Saturday, December 31, 2005

I am not quite sure how I managed to miss Scoplaw, but his post responding to Seth (which in turn triggered another post from Seth, The Sociology of Poetry Part II: Toward a Lexicon, in which he attempts a schema somewhat similar (but more nuanced) to the distinction I once tried to draw between Careerists and Professionals) has put him on my personal blogosphere map. I think his dissection of the difficulties with the "School of Quietude" moniker is pretty good (and parallels what Robert Archambeau has recently had to say about it). What I most appreciate about the post is less its "sociology" dimension but his sensitive and acute description of Language poetry, the claims it seems to make, and why he finds it to be an inadequate and unsatisfying aesthetic—his criticisms are intelligent and, nearly as important, couched respectfully. I don't fully agree with him, of course, since I am dedicated to the idea that one of the functions of poetry is to be writing that does not condescend to the reader; so when Scoplaw writes that "you need an advanced aesthetic training to parse and judge" a Language poem, my first response is, Not necessarily, and my second response is, What if one of such a poem's functions were to inspire some readers to seek out such training? I think of a remark Pound made about The Cantos: "I admit there are a couple of Greek quotes, one along in 39 that can't be understood without Greek, but if I can drive the reader to learning at least that much Greek, she or he will indubitably be filled with durable gratitude. And if not, what harm? I can't conceal the fact that the Greek language existed." Hubris, maybe; elitism, certainly—but far less insulting to me as a reader than the notion that all I can tolerate is the already-familiar. One could construct a kind of hierarchy of tolerances, I suppose: familiar content in familiar forms; unfamiliar content in familiar forms; unfamiliar content in unfamiliar forms. (I'm not sure I believe that familiar content in unfamiliar forms is actually possible.) The real trouble with Language poetry may not be with the hapless common reader but with its initiates: inevitably if you spend enough time with the stuff you end up find a given poem's forms and strategies to be more or less familiar. That's the dead end of the avant-garde as I understand it: the shock of the new wears off and the alienation effect does not lead to discovery on the part of audiences but translates into a very literal alienation of the artist from the audiences he might otherwise expect (in the case of poetry, all the highly literate folks who either don't read poetry at all or who stay safely within the orbit of the major publishers—readers of the various book reviews with "New York" in their titles).

But of course this is why hardly anyone is now writing what I'd recognize as "straight" language poetry and why Ron has coined the term "post-avant." At the moment I tend to think of the value of a strong poetics/aesthetics as acting like a kind of gravity well, which may itself have all kinds of interesting characteristics (a planet with life on it), or may radiate a powerful and singular energy (a sun), or may be some kind of untranslatable personal mythos of the unconscious (a black hole), or may be something that was once alive but is now dead (a white dwarf). Purists lob their verbal objects straight int their wells with nary a tremor in their trajectories (or at least such appears to be their goal; I don't think it's actually possible—but they try to correct the flights of their poems through a sort of body english, the profuse production of writings on poetics that can remind me of a bowler trying to turn a gutterball into a strike by twisting and gesturing). Most poets end up with orbits of one kind or another (and an orbit is nothing more than the arc assumed by a body that misses the target it's attracted to); the most interesting of them are slingshotting poems in wide parabolas as they test the limitations of their hard-won poetics. (Poets who can't or won't articulate a poetics are either being sly, which is sometimes necessary, or naive in a way that is bound to make their writing uninteresting in the long run.) To put it in Lacanian terms, a poetics is like one's Thing, and you derive jouissance (your poem derives energy) based on the distance or orbit that your desire assumes in relation to it. For many of the writers I find most interesting, the politico-aesthetic complex called "Language poetry" is a significant component of their Thing—but none of them are pitching their desires in straight lines at it.

None of this has much to do with the sociology of poetry, but it probably says something about what my values are and what I think building a "career" is all about. Not very different in substance, I think, from "You write the best fucking poems you can."

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Short Takes

- Craig Teicher posts a nice response to me and to Seth.

- Read Coltsfoot Insularity, a collaboration between Jess Mynes and Aaron Tieger. Originally written on postcards to each other, the poems have the freshness and intimacy of two lonelinesses rubbing each other the right way. The individual poems aren't attributed but their styles are readily distinguished. Jess' poems are distinguished by a kind of surrealism of syntax—I kind of imagine this is what French hip-hop sounds like:
"It may be the
yarrow in his
fields Sealed pensive
purple under
its concern."

hip hop thud-thud passes
(yes, even in the sticks)
wild turkey scrum struts
feathers blue green
sheen electric in sunlight
                     the little ones
                     lose their way

people put me down
caust that's what's it
in this part of town
Aaron's poems are more conversational and diaristic, snapshots of a daily existence adding up into something numinous and barely glimpsed. :
         Got this
from a bookstore
had a section on

tasty hot dogs
on which I passed.

on the byways, sun
while shopping.
- Almost done with the first volume of Neal Stephenson's mammoth Baroque Cycle, Quicksilver. This is the kind of encyclopedic postmodern yarn I loved ten years ago, when I was infatuated with the likes of Pynchon and Barth. Turns out I still dig this kind of excess of immense prose that is saturated with ideas and sensuous details (you really get the muck and dust and incandesence of the 17th century all over your hands reading this book) while never actually disappearing as writing, never becoming the experience of blank pages on which a movie magically unfolds. He's not quite Pynchon (whose Mason and Dixon covers some of the same territory) but he comes close, filling the pages with letters, plays, philosophickal discourse, self-conscious picaresque, and indelible portraits of persons fictional and non. Most contemporary fiction bores me; historical fiction I'm used to thinking of as something of a cheat, a retreat from the here-and-now. But the fiction I get the most pleasure out of right now is historical fiction in a varied and flavorful prose.

- Hoping someone, maybe Jonathan, will eventually write "What I Saw at the MLA," or words to that effect.

- Raining.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Bah, Humbug Edition

Seth Abramson's cri de coeur, The Sociology of Poety: A Rant of Sorts has been partially answered by Ron Silliman, the poet most prominently featured in the "rant" portion of Abramson's post. Tremendous anxiety seems to exist about whether or not American poetry has a center—look at this Adam Kirsch piece about Poetry (Chicago) that proclaims, with an air of complacency that doesn't quite conceal the sense of relief, that "Poetry has done what long seemed impossible: It has reclaimed its place at the center of American poetry." To Kirsch, Seth, and, to a lesser extent Ron, I want to pose the question: why this almost metaphysical anxiety about a center, base, or foundation for the practice of poetry? I don't put Ron at the center of my inquiry because I see him as a kind of revisionist historian, actively promoting an alternative to the mainstream that, as he puts it, poses as the "unmarked case, as if Robert Pinsky and John Hollander wrote poetry, but Kasey Mohammad wrote post-modern or New Brutalist poetry, Geof Huth wrote vispo, Erica Hunt & Harryette Mullen wrote langpo." I think Ron is often misread as wanting to turn the array off difference that the latter poets represent into the new mainstream of the "post-avant"—to be sure it is easy to misread him this way in large part because of the confidence, the white-maleness if you will, of his writing style (this seems to be the major component of Seth's unease: Silliman's tone causes him to imagine that Ron is setting imself up "at the center of American poetry" without authorization—maybe "professionalization" would be his preferred term). But I'm pretty sure Ron doesn't want a new center: he wants the word "poetry" always to carry an appropirate socio-historico-communitarian modifier, and if he took the time to distinguish more closely the various differences and strains within what he too often lumps together as a School of Quietude he might encounter a little less resistance to his project. (Not that such resistance seems to faze him even slightly.)

I see Ron as a counterforce, which suggests that those who don't see him this way either don't recognize the power of the forces Ron is attempting to counteract, or that they themselves are consciously or unconsciously aligned with those forces. I'm not sure where Seth falls on this continuum: he is bothered by what he perceives as a total lack of any sort of standards by which individual poems can be judged—that "beauty" may be a child of chaos and not truth and order, to use his rather romantic language. Now I'm not a student of sociology, but I imagine that the order to be found in any socius is more likely to take the form of flows and counterflows, with the stability of a given social body always likely to be more apparent than real. It doesn't seem impossible to me to track these flows with some specificity when confronted with, for example, a given magazine or anthology or MFA program (a part of Seth's rant is devoted to deploring the impossibility of judging the value/values of these entities). I can pick up almost any magazine off the rack at the Bookery or Barnes & Noble or the St. Mark's bookshop and immediately have a sense of what it values (what it considers a good poem, what social subfield it situates itself in) and its value in a number of fields (the effect a publication credit in that journal is likely to have to such diverse groups as, say, the audience at the Bowery Poetry Club and an audience of an academic hiring committee). In short, I see no chaos: just a diversity of flows and counterflows, individually quite legible, and often interacting to form at least partially legible patterns. The stock of the counterflow "language poetry," for example, has been rising for some years, and there are now practioners and fellow-travelers who seem to have as firm a claim to the thoroughly imaginary center as anyone—Ann Lauterbach, to take one example, has been publishing now with Penguin for many years; Bob Pereleman teaches at Penn; Lyn Hejinian has edited a BAP; etc., etc. But the center is imaginary, make no mistake about that. What often gets mistaken for the center is simply the power of institutions, which always have a substantive material base to accompany and bolster their cultural capital. Insofar as they have actual capital to spend they have actual power—the Lilly millions are only the most blatant example of this and it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Poetry (Chicago) has paid to be placed "at the center of American poetry." As for cultural capital, what unnerves many people nowadays is how uncertain its paths of accumulation and distribution have become—but I think that uncertainty is more apparent than real. Where does Ron Silliman get off setting himself up as a cultural capitalist? I hear people cry. Well, he's actually been slowly and patiently accumulating whatever capital he has by writing sometimes dull, sometimes glorious poetry for decades; by numerous affiliations, friendships, and editorships; by consciously mixing poetical and political activism; and so on. Ron didn't emerge full-blown with Santa beard and all from the head of the Internet. What the Internet has done has made it possible for him to convert the considerable capital he's accumulated over a long poetico-critical career into currency. And this understandably alarms those Scrooges whose capital is locked up in less liquid forms, and who if forced to make the conversion would reveal to us all that they have considerably less put by than they would like us to think.

Seth is not such a Scrooge: he's another young poet trying to figure out how (and whether) to make his way in the poetry world as he finds it. It seems to me he's doing a more than adequate job: he's writing poems, he's editing a magazine, and he's keeping a blog whose left-wng political commentary carries a refreshingly sharp edge. In the age of the Internet, one accumulates cultural capital in public—very poor taste to be sure, very nouveaux riche, and, even more damning, very democratic, very unrestricted by membership or lack thereof in feudal hierarchies, and highly corrosive of the old clothes paraded around as new by the Emperor of the Center. For a moment—who knows how much longer it will last—it's more obvious than ever that we all enjoy or ought to enjoy the "substantive and procedural flexibility" as readers and writers that Seth worries may only be the province of John Ashbery, aka "genius," aka those sitting upon a concealed iceberg of capital accumulated by winks and nods at the Harvard Club. Let's enjoy the ride, and think hard about ways we can organize ourselves so that this electronic avenue for counter-institutional forces and ideas can be preserved for the poets who come after us.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Fallen into holiday silence. But a few things worth noting:

- Cathy Park Hong, author of Translating Mo'um, a strange, sly book of poems, some of which I got to hear at the PSA reading last spring (check out this terribly sad fable of otherness, Ontology of Chang and Eng, the Original Siamese Twins), has written a manifesto announcing, "I think poetry could be a bit more fabulous" and urging poets to return to the ear in the new American Letters & Commentary (I'm providing a link but it's the old issue), "Fabula Poetics." Finding Language poetry and the MFA-version of it that's becoming more prevalent to be exhausted, Hong holds up Christian Bok, Harryette Mullen, and Eugene Ostashevsky (aka MC Squared, aka DJ Spinoza) as models for poets who "are more aligned with the world." It's an invigorating essay and I'm frustrated it's not available on the Web; when it comes to manifestoes, I no longer believe print is where it's at. But the issue is well worth reading (Hong's piece is part of a feature called "Wedding the World & the Word" that includes work and thinking-out-loud by Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff (finally coming clean about politics in poetry! and in a word, she too dislikes it), Mary Jo Bang, Linh Dinh, Kamau Brathwaite's desperate Cowpastor letter, plus there's plenty of terrific poetry), so go ahead and subscribe already.

- Avid poetry reader and writer/teacher of creative nonfiction Catherine Taylor stopped by, bought some excellent books, and chatted. If she reads this... hi, Catherine!

- It looks like the post-avants have almost completely assimilated Poets & Writers. Not only has Daniel Nester established a firm beachhead there, but this issue includes an article on poets' theater that mentions the names of Kevin Killian, Camille Roy, Leslie Scalpino, Gary Sullivan, and K. Silem Mohammed; a small press feature on Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Goransson's new press, Action Books; a piece by David Hollander with the mild-mannered title "Imperative: Finding Community Outside of Academia" that is actually both a savage attack on conformism and consensus-thinking in MFA programs and a litany of praise for postmodernist prose (I like this indie band-style note he imagines: "Fiction writer seeks to form small workshop with like-minded individuals. Influences include Italo Calvino, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus..."); a piece by Arnold Weinstein called "A Novel Lesson: The Value of the Modernist Gambit" that's considerably more turgid than Hollander's but ends up, after what seems to be a more genteel Dale Peck/Jonathan Franzen style lament for the breach of faith between fiction writer and audience, praising modernism as fervently as Hollander praises postmodernism; a medium-clever non-interview with David Foster Wallace; and a profile of a Scottish fiction writer named Ali Smith who looks more than a little like the actress Cherry Jones whose prose appears to be more than a little influenced by Gertrude Stein. Okay, there's a fair amount of the usual boring stuff too, but it looks like Hong is basically correct to see that the most popular veins of experimental writing have become perfectly mainstream. Not necessarily a cause for lamentation, but not something to ignore, either.

- Check out the new issue of Tarpaulin Sky. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered.

Okay, back to bed.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Monday, December 19, 2005

Grading, mostly.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

It's been a good brisk week of dissertation work. I hope it won't attract the notice of vindictive gods when I say I hope to be halfway through the Zuk chapter by the end of the month, and finished with a draft by the time classes resume.

This evening at the Bookery between customers I've been enjoying the hell out of Michael Coffey's cmyk, whose title (it stands for the basic colors used in offset printing: Cyan Magenta Yellow blacK) pretty much explains the book's logic: substitution, recombination, reshading, rereading. There's a tour-de-force series, "Imagism," in which the verso page features Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" transliterated into binary code (the poem eventually materializes over 40 pages) and the recto features, as Coffey helpfully tells us in a note, "21 sonnets made of snippets of sonnets by Shakespeare, Ted Berrigan, Bruce Andrews, and Jackson Mac Low, along with quotes from Andy Goldsworthy's Time, The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Trees, The Book of the Book, edited by Steven Clay and Jerome Rothenberg, and some of my own scattered notebook entries." These are thoroughly remarkable; the interlocking ghosts of the source texts are like the webbing that contains something porous and fungible, like snow or tree branches:
Either the sky swings or we do.
Incapable of more, replete with you,
inspiratory oneness may re-insert wailing, yes.
David Wojnarowicz talking on TV,
and my great mind most kingly drinks it up:
Alterable moonlight! Fencible warden!
Able-bodied Laburnum!
He took his skin off.
Love is a babe: then might I not say so.
Lost item an awl; therein
military hymns are normal, saving soak.
I chose forgetting. I forget the noun
olvido. Weeds flourish among weeds,
flowers with flowers gather.
That series is the heart of the book alongside two diaristic sequences. "Holiday a la Carte" begins, somewhat disconcertingly, as simply a day-by-day accounting of what Coffey ate and drank while on vacation—but gradually the catalog of consumption expands to include "one / adverb of resignation — / or is it concession? — / nevertheless"; artworks; the not-quite consumed tools of art-making in the form of a "La petite peinture" box; and tourist sights, including a 13th-century castle built by the Cathars, which is probably key to the consumer-tourist poetics being practiced:
believed that God reigned over the spiritual world
of beauty and light
and that Satan ruled the world
of things, and that it was by some
satanic ruse that man was trapped
in materiality. This idea
for the Cathars
had a fateful implication: that Christ,
word made flesh,
was not divine.
Pope Innocent III preached the first
crusade, Gregory IX
mopped up. Could no one
see that spirit is revealed in things?
    For example,
Paul Cezanne is on the
100 franc note.
The poem registers its consciousness of the consuming self without shying away from the sheer pleasure of the catalogue of beautiful sights, good food and beer and wine—reading it has made me very hungry. (Though there comes a moment where, having lost control of his name by turning it into an adverb, Coffey writes, "Skipping dinner ce soir." I [don't] eat, therefore I am [not]?) Something very Catholic at work here—elsewhere Coffey speaks of missing Mass—that acceptance of the bodily that is one of the most attractive dimensions of that religion, at least as some have practiced it. Ultimately I find—how could I not?—a pastoral consciousness at work: "'These are the wines of Langue d'Oc,' says Robert. / 'Our job is to stay out / of the way.'" But the dates build toward the ominousmidway through the poem we learn that the otherwise anonymous end-of-August of Coffey's poem is August 2001. A terrible puncture is on the way, the inevitable subtext (if you can call what won't stay down sub) of the second diary-sequence, a year in the poet's life: "Datebook 2002." It has the rare quality, for a journal, of actually conveying the affect of the time—of transferring that mixed energy of horror and sorrow and blankness and euphoria, over to the reader, instead of merely recording it. Art, plays, sex, the weather, and in between the attempts to find words—to process the words of the witnesses (a description of the play that Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray did in which the one played a reporter and the other a Brooklyn fire captain; a chopped-up monologue from an assistant fire commissioner) and the resistance—intensely moral—to rebuilding too quickly, too glibly: "I propose instead / that we stay our hand // that another generation rebuild the site / it should remain empty for mine — perhaps acres of wild grasses, no / more." It's a lovely, painful, moving book, synthesizing for me some of the best of the New York School's lust for life and Language poetry's care for construction and the political valences of syntax. It's going on my Best of 2005 list, or would if I had one. Maybe one book is enough.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Found nearly by chance, a 2003 interview with Susan Stewart that I find very appealing.
"Disinterest is modernity." Fascinating, plausible. And I'm delighted to learn that there's a "Coleridge's Milton" to stand alongside Blake's.
The temperature drops, the holidays approach, things get quieter. Working on the Zuk chapter—seems like there's always a mountain of preliminaries before I can make the big points I think I need to make. The real writing seems to happen in between these big points, these highlights, which come to seem rather obvious because I've been thinking about them for so long. Maybe a lesson in there somewhere.

The WTO is on in Hong Kong—you could do worse than to sign this petition and make a donation to Oxfam to support the protesters.

Reading about the execution of Tookie Williams I saw that witnesses were instructed not to "sob too loudly" or face removal from the execution chamber. Isn't that a parable for politics and protest in this country? You can cry but not too loudly or you lose your place at the table—itself a ghastly affair of blood and bones posing as the antiseptic everyday.

Yet still we must delight.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

It's probably safe to say that you missed out on Soon Productions's presentation of Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich last night, damn fine poets, accomplished publishers, and delightful people to boot. Anna started off with a series of poems titled "Critical Writing," "Critical Thinking," "Critical Loyalties," etc., and followed them up with "thirty percent translations" of a series by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Then excerpts from a long work titled The Future or, Optimism: An Epic, ringing a hotel bell (the kind that you want to shout "Front!" when you ring it) to mark the section breaks. Her epic hero's name: Anodyne. "The book of doubt is a terrible comedy," "Nothing is happening so they make something happen," "Why can I only feel bodies through the glove of interpretation?", "I don't know what I believe about speech versus writinng which makes me unfashionable." Cool, discursive, sharply perceptive.

Matvei was charmingly disorganized, riffing at what seemed like high speed through a broad swath of material. Prose poems: "Your face seems to have an expression that should be wearing a bonnet," "And each one holding up a shoe phone to cry closer to your ear." Antic, sly. A poem dedicated to Doug Rothschild in thanks for having told him that an early New Yorker named Preserved Fish had been buried on 2nd Street. "Words fear their nature." A poem from CARVE, "Crow Fictions"—"Smart quotes resemble smart crows." A highlight were a selection of the translations of the Russian Absurdist poet Daniil Kharms, most of whose work was never published in his lifetime. A great poem about an unpronounceable bird's name. A subversive and very funny pean to Pushkin from 1937, when Pushkin was being remade by Stalin into the Great Soviet Poet—in one section Pushkin is irritated by his inability to grow a beard. Then back to Matvei's own work: a terrifying poem called "Buttons" about death and the unnameable, some poems addressed to "Boris," and finally a selection of short Bar Poems—"Let me go, notebook—let me breathe without thinking why I do it." Finally finally four of us were invited up to help perform a play Anna and Matvei had written together called A Spade A Spade, a kind of dark pastoral parabolic twist on the Gravedigger scene from Hamlet. I got to play a character named Pagan who tends to speak her own stage directions aloud, c.f.:
Polite applause!
Anna and Matvei deserved much better than polite applause. It was a treat to have them here and I hope we can pay them a visit in Red Hook before too many months pass.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Come One, Come All

SOON Productions presents poets Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich at the State of the Art Gallery in downtown Ithaca, NY tomorrow evening at 7 PM.

Anna Moschovakis has published translations of Henri Michaux, Claude Cahun, Blaise Cendrars, Théophile Gautier and others, and her first full-length poetry collection is due out in 2006. She holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Bard College/Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts. She is also an editor, book designer and letterpress printer at Ugly Duckling Presse, an art and publishing collective.

Matvei Yankelevich is founding editor of Ugly Duckling Presse in Brooklyn, where he publishes and co-edits 6x6, a poetry periodical. His translations and original work have appeared in LIT, Open City, Greetings, New York Nights, New American Writing, canwehaveourballback, Shampoo, neotrope, Dirigible, and others. His book series, Writing In The Margin, is published by Loudmouth Collective. He is currently working on a book of translations of Daniil Kharms.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

And then to pick up Carla Harryman's Baby and read sentences like these:
A twinned Sierian iris on a spindly stalk is what she knew. Something larger, absent in her consciousness begins to grow.

The hand is an insect perched on pee. Forgetting forgetting forests. This matter swelling in glee.


Knowledge was being processed. It was in the argument machine and the driver of the machine was a god with the face of a man and the body of an inkbottle.

White fuzz in the air froze on a screen. Baby danced the cancan which she'd seen imitations of on daytime television. Monarch butterflies hatched that day blanketing the scruffy shrubs with anxiety. Baby danced on the sidewalk. She choked a coke can with a jump rope. Then blew up a plane with her semi-automatic spitballs. The butterflies wanted nothing to do with her. When she trapped them with her little hands, they played dead, and when she opened her hands, they wobbled on air pockets off into the trees. These children, these children, screamed baby. What do they know?
The world is here, recognizable yet estranged. It's as stark as the difference between awake and asleep.
The Bookery now carries The New York Quarterly so I've been browsing through it. It feels like a journal from another planet—certainly a long ways from anything poetic or otherwise that I associate with the words "New York." There's a long "craft" interview with W.D. Snodgrass which I suppose might be more interesting if I already cared about his poetry—yet I feel that the format of the interview is almost designed to be uninteresting because it keeps everything relentlessly on the level of personal history; larger historical and poetic movements are excluded except insofar as they lend themsleves to personal anecdotes about the likes of Lowell or Frost. In the back, a Justin Marks has written an article that's part of an series with the immensely pretentious title, "The Present State of American Poetry." The three poets Marks considers are all dyspeptic white men—one of whom, Denis Johnson, doesn't even write poetry anymore. That means that Marks ends up using The Incognito Lounge and Other Poems, published in 1982, to talk about the present state of American poetry! (And he isn't interested in Johnson's influence on the contemporary scene, either; all three essays are devoted close readings to the poets' work that reference no living poets as either contemporaries or antecedents.) Then he writes this sentence in his second section: "August Kleinzahler is known—to the few who knows his work—for mixing registers." What "few" can Marks be talking about? If he means the general reader who mostly ignores poetry, fine, but can that possibly be his audience? How unknown can someone like Kleinzahler—who's won the Griffin Prize and is published by FSG—really be? Perhaps Marks has bought into Kleinzahler's own aggressive outsider rhetoric, but still. I can't find any such egregious faults with his treatment of Franz Wright for his third and final section, but the whole project seems to hover in some weird margin to the "American poetry" I'm familiar with: it feels ritualized and irrelevant, the antechamber to a tomb. It's probably not Marks' fault; if his piece didn't have the enormous burden of expectation that "The Present State of American Poetry" puts upon it, I'd think it was a basically unobjectionable example of the close reading many readers claim to want in the stead of airy theorizing and compulsive categorization.

The magazine has a fussy feel to it, from the editor's note, which deplores abstraction in poetry as a flight from emotion, to the detailed submissions guidelines that remind you to "Proofread your poems before sending them to us. Misspelled words and typos may bias screeners against your work." The poems themselves are a mixed bag: the editors seem to favor heterosexual eroticism (they've even got a Timothy Liu poem about a married couple's sexual ennui!), anecdotes about sick parents and sexy waitresses, and superannuated jazz references (not one but two poems mentioning Coltrane in the title); but there are also some word games, like David Lehman's "SF" ("SF stood for Sigmund Freud, or serious folly, / for science fiction in San Francisco, or fear / in the south of France") and Richard Kostelanetz's "Within 'Richard Kostelanetz'" ("Centralized OK trash. / Crazed, loath stinker. / Stink crazed loather," etc.). These and a few other lively poems (Jonne Joseph's deadpan parody of the folks, "Eugene McCarthy, How Could You?"; Emily Brungo's genuinely sexy "Love Is a Puppy from Purgatory"; Justin Marks' own short poem with a fine, crusty title: "Carbonate Precipitation on Sand") are exceptions to the overwhelmingly sentimental rule—too often the product of poets and editors who harp on about how there's not enough emotion in contemporary poetry. There's affect galore yet I'm unaffected.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Saw a little bit of that TV movie about Pope John Paul II Sunday night—missed seeing Joe Buck in the role, but did see a bit of the preternaturally handsome and beatific Dread Pirate Roberts in the part of young Karol Wojtyla, mooning about Nazi-occupied Krakow. This is the second American TV biopic about the late Pontiff—Albert Finney played him last time. Anyway, it must have gone deep down and stuck somewhere (perhaps meeting up with my strangely vivid memories of the Marvel comic about the Pope that my mother kept around the house as a joke when I was a kid), because last night I dreamed I was Karol Wojytla, or the actor playing him, in a strangely coed seminary scene, about to take an exam on some book by Reinhold Niebuhr that I hadn't actually read. The other priests (and, er, priestesses) in training were kidding me about it, while a very Irish-looking James Cromwell admonished me sternly in his wavery Polish accent. I woke up with a weird sensation of empathy. Maybe it was my sense of the Pope as minor Polish poet (there's a scene in the TV movie I caught where young Wojtyla is scene reading Polish poetry to his fellow rock quarry workers, trying to inspire them with the greatness of the cultural heritage the Nazis are trying to destory), but in retrospect he seemed easier to identify with, at least as a young man, than most of the other people I see on television. Especially the ones who talk about God.

The cold has my body contracted and my mind adrift. I will try to warm both with my brand-new copy of Vanitas. Say, wasn't I writing a dissertation or something?

Monday, December 05, 2005

It's the Rain Taxi 10th Anniversary Auction!
Maybe it's only American novels that I find tiresome nowadays. Delighted with Austen; delighted with Hughes; was just delighted by the first four pages of D.H. Lawrence's The Lost Girl.
And here is an excellent review of Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems (available from Palm Press, a book that I've been strangely tongue-tied about since I received a copy with intent to review it many months ago. Chris Pusateri takes the approach of contextualizing Skinner's (eco)poetics, which is undoubtedly useful; what has strangely stymied me are the poems themselves, because I'd like to talk about them and their effects and not simply read them as symptomatic of his larger project, if that makes any sense. I still have hopes of saying something useful about PCP someday, but in the meantime I hope you will read the review and buy Jonathan's book, in that order.
Aside from D&D derring-do and a movie of considerable heartbreak (The Squid and the Whale), Emily and I spent the weekend doing as little as possible. Now mostly recovered from holiday travels I have to recover from the end of the semester and the pile of things to read and grade that keep slipping over the transom.

Here are some blurbs I've written for the Bookery newsletter about books I'd like to see in people's hands here in Ithaca and beyond:

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, edited by Alice Notley with Anselm Berrigan and Edmund Berrigan. University of California Press, $49.95.

"Dear Margie, hello. It is 5:15 a.m. / dear Berrigan. He died / Back to books." No lover of contemporary poetry will fail to be delighted by the work of this most exuberant, scintillant, and transcendental of poets, who over the course of his too-short but amazingly productive life kept up dual citizenship in both New York City and "the incredible static of time-space-language."

Anne Carson, Decreation: Poetry, Essay, Opera. Knopf, $24.95

The author of Men in the Off Hours and Autobiography of Red returns with a veritable smorgasbord of the genre-bending writing that has made her perhaps the most popular and acclaimed serious poet writing in English today. The sparkling light of her intelligence illuminates the work and personalities of Simone Weil, Gertrude Stein, Abelard and Heloise, Michaelangeolo Antonioni, and Monica Vitti, while an elegy for the poet's mother creates a voice for the voiceless: "Your glassy wind breaks on a shoutless shore and stirs around the rose."

Brandon Downing, Dark Brandon. Faux Press, $15

For those who need poetry in their movies and movies in their poetry, Dark Brandon is a great night out: imagine a half-abandoned drive-in theater on the plains of North Dakota that alternates David Lynch movies with silent films and you'll have an idea of what reading this book is like. Energetic, angry, conveying both the investment we make in the movies' dream life and the disorientation of leaving the matinee to find broad daylight, for Downing poetry is "Not a great statue untouched by the caustic millennia" but an urgent response to the life we dream and the dreams we try to live.

Sarah Gridley, Weather Eye Open. University of California Press, $16.95

Heir to Dickinson and Hardy, Sarah Gridley writes poems of uncanny beauty like spotlights that change the ordinary world into rich and extraordinary words: "Blue makes a vast endeavor / for a spider’s verbing rungs." Phrases coalesce unforgettable images of "Winter citrus in opulent rinds" while "The mirror drinks and spends / bright coins." This is a poetry of yearning that makes yearning itself a pleasure, that transforms the pain of nostalgia into something like illumination: "Choose where you are moved. Do you love the air / its forms too small to rescue? Could you bear the sound / of any empty field?"

Thursday, December 01, 2005

McDaniel writes of Hamilton's "formality." Is that "nobility"? As a reserve, a concealment, no. As a slowness, perhaps. Slowing the everyday rather than immersing oneself in its stream.
It's colons that the new BR has brought to my attention: a piece of punctuation whose epistemological implications I haven't pondered since reading Ammons' Sphere a few years back. But Hughes' prose, at least in the sliver I quote below, is driven by colons; and now in a review of Divide These by Saskia Hamilton written by Raymond McDaniel (branching out from his regular gig at The Constant Critic), I find these sentences:
[W]hat concerns Hamilton is not the story of what happens, but the ways in which we seek and fail to shore ourselves against those stories' consequences. In that sense, the wreck and ruination embedded in the daily, the epistemological pressure it applies, stands in for what occurs to the left of the colon's promissory mark. And what we wish to occur to its right is clarification, or a cure.
I love this kind of intelligence, the discovery of Archimedean points in language's smallest units. One of the many possibilities for inscribing not story, not narrative, but movement—surest evidence of life—in a sentence, a stanza, a paragraph. Most prosasically, I think of the convention of title and subtitle in academic books and papers, in which most often poetry—a fragment from the text under consideration—is followed after the colon by a description of the work the author intends to do to/on/with that text. It's a snapshot of the relationship between artwork and critic—the colon in its anatomical sense, a place of digestion. A purgative? Not especially pretty, colons, but they have their uses. The least "poetic" of punctuations except perhaps for its bastard brother, the semicolon, who has found new life in the Internet age as a sideways eye and wink in countless Instant Messages. Some graybeard once prohibited the use of semicolons in poetry when I was young, and I've mostly heeded his advice—dashes are more romantic, smack more of deletion, via negativa, the leap into breathlessness. To see a semicolon in an old edition of Dickinson is to wince. Perhaps they shall rise again as creatures of flarf and the anti-aesthetic; but for now I will confine my semicolons to prose. And my prose...?
I had never before heard of Richard Hughes, but this piece by John Crowley in the new Boston Review sent me to the shelf here at the Bookery to read the first chapter of A High Wind in Jamaica (which in other editions has the subtitle, "The Innocent Voyage"). It as remarkable as Crowley claims for its unerring depiction of childhood innocence in its true, unsentimental sense—an innocence that does not preclude cruelty. The prose is vivid and dreamlike at once, as in this description of a Jamaican earthquake:
The water of the bay began to ebb away, as if some one had pulled up the plug: a foot or so of sand and coral gleamed for a moment new to the air: then back the sea rushed in miniature rolers which splashed right up to the feet of the palms. Mouthfuls of turf were torn away: and on the far side of the bay a small piece of cliff tumbled into the water: sand and twigs showered down, dew fell from the trees like diamonds: birds and beasts, their tongues at last loosed, screamed and bellowed: the ponies, though quite unalarmed, lifted up their heads and yelled.
What an extraordinary pair of sentences! In richness and the territory covered Hughes' chapter reminds me inevitably of Peter Pan (darker, as I recall, in its original form than in the Disney or stage versions—and similarly obsessed with "Good form," an extra-moral sort of discipline or style aspired to by Captain Jas. Hook); and I also suspect it was in the back of the mind of Mark Richard when he wrote a gorgeously grotesque novel called Fishboy, one of the last pieces of fiction I remember inspiring me when I myself was trying to write fiction in the mid-nineties (only ten years ago: is't possible?). Encountering now this hallucinatory prose, in back of which is the most mature and comprehensive understanding of the human and inhuman longings that can possess and drive us, makes me think of writing fiction again. But it will probably have to wait for a few years. The habits of poetry are not so easily overthrown, presuming such is needful. Poetry should, as an experience, part of the foreground, change prose—but how exactly remains to be seen.


Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Reading Nick Piombino's excellent Ted Berrigan post I was particularly interested in this parargraph:
Reading Lifkin's book also brought back a number of vital memories of the Ted Berrigan workshop I attended, along with Carter Ratcliff and others, in 1967. He spoke about the "speed" of contemporary poetry. OK, we know about Berrigan's affection for the drug of the same name, but let's forget about the 60's flavorings for the moment. Berrigan was talking about the fact that when we read contemporary poetry there is an *electric* (instantaneous) quality to our contemporary way of reading that is unique to our era. He used Ashbery's Tennis Court Oath as an example. He was saying that we don't stop to think about each word the way we read poetry now. We engulf the pages instantaneously, ravenously. As he spoke about this, he kept pulling on the chord of the electric light hanging from the ceiling over and over turning excitedly turning it on and off. He made me realize that when we read poetry now we read with the speed of light, the speed of thought, so it should be written and presented with this factor in mind. His Sonnets helped make this an era of lightning fast poetry, He also spoke of the loss of nobility in poetry as well, so he was aware of the price that we might be paying for this type of insatiability. But I think he, and the New York School in general, did much to counter the mournful tones of so much 20th Century poetry: ("I grow old, I grow old, I will wear the bottom of my trousers rolled... I have seen them singing each to each...I do not think that they will sing to me")
First off, how interesting it is to compare this description of reading to the one ascribed to Ashbery in that New Yorker article—a style of reading that Tony Robinson, for one, claims to recognize as his own. I think of that kind of reading and writing as "ambient poetics"—a Wordsworthian construct according to this Timothy Morton article—but if you take "ambient" in its contemporary sense as in ambient music you can get that "speed of light, speed of thought" sense out of it: a necessarily electronic composting of a dozen musical styles for atmospheric purposes, so that to listen for individual voices or styles is to listen in the wrong way.

Secondly there's that question of "nobility," which Nick asssociates with the "mournful tones" of high modernism, specifically Eliot. I wonder about this. "Nobility" is an interesting way to describe what's missing from high-speed assimilative ambient poetics; if we associate nobility with the mournful or nostalgic then it does appear as a token of the Modernism that, according to one standard narrative, is succeeded by a Postmodernism that is confronted with the exact same acceleration/fragmentation of socialty but celebrates or at least gets high off of that fragmentation instead of making doleful utterances about it. But should we be so quick to consign nobility to the dustbin? We as 21st-century Americans are more suspicious of rhetoric than any other culture in history that I can think of, but that seems less to have insulated us against sophistry than it has assisted the rise of those who don't expect to be believed, but only wish to see their "talking points" repeated. Is "nobility" a tone, a vocabulary, a narrative, or an intention? Perhaps nobility is the wrong thing to wish for from a democratic polis/poetics. Perhaps "high" language and rhetoric can only function now as a more or less ironic component of a poet's pastiche. But if the New York School and the Beats are Romanticism from below, maybe they've simply inverted nobility without actually emptying it out: insead of "The Noble Rider" we are nobly ridden. There is certainly something elevating to the person in "Dear Margie, hello," once that phrase has passed through the entire gorgeous machine of The Sonnets. And the apparition of "The Poems" that floats in its lyric sea. Speed aside. Speed a path, an ultimately destructive but no less elevating arc toward the transcendent. I like Nick's musical phrase: "the chord of the electric light."
Still not fully recovered from Thanksgiving travels. Two families, two cities: it's a lot. Plus it's the last week of classes and there's a mountain of grading between me and all felicity.

Having finished Pride and Prejudice in the car, Emily and I saw Pride & Prejudice on Monday night. It was delightful. We're now getting started on Emma. Eighteenth-century cadences are very much in my ear. Also still reading The Education of Henry Adams and just read Zukofsky's 1920's essay on him—that seems like a far detour from Zukofskyan pastoral, but maybe there's something to the critical nostalgia Adams assigns to the "unityism" of the "Virgin" and which Zukofsky adapts when he speaks of the "solid age" being succeeded by "liquid" and "gas" ages. Louis Zukofsky: A Study in Twentieth-Century Multiplicity. That would be a good dissertation, but it's not quite mine.

Dipping occasionally for refreshment into Lisa Robertson's luminous Rousseau's Boat. I still owe Nomads $12 for it. It's crammed with aphoristic wonders: "Any girl who reads is already a lost girl." "We die and become architecture." "In the evening I walked through the terrific solidity of fragance, not memory." That last seems postively Adamsian/Zukofskyan.

Monday, November 28, 2005

While it's hot: the NYTBR (whose significance to poetry was explained for me by Ange and Jane Dark) presented a Poetry Chronicle of short reviews by Ms. Dark herself and Joel Brouwer of books by David Baker, Adrian Castro, Simone Muench, Michael Palmer, Michelle Robinson and Arthur Sze this past Sunday. And in last week's Entertainment Weekly it's not too late to find a long review of Billy Collins' latest (to use parentheses parenthetically, I'm done dumping on Mr. Collins; he poses no threat to serious poetry and might even serve as the fabled gateway drug toward such—and Ron's review of Laura Sims' new book will probably move more copies of that book into the hands of serious readers than the EW review will move Collins') and some short reviews of books by Ashbery, Wislawa Szymborska, Dan Chiasson, and Patti Smith, all written by one Thom Geier, EW's senior editor. I can't help but find this kind of MSM coverage of poetry encouraging, even if it is mostly major press stuff (with the major exception of Jane's pick of Heather Fuller's latest from O Books. "LEAR: Then there's life in't. Nay, if you get it, you shall get it with running. Sa, sa, sa, sa."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Back. Tired. More later.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

On Thanksgiving travels to Rockville, Md. and Buffalo Grove, Ill. In my bag: The Education of Henry Adams, Laura Sims' Practice, Restraint, and Biting the Error. In the midst of family madness (two-plus families worth) I recall Zukofsky's dictum: "The duty of the poet is to survive."

Monday, November 21, 2005

Weekend Round-Up

* The thermometer dipped below freezing on Friday presaging the winter to come, but Saturday and Sunday were both sunny with highs in the fifties. Every warm day in Ithaca has an apocalyptic edge this time of year: will this day be the last? Today it looks like more of the same. A lucky thing, because my sister Vanessa has come for a visit before we head up to Chicago for Thanksgiving.

* Kudos to Dan Chiasson for getting a positive review in the major press review of record. The aesthetic premises of the reviewer, Kay Ryan, are a little unclear to me, but perhaps a sentence like "There is something serious behind the literary shenanigans - an ambition to write larger than any one self stirs the book to life" (there's that ambition axis that Steve Burt suggested to Robert Archambeau) is somewhat comparable to what I saw as the register of splintered subjectivity in Dan's book. But the content of a NYTBR review is so vastly less important than the simple fact of its existence. Will such acknowledgment bring Dan the readers he deserves, or must he hope for a review in Rain Taxi or at least his own usual reviewing venue? What is the value of a NYTBR review to a poet beyond the satisfaction of having momently pierced the membrance of the mainstream media?

* A colleague introduced me to and a fierce essay by one Jeremy Scahill, This War Cannot Be Stopped By a Loyal Opposition. It's a salutary attack on the nostalgia many of us feel about the Clinton Administration and on my own reflexive Democratic-party impulses. I agree that we need a multiparty system, but how to get one when, as this thoroughly depressing Times magazine article will tell you, we barely even have a two-party system? Also, I note that the site is sponsored by an outfit called The Randolph Bourne Institute that seeks to promote "a non-interventionist foreign policy for the United States as the best way of fostering a peaceful, more prosperous world." What exactly does that mean, "non-interventionist"? That seems much broader than antiwar or even anti-imperialism. With, I notice, Patrick J. Buchanan listed as one of the site's contributors, it sounds dangerously close to simple isolationism. Such a policy could perhaps have value if it were tied to a program of anti-capitalism, if it sought to bring about justice here at home so that we could act more justly abroad—so that the "democracy" in "making the world safe for democracy" stood for genuine freedom and not neo-liberal economic policies. In the meantime, there are evil things happening in the world and what do we do about them? The sanctions against Iraq were a moral and humanitarian disaster, a positive crime—but surely the alternative wasn't simply to do nothing about Saddam's propensity to acquire WMDs, which he did indeed use on his own people. Many leftists denounce the Kosovo intervention as imperialist aggression, but wouldnt' the best alternative have been a much earlier intervention rather than simple inaction? Who doesn't regret our failure to intervene in Rwanda? What, in short, do we expect from the government we have? Do we deny it all legitimacy on our path to revolution? Do we put our heads down and concentrate on local issues and local organization and our personal backyards? (In New York for starters there's the Working Families Party, and there's the NYU grad student strike that we should all support.) I don't have the answers to these questions, but I'm asking 'em.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


The cold is as real
as conscience. It's 11:39 AM,
I'm naked writing this
in the sun through
white curtains,
green grass blades
haven't yet got the message,
winter's here but dawdling
or dandling its hands
over our town, not
really a village
but a valley, channel
cut to Canada—
the garden's dead I
can't name the plants
but thought I saw
black-eyed susans
not so very long ago.
Emily's out, the dog
peed but hasn't yet
walked, he'll have to wear
his doggy fleece. Me,
I finally broke down
and acquired the Collected Poems
of James Schuyler, sitting
here in a mouth of O
beauty to wonder,
warm as winter looked
at through a window,
Saturday before me,
afloat on an updraft falling
down the hill toward
some big evening.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

All the action today is over at Jim's new pad where we have a fruitful exchange about bullying, anonymity, and the number zero.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jordan confirms my intuition that the only way to teach someone how to feel is by modeling affect. That's the brilliant basis of his Million Poems Show: the host sits onstage with the poet, listening and reacting and giving the audience permission to share the many facets of his enjoyment. He proposes that teachers can do the same thing, that teachers are like actors and performers. But there's a difference: while talk show hosts generally play the role of your appealingly goofy uncle or aunt, dismissable at a touch of the remote, teachers are in loco parentis, authority figures that students naturally want to please, defy, or elude. All three of these desires (each of which can easily occupy a single student simultaneously) inhibit the experience of the freedom or enlargement of perceptions that ought to be generated by the encounter with a poem. Or if they don't inhibit the experience of the poem they color it, sometimes indelibly. This is why I wonder if a teacher can ever do more than provide an opportunity for the expression of what's already in the student: if the student needs poetry (though he or she may not have known it before now) they will find it in a corresponding spirit of gratitude (yes, Milton, your Milton, teacher, resonates with me), defiance (so you're going to dis Bukowski? I claim him for my own!), or evasion (the most difficult affect to track; maybe this manifests as discovering the power of a poem the teacher sucked all the life out of twenty years later)

I'm reminded of a children's book I had when I was a kid with dark and spooky illustrations and little poems: I think it was called, "The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On." I don't ever want to be that sort of teacher, and yet how can I not be? Life goes on for these students: their consciousnesses are crowded with academic responsibilities that my class can only be a fraction of, plus there's a complex and rapidly evolving social life, jobs, families, love and lust, and looking out the window to think about. All I know how to do is try to show that poetry for me is not an activity that fills a niche from 11:15 to 12:05 MWF but the fabric and weave of all those other things that are indisputably more important than papers and exams. Is that a genuine pedagogy? Does it really work? And if it does, how might it be transferred to other arenas—editing, maybe?—so as to further the art we love?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The "Lycidas" lecture went well, at least in the eyes of the observing professor, Debra Fried. But it's kind of a strange medium: like giving a paper at a conference except no one buys you drinks afterward. Did the students learn anything? Will they do well on the exam? Much more important, did I contribute in any way toward their appreciation or affection for Milton's contorted and gorgeous poem? That's the aspect of teaching that haunts and eludes me: we are trying to teach people how to read, but we don't really teach them how to feel—and how could we? I know that in that room of sixty-five students a handful were sparked, were strangely moved, found themselves repeating phrases or lines: "Sunk though he be beneath the watry floor"; "that two-handed engine at the door"; "Look homeward Angel, and melt with ruth." But aren't these the ones with temperaments already properly inclined? What can I do but gesture repeatingly: Look! Look! Only they can read.

Exhausted, still thinking about Capote, I picked up Emily's copy of In Cold Blood yesterday afternoon and fell into it without a sound. Up late reading, finished it this morning lingering over breakfast. The prose is stunning, yet as happened when I first read the book ten-odd years ago I found myself mostly unable to stop and savor it, compelled to hurry on by the terrible and pointless story of the fatal intersection between two morally hollow drifters and an unimpeachably virtuous and likeable Kansas farm family. The movie hints at the gap between the black hole Capote discovered and the scintillating life—not the prose of course, since it's a film, but Capote's own—that he set glimmering around its edges, creating the impression, the phantom, of meaning. The book is art, great art, immortal art, in direct response to the nihilism discoverable in human acts. There are hints of redemption, but Capote is flinging darts at a dartboard: psychiatrist's evaluations of Hickock and Smith finding them to be, respectively, psychologically disorganized and schizophrenic; the haunting last words of Smith, strangely omitted from the film ("'I think,' he said, 'it's a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don't believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something—'"); a beautiful scene at the book's close in which the chief investigating detective, Alvin Dewey, visting the cemetery to tend his own father's grave, runs into Sue Kidwell, Nancy Clutter's best friend, "just such a young woman as Nancy might have been. Then, starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat." All we have at the end (literally the end, that's the last sentence) are Capote's beautiful words. Are they enough?

That seems to be the question on my mind.

Monday, November 14, 2005

What a pleasure to have two very talented, very different poets on the same night! Guillermo is a quiet, contained presence whose poems tend toward the abstract and lyrical, grounded by an everyday sense of place and by sprinklings of Spanish words and phrases that function almost as landmarks in their particularity (a Poundian grillo or cricket recurs in his long sequence Caracas Notebook, which I hope will soon find a publisher). Sean Cole in front of a microphone is the embodiment of the live wire: scratching his head, gesturing with his free hand, occasionally squinting at the pages as if he'd never seen the poems before, he dashed off linguistically rich surrealist riffs with crack comic timing. Afterwards we hung out at Ithaca's latest attempt at a smart bar, Korova (no milk, no knives, no droogs—unless you count the Ithaca College students) with the poets and the cheering sections they'd brought with them: Guillermo's girlfriend Claudia, and Sean's friends the poet Aaron Kiely and his girlfriend Kish (no, I didn't catch the women's last names, mea culpa). Topics discussed included recent Venezuelan history and ambivalence toward Chavez; Ezra Pound; the gentler uses of psychedelics; the greatness of Capote and the genius of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who damn well deserves an Oscar for his peformance in that film, which we all agreed was one of the very few movies to rightly represent the work of writing.

The next SOON reading will take place on December 10 and will feature everyone's favorite Ugly Ducklings, Matvei Yankelevich and Anna Moschovakis. Be there!

And now I must go get ready to deliver my first ever lecture to a packed room of undergraduates on the topic of Milton's Lycidas. Wish me luck.

Friday, November 11, 2005

SOON Productions Presents

Sean Cole and Guillermo Juan Parra

Saturday, November 12, 2005 at 7 pm at the State of the Art Gallery, 120 W. State St. , Ithaca, New York

Sean Cole is a field producer at WBUR Radio in Boston. He started there as an intern in 1997 and has been freelancing for various public radio shows since 1999, including This American Life, All Things Considered, and The Next Big Thing. Sean’s work has also aired on the WZBC Boston College radio program Your Radio Nightlight and the online public radio workshop His poetry has appeared in The East Village, Shampoo, and CARVE, and his most recent chapbook, Itty City, was published by Boston’s Pressed Wafer in 2003.

Guillermo Juan Parra was born in Cambridge, MA. His poems have appeared in XCP, New York Nights, CARVE, and 6x6. He is currently editing an anthology of Venezuelan poetry in English translation and keeps a blog, Venepoetics.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

If you haven't seen it yet, Jeremy Bushnell wrote an incisive post on the Ashbery profile yesterday, pointing out how the piece strategically denies Ashbery's writing the status or domain of an aesthetic that others might participate in or contest, even as it slyly alludes to more brutalist aesthetics of "smashing and hurling" meaning that Ashbery assuredly doesn't practice. Ashbery must be justified to readers since he's been admitted to the canon by authorities like Harold Bloom, but the genuine strangeness of his practice and the shards of collective invention emedded in it must be made as invisible as possible. In that sense Ashbery is denied his possible role as "gateway poet" and becomes a literary curiosity and an aesthetic dead end. Nothing to see here but the strictly foreseeable future.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

This interview with Chris Stroffolino conducted by Aryanil Mukherjee is interesting too. Standing up for the Beats!
Read this fascinating, deeply moving interview that Joyelle McSweeney conducted with Kamau Brathwaite (and visit, if you haven't, the Save CowPastor site established for Brathwaite by Tom Raworth). In the face of direct environmental oppression he's evolved a remarkable living sense of ecology in which both technology and nostalgia play a part. The descriptons of his work and sensibility sound mythic, but not in the top-down organizational fashion of the myths of nature in The Cantos, for example. More ad hoc, built from materials of daily life, practical.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Proof free downloading works: after a weekend of listening, over and over, to Imogen Heap's ravishing "Hide and Seek" (discovered via the invaluable Aurgasm), I am purchasing the whole dang album on iTunes. It won't be the last time, now that I'm discovering new artists daily thanks to music blogs like iLounge, Bubblegum Machine, Said the Gramophone, Scissorkick, and The Suburbs Are Killing Us. To find new music for free, download it in seconds, and listen to it while walking up to campus through the swirling leaves is to scrape the edges of Utopia.

Read the John Ashbery piece in The New Yorker and didn't find it to be quite the poetic character assassination that Jack did. It's true that the profiler, Larissa MacFarquhar, shows no consciousness of what a trickster Ashbery is, or how integral being a trickster is to his art. Anecdotes of personal conservatism or unease in the world (seeking psychoanalysis to "cure" his homosexuality, being an Episcopalian, etc.) only make Ashbery more interesting to me—the trouble is that readers of the article who haven't read the poetry will take these things at face value and miss the adventure of his thought. But why worry about them? Ashbery's poetry can certainly take care of itself at this point, and "NPR-like exposure" won't hurt him and just might help. To be fair to MacFarquhar, I think she tries quite hard to explain why Ashbery's poetry is seen as difficult when it often isn't particularly, and she might even have succeeded in further opening some ears that have admitted Ashbery is a great poet without particularly liking him (never a good foundation for the actual reading of poems). She has a couple of good paragraphs on Ashbery's poetry as "Musique d'Ameublement" or "Furniture Music" (a piece of Erik Satie's) or (though she doesn't use the phrase), "ambient poetics." Not exactly Tan Lin, but poetry that tries
to cultivate a different sort of attention: not focussed, straight-ahead scrutiny but something more like a glance out of the corner of your eye that catches something bright and twitching that you then can't identify when you turn to look. [The same spirit as Dickinson's "tell it slant," maybe, but more like "see it slant."] This sort of indirect, half-conscious attention is actually harder to summon up on purpose than the usual kind, in the way that free-associating out loud is harder than speaking in an ordinary logical manner. [This makes a giant assumption about how the average mind works, but never mind.] A person reading or hearing his language automatically tries to make sense of it: sense, not sound, is our default setting. Resisting the impulse to make sense, allowing sentences to accumulate into an abstract collage of meaning rather than a story or an argument, requires effort. But taht collage—a poem that cannot be paraphrased or explained or "unpacked"—is waht Ashbery is after.
I think this is useful: it's one of the best suggestions I've heard offered on how to understand what Ashbery and other poets who are interested in experiential language rather than telling stories or making puzzles are up to. The paragraph that follows is a bit more problematic:
This is one of the reasons it's a pity that he has a reputation for being a difficult poet: a reader who likes difficult poetry will tend to concentrate fiercely and bring to bear all his most sophisticated analytical equipment in order to wrestle an explicable meaning out of a poem; and while he may well be able to come up with one, it is unlikely to be the sort of meaning that Ashbery was after. Readers who do not like difficult poetry, on the other hand, or who expect poetry to make a certain kind of sense, often become infuriated by what appears to be Ashbery's perverse love of obfuscation for its own sake, or his exasperating refusal simply to say what he means. They suspect him of trickery or humbug. Perhaps for this reason he was ignored early on by many critics (with the notable exception of Harold Bloom).
What an impoverished dichotomy! Its blind spot omits the vast majority of interesting and vital poetry being written today, which follows neither New Critical models for the ironic displacement of meaning (the quasi-New Critical approach she describes for those who like "difficult poetry") nor the plainspoken anecdotal mode which approaches genuine popularity at the cost of ninety percent of its linguistic resources. Bloom, the critical exception to MacFarquahr's rule, adopted Ashbery because he was able to superimpose his Romantic quest narrative on poems like "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" (a poem MacFarquahr records Ashbery's ambivalence toward: "he finds its essayistic structure alien to the rest of his work"). Bloom is something like your worst-case poetry reader in this scenario: deaf to the pleasures of shimmering ambient layers of discourse and thought, oftentimes deaf to the simple music of language (his favorite poets, whatever their other merits, are rarely euphonious: Ammons, Ashbery, Jorie Graham), he turns every poem he reads into a narrative of the poet's Oedipal evasions and will to power. Still, I believe MacFarquahr's piece has the potential to create new readers for Ashbery (a group that includes those who have previously read him out of duty or in homage to his canonicity); she has awakened possibilities for pleasure, which is to accomplish a great deal. And there are little hints, little fissures in the piece, which open doorways into broader thinking about contemporary experiential poetry (I'm going to try this term on for a while and see how it fits) and its roots in the likes of Pound or Stein:
Although his poetry is a kind of titration or leaching of the world as it seeps into his mind, it is almost never confessional or personal: since the world seeps into everybody's mind, he believes that his poems depict the privateness of everybody. (He is always describing his own traits as just like everybody else's—a tic of which he is unaware. "Maybe that's wishful thinking," he says, when asked about it.)
Art begins from just such a wish.

Monday, November 07, 2005

All the leaves are doing their beautiful death routine. Some good movies over the weekend: the voice-over doesn't quite manage to sink Shopgirl, the latest entry in the subgenre spawned by Lost in Translation. The actors are so good—so intelligent— that I forgive the story's improbabilities and little pretensions. And I was riveted by Good Night, and Good Luck (the comma is important), a work of great literacy in all sorts of media. George Clooney is the guy I want to be next go round: how many other movie stars have used their disproportionate visibility and clout as creatively as he has on behalf of social cases and consciousness? It's all very well for the likes of Sean Penn and Angelina Jolie to visit poor countries and become spokespeople for charitable causes—bully for them—but Clooney (and his partner in crime Steven Soderbergh—I thought their HBO series K Street was wildly underrated) understands both the limitations and advantages of movie stardom as a force for social change—he knows the most effective thing he can do is make movies like this one and the forthcoming Syriana, which promises to do for the oil industry what Traffic did for the drug trade. Add that to a sense of joy in moviemaking (as seen in Ocean's Eleven and Twelve), and I find myself thinking that Clooney's getting it as right as any actor ever has.

Looking forward to the next reading.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Last night I read part of John Kinsella's new book, The New Arcadia; he's probably the highest-profile poet writing and thinking about pastoral right now. Though the poems are for the most part fierce anti-pastorals, laments for the agricultural abuse of nature and the landscape in Western Australia; at the same time there's pleasure in the precision and strangeness of his descriptions. The poems are crammed with Australian words that create an aura of strangeness and exoticism for this American reader, yet that's hardly Kinsella's intention: in his work the exotic is in tension with unsparing precision and accuracy. His lines are thorny, unlovely, crammed with vernacular anger. The book is written in five "acts," each bookended by a "Reflector" (a long poem describing the same cross-country drive at different times; you can read the first one here) and an "eclogue," a dialogue between quasi-iconic figures like "Younger Brother" and "Elder Brother," "Groom" and "Bride," "Woman" and "Poltergeist". His engagement with pastoral is more urgently connected with environmental questions and the particular persons and places of Australia than the more self-consciously literary pastoral that I've concerned myself with. Though his title tells us that Kinsella is hardly unaware of the legacy of pastoral poetry, he wants to implode the genre, to wake us up from a sentimental attachment to spectacles of nature and farmers that obscure the lasting and irrevocable damage we're doing to real plants, animals, and people. The latent utopianism of the genre, its revolutionary potential, only appears in flickers and kernels: Kinsella seems more concerned with making us feel the sharp edges of an uncomfortable reality: "Theft is history, metaphor / assimilation" (the dialectical ambiguity of that line break is breathtaking). When I finish reading the book I might have more to say about it.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Jeffrey Bahr's attack on one of the Chiasson poems I discussed is mostly interesting to me for its wealth of unexamined aesthetic assumptions about what a "good" poem is or should look like: his reading is entirely oriented toward what makes a poem an invulnerable object or monument, ignoring or obscuring other possible attitudes and valences (poem as discourse, poem as social actor, poem as social tactic or meditation on same). These "poetry boards" to which he alludes sound like EST gone wrong or the self-criticism undergone by Maoist cadres, in which everything that doesn't lie on a single Procrustean plane is burnt and purged away. Earning respect? More like a fraternity hazing, or respect in the Mafia sense of "men of respect" who are "made" by committing an arbitrary murder. You can't discuss what Jeffrey calls "tactics" (the moves made in a poem) without a prior discussion of strategy, a discussion that it sounds like these po-boards permanently defer. The result is a poet getting beaten up for playing chess on a checkers board. In the words of my namesake from WarGames, the only winning move is not to play.
From the Washington Post (registration required): "CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons".


Monday, October 31, 2005

Back from a great weekend in NYC—especially yesterday, when the weather was transcendentally mild and lovely. Emily and I did the town: we saw Doubt on Friday night, which is as good as you've heard, and a terrifically funny and entertaining musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Wonderful meals here and there, and on Sunday we followed a trip to St. Mark's (where I wrote down the titles of about a dozen books to order for The Bookery) with a splendid stroll in Soho. I'm running out of superlatives so I'll stop there.

David Letftwich wrote me a long e-mail about my Friday post on Dan Chiasson and Brandon Downing inquiring about my use of the word "mainstream," as in "mainstream poetry"—pointing out that there's no sense in which Dan's book would be considered an "event" by ordinary publishing standards. It provoked the following reply:
It's true that no poetry book is an event the way a Dan Brown or Harry Potter book is, or even something more literary by a major author like J.M. Coetzee. But Dan Chiasson's book is out in hardcover from a major press and has a fair chance of attracting _some_ mainstream attention (perhaps a short review in the NYTBR or The New Yorker). In the attenuated terms of the po-biz, I'd call that an event. The word "mainstream" shifts around a little when I use it. I would argue that most broadly conceived, mainstream American culture is utterly post-literate: you can acquire plenty of cultural capital simply by keeping up with the latest trends in movies, music, and TV without ever picking up a book. Then there's mainstream literary culture as represented in venues that generally have some variation of "New York" in them—where fiction, particularly realist fiction, is king, and once again no knowledge of contemporary poetry is required to be a cultural capitalist (though you're expected to recognize quotes from the great anglophilic dead like Yeats and Auden and Lowell). Narrow down considerably and you have the poetry world, where I take "mainstream" to mean the poetry published by major houses or the bigger universit presses by poets who win awards and teach at places like Breadloaf. On the fringes of this world are the various regional and/or aesthetic coteries—NY School, Language, Bay Area poetry, avant-queer, etc., etc.—where most but not all of the most exciting writing is going on, and where I believe the most passionate and devoted readers can be found.

I have a lot of sympathy for the aesthetic tendencies you describe as being most to your own taste—that's a very worthy list of poets you came up with [Ikkyu, Tu Fu, Sydney, Dickinson, Hopkins, Pound, Eliot, Stevens, Williams, Mandelstam, Trakl, Neruda, Paz, Celan, James Wright, Creeley, Oppen, Fanny Howe, Jean Valentine, Inger Christensen right up to such poets as Foust, Ales Debeljak, and Cole Swensen] and I admire or want to know more about them all. But I've come to feel that simple taste doesn't provide me with adequate knowledge of the field of available poetries—or rather, that my taste wants education (on the bus down to New York I was reading The Education of Henry Adams—I could see the appeal of his dry, ironic, at times rebarbative prose to the likes of Pound and Zukofsky immediately). So I'm always looking for new axes of force or theory to help educate my desire and introduce me to new possibilities in poetry, while perhaps helping me recognize what veins of ore have been played out. So I have come to think that the means of poetic production matter—that where and with whom a poet publishes is important information, if only because I can come to discover new poets because I've found a particular editor or press to have tastes consonant with my own. At the same time, a post like Friday's goes to show that an overly dogmatic conception of the effect a situation of production has on poetry will cause me to miss or misinterpret a great deal. End result: I can read and enjoy a patently post-avant poet like Downing and a patently mainstream poet like Chiasson. So like you I might describe my taste in poetry as "eclectic." I've taken a long and eccentric road to that quasi-destination (starting as a fan of Richard Hugo and James Wright, passing through the Language poets and Marxian interpretation, and now emerging into more multicolored fields of poesy), but probably no longer or more eccentric than anyone else's road.

Of course what grabbed my attention about the two books was a certain similarity in their concerns: I think they're both struggling with our postmodern moment, particularly regarding the self (as appropriate for lyric poetry), but not simply resting in that moment and fooling around with it as had seemed adequate for a few minutes in the late nineties. I think they're both grappling with our ever-more-fragmented, ever-mediated experience and the degraded language on offer for expressing experience, and though Dan might, for example, revert to classical models like Pliny and Horace (as you refer to late modernists like Coltrane and Camus), his poetry feels as exciting and relevant as Brandon Downing's because both poets' forms smack of the 21st century, using sampling and hypertext and half-dismantled personae to try and formulate human tactics (android tactics?) in the face of a mediated/mediating capitalism that is working very hard to turn us all into weak citizens and pliable consumers. The latest form, if you prefer the long view, of the domination that poets have resisted or made bitter accommodation with since Plato tried to throw us out of the Republic.
Some of this makes more sense with Leftwich's original message behind it: if he gives me permission to post it, or if he posts it himself, I'll adjust accordingly.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Reading in two books that couldn't have more different provenances, yet which ring similar changes: Brandon Downing's Dark Brandon (from Faux Press) and Dan Chiasson's Natural History, published by Knopf. In large and small ways the books are marked as experimental coterie book and mainstream "event" book, respectively: no blurbs vs. blurbs, softcover vs. hardcover, interior artwork vs. no artwork, no sections vs. sections, etc. But both poets are struggling to register and engage subjectivity while dodging or critiquing the standard-issue lyric "I." Downing does this with his title, of course, and with poems that seem to half-ventriloquize the personages of the films they're associated with while also registering contexts that only a viewer or film student could know about: in film language, the speaker oscillates constantly between diegetic and nondiegetic levels (I should note too that instead of any blurbs or description the back cover has a note reading "Poetry / Cinema Studies"). Having myself written some poems about the 1960s TV show The Prisoner, I was interested to read Downing's take on it: here's a piece of the first poem in the book of that title:
The Plover Lying In The Dust, by John Coletti

I'm so angry! I'm so mad!
The models wouldn't stop kicking me!
I spent extra money to get footsteps.
I can't look at myself, I am covered by tracks.
Because I said, "Come to me, I am 'Lex Luthor',"
I go outsie to the garden, Mundo,
To get leafy greens, I got stabbed!
Not a great statue untouched by the caustic millennia
Energetic, angry, conveying the investment we make in the movies' dream life and the disappointment that results, the disorientation of leaving the matinee to find broad daylight. I was interested to put this book down and pick up Chiasson's: many of his poems also directly interpolate "Dan Chiasson" and, though less frenetic and more wry, they can create a similarly edgy affect (somewhat in contradiction to the "affability" and "friendliness" attributed to him by his blurbists—Linda Gregerson and John Ashbery, respectively). Here's Part II of a four-part poem, "Four Horaces":
To Helena Concerning Dan Chiasson

The water at the bottom of the river, way down, the coldest
darkest water: if that water were your only drinking water
what would you do: thirst forever? Or drink the freezing water?

If A, send me a postcard from la-la land, where
Mom bays like a donkey and Dad is an oil slick,
because that's where dehydration takes you, fast.

If B, I'd buy the biggest wool parka I could find
and put it where the sun don't shine—otherwise
you'll feel a subzero chill no mug of tea will thaw.

I chose B, and now it's winter, and I'm outside your door
like a baby seal on an ice island, waiting
to be clubbed or saved by a Green New Zealander.

Come out. When Dan beats off again, when
he drifts away the way he always does, come out:
zip up that pantsuit and rescue me from my Horatian

sense of humor! There's a great jazz bar nearby
that doesn't charge a cover. They will play
only the nine jazz songs we know, over and over.

And the world will narrow the way it always does
when we're together, only nine jazz songs
ever written, and we know every one by heart.

And if some kid from the local jazz college walks in
and starts playing the tenth song, that's when
we get our clubs and club him like a baby seal.
Chiasson is, like Downing, exercised over the mediation of his own life, but he comes at it from a different angle: the poems mourn the assault on (human) nature and express guilt over his participation in same, registered through the pathos of animals brough to the edge of speech by a kind of wry empiricism (inspired by the writings of Pliny the Elder).

I can't ignore the different origins, the different imagined readerships, that are encoded in the packaging of these two books. Nor is the poetry similar in any consistent sense: Brandon Downing practices a manic dialogism, deliberately bleeding the barrier between poetry and discourse white (and black); Dan Chiasson is more discrete and discreet, more concerned with the shapeliness of language even if there's sometimes broken glass in his mouth. But I think they form an interesting mini-constellation, a snapshot of the limitations of the various dichotomies and trigonometries of the poetic field that are currently on offer. Chiasson especially seems aware of how the available maps might lead him to be overlooked or misread by coterie readers—paradoxically the most desirable readers for a "mainstream" writer because of their intensity. But he enjoys his symptom. This last stanza to a poem called "Tulip Tree" could have come from a "post-avant" book, yet the fact that it didn't is what gives it its meaning, what makes it a plea:
I want fried clams, the ones with gritty fat bellies.
If I strike the apocalyptic tone you lke, won't you
drive up Route 1 with me, right now, to find those clams?
Farewell, unqualified nonentity! Now I suppose we'll have some fire-breathing wingnut to contend with: the obvious strategy that will permit a post-indictment Bush to re-energize his base. But it really does seem that without the full attention of Rove this White House is utterly incompetent both politically and governmentally. Oh, for a parliamentary system! Oh, for a vote of no confidence!

Rereading the short poems of Zukofsky, rereading Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Amazed to realize that Zuk's shorter poems are positively crammed with nature imagery: here it seems was a New York poet who couldn't enjoy the subway without a blade of grass (or a preying mantis) handy. As for Robertson, my respect for her gift for lyric cognition is deepening into awe. Here is a writer I'd follow anywhere, along any train of thought. She seems to have created out of whole cloth the self-questioning postmodern pastoral that I find so alluring.

Headed down to NYC tomorow to meet Emily, who's been doing singing- and work-related stuff down there. We're going to see a couple of shows, wander around, and generally celebrate the four years we've been together more or less as of this weekend. Not sure I'm going to make it to the Creeley memorial: I revere him, but it sounds like it's shaping up to be too much of a scene. But I will pay my usual pilgrimage to the St. Mark's Bookshop and maybe I'll see you there.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Farewell, Rosa Parks. And farewell, 2,000 brave men and women who have sacrificed their lives for—well, no one has yet given me a convincing explanation of exactly what for. Nor do I understand why untold thousands of Iraqis have had to die. Nor do I understand why those numbers are untold.

Fitzmas can't come too soon.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Wonderful belated birthday presents from Aaron and Wendy yesterday: a whole pile of books and chapbooks from Pressed Wafer. I'm looking forward to diving in and reading... someday. I seem to have very little time or mental space for any sort of reading nowadays that isn't vaguely connected to the dissertation—though in the evenings I'm reading the first contemporary novel I've indulged in for a while, Colum McCann's Dancer, a kind of fictionalized biography of Rudolph Nureyev. The books opens with a tour-de-force account of the unspeakable hardships undergone by Russian soldiers in the defense against Hitler's invasion, and the first half is generally excellent at depicting young Nureyev's uncanny appetite for life against enormous odds. After his defection to the West the book seems to have shed some energy, chronicling his life among the rich and famous and his love affairs with other male dancers and the occasional rough trade. Its heart is in Soviet Russia and those he left behind. A valuable portrait of the ruthless egotism sometimes required of an artist if he or she is to realize their full potential. Such people fascinate, even as they treat others like garbage, in much the same way a character like Tony Soprano does: we are as hypnotically drawn to someone who doesn't arrest their own desires the way most of us are taught to in order to become productive members of society. But we are also taught not to become assholes, and as Martha says, that's a good thing. That's the main personal challenge for a creative person in this culture: you have to become a kind of monster of self-assertion, sending your work uninvited hither and yon, and yet you still have no right to treat others badly, even if you yourself have been so treated in the past. Perhaps Shakespeare's Sonnet 94 is in part about the balance and calculation required of anyone who seeks power, including simple sovereignty over one's self:
THEY that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
    For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
    Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.
Of course there's a cold stream of irony that circulates through the lines of this poem: there's something a little inhuman about such an attitude toward self and others. Most of us will choose the company of a Falstaff, for all his narcissism and unreliability, over the frigid nobility and ruthlessness of a Prince Hal.

Can you tell we're in the middle of the Shakespeare section of the course I'm TAing? Well, re-reading is usually good reading.

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