Sunday, October 31, 2004

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Went to Sayre, Pa. again today, asking registered Democrats and Independents to vote on Tuesday. Most of the folks we talked to were enthusiastic Kerry supporters; a couple even said they would volunteer themselves. Emily and I along with our friends Karen and Jerry and going to go down to Wilkes-Barre on Election Day to help get folks to the polls. The Bin Laden thing is, I think, the only thing Bush has got going for him this point after a week of horrible news for the administration—but it was released on a Friday, never a good time to try and get the full attention of the American people. Fear is all the Republicans have got, the only thing that obscures their incompetence and radical agenda. I don't think it's going to be enough to carry them through.

Energized and exhausted by turns. We'll all be glad when this over, I think. When will that be? I still believe that Kerry will win handily in terms of electoral votes, but I wouldn't bet the mortgage on it. But even a squeaker is bound to go for Kerry. Ya gotta believe.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

You know, we shouldn't take John Ashbery for granted. He won't always be with us. Here's an excerpt from a prose poem of his in the new APR called "Coma Berenices":
The battlefront heat had been singeing everybody's nerves. Maria, badly of, had complained of backache. The arcane arousing had taken place on schedule. Then the arraignment was ascendant. The executive expectation, expecting expression, expectorated artwork, i.e., visual arts. The work of art had not arrived.

"Cut the mustard, curvaceous. This cutthroat-dance can't continue forever. I was downtown, saw your image enthroned above the city, through the grille, dilatory; apes and aphids continued pouring into the place. Soon we'll be looking at calmer quarters, a jar of moonshine reflecting the moon as in days gone by." Those were my sentiments too.
Sometimes I forget what a wonderful ear the man has. The fact of Ashbery's popularity, or at any rate his canonicity, tickles me greatly. How did such a manifestly strange writer become mainstream? There is hope for us all.
We interrupt this weeklong exercise in hyperventilation to bring you this news: hobbits were real. Cool, huh?

There's an excellent essay on our national madness by Eliot Weinberger that's been posted to the Poetics list—you can read it here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The upcoming election has put me in a state of mental distress, even agony, that makes it hard to concentrate on other things. I'm compulsively checking polls and electoral vote counters and reading pundits and e-mails from Bush Must Go and MoveOn and the Democrats. The state of democracy in this country is very poor right now. Republican activists scaring voters away from the polls; arbitrary decisions are made by partisan and unelected polling officials; no one lifts a finger against gerrymandering of Congressional districts that completely wipes out the very notion of the House as the political body most responsive to the demands of the people. Even Kerry's victory will not be enough to undo the damage of the last four years to our political system. I hope we can all stay energized past November 2 to bring about real change.

Someone told Emily how we mustn't concentrate on Bush; instead we should take a few minutes every day to visualize a Kerry victory. See him celebrating next Tuesday night. See him getting sworn in in January. See him addressing the nation from the Oval Office. See it. Believe it. Make it happen.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Emily and I spent Saturday in Sayre, Pennnsylvania, stumping for Kerry. This is my nightmare: going from door to door talking to strangers who might be indifferent or hostile. But there were a number of mitigating factors. It was a flawless fall day and Sayre, at least its southern part (a "boro" called Athens) is positively idyllic, with beautiful colors on the leaves. Emily is very outgoing and effectively countered my shyness, making the first contact with these folks. And we were only polling registered Democrats, trying to determine who they were going to support on Nov. 2. Pretty much everyone we talked to was very nice and the majority were for Kerry. There was one woman who said she was voting for Bush and wouldn't say why; an older woman who refused to reveal who she would vote for; and a woman in her mid-forties who said she was undecided, but added that her Catholic faith was very important to her and that she was against abortion. I think if someone's strongly anti-abortion and they're still undecided that that's a good sign for Kerry. It was fascinating to meet a couple of the undecided voters who Emily and I had felt were mythical beings; but there were a couple, including a woman who appeared to be a single mother rushing off to some kind of healthcare job; she said she was afraid that electing Kerry "would send the wrong message to other countries." I guess she meant that we would be seen as weak by Arab states? Of course the basic orientation to see other nations as the big threat to us is a very regressive, Cold War way of thinking. As far as the so-called war on terror goes, Kerry is the candidate who understands that non-state actors are the real threat to us (though North Korea and Iran are serious causes for concern that the Bush administration has, of course, more or less ignored). Anyway, the whole thing was exhausting for this bascially shy person, but I felt good knowing that I had done something. If Bush wins it won't be my fault. But I think Kerry's going to win, I sincerely do. And I'm excited about the possibilities for real progress at home and in the world that a Kerry administration is going to at least make possible.

We want to do something on Election Day too; maybe drive voters or just call people up to remind them to vote. Again, way outside my comfort zone—but I can't justify inaction at this point. It's worth it.

Friday, October 22, 2004

So last night the Finnegans Wake group was meeting at my house. We were just puzzling over this little catalog of oratorical gestures on page 407:
His handpalm lifted, his handshell cupped, his handsign pointed, his handheart mated, his handaxe risen, his handleaf fallen. Helpsome hand that holemost heals! What is het holy! It gested.
Just then Emily, who had been out of the house meeting friends, so I thought, stuck her head in the door and told me to come outside quick and see this Boston Terrier puppy that we've seen in the neighborhood once or twice. I went outside, and there was almost everyone I know, a crowd of twenty or thirty people, standing in the yard holding candles, shouting, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY!"

You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather.

More than two weeks after the actual event, in total secret, with not a glimmer of suspicion from yours truly, Emily had put together a surprise party—the second in my life (my sister surprised me for my 30th in 2000). What a treat, what a blessing. It was so much fun to have folks from all the different little worlds I participate in—Cornell, the Bookery, fellow Ithacans—mingling in our house. I'm still wearing a silly grin. Thanks to all—I'm the luckiest guy I know.

And Auberginians can thank Aaron Tieger, who has joined the heresy to the extent of agreeing to help me lay out the chapbook at long last (and by "help" I mean that he's doing all of it). With any luck, we'll have something tangible to send to contributors and elsewhere in plenty of time for Thanksgiving.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

I am not a baseball fan. I've never lived in Boston. I find the enthusiasm for sports in general to be creepy and tribal and alienating. But when I read the headlines this morning, I felt a surge of optimism and triumph. Believe, indeed. And you know what? I am now superstitiously certain this means John Kerry will win. I'm not the first to make the comparsion between Kerry and the Sox and Bush and the Yankees—dazzling us all with pinstripes and overwhelming force and the ability to buy seemingly anyone. Versus a dogged, down-at-heels, naturally pessimistic set of players and fans who nonetheless put every last drop of effort and soul into their playing. I can't thnk of a better metaphor for Republicans and Democrats. In this election. And so Kerry too must win, at the eleventh hour, coming from behind. Don't you feel it? Don't you think Kerry himself feels it, and his campaign? It's sentimental, it's superstitious, it's absurd. But I say, God love the Red Sox. Kerry will win.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

On a happier note, here's the poem that Emily wrote for my birthday a couple weeks back. Sadly, I misplaced the card on which the original was written, but she keeps good notes:
The dialogical we
goes deeper than planned.
Request to say
Your birthday—ours
For I and through
The space between
Repeat me you
Purchased: John Taggart, Pastorelles. Deceptively simple poems, in a repeating and Steinian way, that shuttle subtly back and forth between a lived landscape and the sheerly literary; the poem "A Grove or Green Place" (too long to quote here) is exemplary of this. There's a pretty good review of it here; suffice it to say that I'm enjoying the book and it's adding another strand to my pastoral considerations. Though I'm more and more convinced I'm going to have to end my dissertation with Ronald Johnson if it's not going to become unmanageable; maybe a chapter or two on the Language poets and the contemporary post-avant pastoral could go in the book version. I should live so long.

There's a lot of negativity out there regarding the election, regarding writing (I just read most of a grimly spiteful essay by Daniel Harris called "The Writing Life: Envy and Editing" in the latest Antioch Review. He argues for labor in writing, for ambition, but is preoccupied with the marketplace and the writer's ambiguous place in it; there's a bit of blame-the-reader going on and it makes me feel about as hopeful for literary culture as I do for a Kucinich administration. Paralleling this is another essay I scooped up by Cynthia Ozick in what is to be the final issue of American Scholar, about her own grand, "ninteenth century" ambitions for her first novel and her desire to reclaim those ambitions. It's very well written and all but it left me feeling scolded and depressed; again, as if the moment to be a writer, for serious literary ambition, was long past. Of course people have been saying this since papyrus was invented, so I shouldn't take it too much to heart. And these are two very stuffy magazines that I don't usually bother with. But I can't help but be afflicted at times by a sense of my marginality and literature's marginality (not to mention poetry's marginality within literature!)—a feeling exacerbated by my sense of near-total alienation from a country that takes George Bush seriously, that has let him define the terms in which we think and argue about the future of an America already nearly unrecognizable thanks to his perversions of justice, language, and law.

What to call this emotion, which does not come without a certain liveliness and defiance. Call it spleen, of course.
— Et de longs corbillards, sans tambourds ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; L'Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure, et l'Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.
That's the stubborn hope, the sign of life behind anything made. Baudelaire's black flag (not to be confused with Henry Rollins') has a fierce energy to it, the ring of real negativity, that still resounds and unsettles after a hundred fifty years. That's something. That's real.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Two voluptuous pleasures of this afternoon have chased away the gloom of a chilly gray morning. I don't read a lot of novels, but at the library sale I acquired for twenty-five cents a copy of A.S. Byatt's Possession and have been reading it in a continuous swoon—I finished it a few minutes ago. A novel that loves poets and poetry and academics too (though it tweaks them a bit, and its satire of a deconstructionist, feminist academia is now rather dated, I should even say sadly dated), full of cunningly wrought dead-on imitations of 19th century Victorian verse. Very good too on the compulsions of narrative, which Byatt manages to raises suspicions about while simultaneously indulging the reader to the final degree of fulfillment of what she calls the dated and unfashionable desires for coherence and closure. A different kind of pleasure stems from being able to handle, and look at, and read, a mock-up of Fourier Series that just arrived from my publisher. The black-and-white cover somehow manages to be baroque and simple at the same time, with a hint of the sinister as well; the paper stock is handsome and creats the feel of a European book. The inside looks good too; the book is square, which makes the most sense given the quadrant format. Very exciting! Ron says this is the age of the chapbook, and he may be right—there's a lot to be said for the relative speed with which they can be produced, and the length too is better suited for giving an image of what's happening in poetry NOW. But I hope I will be forgiven for taking great sensual pleasure in the size and shape and heft and look of a full-length, bonafide book of one's own.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Good morning, good morning. Just dipping into Mary Jo Bang's latest, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon. A book of ekphrasis poems but much livelier than that would suggest, and not just because many of the poems seem to riff off films and cartoons as well as paintings. Her language is so musical it's almost a soundtrack to the paratactical succession of images that pop, pop, pop, like in a Bjork video. Moving, too. The end of "Three Trees":
The day is dragged here and there but still
can't be saved. BAM. Immediately
the next second clicks nto the skyscape
apocalypse. In the dust, a celluloid woman
mows a multilayered lawn.
The arch overhead reads, O Art
Still Has Truth Take Refuge. Where? There.
There, there, says someone.
Mary Jo is major, and a major delight. Read, read.

Friday, October 15, 2004

My dad and stepmother are visiting, which means frantic apartment cleaning and making a potroast. Both missions were successful and they've returned to the B&B round the corner where they're staying; Emily and I are zoning out in the living room with the dog under an afghan. The Ithaca College students are on break which means it's quiet, and a light rain adds to the feeling of peace and somnolence.

Thinking about the longish poem I'm writing. How to structure it? With a long poem that's generating its form as it goes from impulses of the moment, as opposed to filling some sort of container, any ending point seems arbitray. Think of Zukofsky deciding "A" would have 24 sections, or Pound writing the last Canto as the last Canto, "whatever I may write in the interim." Trying to beat death to the punch. Endings always have to do with death; submitting to the predetermined ending of a compulsive form like the sonnet or sestina is like racing against time, whereas iambic pentameter or page as field always has another blank page behind the one that's filling with text—you will never outrace that blankness. I suppose I could orient what I'm doing around content and stop when I'm done saying whatever it is I have to say. But that's just another arbitrary imposition on the generation of writing, which as a poet is a large part of how I define my existence. If I'm not writing I don't cease to exist but my existence is somehow less than it was. Writing or saying comes before and after content; content is no fit jury for my task.

I don't think much about audience. I just don't. I've read poems and had powerful responses to them; I think I can tap into the mode of discourse or verbal production that produced those effects in me, and it seems reasonable to expect that it might produce similar effects in others. I write for myself while at the same time fully expecting that what moves me will move at least a few other people. Call it audacity, call it temerity, call it elitism, call it boring—why not, if it bores you. Or call it a dumb faith in my basic kinship with other human beings who speak English, and who recognize that English is both a medium to swim in and a phenomeon in itself.

Here's a poem. I don't post much poetry here, but here's a poem that hasn't yet appeared anywhere else; it just might be the last Severance Song:
Caught wanting makes an end of the secret spine
stitching bass to treble, ass to the warbling throat
out of which secret airs sting and stem themselves
like sheets whipped in the rain. Lifted bodily
by an urge that is my body’s homeless home,
but no sound can be found to anchor heav’n to.
Isn’t it just the messenger we seize in our hands,
subject to kingly whim, while the message withers
in the space between two ears? Avenge
these saints slaughtered on the crossed lines
of my sex: don’t let the Lord be lord to me.
Nor let there be an end to the blood whir of my wanting.
Story is a given and finish is a gleam, but
attachment’s what gives way to the glint of making eyes.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

From an article by Stephen Greenblatt on Hamlet in the NYRB, almost certainly extracted from his new Shakespeare biography:
Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays—that he could provoke in the audience and himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response—if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action to be unfolded. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.
Could not this idea be transposed into a defense of strategies of opacity in other kinds of poetry than the dramatic—specifically contemporary lyric poetry? Consider Greenblatt's closing paragraph in which he suggests a motive for "strategic opacity" beyond provoking "passionate intensity" (deliberate echo of Yeats here?) in oneself and one's audience:
This conceptual breakthrough in Hamlet was technical—that is, it affected the practical choices Shakespeare made when he put plays together, starting with the enigma of the prince's suicidal melancholy and assumed madness. But it was not only a new aesthetic strategy. The excision of motive must have arisen from something more than technical experimentation; coming in the wake of Hamnet's death, it expressed Shakespeare's deepest perception of existence, his understanding of what could be said and what should remain unspoken, his preference for things untidy, damaged, and unresolved over things neatly arranged, well made, and settled. The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and of his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations.
Greenblatt ascribes Shakespeare's skepticism to his personal tragedy—though the essay strongly suggests that for Shakespeare the death of his son Hamnet encompassed not solely the painful loss of a child, but also the loss of an entire belief system, that of Catholicism and its rituals for the dead which were now forbidden by the Protestant church. That leaves open the possibility that those who choose strategies of opacity in their poetry are expressing their own "deepest perception[s] of existence" which cause them, in our postmodern era, to reject the easy consolations of surface communication and closure. Those most betrayed by the easy pieties of the dominant ideology—feminists for example—have that much more cause to repress "key explanatory element[s]" in their writing. Of course this does not address the question of why Shakespeare's strategy allowed him not only to be true to his own worldview but also made his work compelling to both contemporary audiences and the generations that came after, while a similar strategy applied to poetry has arguably driven away more readers than it has attracted. At least others make that argument; I'm suspicious of claims for poetry's natural popularity that would require poetry to realize itself by stripping away the complexities of language and expression that make it poetry in the first place. Perhaps in the past hundred years or so we've fallen into a game of conceptual chicken, removing not just one explanatory element but more and more of them, until we're left with the fragments that fascinate a few and frustrate others. And theater of course will always have more constraints on it in terms of the time and expense required for its successful production than poetry does (the problem is magnified a hundredfold in the case of film). In the absence of a mass audience we are free to keep raising the conceptual stakes, which a diminishing circle of writer/readers can appreciate. Except that circle doesn't seem to be diminishing, at least not to me: I am more conscious than of the subtle and continuous growth of poetry's utterly passionate audience. So I choose not to despair. And I choose to keep writing and reading toward the limit of my cognitive and emotional capacities, in hopes of expanding those limits until they incorporate me and the unknown world.
The Times has reported that the 9/11 Commission has been nominated for a National Book Award for its report on the attacks. Interesting choice. Looking at the nominees in poetry, I'm generally pleased: William Heyen, Donald Justice, Carl Phillips, Cole Swensen, and Jean Valentine. The last three are interesting poets, and I've actually read and gotten a lot of pleasure from Goest. Donald Justice I'm not so interested in, but one grand old man on the list is a lot better than five. I don't know anything about Heyen, but the NBA people are presenting him in a tone-deaf way: his book is called Shoah Train (itself on the verge of bad taste; Soul Train, anybody?) and its contents are described as "More than 70 new, unblinking poems inspired by the Holocaust." Inspired by? Eee-yucch.

I'd vote for Cole, if I had a vote; Valentine second (though maybe she deserves it more after such a long and varied career), and Phillips a distant third. Ah, prizes. Such a bizarre sort of economy the poetry world is. It's an alternative to the free market (and we desperately need such alternatives or our world is going to be all The Bachelor all the time) but a pretty weak one, appealing to private and obfuscated authorities rather than the masses. There must be some kind of way out of here, said the joker to the thief.
Check out this excellent and fiercely skeptical article about "Operation Homecoming" by Aleksandar Hemon over at Slate.
Very pleased to report that Bogie's biopsy tests came back negative except for one of the tumors, which was the lowest grade and thus considered to have been cured by excision. And his bone marrow's clean too. We have to keep an eye on him for new developments, but it looks like he will be tugging on his leash and rolling around on the grass for a long time to come. What a relief.

As Aaron has noted, he and I had a conversation over dinner Monday night spurred by the new issue of Fulcrum. I don't have it in front of me (I was reading the Bookery's copy, don't have my own yet) but I was struck by the dialogue there between Chris Stroffolino and Joan Houlihan—struck mostly by the courtesy and evolving mutual regard there. Also I have to admit that I rather like the poems of Houlihan's that appear in that issue. I'm still very wary of her critical stance, her impatience for meaning and closure, and her quickness to invoke eternal verities about poetry and human nature. And I'm still appalled by the vitriolic tone of her column with its numerous ad hominem attacks. Some might defend that style of criticism as refreshing for its honesty, but I think it's destructive, and I don't like to spend time with people who talk that way, in person or on the page. Nonetheless, I have to respect her apparent seriousness about poetry, and most of all her willingness to engage interlocutors like Stroffolino and Steve Burt who challenge her point of view. It would be all to easy to retreat into the fulsome accolades of her fellow conservatives and dismiss the writing that irritates her out of hand.

I might have something more substantive to say about the dialogue itself—particularly the value of "communication" both writers were touting and the attached questions of audience—once I get a chance to read it again more closely.

Monday, October 11, 2004

And now Superman is dead. Ai-yi-yi. And Emily's in Maryland today to attend the funeral of the father of a close friend. More carnage in Bagdad every day that nobody is counting unless it's Americans getting killed. Death is all around.

Sunk deep in Melville this weekend thanks to Dan Beachy-Quick's Spell and Deborah Meadows' Itinierant Men, which I'm reviewing for GutCult. The pursuit of the White Whale seems all too apropos to our national situation—I know I'm not the first to notice this and in fact it's part of the deep background of both of these books. But it's still breahtaking to open Moby-Dick itself and find this in the very first chapter:

"Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.

I fear that the deadly metaphor of the "war on terror" has utterly usurped any possibility of being truly rational about the real dangers and enemies we face. Come Nov. 2 we may simply end up swapping Ahabs, for Kerry has been unable to invent his own rhetoric, his own frame of language, for the crisis of our times. It would be as if Ahab were put out of action but Starbuck, that most decent of men, still felt compelled to follow his captain's commands to the letter. "The letter killeth." Now more than ever we need the habits of complex thought that Derrida represented—habits of reading the global situation that could revise the killing letter. No one is flying to our rescue; instead we ourselves are flying, delivering death from above in the form of bombs and aerial views that obliterate the human face. We have to break free of Captain Ahab's language; Ahab-Bush, who up to now has gloated, like Richard III, at the ease of his task: "I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match."

Dennis Kucinich was no cogged wheel. Howard Dean wasn't and he was LOUD about it, so they destroyed him. Kerry, out of conviction or political expediency, is whirring right along, part of the machine. It will be that much harder to stop the machine, to break it and start again, once he's elected. But he offers a scant hope versus no hope at all. I just hope this hope that we're clinging to in these dark and stormy seas doesn't turn out by the light of day to be a coffin.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Adieu, Jacques. "Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frere!"

Friday, October 08, 2004

It's been an exhausting and worrying week, what with Bogie going in for surgery again Wednesday. Now he looks exactly like Frankenweenie but he's in remarkably good spirits, so we're feeling better as well. Plus tonight's debate promises to be a nailbiter—can John Kerry undo four years of malfeasance and lies and sell a little truth to the American people? Anyway. I'm tired of talking about Poetry but I would like to direct you to this very apropos rant by partner-in-crime Aaron Tieger. And there's a new-to-you poem of mine up at Mindfire Renewed. Righty-ho. End of line.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Boy, do I look uncomfortable in this photo or what?

So... welcome, Ithaca Times readers! Take a look around. I strongly recommend the Strong Bad e-mails—oh wait, wrong site. If you're interested in seeing some of my poetry, there are links to the right. There's also another interview (with an equally goofy photo) and some information about my new book that will be coming out in January. And you can even e-mail me if you like. I also hope you'll check out some of the other fine poetry bloggers I've provided links to on the right there—just scroll down a bit and you'll see them.
I think it was a tie last night. Cheney reassured his base, while Edwards prevented Kerry from actually losing any ground. I think I have to give the edge to Edwards on seeming approachable, passionate, and caring, while Cheney was about as surly and vicious as you'd expect—the unexpectedly disarming nice guy act of the 2000 debate was nowhere to be seen. It was smart of Edwards to keep using John Kerry's name, establishing himself as an effective advocate for his No. 1; Cheney made little secret of the fact that he's the power behind the throne. Now, with ever-more bad news out of Iraq (plus this damning report on WMD by the chief U.S. weapons inspector) and the economic news looking pretty grim, I'm hoping Kerry can seal the deal on Friday with the people he impressed last Thursday. It's tough to attack the president without looking unpatriotic; I think they've found a way to do that. Of course I wish the fight were about the immorality and wrongness of the war, not the war's conduct. Will we ever get the Department of Peace that we need and deserve? Not in the next Administration, that's for sure. But I believe it's a stupid mistake for Bush and Cheney to keep repeating that phrase "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time." The truth of that phrase has a lot of resonance for me, and for millions of other Americans.

Bogie's getting more surgery today and it's hard to concentrate on dissertation or poetry stuff.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Victoria Chang rides to the defense of Poetry after I dissed the magazine yesterday, arguing that for her, the "Antagonisms" section simulates a spirited conversation among poets sitting together. That sounds good, but any time I've sat around a table with a bunch of poets doing nothing but talk trash about other poets (as opposed to also speaking up in defense of other poets or even making a case for why they like someone out of fashion—as Robert Creeley strangely seems to be, in Denver at least, according to Gary Norris' complex cri de coeur—I've walked away sick at heart, disgusted with the others and myself. So there's that. Then there's the fact that the table these poets are sitting around feels awfully small: Eavan Boland, W.S DiPiero (both former teachers of mine at Stanford), Stephen Dobyns, William Logan, J.D. McClatchy, Kay Ryan, and Rosannna Warren. If contemporary poetics has a left, right, and center, these folks are all comfortably on the right side of the line. Whereas here's a list of the names that appear on the cover of the June 1959 issue of Poetry that I purchased this weekend: Josephine Miles, Padraic Colum, Celia and Louis Zukofsky, T. Weiss, Henry Birnbaum, Galway Kinnell, Theodore Holmes, John Logan, Elliott Coleman, Diana Butler, Marvin Solomon, William Dickey, Edouard Roditi, Margaret Avison, James Reaney, Barbara Gibbs, Alan Neame, Mona Van Duyn, James Merrill, Delmore Schwartz, Theodore Roethke. Some of these folks have poems in the issue, others are being reviewed, lots I haven't heard of, but my point is: holy moly, what diversity! What an incredible openness Henry Rago had to the various aesthetics being practiced in his time. And how right and fitting it is that a magazine presuming to call itself simply "Poetry" should be so diverse.

Christian Wiman has injected a new energy into the magazine, no question, but it still feels and smells like the inside of a 19th century gentlemen's club, as it has for the past thirty-odd years—only now it invites its contributors to openly deride other poets (and what of worth has William Logan published, or will ever publish, that has a tenth of the music and humanity of Gerard Manley Hopkins' work? That's who he's presumed to attack in this issue of Poetry, with the same relish he's torn into the reputations of his contemporaries). I think Jordan put it best a couple of days ago: attention minus fluff. That's the kind of honesty I want from poetry reviews and poetry talk.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

What better way to celebrate my birthday than to go to the semi-annual Friends of the Library Book Sale? I am reliably informed that Ithaca's is one of the three largest in the country. Brought a box full home yesterday and a bag today, after which I really must cut it out. The birthday money is all but exhausted.

New acquisitions in no particular order:
Marjorie Perloff, Frank O'Hara: Poet among Painters
Paul Valery, Aesthetics (Vol. 13 of The Collected Works in English)
The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams (nice Random House hardcover)
Muriel Rukeyeser, Out of Silence: Selected Poems
Simone Weil: An Anthology
Jim Elledge, ed., Frank O'Hara: To Be True to a City
Michael Lowy and Robert Sayre, Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity
John Wieners, Selected Poems 1958-1984
Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
Barbara Guest, Moscow Mansions
Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf: A Biography
James R. Mellow, Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein & Company
Henri Lefebvre, Everyday Life in the Modern World
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature
Steve McCaffrey, Bouma Shapes: Shorter Poems 1974-2002 (especially happy about this because it has "Some Versions of Pastoral" that appeared in BAP 2004)
Four copies of the Henry Rago Poetry, all with Zukofsky contributions in them: June 1959, February 1960, May 1960, December 1960. Can you believe that a chunk of Bottom: On Shakespeare appeared in Poetry? Which is now such a sinkhole of self-importance, stuffiness, and outright malevolence (q.v. the "Antagonisms" feature in the latest issue)?
But I digress. I also acquired a few CDs, the most interesting of which by far is The Mother of Us All, an opera with music by Virgil Thomson and text by Gertrude Stein. Looking forward to giving that a listen.

Thanks for the happy birthday wishes, y'all. It's been a peaceable transition so far.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Oh yeah, I finally saw Hero last night. Very beautiful, but I kept thinking to myself, "Ezra Pound would've loved this movie." I mean, the scenario celebrates fascism, or at any rate a single strong leader, willing to kill untold thousands for the supposed security of future millions, and feeling his own pain the whole time. Everyone's falling over themselves to sacrifice themselves for the noble cause of "Our Land." He also would have loved the bit about calligraphy as swordplay, and while he might have nodded at the idea that the ultimate warrior ultimately discards the sword, Pound himself was ever quick on the draw with his rapier. Most disturbing in this context is the King of Qin's plan to regularize the alphabet: the news that there are 19 ways to draw the ideogram for "sword" disturbs him and he swears to eliminate this diversity in the name of purer communication. Maybe that sounds reasonable to you, but consider how the film effectively shows the king putting this policy into practice by having his army fire thousands of arrows through the thin roof and walls of... a calligraphy school. Perhaps Pound wouldn't have been as excited by those images (though it's splendid to see Maggie Cheung and Jet Li balletically deflecting the arrows). It's like a Western where the cowboys who have "won" the West for civilization can no longer find a place in it, only here the cowboys are more or less explicitly artists whose time has passed. An elegy for diversity in expression, and a grim affirmation of the power of the State. The popcorn kind of sticks in your throat once you've realized that.
The New York Times has made one of its periodic discoveries of the Web—in this case, the literary Web—with this snarky article from David Orr; I especially like this line re Poetry Daily, "Yes, there are a lot of poets, and yes, they write a lot of poems." To which this reader can only respond: Duh? I'm fascinated by the oft-expressed desire (oft-expressed by poets themselves) for poets to write less. Are these people truly overwhelmed by all the good poetry out there and feel guilty for not being able to read all it? Or does it frustrate their desire to master the corpus of contemporary writing? Or do they really just hate all poetry that isn't their own, or at least does not closely resemble their own? I'm betting on the latter.

And it looks like hatred and the ad hominem will continue to get attention from outside the poetry family while actual good writing and actual good people labor stoically on. I'm not going to repeat their names here, but if you read the article you'll notice more than a couple of betes noir given rather more attention than I think they deserve.

If I sound grumpy it's because it's my 34th birthday today. Which I'm actually pleased about, considering the alternative. (Rim shot!) Thirty-four sure sounds old to me, or rather it sounds old to the young me: when I was a teenager I thought of the mid-thirties as the peak of maturity, the high watermark (or is it high-water mark?) of adulthood. Well, I'm older than I've ever been, I'm certainly more mature than I've ever been—but "adulthood" itself looks now to be like one of those persistent myths, a state of being that is never really more than a state of becoming. At least I'm pretty sure I can no longer be accused of writing juvenalia. This must be the early stages of what I hope will be a long and productive middle period.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Kerry kicked ass. Everyone seems to agree. And while I share John Latta's dismay over the tendency of Democrats to let the Republicans define the argument (that really, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with the default American mindset: a refusal to make space for the incommensurate, a refusal of any and all attempts to transcend and reshape the given, except religious transcendence, reflected in Bush's coded Christian fundamentalism), it matters that Kerry was able to demonstrate, largely by giving Bush enough rope, the incoherency of that argument. What a pathetic spectacle Bush is—how whiny, how offended by being contradicted for the first time in four years. I'd like to see this taken in a direction whereby the need for a national daddy is compromised, not the particular daddy. But if we must have a Great White Father let it be the man who can think for himself and on his feet, and who inhabits a world I recognize as closely resembling my own.

In other news, thanks to the latest HCE interviewee, Jonathan Minton, for his impressive online journal Word for /Word, which I was previously unaware of. (And he lives in Helena, Montana! I lived there for a year before moving to Missoula for grad school. Beautiful town, not a whole heck of a lot going on. I wonder what he's doing there?) Tremendously enthusaistic about the work I found there by Juliet Patterson, a poet previously unknown to me. Intelligent, intense lyricism with what I want to call a sheer quality—a thinness, a translucence. Still a sucker for the high lyric, for the sheerly beautiful—I'm finding this in Cole Swensen's Goest, too (which I received in return for entering the New York/New England Contest Alice James Books runs—a practice I wish more contests would imitate). I'm very interested in a socially engaged lyric right now, in discursivity and in creating an impact or a sense of "wroughtness" through syntax rather than the lapidary image. But I still have a strong love of the latter. A wish for "high" language—not out of pretentiousness or a desire to isolate myself from the hoi polloi, but out of a wish for genuine dignity, a secular sacredness.
          The simplest act
remains immured

as within a thousand sealed
vessels in the blue volutes

of the morning sea, the rural

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