Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Most of the candidates for favorite Ed Barrett poem are too long to type here, including "The Living End," which is a brilliant inversion of Joe Brainard's I Remember (each strophe begins with "I forget..."). Or "Intimations of Immortality," which reads like some crazed awards show—here's a sample:
For Best Thing I Was Ever Told In The Morning: "You Were Laughing So Hard In Your Sleep You Woke Me Up," "No School Today, Ed, There's A Snowstorm," "Breakfast's Ready!"

For Best New Name For A Sexual Practice Among Consenting Adults: "The Cyclops Wears a Halo," "I'm Putting Out The Cat, Dear," "Fidel Castro"

For Best You Figure Out A Category: George Sanders' Brother In The Seventh Victim And Cat People (1953), Patrick Swayze's Brother I Once Saw On A Late Night Rerun of Geraldo, Sylvester Stallone's Brother Who Wrote The Music For Some Of The Rocky Movies
Other good too-long-for-the-blog poems; "A Vision of Ted Berrigan in Cambridge, Massachusetts"; "Letter in Latin to Bill in Vermont"; "Practical Lullabies for Joe" (you can see, again, how personal a poet Barrett is). I think I prefer the wit of his surreal narratives, but he can write a beautiful lyric too. Here's one:

In that clear way

we go for a walk at night
and the dark takes in the last part
like a true dome, which refers
just as much to what it excludes.
In a forest you belong to
one tree then another.

The recent past was only
parallel. The unique event
shining in the silver cup
of the inner ear is preserved
by the semi-precious amber
of characteristic gesture
and account,

cutouts for the season in line
with the next one
like a school play.

But we enjoy the helpless parts.
The day is all around
like parachute silk and
Greek tragedy:
we go poking on ahead
or driving hard at the clear point,
nipple and twining cord
above the sword grass.
I have always wanted this light

and to become visible in a new way for you,
adequate or inadequate to consolation,
to the secret's in the surface part of things,
thumb and forefinger pressing lightly together
the trajectory in an open
scene for milk and the elements of milk.
Incidentally, it has not escaped my notice that all of the poets mentioned in my previous post are men. Not sure what this means except perhaps that I don't have as strong a sense of the geographical affiliations of the younger female poets I most admire, and those I do don't necessarily fit into my half-assed schema. Are West Coasters Catherine Meng and Stephanie Young apocalyptic transcendentalists? Are New Yorkers Marcella Durand and Corina Copp intimate immanent-ers? Perhaps I should let this latest dichotomy with which to divide poetryland die, yet it's hard to resist the fascination of the category. You can't cross lines if you don't draw some first.
The weather here the last two days has been practically San Diegan. Tomorrow begins a warming trend I'm not really looking forward to; my personal comfort zone maxes out around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Recently enjoyed two poetry books of the read-'em'-all-the-way-through variety; I don't know if this is a genre distinction or what, but certain poetry collections invite being read on a single sit-through and most others don't. Which is not to say those that don't are bad or boring: their density may demand reflection, or you may want to savor their beauties/ironies, or they may simply lack the appearance of an engaging persona. I continue to mistrust the notion of "voice," but I have noticed that books that foreground a particular and distinctive personality (an "I" that comes forward to do this or do that) to act as a kind of Virgil for the reader read much more briskly than those that don't. The difference between this kind of persona and the reliably commodified "I" that tour-guides the reader of popular middlebrow poetry is infrathin. Unless we see that persona change over the course of the book, or manifest as a single book's project, the main distinction will be the particular hell, purgatory, or paradiso that persona guides you through. Younger poets tend to be much more up-front about how mediated their particular landscapes are, both through a rapidly oscillating ironic-sincere take on the literary as such and through the presence of current pop culture. Anyway, this all has more to do with readability than how worth reading a book is, and these two books are very much worth it.

The first I picked up in Maryland: Ed Barrett's Sheephead Bay, published in 2001 by Zoland and thus out of print. You can read an appreciation of the book by Barrett's friend William Corbett here. I agree with Corbett that the book has a Wordsworthian feel, an insouciant take and double-take on "to be young was very heaven." The book has a soft, approachable feel, magnified by its cover (a family photograph including the young Barrett) and the numerous dedications to poets living and dead, making it feel like the organic product of a life. Often funny and surreal in a post-Ashberyian way, with light rom depths like the reflections a swimming pool makes on the walls and ceiling, the speaker has a gee-whiz freshness to his self-presentation that's very appealing. Mixed prose and verse: the verse pushes more or less unabashedly toward lyric while the prose poems go for the thinkbone and funnybone (same bone?). It risks sentimentality and mostly avoids the trap by embedding the sentiment in fresh language that somehow persuades you of the speaker's ingenuousness. I don't have the book in front of me but I'll emend this post with a quote later.

The second I read here in the bookstore: Christopher Nealon's The Joyous Age. The presentation of this book couldn't be different from Barrett's: it's gleefully violent, with the title in an elaborate script to enhance the irony of its backdrop, a wall of flame. Inside the design is crisp, with all-capital slant titles reminiscent of thosed used in Elizabeth Willis' Turneresque. About two thirds of the book consists of named poems, verse and prose, while the last third is a sequence titled "Concept and Category." Nealon's persona here is more arch than Barrett's (and yet both poets seem alive to the possibilities of camp), more self-consciously intellectual, with a kind of swervy, pervy, clinamen'd eroticism embedded in the language itself. Here's a poem:
Ecstasy Shield

No it's not a condom
Just the second person:

Hey there nerve-bunch
Hey there organ-ism

Where you goin
Baby! where you draggin those obedient

Three limbs past the herbal remedies
Huh? Is it true

You're just a twitch a frog-leg?

No I'm joy I'm misery

I'm misprision
I'm direct address

Apostrophe a condom
And my stomach hurts

Calendula: You Flower
O Chronicle

My Emperor
Of the two books Nealon's is more ambitious: his prose poems make a spectacle of the poet's interior landscapes of desire, in which the pain of lost opportunities for liberation is made to sing. I'm very moved by this paragraph from the snarkily titled prose poem, "Emission Impossible":
In fact the basic problem of imprisonment may be the flourishing of your imagination; it had never occurred to me. But my dreams are more vivid than ever, particularly the one in which I've been cast into the desert, no longer able to produce melanin and bursting into flames instead, a dream I know must have political content but which so far has only suggested to me I've become over-invested in myself as a person with skin. Sometimes the nightly scenes of electro-muscular training are broken by the image of an old comrade, a friend from the days of late-night subterfuge and splashing the embassy stop-the-madness red, who appears before me on my way to room 101 to call out, "¡Ay, su madre! This is why realism has failed."
I like both books: Barrett's is intimate, cozy even, without being soporific; Nealon's in full pursuit of the postmodern sublime. I'm struck by a sense of their regional attachments, too: Barrett is East Coast through and through, while Nealon's book fits recognizably into a Bay Area scene I associate with the likes of Joshua Clover and Andrew Joron (and, very soon, Jasper Bernes). There's a general sense I have that New York and Boston poets today are writing very much in the spirit of "Come off it!", while California poets are yet in the grip of an apocalyptic confrontation with "IT," however insouciant their overt tone. This is a little surprising given how much more tangible recent experience New York has had with the apocalypse than California, which has merely been fantasizing about it for the past sixty years. On the other hand, it makes sense that New Yorkers would be pulled into a more fragile and immanent state of mind in which they reach out for connections with each other, while the transcendental Californians are out there on the edge of the continent both fulfilling and negating the project of America As We Know It.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Good morning—before I get to anything else, please check out Congressman John Conyers' petition to the White House re the infamous (yet strangely negelcted in this country) Downing Street Memo. The truth will out.

Pleasant if unfocused weekend at farmers' market, dinner with Aaron and Wendy, D&D yesterday (party schism! the elf's acting strangely! the gnome goes it alone!), grilling. Friday night I showed Emily my DVD of Fearless, a film that had an enormous impact on me when I saw it in the theater way back in 1993 and which still resonates strongly today. It's a very religious film, really, and it makes an interesting accompaniment to a Slavoj Zizek book I've been reading: The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. I've never read Zizek in an extended way before and this is an exhilirating if sometimes daunting ride. His argument is difficult to summarize, but one intriguing concept is "the negation of negation," the process whereby one first negates the world as you find it, then that first negation is negated and you re-enter the world altered. It's really just a more nuanced view of Hegel's dialectic and the encounter with the sublime (or the Void) that is also at the center of The Extravagant. Christianity provides the central example of this movement: the coming of Christ is the severest possible criticism of the existing (Roman) world, but after his death the institution of Christianity returns the Christian to that society, rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's (but also enabling the transformation of that society into a putatively Christian one). As far as I understand, the experience of being "born again" is a kind of re-enactment of this: and yet how marginal, how infrathin, this transformation can appear from the outside. Is Bush's born-againness anything other than another layer of camouflage for his underdeveloped conscience? But the negation of negation can appear in purely political terms: Zizek's example is the French Revolution, which first negated the ancien regime, then was itself negated (sublated) so that a civil bourgeois society could emerge in which the principles of the Revolution (libery, equality, fraternity) remained latent, capable of being resurrected at any time in all their destructive/creative power (May '68 was the last, most recent flicker of this—though perhaps yesterday's vote agains the European Constitution was another dim echo).

The experience of Jeff Bridges' character Max Klein in Fearless is a powerful illustration of the negation of negation. After surviving a plane crash (rendered with terrifying realism and precision: don't see this film before you have to fly), he exists in an exhilirating liminal state in which his old attachments (to his wife, to the family of his business partner who died in the crash) no longer mean anything to him. He is no longer of the world, in fact is barely in it. The film follows his connection with another survivor, Carla (played by Rosie Perez in a performance she's never equaled), a devout Catholic who feels enormous guilt for the death of her baby in the crash. "We're ghosts," Klein remarks to her as they float out of reach of their spouses (Max's wife is played by Isabella Rosselini, beautiful and passionate as you'd expect; Carla's husband is an almost unrecognizable Benicio del Toro). When Max shows Carla that she couldn't possibly have saved her baby, she is returned to the land of the living: in a remarkable conversation with Max's wife, Carla calls Max an angel. "He's not an angel, he's a man," is the reply, "and he cannot survive up there." At the end of the film, another near-death experience (eating a strawberry, to which he's allergic) recalls Max to life, negating the original negation and restoring the flow of ordinary human feeling (the primary signifier for which is fear, as the title indicates). The Zizekian (or Badiouian) question might be then whether Max will maintain any sort of fidelity to the Event that transformed him, or if it will be falsified by a total return to the bougeois reality that denies the challenge, if not the very existence, of death.

In some ways I feel this is the best film ever made about 9/11, though years in advance of the event. And how saddening to realize how that trauma failed to be a Truth-Event: do you remember the moments and days after the attack when it seemed a terrible meaning had been born—that the skin had been ripped off of reality? If we somehow as a nation could have held on to that feeling through the necessary negation of the negation (that is, the return to earthly contingent life, since we cannot long survive "up there"), what transformations in our political life—in the American soul—might have been possible? Instead, we papered it over: we got our war on and then covered even that up, so that hardly anyone who doesn't have a family member in military service feels their daily life much affected. We went on as if nothing had happened, and only a few of us, it seems, are still pointing at the giant crack in the facade that was made by the Towers' fall, feeling alienated by the American flags waved by the warmongers—flags that, for a few days and weeks in 2001, seemed possessed of a new, more human immanence. I was wearing an American flag pin when I met Emily for the first time at the end of October, and already its meaning was changing, flattening. I won't wear it again until I recognize it again as the bearer of some sort of truth of transformation. Strange, writing all this, to feel the force of what I can only call my religious sensibilities—the religious sensibilities of a semi-Marxist Jew who speaks no Hebrew and denies the notion of a personal god. I guess I believe in the imagination, and the negative, and what the negative might give birth to. A theology of the anti-? A humanism.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Wow. If Lisa Robertson starts a movement, I'm joining.
The Pound chapter gets longer and longer, but fittingly enough, I cannot make it cohere—not yet, anyway. Every day I open it up and add a few bricks here or there, while waiting for the moment of clarity that will enable me to put the pieces in some kind of accumulative order. That seems to be my usual process in writing critical prose; sometimes it's frustrating waiting for that moment of clarity (and I usually need more than one), though of course I'm not usually just waiting but reading or scribbling notes or writing pages that I'm not sure I'll be able to use once the moment comes. Right now I'm still elaborating Pound's "bad" pastoral ideology in the Middle Cantos: his agrarian fantasies, Fascist Confucianism, Social Credit, etc.; only when I've made a coherent narrative out of that will I feel able to write the second half which will read The Pisan Cantos as having a more open and direct attitude toward nature that serves to negate and undermine both his authority and the authority of the emerging military-industrial complex that imprisons him.

Still fiddling with "Kiosk/Stylus" and unsure when it will feel done enough to try and publish in some form. I'd like to place it with one of the little chapbook publishers that produce so much of the most vital and interesting work these days: Effing Press, Pressed Wafer, Singing Horse Press, etc. (Speaking of Singing Horse, I've been enjoying Hank Lazer's latest from them, The New Spirit—a beautifully designed book that continues in certain respects the more yearning meditations of Elegies & Vacations.) What I'd really like to do, actually, is read it aloud and see how that goes: it might help me "hear" the spots that need tightening or elaboration—perhaps I'd even be moved to improvise some stuff that could go into the text afterward. In spite of kind words from Jasper and others, I'm still anxious about the looseness of the form—the confidence of my Inner Whitman has been elusive ex post scripto. I suspect it may be a transitional text for me, perhaps away from verse altogether for awhile. Sentences and paragraphs have a new allure, plus I keep thinking I need to somehow reapproach narrative (Biting the Error might feed that search). On the other hand, I am writing a bloody dissertation: maybe that's all the prose I'll need for a while.

Indefatigable question-answerer Ron Silliman is still waiting for some kind of "serious," 'self-organizing" movement among younger poets to emerge. Are we not now perhaps as "post-movement" as we are "post-avant"? That is, aren't we still mostly coasting on the intersecting eddies from the two biggest splashes of the last half-century, NY School and Langpo? Anyway, is our only choice "atomization" or card-carrying member of some movement? Many of the most interesting active poets I'm aware of are engaged as part of one or more communities/friendship rings/antisuicide pacts/roundtables. And they have living and contestatory senses of history, tradition, and affiliation. Ron is rather like a poetic Federalist, while these days I'm more inclined toward Jeffersonian confederacy—only, you know, without the slavery. It's true that movements and manifestos concentrate energy and cause poetry to emerge out of the shadows of its autonomy (in a harsher mood, we call it "irrelevance"). But at the moment I'm more excited by flow than concentration.

Still haven't seen Star Wars yet. Am I gonna?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Very nice reading last night at the Tompkins County Library. My coworker Shilo McGiff gave me a brisk and intelligent introduction—having actually read Fourier Series she actually had substantive things to say about the work—and there was a good turnout of between forty and fifty people, most of whom I knew. I actually really enjoy doing readings, though I can get quite nervous before hand if people I know are in the audience (it's much easier to read to complete strangers). I'm a bit of a ham. Some poets, I know, have reservations about performance—Kasey has written eloquently about Lyn Hejinian's concerns—but I think the texts I produce are strong enough, or ought to be, to retain their strangeness and savor. If I can provide listeners a doorway into what I know can look like a forbidding and knotty surface, that's all to the good—the knotty surface will still be there when they sit down to read—my poems, or someone else's. Some poets are so charismatic that their actual work may suffer without their personal glamor—Dylan Thomas?—while for performance poets what's on the page is merely a catalyst for their on-stage ignitions. When I finished Fourier Series, I thought it would be impossible to read aloud, but this has happily proved not to be the case. It provides channels and intersections (Shilo's word) that I can follow first one way and then another, defying a "definitive" reading. I like that.

For some poets, particularly the most oppositional in stance, the natural desire to have your audience like you and to respond positively to you (I'm a bit of a laugh-whore, myself) is a serious obstacle in light of poetry that aims to unsettle its readers or afflict the comfortable. Of course people pay big money for those kinds of shows, too.

A lot of questionnaires are going around blogland lately, but I can't seem to get interested in answering them myself. I guess I feel like articulating the notions of poetics that lie behind such questions is already the ongoing project of this blog. But maybe I'll answer one or two of them if the mood strikes. I certainly like what Anne Boyer has done with Jonathan Mayhew's questions.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Another Joshua writes in:
Dear Josh,

Just some comments about two passages I noted on your blog recently:

"I tend to value community the same way I value use of constraint in my actual writing: if you are active and conscious in choosing your constraints and limitations, I believe you are less likely to be conditioned and determined in ways you are unconscious of: constraint can be an effective weapon against ideology. The artists I admire most keep moving without getting permanently lodged in any one formation, stylistic or otherwise—every "yes" with a "but" after it."

How does consciously choosing constraints or limitations inoculate one against ideology? Do not the constraints chosen and the limitations praised themselves constitute an ideological approach to the text -- a virtuous, or sophisticated one, perhaps, but nonetheless a product of the material conditions and personal circumstances of the poet him/herself, in this case, a combination of the cultural cachet of "post-avant" poetry and the author's own taste? One way you could answer this would be to suggest, following Michel Léris, that constraints (in the Oulipian mode) offer up the fastest, most effective route to the unconscious -- but that answer doesn't break any new ground, formally speaking. We've been after the unconscious since the Surrealists, perhaps before. Moreover, substituting the poem as a product of the unconscious for the poem as product of ideology does not necessarily bring us to a more intimately ethical relationship with the poem, unless we're prepared to suggest that every reader is a potential analyst, with the tools for
decoding the transmission of the unconscious into consciousness, etc.

"I still have hopes for my poetry that it will be able to break out of overly restrictive categorizations and make that ethical appeal to the largest possible audience. But I can't achieve that by pandering; I can only write what my impulses,
and my sense of my historical moment, seem to demand."

I'm detecting here, behind the impulse to make it new, another force: that of the market. Would it be fair to say that, behind the lip service paid to a left-Hegelian critique of social consciousness by the "post-avant" poetic culture (if we can speak of one), we can find a real engagement with market forces as determining factors in the creation and dissemination of works of art? Hence, for example, the proliferation of blogs among poets in the recent issue of Hat, as noticed by Silliman in a recent post. Post-avant poetry may be best understood as a sub-category of the poetic market, rather than a sub-category of poetic practice, (since all practices, even artistic practices, even innovative or subversive artistic practices, become commodities in their own way).

Also, regarding the poem as an address to the beloved (mentioned in a previous post) see Allen Grossman in The Sighted Singer.

Anyway, I enjoy the blog. Keep it up.

All best,
Joshua Adams
Right. I will address these issues in reverse order. Re Grossman, I have been fascinated and half-persuaded by his arguments for some time, even as I find his over-the-top Romanticism makes for an inadequate account of poetic possibility. I do find the idea of writing for a Beloved a powerful one, and perhaps the necessary completion of the circuit in lyric poetry. In more discursive or meditative poetry the Beloved might be conceived in a more public way: hearing rather than overhearing.

The "lip service to a left Hegelian critique of social consciousness" suggests the same skepticism that a number of the Language poets have expressed regarding the work of younger poets who they perceive as having adopted the techniques of Language poetry while discarding its political formations. I think a number of post-avants, though by no means all, have a much more "activated" political consciousness now than they did in the 1990s, and that consciousness sometimes emerges directly in their poems. At the same time, the new consciousness about markets (and/or "the context of production") does strike me as having continuity with Language poetry and the NY School (the "last avant-gardes"), both of whom were very active in creating the necessary conditions for their own reception by starting magazines, presses, reading series, etc. It's easy to be cynical about what you might call the "market exceptionalism" of the post-avants, who in various ways seek to subvert or overcome the institutionalized poetic economy, especially when these poets end up participating in that economy (by winning prizes, taking academic jobs, publishing with commercial presses, etc.). But I don't think we can discard the question of poetic practice so quickly—or rather, practices, since once of the manifest pleasures of post-avant writing is the incredible diversity of styles and subjects it manages to incorporate. It's true that any kind of style of writing can be commodified: it's the interaction between text and praxis (as apparent in the DIY ethic of many post-avants, in their critical maneuvers, in their teaching) that keeps alive the dream of use-value, aura, the poem as good and not commodity. This is admittedly regressive in comparison to radical avant-garde practice, which seeks to destroy art in its artness; but this strategy has been for the moment set aside in favor of a cautious humanism and respect for the contingencies of daily life—with actual poems (as opposed to theory) being one of those contingencies. The poem that helps you live another day, without acting as a narcotic—that's what I sense many of the poems in The Hat (the post-avant magazine of the hour) are trying to be.

Finally, "innoculate" is a stronger word that I'd use: no technique, poetic or otherwise, will protect you from ideology. My logic is simply that if you don't choose your constraints, your constraints will choose you. Choosing constraints can be a first step toward becoming conscious of the context of production and its manifold determinations: it can be the opposite of a sleeping pill. I would agree that simply invoking the power of the unconscious as the Surrealists did is an insufficient response to ideology: if you follow Freud and Lacan, the unconscious is created by the pressures of the Real that can never fully come to (Symbolic) consciousness. In other words, your unconscious is full of junk that the overdetermining world was dumping in there long before you had anything like an "I." Still, it's a source of energy, and its paths of emergence are complex and unpredictable enough so as to be a partial shield against overdetermination. Rigorous critical thinking is the most reliable weapon against the dominant ideology, but as Pound remarked, you can't move 'em with a cold thing like economics. One of poetry's primary functions is to re-open closed paths of affect: the best post-avant poems help me feel both the bite of the iron cage and the breezes between the bars. Of course community, or "cachet," can be its own cage—but perhaps the tradition of the post-avant is more flexible than our habitual ways of thinking about it. Maybe it is just the Romantics all over again—look at that quiz that's going around—only with groups and subgroups taking on the glamor that once belonged to the singular author's name. But we're still looking for contact with another's consciousness when we read. We're preparing to meet the stranger. We yield the floor to another I. Yes, every reader a potential analyst, but better, as I've claimed and will claim again: every reader a potential poet. Pick up the pen of yourself. Make a mark.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Finding John Latta's blog essential readng these days as he meditates on Notleyan Disobedience, "the built-in curbs to the mind and the imagination which a post-avant style imposes" (I wish to note here that in the past week Ron Silliman has come out and defined "post-avant" in his appreciation of Jim Behrle's new broadside, Why I Am Not Post-Avant: "Post-avant, after all, is precisely what happens to avant-garde writing the instant that it gets it that the old master narrative of progress is bunk & that the role of the avant-garde has naught to do with the military metaphor implicit in that term, but with a literary tradition that stretches back at least as far as Wordsworth & Coleridge & Blake, & that this tradition is understood best as a diachronic view of an ever evolving world literary community."), and this Notley quote very much worth repeating: "You don’t try to say something without being worth knowing, and you aren’t worth knowing unless you come off it so the person who wants to know you can be present too." This returns us to the subject of the ethical pleasures of poetry, using "ethical" in the rhetorical sense of the persona the speaker creates so as to attract hearers to her argument, but extending it to mean the persona that the hearer gets to enjoy while in the speaker's presence. (Such talk of "presence" sets off my Derrida-alarms, but let it.) To "Come off it" (with an implied exclamation point) is indeed the specialty of the New York School; it might be the secret subtitle of Frank O'Hara's "Personism." And it might also be the motto of The Hat, which I'm reading now for the first time. One major and notable exception so far is Joshua Clover's piece, "At the Atelier Teleology," which though tongue-in-cheek stills strikes me as having highfalutin' aspirations toward the Big Statement, Big Poemness, "Mastery"—in short, "IT." Which does not in fact strike me as a bad thing; which seems even a tonic in the midst of the delightful, bird-witted, sometimes energetically vulgar, always hyperintelligent, "come off it" poems surrounding Clover's piece. Clover's persona is not one I'd like to hang out with the way I'm drawn, say, to that of Li Bloom or Sasha Frere-Jones (his prose poems are marvelous), but you don't always want to "hang out" with a poet: sometimes you want to be taken to school, other times you want to be in the presence of a visionary. I think Latta is right to remind us not to fetishize "the way," and both he and Ange Mlinko seem particularly conscious of the constraints that come with any concept of "community"; I also think Silliman's categorizing creates useful channels for energy and critique, especially of those who implicitly ideologize their "way" into capital letters. I tend to value community the same way I value use of constraint in my actual writing: if you are active and conscious in choosing your constraints and limitations, I believe you are less likely to be conditioned and determined in ways you are unconscious of: constraint can be an effective weapon against ideology. The artists I admire most keep moving without getting permanently lodged in any one formation, stylistic or otherwise—every "yes" with a "but" after it.

Get Yr Geek On

Not bad... too bad his movie sucks.

Haven't seen the new one yet.
Back from Maryland—pleasant but tiring. Emily's new niece and nephew, Talia and Jacob, are less than 5 lbs. each. I held Talia! Didn't get to see my friend Chris who lives in DC, which was kind of a bummer. But I did make it to a surprisingly good used bookstore in Bethesda where I acquired a number of interesting items: Ed Barrett's Sheepshead Bay (what with reading the Joe LeSueur book and Ron Padgett's Joe, I am currently immersed in first gen NY Schoolness); Ann Lauterbach's Clamor (a 1991 out of print title from Viking; a lovely hardback); a first edition paperback of Allan Grossman's Of the Great House; the City Lights edition of Baudelaire's Intimate Journals (including Mon Coeur Mis a Nu; a beautiful little Sun & Moon book of Barbara Guest's, Defensive Rapture; and most excitingly, Robert Kelly's The Mill of Particulars. They had a fistful of Kelly, actually, but one book was all I could afford. How such a mightily prolific, various, and talented poet should be as obscure as Kelly seems to be is beyond me. It was perhaps his misfortune to be almost exclusively a Black Sparrow author, but I hope someone will at least produce a new Selected Poems one of these days.

Off to work, more later as inspiration and free time dictate.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Off to Maryland tomorrow to visit Emily's family: her brother and sister-and-law have a brand-new pair of twins.

Here's a Lisa Fishman poem that caught my eye going through her book Dear, Read at the Bookery this evening:
To Aristotle

I did go lame in the Spring

My sleeping sister went deaf

Our father who could talk to ghosts lost his hands

& the bride wore yellow and danced in circles

The brown-eyed Susans on the hillside

marked the occasion

haphazardly growing wild in the rupture of the unities
A pomo pastoralist without a doubt, and an heir of Dickinson, bursting Circumference. Here's the poem immediately following:

It was sassafras we gathered late,
like a deadline, in the summer—
just the leaves, the lemon-colored stems of which we sucked
on what felt like "the far edge of the woods"

Meanwhile the kindling lay ungathered, and trillium grew
     visible at the bases of trees
Yesterday I met up with Jasper at Gimme! Coffee to talk about the longish poems we're writing: his Toward a Pornography of the Sublime and my "Kiosk/Stylus." It's been ages since I did anything like a workshop for one of my poems, but I really wanted some feedback for this one since it's unlike anything I've attempted before: a 20-pg. or so continuous poem without a formal device (the quadrant in Fourier Series, the sonnet in Severance Songs) to unify its structure—although as Jasper pointed out, it does have the visual look of a somewhat narrow column on the page, rather like a skyscraper (much of the poem is set in Manhattan). Anyway, he gave me some enormously useful pointers and critiques, and some equally useful praise: confidence is one of the most valuable resources we have in trying to sustain a project. Jasper's own poem, which he read a few sections from at his Soon reading, is even more ambitious: it should eventually be a book length subjective epic of Los Angeles, a kind of contemporary Waste Land. It's a mix of stances and forms: lyric forms the backbone, but there's also a long narrative or dramatic section, "Promissory Notes" that gives considerable ballast to the poem as a whole. The overall theme is a cognitive mapping of the city as a spectacular site of the repressed Real—if that sounds too much like one of Gary Sullivan's blurbs, I can put it this way: a hallucinatory journey through L.A. as City of Dreadful Night. Maybe Jasper will post a section or two on his blog so you can have a taste of it; I'm eager to see this work in its complete form, and I hope someone will have the wisdom to publish it the minute he's finished.

Speaking of Gary's post (and the other Gary's response) on "The Market," I've been reflecting on the question of who we write for and why and the ethics of going to market. If I understand Gary Norris correctly, he sees contemporary poetry as inherently, ipso-facto resistant to the market, a monkey-wrench in the machinery of consumption. Markets are built on the manipulation of desire, and our culture's desire is now overwhelmingly for a common code of unambiguous Plain Speech; whatever poetry is, that ain't it, and so it's unsellable. In place of a market as such (whether you conceive the market as a place or a process) we have what Gary Sullivan calls the pseudomarket of compulsive categorization: the experienced poetry reader locates via the blurb (or just the name of the blurber) a given book within one of the categories she recognizes as "hers"; a book (note we're in an economy of books here, not magazines or webpages) that falls into a category she doesn't recognize (in both major senses of that word) will go unpurchased and unread.

Meanwhile the much lamented Common Reader, if he goes to poetry at all, must rely on what filtering prose-oriented outlets like the Times Book Review can offer, or else he restricts himself to a category of the name: it's my impression there are plenty of poetry readers out there who ONLY read Mary Oliver, or Billy Collins, or Sharon Olds, or whomever—poets who still offer a semblance (if ONLY a semblance) of the address of authenticity that most people still expect from a poem, what Simon DeDeo calls the address of the poem to The Beloved. Simon's post comes at this discussion from a slightly different angle: he claims that Americans prefer prose (the natural home of Plain Speech, right?) because poetry too often: 1) shuts out narrative; 2) asserts a restricted tonal range (chamber music of poetry versus orchestral symphony of the novel); 3) loss or obscuration of the traditional audience/addressee of the poem, The Beloved. I'm not especially persuaded by the first two in the context of the what-happened-to-the-audience question many people pose and re-pose; I think it's the condition of poetry, after all, to be different from prose, and I don't expect it will ever be truly able to compete with prose on prose's own ground. In other words, I don't think poetry used to be popular because it contained narrative or because it had tremendous tonal variety; Longfellow was popular because poetry was still seen as the most appropriate and prestigious literary mode of establishing cultural value. Longfellow was literature; Dickens and Twain were mass entertainment. The novel enjoyed the prestige of the epic poem for a good long while; but I'm not sure our culture goes to ANY sort of literature for an affirmation of central values anymore, except in the passive, symptomatic sense (Laurel Snyder mentions the novel The Lovely Bones as symptomatic of our desire for reassurance about death without the inconvenience of religious observance). There is still a largely academic subculture trying to maintain the prestige of literature that will trumpet the latest "important" novel by Philip Roth or whomever; but personally if I was interested in narrative and tonal variety per se, and I wanted to say something to my culture on any sort of scale, I'd go write for The Sopranos. One of the reasons I write poetry is because I'm interested in the resources that only language has access to; I like a story as much as the next guy, but for sheer story I'd rather go to the movies than read a novel. When I read a novel, it's usually for a sense of immersion in a world that movies, for all their frenetic attention to detail, can't sustain in the same way; wit and rhetoric and the flavor of sentences is another attraction. When I read poetry, on the other hand, I'm trying to discover something about what's sayable, and I'm trying to hear language, which predicates all thinking, in new ways. And what we might call the ethical pleasure of being the addressee of someone whose language bespeaks an intensity of intelligence and feeling is also a very big draw—Eric Sellinger calls this the pleasure of character.

The categorization Gary Sullivan talks about is a version of this ethical division: if I choose a Language or post-Language book, I want to be spoken to as a socially conscious intellectual; if I choose a New York School-ish book, I want to feel urbane, savvy about pop culture, and emotionally open. If poetry can be popular in the sense that it can speak to a larger chunk of the subculture of readers than the usual 500 - 1,000 people who recognize its category, it will be a poetry that addresses a Beloved that people want to be. I believe the readers of Collins and Oliver and Olds are looking for the experience of Belovedness: they read these very simple and accessible poems for the aura they simulate by seeming to address you in your privacy as a person you'd like to be: wry and self-deprecating, at one with nature, or filled with operatic griefs and exaltations. Charles Bukowski is another good example: his genuine popularity comes from his readers' feeling they are intimate with the gritty authenticity of a down-and-out street rebel in touch with his politically incorrect desires. Now as a D&D fan I'd be the last one to indict these writers for the pleasures of character they offer: I think offering people contact with parts of themselves not often or easily expressed is one of the most valuable, maybe THE most valuable, services writing can offer. But I think their language is lazy and the characters they generate have become worn and two-dimensional through constant repetition: it's mass-produced authenticity. A more positive example would be someone like Robert Creeley; I suspect that he owed much of his success and popularity (For Love was a bestseller in its time) to the complex pleasures of character that derive from reading his deceptively simple langauge. In fact, I would say he's a poet whose innovations and originality largely depend upon his use of the ethical axis. The one living poet I can think of who's successful at ethical address who is also a growing and attentive artist is Anne Carson: a very considerable audience has discovered the pleasures of being intimate with her erudite, witty, yet humble and at times swooningly romantic persona. It's true she still risks commodification (I saw an episode of Showtime's The L Word in which a rather silly writer character talks about how much Carson's work means to her), but as long as she keeps moving artistically and seeks to satisfy not her audience directly but the shapes of the words in her head, she'll remain a vital and interesting poet. Anne Carson is not a bad poet "to be," so to speak. I still have hopes for my poetry that it will be able to break out of overly restrictive categorizations and make that ethical appeal to the largest possible audience. But I can't achieve that by pandering; I can only write what my impulses, and my sense of my historical moment, seem to demand.

Monday, May 16, 2005

From the essay "Is I Another?" in Ann Lauterbach's The Night Sk: Writings on the Poetics of Experience:
The idea of an "objective uncertainty" is, in my view, a key to postmodern poetics. If the "I" finds its way out of the egotistical sublime and toward the alterity implied by all imaginative acts, then it will once again initiate paths away from self-absorbed narcissism to a recognition of the linguistic matrix that binds us to each other and to the world. A fwe weeks ago, I saw another piece of graffiti, on Eleventh Street and Fourth Avenue in Manhattan: DIVERSITY IS NECESSARY. How fortuituous, I thought. If American poetics is once again to illuminate the passage from private to public discourse, it must seek diversity of method, resource, and means. If a poem is a portrait of how a mind works, a soul is formed, how a heart translates affective response into language, it is also a portrait of how language forms and informs our necessary diversity.
The phrase "objective uncertainty" is Kierkegaard's; and Kierkegaard is one of the figures Bob Baker considers in the third chapter of his book on apocalyptic writer-thinkers (the other three are Emily Dickinson, Mallarme, and Derrida) who combine a radical questioning of subjectivity with a radical questioning of language. This nexus seems close to Lauterbach's practice, as well. And is this another way of thinking the intersection public/private, with "public" belonging to language and "private" belonging to subjectivity?
The lovely and talented Shilo McGiff just popped in here at the Bookery with the new posters for my reading at Tompkins County Library next week (Wednesday, May 25 at 7:30 PM in the Borg-Warner Room: you will be assimilated!), which will be the official Ithaca launch for Fourier Series. It's actually the first time I've given a reading in Ithaca that wasn't organized by grad students up on the Hill: should be fun.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Smoker's cough, curl, paradise of flames fretted a fundament o’er. Upside down the desert shield cradled the metropolis, new twins. Medusa’s writhe. In what sense is town down? Then the “floating city” with its “floating McDonalds” and “fuel rods,” a vision from sandy shore, long sticks flying out to touch base with new rubble. Confidence in the sublime from the afterburner’s got your back. You can see a good guy’s eyes in the memory of his disgraced father. Tantrum of the A’s: Achilles, Alexander. Dead friends’ caul. An un-American precision schools me in homotropic favors. Got your back? Flank ‘em? Identify with the sky for a lofty traumatist’s eye.

We built this city and its wilderness of spheres. Airspace. From a cockpit likens the metallic sea to the skin of a sunken vessel. Force majeure marines me on the isle of Goose’s grave: subordination’s best. Tailspin builded a tower from which maidens toss their petals. Megabass vibrating the thin walls of the multiplex. Night brings up a refinery in turnpike mirrors. Home’s an epic crawl on a bedroom wall. I dreamed of virtuous hookers. I dreamed “lake of fire” was a metaphor. Awakened by a bullet aimed straight into the sky.

Friday, May 13, 2005

From yesterday's notebook

Georg Lukacs, Theory of the Novel: "The novel is the epic of an age in which the extensive totality of life is no longer directly given, in which the immanence of meaning in life has become the problem, yet which still thinks in terms of totality." But do we still think in terms of totality? Those of us suspicious of totality and epic are cast upon fragments of the sheerly immanent. But what positive answer can postmodernism (or the "cultural creative") oppose to that of the fundamentalists of whatever stripe? The Enlightenment is dying or dead; the mode of production it enabled has outstripped and outlived it, and seems willing and able to wear any sort of irrelevant superstructure, even "communism," like a decoration to distract. If the conflict between political and economic liberty is as imaginary as it's come to seem, what force can oppose capitalism's march into the new dark ages? Technical know-how is the only knowledge it will preserve, and truth is re-packaged and marketed as a salad bar of beliefs founded upon arbitrary authority—the spiritual equivalent of Soylent Green.

Sometimes an intellectual understanding of historical forces only seems to encourage despair. Somehow I cordon off some valuable reserve of naivete or spirit that ventures out ev ery day trying to make sense or art in spite of long odds and the world's shortness of attention. There is yet the resilience of daily life. Love, affection, admiration, trust. You can still cook a meal or throw a ball for the dog. A line of poetry still tugs at the gut or opens possibility's path through the hazy, clotted mind. Are these things just distractions from the temperature of the water we're going to boil in? Or are they fundamentals of hope?

The real conflict between poetry partisans may not be between mainstream and post-avant but between those who see poetry as a preserve of individual spiritual autonomy and those who see it as an intervention into particular historical and political circumstances. Do you primarily address, do you primarily read as, an individual or a citizen? Perhaps a more useful and less invidious mode of distinction, as it does not judge the literary value of either sort of poetry: there are good and bad examples. And of course it's less a dichotomy than a matter of emphasis. Bad private poetry is ethically disgusting; bad public poetry aesthetically repellent. My own allegiances are split and confused; I'm caught up in what I suspect is a generational project to synthesize the public and private.

Cultural studies-type criticism denies the private, depth-model of poetry: it's the more or less unwitting product of cultural, economic, and political determinations: in a word, ideology. Which gives no credit to poets, obviously. Either a poet is capabale of interpreting and resisting ideology—coming to consciousness about it, awakening—or she is not. If she is, a private poem can have aesthetic and ethical value (Warheitgehalt, truth-content). If she isn't, her public poetry is also pure ideology, or a simple inversion of the dominant, and is likely to be aesthetically crude. You have to give poets some credit; but what fund are they drawing upon for that credit? The poet-intellectual's poems are positioned within a structure of argument. The poet of experience foregrounds their engagement with life: we trust them because we recognize their milieu. The visionary poet convinces us that she can see the invisible. The middlebrow poets with a passive relation to the structures that helped produce them are the ones whose credit is likely to be overdrawn.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

You scored as Cultural Creative. Cultural Creatives are probably the newest group to enter this realm. You are a modern thinker who tends to shy away from organized religion but still feels as if there is something greater than ourselves. You are very spiritual, even if you are not religious. Life has a meaning outside of the rational.

Cultural Creative
















What is Your World View?
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My cold is mostly gone—now Emily's looking after it for a while. So it goes. Perfect summer weather ongoing. I am trying to bear down on Ezra Pound, immersing myself in some secondary literature to reassure myself I haven't missed crucial parts of the conversation, that I'm not simply reprocessing leftover notions. So far I am reassured that no one has taken my particular crackpot approach vis-a-vis Pound and pastoral. However, most of my imagination is still focused on The Extravagant, having finished the second chapter which looks at Rimbaud, Nietzsche, and Bataille as Faustian questers for what might lie behind the borderland of not just utilitarian values, but existential projects of any kind—what in Rimbaud and Nietzsche turns into the adventurous transformation of a wild impatience (for transformation, transcendence) to a wilder patience. Again, as with the sublime, the self seeks to be shaken up and returned to itself with new powers, but the movement of the modern seems to valorize the shaking while mistrusting the powers. It's a magisterial work, only "magisterial" doesn't quite capture the brio and confidence Baker writes with. I am looking forward to the third chapter and the period of digestion that will come after; I suspect this book is remaking my own map of the territory of modernity.

Haven't yet commented on some of the delightful acquisitions I made in my recent travels to Boston and Providence. I have been on a Boswell kick for some weeks now; in addition to being three-fourths through The Life of Johnson, I've read Adam Sisman's very entertaining Boswell's Presumptuous Task; on the road to Boston I brought the first volume of Boswell's London Jounral, 1762-63, and while in Cellar Stories in Providence I found what I think is the third volume, which covers his travels in Germany and Switzerland. There is something permanently delightful for me in eighteenth century prose and conversation; I picked up a taste for it reading Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin novels, which provide an uncanny simulation of the age at its most enlightened, earthy, and attractive. Eighteenth century poetry is hard to take except in small doses (like some of Pope's Epistles), but I have a limitless appetite for bon mots and repartee. Boswell's enthusiasm, good nature, and feckless self-love are infectious; you can see how he persuaded so many eminent men to think him a good companion. He manages to be a tremendously skilled writer while yet persuading the reader that he is more than half an imbecile; quite a trick. I am on the lookout for a cheap edition of The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides. For a taste of his prose, check out this excerpt from his journal, in which our hero meets Voltaire.

Also acquired in my travels: Ange Mlinko's Matinees, a book of essays by Donald Davie, Slavoj Zizek's The Ticklish Subject, and most excitingly, a copy of the fabled Exact Change Yearbook, the first in a projected series that never came to fruition. Sadly, the CD is missing, but at least the recordings have been preserved by PennSound. Received: Jonathan Skinner's Political Cactus Poems, newly published by Palm Press. And now, instead of reading any of these, I am going to glance through Ann Lauterbach's brand new "Writings on the Poetics of Experience," The Night Sky.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Incidentally, you can now listen to me, William Gillespie, and Lorien Carsey reading poems (including a chunk of Fourier Series) on Williams' radio show Eclectic Seizure. Click the link and scroll down to May 1.
Still feeling kind of ill, but better than I did this weekend. Taunted by flawless weather: Ithaca has been doing its best Southern California imitation the past three days.

Here's another e-mail from Reginald Shepherd and my response, after which I plan to give the whole avant-gardener question (incidentally, I want to remind you all that the useful phrase "avant-gardener" is a coinage of Ron Slate's) a rest for a while. It's time to go back to specific poets and poems:
With regard to my comment that Tim Yu's assertion that "We are all post-avant" would be more accurately phrased as "We are all post-Modern," I don't think that he is referring to the historical avant-garde at all; his horizon seems much narrower than that. It seems quite clear that what he means by saying that we are all' "post-avant" is that we are all post-Language poetry, and it was that context to which I was referring when I said that his statement would be more accurately reformulated as we are all post-Modernist (as in, in the wake of). There's a quote from Robert Archambeau in the Samizdat review of The Mechanics of the Mirage that sums it up very well: "all poetry being written in America now could usefully be discussed under rubrics that attach one prefix or another to the term 'modernist': anti-modernist, late-modernist, post-modernist, neo-modernist, maybe even pop-modernist."

With regard to Peter Burger's conceptualization of the avant-garde, I don't think that any of the writers you've discussed admiringly, however interesting some of their work is (I don't share your high opinion of Claudia Rankine, for example, whose work I find banal and often sentimental; the faux-naivety of Don't Let Me Be Lonely, as if the narrator had just turned on her television and found out that the world isn't a happy place, actually offended me), is engaged in the project of breaking down the barriers between the institution of art and the praxis of life that Burger attributes to the historical avant-garde. In that sense they are all modernist or 'experimental' writers, not avant-garde writers. I'd be hard-pressed to think of anyone writing in America today, whether I think their work is successful or not, who is participating in such a project. As a matter of fact, it's hard to imagine just how any purely literary endeavor would even go about trying to do such a thing--Dada and Surrealism were, after all, not primarily literary movements.

In fact, it's clear that whatever avant-garde has been around since World War II at the latest, excepting as you say the Situationists and some of the "critical art" of the 1970s and 1980s (and perhaps Warhol, though Duchamp had already erased the material difference between the art object and the mundane object long before Warhol's Brillo boxes, which were after all not even _real_ Brillo boxes, unlike at least Duchamp's first urinal), has _not_ been engaged in the project of destroying the boundaries between the institution of art and the praxis of life Burger attributes to the historical avant-garde, nor has it particularly been trying to do so. It's not so much a failure as a difference in aims altogether. I frankly don't think that this is such a bad thing. I like art, and I wouldn't want to see it disappear. I think that the world is a more interesting place for containing a variety of phenomena, and I wouldn't want to level out that variety (though I would certainly like to pick and choose--there are many phenomena I would happily see disappear). And as Burger points out, so long as the praxis of life remains that of capitalist instrumentality, to subsume art into the praxis of life would be a defeat, not a victory--that's exactly what capitalism is already doing: "the culture industry has brought about the false elimination of the distance between art and life, and this also allows one to recognize the contradictoriness of the avant-gardiste undertaking." It's a double-edged sword that turns on its wielder.

I think that the dichotomy you set up (yet another one, as you acknowledge) between a this-worldly and an other-worldly would be usefully formulated in terms of what Charles Altieri has called the distinction between an immanentist and a transcendentalist aesthetic with of course the understanding that most writers would fall somewhere in between--it's a continuum or spectrum, not a binary. But to the more I think about what you wrote, the more muddled and confusing it becomes. I end up not being sure what exactly the distinction you're drawing is, or what the relationship between your premises and your conclusions is. I don't know what you mean when you say that the Modernists recognized the fungibility of the world, since fungible means interchangeable, and is usually used to refer to commodities (as my Merriam-Webster Dictionary uses as an example, "oil, wheat, and lumber are fungible commodities"). I would think the opposite, that the modernists were interested in pointing out the uniqueness of the world, its irreducibility to categories and definitions, let alone to tokens of exchange. Nor do I see why "formal breakage and re-making" are antithetical to "some sort of continuity with a tradition that is nonetheless inadequate as is". That was exactly the Modernist relationship to tradition, and indeed the relationship of any strong poetry to tradition: if the tradition were complete and utterly adequate in itself, there'd be no need to write anymore. And if one tried to have no relation to the tradition (an impossibility), there'd be nothing to break or remake. There's no poetry of any interest whatsoever that either slavishly repeats the tradition or attempts to ignore it. The poets whom you champion (I won't call them "the avant-garde") simply have a different version of the tradition than that of "the Poets Whom You Don't Like"--what Harold Rosenberg calls the tradition of the new.

I'm also not clear why Jorie Graham is not _both_ post-Romantic and post-Modern in your terms. She has certainly engaged, on several occasions, in what Helen Vendler calls "the breaking of style," and Swarm, for example (her worst book, in my opinion), is rife with fracture and fragmentation, un-making and un-doing. I think that The End of Beauty is one of the best books of poetry of the past twenty-five years, and it is all about unraveling given narratives and undoing social, historical, and epistemological certainties. Graham is also interested in what might replace those inherited and imposed certainties, if that's what you mean by "[seeking] after some positive meaning." But it's obviously impossible to live without some sense of positive meaning, and you clearly have much of your own--it's the basis of your critique of what I shall just call "the Poetry That You Don't Like," and of the social world you see that poetry as standing in for. Contingent, ironized, or otherwise, you believe that the things you think are true, as does everyone. You are more open than most to the possibility that they are not, but that still presumes such a thing as truth, as positive meaning. Again, human life would be impossible without such, from my belief that when I put my foot down while walking the ground will be there to meet it to my belief that murder is wrong. As for the notion that truth is a human construct (which is somewhat obvious--as Wittgenstein wrote, the world is composed of propositions about the world; that is, we see the world through our ideas about the world), as John McGowan puts it in _Postmodernism and Its Critics, "We moderns spin our truths out of our own bowels (to paraphrase Yeats), and the conviction that this is so engages modernity in its endless polemic against truth claims that deny their human origin; but this polemic has no force if the fundamental insistence that humans make rather than find truth is not accepted as an unalterable truth."

And if you're talking about quest and redemption, what is what you call the attempt "to break up the frozen sea (of reification, of mediated life) within us and between us" but a redemptive quest of the highest order? When Marx writes that the point is not to understand the world but to change it, clearly this change is a version of redemption. (After all, presumably he doesn't want to make the world worse, which would also be a version of change.) There is a wholly non-pejorative way in which Marxism can be accurately described as millenarian--that's a huge part of its point and its appeal. Certainly all the critical efforts of Language poetry have that behind them, as does Adorno's relentless negativity (a point I've made before). Otherwise they're just pointless caviling.
Let me respond to this with some things I've been learning from my former professor Robert Baker's book, The Extravagant, which is providing me with a very useful perspective on how modern poetry (Bob's "modern" starts with Wordsworth and Blake and continues on up at least as far as Williams and Celan) and philosophy (Nietzsche, Foucault, Lyotard, Adorno, Derrida, etc.) traces a movement from Hegelian synthesis and reconciliation to negative dialectics and abjection. That is, modern poets and philosophers alike have become suspicious of the classic Romantic move in which a subject is dislodged from their position as both determined (by social conditions) and determining (by will to power) through an encounter with a big Other (most usually in the form of what we've come to call the sublime; Bob prefers "the extravagant" for its connotations of wandering), then gets "reset" as a subject who has acquired new insight and imaginative power from the experience of the encounter. Thinkers like Heidegger and Levinas and poets like Dickinson and Mallarme have moved us, he claims, to abandon the moment of reconciliation as false or unethical: we are now supposed to empty our subject positions (abject positions) in order to create space for the other (sometimes conceived as other people but could also be nature, in the sense of environmentalism as a "letting be"). Bob then casts doubt, as Reginald does, on whether the valorization of negativity can actually be transformed into a viable ethics/politics, much less an aesthetic. As he points out when writing about Lyotard, Lyotard's assertions that the subject must be emptied of power are made from the position of a powerful, subjective voice—a contradiction most thinkers and poets of negativity tend to get caught up in. I don't know the solution to this, and I don't know if Bob does either (haven't finished the book yet). But his questioning as to whether negativity as an aesthetic/philosophical stance can really produce a viable ethos strikes me as central to the argument we've been having.

Me, I keep returning to Keats' notion of negative capability, which is the precondition for the "poetical character" that "has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen"—a fundamental openness to otherness that does, I think, have meaningful ethical implications. My visceral dislike of George W. Bush stems from what I see as his complete lack of this faculty: doubt, one of the most reliable signs of intelligence, is simply not in his vocabulary. The inadequacy of negative capability as a politics is evident: after all, one must eventually make decisions in the world, and what to do with positive power is a question many liberals seem not to know how to answer, which impedes the pursuit of it. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are filled with passionate intensity." How to preserve that ethical and imaginative openness while acting resolutely for positive change is a conundrum poetry isn't likely to solve. What poetry does excel at, however, is fostering negative capability in both its writers and its readers. The very prase has a dialectical mobility that I like: the moment of the negative cancels reified associations and logics, opening a space for capability, out of which the new thing might arise. I also favor the Rimbauldian implication of Keats' poetical character: I is another, and will always be something of a mystery to myself and to others. Someone who truly believes this will not only be innoculated against self-righteousness, but will pursue a quest through confabulations of self and other that will never affirm permanent limitations for either. The missing piece here is a social conscience or sense of embeddedness in the world, the only real guard against Romantic solipsism, and something which as far as I can tell must be brought to poetry, not discovered in its forms.

I don't really believe in "the end of art" either, but I do think a given poem's mode of porousness—where the barrier between life and art is thinnest—is significant. That's where what you might call the avant-garde continuum happens. Right now we may not have an avant-garde per se, but we do have many people practicing a poetics of negativity that seeks to break down various mediations and reifications of our experience (Rankine's book is still, I believe, a good example of this). Rarer and more wonderful are poets who manage to praise, to build, without seeming either to offer a new commodity or the shrug of resigned ressentiment that characterizes the middlebrow poetry of reconciliation. I think Ronald Johnson is one of these rare poets, and the recent surge in his popularity suggests to me that many younger poets are trying to rediscover the capability that lies over the rainbow from the negative. My interest in the pastoral largely derives from my sense that, in the right hands, it offers an image of positive value that is neither in cahoots with the Man nor a celestial escape pod from a devalued Earth. I am calling, for now, this sort of poetry a pastoral of the avant-garde because "avant-garde" signifies a tradition of artistic opposition to instrumentalization and resignation by whatever means necessary. It may be no more successful, no less a fantasy, than the pastoral Arcadia is. But the dream is powerful; it has not died. It is an earthly and contingent hope and I will be very slow to let it go.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Responding to another e-mail of Reginald Shepherd's generated the following:

You are of course correct that few of the poets I've favored with critical attention are avant-garde in the strict sense defined by Burger. However, I've come to believe that avant-gardening is a continuum: pure avant-gardeners are rare because few of us have the courage or cojones or insanity to erase every barrier between art and life. But I do think there are a number of strategies--repurposed Modernisms, if you will--by which artists selectively attack that barrier and put it into question. For example Rankine's naive stance, which rankles you as false, strikes me as an attempt to portray how vulnerable we really are to mass media and the extremely limited and limiting categories it offers us for subjectivity, especially collective subjectivity. Instead of a poem which either ignores mass media entirely (as most middlebrow poetry does) or asserts a self strong enough to surf its waves without damage (Frank O'Hara and his postmodern epigones), Rankine gives us a poem in which the speaker takes on the challenge of being affected, shaped, and then goes on to try and reshape her damaged self with only the language of her sympathetic imagination. In other words, her poetry stages a vulnerability to "life" (modern mediated life) and is willing to at least partially compromise its autonomy to do so; this strikes me as legitimately avant-garde, maybe a 6 on a 1 to 10 scale with 1 being utterly conventional, 9 being Duchamp's Fountain when it still had power to shock, and 10 being something probably never yet achieved--maybe the Situationists came closest.

At this point I'm becoming interested in another dimension of the question which I suspect leads to a lot of misunderstanding between people: the poetry of transcendence vs. the poetry of immananence. (I know, another bloody dichotomy: well, I'm assuming that like all dyads, this one too can be dialecticized.) I saw a blog post recently by "Sisyphus Walking" claiming that what we really have in these discussions is "poetry of the religious mind" and "poetry of the irreligious mind." The first, which the writer clearly favors, seeks after some kind of positive meaning, which he or she seems to conceive as existing in some "out there" and we just have to go find it. The second is purely negative: "Because these minds find meaninglessness in the world, their poetry's attitude (and likely their own) exhibits disdain for the human population at large. It is a poetics not for the many. Examples would be any Post-Structuralist poetry, most commonly Language poetry." I think this is hogwash but it might be rephrased more usefully as a post-Romantic vision of poetry as religion by other means versus a post-Modernist poetry that is concerned with this-worldliness and sees all meaning as a human construct (which is by no means equivalent to "finding meaninglessness"). Neither type of poetry has an exclusive claim on political virtue or aesthetic quality, but the post-Romantic sort is less likely to feel that formal breakage and re-making is necessary to its project; instead it seeks some sort of continuity with a tradition that is nonetheless inadequate as is. I don't know whether I for one have an "irreligious mind"; I still like what Fanny Howe has said about how atheists take God more seriously than those who insist on personalizing him. But I do tend to agree with Vico (who said that we ought to be able to understand our world since we are the ones who made it) and Marx (who said that changing the world, not understanding it, is the point). I think we are just beginning to catch up with the implications of the Modernist project, which recognized the fungibility of the world and reflected that in its artistic techniques. So I continue to favor an experimental, innovative, post-Modern poetry with avant-garde tendencies as having the best chance of being the axe to break up the frozen sea (of reification, of mediated life) within us and between us. Which is not to say that I'm completely unmoved by the post-Romantic poetry of quest and redemption that a few poets still have the heroism to practice (Jorie Graham is one). And I'm interested in the blurry line between them, as suggested by the career of someone like John Ashbery, celebrated by Harold Bloom and post-avants alike.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Still cogitating over my avant-garden. That Evans essay (which appears in this book) might help; also potentially useful is the new book by Robert Baker, The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Modern Philosophy. Baker was a professor at mine at the University of Montana, and was and is one of the most brilliant people I've ever shared airspace with. The fact that he'd collected his PhD (in comparative literature) at Cornell was my major inspiration for coming here. I need to digest his introduction at least, but I think he provides a suitably broad perspective on modern poetry (both historically and geographically) as to provide a perspective from which I can maybe determine if the avant-garde project remains a plausible one.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to hearing the poetry of two very fine poets whose gardens grow with wild abundance: Jasper Bernes and Karl Parker. Please visit the website of Soon Productions for more information on their reading, happening tomorrow at 7 PM.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Here's another e-mail from Reginald Shepherd, which I will post without additional comment for now:
Reading some of the responses to my comments and others on your web log reminds me that I really should use the internet only for email and buying things. The misreading of my comments is impressive and depressing. But then, in general it seems difficult these days to make a nuanced argument--people see things only in black and white, and insist on reducing one's arguments to simplistic parody. Tim Yu seems particularly determined to willfully distort everything I wrote, as evidenced by his cheap attempt to smear me with the Billy Collins brush, a strategy to make everyone who might disagree with him equally dismissible.

Simeon Dedeo thinks that I am a categorizer like Ron Silliman when I have been quite vociferously arguing against such fence builders as Silliman. As Tim Yu seems to have completely missed, my point in comparing Marilyn Hacker and Ron Silliman's
poetry was that neither is going to change the world politically or socio-economically, but that Hacker's work provides a more satisfying poetic, aesthetic experience than does Silliman's--and that is, after all, what poems are supposed to do, isn't it? The scare quotes around "mainstream" were precisely and obviously to indicate that it is others, again like Tim Yu, who would so characterize and dismiss me, not that I so characterize myself or my work. I might also add that the word "mainstream" referred to my publisher.

Since I began reading poetry in the 1970s, I have always been opposed to what I saw as contemporary mainstream American poetry, because it was boring and because in its neglect of poetry's verbal resources it was out of the mainstream of English
language poetry from the Elizabethans through the Metaphysicals to Keats and the Modernists. These are the writers who made me want to read and to write poetry in the first place, whose work is still the standard by which I measure my own work and that of others. But historical memory is also something that tends to fall by the wayside.

Also contra Tim Yu, I have indeed read Ron Silliman's blog and his readings of various poets and poems, but have usually found them unconvincing. Silliman has a lot of smart and interesting things to say, but his readings tend to be motivated
more by his agenda than by a close attention to the text. I am sometimes hard pressed to tell the difference between the poems that he praises and those that he dismisses, except, again, on the basis of their context and the poets' affiliations.
And his tendency to give a special pass to poets from approved ethnic minorities (like Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, whose poetry I rather like but don't find to be particularly "avant-garde") is just patronizing and condescending.

Such misreadings as I have responded to above are examples and results of exactly the kind of relentless, dismissive dichotomizing and categorizing that I've been arguing against. I think of Prufrock's complaint about "The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase." As Prufrock plaintively asks, "when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin..../Then how should I begin...?" But even though I would much rather that your various web friends read my poetry than my comments on your web log or even my published essays, I do want to clarify a couple of things before I withdraw from the fray. So please feel free to copy this letter onto your web log.

First, when I wrote of the misplacement of politics onto poetry, I wasn't intending to privilege politics--if anything, the opposite. Though I keep myself more informed than I would like to be, I tend to avoid political involvement, mostly because I see the world and this country in particular as more and more utterly and irredeemably hopeless. My main goal is to survive as long as possible. Poetry can and should, of course, engage politics as it can and should engage any of the material of this world, but poetry's function is, as I've tried to make clear, is not to be either a branch of or a substitute for politics. Picasso said that art is called art because it is not life, and I don't see why politics can't be politics and poetry be poetry--two distinct names for two distinct things. Poetry and politics are related, yes, but no more so (actually, less so, in material terms) than refrigerators and politics. Why can't poetry be allowed to be and do what it is and does? The demand that poetry be something else seems to me a symptom of the pervasive and long-standing denigration and devaluation of art in this country, so that even those who defend art feel that they have to do so in terms of something else more obviously important.

Second, I do understand that objectivity isn't possible, and that defining oneself against things that one isn't (or perceives or conceives of oneself as not being) is an important way in which identity is produced both as a person and as an artist. I certainly did a lot of it when deciding I wanted to be a poet in the late Seventies, aligning myself with Modernism as against the then-utterly-inescapable aesthetic of transparency, what Charles Altieri calls the scenic mode. But I also think, in
literature as in life, that it's important to at least make the attempt to be objective, because even if it's not achievable it can be approached in a meaningful way (as you can probably tell, I'm also not a relativist), and again, literature, and art in general, to me is about expanding the realms of the possible, not shutting them down, and I've often been surprised by what I've found in a piece of literature about which I'd had preconceived notions. And even though texts can't escape their contexts, they can transcend them (in the Hegelian sense of sublation); if they can't, I honestly don't see what the point of art is at all, or how it could communicate anything to anyone. I don't remember the exact phrasing, but Allen Tate wrote once of literature as a realm in which two contradictory things can both be true at the same time.

Third, when Tim Yu says, and you concur, that we are all post-avant-garde, what he means is that we are all post Modernist, in the strict chronological sense: we are all in the wake of the Modernists, of Modernism, especially when seen as an international phenomenon. All the poetic avant-gardening in the past thirty years or longer has basically been a process of people rediscovering the Moderns, turning over the soil, if you will, and rediscovering things that had been buried or at least lost sight of. (I include in that process re-seeing a figure hiding in plain sight like Eliot, who in his poetry and in much of his critical prose is far from the conservative curmudgeon he's made out to be or that he later made himself out to be.) I don't see anything--and I do mean anything--in so-called avant-garde work that wasn't done by the Modernists: collage, montage, pastiche, quotation, parody, juxtaposition ironic and non-ironic, fracture and fragmentation, ungrammaticalities and syntactic deformation, decentered subjectivity, non-referentiality (whatever that can mean as applied to language, which only exists as such as the nexus of concept, sound, and physical mark), critical or celebratory incorporation of popular culture, critique of mass society and capitalism, critique of art as a social institution, etc. There is nothing in the so-called avant-garde, from the New Americans to the Language poets to whatever the contemporary crew wants to call themselves besides "too good for everyone else," that wasn't done by the Modernists. There's nothing wrong with this per se (as someone said once, there is nothing new under the sun)--after all, none of us invented the English language either, or the
Roman alphabet, which doesn't mean that we don't have the right to use them or the potential to do interesting things with them. But as I said in one of my previous emails, there is a lot wrong with pretending that one came up with these techniques and approaches oneself, especially when one then goes on to congratulate oneself for one's daring and perspicacity.

If one is in the "avant-garde," then one is part of the leading formation of some army or another. Besides questioning at the teleological nature of such a conception (toward what goal is one moving? what exactly is the goal of poetry in this progressivist conception? I feel a grand narrative coming on), I also wonder just what one imagines oneself to be in the vanguard of? Why, to mention two of my favorite poets, is the work of Jorie Graham, whose work at its best is as complex
and challenging as anyone's, not "avant-garde," while the work of Ann Lauterbach is? (Or is Lauterbach not because she is published by Penguin?) I am asking about the work, not the people (though at this point Lauterbach is only barely less
established than fellow MacArthur Award winner Graham). And why, for that matter must interesting, challenging, difficult poetry be labeled or accountable as "avant-garde" in order really to be taken seriously? You've acknowledged the danger
that the term "avant-garde" turn into a synonym for "what I like" or even just "good poetry," but too often that's exactly how it's used. Perhaps you're right that it's time to retire the term.

And now I think that I will turn my energies to more fruitful endeavors, like reading some actual poems. The Canadian poet Tim Lilburn is quite amazing, if you've not encountered his work--I highly recommend Kill-site and To the River. I've been a bit disappointed in Christopher Dewdney's The Natural History, which I bought on the basis of your praise on your web log. It has many lush and lovely passages, but: besides being a bit repetitive and having a few too many big empty words like "mysterious," "profound," "vast," "unearthly," "eternal," and "infinite" (all this from one section of "The Cenozoic Asylum"), it plays a bit too fast and loose with natural fact for my taste. I'm a stickler for accuracy.

peace and poetry,


Wednesday, May 04, 2005

It's obvious we're all post-avant. Tim Yu sums it up pretty nicely.

Also very nice is the new-to-me blog of Eric Selinger. I particularly like his addition of "pleasures of character" to the standard three pleasures of poetry (sight, sound, intellection).

Unproductive coughing, however, is not nice.

It's Alive!

Fourier Series is here, and it's gorgeous. I'm home from Providence with a bad cough and a pile of remarkable books including fifty copies of my own. The special "French Revolution" dust jackets will take a little longer, but the book is available now so those who've ordered one should receive it reasonably soon. If you're in Ithaca, they'll be on sale at The Bookery this afternoon.

Another county heard from on the avant-gardener question: here's the text of an e-mail Simon DeDeo sent me:
Why is there this great concern among so many talented people to properly define and encompass what is and is not "avant garde"? I understand the need to occasionally fight the man's circulation of signs, and I think self-described members of the avant garde have done a great deal to invent and practice poetries that accomplish this sort of thing.

But in the end, why is there this need for a supplemental identity above and beyond the (always to-come, never accomplished) identity of "poet"?

Perhaps figuring out the labels and how they fit into the sociology of poetry is an aid to reading, and perhaps knowing that someone fits in some camp C gives us a better handle on how to engage their works. But I doubt this: the truly important poets create their own conditions for being read that go way beyond the mechanics of their production.

I'm not trying to dismiss the debate, as I've said, a lot of people I respect seem to be involved in it. But I want to add my voice from "the outside", so to speak, from which vantage point this whole engagement seems to be missing the point for anybody other than a hard-core unreconstructed Marxist who truly believes that the particulars of production (the narcissism of small differences, I mean, is life that much different at SubPress than Ecco?) create the aesthetic.

At the risk of missing the point of what you and Tim and Ron and Steve and Reginald and Chris are getting at, let me add: leave labels for the zoologists!

(Or are you interested in the question from the POV of a dissertation student's need for said zoology?)
Let me add, incidentally, the name of Jasper Bernes to the list of those who've commented on the avant-gardener issue. At this point the accumulation of opinion feels too large for me to address in a comprehensive way. Let me instead try to answer two questions of my own invention that I think at least touch on what many people have been saying and wondering and claiming:

1) Why pigeonhole poets? Don't we lose sight of the poem when we do that? What is to be gained?

Part of my impulse to discover a meaning for terms like "avant-garde," "mainstream," "innnovative," "experimental," "official verse culture," "school of Quietude," etc., is indeed academic. I am writing a dissertation in which I am trying to dialecticize the very conventional-seeming genre of pastoral with a tendency in 20th and 21st-century poetry that is hard to pin down, so much so that in contemporary discourse people are often reduced to calling it "That Kind Of Poetry" or TKOP for short; like pornography, you know it when you see it. As a critic, I'm attracted to the social dimension of poetry—what Bourdieu calls the rules of art—and interested in the ways in which what's on the page interacts with the context of its production. (To address one of Reginald's complaints, I think the metaphor of economy is as useful for describing what goes on in poetry as it is in, say, psychoanalysis, if we speak of the economy of the libido. for example. I'm not sure if poetry is a restricted economy set off from the "real" economy or if it's a Bataillean version of "expenditure" within that real economy.) But as a reader/writer/lover of poetry I find I'm more interested in the effects of the social on the text than the other way around. In other words, I'm a decadent aesthete stimulated by a wide range of poetries that generate exciting texts from a more or less explicitly socialized stance (from within a group, movement, or school, however hazily defined). Frank O'Hara, Kathleen Fraser, Barrett Watten—these poets have little in common with each other except that their particular poetic gifts catalyzed around the formation of some kind of collective. They actively constructed the environment for their production and reception instead of passively permitting themselves to be processed by existing institutions. I speak, incidentally, as one of the processed, having gone through four years of writing programs at Montana and Stanford before I began to discover the manifold DIY alternatives to being a poet. Are there many, many talented and brilliant poets who were similarly processed? Of course. And it seems improbably that any of us could truly claim to be avant-garde unless we were willing to completely drop out of the machine and make our own way. So I don't claim to be avant-garde; I'm just fascinated by the impulses toward experimentation and self-doubt and collective imagination and negativity toward what is that tend to coalesce around the idea of the avant-garde. Partly because they give me a sense of hope and connection, because they're my path to the utopia of reading, the privileged moment in which one can experience solitude and solidarity at the same time. Partly because they've tended to produce kick-ass poetry that seems to have more spit and vigor than the stuff that fills the dying mainstream poetry magazines. Which leads me to...

2) Doesn't politicizing poetry trivialize both politics and poetry?

This is the statement of Reginald's that haunts me the most; it's worth requoting:
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.
The man has a point: no amount of cultural activity, however well-meaning or "radical," can have an immediate, direct impact on our increasingly shitty world. You can try to detour around this question; for example, many people who take a populist apporach to poetry and its promotion believe that if poetry were somehow removed from the embrace of a decayed "high" culture it would have a more immediate appeal—that it could have the same impact on our political scene as, say, a Bob Dylan song in the 60s. The problems with this idea are obvious: for one, whether or not you're willing to stand up for high culture, to strip poetry of a large dimension of its possibilities (for engagement with literary tradition, for requiring concentration and negative capability from its reader) is to neuter it. For another, can we really give Bob Dylan or any other "protest singer" (Dylan is actually far too ambiguous an example—how about Buffalo Springfield?) credit for bringing about, say, the end of the Vietnam War? Or can we only credit them for the morality of their response to that war? Still, though I readily concede that poetic activity is no subsitute for poitical activity, I'm troubled by Reginald's separation of the two spheres, which strikes me as a version of Plato's banishment. That is, since poets create alluring representations that may distract citizens (especially young citizens) from the real work of polis-building—even fool them into thinking that art-making and polis-building are the same—they must be kicked out of the Republic into a hazy zone of autonomy. The benefit of this is that poetry then becomes what Reginald so beautifully quotes Kant as calling the kingdom of ends. But doesn't this vision, especially if it becomes the active locus of intense imaginative activity, have some impact on the polis it lurks below and above? If you believe that poetry, being physical, alters however slightly the physical body of the one who reads it by rewiring neural pathways, then our own bodies become the bridge between polis and poetics. It's my belief that poetry with a social orientation of whatever description, especially poetry that tarries with the negative, will tend not to anesthetize its readers/writers but aestheticize them: activate more nerves, help them experience that the bounds of their own body extend into the larger world, renewing their resolve to care for it more actively. That's why I object to middlebrow poetry that circulates exhausted pieties, covers up uncomfortable truths, and encourages passive resignation. I have a more ambivalent relation to what we might call poetry of praise, the poetry of the beautiful—my dissertation is one attempt to discover if beauty can be in some way progressive— if Keats' equation of truth and beauty is somehow correct. So I will continue to read my contemporaries with antennae tuned to this overall project—while trying to remain open to the likelihood that I won't always recognize it when I see it.

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