal experience, an art in which subjectivity is again given access to the outside—a 'vision' which happens when image and idea are no longer separable, the contents of thought and the contents of the eye attaining a kind of synesthesia. Indeed, by its very nature the lyric is transcendental, desiring to go beyond the immediate so as to detach from the contingent fictions of the world, and not merely in a purely formal sense, but with the force of an ecstatic throb."

What unites this definition with Stroffolino's is its provisional, fictional, even hasty (if we associate lyric with speed or at least brevity) nature; lyric as metaphysical bricolage, an improvised Archimedean point. What's strange about this is the notion it brings of thousands of lyric Rube Goldberg machines littering the landscape, more or less detached from the occasions they were cries of. What do readers make of them? Does their functionality reside in our ability as readers to add components from our own experience, to start the egg rolling down the chute again?
A fistfull of Spuyten Duyvil books have arrived to enliven the shelves here at the Bookery. I was reading in Stroffolino's Spin Cycle this morning. His very smart essay on Jennifer Moxley's Imagination Verses includes this useful fragmentary definition of lyric vs. what I take to be more totalizing impulses (i.e., discursive or narrative poetry): "as a lyric poet, [Moxley] is more interested in weaving together fictions that suffice in a particular situation than she is in promulgating any overarching theoretical 'consistency'". A fine clarification of a Stevensian imperative. The book is badly edited, though; the good folks at SD could stand to hire a proofreader, if they could afford one. Still, I'm excited by this particular pile, which includes Nada Gordon's deliciously decadent Are Not Our Lowing Hiefers Sleeker Than Night-Swollen Mushrooms?, Michael Heller's Knowledge, David Rosenberg's See What You Think: Critical Essays for the Next Avant Garde, Edward Foster's The Angelus Bell, Norman Finkelstein's Track, Louis Cabri's The Mood Embosser, Tod Thilleman's The Corybantes, Peter O'Leary's Watchfulness, Paul Oppenheimer's The Flame Charts, Michael Heller's Conviction's Net of Branches: Essays on the Objectivist Poets and Poetry, Leonard Schwartz's A Flicker at the Edge of Things, Michael Magee's MS, and Garrett Kalleberg's Psychological Corporations. A veritable feast.

Also finally received my copy of Carroll F. Terrell's A Companion toThe Cantosof Ezra Pound. So I'll be heading back down that particular mineshaft before the summer is out.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Received: The Ed Dorn issue of Chicago Review and four new titles from Krupskaya, courtesy of Kevin Killian: Rob Halpern, Rumored Place; Deborah Meadows, Itinerant Men; Kim Rosenfield, Tràma; and Rodrigo Toscano, To Leveling Swerve.
An even hazier definition of pastoral than mine links the books in this rare poetry review in the NYTBR by Steve Burt. Some good poets, though. I've been a fan of Doug Powell's for a while now and he deserves all the attention he gets. I'm also happy to learn about John Taggart's book.

What am I still doing up? A long Sunday's nap was the culprit. Nice weekend, though. It hardly rained at all.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Aw jeez, Governor. Don't resign. If a musclebound sexual-harrassing son of a Nazi can be governor, surely you can weather your consensual relationship with another man. Though the adultery part doesn't look so hot.

And then there's the California Supreme Court. It's not a great time for gays in America.
I haven't closely followed the ongoing Poetics thread on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I was moved by this rare display of reasonableness from Richard J. Newman. In these times I question whether the resistance to the excesses of Enlightenment that are found in modernism were really such a good idea (even prior to those poetries that degenerated into fascist propaganda). We need rather more Vernunft these days, not less. Though the problem of "learning about and accepting the Other" that Newman refers to is certainly as much a problem of imagination as it is of reason.

Had an inconclusive discussion yesterday with a couple of poets, Jasper Bernes and Aaron Tieger (welcome to Ithaca, Aaron!) about "the banalization of the poetic good" that Steve Evans talks about in The Poker 4. We all found it hard to imagine a system of poetic value not grounded in scarcity; Jasper spoke up fairly eloquently on behalf of the exceptional, which he grounded in the inexhaustibility of a few (largely canonical) poets to whose work he continuously returned. Me, I find much to value in the stream (flood?) of new poetry, the more so now that my first indicator of a book's worth comes not from the author's name or from the back-cover blurbs but from the name of the press. If it's from Krupskaya, Spuyten Duyvil, Burning Deck, or nearly any of the presses hosted over at Duration Press, it's bound to be worth a look. The arbitership of taste in my case has shifted from the unconscious apperception of the large commercial press (for the only poets I knew about ten years ago were all published on Norton, Penguin, FSG, Knopf, or a large university press) through the search for heroes on the back cover (there were certain names that would induce me to open a book and others that induced me to put it back on the shelf; this is still somewhat true) to those editors or groups of editors who have put their money where their mouth is and done the difficult work of giving a new or neglected poet the opportunity to be read in quantity. (An aside on web publishing: I'm all for it, I'm excited about the proliferation of web journas, and I'm happy to find PDFs of things otherwise unavailable, like Code of Signals or The H.D. Book. But I find I can't read much poetry for very long on a screen. So I will continue with only small apology to read, collect, and fetishize books and hardcopy.) Now this of course does not relieve me of the obligation to read and judge the value of a given poetic project for myself. But some kind of filter is urgently needed; as Steve points out, "there is much more poetry released into the circulatory systems of the commercial and gift economies than any one non-bedridden person can hope to read even once with care."

Of course the other mode of judgment we bring to a poet is political; do we seek to be comforted and assured in our beliefs (whether that means a Garrison Keillor-style liberalism or the clubbiness of armchair radicalism) or are we looking for the negative, the destruction of reified habits of meaning and doing? (Where is the positive in this? This is yet another approach, for me, to the question of pastoral. The utopian, in the sense promulgated by the Frankfurt School, is largely a negativity: a cancellation of what is. Pastoral, on the other hand, is a particular image of a particular should-be. It's prone to sentimental reification, but I cling to the idea, without yet being able to argue for it, that this positive image has some value in a critical, avant-garde context. In other words, if affirmation corresponds to the beautiful and negativity to the sublime, is it yet possible to imagine a critical or progressive beauty?)

Certainly the prize system is an inadequate and "alienated" means of establishing poetic values; it's treated me pretty well, but I know lots of poets whose manuscripts urgently deserve to see print that aren't crossing that particular arbitrary finish line. As Steve astutely remarks, "Strangers to poetry, college deans, family members: I can understand their bein impressed by a prize, for it serves their interest—which is precisely not to have to read and determine for themselves the value of a poem or book of poems—but those who read the stuff and know its history?" The prizes and fellowships I've won are going to help me get a job, no question about it—because they constitute indispensable labor-saving devices for overextended search committees. But they ought to entitle me to exactly nothing at all in the arena of serious reading. I certainly have no problem dismissing the work of any number of prizewinning poets, let alone those rarer poets who have found the acclamation of some sort of market. Of course one can go too far and automatically dismiss the prizewinners, and there one is bound to do poetry a disservice. Steve is quite right to point out the "genuine" pleasures of the work of his archetypal prizewinner, Frank Bidart; just as he is right to point out that it is impossible to conceive of a real justification for Bidart, no better or worse a writer than dozens of poets of his generation, to have accumulated so many dollars in prize money.

Still no takers to read in Ithaca? C'mon down!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Make that cheese ravioli. As I was saying, Furst's book is a gripping good read, perhaps even on the same level as Patrick O'Brian for its combination of acute observation of human behavior and depth of historical detail (with a focus on espionage instead of O'Brian's focus on seamanship). It's certainly of higher quality in the craft department than a lot of contemporary non-genre fiction, and it may even have more to tell us about "great themes" (war, greed, betrayal, love, etc.). But it's basically what Graham Greene called an "entertainment." It's le plaisir du texte, not jouissance. I'm not sure it offers me a model for narrative; it's not likely I'd ever attempt that sort of writing myself (even if I were willing to do the enormous labor of research involved). Probably what confines it most definitively to "entertainment" status is that it's a historical novel: it's not about today and doesn't grapple with our present moment except in indirect ways. Its style is inherited as far as I can tell from masters like Conrad and Le Carre; it's certainly not modernist. And I can't figure out the politics just yet; the book is clear-eyed about the monstrous inhumanities wrought by both tribalism and inflexible state systems but I don't know its view of capitalism or liberal democracy yet. I'm learning things about the 1930s, the Balkans, the Soviet Union, the Spanish Civil War. It's an extremely worthwhile read. But it doesn't lead me anywhere as a writer, I don't think. It's a cul-de-sac. I would never want to imitate it.

The other wondering will have to wait for a time when I'm less fatigued; but I want to puzzle some over what Steve Evans says about the banalization of good writing in the latest issue of The Poker.
Thunder in the west and I'm about to be whisked off to go eat a vegetarian burrito. But I have two quick wonderings. One is about my troubled relationship to fiction, which I've been disparaging in various venues: the ways in which narrative simplifies, lies, tends toward unearned redemption, etc. But today, inspired by a review of his latest book, I picked Alan Furst's first WWII espionage novel off the Bookery shelves and was immediately hooked. The writing is graceful, the characters detailed and believable, the knowledge of history/geography/politics appears to be rock solid. Oh, the car horn. Will finish this later.
There's a new (well, most likely new to you) poem of mine up at Melic Review.
I'm pleased to announce that I'm the new go-to guy for the weekly reading series sponsored by The Bookery, which happens Sundays during the academic year at the Tompkins County Public Library. While we've been emphasizing local authors and folks with an Ithaca connection, I'm excited about this opportunity to get more poets down here to read. We'll peddle your books for ya! If you're interested in coming down to read, please drop me a line.

Richard introduced me to a new "blip-hop" group this week: 2 Lone Swordsmen. It's excellent bookstore music.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Dirty John Rackham.
And we're back. Had a wonderful week hanging with the Montana boys: first in NYC, then back in Ithaca for a couple of days with Emily and Bogie (who appears at the moment in perfect health, but we're waiting for a blood test), then waaay up to the North Country, Canton New York, to see Denver U. sweethearts Robert Strong and Hillory Oakes get hitched. It's beautiful country up there but it's easy to imagine how very frigging cold it must be in the winter. Colder than here. Less snow, though. Back to Ithaca yesterday and Richard and Trevor left on the bus this morning. Now I'm trying to ease back into normal life: straighten up the house, check; finish research on "Defenses of Poetry" for Debby Fried, check; writer dissertation, check.

In poetry news, delighted to learn that AWP has accepted "The New Nature Writing" panel cooked up by myself, Karen Anderson, Richard Greenfield, Jonathan Skinner, Sally Keith, and Bin Ramke. Shocked to learn that AWP has rejected the University of Montana graduate reading that the Montana English department proposed. I would rather have expected the reverse. But at least we're all going to make it to Vancouver! Now I have to think of something to say there.... Here's the panel description if you're curious:
As questions of human interaction with the environment gain urgency, what answers can formally innovative writing provide? We'll look at new approaches to nature writing, from the sublimity of urban pigweed to the use of scientific discourse in the postmodern pastoral. In examining how language experiments might help us to reimagine relationships with the environment, we'll ask what "nature"—and thus what "human"—means in an increasingly urban and industrialized world.
It's funny how I'm being pulled further and further into an ecopoetics constellation; I still don't think of myself as any sort of nature writer, partly because my vocabulary for plants, animals, etc., is so impoverished (I don't have a firm grasp on "scientific discourse" either). For me "pastoral" is more a kind of phantasmagoric image of utopian political economy. Hopefully I can boil that down into something presentable in under ten minutes.

First rainless day in a while promised for today. To work, outside, with the dog.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Bogie's tumor has shrunk since I was in New York to the point where it can't be operated on, so everything's on hold. He seems fine: totally energetic, delighted to play with visitors. So I'm a little less worried than I was. Thanks to all who wrote or called with expressions of support.

In other news, I'm pleased to announce that the AWP panel proposed by me and Karen Anderson has been accepted; we'll be doing our thing on "The New Nature Writing" in Vancouver next March along with Sally Keith, Richard Greenfield, Jonathan Skinner, and Bin Ramke. Hope to see you there.
So I've just had a fun weekend in NYC with my old Montana buddies Trevor Toland, Richard Greenfield (and on Monday, Caeli Wolfson): cruising record and book stores, eating a lot, drinking a lot, and talking constantly. We're heading to Ithaca this morning. But it's hard to concentrate on fun because Emily and I have just learned that Bogie the Boston Terrier has some kind of tumor on his back and it has to be removed, pronto. I'm more worried about the surgery right now than I am about the tumor—it's so terrible to take this totally innocent, speechless being to a place where he's going to be deliberately injured and not be able to explain what's happening to him. It feels pretty awful. I'm trying to practice positive visualization: we have an excellent veterinary surgeon on hand and I think the prognosis is pretty good. Oy.

Trying to process what I think of the Boeing-financed, Defense Department-sanctioned Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience. It seems good that these veterans be given access to greater means of verbal expression; perhaps it will help some of them deal with the trauma they've been through and prevent them from taking that trauma out on spouses and strangers. But the provenance of the program and even its title suggest that the "wartime experience" is being detached and reified into an object that a) has nothing to do with civilian life (civilian "time") or the decisions made by civilians and b) is morally neutral. I don't have a lot of faith that Andrew Hudgins will be working to instill a critical attitude toward the soldiers' experiences; I have no real basis for an opinion on how Bobbie Ann Mason teaches, but I do wonder how you can teach "war writing" on a military base without it becoming just one more tool in the Defense Department arsenal. That is, the direct good done by giving the soldiers writing as a kind of safety valve does indirect evil by making them into more flexible weapons of war, less likely to malfunction or go haywire after use. Of course language is tricksy and a soldier or marine who really gets the bug for writing has a good chance of encountering there experiences in the estranged way experience enters poetry, and thus begin to actually think about what they've undergone and been part of. It certainly sounds like these soldiers, who have undergone horrific trauma—ghastly injuries, seeing comrades killed, and worst of all, killing others—are hungry to be understood—which is the next-door neighbor of the hunger to understand. And maybe we the civilians will read their stories and ourselves understand better our terrible responsibility for what has happened and is happening.

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