Monday, January 31, 2005

What to make of the Iraqi elections. There's something immediately iconic and even inspiring about those women with the purple fingers (much cooler than those lame "I Voted" stickers they hand out here) who very much risked their lives yesterday. Still, democracy (if that's really what's happening) is not for one people to bestow upon another, is it? I suppose what we have here is a radically accelerated version of the ninteenth-century colonial situation, in which imperial powers forced their own institutions on subjugated peoples, only to be slowly and painfully forced out by those who took their masters' promises most seriously. But for every democratic India there are a dozen tinpot dictatorships in the postcolonial world, and the wounds of colonization have proven to be deep and lasting. I do not think the Iraqi people will forgive us very soon.

While reading Grood Poet No. 2 this morning, I realized that one quality I highly value in a given poet's work is cleverness or wit, which often though not always shades into self-consciousness about the rhetorical or cultural situation of the poem as a whole. This preference for wit may better explain why I am so easily bored by so-called mainstream poets like Sharon Olds, Philip Levine, or even Jorie Graham than the mainstream-post-avant axis we're all using as our most basic mode of orientation these days. Earnestness had better be backed up by visionary power, intellectual insight (Graham sometimes achieves the latter, more rarely the former), or compelling music (Levine's "They Feed They Lion" is one of my favorite poems). Mere wit isn't very satisfying either, but the attention it pays to scintillating surfaces may pay off in spite of the poet's seeming superficiality, because possibilities for meaning are always lurking beneath word combinations like the ice under an iceberg. Needless to say, wit is not identical with humor: I love a funny poet, but if the humor is merely anecdotal or arises from a "high concept" incongruity (as with the weaker poems of James Tate and his imitators), the poem is not likely to leave much of an imprint on my mental retina.

That said, today's grood poet, Kevin Davies, is a past master of that rare and remarkable combination, earnest wit. This is cleverness with something at stake, similar to the case of John Donne when the same quicksilver intelligence he applies to seduction and dalliance is turned onto the direst questions of salvation. Davies has a bold and socially acute imagination: a Marxist Ashbery. Some of his best work is available online: there's a PDF available of his book Pause Button over at UbuWeb and his magnificent longish poem Lateral Argument is available from The Alterran Poetry Assemblage. As Davies writes in the long poem "Apocryphon" in his great book Comp, "There's a hum coming from the metacorporate world-ruler-thing-dinger": he is a fierce critic of both the neoliberal capitalist "thing-dinger" and the superstructural cultural "hum" ("What's that humming sound?") it produces, a hum that includes and indicts both pop culture and the post-avant. "Apocryphon" ends with lines that show a sardonic awareness of the awkward class position Davies and his probably equally overeducated and underemployed reader occupies: "A flabbergasted A-student type. // You can more or less count on being part of the control group." A shorter piece in Comp, "Untitled Poem from the First Clinton Administration," skewers our neoliberal nineties complacency, with what passed for progressivism in those diminished years revelaing itself as "An unfunded social wish list." But what I'm quoting doesn't give you an idea of Davies' rangey (I almost typed ragey) wit. To wit:
               A crony comes over and says the following
Stop being so obvious
When a new word enters the language
No, wait, I can't think, you're pressuring me
I know you are but what am I
Truncated gerund
But that doesn't count for shit
The fuck needs to have his head shoved in a trunk and thrown off a ship
I'd break your leg but I like your hair
Poxy stock jock
Yeah like entering a new century is about to change us into Yellow Book elves
Space-age chipmunks
Running for office
I don't even play tennis
Shoot me if
OK but
Serb artillery
I'm Andy Benes in Sarajevo
France bombs atoll
Dad always said it was a skank notion
Cal Ripkin shot dead one game short of record
Happy birthday John Cage
Speed plus savagery: poetry as barbaric as it ought to be after Auschwitz/Rwanda/Srebenica. But Davies also manages to come across as someone I'd like to hang out with: funny, self-deprecating, filled with a yearning for justice and comradeship: "And abandoned amidst the happy clog dancing our presences aspire to." A stand-up engagé tragicomic. I heard the news today, oh boy.

Two things occur to me. One is that the younger poets who I'm nominating for majorhood are of my generation—"Generation X"—but perhaps four or five years older. The other is that it might be possible, or at least amusing, to apply Stevens' conditions for supreme fiction to each poet as a kind of measuring rod. That is, if the three primary values are Abstraction, Change, and Pleasure, then I would assign those values in that order to Jennifer Moxley's work. Kevin Davies, on the other hand, I receive as a Change-Pleasure-Abstraction poet, or CPA if you like. This is merely a question of perceived emphasis on my part and can in no way be quantified into a coherent system. But I'm a sucker for rapid graphemes (what maps call the "Legend") as a provisional means of putting the poetry universe in order.

Number 3 is a bloggers' favorite, so do tune in tomorrow.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Grood Younger Poets

This morning I wrote an irritable post about La Vendler and an Academy essay bashing Language poetry by one Richard Tayson. But this afternoon I feel that the only answer to give people either oblivious or hostile to great experimental writing is not more polemic, but the simple presentation of what's great and good.

Over the next few days I plan to present a number of contemporaries who I think of as major—whose work I continually return to for the news that I find there. All of them produce what I consider to be sufficiently complex representations of reality, both inner (consciousness) and outer (the social). All have affinities for the lyric, and I would hazard that all have idiosyncratic notions of ancestry (i.e., none are card-carrying members of any school). All have progressive political commitments that manifest in aesthetically interesting and indirect ways. They've all got serious chops as far as "craft" goes (I'd like you to hear the German Kraft here in the sense of "strength") and have very personal and particular relationships to one or more basic elements of poetic composition: the line, the rhyme, the sentence, etc. I believe all of them act in accordance with Stevens' major dicta: It Must Be Abstract; It Must Change; It Must Give Pleasure. Righty-ho. Here we go:

1) Jennifer Moxley. One of the most acute sensibilities in contemporary poetry. A ceaseless investigator of internal and external stimuli that can never be fully accounted for—the peculiarity of her diction seems to stem from the thinness of her skin. She has a prophet's righteous anger that her own pettiness and fears do not evade. She writes a mean public poem, but I think her unflinching examinations (better: productions) of intimacy are what really set her apart. Here's a poem from Imagination Verses:
Though Crowded

I am not thinking of you
always, in separation our time
is queer requirement, the
impossible revelation
of a moment alone, or the
pale counting of debts.
Alone in thought my mind
now falters, accomplishments
are my heavy buildings reached,
they mark the jeopardy
of savings, must I think
of everything as saved,
the daylight, all the world
of time I want you in shall
pass ungathered. Will you
insist for love my life
must make effective cahnges,
while throughout this
makeshift home the rooms
are filled with savings,
photographs and books
acquired as if my very life
on them depended.
Tonight I saw the moon
in the faint sky of Providence
and I was moved no deeper
for the distance. You must
know what you've done
to my ambition.
When I read Moxley, I always end up feeling implicated, like she's someone who knows the drift of my own mind's moves better than I do myself. It's the closest I've ever experienced to telepathy. I'm still mining both of her books (for a few months last year The Sense Record traveled with me everywhere I went) long after other poets I've read have passed through my hands with however much pleasure. Moxley haunts me. She has a lot to say.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Fierce Mandelstam makes many claims on the word "salt":
Untitled (#126)

I was washing outside in the darkness,
the sky burning with rough stars,
and the starlight, salt on an axe-blade.
The cold overflows the barrel.

The gate's locked,
the land's grim as its conscience.
I don't thnk they'll find the new weaving,
finer than truth, anywhere.

Star-salt is melting in the barrel,
icy water is turning blacker,
death's growing purer, misfortune saltier,
the earth's moving nearer to truth and to dread.
Conflate of seer and sear! And this stanza from a poem called "1 January 1924":
The age. In the sick son's blood the deposit of lime
is hardening. Moscow's sleeping like a wooden coffin.
There's no escaping the tyrant century.
After all these years the snow still smells of apples.
I want to run away from my own doorstep,
but where? Out in the street it's dark,
and my conscience glitters ahead of me
like salt strewn on the pavement.
The transcendent vies with the earthly to suffer our intelligence. Near death:

Pear blossom and cherry blossom aim at me.
Their strength is crumbling but they never miss.

Stars in clusters of blossoms, leaves with stars—
what twin power is there? On what branch does truth blossom?

It fires into the air with flower or strength.
Its air-white full blossom-bludgeons put it to death.

And the twin scent's sweetness is unwelcoming.
It contends, it reaches out, it is mingled, it is sudden.

Voronezh. 4 May 1937

From The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, trans.

State of the Oulipian

From a New York Times review of a movie called Army of One:
"Army of One," which opened at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater yesterday, is preceded by the short film "Qaeda Quality Question Quickly Quickly Quiet," whose curious title is explained by the film's premise. The artist and documentary maker Lenka Clayton took President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address (the "axis of evil" speech), chopped it into its constituent 4,100 words, and arranged the results in alphabetical order. The project is so simple as to constitute a prank, but a result is a bracing piece of avant-garde agitprop that provides an X-ray of American political oratory in the wake of 9/11. The film is by turns sobering and funny, as unexpected fragments of syntax emerge from the onslaught of words: "Always, always, always, always, America," the president seems to chant, before engaging in an accidental exhortation: "Let's, liberate, liberty."
What the hell am I working on? Is it the Pound chapter or the introduction? I know I should just put the chapter to bed (well, at this moment it's still sitting in front of the TV and begging me for "five more minutes") but it's impossible not to think about the Big Picture and nearly impossible to reconcile thinking about the Big Picture with the fine detail work that is actual chapter writing. What I should probably do is write some "introduction" (this would be my half-dozenth attempt at writing one) just to scratch the itch in my head and clarify a few things. Then I can go back to Pound refreshed. A conversation with my chair last week convinced me that I need to address the split in the two general interpretations of pastoral (as social construct, as engagement with nature) that I alluded to the other day head-on in the intro. I think I can use Heidegger to bridge the gap. Been reading some essays on Being and Time and the concept of "authenticity" (Eigentlichkeit), a better translation for which might be "ownness." My challenge is to extract from Heidegger's existentialism a historical construct, or rather to see it as such: an account, reading against the grain, of this existentialism as almost a modernist artwork rather than a structural account of timeless Dasein. It means misreading Heidegger, I think. What do the environmentalists do with him? Is it just his critique of technology and the "world-picture" that they embrace? As always, I'm less interested in any given author's intent than in what we can do with him or her—ever since I embraced poetry I've embraced my own tendency to creatively misread, which valorizes the present and future-potential over the claims of the past to be accurately transcribed. Not a historian's approach, I'll grant you, but you have to be true to your own nature—if you're lucky enough to discover what it is.

Lookee lookee at this new mag Puppyflowers—new to me, anyway. I often have a hard time reading poems on the web, but the large bright font against the dark pseudo-wood background is very legible. Particularly enjoying Shafer Hall's "The Dray Man & His Dray Horse Draw the Bulk Away," Shanna's alliterative "A Latin Atlas," and this remarkable line from Rachel Levitsky: "alley/gully/gutter/shaft".

Well will you just look at the time!

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Sun In

The sun was now resting his huge disk upon the edge of the level ocean, and gilded the accumulation of towering clouds through which he had traveled the livelong day, and which now assembled on all sides, like misfortunes and disasters around a sinking empire and falling monarch. Still, however, his dying splendour gave a sombre magnificence to the massive congregation of vapours....
                    Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary

The sun fell in the ocean and we set out to find it. There was me, Andy, and St. Joan. Andy cast off and our prow found open water. Only a sail-shaped blackness distinguished the sea from the sea of stars.

"From land to land is the most concise definition of a ship's earthly fate." But there's no land where we're going and sailing's a poor simulacrum of a walk.

In the middle of the ocean we failed to find the middle. Even horizons were on strike. At least fresh fish were plentiful. Joan caught them on her spoonbill, Andy cleaned them with his pigsticker. I took them on coals and off again and burned my mouth on their glow. A silvered ember's slow going, it's a splash.

The ship knifed through the water. The ship scissored an unseen seam. The ship bridged air in the form of bubbles. The ship was something to live on. The sword of the ship ploughed a furrow. The ship gulleted to stay unfed.

Andy blew on his oboe, St. Joan did a dance by the brazier and flung her cropped locks to and fro. I sang: "When a lovely flame dies / Smoke gets in your eyes."

Facts are not persons and the reverse is equally true. Yet I ask you to honor this fact of our absence.

On the eighteenth day the water churned, the wind stopped, we began to rise and fall like sleeping. Finny fanged fish showed us their bellies in great profusion, flickering once in the light of the lamps hung amidships. A green belly caught that light and flashed it to its neighbor who flashed it lower and lower. The bright bellies spun in sequence to form a vortex which we joined. In a white gown and breastplate Joan stood at the taffrail, all eyes on her, and smiled before she dove. The virginal ideal of French womanhood sank like a stone out of sight. Like the ideal stone that dreams of uniting gravity and light.

For another eighteen days we swung from beam to bream. Fresh water ran low as did the cans of dolphin-safe tuna. Andy gawped from the masthead. I lay on my back on the poopdeck from which the whirlpool described the stars.

If morning comes without a point to assign light from and Andy nowhere to be found.

Alone from this bottle I write you: save yourself from seeking the earth.

Was it a fiberglass banana or a wooden O? What was the final sound: a rending of the curtain? A crumpling of charts? Decide on math or myth.

A dolphin bore me away and I dared not glance back at the ship I'd fired, its timbers burning free like a hand and flaming pencil. Felt its heat blanch the leaf of my head, inducing a greenness to grow.

Solitude has named me thee.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Good morning, everybody. I hope you'll check out my little Richard Hugo essay (I can't vouch for the link) over at

The nor'easter that turned Ithaca into a snow globe this weekend was at least good for my reading: I spent all day Saturday completely absorbed by Susan Buck-Morss's Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. One of the most exciting works of political theory I've ever read, and the first book in ages that I've read cover-to-cover. Among other things it's a grand and persuasive theory of the disparate cultural logics of Western capitalism versus Soviet communism (in a nutshell: the West constantly reduces politics to the spatial, obsessing over territorial boundaries while projecting no meaningful idea of the future; the USSR reduced politics to the temporal, sacrificing the present to a future utopia of world socialism) with sobering and prescient implications for our present-age "War on Terror"; a history of visual culture in the Soviet Union; a theory of the avant-garde (about which more in a moment); a critical explanation of the collapse of the Soviet Union; and a personal memoir of collaboration and missed opportunities between Buck-Morss (who was and is a professor here at Cornell; I took her Modern Social Theory seminar) and Soviet/Russian (the slippage there encompasses the whole book) scholars in the period of glasnost, perestroika, collapse, and the rise of the ethnic Russian state and economic "shock therapy." Along the way and almost in passing she reframes the question of the avant-garde (she's thinking specifically of the Russian constructivists and futurists and suprematists before Stalin: Malevich, Mayakovsky, etc.) in a way that incorporates Peter Bürger (without actually mentioning him by name) and goes beyond him—re-opening a space for avant-garde action:
Artworks, not artists, are avant-garde, and even here the category is not a constant. It is the aesthetic experience of the artwork... that counts in a cognitive sense. The power of any cultural object to arrest the flow of history, and to open up time for alternative visions, varies with history's changing course. Strategies range from critical negativity to utopian representation. No one style, no one medium is invariably successful. Perhaps not the object but its critical interpretation is avant-garde. What counts is that the aesthetic experience teach us something new about our world, that it shock us out of moral complacency and political resignation, and that it take us to task for the overwhelming lack of social imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production in all its forms.... The art of the Russian avant-garde prided itself in being "nonobjective" and was accused by its enemies of being "formalist," but it remained representational in the important sense that it was mimetic of the experience of modernity. Precisely through abstraction, the artworks gave expression to a human sensorium fundamentally altered by the tempos and technologies of factory and urban life. (63, italics in original)
This is arguably more a work of synthesis than anything stunningly original (Frederic Jameson is clearly a shaping force), but I still find it to be clarifying and refreshing. I'm especially interested in the question of avant-garde means—the continuum she sets up between "strategies" of critical negativity versus utopian representation. It's not a dichotomy, yet it's hard not to feel that these strategies aren't fundamentally opposed to each other; Adorno for one argues that any art that positively represents reconciliation (between humans and nature or between humans and the society of late capitalism) is false at its root. Though he does leave the door open for a lyric poetry that manages to be both critical and representational by completely ignoring capitalist society—by denying its right to exist. But this isn't the same thing as attempting to mimetically represent a modernity which has actually rewired the "human sensorium"—something which my extremely lay understanding of cognitive science suggests might in fact be the case. There's a contradiction here that I must grapple with in my account of pastoral. If the human sensorium has been definitively altered by modernity, the new pastoral must render a relation to nature ("utopian representation") that takes this alteration into account, and presents nature as and by the means of modernism: fragmentation and montage. If it hasn't been altered, or if this alteration might be desirably be imagined as reversible or capable of being slowed, then one's representation should be unified and whole—Frost and not Williams, say. How, in short, do you feel about Rimbaud's "Il faut etre absolument moderne"? Do we do this in order to embrace the utopia of technological harmony? Or to embrace one's own temporality, one's own time, so as to battle against the bad aspects of modernity? Do you seek to reconcile people to their new industrial and modern environment, or do you foment criticism and revolution? Buck-Morss again:
The fantastic constructions of the avant-garde could no more be a blueprint for socialist existence than a Five Year Plan can be for how economic activity actually impinges on human life. Both are utopian representations, the forced actualization of which can have very dystopic effects. The power of art to change life is indirect. But so is (or ought to be) the power of political sovereignty. (65)

[The Russian avant-garde's] "reconstruction of daily life" (perestroika byta) anticipated the socialist future without sacrificing the present. (96, italics original)
This is useful for me to think about, particularly as I begin to deal with the version of pastoral I've so far neglected, which is pastoral as "nature poem" rather than an Empsonian social construct. To paraphrase Buck-Morss, what counts is that the aesthetic experience of the new pastoral teach us something new about our world, that it shock us out of moral complacency and political resignation, and that it take us to task for the overwhelming lack of social and environmental imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production in all its forms. And that is why I now turn to Angus Fletcher's A New Theory of American Poetry with renewed enthusiasm for constructing an account of pastoral that imagines, in its modest way, both socially and environmentally.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Lecture on Modernism

The novels of Henry James descend from whence they were elevated on a brushed-concrete staircase. They smile coquettishly at a large flash. They are how do you say, apropos to zero. Their declensions fall on deaf ears.

The S.S. Europe steamed into New York Harbor and crashed straight into 14th Street. It is lodged there still.

Crepe paper velocipedes all over these islands, black and pink for mourning.

Lunch held a luncheon for a puncheon floor where hogs cool their bellies near Yoknapatawpha. Look, I found a decorum where someone must have discarded it. A decorum is a Roman coin, much bitten.

Then prose rolled over and stopped snoring.

A lecture takes the form of its hearers' mixed memories. One recalls the fuzz standing up on her sweater sleeve as a lightning storm approached. The one in love with her (three rows behind) did not notice this but attributed his own rising hackles to her resemblance to his favorite poem: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Maud. Moral: memory is rarely progressive.

Every part resembled every other part except for Henry Miller's hangnail.

Declare yourself a genius and watch the bucks come clattering in! It worked for Gertrude Stein. Her rose still hovers over your bluebook, a revenant noun and verb.

Get a load of that impulse control. We know why Jas. Joyce goes blind in the last chapter, now don't we? Now Stan, his brother—there's a soft touch!

"But why would you want to put your ideas in order?" Mussolini asked Pound on the golf course. He put a nine-iron's tip to his lips. Pound shook his head and squinted at the sun. "From this angle you're better off with a sand wedge."

After Faulkner made off with her tricorn, Marianne Moore copyrighted Miss.

First electroplating. Then beaten copper. Then fresh ground pepper. Then snow began, snow began, snow began. White ashes whirled around spires and the people did not dare to look up. Color bleeds out of the scene for forever and a day. Architecture stalls.

A banner is completed by wind.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

New Year's Eve's Eve

Static from low to high, from moons to June,
What compressed liars in their manifestos stress.
Eftsoons it is noon—a day in June, a moonless moon
Called new for cigarette lycanthropes to obsess

And fester over. Binaural sound discovers the snake
Of my mind's medulla, makes each north star a moot
Muted point. No one now calls for the layer cake
Of geological sediments, though that butte's a beaut.

So earth sings sentiments sans our lips as Garbo
Laughs forlornly to cancel the curtain's play.
Layered with light from trash fires, the old century's hobo
Jungle flickers like a muscle in the face of the new day.

That is, the sun can be remembered by a rhinestone
And sex stabs the corner of your sweeter eye's cologne.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

No bouts-rime yet. I wrote one a couple days ago, but I'm at the store and it's on my computer at home. I just read Ron's beautiful memoir (if that's the right word) Under Albany in a single sitting. I'd forgotten that there's an Albany in the San Francisco Bay Area; all this time I was picturing a different sort of darkness akin to that spreading through William Kennedy's novels. Chunks of it have already appeared on his blog. It's a very personal portrait of community formation and political consciousness. I do wonder about the passage where he describes a typical day at his marketing job at IBM, though. Are we meant to see it as at all elegiac, as a man of the Left's fall from grace? Or is he deliberately puncturing our romanticism, even celebrating the American dream that sent him from a marginal working-class existence in a small apartment with his mother and grandparents to being able to make the statement, "I am writing at this moment in the finished basement of a split level house with 2600 square feet (not counting a two-car garage) on a half acre of land in the outer Philadelphia suburbs"? I don't scorn Ron's middle-class comforts, but I am uncertain how to feel about this. But the pleasures of the book come from what I have to call the thickness of its descriptions of a life lived through moments of political and artistic ferment that made beautiful San Francisco ugly and questionable and glorious. Above all, the book is a love letter to his son, and its last sections are intensely moving. Great stuff.

Also holding my attention tonight, though nothing I'll finish in a single session, is Eleni Sikelianos' The California Poem. I've only read the first few pages, but I'm struck by both the openness of the project (its willingness to enfold geography, geology, history, and politics) and its lyricism, which in its particularity and its shades of class consciousness reminds me of the other innovative poet of place I've been reading recently, C.D. Wright. Check this out:

my trailer park's in the shady ambrosial arroyo of nothing native
stands of embryonic eucalyptic bluegums frilling on the ridge &
tractor dust like a dress for us
Everybody's halfcracked with halfteeth missing and ideas of almost-functioning

shipping & receiving depts. near the train tracks collide, hillsides
scrubbed in wild brighting mustard

unknown modes of road wind back the black hot gila monster tarmac beading up into ripped hills
It just goes on like that: wild brighting mustard—incredible. The sheer receptivity of it is Whitmanesque, but for me the setting pushes Whitman into an encounter with Philip K. Dick, or at least Cesar Chavez: California, the dystopian paradise, the perpetual geographical future of "young men." I only lived there for two years but it fascinated me—it was a gorgeous and terrible hallucination; I'd return in a heartbeat if I could afford to live there. In New York you feel at the center of your time; in California you are, like Max Headroom, twenty minutes into the future. Environmental devastation, social unrest, utopia: they'll happen there first. I've admired Sikelianos for a while but this is clearly her bid for greatness, if "greatness" still means anything. I hope it's widely read.

I am NOT watching the inauguration. So there.

Sitting at one of the upstairs windows at Juna's Cafe, looking down on the Commons while snow follows its own meandering path downward. Trying as usual to lay hands on the separate pieces of my dissertation, trying not to be daunted by the scale of it all. My Pound chapter is turning into a Pound/Heidegger chapter, which seems natural enough: both were tremendously influential on postmodern poets/thinkers with progressive tendencies; both were themselves Fascists. Extracting the pastoral dimension of Heidegger's thought is like unwinding a ball of yarn into a second, identical ball: painstaking and yet a bit obvious, at least to me. (But it's the moment, the action, the energeia of unspooling that matters, right? "On the Way to Language," indeed....) Still nowhere near actually discussing The Cantos or even Pound's "Imagist" poems. It's going to be a long chapter. I hope the others come more swiftly.

I really enjoyed writing "The Prisoner Poems" below and thanks to those who've remarked on them. I tried to use the show as a kind of pivot around which to swing some verbal energy, as opposed to writing "about" it. I imagine it's a similar impulse to that expressed by David Lynch's use of noir conventions in Mullholland Drive; they're there to inspire and to provide a web of reference for the audience, without actually constituting a "plot" or "subject matter." Shannna, just because I "beat you to it" doesn't mean the world doesn't need more poems about The Prisoner! In fact, that might make a nice anthology to follow up Aubergine. (Speaking of which, like Michael, I too received a Yale Review subscription flyer in the eggplant aftermath. I figured it was because J.D. McClatchy had my address, but now I wonder.... Of course I get unsolicited poetry-related mail fairly frequently; we could just all be on the same list because we once subscribed to Poets & Writers or something.)

Later on I'll post my own stab at Court Green's bouts-rime challenge.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Prisoner Poems

[removed 7/29/05 - look for these in a forthcoming issue of Tarpaulin Sky.]

Monday, January 17, 2005

Morning Reading Roundup

The new Jubilat is outstanding, to judge from its first sixty pages. It kicks off with a baroque list-poem extracted from Rabelais and is followed by poems by Timothy Donnelly and Kelly Smith. Timothy's poem, "The Last Dream of the Light Released from Seaports," is a sinister piece of unacknowledged legislation; its speaker, who occasionally addresses a factotum named "Wendy," reminds me of nothing so much as a Dale Cooper who, after his possession by Bob, has returned to Washington as Undersecretary of Homeland Security. Smith's poem, "The Gulf," manages a kind of sensual abstraction that I admire with lines like the first and the last: "Beach tar on the soft / humidity of bruises" and "we were thinking again: bull or matador? / water flexed many spines          what glides". A real standout follows: a selection of e-mails from a pair of researchers who spent three months or so tracking penguins in Antarctica. It demands and refreshes all the tired adjectives you could ever want to apply to nonfiction prose: beautiful, inspiring, funny, haunting, sad. Michael Earl Craig has a couple of poems in the style of the Ashberian pop culture surreal that I like—plus he manages to write about Montana in a way that makes it recognizably one of These States while rendering it as strange as it and These States really are. Malinda Markham's "In the Fifth Position of Asking" does nice things with uneven couplets, in which the first line is many stresses shorter than the second and so, aided by compressed syntax, the second seems to hurtle into the first of the next line like an inmate running into a padded wall:
A horseback
Soldier wrapped the head in twine its color not

The accident you'd think. A breastplate
To sleep in a wall around the skin. In the sky

The Maypole
Will sever and drown. Sing the child said and covered

Its body with leaves
Sandra Miller's "Oriflamme" (a book by that title is forthcoming from Ahsahta) is a longer, truly lovely poem using little centered units of text (usually three lines, sometimes a single word) that drift and drop across the pages. The centering reminds me a little of Ronald Johnson but the diction's her own and I love lyric fragments like "pilt / the seraph / twin" and funny ones like "from lavender comes the ocean / with problems." Amazing how the surprise of a line break still manages to surprise. After that comes a short prose poem by star-of-the-moment Ben Lerner; it seemed slight, but I like the title: "from The Angle of Yaw." The editors' taste for that pop culture surreal whimsy is confirmed on the next page with a short but illuminating interview with John Ashbery, who seems a little less elusive than usual. I was surprised, for example, to hear him making earnest use of the workshopism "to earn" (as in "[students] put in a now that hasn't really been earneed by a major change in the course of the poem"). Some poems of his follow, and they are excellent examples of the mash-ups of whimsy and heartbreak that characterize late Ashbery. I love the effortless and slightly frightening democratization of objects that happens in the first lines of "Broken Tulips": "A is walking through the streets of B, frantic / for C's touch but secretly relieved / not to have it." A prose poem, "The Snow-Stained Petals Aren't Pretty Any More," contains the laugh-out-loud sentence, "It all involves fetishes, those poor misunderstood employees of the sexual closet." Another favorite from this batch is "The Red Easel," which is rich with Turner Classic Movies-style diction: "Say doc, those swags are of the wrong period / though in harmony with the whole."

That's as far as I've gotten. I continue to be impressed with Jubilat: the editors have defined enough tastes to give it a genuine and recognizable personality. Fence doesn't need more maligners, but I have to say the latest issue doesn't seem to have the same coherence as this Jubilat does. Coherence isn't the right word—what I mean is that the editors of Jubilat are discovering an idiosyncratic pattern whereas Fence seems more of a miscellany. (Fence also includes fiction, which Jubilat doesn't, and I admit to being prejudiced toward all-poery mags.) Even more important, Jubilat isn't the giant freaking tome so many literary magazines are—although perfect bound at 150 pages or so it still feels like a magazine should: ephemeral, without straining toward monumentality, and emphatically engaged in taste-making.

In other reading news, Loren Goodman's Famous Americans was about to be returned to the publisher this morning, so I went ahead and bought a copy. Glad I did. Goodman did himself no favors with the post-avant crowd when he became a Yale Younger Poet—the book has been slighted by the charge of slightness and damned with faintest praise (I see one Amazon reviewer sums the book up as "Lyn Hejinian meets Billy Collins). But you know, it's a genuinely funny book and a smart one, logopoetically dancing through our culture of cliches that at times achieves the poignance of a je [m']accuse. He's hard to quote effectively because—and this mitigates against the charge of slightness—the book's power is cumulative. I read with growing admiration his diagnosis of the American reality show disease, with its culture of competition that naturally enough does not exclude poetry. He seems to have anticipated his own book's reception with a poem like the O'Hara-esque "The Prize": "I don't win the prize— / I call up Charles and we decide to meet / Charles also fails to win the prize." But you'd have to read the whole poem to "get it." A lot of people don't "get" this sort of thing, because it's so contextual. Goodman's poetry is inorganic, but not to the degree of actually being hard to read; if he's underappreciated it's because he's so easy to read. But the nerve endings of his lines don't all run into the single system of a given poem—they reach outward into American culture and the history we half learned from Schoolhouse Rock. On my personal Kinsey scale he reads like a 2, but his "gettableness" is probably a 4, maybe even a 5. Which is a ham-handed way to try and theorize humor. Why is Andy Kauffman singing the "Mighty Mouse" theme so funny? It just is.

(Apropos of nearly nothing, I'd like to take this moment to urge everyone to go out and see Kauffman's masterpiece movie, My Breakfast with Blassie. Yes, the title's a one-note joke on My Dinner with Andre, but it's a deeply funny and unnerving film—it's the Tennis Court Oath of wrestler movies.)

FINALLY, I'm spending part of the afternoon with the new-ish The Poems of Marianne Moore. I find the idea of Moore to be off-putting, and I haven't given her much study because I'm perhaps too interested in the lineage of modernism and her role as ancestor isn't as obvious as Pound's, Stein's, and Williams' are. But in person, so to speak, she has a disarmingly dry and epigrammic wit. Maybe reading around in Pound's semi-Catullan lyrics (and before that, D.H. Lawrence's) has softened me up toward her. And her ear is really quite tremendous. Check out this little epistle to EP himself:
Ezra Pound:

"'Frae bank to bank, frae wood to wood I rin.'"

The rinning that you do,
Is not so new
    As it is admirable.
       "Vigor informs your
    SS Shape" and ardor knits it.

Good Meditatio
And poor Li Po;
    And that page of Blast, on which
       Small boats ply to and
    Fro in bee lines. Bless Blast.
Isn't that simply a perfect thing of its kind? I am looking forward to more time with Miss Moore.

Snow is general all over Ithaca, but if you're out and about, stop by the Bookery, where we now have a large display of chapbooks from Brenda Iijima's Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs. And if you publish a chapbook or two and want to peddle them here, my offer is still open—just drop me a line.

About to take a look through the latest Jubilat.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

A phrase of Gramsci's from the end of a wonderful article on Hayao Miyazaki in the latest New Yorker (there's an interview with the article's author online): "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." A phenomenon I've often felt in myself and struggled for the words to describe. It's a kind of gift to come upon a single phrase that discloses yourself to yourself—even if it raises more questions than it answers.

Check it, peeps. Here's the list of poets who will be reading at the New American Poets Festival in NYC March 2 and 3 at the New School (taken from the PSA calendar):
Eric Baus, Mark Bibbins, Sherwin Bitsui, Oni Buchanan, Dan Chiasson, Joshua Corey, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Miranda Field, Cathy Park Hong, Ilya Kaminsky, Adrian Matejka, Chelsey Minnis, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Srikanth Reddy, Spencer Reece, Dorothea Tanning, and the new PSA Chapbook Fellows: K.E. Allen, Andrea Baker, Justin Goldberg, and Joshua Poteat.

That's right: I'm sharing a stage with L'Aubergine herself, Dorothea Tanning!

I will certainly press the last remaining copy into her hands if she hasn't already received McClatchy's.

And the sun is out in Ithaca for the first time in what seems like weeks.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Wish I was here.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Disturbed this morning to have Googled "Pound" and "vorticism" and to have hit on the first page a "racialist" website promulgating his ideas. Almost unforgiveably naive of me, but I was shocked to realize that Pound's venom is still fresh enough to be a weapon in the hands of contemporary haters. I will treat him even more carefully now than I have wanted to since listening to some of the radio speeches Ben Friedlander was kind enough to send me. But those convey their "pastness" far more than they do the living voice, what with the general scratchiness and incoherence of the recording (as distinct from Pound's own political and mental incoherence). It's far more unsettling for me to encounter Pound as a hero of racists that breathe my own air. "The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones."

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


our birthright is happiness.

I probably should have mentioned here that the GutCult review I did is of Dan Beachy-Quick's Spell and Deborah Meadows' Itinerant Men. Also, I'd like to nod toward two intelligent additions to the organic/inorganic conversation that I've become aware of: one from Kasey and one from Jasper.

Ravished tonight at the bookstore by a new blog-on-paper, C.D. Wright's brand-new book Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil. Swallowable at a gulp, this is a rich and urgent meditation on poetry and its significance in a lifetime that inevitably reminds me at the present moment of Hugo's Triggering Townѿbut it's much more like Alan Davies' Candor, an enticing, often erotic blend of daythoughts and nightthoughts and commentaries on other poets and artists and more than a few actual poems. But she's earthier or maybe riper than Davies, and far more self-consciously a poet of place (Arkansas of course but also San Francisco, New York, and Providence). The motive force appears to be that unkillable question, What is poetry for? She answers it in dozens of ways. Here are a few aphorisms I've extracted from her text:
My purpose is neither to hack away at the canon nor to contrive a trend.

We come from a country that has made a fetish if not a virtue out of proving it can live without art: high, low, old, new, fat, lean, and particularly the rarely visible, nocturnal art of poetry.

it is about how differently things actually play out if you come and go by different portals, long live la difference; as for transcendence, well baby, that is the sun's job.

Alliances raise important questions regardless of whether they propose palatable solutions. Enemies are energizing but that fuel is short-lasting.

I do not know if I am trying to do something new, but I know that I am trying to learn something new. The doors fling themselves open.

Never deprive the reader of opportunities for multiple exgeses.

I am not convinced poetic camps serve the purpose of nonassimilation as well as they purport. I think they just put more heavy-handed poetry cops on the beat. They jump down your throat for commingling and they jump down your throat for having a good time and learning a new step and they jump down your throat for moving a few rocks out of your way. I have always acceded to poetry as a free space. "I'll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours." Bob Dylan said that.

Only the hermetically aimed has a snowball's chance in hell of reaching its intended ears. One proceeds from this realization.

Some of us do not read or write particularly for pleasure or instruction, but to be changed, healed, charged. Therefore, the poet's amplitude may take precedence over her strategies.

Poetry is not like, it is the very lining of the inner life. Poetry is both made and made available wherever there are leaks in the cultural works.

The great barrier of objectivity, it is the banal standard of professionalism.

As an admittedly defensive measure I have taken to my stony, garreted art for partisan relief—for some insistence upon a full life.

My story is not important, but odd like horses lying down.

Poetic theories and applications line up with pedigree in disturbing yet ever-changing degrees. Be that as it may, poets can still be counted on to stand nearly as one against the abjectification of contemporary experience.
There's much more that's worth quoting, but I'm probably verging on copyright infringement at this point. It's a nourishing book; I am refreshed by it. I hope it gets a readership both wide and long.

"I want my writing to occupy a space where it is more than an expression or extension of my worldview." Yes. Exactamundo. If you read this blog, you probably also read Tony Tost's; but if not, please go right away to read his long, thoughtful, and moving post about poetic discovery and the end of apprenticeship. There's an uncanny resonance between what he says and what I'm finding in Richard Hugo, particularly this comment about Tony's new poem in progress, "World Jelly": "My hope is that this writing is simple, straightforward and on some level would derive from a psyche that would not be socially acceptable to me." Writing that takes you beyond notions of association—as fruitful and necessary as those associations are—into a deeper and riskier relationship with—what? Hugo would probably simply say "the self." I would say Tony is talking about tapping into that part of himself that is irredeemably part of the world, or the part of himself that the world put there. It's not social per se, but the knot in the Unconscious that being in the world puts there—the interpolations that manifest as your obsessions, as the kinks in your desire. Brave stuff. I only hope Tony's not telling the truth about eventually giving up blogging. We all still have lots to learn from the window in his head.

As others have noted, there's are new issues of Free Verse and GutCult. The latter includes my first ever published review. Over at Free Verse there's a useful review of Angus Fletcher's book A New Theory for American Poetry. I suppose now I'll have to read the damn thing. And of course there's glorious poetry all around.

Time to get out of bed, maybe.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

I've refrained up to now from commenting on the latest Joan Houlihan essay, this time on Best American Poetry 2004. Partly because I haven't felt moved to defend the latest BAP: it's a series I feel ambivalent about anyway, and the latest issue just demonstrates once again how poor a job most anthologies do at creating the conditions under which they can be successfully read. That is, they need to provide some context, a point of entry, which Houlihan clearly feels frustrated at not finding both there and in general with "post-avant" poetry. Of course by now she's had plenty of people willing to explain it to her, and if they explain it in high, shrill tones it's a consequence of her blinkered, polemical, often ad hominem style, for which she has only herself to blame. I've succumbed to shrillness myself in the past, but I'm older and wiser now and I'm a Libra to boot, so I'm willing to try and take on for a moment the task of village explainer. It seems to me there are two major issues worth addressing in Houlihan's latest essay and in her series in general: the post-avant as church and the (un)nature of writing.

I'll tackle the second question first because I and others have already devoted a lot of virtual ink to it. The overall title for Houlihan's essay series, "How Contemporary American Poets Are Denaturing the Poem," basically contains the key to it, and the simplest rejoinder to it would be, "You say that like it's a bad thing." In that title Houlihan hits upon the whole organic/inorganic debate that I took up in December and which was continued here, here, here, and here. To recap, the argument here stems from my reading of Peter Bürger's book Theory of the Avant-Garde, from which I derived the notions of the organic artwork or poem as that in which all of its parts are subordinated to the whole—to the poem's poemness—while in the nonorganic poem the parts are not so subordinated—the whole, goal, or telos of the poem is exterior to it, located in "reality." From there I suggested that all poems can be located on a scale, Kinsey-style, with 1 being entirely organic and 6 being entirely nonorganic. Not surprisingly, nowadays most poems produced by younger poets fall somewhere in the middle, and you could make a game out of assigning a "Kinsey" number to various magazines and publishing houses (Fence 3, New England Review 2, Aufgabe 4, The New Yorker 1, Syllogism 5, and so on). Pure 6's are very rare, more the domain of individual poets, while 1's are still quite common. Nonorganicism in poetry generally takes the form of a greater or lesser degree of parataxis or montage (often formalized into constructs like the ideogram, the New Sentence, etc.). Its original goal was to put ordinary means of language, and the ideological structures they support, into question; nowadays most people who introduce a nonorganic dimension into their work are after a particular aesthetic effect, but the possibilties for political critique still attract many writers. That slippage from radical attack on poetry-as-given to a style is why Bürger suggests that the nonorganic mode is no longer to be preferred to the organic, which means both can coexist as styles precisely because both are equally inadequate for re-imagining a world that, to paraphrase Richard Hugo, is inadequate as given and will not do. I'm not wholly persuaded by this; my reading of Adorno has suggested to me that there's still something valid, even heroic, about the modernist project of presenting the usual hierarchical means of meaning-production with a sufficiently complex NO. At the same time, I'm a bit of a classicist at heart, addicted to my own aesthetic responses, and that's why I think my own poetry rarely rises above a 4 on the organic-nonorganic scale. One thing I am convinced of is that meaningful critique cannot happen in a totally organic poem, whose materials are so cynically reduced of materiality. That's why I have trouble embracing the notion of someone like Anne Winters as a Marxist in any meaningful sense. She may well be a Marxist outside the poem, but her brand of formalism creates a tight seal around the events and objects (such as terrible labor conditions) inside her poems, rendering them too pretty to have any of the vigor of negativity. If there's one thing we have too much of in this society, it's uncritical affirmation; I want my poetry at least to slow way the fuck down before it says "Yes" to something.

Now the above is something reasonable people can disagree on—a true cultural conservative, who thinks the culture we have under capitalism is either just ducky (these folks tend to be populists) or else who think we need to somehow resuscitate old values in spite of the fact that the modes of production that created those values are gone. They're wrong, of course, but a person occupying either of those positions can support organic poetry with a clear conscience. But the second thing that Houlihan brings up in her latest essay in particular is the problem of evem getting to a place where one can agree or disagree. This is not so much the question of "bestness" for me as it is the question once again of how to read this stuff. Houlihan accuses those of us who get pleasure from the nonorganic of belonging to a church or cult that has rendered itself immune to all criticism. One might reply that immunity to nakedly hostile and uninformed criticism is not such a bad thing, but really her complaint should be taken more seriously than that. Whatever the demerits of Houlihan's position as a critic, as a reader we have to take her seriously (it's clear that she represents a large number of angry, befuddled readers). Simply put, she feels excluded from the church, which has set off an understandable Groucho or sour grapes effect in her. Now I hope I make it clear in this blog at least that it is possible to talk intelligently and in more or less plain English about modernist and post-avant poetry, so the whole "immune to criticism" thing is bunk. I could launch into an excursus on any one of the poems in BAP 2004 that frustrate Houlihan's understanding: I could talk about the political-feminist critique attempted by Andrews' masscult montage poem, for example. But I doubt I could persuade anyone to feel pleasure at that or any other single poem, because the pleasures of the nonorganic as practiced in North America since WWII require an education that most people don't bother to seek out. It's an acquired taste and the cultural education that not only constitutes the taste but encourages you to acquire it (no one likes their first sip of beer but there are any number of cultural markers and pressures that persuade us to keep trying it until we do) has been privatized. That is, there is scarcely any form of public education any longer—even at the university level—that makes it possible for the average intelligent person to access the necessary range of reference (the context, the framework) to read even an organic poem with pleasure now. We get a massive and profuse education in "reading" other media like movies (and to a much lesser degree, nowadays, novels) from birth in this culture: nobody you bring into a movie theater will have trouble choosing a good seat, much less be unable to realize that they're supposed to face the screen and turn the images their into representations of human beings like themselves. But that's the level of illiteracy most people bring to poetry now, because poetry on the page (spoken poetry is alive and well in rap and advertising) is no longer taught in any meaningful public way. It's a private acquisition that you might inherit from your parents or else obtain from long labor after fortunate contact with other private individuals who have "got it." Those who get enough of this education by luck or diligence or fortunate class position (a few people are still privileged enough to get genuine liberal arts educations in this country) might then be satisfied with the pleasure they are able to obtain from organic poems whose range of reference (or again context or whatever) they are now equipped to interact with. It's a smaller minority still who continue their education into the greater difficulties (and more sophisticated pleasures) of the nonorganic, and who have the corresponding willingness to "be modern," which means to accede to their limited and limiting position in a culture which marginalizes and represses any practice capable of putting that culture's values into serious question. The more educated you are, the less content you are apt to be with the way things are; the vulgar demonstration of this appears in the statistics showing college-educated people voting overwhelmingly for Kerry in the last election.

The education of one's desire for the pleasures of poetry does indeed resemble a process of initiation, which makes Houlihan's metaphor a reasonably sound one. And it makes sense that she, a practicing poet, a grown-up for heaven's sakes, wouldn't want to assume the posture of submission demanded of initiates. Young people and students are generally more able to muster the necessary humility to receive knowledge from elders and Those In The Know, eventually becoming one of those elders capable of bestowing intitations themselves. The rebellious and those who have already educated their tastes to a considerable degree will balk at this, and it's hard to blame them. But while many poets actively embrace the model of initiation (Robert Duncan is the most famous example) and many more passively practice it, I prefer my own model of public vs. private property. It's more secular, and it also turns the moral equation around—so that avant-garde poets, instead of appearing as a privileged priesthood that anyone with democratic instincts would want to throw rocks at, appear as private citizens seizing the cultural birthright that has been denied them, and all of us. If they keep it for themselves and only grudgingly admit others capable of passing the tests they administer, the situation hasn't really changed and they're a coterie worthy of contempt. But I don't really see this happening; instead I see an incredible and wide-ranging effort from Silliman on down to to disseminate the education of desire, to teach, to turn against all odds their privately obtained education back into the public thing, the res publica, that it was always meant to be. That's why there's such a strong emphasis on community among post-avant writers and that's why poets-as-teachers is a positive good and not something to be lamented. And that's why I celebrate blogging as a means not only of providing more direct access to writers for more people than has ever been possible before, but as means of narrowing the gap between "reader" (one who passively receives) and "writer" (who thinks/creates). As I've said before, my utopia of poetry is a world where EVERYONE is a poet, in which all voluntarily assume the pains and pleasures that come with the highest possible sensitivity to language.

But there's more to teaching than making proclamations, as Eric Liu points out: a great teacher is firstly a great listener and also of necessity a great manipulator, who—if she is genuinely great—is worthy of our trust. That's what makes the promotion and fomenting of avant-garde writing and the pleasures of difficulty so damned, well, difficult. Those of us who believe passionately in this work need to do a better job of listening, and of being worthy of trust.

Monday, January 10, 2005

I think I may be developing a full-bore crush on Lisa Robertson. She has two poems in the new issue of Brick. From the longer poem, "After Trees":
It transpires that murmurs and clickings

Are nature to each body

Sound never resolves itself

And what we see erupts into other senses

Or perhaps it sways like a footbridge

Even our hands dream of stuff

They dream of pigments and fruit trees and puzzles

They dream of the honey that escapes from our work
And you have to love whoever could write the first line of the second poem, "On Painting": "Pliny says it is always the season in which they are painting navies." Why has Canada produced so many poets—well, okay, just two, Anne Carson and Robertson, but they're really good—with so lively and surprising an engagement with the classics ("After Trees," in the manner of Bjork, imagines Lucretius as a girl, and of course the poem continues her critique of the eclogue she started with Xeclogue)? Do they just have better schools up there?

Refuge in the classics—or more accurately, a processing of dismal present reality through them—is tempting nowadays. Somewhere I just read of someone bearing current events with considerably greater equanimity by reading Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire every Sunday evening. And some poet whose name escapes me I recall used to read Roman history every morning instead of the newspaper—as it happens, the assassination of Julius Caesar landed on November 22, 1963.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Writing a little essay for the new (well, new to me) "Poetry Debates, Manifestos, & Criticism" feature over at The Academy of American Poets on Richard Hugo as an experimental poet. Intrigued? I'll provide a link when it's finished and up; in the meantime, the other pieces are worth checking out (but I can't seem to provide a direct link to them). And I might as well mention now that I'm going to be taking part in the next New American Poets Festival in NYC this March, sponsored by the Poetry Society of America. I feel some ambivalence about this warm embrace from the poetry establishment; it makes me ask the question, Huckabees-style, "How am I not myself?" I hope I am still very much myself and that I've compromised nothing to achieve this level of recognition—at least compared with the compromises that seem to be required to write something genuinely marketable. Certainly I write for no one's approval in any immediate sense, though approval after the fact (if you understand me) is a welcome confirmation that I have in fact written something that bears some relation to truth. Mine has been a fortunate life, in that I've been permitted to have faith that whatever comes from inside will be in some way answered by the outside—since there's no real difference between them. This is a kind of spiritual mode that I believe to be compatible with my basic philosophical materialism—as I have been interpolated by my culture so do I speak from, for, and to that culture, with the crucial extra unconscious twist of some res privata (can't vouch for the grammar of that) that manifests the swerve of the new. I am a participant; I take root in my time; I am responsible.

Making final changes to the galleys or whatever of Fourier Series: evicting all mention of "and." The quasi-mathematical sign of the ampersand seems truer to the conjunctions I'm attempting between Fourier & John Wayne, Paris & Reno, the horizontal & the vertical, Lewis & Clark.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Garden State soundtrack has become a fixture in the coffeeshops of Ithaca. I often hear it at Gimme! and they seem to have it on continuous repeat here at Juna's on the Commons. Is this true everywhere? Saw The Life Aquatic last night and thought it a gorgeous trainwreck, kind of similar to I [Heart] Huckabees. What a great soundtrack, though—Portugeuse Bowie! I may have to pick that up.

Fallen, as it were, back into Heidegger today—trying to better crystalize the pastoral strain in his thought. One of his more important verbs is tarrying [verweilen], a state somewhat similar to the Stimmung of disinterestedness Kant saw as key to aesthetic judgment. When we tarry with something we are concerned solely with "how it looks"—that is, its surface facticity, its Being-in-the-world with emphasis on in-the-world, with us. Tarrying is associated with comfort and recreation (he gives us the Greek for these on page 138 of Being and Time) and opposed to "the world of work": it is made possible by care (Sorge) set free as circumpsection (Umsicht) or looking. The key passage is on page 172, right after the striking phrase "the lust of the eyes" (Augenlust?):
Being-in-the-world is proximally absorbed in the world of concern. This concern is guided by circumspection, which discovers the ready-to-hand and preserves it as thus discovered. Whenever we have something to contribute or perform, circumspection gives us the route for proceeding with it, the means of carrying it out, the right opportunity, the appropriate moment. Concern may come to rest in the sense of one's interrupting the performance and taking a rest, or it can do so by getting it finished. In rest, concern does not disappear; circumspection, however, becomes free and is no longer bound to the world of work. When we take a rest, care subsides into circumspection which has been set free. In the world of work, circumspective discovering has de-severing as the character of its Being. When circumspection has been set free, there is no longer anything ready-to-hand which we must concern ourselves with bringing close [the ready-to-hand is the world of equipment and productive activity]. But, as essentially de-severant, this circumspection provides itself with new possibilities of de-severing. this means that it tends away from what is most closely ready-to-hand, and into a far and alien world. Care becomes concern with the possibilities of seing the "world" merely as it looks while one tarries and takes a rest. Dasein seeks what is far away simply in order to bring it close to itself in the way it looks. Dasein lets itself be carried along [mitnehmen] solely by the looks of the world; in this kind of Being, it concerns itself with becoming rid of itself as Being-in-the-world and rid of its Being alongside that which, in the closest everyday manner, is ready-to-hand.
That's basically phenomenology: tarrying becomes the mode or mood in which bracketing can take place. This is what Heidegger elsewhere calls "the arduous path of appearance" that was so important to George Oppen ("That they are there!"). It's arduous because taking a rest from the everyday world of production is actually a kind of sacrifice, akin to the sacrifice made by those who keep the Jewish shabbat: it takes you out of the world, it instills difference. The progress of difference from primordial authenticity to hospitality for the stranger is the progress of the twentieth century, in my opinion, though it's suffered many setbacks. The shift from Heidegger to Levinas mimics the shift from modernism to postmodernism, if we conceive of the latter as an ethical project (which most people don't). Hm. My mind insists on patterns and resemblances that are probably naive; I'm probably redescribing the described here. Well, it's only a dissertation: a contribution to knowledge, to my knowledge, which is bound to make me a better teacher at least. Anything truly new there is just a happy accident. I've always suspected that however much I enjoy scholarship, it's poetry where I'll make my mark or fail to. Language is smarter than I am, after all, and poetry puts that hierarchy in its proper place, whereas in criticism I'm trying to master language and success is measured by the margin of my failure. What saves the project is in fact the happiness of accident, or just plain fun. It's fun to put your thoughts in order, whatever Mussolini might say. It's fun to discover that you have them: again, "That they are there!" Yip.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Snow earlier; freezing rain later. Not enough sleep thanks to Neverwinter Nights—the good news is that my elf monk/arcane archer is kicking major ass down in the Underdark.

Thinking about Guy Davenport as the last modernist sent me to his essay on Walt Whitman and Ronald Johnson (though I was looking for one on Pound) and made me wonder if I ought not to include Whitman (and Emerson and Thoreau, probably) in my dissertation. You can't really talk about American pastoral without thinking of them—but is that what I'm doing? Restricting myself to (North) Americans is really more a matter of convenience than conviction; D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf have been very important to my process of conceptualizing the intersections of pastoral and modernism. For the same reason I should probably leave Whitman out to make an already formidable task easier. And yet it was in Roger Gilbert's Whitman seminar three years ago that I first began thinking about the authenticity-inauthenticity dialectic that I see as crucial to "Song of Myself" (in which he moves betweeen a "postmodern" embracement of "inauthentic" chatter and curiosity and a Romantic assertion of the authentic egotistical sublime) and which I've come to see as the ground for pastoral: Arcadia provides a provisional experience of authenticity but that provisionality is ultimately more important than the authenticity is, and that's what gets foregrounded in the self-consciously ethical experimental poetry of the postwar period. Because "authenticity" has become a no-no, an act of centering that there is supposed to be no use in. One of the uglier pastoral impulses is that which locates the authentic in the Other (the lower class Other, or more often these days, the ethnic Other—consider the saintly character of Flor the maid in Spanglish as played by the heartbreakingly beautiful Paz Vega ). Yet this same impulse can be turned around into a beautiful and ethical act by which you give up your own contingent ground (your higher place in the power structure) in order to include oneself in a more whole humanity—by coming to share imaginatively in the Other's "more authentic" being (which it turns out is both concealed and revealed by their otherness) you discover your own authenticity not in an egotistical sublime but in your shared vulnerability (Being-towards-death), which does not level differences but sublates them. Can't yet figure out the relation of all this to the other aspect of pastoral as a nostalgia for an intensity of subjectivity apparently unachieved in the present—a subjectivity guaranteed not by rigid boundaries but by their absence and the absence of anxiety about this—Freud's "oceanic feeling," I suppose. The uncanny thing about Whitman is the insistent present tense of his enjoyment of boundlessness; his is truly a text of jouissance. There's something rather unpastoral about that, so maybe I'm right to exclude a discussion of him. If I change my mind, there's always the introduction—I've finally come to see the wisdom of writing it last.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Saddened to learn of the loss of Guy Davenport. We will not see his like again anytime soon.

So the question of the moment is: should I shell out the forty-five bucks (less my employee discount) for the Library of America Ezra Pound? It's a thoroughly justifiable dissertation expense but sheesh that's a lot of money. Also I think I need to get my hands on The Spirit of Romance and the Gaudier-Brzeska book. Sigh.

Another question: should other people be shelling out a few bucks for your chapbooks? I've created a little chapbook display here at the Bookery which will probably only stick around for the rest of the month or so. But: if you've published a chapbook and you'd like me to try and sell a copy for you, why not send me an e-mail and I'll tell you where to send a copy or two to put on consignment here. You'll get a chunk of the sale and the chance to reach new readers here in Ithaca. How about it?

Leafing through the new AWP Chronicle, which continues to be a showcase for mediocre thinking about writing, but there is a lovely interview with the very idiosyncratic Annie Finch. Must get my hands on a copy of Calendars—check out these gorgeous little poems. A fascinating example of a formalist who's genuinely new:
After a while, gave up fighting against my body, my heart, my physical need for form, andI felt that if I wanted so much to engage and struggle and intersect with form, I would just have to go ahead and do it! I think as a woman and a feminist, I may have felt a bit freer to do this also. But this did not make me popular in my master's program in creative writing; people kept saying, "this poem would be a lot better if you wrote it in free verse." But I was set on training myself to use form well, so I just kept on with it. And a strange thing happened: the rhythm acted like a hypnotic spell, and all my poetry became primary process, dreamlike or disjointed in syntax and content. Now I know enough to tell certain students of form who need to hear this, "Don't even worry about what you're saying, just write in the form. It can be nonsense." I just wrote and revised without thinking of meaning, as if I were working in paint or sculpture, without worrying about whether it was clear to the logical side of my brain. If people asked me what kind of poetry I wrote, I would say that I was trying to alter brain chemistry with it. It was as if I was dreaming in iambic pentameter, which was the only meter I really knew about at the time, and I got very comfortable with it.
Inspiring and accurate. Although they (mostly) don't rhyme I wrote enough Severance Songs to hardwire my brain for the sonnet form: my sense of thought-in-language became naturally thorny and compressed, and without necessarily counting lines I'd find myself shifting the rhetorical ground between octet and sestet, or else building toward a hairpin turn for the closing couplet. Now I'm writing these prose paragraph thingies partly as a means of sonnet detox. Even though I don't choose to write in traditional forms in any strict way, I have always been formalist in my thinking—it's much easier for me to conceptualize the new writing as "prose" than it is to characterize its content or motive force. Probably I won't write any long, continuous prose—something that could be generically identified as a memoir or a novel—unless I can discover a formal or structural principle to keep my left-brain sufficiently occupied. That's why I sometimes think of writing a hardboiled detective novel, because the ossified horizontal rules of the genre would create more vertical breathing space, if you see what I mean. I must sit down and finish reading Gary's book, Dead Man one of these days because I think he may have been seeking precisely the kind of freedom I'm describing in writing it. Or I could just ask him.

Back to the old village explainer (great blog title, no?) and a sandwich for dinner. We're expecting serious snow here in Ithaca tonight.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

I just added Laura Carter's new blog to the blogroll, but I'm leaving her old blog up for now 'cause there's good stuff on there. At the very least I hope to see more of "Redemption Songs" when she gets around to them.

Back in dissertation land after more than a week's absence. By this point I think I've thought my way around and in and through what I want to say about pastoral pretty thoroughly, so that I can more or less jump in anywhere and start writing about it and its manifestations. The first chapter is shaping up to start with a discussion of Pound's book Lustra, which is more or less evenly divided between classic Imagist poems like "In a Station of the Metro and sardonic jeremiads against the literary establishment and women who have rejected him. I'm using this odd conjunction to show how certain pastoral values such as the oxymoronic combination of ascetism and sensuality came to characterize those aspects of the Imagist project that endured for Pound after "Amygism." For me, Imagism constitutes a kind of pastoral phenomenology positing an immediate connection between nature and the poet's perceptions-in-language, which in Lustra are personified as swains and shepherds (Pound is forever writing apostrophes to "my songs"). Of course Pound renounced Imagism, but I want to argue that its persistence in the Pisan Cantos is what subverts his fascism and makes the entire project bearable, not least to the "man on whom the sun has gone down" himself. From there it should be relatively easy to trace other permutations of pastoral (which at the end of the day is always an image or literary effect and not a real place or condition) through the fall-outs of twentieth-century experimental writing. That's the idea, anyway.

It's a burden and a nuisance but writing a dissertation is also hugely enjoyable. Like almost anything else, it becomes burdensome when you reify it into an object that you and others come to expect something from; but as a process with (as yet) no firm deadline it's an adventure in and through reading: it reads you. I would always like to have comparable intellectual projects to go along with the more intuitive groping that comes with writing poems. But I'm not so excited about the whole publish-or-perish thing.

Onward, onward, ever deeper into Tuesday.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Le ciel des vacances

I was delivered to an idealism: no seashore. Though "gulls." Though "flotsam." What use this deal of dunes to the dresser of deal? Exactly an avenue spreads its fronds to define a space for the eye to wander. The eye that fetches an image home. Two notes collided in a beam to be you, coughing. A trapdoor sprang for me, a ship went down.


Try to be less falutin': it's a nice place to visit. Brooklyn loosely mazes me and finds me a stoop to sit on. The New Year breathes tsunami news: not senseless. A man on the radio carefully distinguishes between the sounds of breaking and bursting glass. Drinking. Now it's all political, now it's getting all over my hands.


No pies to divide sang the bandaged clerk. Love passes with Artie Shaw like the advertising blimp in Blade Runner: yes, freshen my dystopia. The rain of rain falls samely to be rain. Crowds collect on the dewframe. This loneliness won't stick. So I fought for a preserve for the wings that sheltered your face.


Lost in place. Even cigarettes are ironic in the lips of an angry drag queen. Death dressed as a woman as usual. In my dream hand in hand we ran down into the beach's well, our bare feet skipping lightly over pursed upturned shells. A shadow haunts these memories. Overtaken on the way out just as usual. Squeegee report at the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel—escape with New York down the eyepatch hole.


Pleasure needs no introduction to a man in a filigreed waistcoat bearing a watchless fob. Dandy of the intellect kiss me hard on my chapped lips. We are running in place to stay here as the wave taps us on the shoulder. Our eyes caught by compacts in each other's manicured hands. Once twice three times a lady gave birth: ladymass. Once a gentleman swallowed his eyeteeth in surprise as a dropped stitch. Bang buh-bang the bullets bounce.


Old wolf of the plateaus. Doctors under the influence. The presence of life on Mars. Europe, milk, hospice. Redeployed for the public trust. High salaries for high health. A power that needs no reminder. Repetition isn't rust.


Minima mooring, whale crawl, subsonic chaser. The dance troupe pursued through twilit shoals. Academy gymnastics leave emo in the dust. On wave-tops. Invented shallow bathtub shook so noise ensures. Shock born bebop. Ocean crumples to become a flung cracked chorus of underwater stars. I hope we. I sin she. Banshee news.


Shapely I tongued thee, I found you foundered shape. Swimmingly I oared thee, I rocked you over the tidal. Sweetly I anchored thee, I bound you to promising sandbars. Heavenly choir buoy-borne. The ladder of extended arms in arrangement, splashed by your azure cynicism. Ladder of the folded brow. The discovery of underwater earth. We are moved.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

So happy New Year, or whatever. It's not a holiday that's ever registered much with me, though perhaps its artifice (the manmade calendar's rolling over—woo-hoo!) is worth celebrating. Dampened, so to speak, by the continuing and escalating horrors post-tsunami. Dampened further by news from Emily's father on New Year's Eve that he has prostate cancer. We are hoping for the best, naturally—it's far from being an automatic death sentence—but it necessarily casts some gloom. Still, it's good to be back in Ithaca after a mostly pleasant week in the world of urbanness: first Philly, then New York. Emily and I had a lovely time staying in her friend Rob's apartment in Cobble Hill, hanging out, visiting her friends (including an adorable and amazing new baby, Isaac Miles), going to restaurants, and seeing the Alvin Ailey company's performance Friday night (which included the legendary "Revelations"). I love dance and if I must make a New Year's resolution, I resolve to see more dance performances this year. Dance strikes me as the performance genre closest to poetry, not just because of its capacity for lyricism, but because its medium, the human body, resembles language in always meaning something: you cannot reduce the human form to its sheer materiality in the same way you can reduce paint or marble or metal. There's a passage in Kant where he talks about the human body and its peculiar status in aesthetic representation more or less because of this, though Kant I think phrases it in terms of the human being as the teleological goal of nature, which is a notion difficult to subscribe to these days.

Some new blogs and bloggers I've become aware of: digital litterateur Nick Montfort's Grand Text Auto (I met Nick at dinner Tuesday with William and Christian); Carocaro's memoir blog, oncenterstreet; and my friend and fellow Ithaca-based poet Jasper Bernes's whipsmart Little Red's Recovery Room. Wish I'd known he was in Philly when I was there; he could have met Brian and Richard. His review of the new Grand Theft Auto seems spot-on. We used to meet up for games of Halo at the now-defunct Wownet internet cafe on Aurora Street.

The dissertation sits hulked in the corner, waiting for me to notice it. To feed it or rebuke it. To give it some air.

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