Thursday, April 28, 2005

Most of my blogging energy of late has been going into Chris Lott's comments boxes. But I want to acknowledge another absolutely sound post on the mutable question of avant-gardening by Tim, who argues that all poetry, "normative" or no, responds in some ways to institutional pressures. I'm interested in poets who somehow respond to or incorporate or problematize those pressures, but I have to say it's not a bottom line for me: I'm still mostly interested in what happens on the page, which must make me an unreconstructed modenist or something. I may be forced to surrender the term "avant-garde," much less "post-avant," as a descriptor for What I Like. If poets are not avant-garde, but only certain works or gestures they make at particular moments can be intended or read as such, then there's really a vanishingly small amount of avant-garde activity to point to in contemporary poetry and we're stuck with terms like "experimental" or "innovative" or maybe "post-Language." On the other hand, there's this paragraph from the beginning of an essay written by Steve Evans called "The American Avant-Garde after 1989: Notes Toward a History," which has an epigraph from Oppen that's worth quoting: "A simple poetic undertaking: to see if life is livable, to make life livable. Without lying.":
There has been a continuous, because continously risked and reinvented, avant-garde in American poetry since the opening decades of the twentieth century: independent, dissident, restless for aesthetic and social transformation, responsible for most of what is today considered significant in the nation's poetry. This avant-garde's distinctive demand—for the autonomy to compose a socially relevant poetic outside (and often in opposition to) the constraints of the capitalist market—has received as many historical inflections as there have been significant shifts in what some historians call "the short twentieth century." Working with a modest and vulnerable but persistently renewed set of expressive means—the typically short-lived, privately-funded, small-circulation magazine; the non-commercial, non-institutional publishing house; the low or zero-budget public peformance—the generations emerging in the 1910s, 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s envisioned understandably different projects in light of their specific intersections with the large-scale foreces that shaped the century. If such terms as modernism, "Objectivism," the New American Poetry, and language-centered writing capture only in the vaguest of profile an indescribably various set of successive poetic practices spanning four generations, they do nevertheless mark out a discrete series of actual historical accomplishments, a temporal trajectory that is at the same time a densely communicating web of interpersonal and intertextual relations; in short, though the word scandalizes superficial observers of the avant-garde, a tradition.
You can quibble with this or flat out reject its premises (many people will I think have trouble with Evans' claim that the a-g tradition is responsible "for most of what is considered significant in the nation's poetry"), but I find it pretty persusasive—or, what is perhaps more to the point, generative, even inspiring. My world seems poorer when the avant-garde is defined too narrowly.

On the third hand, there are denser and more concrete objections to be made, not about the definition of the avant-garde but its value. I've been exchanging some e-mails with Reginald Shepherd on the topic, and he's given me permission to reprint his e-mails, which appear below in the order he sent them. I'm off to Boston this weekend to see old college friends and then up to Providence where I hope to lay my grubby mitts on Fourier Series for the very first time. (If I may interject: Woo-hoo!) When I return, I hopefully will have something intelligent to say about Reginald's formidable array of arguments:
To: Joshua Corey
From: Reginald Shepherd
Date: 4/26/05

Dear Joshua,

This is just a brief note to let you know that you should be receiving your contributor’s copies of Bayou very soon. I think that it’s a very interesting assortment of rather diverse writers; I hope that you’ll be pleased to be among them. I also wanted to send you an essay on which I’ve been working—it’s a longer, more polemical version of the introduction to The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries.

I am more and more disturbed by the reflexive dichotomizing among avant-gardeners (a great phrase) between avant-garde work (too often and easily equated with real poetry) and soi-disant “School of Quietude” poetry (i.e., everyone and anyone who’s not in my club and doesn’t wear my uniform), and not only because it seems that by definition (I’m published by a “mainstream” press) I would be SoQ. So often it seems that work is not judged on its own merits (and that the possibility that different kinds of poetry might be doing different and equally worthwhile kinds of things is not even considered), but pre-judged and preemptively dismissed or lauded in terms of the author’s institutional affiliations. Ron Silliman is the most egregious practitioner of this kind of smug, self-satisfied dismissal and praise, which is a shame because he’s not an unintelligent man, just a highly and willfully blinkered one. Given the avant-garde’s supposed commitment to exploration and the acknowledgment of the unknown, such prejudgments are particularly glaring. (And yes, I do realize that a degree of prejudgment is an unavoidable and necessary part of mental functioning as such.) After all, when Prufrock says that he has known them all already, known them all, it’s a lament, not a boast.

You at least grapple with the problem as a problem, though I think that you also are too willing to accept such categories as “School of Quietude” (a phrase that frankly I’ve come to despise) and to dismiss work accordingly (I’m not sure how Ron Silliman’s poems are going to more effectively save or even change the world than Marilyn Hacker’s, and frankly I find most of her work more compelling as poetry than his, though many of his essays are very interesting), and also too willing to praise work based on its author’s intentions and affiliations rather than the work itself. I frequently see little difference between work labeled “avant-garde” and work labeled “mainstream”—too often it’s all in who one’s friends are.

What gets lost in all this territorialization (and didn’t Deleuze & Guattari teach us that was bad bad bad?) is poetry, and more specifically, actual poems. You definitely care about (and even enjoy, something else that gets neglected, perhaps because it seems unsophisticated) poetry, and not just poetry, but real poems as experiences and aesthetic artifacts. I don’t get the feeling that many people do, though. Does Ron Silliman? I don’t see how one can when one has always already read any poem (or rather, any poet—the poems themselves tend to disappear) one comes across, which it seems that he has.

Take care.
peace and poetry,


To: Reginald Shepherd
From: Joshua Corey
Date: 4/27/05

Dear Reginald,

Thanks for your e-mail and essay; I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but your reservations about the SoQ designation and clubbishness and pleasure have already stirred me to some thought, reflected indirectly in my latest blog post (last night’s). I am always searching for a flexible yet strong critical instrument to separate wheat from chaff; at the same time I am convinced that disinterested aesthetic evaluation is neither possible nor desirable. Questions of affiliation and publication history—what Tim Yu calls “the context of production”—are always going to be part of the mix, though not, I hope, overdetermining ones. I myself am perhaps a little hard to track when it comes to evaluating my context: both my books are on small presses, but they’re also both contest winners, with the judge of one being a former poet laureate and the judge of the other being one of the best known experimental poets in Canada. Plus my ambitions for a larger audience mean that I am going to seek more established presses for at least some of the books to come: I’d like to publish Severance Songs, for example, with a good university press or even—why not?—a big publisher like Knopf. I may yet write other things more suited to a small press; I think the new book, Fourier Series, is perfectly suited to the micropress that’s publishing it. Anyway, I think about this stuff, as I’m sure you do too, because it’s impossible to appreciate the gem without being affected by the medium in which it has been set.

All best,



To: Joshua Corey
From: Reginald Shepherd
Date: 4/27/05

Dear Joshua,

I did indeed read your web log of last night, which I found quite interesting and thought-provoking. We are clearly diametrically (though cordially) opposed in our views on the question of text and context. All artworks have contexts, but we only care about the context of a work because we care about the work, or at least that’s as it should be—I am old-fashioned enough to believe that all response should start with and return to the text. If one is interested in the context for its own sake, then one is interested in biography or history or sociology or economics, et cetera, but not in literature. All of these interests are completely legitimate, as long as one is clear about what one’s interest is. (And of course all of these things relate to literature in various overdetermined ways—but they do not define it as such, and literature’s being in relation to these forces and structures doesn’t distinguish it from, well, everything else in our society or any society which has ever had such a category of discourse as ‘literature.’) I recently read a very interesting and somewhat polemical book on Postmodernism by Christopher Butler (part of Oxford University Press’s” A Very Short Introduction” series) in which he discusses the problem of artworks whose entire meaning (or, in some case, even their existence as artworks) depends upon their accompanying critical apparatus. As Susan Stewart points out (I quote this in the essay I sent you), “art practice that proceeds under the shadow of theory is doomed to be mere allegory [or illustration]; and…theories of art bound to particular historical practices are doomed to [be] apologetics.”

As for the “mode of production” of poetry, the analogy simply doesn’t hold, and it trivializes real economics and real politics while aggrandizing poetry writing as some sort of political act (why not aggrandize it as an aesthetic act?). To talk about the mode of production in relation to poetry is pseudo-economics, pseudo-politics, and pseudo-Marxism. Poetry is not an economic good. In this regard, its use in intellectual discourse resembles the bandying about of the term ‘cultural capital,’ a glaringly imaginary—dare I write ‘ideological’?—construction, except that at least in the case of poetry one can point to actually existing poems. In economic terms, poetry has no exchange value and no use value, nor is surplus value extracted from labor in the pursuit of profit in the writing of poetry. Indeed, Marx discusses the artist as an example of unalienated labor, and Adorno points out that art sublates social alienation into artistic objectification. And in more general social terms, art and high culture in general have never had the kind of legitimating functions in America, which has been proudly philistine and anti-intellectual from its colonial inception, that they’ve had in much of Europe. I sometimes feel that people forget in their wholesale importation of European theory that America is in fact not Europe, for better and for worse.

If one is interested in politics, one should engage in politics (as I know that you have to a certain extent), not the metaphorical (at best) or compensatory (at worst) ‘politics’ of ‘cultural activism’—posing at politics, as social commentator Adolph Reed so trenchantly calls it. There is such a thing as politics, and it is distinct from art, whatever their interconnections. Actually engaging in political, social, or economic action is much harder than sitting around talking about containment and subversion.

I think that we’re in agreement that poetry’s greatest gift is its uselessness, its refusal to
bow before the demands of utility and profit. Poetry is an example of all that’s in excess of necessity, of all that escapes social and political definition and domination. Poetry defies what Adorno called instrumental reason and what Lyotard calls performativity: the demand that everything do something, that everything be “good for” something. It’s an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, and in that way it’s a model of the ideal life and the ideal world, in which things exist for their own sake and not for the sake of anything else. Kant called freedom the kingdom of ends, and that’s what I think poetry presents the possibility or at least the image of: freedom, which is always an asymptote, an unattainable aspiration toward which we’re still obligated to strive.

What poetry does is add to the world, presenting us with an image of a world (the poem) in which each element exists both for its own sake and as part of a larger gestalt in which each part contributes to the whole and the whole enriches every part. But this is a creative and not merely a critical task: it’s too often forgotten that Adorno’s relentless negativity, his refusal of things as they are, was in the service of a great hope, the possibility, however often deferred, of a just society, a world to which one could freely assent.

These days many people have transferred their hopes for social, political, and economic change into the cultural realm, out of despair and out of (frankly) laziness and unwillingness to do the hard, dirty work that’s involved in trying to change the material world in which we live. It’s a lot easier to critique art for being a bourgeois mystification or ideological occlusion than to fight for fair labor laws or clean water or civil liberties. I also think that kind of transference is a mistake: it places inappropriate demands on art (culture isn’t the source of oppression in the world, no matter how many “cultural activists” claim that it is) and it deprives art of what it can truly give us, of what it truly can do for us. As Gary Indiana wrote, as democracy seeps out of our social and political lives, it invades our cultural lives, where it doesn’t belong.

Since I seem to be on a rant, I might also mention that I’ve grown weary of experimentation for its own sake—it comes to seem like a form of keeping up with fashion, never wear the same outfit twice, make sure you’re wearing next season’s clothes. Those trendy outfits also bear a strong resemblance to the clothes they wore in the teens and twenties, which people too often forget. So many of the ‘experiments’ in which our avant-garde engage were performed by Eliot, Pound, et alia, long before any of us was born. There’s nothing wrong with using techniques that have already been developed (the English language is one of those techniques, after all), but there’s something rather unseemly about claiming that you came up with them yesterday. The avant-garde frequently forgets that Pound’s injunction to “Make it new” contains two parts—they concentrate so much on trying to be new (which ends up as a cult of novelty that mirrors the planned obsolescence of the consumer culture it claims to critique, a consumer culture my main criticism of which is that it isn’t in fact available to all—if this were truly a society of over-abundance, I wouldn’t have much of a problem with it) that they neglect the necessity to make something, that newness is not a value in itself (no human being is ‘new,’ though each is unique) but a means to the rejuvenation of aesthetic experience (and thus, analogously at least, of our experience of and in the world).

I do wonder, with regard to judging work by its author’s institutional/social affiliations versus judging work as a text (as a, dare I write the New Critical words, autotelic artifact), what is the difference between Jane Miller and Michael Palmer (or, from his more recent work that I’ve seen, between Michael Palmer and Charles Simic?). Inquiring mind wants to know.

Take care, and know that though we disagree quite profoundly on many questions I appreciate the serious thought that you put into them (it’s quite rare), and your obvious love of poetry and poems, which is not so widely shared among those who call themselves poets (and I include poets on either side of whatever fence you care to build).

peace out and about,


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Tim Yu intervenes in the discussion with two points about that vexed and vexing term, avant-garde: 1) "Avant-garde is not just a style; it is always also a statement about a work's context of production: the manner in which it appears and circulates, the place it takes within the institutions of art, the extent to which it displays (and demands) a critical awareness of all these things." 2) "More importantly, the question of avant-garde can't be settled by looking at an individual writer in isolation; fundamental to the idea of avant-garde is, ultimately, the idea of group or movement, one that's hard to reconcile with (and is, perhaps, actively opposed to) the image of a canon in which Poet A jockeys against Poet B for membership in a lineage of heroic greats. Shedding such group allegiances remains one of the prerequistes for being taken seriously as a Great Poet by mainstream critics; but membership in such a community is what allows the avant-garde writer to generate an aesthetic that might differ from the dominant." He's absolutely right. What avant-gardes accomplish, at least potentially, is the creation of awareness about the "context of production" for all works of art. I'm going to retire "School of Quietude" from my personal vocabulary because I think its underpinnings are very shaky; but I do think there has been and continues to be what Charles Bernstein called an "Official Verse Culture," albeit a greatly diminished one, that maintains a Bloomian discourse of "greatness" (superimposed over a bourgeois discourse of the subject) that blandly effaces anyone with any other ideas about what poetry might be for. It's the avant-garde activity of Bernstein and others (more in the apparatus around their poems than in the poems themselves) that made OVC visible in the first place, just as it took homosexuality (for example) to create the concept of heterosexuality. This in turn makes it possible to notice finer gradations (another Kinsey scale!): where do we place a poet who produces normative free verse but publishes it with small presses and keeps blog? Did Ashbery lose his avant-gardener status the moment Auden chose him as a Yale Younger Poet? If Jorie Graham wrote the exact same poems but published with O Books instead of HarperCollins, would the poems somehow be different, or at least read differently?

So it's not the avant-garde per se that interests me so much as the dimension of extrapoetic experience they've opened. I would revise Monday's negative statement ("I am simply unlikely to be really satisfied by an encounter with a poem that does not use some aspect of form to problematize its ready reception") to read, "I am simply more likely to be interested in a poem whose context of production is in some way palpable." That could manifest in any number of ways: in the poem's engagement with a particular literary tradition or predecessor; in the poem's awareness of its own historical moment; or simply in being published in a magazine or on a press that has published contextually complex work in the past. A poem doesn't have to be "difficult" or "inaccessible" to qualify as interesting under these conditions—though it's likely to be "inaccessible" in the sense of not being distributed by some Official Verse Organ, which is still where literate non-poets are most likely to encounter poems. But I am ALSO still interested in poetry that problematizes its ready reception that isn't particularly interested in context—that is, plain old difficult poetry, which Jorie Graham's work certainly qualifies as. (For the record, I am extremely fond of her books Materialism and The End of Beauty.) But I want to affirm that it's still primarily pleasure that drives me as a reader, and not any tendentious sense of duty; I'm fully on board with Ezra Pound when he says, "Gloom and solemnity are entirely out of place in even the most rigorous study of an art originally intended to make glad the heart of man"? I'm going to close with part of a comment I just posted to Chris Lott's blog:
I’ve already copped to enjoying difficult poetry and I don’t think there’s anything puritan about that; if anything, I’m a decadent aesthete reveling in having trained my palate to appreciate oysters and choclate-covered grasshoppers. I still enjoy a burger and fries, but not so often from the fast-poem joints. More to the point: it’s true you have to understand something about a poem to enjoy it: few of us truly enjoy hurling ourselves headfirst into the dark. But I want to use “about” there in the archaic sense as when someone asks if you have your keys about you. If you understand something of the poem’s context, that gives you just enough of a foothold to risk encountering what might appear opaque at first glance. The point has been made by others that undergraduates often have an easier time reading an experimental contemporary poet than they do a Shakespeare sonnet or a poem of Browning’s because the contemporary poet at least shares their context. Only those who have been trained to recognize specific historical configurations as poems are going to balk at new configurations they don’t recognize. In short, the more you read, the more contexts become available to you–and the more likely you are to become bored with off-the-rack stuff. My affection isn’t finite but my time certainly is.

Monday, April 25, 2005

The estimable Ange Mlinko objects to my reading of Anne Winters and more generally my use of "avant-garde" as a living category, calling it "just a marketing tool." In both respects she seems to be in agreement with my chair Roger Gilbert, who points out in an e-mail that I have obvious reservations about the Winters poem and therefore haven't succeeded in arguing that for me the set "good poems" is not necessarily a subset of "avant-garde poems." He also has a bone to pick about my opposing avant-gardeners with "conventional" poets, noting that a-g poetry is rife with its own conventions and responses to convention. Perhaps I should just concede the point: I am simply unlikely to be really satisfied by an encounter with a poem that does not use some aspect of form to problematize its ready reception. Not that Winters' poetry is "transparent" or even necessarily "accessible" given the lushness of her diction; and I also admire her ambition for large-scale social description: a quality that for me at least partly participates in a poem's resistance to easy assimilation: the delay or gap in understanding makes it possible for larger constellations to form. One reason we keep returning to The Waste Land as a useful description of our modernity is because its formal density (I am obviously including devices that call attention to a poem's reception and framing such as allusion in the category "form," here) connects enough dots that the poem is like unto a system (without actually being one) that can be used to read its environment like a tricorder on Star Trek: feed it the data of your own experience and you will always get back something useful, or at least interesting. (Though the end of the poem tries to foreclose the openness of the rest of it, the weird appendage of the "Notes" helps preserve The Waste Land as an open text.) But I still believe that negativity is the fundamental resource of possibility, and confining it largely to subject matter makes an encounter with the novum unlikely. That said, I'm still capapble of being dazzled by an adroit use of traditional (really we should be more specific: Italian) forms: I have always been easily seduced by the baroque. Here's a Winters poem both of us admire:

Bone-ivory thins out to sparkling gauze,
and the helices spell out their last revisions:
cascades of microscopic cellular flaws.

Dark quadrants in the X-rays of my jaws
mark the retreating toothbed, new excisions,
the ivory thinned out to sparkling gauze.

The synovial sea that bathed my knees withdraws,
leaving bone nubs to clickings and collisions,
cascades of calcium, microscopic flaws.

What's worse, this age of ice-flares and failed thaws
that might clear nights for rare auroral visions,
instead blows through my sleep like cradle-gauze,

filled with nursery-rockers, pastel night-lights: straws
that wove about those years of small decisions
a screen against the tide of cellular flaws.

Why should the ova and the menses pause
for this bleak text of lapses and elisions:
bone-ivory thinning out to sparkling gauze,
cascades of tiny intracellular flaws.
This srikes me as an effective adaptation of a traditional form to the inescapable rhythm of bodily decay. So many of the traditional form poems I come across are sunk by there being no organic connection between the form and the often banal subject matter it frames; it doesn't matter if the rhyme and meter are perfect if the poem lacks spit and fire. Perhaps this poem proves that my reservations about Winters may stem less from my supposedly doctrinaire stance than quirkier issues of personal taste. For example, I find I have little patience for discursive poetry, or (what often amounts to the same thing) poems with very long lines that don't seem to have some sort of structural (rhythmical, syntactical) integrity (or a structurally surprising breakdown in that integrity). This is my chief objection to Jorie Graham's poetry, though not to Graham herself, who has been taking a hell of a beating lately: first there's l'affaire Foetry (I think Ron Silliman and Tim Yu have come closest to expressing my own thoughts on the subject) and now there's David Orr's hatchet job in this week's NY Times Book Review. I have no wish to defend Graham's record of choosing former students for prizes (a habit duly noted by Orr), which reflects poorly on her (but more poorly, perhaps, on the publishers she was working as a judge for); but I suspect that she mostly gets a lot of shit simply for being a powerful woman: she's the Hillary Clinton of the poetry world. So while I may agree with Orr that there's often been "something strangely bleary in Graham's writing" (just as there's something strangely bleary about my Senator's liberal credentials), you have to notice that more than half of his article is devoted to backhanded compliments and attacks on Graham's person rather than her actual poetry. I also think Graham is such a big target because she is big, and she insists on the largeness of the poet's vocation: she's diametrically opposed to Billy Collins's desire to reduce poetry to friendly and digestible little meditations. Graham would be a seer, a priestess of the invisible, a speaker for and to the entire Western tradition, a sibyl tracing signs in the dust forewarning of apocalypse. It's easy to be cynical about such grand aspirations, since they must come in an inevitably human and fallible package; but I believe that Graham's famous ego is subservient to the aspirations of her poetry. Graham's poetry wants to be great in the way The Waste Land, Song of Myself, and yes, damnit, The Cantos are great: they are poems occasioned by real crises in the Western psyche, which is to say subjectivity as we know it, and they answer those crises with cries from bodies and souls steeped in very long cultural memory. To take on that large a task, that big a risk, is to restore nobility (another word we have trouble taking seriously nowadays) to poetry. It doesn't mean to be flawless; if anything it means to court flaws, and Graham has them aplenty: the aforementioned bleariness, the shaggy lines, and most damningly for me, the complete absence of a discernible sense of humor.

So again I've found a poet not generally associated with the avant-garde (though isn't sheer difficulty often treated as an a-g quality? Graham is certainly difficult) for whom I have a great deal of admiration, if not a lot of affection (it's hard to feel something as simple as friendliness toward a prophet). Perhaps what prevents her from being an avant-gardener is where she locates negativity: Graham doesn't feel the need to create it, but to counter it. The bleakness of negativity surrounds her; as Cal Bedient puts it in his recent review, "she is more than ever obsessed with the x everyone and everything fundamentally is (or fails to be)." Her orientation is fundamentally an ontological one, whereas the avant-garde poets I admire never entirely give up on the ontic, contingent, and political world that we navigate at best haphazardly. Winters is a lesser poet for me because she takes the ontic as her turf without hazarding much on a formal level; Graham's ambitions are greater than those of many poets I admire, but my affection (Whitman would call it adhesiveness) is reserved for those who breathe the same bad air, eat the same junk food, love/hate the movies, harbor guilty consciences, and dream utopian dreams.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Succulent Dark of My Fading Time

Sweet or savory follows the same post-road toward Dr. Johnson ill-fed on Skye. Watery remains the history of a mainland. From ore to Ore-Ida every scarred vein. To say she hung the moon means a dark-lantern shuttering my chest. Will you survey the one-for-one map of me? Some phantom limbs say bannister, double-eagle, cartwheel—the right to coin's constitutional. Firm fleshed, ill-favored, fish 'n chips. Closer to Britain's split ends on an inflatable globe, we strut and fret the parallels. Marching headward, zestward. A story of constituencies married unawares. Judicial tyranny names a saltwater shack. I'm fretted by lines incunabular, by defunct technologies of yearning run ragged on the right. Minister's bed. Tories are lovable like the reason for the Great Wall. Like the Age of Reason knits a sampler. I'm an old rememberer of others' sublime. I'm a misnamed moor in whiteface facing down Heathcliff's tears. We are none of us natives though now we're paid to die. Manors born. Silent fly.

Friday, April 22, 2005

New nature writing of the most urgent and desperate sort. I'm not sure what we in America can do to aid Mr. Brathwaite directly, but it's heartening to see other poets rallying round him in his time of need. Perhaps someone will set up a means of donating money to his cause, although what it seems he really needs is direct political intervention, yesterday. What you can do is add your voice to the growing chorus by going to the site Tom Raworth has set up: save CowPastor! Speak up for the living before it's too late.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The New Nature Writing (Part 1)

Having in hand four of the six papers intended for presentation at the recent AWP conference in Vancouver, I've decided not to delay posting them any further. The missing papers (by Richard Greenfield and Bin Ramke) will follow when I receive them. The papers are presented as written with no editorial interference from me aside from regularizing punctuation and making italics, etc., web friendly. I begin with Jonathan Skinner's statement, e-mailed to me to be read in lieu of his actual presence, but unfortunately not received in time. I am pleased to be able to present it here, and think it does an excellent job of mapping the territory the subsequent papers explore in more detail. Enjoy!

Jonathan Skinner
Brief Statement for "New Nature Writing" Panel at 2005 AWP

I first off would like to express my sincerest regrets at missing this panel—due to circumstances beyond my control (an airline bankruptcy, no less!)

I have been greatly looking forward to this discussion. I'd like to accept Corey's invitation to read a brief statement on my behalf.

It has been an extremely rich year for what might be called the "new" nature writing: Jack Collom's Extremes and Balances (Farfalla Press, 2004), Brenda Iijima's Around Sea (O Books, 2004), Allen Fisher's Entanglement (The Gig, 2004), Stacy Szymaszek's Some Mariners (Etherdome, 2004) and Mutual Aid (g o n g. 2004), David Hinton's Fossil Sky (Archipelago, 2004) and his translations of The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-Jin (Archipelago, 2004), Eleni Sikelianos's The California Poem (Coffee House Press, 2004), Ian Davidson's At A Stretch (Shearsman Books, 2004), Lisa Robertson's Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (Clear Cut Press, 2003), Michael Ives's The External Combustion Engine (Futurepoem Books, 2005), Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems (Palm Press, 2005), J.H. Prynne's Furtherance (The Figures, 2004), Jacques Roubaud's Grand Kyrielle du Sentiment des Choses (Nous, 2003), Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone With Lungs (University of California, 2005), Theodore Enslin's Nine (National Poetry Foundation, 2004), to name a few titles (focusing on poetry) . . .

Increasingly, however, I wonder at the value of the term itself "nature writing": doesn't all writing have "nature" in it? If only human nature, or the nature of words . . . Obviously, there is a value, and a need, for writing focused specifically on the so-called natural world (a focus that characterizes the above-mentioned works). Taking, again, the case of poetry, ecocritics have made a useful distinction between nature poetry and ecopoetry—to paraphrase Juliana Spahr, one focuses (apolitically) only on the bird, the other considers, as well, the bulldozer about to destroy the bird's habitat. Think Mary Oliver for nature poetry, Gary Snyder for ecopoetry. Many of the abovementioned works, issued between 2003 and 2005, hover in-between.

But I am even suspicious of the term "ecopoetry": either it's redundant, reduplicating the "eco" already built into the ecology of words that, presumably, is poetry's business, or it instrumentalizes (i.e. pigeonholes) poetry in a way that's distasteful to any poet worth paying attention to. I strongly reject the perverse aim of an ecopoetry that would somehow turn us away from the tasks of poetry, to more important or urgent concerns. (Though I sympathize with the desire to get readers to look up from the page and pay attention to their surroundings.) In my own work as editor of the magazine ecopoetics, I have relied on the notion of "ecopoetics"as a site for poetic attention and exchange, where many different kinds of making (not just poetry, or not even just writing, and certainly not just "ecopoetry") can come to inform and be informed. Hopefully this panel, that I am so sorry to miss, can function as such a site. (Speaking of ecopoetics, issue 04 is behind schedule but due to appear in the next month.)

Nevertheless, to take the notion of "nature writing" in hand, I'd like to propose a short taxonomy of nature writing (or of ecopoetry or ecopoetics). This taxonomy could be used to sort different writings, or different aspects of the same piece of writing.

The first category I'd call the topological, which covers the referential function most ecocritics privilege—perhaps specifically the literature and poetry of place, but more generally any referring "outside" the poem to a "natural" topos.

I borrow a chapter from Jed Rasula's provocative book-length essay, This Compost: Ecological Imperatives in American Poetry, to describe the second, tropological category. This we see in the current proliferation of exercises in analogy, casting poems as somehow functioning like ecosystems or complex systems, troping on language and ideas from the environmental sciences. Gary Snyder's famous description of the poet as detritus feeder is the best-known example, though more recently, poet Marcella Durand has been making some fascinating forays into the "ecosystem poem" (in a serial and procedural mode taking somewhat after Francis Ponge). Cf. also Angus Fletcher's discussion of the "environment poem" in A New Theory of American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment and the Future of Imagination.

The third category, what I call entropological poetics, I borrow from land artist and writer Robert Smithson: the practice engaged directly with materials and processes, where entropy, transformation and decay are part of the creative work. Any "concrete" writing focused primarily on the procedures and materiality of the letter might fall into this category (John Cage's "writings through" Thoreau, Ronald Johnson's concrete Songs of the Earth, Ian Hamilton Finlay's poetry garden Little Sparta, Cecilia Vicuna's etymological ruminations, John Cayley's electronic textual transformations), but also other kinds of "writing" that involve marking the land or natural processes and that might more properly be considered under the rubric of the visual arts (Vicuna's precario installations, Mierle Laderman Ukeles's "maintenance art," Hamesh Fulton's walks, Andy Goldsworthy's countless interventions in natural materials).

Finally, I'd include a fourth, supremely important, category: the ethnological. Whether nature contains the human or humanity contains nature is impossible to conclude. What we do know is that humans have been around a long time, and that, as we learn when we look at them more closely, many so-called "wild" landscapes are intensively anthropogenic. As ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan proposes, the disappearance of species and the (astonishingly rapid) disappearance of human languages on earth are intimately related, part of the same extinction. The Western Enlightenment's creation of "nature" might even be considered a subset of Western rationality's creation of the subaltern, indigenous subject (a conquest which, as anthropologist Walter D. Mignolo argues in Local Histories/ Global Designs, actually precedes the Cartesian cogito). Learning about the landscapes our "nature" has obscured necessarily entails tasks of translation outside Western languages and cultures; it also means becoming more self-conscious about our own ethnic projections. In this sense, an ecopoetics is always already an ethnopoetics.

These categories—the topological, the tropological, the entropological and the ethnological—have helped me to navigate the wilderness of new nature writing, mainly to identify the different emphases of various approaches, or to separate out which aspects of a poem, say, are really doing ecological work. (I tend to privilege the entropological and the ethnological over the tropological and the topological, but all dimensions are important.) I'd be the first to admit that such "categories" smell rather strongly of the lamp, of the work I have been doing in graduate school, so I offer them here (through the good graces of Josh) in the fervent hopes that you will make quick hash of them and send me the remnants for composting in my garden. Wishing you a good discussion and a great time in Vancouver—make sure you get out to the park!

* * *

Karen Leona Anderson
The New Nature Writing and the Old Science Poem

I am brought up short with delight by science in lyrical writing; be it Forrest Gander's Science and Steepleflower, the natural history of Marianne Moore's pangolin or Bin Ramke's chemical names for color in his new book matter. I like what he calls the "pretty names," the selenium, the silver bromoiodide, and I like the facty feel of some of it: Moore's pangolin the self-contained and determinate "armored animal" with a "grit-equipped gizzard" and "sting-proof scales." Science arrests me for good reasons, I guess: the faculty brat of a botanist and a syntax linguist, the names of things and their properties have always seemed not just authoritative but important, and further, edifying. And in our disciplinary culture, it is still a displacement, a bit of discipline-crossing allowed to happen, but just for a little and with the help of experts. Even so, it is this nowhere of the scientific bit that I think is the best thing about it: because in the right writer's hands (Gander, Ramke, Moore) it arrests not just me, but stops some larger machine of predictability; suggests, in the pangolin, the selenium, an approach to the natural and nonhuman: a different way to see, or to speak. Even better, it might suggest a different, maybe even a new, way to be.

Lest I seem to be saying that all science breeds progressive politics, or I seem to be a wholesale fan of newness, let me cite the most recent Michael Crichton novel, State of Fear, a tale of the environmentalist conspiracy of global warming and the clear-headed scientist who foils it, for example, by destroying detonators intended to produce a lethal tsunami. This involves science, too, though I understand a large part of it is inaccurate, even by the most lax standards of that particular industry (see New Scientist). But it is also a kind of new nature writing, instructive in the author's note that follows the text of the novel: "Nobody knows how much warming will occur in the next century," Crichton argues, "I would guess the increase will be about 0.812436 degrees Celsius." He adds "There is no evidence that my guess about the state of the world one hundred years from now is any better or worse than anyone else's." But the most interesting thing Crichton says to establish his own scientific credentials as an interpreter of the non-human world is the final line of his author's message: "Everyone has an agenda. Except me."

The book may be 2004, but the idea is vintage; since Bacon's seventeenth century corrective to based on faith or speculation, some part of the cultural perception of science has been its promise of the clean, unbiased fact, nature in the buff; and since Bruno Latour's 1987 Science in Action, at least, we have been aided by the perception that to view any and all scientific endeavors this way is to miss not just the sinister effects of believing that military industrial labs are just harmlessly pursuing the naked truth but to miss all the richness and potential of science as a cultural phenomenon, a way that hypothesis admittedly entangled with an agenda and tested still might produce surprises, something new; even better, something useful.

So looking forward might mean looking back; Emily Dickinson, that product of a rigorous New England scientific education, knew that. "We must travel abreast of Nature—but where is the Horse?" she asks in a prose fragment. But it is coming up from behind, for the fragment continues: "A something overtakes the mind—we do not hear it coming." (PF 116). To try to draw abreast of this personification of nature, then to be noiselessly overtaken by it, is for Dickinson a historical process and a social process as well as an epistemological one. An example: To the compliant female Nature that pervades scientific texts from her childhood botany textbooks to the pages of the Atlantic Monthly she perused as an adult, a Nature who is described as "patiently smiling under the improving hand of cultivation," Dickinson writes back with her own agenda:
Nature is a stranger yet—
Those who cite her most,
Have never passed her haunted house
Nor simplified her ghost—

To pity those who know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her know her less
the nearer her they get.
Trying to know Nature, writing the nonhuman, is to Dickinson a necessarily social as well as a truth-seeking enterprise; and that work is simultaneously as crucial and impossible as knowing another person. Thus, her poem implies, it is best to be scrupulously polite, lest that confidently citing and cultivating human hand miss Nature entirely and land on something scarier—not Tennyson's "Nature red in tooth and claw," but a ghost.

Despite having excellent manners, and a theory that suggested Nature, if she was a person, was not very worried about humanity, not even Charles Darwin could resist the fix of kindly maternal Nature against which Dickinson writes. But he offers a starting point for another poet who joins Dickinson some seventy years later in looking back to look forward, Lorine Niedecker. Niedecker is interested less in Darwin's certainties than his unease, celebrating the political, social, historical and epistemological possibilities that scientific hypothesis and its slowly accruing evidence can offer to the project of writing the social. She ends a late poem about Darwin's life with a quote from Darwin's letter to Charles Lyell that showed him to be as resignedly anxious about the revolutionary effects of his theory as perhaps he ought to have been: "Let each man hope and believe what he can."

For me, however, it's not that Niedecker notices how science can be productively social and constructively indeterminate that is a model for the new nature writing but what she makes of that indeterminacy. One of her longest poems, "Wintergreen Ridge," which was written about the time Latour was writing his own conclusions about the social implications of science, brings together the profound indeterminacy that evolution implies about species survival with the politics of late capitalism to suggest that this style of industrialism is not a very good strategy for evolutionary survival:

home town
second shift steamfitter
ran arms out

as tho to fly
dived to concrete
from loading dock

lost his head
(I miss the gulls)

mourn the loss
of people
no wild bird does

It rained
mud squash
willow leaves

in the eaves
Old sunflower
you bowed

to no one
but Great Storm
of Equinox
In "Wintergreen Ridge," things and ideas and organisms aren't necessarily better because they are newer; in fact, the worship of commodified newness hinders our ability to see that we can choose to acknowledge our interdependence on the nonhuman, or we can simply become extinct: that indeterminacy is the real revelation of natural selection. The test of poetry, for Niedecker, becomes then whether it can be of use, to the humans who are, whether they admit it or not, also Nature.

So much for New, so much for Nature. But do we want to dispense with writing? Perhaps it will survive if it can look both at the ways knowledge and culture coincide with and resist each other, look forward and backward, can say to its reader: Everyone has an agenda. Including me. Elizabeth Willis read in our Ithaca-based reading series last month from a new book called Meteorite Flowers, made up of poems that take their titles from Erasamus Darwin's poems. This Darwin was Charles's grandfather and a bit of a cross-disciplinary kook by today's standards, writing a long poems that explicated his social and scientific ideas about botany and evolution, later to be refined as natural selection by his grandson. Elizabeth introduced her own poems by saying she thought that Darwin had provided a model for integrating knowledge, including science, as it is lived, as it is experienced in everyday life: and so I'll leave you with this new / old / nonhuman / human / prose / poem, in the Niedecker-tinged hope that it will be of use, maybe even to those who believe themselves to be agendaless. And while I started with my delight, I'll end with Willis' joy:

This dirtball invites me to think "with" not "for" it. I display a desperation spoken straight from my feet. Should I hear you cry, I wouldn't think before I dropped my glove to find you; that's how dirt thinks. Why the ear, the shape of longing, why the endless whorl you came from? Seeing air doesn't mean it sees you back. The latest molecule might travel far enough to hide you underground for good. Even while we stare the season down, worlds pour like symptoms of its greedy polished joy.

* * *

Sally Keith

The following short essay/meditation makes example of Inger Christensen's book length poem alphabet in light of a " New Nature Poem," a poem, then, to my mind, that challenges the interaction between the human-poet and the earth, a poem that interrogates the space between human-poet and human-poem. Inger Christensen is a Danish poet, born in 1935; her book alphabet was translated by Susanna Nied and published by New Directions in 2000. The number of lines in each of the fourteen parts of alphabet increase as determined by the Fibonacci Sequence, whereby the addition of two consecutive numbers equals the next in the series. Within each of Christensen's fourteen parts the lines break off into discrete poems and by counting stanza length and poem length the reader uncovers a multitude of new and connecting Fibonacci codes. The ratio between any two consecutive numbers in the sequence equals the Golden Ratio so that all progression is mathematically equal. Simultaneously, the reader feels peacefully resigned and an active count.

The following response to Christensen is divided into sections the lengths of which are constructed so that the number of sentences equal the section numbers, which match the Fibonnaci code. It follows naturally that any two consecutive sections, as in Christensen, pressed together shall equal in essence, according to the Golden Ratio, and while each point may be held in equality, the chance for discovery must also be preserved.


NEW NATURE: Inger Christensen's alphabet


The truth is I can never start.


The truth is I can never stop starting.


This morning to start I go for a walk with the purpose of noting how buds will break forth from the branches that have been bare for almost five months. To start I'll sit inside for the rest of the day and read and re-read Inger Christensen's alphabet, consistently astonished by the poem end:

a group of children seeks shelter in a cave
mutely observed only by a hare

as if they were children in childhood's
fairy-tales they hear the wind tell

of the burned-off fields
but they are no children

no one carries them anymore (77)

As soon as I finish I flip backwards through the book and prepare myself to start again.


The shape of the Fibonacci sequence is the spiral shape, the shape of a shell, the shape at the end of alphabet's eleventh section sounds like:

walk down to the still
blue of the Sound shining
with evening, toss
a stone into the water,
see how the circles
widen, reaching
even the farthest shores (32).

The spiral-line as it turns around its origin makes both a shape of repetition and of contradiction. And in this turning back, the energy of alphabet is harnessed by the forward going energy of the sequential alphabet and the bounding pattern of Fibonacci so that by reading we are thrown into new space. Each new space is a start; each start expects discovery.


"apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist," begins alphabet. apricot trees exist: the outside circumference of the shell, like the poem at its widest point, holds the reverberations and also exact repetitions of its own history, ever turning in on itself; we feel this when entire lines from the poem's early stages are spliced into the sequence at later points: "bracken exists: and blackberries; blackberries;" (12) "cicadas exist; chicory, chromium," (13) "days exist, days and death; and poems/ exist; poems days death" (14). I start by going outside for a long walk or I start by staying inside and finding a piece of paper or I start with writing one letter or with one word and each word I put there on the sheet and thereafter is repetition—each word is a fearlessness, a risk. apricot trees exist: but to continue repeating means harm may enter; if the apricot dries and become a stone (which the poem will later repeat) or if the tree blooms, existence includes extinction and now there is the possibility of losing twice, of a "re-lost paradise" (21). apricot trees exist: each day I take the same path; rote and beautiful, life-affirming, and destructive: apricot trees exist.


In the second section's sole couplet, after apricot trees and bracken and blackberries, should we be distracted by bromide preceding hydrogen, or is hydrogen to be hydrogen, the life giving, water-making force?

Existence includes extinction; in Christensen's contribution to a new nature poem the progression includes: (1) "apricot trees exist;" (4) "doves and killers exist;" (7) "guns and chemical ghettos;" (8) the "poison helicopter's humming harps above the henbane;" (10) "atom bombs exist…some 60,000 dead and/wounded in Nagasaki" (11) hydrogen bombs and "a plea to die;" (12) cobalt bombs: "there is no more to say; we kill/ more than we think/ more than we know/ more than we feel;/ there's no more/ to say; we hate; there is no more" (41).

Suddenly walking under this canopy of pines where I am used to imagining cathedrals, I want to go home; I'm tired tracing my usual steps and I long for the place I began.

In a spiral the arc of the larger circumference against the arc of the smaller do not exactly stack; in other words, codes describe nature and codes make up poems and we are endlessly wrapped in systems on systems, but be wary: they intersect.

Why not wonder, then, whether reflection works as a process meant to equal or one to work against; in alphabet mirrors are systems of reflection that abound, both porous like the slime trail of slugs (55) and dissolved by the saltiness of the body's long story (37).

Or maybe a mirror is a better metaphor, an unreality, a dream, a way of contradicting forward moving; if we could press together the image and reflection (dream and reality) it might sound something like "snow," the third of six poems in section twelve:

is not snow at all
when it snows
in mid-June

snow has
not fallen from
the sky at all
in June

snow itself
has risen
and has bloomed
in June

as apple
chestnut trees
in June

to be lost
in real snow
which is June snow
in flower and seed

when you need never die (35).


Lastly, it is important to mention the voice of the poet in the poem, the tenderness with which this voice is turned toward the earth. "love exists, love exists/ your hand a baby bird so obviously tucked/ into mine, and death impossible to remember," (26) begins section eleven. One page back the "I" has entered for the first time, but only after the horrible recollection of atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; she enters humbly, standing in the kitchen peeling potatoes while the tap is running and outside the children's shouting drowns out the song of the birds. Inger Christensen's is the poet-voice I admire—the voice simultaneously pulled by poem-math and independent, both song-maker and implicated by song's resonance on earth.

It feels to me that the risk in writing is in honestly seeing the world, sinking into its complex system, but with the mind to be taken away. Existence includes extinction. By the end of the poem the dreamers have dreams on top of their skin. I wonder if I were to travel the shape of a spiral into the earth with discovery as my goal, would I know it when I saw it, would I be brave enough to catch it, to recognize it, even if it were right there sticking on top of my skin. To see the unreal on top of the real is a reflexive act; discovery is inexplicable, a kind of grace—I think. My favorite lines of alphabet are when Christensen writes: "That's how I've imagined/ being able to imagine." I know I couldn't have started the essay here. I'm sitting at home writing, and at the widest point there is the urge to say: I'm done. But then, there is the stronger urge to start again and again, to say the most essential thing: apricot trees exist, apricot trees exist.

* * *

Joshua Corey
I Say a Flower: Avant-Garde Pastoral, or the Nature of Writing

If I refer to language as a natural resource, I have already misled you. To refer to clean air or clean water or arable earth as "natural resources" is to imply that they are somehow separate from us, that they do not surround and envelop us, that we could live without them. The same is true of language; but it is also true that just like air, water, and earth, language can become polluted, unusable, uninhabitable. Sometimes their abuse goes hand in hand, as in the case of George W. Bush's infamous "Clear Skies Initiative." But more often than not we separate our thinking about language from our thinking about nature. Poets especially have been guilty of this, using language as a means to access nature or an idea of nature that somehow serves the poet's self-transcendence. If ecology means an attitude toward nature that decenters the human being and insists on seeing our lives as components of a larger organism, then I want to consider the possibility of a poetic ecology that is similarly oriented not toward the needs of isolated individuals (much less institutions or corporations) but toward the needs of the whole organism: that is, language as the transcendental precondition for human being as such. For that reason I am committed to the idea of the avant-garde—a category rarely if ever associated with what we usually think of as "nature writing." In her book Dreamworld and Catastrophe, Susan Buck-Morss describes the desired effect of the avant-garde artwork as follows: "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." Where the pastoral meets the avant-garde, I believe we can emend that sentence to read "that it takes us to task for the overwhelming lack of social and ecological imagination that characterizes so much of cultural production." The expansion of imagination is not, fundamentally, a question of new subject matter but a question of form. The poetry that can teach us, shock us, and take us to task will do so not by recovering nature in poetry but by recovering the nature of poetry: as language wild in the streets of our sociality.

When we speak today of the "nature poem," we are still likely to be speaking of poetry modeled on the Wordsworthian, Romantic sublime. The poet inserts him or herself into a landscape, looks out into it, and re-encounters that same self, refreshed by its momentary contemplation of the nonhuman. The spectacle of nature offers consolation, comfort, and an affirmation of the speaker's unique subjectivity. There is barely any distance to travel between Wordsworth's "The Daffodils" and virtually any poem of Mary Oliver's you would care to name. As Oliver writes in "Morning Poem":
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
Whether or not we agree with this sentiment will depend more upon our own existing presuppositions about the relationship between external nature (in Oliver's shorthand, "earth") and our inner nature (the "beast") than it will upon the vigor or strangeness of Oliver's language. In fact I would describe Oliver's poetry generally as a kind of Wordsworthian shorthand, through which she ventures out into the landscape to discover exactly what she expects to find—herself. This is a formal problem as much as it is an ethical one: Oliver's plain poetic speech, meant to serve as a marker of both accessibility and authenticity, represses the strangeness and vitality of language beyond its usefulness as a resource. Her language gestures at wildness, tries to terrify you like a lion at the end of a leash—but it is tame, and we never lose sight of the lion tamer's whip and chair. In their labored attempts to reveal capital-T Truth and capital-N Nature, Oliver's poems instead present us with predigested pieties with all the comforts of home. Nature is concealed, the self—an isolated self—revealed. The Lucretian swerve of nature and the physis or self-becoming of language are quietly suppressed.

Against "nature writing" as such I oppose the postmodern pastoral: poetry which, in its obvious artifice, is actually much closer to providing an actual experience of wilderness than the transparently "natural" language that disturbs nothing. Immanuel Kant describes the pleasure of natural beauty as deriving from the sense of encountering a design whose purpose we cannot fathom: "purposivness without purpose." Before it can mean anything to a botanist a tulip is, and it is that isness that astonishes and delights us. We do not need to ask what the tulip means for it to have its effect on us. When Mary Oliver tells us about the peonies, she's doing exactly that: telling us about them, and telling us how we ought to feel: in short, what they mean [refer to handout]. Compare "Peonies" to one of Louis Zukofsky's 80 Flowers, "Dandelion":
No blanch witloof handbound dry
heart to racks a comb
lion's-teeth thistlehead golden-hair earth nail
flower-clock up-by-pace dandle lion won't
dwarf lamb closes night season
its long year dumble-dor bumbles
cure wine blowball black fall's-berry
madding sun mixen seeded rebus
Zukofsky's credentials as a nature poet may appear to be pretty weak: he lived his whole life in New York City and was never part of any environmental movement that I know of. His notoriously thorny writing, rife with intertextuality, puns, and manic energy, is about as far as you can get from the earnest simplicity that we associate with contemporary nature poetry. He was not particularly interested in either rural life or the concern for conservation we associate with organizations like the Sierra Club. Yet I get more dandelion from "Dandelion" than I get peony from "Peonies." Zukofsky's "flower" inscribes itself on our nerves with a language that manages to be precise and unfamiliar at the same time. Before it sends us to the dictionary after the meaning of words like "witloof" (an endive), "dumble-dor" (a bumblebee), and "mixen" (a compost heap or dungpile), "Dandelion" makes a sound, echoing with traces of meaning unpacked from the image of the flower joined with its name. This "Dandelion" is a "seeded rebus": a puzzle in which pictures and symbols are used to make up a word, and Zukofsky's poem wants its words to strike you as immediately as pictures do. His poetics radically extends the conflation of word with natural object suggested by Whitman's Leaves of Grass—the poet who further insisted that "This is no book / Who touches this touches a man." Language matters because language is matter: for Zukofsky, language is one face of the Spinozan divine substance from which all being derives. If language is a picture that holds us captive, as Wittgenstein suggests, Zukofsky's poem at least refracts that picture so that it appears to us as it might through a bee's multifaceted eyes, exploding possibilities for pollination.

Zukofsky's stubbornly linguistic imagination suggests an ecology for words: a desire to present them, if not in their natural habitat, then at least with their history intact: their roots, their flowers and seeds, all visible. The American poet who has taken this notion the furthest is probably Ronald Johnson, whose magnificent long poem ARK is both a Poundian intertextual collage and a garden of linguistic play. His early poem "Shake, Quoth the Dove House," lays out a poetic program for the blending of language and life, elaborating on Heidegger's claim that "man dwells poetically on the earth":
This is the Garden, where all is a poet's
topiary. Where even the trees
shall have tongues, green aviaries,
to rustle at his will.

And as I sit here, my pipe
alight, coos like a turtle-dove in the wood—

its smoke a live-oak, in still air.

Where the smokes curl up, the moss hangs down:
let us call it Arden

& live in it! (Selected Poems 3)
Playful, lyrical, crammed with exuberant images of light and seeing, Johnson's poetry constitutes the most complete pastoral retreat imaginable; his socius is intimate and indirect, derived as much from Frank Baum's Oz books as it is from the company of naturalists, painters, and fellow poets like Zukofsky, Lorine Niedecker, Jonathan Williams, and Charles Olson. But a more expansive social imagination can be found in the work of contemporary avant-garde pastoralists as diverse as Eleni Sikelianos, Donald Revell, and Lisa Jarnot (it is parenthetically worth noting that some of the most vital and interesting work with pastoral today is being done by Canadians such as Lisa Robertson, Steve McCaffrey, and Christopher Dewdney). These poets have little in common when it comes to verse technique or specific aesthetic goals: they are not a "school." They do not approach nature in the same way: some are invested in empirical and scientific naturalism, while others are more fascinated by the idea of nature as a force for the destabilization of ideology. All, however, demonstrate an acute consciousness of the ways in which nature and culture are inextricably implicated in one another. Their sometimes thorny, sometimes deceptively simple language serves as a site of mediation (in Leo Marx's terms, a "middle landscape") between wilderness and civilization. In their work, "pastoral" does not connote a particular landscape or subject matter: their Arcadia is their language, a retreat from the imperatives of proposition and production, a powerful renewable resource with which new social and environmental possibilities might be imagined, even built.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

So Roger Gilbert, my committee chair, has reservations about my using the category of the avant-garde in my dissertation; in a recent e-mail he writes, "It seems to me that the contrast you draw between avant-garde and non-a-g poetry is really just a contrast between good poetry and bad poetry," and then footnotes this with, "I suppose you could refute this by giving an example of a poem you genuinely believe is good that nonetheless exemplifies the qualities you ascribe to the non-avant-garde poem. Could you do that?" And this connects in my mind with the interesting problem presented by poets like Anne Winters and Ron Slate: the former manifests an explicitly Marxian politics, the latter having critical affiliations as suggested to me in a recent e-mail: "I'm very serious about trying to understand the different positions poets have taken viz power, politics, history. Cavafy, Celan, Seferis, Mandelstam, Milosz, Brodsky." He then sums up his general position and his problem with the a-g/SoQ opposition with the following paragraph:
I know what Silliman means when he insists that avant-gardened forms smack power in the face -- and I do read all sorts of poetry and love to be challenged by poets who sense my complacency in advance -- but I still listen for those unique, fictive voices -- in whatever form they arrive. The avant-gardeners don't get extra credit (politically or
aesthetically) for being especially inventive about form. This silliness about poets-of-quietude sounds to me like a rejection of lyric poetry - and I admit, I'm not ready to rid my shelves of it. Zagajewski in one of his essays in Ardor says lyric poetry has two chief concerns - 1 - it provides forms for our inner lives, and - 2 - it watches out for history, since we can't rely only on private experience. Brodsky says the same thing: "The word 'history' is equally applicable to the endeavors of nations and to private lives. In both cases it consists of memory, record, and interpretation."
Nice turn of phrase, "avant-gardeners"; I'm surprised I haven't heard of it before. I'm sympathetic to most of this, and I'm by no means willing to rid my shelves (or notebooks, or indeed published books) of lyric poetry either. On the other hand, I do give "extra credit" to the a-g, not for simply being "especially inventive" (though I enjoy that) but because I do believe that form is the principal loci for the negativity that I think is crucial to any artwork that wants to resist the easy recuperation and consumption of the market. The medium is the message, the message being: Hell, no! But the reverse isn't true; the message can't be simply the medium (i.e., pure form); it can't even be the message—it has to be mess-ier than that. Content, in other words, which while hardly restricted to them, certainly includes the referential, superstructural a-g no-no's of narrative and voice. Not that "conventional" poets are indifferent to form; it's just they seem to have more faith in the notion that poetry is already sufficiently radical and oppositional without all those hijinks—already capable of the necessary double-mindedness Zagajewski writes so beautifully about. It seems to me, however, that even the way that double-mindedness is put by Zagajewski privileges the "inner life" (for which poetry provides "forms") over history, which the poem "watches out for," as if history were an unpleasant intruder on your bourgeois property rights. Ultimately I suppose an avant-garde gets extra credit not for being inventive with form, but for including form in the larger project of a poetics that must contain at least a significant kernel of negativity if it is to be successful in remembering the tension between private and public life that the vast preponderance of our media serves to ameliorate and conceal from us.

But if that negativity appears solely as poetic content—the much-hated "subject matter"—is it rendered impotent by the conventionality of the surrounding form? Consider for example this poem from a section of Winters' book titled, "A Sonnet Map of Manhattan":
MacDougal Street: Old-Law Tenements

We're aware in every nerve end of our tenement's
hard-mortared Jersey brick, the plumbing's
dripping dew-points, the electric running Direct,
and on each landing four hall-johns fitted

to the specifics and minima of the 1879
Tenement Housing Act. We live in its clauses
and parentheses, that drew up steep stairways
and filled the brown airwells with eyebrowed

windows. Unwhistling, the midwinter radiator
lists in its pool of rust. A lightcord winds
through its light chain; from a plasterless ceiling-slat

topples a roach, with its shadow. Downstairs, our Sicilian widow
beats the cold ribs with a long-handled skillet,
and faucets drum in twenty old-law flats.
I don't think Winters' leftist sympathies are mistakable here; her heart is unquestionably in the right place. At the same time, there's no mistaking this for avant-garde work, even though the sonnet doesn't quite rhyme (there are slant rhymes aplenty, however). The most interesting move in the poem for me is the metaphor of living within the "clauses / and parentheses" of an obsolete law: but that text, that signifier, is not given material reality by the poem, committed as it is to rhetorical elegance (even "our Sicilian widow," an emblem of the lower classes, is dignified with a "long-handled skillet"—perhaps to make her more comfortable to identify with). Is it a bad poem? It is not a bad poem: it pleases the ear, its images are vivid, and I respond emotionally to its attempt to put private (many of these poems include childhood memories, specifically of the poet's father, an actor) and public together in the reader's mind. I do find myself feeling that the poem is somehow overcooked: the poem is top-heavy with an aestheticizing dignity that puts me at a considerable distance from the experience of rust and roaches. There's also very little intellectual work demanded of me by this poem, and if I'm not going to have a bracingly physical encounter with language, I want at least to think. Here my personal aesthetic judgment begins to collude with ideas of the avant-garde and the primarily formal modes in which its negativity manifests. Such writing contains more truth, I think, though often at the expense of beauty (that is, what most of us would recognize as lyricism); which is not to say that other powerful affects (like laughter) aren't possible. The greatest poetry—I'll say "great," why not—achieves the Keatsian merger of truth and beauty, or rather engineers things so that the one produces the other. But it still seems easier, or at least more common, to synthesize private truths with beauty at the expense of public truths. There's not much pretty to say about the public, except that it offers the only possible arena for meaningful love, and should serve as well as a common reminder that, as Dickens put it, we are all fellow passengers to the grave. Which is to say, of course, quite a lot.

My point, as usual, is to improvise a usable rudder for steering the seas of poesy with—and to commit myself to perpetual improvisation rather than getting too comfortable with any particular jury-rig. And to say there are good and moving poems out there that are very far from avant-garde in construction or intent. But I think they're rather rare; I do pick up magazines with conventional lyric poetry in them from time to time (the new Parnassus is in, for example), and, speaking gnerally, I just don't find as much of that energy of inspiration that I posted about earlier being transmitted by such poetry. Whereas energy and fire— black fire, a black energy, negativity antimattering with hope—seems to be literally everywhere in the prolierating arenas for avant or post-avant writing. That's where the action is, for this reader. I won't close my ears to other kinds of writing, but my eyes are committed to the horizon.
Apparently it's incumbent upon me to acknowledge that I think both Mr. Atlas' remarks, below, and my own, are really very silly. I do think the notion of "functionality" is something worth questioning given how thoroughly most of us are infected with the Puritan work ethic. Is the giving—even more scandalously, the taking—of pleasure a "function"?

Speaking of pleasure, I'm getting more and more interested in the work of Guy Maddin. First I saw his astonishingly beautiful, Baudelairean film The Saddest Music in the World; then I read his anxious, erotomaniacal memoir/journal From the Aetelier Tovar, and now I'm halfway through his "secret" movie, Cowards Bend the Knee. I say halfway because the DVD I borrowed has a flaw that caused it to stop working in the dead middle of the disk; I say secret because apparently he shot this film on the sly in just a few days at the same time he was making his first "big" feature, Saddest Music. I learned this from my friend and neighbor Jonah, who is one of my cohort of Cornell grad students and who happens to be from Winnipeg and is a personal friend of Maddins's—has even worked on a few of his films. The funny thing is, years ago he told me he had a friend who was an experimental filmmaker in Winnipeg and I never made the connection until yesterday when we were having an impromptu Mexican dinner. I got all starstruck, because Maddin's films have come for me to embody the practice outlined in Henry James' story, "The Middle Years": "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." You could break that down line-by-line to describe Maddin's work:

- "We work in the dark": Darkness is palpable is Maddin's films; it forms a visible border at the edges of a frame that is spiritually and often literally in black and white. Light's struggle through the sometimes hazy or blurred images, through marks on the celluloid itself, becomes emblematic of Maddin's attempts to unearth the darkest recesses of his very strange, very Canadian unconscious.

- "We do what we can": The man's technique is encyclopedic and frenzied: from directly treating the film itself to using antiquated equipment and, as far as I can tell, refraining entirely from the use of digital equipment. Cowards Bend the Knee is a semi-silent movie, and his uncanny ability to make his films seem like unearthed perverse pre-Hays Office classics show his dedication to exploiting all the resources of film qua film.

- "We give what we have": Joseph Beuys' motto Zeige deine Wund (Show your wound) might as well be Maddin's. He's absolutely fearless about mapping a very personal, vaguely Freudian sense of his own psychology across his films, tossing up all kinds of tropes and images: the tyranny of unreliable fathers, castrating women, sexualized violence, full frontal nudity, and plenty of ice hockey. Although he himself is straight, Maddin's films have a noticeably queer, campy sensibility (check out the hilarious short Sissy Boy Slap Party, included as an extra on the Saddest Music DVD). The effect is to "queer" even heterosexual desire, revealing anew the sheer bizarreness of any and every libidinal attachment. Blue hands...

- "Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task": Maddin is a highly exploratory and open filmmaker, concerned with putting as much of himself directly on film as he can, which means submitting film and self dialectically to each other's possibilities and limitations. He demands freedom from conventional ideas about realism, particularly as it applies to character development. Like in a dream, you sense that every character in each film is an aspect of Maddin (especially Cowards, whose protagonist is named... Guy Maddin). But there's nothing boring about these dreams, because they aren't being retold or rationalized, much less interpreted. You dream them with Maddin in a simulation of real time.

- "The rest is the madness of art": As the above suggests, Maddin takes big risks, mitigated perhaps by the collaborative nature of filmmaking as an art form. It should go without saying that one of the risks he took until comparatively recently was penury: there's considerably more government support for the arts in Canada than here, but as an avant-garde filmmaker Maddin has lived nearly as marginal existence as, say, an avant-garde poet. Still, the more significant risks he takes seem to be emotional and artistic ones. I'm challenged and irritated and wonderstruck by his art—in short, inspired. When that energy of inspiration is carried over from maker to receiver, you know that art is happening.

All of this has about bupkus to do with my dissertation; but I'd still like to say a few words about Ron Slate and his book; he's a reader of this blog and sent me an intelligent and courteous e-mail yesterday that I hope he'll give me permission to post here. That will all have to wait until I've struggled with Pound for a couple of hours. Avanti!
James Atlas: "I myself wanted to be a poet. I didn't know that you can't be a poet in America, that poets have no function in our society."

That is our function, James.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I love it when Ron Silliman gets synthetic, today providing a wide-ranging response to the question of how to characterize the avant-garde. Sticking to the notion of the School of Quietude vs. post-avants, today Ron is less interested in defining the former as Anglocentric and the latter as a confused mix of American nativism with Continental cosmopolitanism than he is in defining both theoretical entities by their engagement with history—more specifically, a Marxian view of history as being undergirded by the progress of the forces of production. I think he's on firmer ground here, although obviously many, many poets who get lumped into the SoQ engage with history on the thematic level. Recently there was the example of Anne Winters' The Displaced of Capital, a book of conventional (tho elegant) free verse with an explictly Marxist bent. I also recently received a new book by a poet named Ron Slate, Incentive of the Maggot; Slate is a business executive cum poet, but unlike Dana Gioia seems to have an ambivalent and searching eye regarding the operations of capital, though his verse style is again conventional free verse (you can read a rather lovely elegy of his over at his namesake). The avant-garde, or post-avant, or whatever, is distinguished by engaging with history on the level of form as well as (instead of?) content. But it's a pretty fine distinction that I'm not sure could survive a confrontation with individual poems: we are forced to rely on extra-poetic determining factors like affiliation or manifestos or statements of poetics to reliably recognize the avant-garde (the absence of such things, of even acknowledging the need for them, is the quickest way to recognize the Quietudinous). Ultimately you can't rely on these categories, though it's impossible to evade them. When I write about the avant-garde, I have to go to content as well as to questions of formal engagement and affiliation: Ezra Pound's importance to a specifically leftist tradition of American experimental poetry is one of the primary puzzles I wrestle wtih. Mostly the SoQ category has come to serve as a useful filtering device for someone like me who is trying to keep up with a formidable array of poetic production (mostly American, alas) and who simply doesn't have time to engage with poets whose publishers, blurbists, or magazine histories suggest to me that I'll be bored by their writing. Unquestionably I miss out on some good poetry this way. And I'm more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to poets like Winters or Marilyn Hacker whose political engagements interest me—and isn't even a perfectly classical sonnet somehow changed at its root by being about a lesbian relationship, for example?

"It seems history is to blame," the condescending and self-satisfied Englishman Haines remarked to the Irishman Stephen Dedalus, who thought to himself more or less in reply, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken." That I think describes the basic polarity pretty well, though like all polarities it is dangerous to the details in which God and the Devil are both said to reside.

Monday, April 18, 2005

A little sick today: pizza and leftover red wine last night produced acidity and nausea that kept me up a large chunk of the night. And here I am in the Bookery basement, far from the light and air that characterize Ithaca's seemingly unprecendented 8-day run of flawless weather. But I have the new Michael Palmer bok Company of Moths to keep me company between customers. His typically Roman beauty seems stained by a new voluptuousness, coupled to a sly sense of humor that's been emerging slowly since the last book. Here's a poem chosen at random from the title section:
Untitled (Three Days)

Yes, I changed the light bulb myself,
so no more jokes about poets and light bulbs,

or poets and light,
no more combing the unconscious

for its Corybantic folds, its flows,
and no more talk of "the bitter wind."

It will do what it must
to summon and confound

all at once
and ravel the wings of moths at dusk.

(Did we not, that same night,
carve the voice into parts

and number them one, then one plus one,
and so on?) Tea from the leaves of mint,

the tiny sisal boats, adrift
in shifting currents of air

as if elegy were endless.
Three days, one light bulb, now this.
There's no one else writing I'm aware of so committed to the old-fashioned modernist adventure within the bounds of a limpidity that reminds me of H.D. the rare unraging poems of Pound, and inevitably, Wallace Stevens. Palmer's a deadly serious aesthete—worldly in the word's older sense—just like Stevens, but he's distinguished by a dedication to the wry question rather than the pseudo-philosophical proposition, even when he's playing off their shared tendency for the intonations of high oratory (one poem, "Jackal and Falcon," begins with the line, "O Geraldo Deniz, tell me, if you know"). I owe Palmer a great deal, "oweing" being something ongoing like a process. And hey, we've even both written poems about moths. Also, a word on book design: reliably ugly New Directions has made a major leap forward with this latest: there's a gorgeous abstract art piece rendered in full yet muted colors on the shining black cover. I say, way to go.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Too busy enjoying the beautiful weather to spend much time in front of the computer; also housecleaning and plotting what could be a climactic session of the present D&D adventure today. Plus finishing up some literary journalism: a piece for the PSA's Crossroads magazine and my Perloff review. But I did want to mention a very interesting interview that Ben Friedlander did of Dan Bouchard a couple years ago. This version appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter (why isn't that available online, for goodness sake?) and you can read a longer version here. In the interview Ben points out that Bouchard is a "moralist," which I've also noticed is a quality that I find attractive in my contemporaries. I don't think there's much moralizing in my own poetry until comparatively recently, but perhaps I'm wrong about that. Moralizing poems can be a drag, but when the poet has a generally consistent stance among and between poems in a given book or series I find that to be a valuable and bracing point of orientation for a reader. Maybe we need to bring back the days of instructive pamphlets to revive poetry's audience a bit. I would like to see a series of poems premised on useful advice for the benefit of one's soul or business ethics or foreign policy or whatever.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Previously I've only really known about Daniel Bouchard through his excellent magazine The Poker. Tonight at the Bookery I'm reading his first book, Diminutive Revolutions, and it's thrilling. I find myself thinking of Jennifer Moxley, who has a blurb for the book on the Subpress site: although far less syntactically dense, I get the same feeling of being urgently addressed by a peer confronting the present paideuma with bare hands and open mind. "I'm trying to think / not narrate— / I'll tell you about it later" ("Space within These Lines Not Dedicated"): those lines elegantly sum up what feels most necessary to the poetry I read right now. But though I'm fascinated by a largely conceptual poetry, my affection is more readily won by poems with textured surfaces: in Bouchard's case, I'm most struck by his use of natural imagery, as in the long poem that opens the book, a pastoral elegy (I know I'm obsessed but honestly, that's what it is), "Wrackline." That poem paratactically follows Bouchard on his rounds as a garbage collector through a landscape of waste (of land, of natural resources, of human life) and abundance. It's hard to excerpt, but here's a little taste:
Lilac bushes border the lots
of neatly trimmed lawns. Green water
at low tide, the flats at Brewster.
American goldfinch trio flies
at truck noise. Route 6, also
"Grand Army of the Republic Highway"
is quiet and empty at sunrise. A bicylcist
heaed north, preceded by a small car
acting as windbreak in narrow lane
right of the white line.
Mayflower, starflower,
the vulnerable broom crowberry.
Ed was killed in a car wreck,
thrown from the passenger seat.
I love the moment in the poem—it reminds me of the present-tense pastoral interruptions to Pound's litany of memory in the Pisan Cantos—when the roughly three- to four-beat lines are broken up by white space signifying the sea and words describing that sea. It's a gesture toward the sublime that stays thisworldly, which seems eminently consistent with Bouchard's ethos. There's also humor in the book, a good deal of intertextuality with predecessors and contemporaries (you have to love the first line of the poem "Pax": "I make a pact with you, Ron Silliman"), and a lived degree of political engagement that feels of a piece with the deceptively conversational form.

Bouchard seems like he would be a natural for my final chapter on contemporary pastoralists; I've just ordered his new book, Some Mountains Removed, and I'm excited to read that as well.
Beautiful, cool, sunny weather all week so far in Ithaca—it's like late October only with the leaves coming back into bud instead of falling off the trees. Bogie is in heaven as he goes snuffling up the South Hill Recreation Way near our house. And the other Boston Terrier in the neighborhood, a puppy named Trevor, is now full grown and we sometimes see him scampering eagerly along, barely restrained by the leash. Time passes.

I've now had feedback from all three of my dissertation committee members on the first chapter, and it's almost uniformly positive and enthusiastic. Which means I now have to get back to work in earnest on the Pound chapter. But I still haven't had a chance to so much as go through the books I acquired at AWP! And I have reviews to write, and dogs to walk, and so on. Trying to decide if I need to write four more chapters or if I could get away with three. As it stands, the TOC would look something like this:

I - Introduction: Toward a Theory of Avant-Garde Pastoral
II - The Re-education of Ezra Pound's Desire in the Pisan Cantos
III - Physis Music in Louis Zukofsky and Ronald Johnson
IV - James Schuyler's Pastoral of Looking
V - (Nothing But) Flowers: Contemporary Pastorals of Negation

I'd love to do something on Schuyler, who seems to have received scant critical attention, but if I had to jettison a chapter that would be it. It would also be fun to do a chapter on Stevens, which might interestingly confuse the lineage this TOC represents (and be more accurate to my own perceived poetic inheritance). Somehow I've got to do all this inside of a year; should be doable if I can resist the urge to armor plate my arguments by reading every single damn piece of secondary literature out there. Keeping up with the primary texts is hard enough in the cases of Pound and Zukofsky.

Fifteen days to Fourier Series!

Monday, April 11, 2005

The new Boston Review is here and a worthwhile read, as usual. The theme is politics and religion, and there's a particularly useful article by Mike Gecan explaining the appeal of evangelical Christianity to ordinary Americans as THE major social force appealing to their sense of individual personhood, whereas the remannts of New Deal/Great Society programs insist on reducing them to statistical entities with statistical needs. Now I'm an atheist Unitarian Jew and I've long felt the notion of a personal relationship with God to be an act of monstrous solipsism (blasphemy if you like), mitigated by the fact that the people who need it most are those who need love and support and relationship the most and who aren't finding it anywhere else in our ruthless capitalist society. Reading Gecan's article, I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's fundamental insight that the most devastating American affliction was loneliness: the novel Slapstick contains his fullest articulation of this idea, while the idea and its dialectical critique (sorta, kinda: Vonnegut's not the most rigorous thinker around) are presented in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I haven't thought of either of those books in many years, but the man was onto something. So I agree with Gecan that progressives and liberals need to find a way to address, acknowledge, and respect people's desire to be persons, without falling into the trap of pandering aggrandizement. I may not believe in God, but I do believe in love as the fundamental social force (something Michael Hardt alluded to in his lecture). Clinton succeeded politically because he made you believe in his love (its efficacy in his case is another question). A political party can't love, but it can stimulate its members' individual capacities for it. I just wish people weren't so dependent on daddy-love, on the harsh ascetic love of a spiritualized Father. Love the earth, people. Love the one you're with.

Also some good poems in this issue (Sarah Manguso and Debbie Kuan are standouts for this reader), Cal Bedient on Jorie Graham's latest, and a review by Brian Kim Stefans of the new collected poems of W.S. Graham, a modernist English poet I've loved since finding his selected in Wessex Books in Menlo Park five years ago. There's an interesting page devoted to him over at Harold Pinter's website (who knew he had one?). The book is twenty-five English pounds in hardcover but hopefully it will make its way to our shores soon.
Excited to have received a PDF copy of Mark Lamoureux's new manuscript, whose title I can now tell you: Astrometry Organon. Looking forward to lingering on the page with what I heard fleeting by like a shooting star, as it were, on Saturday night. It's gorgeous, sad, coruscating stuff; you can read a few poems from the book here, on the Verse blog.

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