Thursday, June 30, 2005

Two links by request: Marian "Jordan" Lewandowski's marvelous photos and the blog of Benjamin Kroh, Strange Communists I Have Known. (They're all strange nowadays.)
Anne Boyer is a blogging superhero. To wit: Sandburg vs. Brecht.
My aunt and uncle and cousins are in town for my uncle's mother's memorial service, and it's good to see them all although the circumstances aren't happy. Had breakfast this morning with Daniel, a one-time wild kid who's now getting his masters in social work in Portland and who runs a group home for mentally ill adults. His sister Jaimie is a personal assistant to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Their idealism is inspiring: he's down in the streets, she's serving what amounts to our shadow cabinet. With any luck she'll be working in a Democratic White House before the decade is out. The middle child is Laura: she runs Urban Outfitters stores in the Midwest and is a hoot and a half to hang out with. I feel lucky to have them in my family.

Spending some time with the increasingly invaluable The Poker. I love Alan Bernheimer's sly "Directions for Five Poems," which would be a very useful way to direct a poetry workshop toward consciousness of the subtext of its prescriptions. Also negatively inspiring is Douglas Rothschild's tour of Central Park, "Februry 28, 2001"—an account of political wandering that reads signs of the times: "'[This patch of grass only / twice the size of my living room is] The South Meadow.' i marvel at:/ 'This plant damage has been caused by dog urine.' & Anselm observes that there / are no signs in poor neighborhoods explaining 'This abandoned buildinng / has been caused by greed & corruption.'" Curious how the Lyrical Ballads ghost both of these poems: one of Bernheimer's "directions" reads: "Strong emotion recollected in tranquility ... duh" while in Rothschild we have this mash-up: "'Enfolding sunny spots / of greenery.' 'Lawn closed // temporarily due to overuse.'" The question of lyric is raised again in Jennifer Moxley's essay, "Lyric Poetry and the Inassimilable Life," which is both a meditation on the somewhat scandalous place of lyric in post-avant contexts and an elegy for Robert Creeley: "From the moment I awoke into poetry he was there, proffering both encouragement and caution." I like that "awoke," it reminds me of Benjamin's notion of the dialectical image, and suggests perhaps a direction for a lyric that is as Moxley describes it: "Thus through the lyric what fails to be in social space, IS. In some ways the essay is a rewriting, for our times and an American context, of Adorno's "Lyric Poetry and Society." But it's also personal and in particular, personally self-implicating: for me, Moxley's dramatization of the movements of and shocks to her own conscience—and her willingness to bare that conscience, to stand in naked hope of contact with another's conscience—has always been one of the most compelling features of her writing. This essay adapts that personal struggle to the work of lyric itself:
A linguistic universal to be sure, but one quite distinct from the universal language of the senses prophesized by Rimbaud. His project collapsed when he realized that poetry alone could not remake the world. No, the lyric "I" is not a political universal, nor the guardian of the rights of men, but neither is it the flaccid marker of an outdated bourgeois egotism. The necessary dialectic at work in the lyric stance is between the desire for the representation of a human totality, and the impossibility of realizing that desire except through its mute particulars. It is a paradox that proposes the need to risk settled definitions at every point, an idealistic proposition which, although impractical and perhaps even undesirable, is nevertheless crucial, for it challenges our tendency to symbolically conquer our surroundings and thus stop thought.
Thus the "inassimilable," summed up in a sentence from the following paragraph: "The goal of the poet is not to be right but to simply be: as nearly as possible in a state of fully realized human consciousness." Naturally my thoughts turn to my ideas about pastoral, which is a peculiar genre way-station between epic and lyric: a staging of lyric community or epic subjectivity in which one can play for a moment as fully realized.

There's more to discover in this issue of The Poker. Just now I'm sobered by this unprecedented compromise of our so-called free press. The noose is getting tighter, and the only consolation at the moment is that it's getting yanked and jerked by the desperate flailings of a reactionary regime with nowhere to go but down.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Joubert: "And perhaps there is no advice to give a writer more important than this: —Never write anything that does not give you great pleasure."
Joubert on aphorisms: "Tortured by the cursed ambition always to put a whole book in a page, a whole page in a sentence, and this sentence in a word. I am speaking of myself."
Joubert on orientalism: "India. A subject capable of providing a fine story and one that carries its poetry within itself. It concerns an unknown country, unknown men, unknown customs. We want the truth about it: fiction would spoil everything."
Joubert on calculation: "Everything we can measure seems small."
Joubert on Napoleon on ideology: "Abuse of words, foundation of ideology."
Joubert on patience: "The paper is patient, but the reader is not."
Joubert on talent: "Strength is not energy. Some writers have more muscles than talent."
Joubert on volume: "Small books are more durable than big ones; they go farther. The booksellers revere big books; readers like small ones. An exquisite thing is worth more than a huge thing.
      "A book that reveals a mind is worth more than one that only reveals its subject."
Joubert on Billy Collins: "Facility is the enemy of great things."
Joubert on diction: "Before using a beautiful word, make a place for it. Air is needed in front of a facade. An entablature placed in the middle of a wall indicates destruction ratehr than construction."

Joubert on trust: "A person who is never duped cannot be a friend."
Joubert on the anxiety of academics: "We are afraid of having and showing a small mind and we are not afraid of having and showing a small heart."
Joubert on imagination: "I call imagination the faculty of making palpable all that belongs to the mind, of incorporating what is spirit, and, in a word, of unveiling what is invisible to itself without robbing it of its nature."
Joubert on yellow ribbons: "The anecdote told today by D'Arnaud. 'Where did you go, young ladies?' —'We went to see the guillotine, mama; oh dear, how horrible it was for the executioner.' This grotesque displacement of pity that shows the true spirit of this century, a century in which everything has been turned upside down."
Joubert on what we don't use: "Those useless phrass that come into the head. The mind is grinding its colors."
Joubert on the body: "And everything comes from the entrails, everything, even the least expression. This is perhaps inconvenient, but necessary: I submit to it."
Joubert on the novum: "Of certain beauties, certain thoughts, certain feelings, certain imaginative traits that are absolutely new. No one was expecting them. Their novelty makes people indecisive. We are afraid to hazard our judgment, to compromise the honor of our opinion. We decide to approve of thse things late. We dare not tste them; we want proofs to be provided first. We are completely surprise that these things continue to charm us long after we have seen them for the first time."
Joubert on constraint: "Music has seven letters, writing has twenty-six notes."
Joubert on the tasteful: "Scrupulous taste. Scrupulous people rarely do great things."
Joubert on matrimony: "Do not choose for your wife any woman you would not choose as your friend if she were a man." Reversible?
Joubert on style: "The poet must not cross an interval with a step when he can cross it with a leap."
Joubert on fundamentalism, redux: "A knowledge that corks the mind."
Joubert on materialism, redux: "When I say 'matter is appearance,' I do not pretend to challenge its reality, but, on the contrary, to give a true idea of its real precariousness."
Joubert on Caesars Palace: "Antiquity. I prefer ruins to reconstructions."
Joubert on philosophy: "Plato is the Rabelais of abstractions."
Joubert on fundamentalism: "Children and people with weak minds ask if the story is true. People with healthy minds want to know if it is moral, if it is naive, if it must be believed."
Joubert on transcendental aesthetics: "Among the three extensions, we must include time, space, and silence. Space is in time, silence is in space."
Joubert on materialism: "A century in which the body has become subtle, in which the mind has become coarse."
Joubert on Saussure: "The sign then makes us forget the thing signified."
Joubert on Clark Coolidge: "One can be stingy with words, but not stingy with syllables."
Joubert on Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach": "The world was populated by artists who limited themselves to painting society as they found it and let everything stay as it was, whether beautiful or flawed. They are followed by true masons who want to rebuild it."
Joubert on Nietzsche: "The weakness of the dying slanders life."
Joubert on the new sentence: "Do not say the word that completes the symmetry of your sentence and rounds it off when the reader will inevitably think of it and say it to himself after having read the words that precede it."
Joubert on vision: "What our eyes see, our imagination can no longer see. The same things cannot be the object of both kinds of seeing."
Joubert on writing: "We do not write our books in advance, we do them as we write them. What is best about our works is hdiden by scaffoldings: our texts are filled with what must be kept and what must be left behind."
Joubert on accessibility: "There are truths that cannot be apprehended in conversation."
Joubert on form: "Roundness. This shape guarantees matter a long life. Time does not know where to take hold of it."
Joubert on Wittgenstein: "We need a ladder to the mind. A ladder and rungs."
Joubert on the imagination: "Everything that has wings is beyond the reach of the laws."
Joubert on logorrhea: "A work of genius, whether poetic or didactic, is too long if it cannot be read in one day."
Joubert on the ERA: "I am trying to figure out what place women should occupy in the republic. We have made a sort of property of them. Is this dominion just? I remind myself of the principle I established earlier: 'whenever an institution destroys a single right of a single person, this institution is bad.'"
Joubert on George W. Bush: "Those who never back down love themselves more than they love the truth."
Blisteringly hot here in Ithaca, but the trip to Vegas helped to inure me somewhat. The air conditioning here at the Bookery also helps. Slept nearly till noon catching up today, then went to another air-conditioned bookstore that shall remain nameless to resume work on my Pound chapter. I think I'm just ten pages away from finishing the draft now. Still trying to decide if I can leap straight to Johnson for chapter 3, or if it should be a combined Zukofsky/Johnson chapter—which would be insanely ambitious, even if I confined myself to 80 Flowers. Speaking of which, I want to thank Ben Friedlander and Carla Billiterri for the sublime little edition they published of Robert Fitterman's 1-800-FLOWERS, a gorgeous poem in its own right. I forgot to bring it to work with me so I can't quote from it, but it's physically beautiful inside and out, with Fitterman following the eight-line stanza, five-words-per-line format of Zuk's poem, and makes explicit some of the utopian/pastoral gestures of the original. There's not a whole lot out there on 80 Flowers, with the notable exception of Michelle Leggott's book, so maybe I'll end up citing it.

Also deserving a thank you is Steve Evans; the latest issue of The Poker was waiting for me when I got home and inside were Evan's latest "Field Notes," which include an appreciative mention of this blog in their sharp-edged survey of present-day poetics. Though once again I've been tagged for my earnestness; clearly I need to start taking stronger insouciance pills.

Lots of shelving tonight. On Tuesdays I'm in the nonfiction section so I browse different things. Tonight I'm planning to glance at Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism and a collection of thoughts and aphorisms by an eighteenth-century (1754-1824) litterateur named Joseph Joubert. I'll keep an eye out for quotables.

Say Hello to My Little Friend

Monday, June 27, 2005

Brain activity at an all time low. But thanks to Slate I have discovered the joys of Toothpaste for Dinner. Wonderful.
Jordan's sister has a Boston!
Back very tired and happy and broke from Las Vegas and now working at the store on far too little sleep. Incriminating photos will no doubt be forthcoming from Dagzine. My affection for Vegas is a contradiction I find difficult to resolve: it's a shiny lode of sheer capital, an utter simulacrum, designed to simultaneously reify and dissolve your money. I always have a great time there.

Brain very sludgy and I have no idea what time it is and the lights are too bright. But unfortunately no one is going to be bringing me a fresh gin and tonic anytime soon.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

I'm off.
Holy political analysis, Batman!

Call for Work

On behalf of editor Robert Strong, I'd like to invite all and sundry to submit work to The Autumn House Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry. Robert writes:
My goal as editor is for this book to represent not only the wide range of voices and peoples encompassed by the term "American" and the multiplicity of connotations attached to the word "spiritual" (not to mention "poetry"), but also some of the wild-eyed visions that have been declaimed (though not always presented) alongside our more polite beliefs and experiences. This anthology will provide readers something we’ve never had before: a comprehensive survey of American spiritual poetry in one authoritative volume.

For the section on contemporary poets, I hope to get the widest sampling of the best poets writing today; no aesthetic will go unturned.
Intrigued? Send inquiries or submissions of 1 to 5 poems and a 1-page c.v. to Robert at

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Cognitive disarray is the (dis)order of the day. In mental preparation for the big Las Vegas trip (where I'll be meeting Richard Greenfield, Gary Norris, and Robert Strong, and a few others) I've been dipping into Frederic Jameson's Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, which opens with a few allusions to Venturi's Learning from Las Vegas as well as a now-dated seeming quote from William Gibson's Neuromancer. Almost any urbanity, even the parodic version Las Vegas offfers, seems out of date and out of tune with our current sensibility, in which a paranoid nationalism is lightly overlayed atop the sameness of every town's edgeville strip: WalMart, Home Depot, Applebee's ("your neighborhood place"), etc. Feeling very nostalgic for the city as representative of... as representative. Tonic for this is Robert Fitterman's extraordinary Metropolis project; Jordan's post about 1-800-FLOWERS (based on a talk I heard at the Zukofsky conference) sent me to Metropois 16 - 29, which I picked up from the Coach House table at the Vancouver AWP but haven't really read until now. It's a riotous pastiche or sampling of cityness with an anti-nostalgic edge. Section 16 consists simply of repetitive, subtly varied lists of stores, marking the rapid transformation of New York into Anymall, USA and turning Anymall in turn into the barest of readable (scriptible?) texts:
Dunkin' Donuts
Taco Bell
Home Depot
Sunglass Hut
J. Crew
Section 17 starts with what I think is an allusion to Blake ("An amazed maze of mills / pursuing impoverished vintages // slain, hilly, cedars") that starkly illustrates Jameson's page-one thesis (prophecy?): "Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good." Fitterman can sound rather prophetic himself: Metropolis 17 resembles a cheery jeremiad against our tendency to accommodate ourselves to the broken universal—to become postmodern people. I may not get the spacing exactly right:
   in data this is where
                         the conspiracy begins: I don't

but if I did have a gold chain
           it'd glisten       on a shore         in NJ

                            where ransom speaks louder
               than random if the opposite is true:

when you asked me if I'm a dog lover
                               I was being ironic
I am reminded inevitably of Kevin Davies (who has a blurb on the back cover) and his talent for streaming a consciousness that has seemingly every sort of cultural detritus floating in it without ever becoming shapeless. Fitterman's capacity for linguistic invention is on display here and in 19, which has an amazing subtitle: "Dream Cuisine: Neo-Colonialism, Nouvelle Cuisine, Lewis & Clark and the Union Square Cafe." I'm a L&C fan myself, but Fitterman takes them to spicier places than I've yet dreamed:
bridged ginger and curry leaves

kosher red
      Thai chili, sticky black-tipped Brant

are plenty, no buffalow
      in the Mountains
Form runs rampant in this book: 18 kerns letters together and breaks words apart in a manner impossible for me to reproduce here; 20 uses hyphens to simulate the rhythm of a blues song (Son House's "Am I Right Or Wrong") so that it functions like the return of what's suppressed in the scramble for commodity satisfactions; we have the pseudo-noir musings of a detective without portfolio in 21; the marvelous hash made of Milton's greatest hits in 24; 25's mash-up of popular song lyrics with Biblical and Marxian references, reminding me nothing so much as Zukofsky's Spinoza-Marx canzone; 26 is visual poetry; and so on. The formal restlessness here is sustained in large part by the larger work's attachment to New York, though never as a nostalgic island of historicity in the postmodern stream (a sentimentalizing tendency I myself am not immune to). Perhaps contingent poetics and Henry's ongoing articulation (in his "Notes Toward & So On") of a new poetics of the dynamic speech-image, capable of both representation and "resonance." In this case I find some of the resonance is achieved largely by the scale of the project: it's interesting to read what is in effect the middle volume of an ongoing arc whose end-of-the-rainbow has yet to be determined. The implied future of the work pulls this reader along, in fact is what implies a "work" and not the kind of solipsistic "text" Henry deplores. But maybe I'm lapsing into Heideggerian nostalgia again with my desire for a work that might exceed or at least point the way toward exceeding the merely aesthetic and do some actual liberation.

At any rate there are many pleasures here, of wit and the ear and the decoder ring. You may not be able to handle Duluth, but Fitterman hands the reader an electric soothsayer's view of the entrails of our time, from which some new thing may yet arise.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

So it was pretty good. As advertised, Gary Oldman did a remarkable job of playing an ordinary guy with extraordinary integrity in the role of future-Commissioner Gordon. He really does disappear into his roles: a great character actor. Christian Bale was as good as I'd expected given how hard it is to play an icon, and the supporting roles were fun—Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are especially good at bringing humanity to these sorts of blockbuster proceedings. I have no idea who Cillian Murphy is but he's a very scary dude. The soon-to-be Mrs. Cruise was the sour note, or would have been sour if she had any flavor at all: it's hard to imagine a more colorless, charisma-free actress. Granted it's not much of a role, it still would have been fun to see someone with a little personality, maybe even a little kink, that could have hooked more deeply into Bale's gloomy Bruce Wayne (Reese Witherspoon, maybe—Maggie Gyllenhaal, definitely). Of course the plot is incoherent: Liam Neeson and his League of Shadows want to destory Gotham in order to save it, but their methods seem more than a little ham-handed. Well, at least we get to choose the crypto-fascist in tights over the one with a French name and a little goatee.

Saw a War of the Worlds preview before the movie started, and I gotta say: is a fantasy of invasion by an implacable and inhuman force our sublimated guilt-expiation for Iraq? Or is it just another turn of the 9/11-screw? Discussing the movie after with the friends I saw it with, one wondered if the wholesale urban destruction in the film was a 9/11 thing. I don't know—certainly the Spider-Man movies, set in New York, have 9/11 in mind (and the touching scene in the second film when a crowd of commuters tenderly carries a wounded Spider-Man to safety is clearly anchored in that experience). On the other hand, superheroes have been demolishing city blocks, especially those in New York or a facsimile thereof, for decade upon decade. This has been cleverly spoofed a couple of times: Marvel once did a short series about the guys who clean up after superhero battles, and there was a marvelous one-off called DESTROY! in which two super-types flatten Manhattan in the course of a seemingly endless fistfight. (My favorite panel shows the Mayor, chomping on a cigar, saying into a walkie-talkie, "We'll just have to EVACUATE NEW YORK!" "Okay," says the voice on the other end.)

I still have considerable affection and admiration for the two Tim Burton Batman movies—now there's a guy that knows kink (as opposed to kitsch, which overwhelmed the unspeakable Kilmer/Clooney sequels). His luscious soundstage Gotham was a magical dystopian otherworld. The new movie is closer to the gospel according to Frank Miller, and by filming it in Chicago with a relative minimum of digital alteration, it's considerably closer to plausibility, if not reality. It's particularly fun to see so much attention given to the making of the myth—in the Burton films the myth was more or less taken for granted and mythmaking was left to the villains, who consequently seemed much more interesting than Batman in spite of Michael Keaton's fine, understated performance. One thing I'm particularly excited about is the suggestion that the inevitable sequel will bring back the Joker, Batman's archnemesis. I could never take Jack Nicholson's Joker seriously (the fact that I'd even try might suggest I'm seriously irony- or at least camp-deficient where comic books are concerned)—it was just Jack showboating, with none of the terror or pathos the Joker should induce. I trust Nolan and Bale and Oldman and company (can we please dump Holmes, though?) to get it right; with any luck we'll have a sequel in the tradition of Spidey and X-Men, a film better than the "original."
By golly it's summer, and a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of Caped Crusaders. So I'm off to a noon matinee of the new Batman movie in a minute. First though I'd like to agree with Mark: the deeper history he finds for contingent poetry (including many English poets like David Jones, who I'm afraid I always confuse with the Monkee) does indeed suggest my fears for the fate of lyricism are groundless. Interesting to have Geoffrey Hill singled out: that takes me back to the last chapter of The Extravagant, where Bob Baker suggests that Hill and Oppen offer possible alternatives to the endless play of postmodern negativity, with their intense historico-rhetorical awareness being a major factor.

Batman calls—I'm sad in advance that they've dumped Tim Burton's score from the earlier movies. But maybe even that was too campy for the ultraserious ubermensch they've conjured up this time. I hear Gary Oldman's great.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Given my documented obsession, you can imagine how delighted I was to discover this poem on the first page of The Tiny:
Mike Sikkema
In the Pastoral I am a Deep Red Rose

In the pastoral apple blossoms become tiny eyes
resting in the roadside among fiddlehead ferns. In
the pastoral there are coin-operated epiphanies and
free parking. In the pastoral I can actually feel the
world revolving around me. The pastoral is a garden
in the machine. Xenophobes with rifles and self-
starting campfires are welcome in the pastoral
though it may be their undoing. In the pastoral the
daisies are safe and feral. Pixies and billy goats play
chase in the pastoral and being unreal commit no
sins. In the pastoral there is always a subway handy.
What I especially like about this is how an overlay of irony that says, "Of course I don't expect you to take this pastoral rubbish seriously" is undercut by faith in the fantasy. Especially pertinent to my thesis are the lines, "Xenophobes with rifles and self- / starting campfires are welcome in the pastoral / though it may be their undoing," but the poem as a whole feels like my dissertation in miniature. Many other pleasures await a reader of The Tiny. Fellow Ithacan Karl Parker has contributed three poems, one of which offers what might be the magazine's motto: "A living windowframe, where the sky burns through." Mary Ann Samyn offers a little prose piece, "Two Bits of Tiny," on fragmentation and dolls, then follows it with remarkable spare lyrics whose titles signal mental adventure: "From a Purely Mechanical Standpoint," "Uses of the Imagination," "What Was Dredged Up," "What Happened Next." Hazel McClure's "Letters" and "Ghost Frames" give body to experience in unsettling ways: "The land and its sores / are monuments to abandonment." Noah Eli Gordon and Sara Veglahn team up for "Public Displayed," which as the title implies searches for some sort of meaningful public space as seen through various modes of transit: bicycle, train, car, trying to "count the layers of ethnicity in trainsetville." Mark Lamoureux steps up with "a matrix of bilious conjecture embedded" in two poems, one a contemporary urban hellscape ("Come On Chameleon"), the other a surrealist nod to Stevens, "Self Portrait as a Talking Snowman" with some choice oddments of vocabulary: "You falcons regardant,        you falcons recursant / everyone / wants the ratte of wings / for their birthday." Jim Berhle's back (is he in all three of these magazines? I believe he is) with "She Once Had Mad Ups": "I don't believe in angels because of *you* / who played a Ferengi on Voyager." (That reminds me: I may return to "Star Trek The Experience" when I hit Vegas this weekend!) Erica Kaufman uses short end-stopped fragments to balance tension between word and line, the subject of today's Silliman post. (Parenthetically speaking, I agree with Ron that neglect of these sorts of tension—between word and line, or between line and sentence—does lead to bad and boring formal verse today—but it takes real formal rigor to really tap into the energy of that tension, which someone like Milton has in spades.) I like the stop-start or push-pull energy of Kaufman's poems, which alternate between one- or two-word sentence fragments and slightly longer full sentences: "I prefer a little / granulation nowadays." Many more blggers make appearance: Maureen Thorson says, "I got a robt to love and nurture / It wasn't a calculated thing"; Daniel Nester doesn't seem to be actively blogging anymore but he has three poems, including one that taps Spinal Tap; Geof Huth has a little essay, "Why Visual Poetry," plus some samples of the form; Aaron McCollough has some gorgeous little poems "of" Jan Vandemeer; Shafer Hall seems to imagine the dark aftermath of a small-town scandal in "And Then the Whole Place Got Dark"; and former blogger, CARVE editor, and cursed elf (ask him, he'll tell you) Aaron Tieger offers suitably tiny invocations of infrathin moments: I like his "Autumn" a lot. There's lots of other good stuff by writers I'm as yet unfamiliar with that I'm looking forward to reading. It's been a very good week for magazines.

Robert Archambeau's Contingent Manifesto 1.0 is very worth reading, as is the Kristin Prevallet essay he references which I had something to say about almost exactly two years ago. My main reservation about what I'm happy to call contingent poetics is its diminished space for lyric: in the Altieri terms I referenced last week, a documentary poetics may give up too much ground to the "lucidity" side of the equation. At least within the text itself; one intriguing possibility would be that the qualities we associate with "lyricism" might be deferred into communities of readers—that is, if these texts actually in some way fostered collective consciousness then poetry's contact with the numinous and organic might reappear in the social. But that's asking an awful lot of mere words. I am also mindful of Henry Gould's Notes Toward & So On, which offers a lucid summary of twentieth-century American poetics and concludes urging a new emphasis on "the sensuous-intellective presence or 'weight' of an image-complex, or the overall symbolic resonance of the poem." Such a metaphysics of presence—by golly, Henry, are you calling us "back to the things themselves"?—is very appealing on the face of it, but to my mind retreats too far from the social, just as contingent poetics threatens to become nothing but the social. I'm also not necessarily keen on image-centered poetics: as that which translates best, imagery strikes me as tending to sustain a distance from the gears and thorns of the particular language that renders it. Maybe that's just idiosyncratic to my own sense of poetic development: when I began writing I was almost wholly concerned with generating images, but gradually came to feel that melo- and logopoeia were where the action is. Dual-vision or metaphor as Henry describes it (that which sees the objective actual and discovers a subjective meaning for it) is indeed a powerful tool, but it has to be wielded in service to something like that "post-postmodern" worldview he mentions—something yet to be discovered. Prevallet's idea of synchronicity strikes me as a more social version of Henry's double-vision, only operative in time as well as in space—and of course it's more than double, it's multiple. Is that enough to make a metaphysics? Maybe a little spot-welding will produce something useful: how about a contigent poetics of the image-complex, or at the very least a poetry of the document that also calls upon the subjectivity and affect of the writer for achieving its effects. I guess I'm looking to preserve a space for the pleasure principle: an investigative poetics that neglects pleasure might accumulate considerable moral force but risks becoming ascetic and depressing, like reading too much Chomsky. It would be helpful to have more examples of contingent poetry beyong Alcalay's from the warring factions (I always type that first as "form the warring factions," yikes); maybe John Matthias, who Archambeau mentions but whose work I'm unfamiliar with, would be helpful.

Friday, June 17, 2005

It's Friday, damnit, and instead of working on my dissertation I'm paging through some literary magazines I've recently received: the new Xantippe, the new Effing, the new The Tiny. Immediate Xantippe standouts: the lyric & quizzical prose poems by Elizabeth Willis, Kirsten Kashock, and Brian Strang; the interview with Elizabeth Robinson; and the reviews of books by Evelyn Reilly, Christine Hume, Liz Waldner, Brian Strang, and others. Given all the talk of reviewing lately (and the lamentable departure of Simon DeDeo's Rhubarb Is Susan project from the scene), it's refreshing to encounter so many long and thoughtful reviews of exciting small press books in a magazine. I like a poetry magazine with enough confidence in its aesthetic-editorial stance to combine poems with interviews and reviews; I'm also grateful for this particular review. Elizabeth Robinson is someone who I've been interested in for a while, but as it were at a distance; this interview will cause me to seek out her books directly. I met her briefly at the Vancouver AWP and from our brief conversation I think we'd have a lot to say to each other, particularly about the vexed/vexing status of spirituality in our poetry. This excerpt from the interview resonated strongly with my own ways of bending:
There's definitely a tension in my psyche regarding form and aesthetics. I like clean lines and clean language, but I am attracted to the messiness of experience, and the way that language can reflect that. For example, I love a lot of the New York School writers. I remember reading O'Hara's work—which in spite of its casual surface is actuually very elegant and formally adept—and thinking to myself, You could just talk to your friends in a poem. And then reading Ted Berrigan's sonnets, which are, you know, about what drugs he's taken, and they're messy and repetitive. I thought, Look what he did, a person could do such a thing! It was a wonderfully shattering experience to see that. So I want to claim that possibility for myself. But then once I get to it formally, I like it to be a little more lyric. I was saying to some friends that I like the exuberance and lyric untidiness of Eleni Sikelianos' work. And they said, But you don't do that. And it's true—I'm always taking out words because they seem cluttery. But I'm attracted to poets who can let things be more sprung across the page.
A useful reminder that we don't have to write like someone to find their work attractive and useful. Effing Magazine contains an interview with Juliana Spahr that is refreshing for its brevity and unpretentiousness, but most of the pages are dedicated to poetry. The first poem on the first page, by Ken Rumble, stopped me in my tracks:
Sic Them

Switch with the stage drive —
she's a hard seat; the sticks are crossed
the snow will fall. Too many, now,
to see the storm rise from the steam pipe —
loose fittings and spending spells a word or two.
Pick this and that — against it there's
hurt or help when the mourning dove takes flight.
Tuesday, the deer arrived dressed,
ready for the ball with marching orders.
She'll have one of the same and said
don't live like a Rudolph and take Sheila,
sheee-laaah, and this real world
sure is a great idea — none of which is true
in the mythological sense. Sketch a path,
blaze it with bows, the wail and moan
of a could four-year-old unwilling to bear
cold feet for a talking sponge. When the spell
wears off, he'll be right as rain
with a tight tummy — salmon and salad,
it'll come off in phases. Twilight, twilight,
it is twilight.
I'm a sucker for any poem with a Spongebob reference, but I love how a peculiar hybrid Frost starts the poem (Frost as NY School poet), then slides into para-rhetorical slyness, then abruptly gives way to the elegiac at the end. Lovely and funnny, a difficult combination. Also leaping out at me: consonantal fireworks from Susan Briante ("Under latent sky, streetlights flame / in ocherous, tar-thick veins; cutaneous roads fleck the feathered night; positivists consent"), the poignancy between the lines of Jim Berhle's pomo patter ("in the burrough there were many delights / say the dumpling of the luncheon special / released into a convincing rainbow"), Hoa Nguyen's domestic sublime ("'What are you doing today?' / 'Writing poems.' 'Right now?' // Old style pop tops embedded in the asphalt"), and Joseph Massey's sharply drawn (sub)urban pastorals, one of which quietly stands a famous Robert Hass poem on its head:

        Pinscher chained to a fence post
barks at fog folding off the bay.
        And pigeons graze garbage
scattered near scrap metal
        rusted orange.

        Dizzied by the weather's syntax
as it swerves between
        these inflected things, I
lean agains the garage --
        blackberry thorns prick my palms.
That "weather's syntax" seems to allude to the strategy of a number of the poems in this issue of Effing: they are mostly acutely self-conscious about the rhetorical strategies and contexts available to them, and choose to foreground them so as to gesture at the negative space where what they really wanted to say lies ready to pounce. Incidentally, this is one of the first times I've read a literary magazine with a sans-serif font that I didn't find hard to read, and the paper feels good to touch—Effing inhabits its saddle-stapled skin with more grace than most. (Conversely while Xantippe has an elegant cover and is perfect bound, the varying type sizes often distracted me, and I don't like having to see the magazine's name reprinted at the bottom of every page; I think such design features are less intrusive at the top.)

Haven't had a chance to spend much time with The Tiny yet, but this list of contributors is very promising, including as it does a fistfull of bloggers—it's almost an anthology of the poetry of the current blog scene, or one swathe of it, anyway. Will have more to say about that later as time permits.

I'd almost rather not mention it, but perhaps you've already seen the LA Times article on that website whose name starts with an F and that ends with "O Tree!" It's far too sympathetic to a man who's clumsily and self-righteously damaged many reputations, not least that of his wife. The contest system is fucked, sure, but scapegoating judges and winners merely drains some of the bile while the system continues unimpeded. I'm particularly saddened to learn that Bin Ramke, a poet whose work and taste I have a lot of respect for, feels he has to leave his job as editor of the Georgia Series because he's been hounded by the vicious and the bitter. It's hard to see how American poetry has benefited from that.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Where can you find mutton kidneys for breakfast nowadays?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Henry responds to yesterday's post with some lucid thoughts, as usual. It's true what Henry says about oppositions, that they are both necessary and reductive. I'm not sure we're reading Altieri's term "lucid" in the same way, however: I read it as the post-Enlightenment tendency toward empiricism and calculative logic, while Henry seems to see it as some quasi-Freudian reality principle. So I wouldn't use that paradigm to address Dante, whereas Henry would; and probably not Shakespeare either, since as a dramatist he has many more resources to call into play than a lyric poet does. A discursive poet like Anne Winters strikes me as trying to do Shakespeare without Shakespeare's tools: her poems may embody a lucid narrative of injustice, but this puts her work in the awkward position of what most people mean by "political poetry," in which the political is seen as inherently unpoetic and vice-versa, so that the poet tends to fall either into stridency or overrefinement.

As for my historical materialism: guilty as charged. I don't subscribe to the vulgar Marxism that's usually packaged with the base-superstructure model. But I do think epochal changes in the mode of production have profound and at least semi-determinable effects on art, while smaller scale changes (like the move into the so-called Information Age) have more subtle effects. And I am inclined to trust the Frankfurt School insight that art is one of the primary areas in which a society wrestles with its internal contradictions.

Haven't read Stephen Prickett, but his account of an unhistorical "shared human experience" that trumps Kant (and Descartes' Cogito, too, it sounds like) sounds rather murky. Certainly one of the things that makes literature literary is its refusal to be contained by the hardening of ideology: if it does so harden we're liable to label it propaganda or doggerel. Good writing seems by definition unable to be pinned down to any single program, and maybe that does have something to do with the "double focus" of metaphor—though is metaphor why, for example, Milton's Satan is such an attractive character in spite of the confirmed Christian ideology of his creator? Metaphor as locus of indeterminacy seems to turn metaphor itself into a site of the unrealizable sublime, which is kind of an interesting idea but at least for the moment stops my thought in its tracks.

Actually, Henry seems to want to turn "lucidity" itself into a kind of sublime, "the shocking and the 'indescribable,'" which makes me think about the Ziarek book I'm currently reading. Ziarek suggests that the avant-garde (there it is again! just when you thought it was safe...) risks engaging our technologized metaphysics (enframing or Gestell in Heidegger's lingo) on its own terms, surrendering the aura, "lyricism," art itself—and gambling post-aesthetically on somehow subverting the lucid from within. That certainly would explain why so much of Language poetry seemed like an exercise in unpleasure and antilyric when it first appeared. Now of course we're "post-avant" and helplessly drawn back to lyric, and as Henry says, "search[ing] for a critical vocabulary for what kind of poetry breaks through our own period stylizations into something new & compelling." Ain't that the truth. Metaphor isn't going anywhere, and probably now neither is metonymy (itself a critical synecdoche for parataxis, non-syllogistic writing, collage, in short the tools of modernism). Will something new emerge to carry us over?

I wish Kasey would post something to push old J.S. Mill down the screen. That portrait is giving me the creeps.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Lots to track in blogland today. Jordan has conducted an astute analysis of what we might call the crisis in poetry reviewing today. I think he's right on and his proposal for a "hypothetical poetry paper of record" that would nurture the kind of reviews that are "amusing to write, and to read" worth strong consideration. And I'm still following the discussion of poetic difficulty that seems to have its center at Say Something Wonderful, where the conversation has split into two conversations: one about difficulty and indeterminacy (Robert Archambeau today asserts their identity at his Samizdat Blog), the other about indeterminacy and spirituality ("the unreadable in pursuit of the ineffable" in Eric's pungent phrase). I think Mark Scroggins has come closest to articulating my own position on that score: opiate as painkiller. But that sort of thinking doesn't disintegrate the spiritual; it compels us to imagine new forms. In a society where no one had to look to some transcendental plane for the imaginary fulfillment of real needs (for justice or love or food or medicine), who knows what new directions the religious impulse might take?

If there's a common thread in all this it might actually be located in Robert's deliberately impertinent obituary for the age of indeterminacy in poetry. Literary techniques evolve as a response, direct or indirect, to social transformation: only when such transformation nears completion (as in Jameson's thesis about how postmodernism fulfills modernism's promise of total technologization, at least in developed countries) does a given technique harden into a style, then soften into a decadence. We are all now it seems casting about for something we can only call the post-postmodern: on the right new fanaticisms join hands with the old feudalisms in a gigantic tidal wave of reaction, while on the left we seem to faced with the untimely choice between the endless ramifications of identity politics or the forging of a new universal class. This doesn't translate directly into poetry, but the aesthetic promulgated by Poetry shows that the basic conditions of Charles Altieri's "scenic mode" still obtain twenty years after he first descried them in Self and Sensibility in Contemporary American Poetry. Altieri stages the conflict out of which the scenic mode ("scenic" refers to the tendency to create little narrative scenes within which is staged either a post-Confessional "intense moment of psychological conflict" or the extension of the "evocative metaphor" of the original set-up or scene, as in the now-proverbial "dead animal poem") emerges as one between "lucidity" and "lyricism." The former stands generally for the empirical rationality derived from the Enlightenment while the latter is "a term applicable to all attempts to use what literature can exemplify as a model for affirming in ostensibly secular forms predicates about the mind, person, and society that were the baic images of dignity and value in religious or 'organic' cultures. The pressure of lucidity drives writers to react by developing psychic economies that can restore a world compatible with our imaginative forms of ideal personal qualities" (13). (Stevens' "reality" and "imagination" could stand in for Altieri's "lucidity" and "lyricism," I think.) All modern poetry participates to some degree in this conflict, I'd wager: the approach of the scenic is that of extreme modesty—I am tempted to call it cowardice. In reaction to the perceived failures of the grand gestures of the modernists, the scenic poets "try more limited, personal ways of resolving or minimizing the conflict." So:
Without hopes for changing society, poets nonetheless try to move and console those who must suffer its contradictions. So the contemporaries tend to develop plain lyric stances capable of satisfying society's empirical standards for explanation and representativeness. This process allows them to treat their lyrical features as continuous with practical experience—six perceptions in search of transcendental vision. When the moments of vision are asserted, the empirical context helps naturalize them. The poet need not argue for any special properties of the mind or nature that might authorize visionary insights, because these sudden moments of illumination can appear self-authoring so long as they occur within anecdotal presentations devoted to a form of dramatic coherence we find in our standard descriptions of action. (14)
I hope this little passage impresses readers with Altieri's own formidable lucidity: I think this book or at any rate its introduction ought to be required innoculatory reading for all new MFA workshop participants. Because if you've taken a poetry workshop in the last fifteen years you know that these are still the predominant and unstated assumptions which it takes a considerable amount of polemic or stubbornness on the part of teacher or student to bring into the light. But even if the scenic mode was in 1984 an understandable response to unsupportable grandiosites, its historical legitimacy as an evasion of "lucidity" is long exhausted. The question Archambeau raises is whether the various forms of indeterminacy that he outlines are now equally exhausted, equally invalid. (I am reminded of Peter Burger's contention that there was, after the avant-garde and under late capitalism, no longer a meaningful political difference between "organic" and "nonorganic" art.) In one respect, I think the answer is no: as I've said many times, I think the fostering of a capacity for negative capability in readers is an absolute good that poetry can produce and still a legitimate mode of resisting almost entirely successfully the reductive intelligence of the ratio. But in another respect yes, because it is has been possible for a while to adapt indeterminacy as a style whose detachment from late-capitalist market logic is no longer a meaningful one.

Whence then the new style? Or rather, precisely that mode of artistic engagement that is not a style, that takes on a public space in which the unimpeded "lucdity"
of the commodity-real is contested only by the apocalyptic "lyricism" of imperial glory and the Christian Right? It will have to go beyond the synthesis of New York School faux-naif lyricism and Language poet hyper-lucidity that so many of my contemporaries are working out in often fascinating ways. I think now of Claudia Rankine's Don't Let Me Be Lonely, which I've praised before, and Juliana Spahr's This Connection of Everyone with Lungs: two incredibly moving variations on the elegy which from different angles seem intent on recapturing the possibility of a universal subject—not by pretending to a plain style, but through arias of grief and, in Spahr's case, erotic contact with the fading now of awkwardly pluralized "Beloveds." Among other things, it's a marvelous and much-needed document of the continuity between personal love and political love, rendering permeable the barrier between eros and agape. When I read a book like that and feel its necessity I know I'm onto something new. Not that I want to unnecessarily denigrate the pleasures of style (a good dead-animal poem is not a priori impossible) or the possibilities of decadence: I think of someone like Jeff Clark as a poet who consciously and deliberately chooses decadence, plunges head-first into it, and may yet find another side. Last thought: the category of indeterminacy hardly exhausts difficulty. I don't think that indeterminacy is a primary mode of Jennifer Moxley's, for example: her writing is challenging because it's intensely critical of every one of the poet's traditional tools (a stable and singular speaker, euphony, metaphor, you name it) but it doesn't surrender those tools or camp them up. If she's indeterminate she's indeterminate like that fox Milton, who as Stanley Fish has shown uses the indeterminate play between line and sentence to surprise us by sin. Moxley constructs a supremely ethical and self-correcting persona, the accompanying of which is a painful pleasure for this reader. Maybe it's time to talk about indeterminacy as jouissance. Maybe not.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Please check out this eloquent response to the Campion piece by Seth Abramson, who co-edits a new journal, The New Hampshire Review, with Virginia Heatter.
Thanks, Jasper!

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Fled the heat and into the local imperial outpost of Barnes & Noble, where I drank Starbucks coffee and considered the June issue of Poetry. I did an unscientific survey of last lines, hypothesizing that most of the energy of the poems they choose to publish manifests there:
Linda Gregerson
   — "in heaven to be called upon"
   — "that. The earth this time will have to scrape us off."
(Hers are the only poems in the issue that don't adhere to the left margin. Page as field breaks up the overriding narrative and helps concentrate the energy in the phrases.)

Jill Osier
   — "in the carved spaces of something new."
   — "you wouldn't know it. Would you."
   — "to a lake."
   — "suddenly their bed's a moon, too big and too bright."

Edward Hirsch
   — "is forever singing above the choppy waves."
   — "radiating heat, singing with joy."
(As Eric points out, Hirsch is a prominent spokesman for the "High Church" approach to poetry. But in these poems, at least, "approach" it is all he does, as though a misty celebration of the numinous were enough to conjure it.)

Talvikki Ansel
   — "round legs, arms and trunk."
   — "go back, take some dirt with you."
   — "count the gusts behind snow."

Tom Sleigh
   — "of a smouldering poker and calls the court to order."

Sarah C. Harwell
   — "where I am not, and yet every night I urge her, go."

Mary Karr
   — "a strong bone in the crypt of meat I am."
(Yow! The end of "Revelations in the Key of K" more verbal energy line by line than anything that's preceded it.)

R.S. Gwynn
   — "than the alternative."

John Rybicki
   — "and you are one day less in this hard Eden."

(A general observation: the main difference between the use of persona and the "I" in this kind of poetry and that of the post-avant seems primarily to do with tone and affect. Poetry-poetry strains after dignity, courtliness, and decorum—high church indeed—but too often points at the empty altar rather than summons any spirit into being. There's a sameness here, a restraint. Sometimes post-avant poetry has the sameness of unrestraint [a willed profanity, phrases meeting cute] but there's more spark on any given page of Carve or screen of Can We Have Our Ball Back? than in this issue as a whole.)

Anne-Marie Cusac
   — "quaking in my wetted clothes, know."

Lawrence Joseph
   — "the blues and greens fired by crimson are the sea."
(I rather like this one for the way the clarity of its imagery is backed up by a glimmer of insight into what lies behind such appearances. Or maybe I just appreciate his mention of Gertrude Stein's "Composition as Explanation.")

John Skoyles
   — "and the fish, and the hook, and the wound."
   — "and you and you."
(A break from the decorous, at least in content: the second poem, "Uncle Dugan," evokes the hardscrabble streets of an old-time New York in neat little quatrains. Somehow the exception that proves the rule, the necessary other to the other poems' dignity, but no less smug.)

Teresa Leo
   — "He did not have an eye for ghosts."

Martha McFerren
   — "Knosses with the roof off. Newgrange. Malta."
(A marvelous assemblage of nouns at the end of an otherwise modest anecdote.)

Kathleen Halme III
   — "that is my brain and me."
(This poem, "The Other Bank of the River," is staged as an apology for the personal [the closing lines: "Again, I apologize / for the three pound storm / that is my brain and me." Shouldn't the editors have put a hyphen in "three pound"?] and an attack on what she construes to be the smugness of the poetry of underdetermined referents [recalling Eric's invocation of Bourdieu]: "I'll be impersonal as dust, the lord / protector of less, as self-indulgent as an egg.")

Samuel Menashe
   — "In the storm's eye"
   — "Wake up late"
   — "The only one"
(The gnomic simplicity of Menashe's poems reminds me of William Bronk; these three last lines make kind of a nice poem in themselves.)
Probably this proves nothing without the accompanying text of each poem, but I do think the weight of pivot can be felt in many of these lines. Certainly years ago when I was modeling my own poetry on what I could find in Poetry I internalized the lesson that a poem ought to end with some kind of twist or punchline.

On to Peter Campion's piece. "Grasshoppers: A Notebook" (oddly missing from the online table of contents) includes an attack on blogs—he can scarcely bring himself to type the word. Yet it is itself rather bloglike, albeit polished to a high gleam of decorousness that can lead to some ludicrous sentences, as when he writes regarding poetry's relationship to solitude: "That feeling of sublime aloneness might have arisen in response to a historical truth, but it will remain palpable when the best poems of today are read in the lunar condominiums of the future." (A deeply conservative sentiment ensuring the separation of "feeling," not just poetry, from "historical truth.") The difference between "Grasshoppers" and a blog is the medium: Campion attacks bloggers for the narcissistic recording of attempts to breach the wall of publication—and there's some justice to this, as I think the recent debate with Jordan shows—yet his attack is presented within the pages of the best-endowed literary magazine on Earth. The result comes off as an unseemly attack on the have-nots by a have.

Later in the essay Campion calls for more narrative in poetry, or a blending of narrative with lyric— what amounts to a call for "experience" that is to some degree answered by the following essay, Christina Pugh's "No Experience Necessary". I have much more sympathy with Pugh's position, which requires "experience" to be transformed into "occasion," the "means to stir" a reader—and the possibilities of occasion ("be they empirical, imaginative, aleatory, linguistic, discursive...") incorporate and supplement the restrictive meaning often given to "experience." In his attack on bloggers Campion asks rhetorically, "Could these writers really have such little felt experience outside of 'the poetry world'?" That question only reinforces the separation between "the poetry world" and the implied "real" of "felt experience"—as if it were impossible for one to incorporate the other. It's fascinating to see a call for poets to engage more closely with "felt experience" that simultaneous demands the repression of a considerable swath of that experience.

The piece ends with an implicitly anti-intellectual gesture of abjection, in which Campion, summoning up Plato's banishment of the poets, writes, "I'm willing to bear the philosopher's contempt" and happily accepts Plato's fable in the Phaedrus which imagines poets as impractical grasshoppers, forgetful of all practical matters. "What sheer exultance to be a grasshopper, king among bugs!" I find this to be the most craven possible assertion of the autonomy of art, which, like Poetry itself, studiously restricts the energy of reason and excess alike. It's no surprise that in D.H. Tracy's review of Susan Wheeler's Ledger the sentence, "The book is very difficult" is intended as condemnation. Tracy's "Ten Takes" are a breathtaking array of sanctimonious priggery in which the highest praise is reserved for the admittedly "slight cloying facility" of narrative in Glynn Maxwell's >The Sugar Mile and for the modesty of Joshua Mehigan's achievement in his first book, The Optimist (Tracy writes that it "is by some margin the best book in this roundup. It's not innovative, but what it does it does well and very consistently."). Poets are attacked for their lack of ambition, but any moment of excess (of the signifier, of emotion, of thought) is ruthlessly criticized. Disjunction is ipso facto bad, "unmotivated," incoherent. In reviewing Thomas Sayers Ellis' The Maverick Room, Tracy quotes from Ellis' wholesale indictment of "white poetry," a poem with the self-explanatory title "All Their Stanzas Look Alike." (I heard Ellis read this poem at the PSA Festival last March.) Ellis' poem opens up a site of racial difference that leads Tracy to claim that far from being homogenous, "white poetry is heterogenous to the extent of losing communication with itself." I suppose heterogeneity within some larger communicative boundary might be Tracy's ideal, but mostly I hear another attack on excess and on difference itself. Incidentally, it goes without saying that all the books under review are published by university presses or the larger independents (Graywolf, Copper Canyon).

The letters section mostly follows the implied editorial line—one letter, responding to the use of postmodern theory criticized in a vicious take-down of Reginald Shepherd's fine Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, smugly dismisses all academic intellectual inquiry as fashionable theory-chasing. I was pleased to read R.A. Stewart's letter, however, which attacks the albatross of modesty that hangs from Poetry's neck and calls for us to "reclaim our conviction, our passion, our intensity, even if it takes a leap of fatih to do so" in the face of the tyranny of our "rulers" and "tera-corporations." Of course this kind of poetry—if poetry is indeed the place to look for this decidedly political "intensity"—is everywhere today. The editors of Poetry simply aren't interested.
I'm following the discussion over at Say Something Wonderful and Culture Industry between Eric Selinger, Norman Finkelstein, and Mark Scroggins with interest. When I have something to add, I will; I'm curious about the dimension of the "spiritual" that has been introduced into the conversation, which turns my mind back toward the thesis that Romantic and post-Romantic poetry intend religion by other means. But right now I am crushed, crushed beneath the weight of August-like heat and humidity here in Ithaca, so that I can scarcely think or drag myself outside. I don't know how I survived in New Orleans for three years; I don't know how anyone lives in Florida. Though maybe it's the unseasonableness of the weather that oppresses: in August I'm better prepared for it. The heat's supposed to break midweek, and maybe then I'll recover some vitality.

Emily's in San Diego, coming home tomorrow—and a shout out to my little sister Vanessa, who's been stopping by the blog a little bit. I am going to try and think of a good air-conditioned spot to take a book to.

Friday, June 10, 2005

And peace was restored to the galaxy—thanks, Jordan. (Sorry, I've been playing a lot of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.)

Earnest/ironic does I think have a certain limited usefulness in terms of describing the affect of much of the younger generation's poetry. An awful lot of us are turning up as Ashberies in the latest pesky quiz, after all. But that doesn't cut very deep or take us very far.

I do prefer "Come on, now" to "Come off it." The former has a hint of "Come on, people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together—try to love one another right now." It risks corn. It invites.
It was probably unfair of me to single out Jordan as WASPish, or waspish for that matter. I guess I've felt miffed over some posts he's made referring to things I've said which collectively seem to imply that I don't "get it" ("it" being New York poets or what's aesthetically interesting to blog about or whatever). I feel like my scholarly earnestness and his ironic enthusiasm somehow abrade each other, like our modes of discourse inherently lead to misunderstanding and irritation. So I'd like to publicly state my respect and admiration for Jordan and his work, my desire to learn from him, and my regret for any hurt feelings.
Is the post below self-regard or transparency? Both, I suppose. It's true that some writer-bloggers devote a lot of space to where they've submitted, where they've been published, etc., and that makes for pretty dull reading. But if people are offended, I wonder if it's not akin to how stereotypical WASPs are offended and embarrassed by any talk of the money which they have in abundance but which they're trained to be discreet about. Publication, when it happens, happens by accident and not because you sought it out or, god forbid, worked hard at it. One sure way to avoid all this vulgarity is to keep it in the family: start your own press or magazine and publish your friends in the name of promoting community. Maybe this is a genuinely purer approach to being a poet, but it can seem as exclusive as a country club—if you have to ask what membership costs, you can't afford it.

In poetryland, the most vulgar thing you can do is flaunt the ways in which poems can be means to an end—fame, notoriety, respect, jobs—and not only ends in themselves. But what offends me more are people who treat others as means to ends: to me that's what's ugly about "careerism." Jim's cartoons are merciless in this regard: they're about poets behaving badly to each other. People idealize poetry as a perfected social space, in which the sheer quality of the work is supposed to take precedence over any other factor: who knows who, adeptness at self-promotion, thank-you notes, etc. (Some people go further and idealize poetry outside the realm of the social entirely, but I think that's malarkey: even Emily Dickinson's concealed fasicles were in communication with a society that she had thoroughly internalized; even the rejection of a given social situation stems from the perhaps impossible hope for a better one.) In the long term, I think the quality thesis is true: however canny a given poet may be about his or her career, if their work doesn't cut the mustard it will either sink into obscurity on its own or generate stronger counter-work that puts it in its place. But in the short term, some good poets don't get the attention they deserve, bad poets don't get the attention they think they deserve, and resentment is the order of the day. If you become prominent, even slightly prominent, in any field, you are target for that sort of resentment, and it will do you no good to protest that you didn't intend to put yourself in that position. Again I think of the distinction between power and justice that I drew earlier this week. Everyone seeks power, it's just that many of us disavow our desire for it, sometimes so vigorously that we deny its existence. But I think if you approach it with your eyes open—if in the case of poetry, you simply admit that you want to be read, that you want your work to have an effect in the world—you have a better chance of constructing an ethical relationship to it, and of being in a position to foster justice. Which in the case of poetry, means the justice of redistributing recognition-power to those who don't have their fair share. Every poet who sponsors work they believe in, whether through a press or a reading series or on their blog, is contributing toward that "inspired dispersal of power" that Henry was talking about in a very different context. The demystification of the workings of the half-concealed machinery of poetico-social production is another contribution toward this project; if it gets mistaken for narcissism, so be it. Besides, I strongly suspect most poets are prone to self-loathing, given how marginal the art can seem and how staggeringly oblivious most of the people we know in our daily lives are to it. A little self-regard might be a healthy thing under the circumstances.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Ron's post today on the publication history of Jennifer Moxley has me reflecting on my own publication history-in-progress. There is a very real sense in which my first book has never been published: that was the manuscript called News of the Blazing World, which eventually ballooned into two manuscripts: Selah and The Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Oklahoma feels in some ways more like a first book than Selah does, largely because it contains some of the oldest poems I still consider worthwhile, and also because it's more of a collection while I think of Selah as something of a concept album. (I loved the whole, er, concept of concept albums when I was a teenager: such supergroup albums as Jethro Tull's Aqualung and Thick as a Brick, The Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia, Queen's A Night at the Opera, and even Styx's Kilroy Was Here (remember "Mr. Roboto"?) had at as much influence on my early poetic ambitions as The Waste Land did.) In the meantime I've gone and published my third book, Fourier Series, as my second, and am peddling my fourth book, Severance Songs, as my third. Confused? All right, leaving "Blazing World" out of it, here are the collected books of Joshua Corey in their ideal order of publication:
1) The Nature Theater of Oklahoma
2) Selah
3) Fourier Series
4) Severance Songs
5) work-in-progress...
I worry that Nature Theater will be at a disdvantage as my third or fourth book, as it's likely to be. It's a strong collection, I believe (I've published two-thirds of the poems in magazines), but it's definitely a mode I'm moving further and further away from. Though I may be a poor judge of this sort of thing: writers are sometimes the last to know about their own quirks and consistencies. Maybe when all four books are out I will look at Amazon's concordance feature and discover they all have the same favorite words.

Some more thoughts on Coolidge and difficulty, extracted from an e-mail I wrote in answer to one from Simon DeDeo. The sheer mass of text Coolidge has produced inspires some of the vertigo I associate with the mathematical sublime, and a number of modernists and postmodernists have applied this strategy, simply overwhelming us with the size of their texts: Stein comes to mind, as does the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, and more recent oddities like Bruce Andrews, Kenneth Goldsmith, and Silliman himself (I find any single page of Tjanting mesmerizing but multiple pages numb me out). A Kantian speculation: perhaps most people experience only the unpleasure of the decentered ego when they encounter this sort of work and don't stay with it long enough for the triumphant recuperation of reason to take place? A perhaps more straightforward analysis of the pleasures of difficulty than the one I've tried to provide.

Freedom vs. wholeness: Here's the key passage from Baker:
Thus modern culture, in the wake of romanticism, has been signfiicantly shaped by a tension between the ideal of "radical freedom" and the ideal of "expressive integrity," a longing for creative independence and a longing for existential wholeness, a Kantian emphasis on individual self-legislation and a Hegelian emphasis on social reconciliation, or, as I occasionally characterized this tension in my discussion of Wordsworth in chapter 1, a search for creative departure and a search for relational embeddedness. Wordsworth's poetry, indeed, is emblematic in the way it hovers in the midst of these larger cultural tensions. Yet many modern poetries, in particular those I've characterized as passages of the extravagant [the poets Bob discusses in detail are Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Dickinson, and Mallarme], while they bear a utopian valence pointing toward a horizon of restored psychic and social wholeness, initially manifest, in their metamorphic crossing of common boundaries, a movement of imaginative freedom. Therein lies a source of their great power and of many of their predicaments. (274)
Bob goes on to characterize Breton as being primarily oriented toward Freedom while Eliot is primarily oriented toward Wholeness—though no doubt you could find residues of the other half of the dichotomy in each of their poetries. So what I'm curious about right now is the possibility of a return (the fundamental nostalgic gesture) that is a spiral instead of a circle, that takes on the energy of outward in order to build a home. It's my theory that postmodern pastoral, starting with Pound, tries to accomplish this, negating technological totalities and spiraling back toward nature as a starting point for something new. And I'm now starting to conceive of a post-postmodern pastoral which actually builds or discovers or recovers something, as opposed to merely tarrying with the negative. Johnson's ARK-itecture may be the key example of this new kind of writing, I don't
know yet—I do know he goes beyond Pound, whose equivoval triumph as a poet is the unmaking of his own Fascist idyll.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Tuesday at the Bookery, reading around in Alain Badiou's Handbook of Inaesthetics, where I find a defense of what is wrongly termed the "hermeticism" of modern poetry (which for Badiou begins with Mallarme) that resonates with Ron's defense of Clark Coolidge yesterday:
As for the enigma of the poem's surface, it should really serve to seduce our desire to enter into the operations of the poem. If we give up on this desire, if we are repelled by the obscure scintillation of verse, it is because we have let a different and suspect wish triumph over us—the wish, as Mallarme writes, "to flaunt things all in the foreground, imperturably, like street vendors, animated by the pressure of the instant." (30)
The poem performs an operation on its reader but first you have to let yourself be seduced by it, the "what's in front of you" that cannot be bypassed; you must follow what Heidegger calls "the arduous path of appearances" (Oppen uses this phrase as an epigraph to one of his books).

Why are some of us seduced by enigmatic surfaces while others rush to denounce them as fraud? I myself don't really "get" a lot of Coolidge—he was the first poet that came to mind when I was looking at Jonathan's questionnaire when he asks, "Whom, among poets you most admire, do you understand least? What is hindering a greater understanding of this poet?" But my first impulse is not to shout, "The emperor has no clothes!" (some emperor!) but to try again, to see if I can make sense of what someone called Coolidge's purist adaptation of Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody." Maybe that makes me a sucker. But for me, books like Coolidge's The Crystal Text or At Egypt have a kind of aura (I almost typed "awe-ra," a singularly appropriate neologism for the latter book), so that the distance they establish from more transparent texts inspires a kind of wonder, and a desire not to violently pierce the mystery but to accept its invitations. Not the least of such poetry's demands and pleasures is a slowness that most of us feel we can ill afford in a time where efficiency is elevated to an ideal. Not to feel like we already understand everything is the gift of a difficult poem. Which is not to say that I don't respond more viscerally to poems whose pleasures are at least partially attuned to my own eye, ear, and education—but if that's all they cater to they will be quickly exhausted.

Yet I'm coming to feel that sheer indeterminacy, the infinite play of the signifier, and the postmodern sublime have also exhausted themselves. I am searching and searching right now, through all this philosophy and in my own writing, for what might follow the negative—for the recovery of subjectivity—for the ends of elegy. Bob Baker ends his book with a brief consideration of George Oppen and the English poet Geoffrey Hill as poets who construct a moral vision in full knowledge of shipwreck. There must be others. Bob writes of two colliding imperatives in Romantic and Modernist poetry: the longing for freedom, to shatter the iron cage; and the longing for expressive wholeness—a longing that Zizek confirms as a legitimate one in spite of its association with blood-and-soil nationalism. I am trying in my dissertation to describe how these two impulses might traverse each other, but in pastoral, the emphasis is surely going to fall on the latter, on nostos. Outward bound, or a circle? Or is there some paradoxical alternative to these vectors? Still looking.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Please welcome the new issue of MiPoesias into the world, guest-edited by Gabriel Gudding.
Dalliances with Zizek and Badiou have returned me to The Extravagant. A marvelous map of quests for radical freedom in different eras of Romanticism and Modernism that ends with some almost casually brilliant descriptions of our own period. For now I'd just like to share with you a footnote: what follows is a quotation taken from Marcel Raymond's De Baudelaire au surrealisme, of which Baker writes, "It is of interest that many passages in Raymond's discussion could, with minor shifts in vocabulary, serve as sound commentaries on the disjunctive-digressive poetries of the last thirty years or so in both France and the United States":
The power of this sort of poetry is not objectively demonstrable and reveals itself only to experience, that is, to individual experience. Doubtless the same can be said of any true poetry, but the engagement demanded of the reader in this case is of a particular sort: it demands that the reader yield himself to the impressions of a sensibility that is exceptionally plastic and entirely impregnated by the atmosphere of a specific age. There is nothing in this akin to the labor of gradual penetration demanded by an oeuvre like that of Mallarme; the poetry of Jacob, of Cocteau, often of Apollinaire, and of many of those who have followed them, works or fails to work; it does not enclose (in any strict sense) a secret and so cannot be characterized as hermetic; it intends to be loved by virtue of a flash of lightning; and the risk to which it exposes itself—as the passing of a few years makes clear—is that of no longer finding in the future the conditions necessary for the transmission of the electricity with which it is charged. Its best chance is to find a reader endowed with a "sense of mystery" (as Cocteau says) similar to that of the poet himself.
How powerfully this resonates with my experience of reading New York School poetry and many contemporary New York-Boston poets, especially that crucial energy of the contemporary that seems bracing and necessary as air, even as it tosses away poetry's traditional bid to be "a moment's monument." And that sense of discovering a poet with a compatible "sense of mystery," and the desire to inculcate a similar sense in many more readers than currently cultivate such (and the uncertain means by which to do this). Not least a confirmation of my growing sense of the peculiar importance of Apollinaire to our fracturing suburban moment, and the importance of "Zone" to my own attempt to recover the spirit of the urban—that is, concentrated difference—in "Kiosk/Stylus." Crucial stuff that only glancingly touches on Baker's great theme, which is the increasing difficulty of the extravagant venture into the unknown given the tightening grip of commodity capitalism, which has colonized or rendered unrecognizable all the old "outsides": the unconscious, nature, bohemia. Do we need a new outside or can the old ones be somehow freed for human use again?

Not quite finished with the book; maybe Bob will answer all these questions. I'll let you know.
Allergies + humidity = yuck. At least the bookstore is air conditioned. But here's another e-mail from Aaron Tieger to raise the rhetorical temperature:
I realize we're dealing with an ideological difference here, and we're never actually going to change each others' minds, but I do want to finally address a couple points.

"Genuine outsiders who don't feel the house ever belonged to them and simply want to burn it down have the simplest, most overdetermined, and most commodifiable response to hegemony: people read someone like Bukowski and enjoy the vicarious thrill of sticking it to the Man."

This gross simplification is condescending to anyone who feels alienated from "the house." What if I said "Academic insiders who assume they own the house and want to precisely delimit who can go in what rooms have the simplest, most overdetermined, and most commodifiable response to hegemony: read some theory, get a degree, and enjoy the palpable thrill of being the Man."? Seems to me like it's easier to go with the flow, join that workforce etc. than it is to try to implement ways of negating what one perceives as a hostile, alienating system.

It seems to me that the House model (as opposed to the Yard model) actually is more founded on commodification, as it makes it its business to label and organize into easily-identifiable categories. (The more we look to these categories, the more we overlook the stuff that doesn't fit and the faster it disappears.) The Yard model, on the other hand, is less concerned with commodification and more with creation and creators: process as well as product, and a suspicion of standardization and uniformity. As Ric Caddel puts it, "the ability to develop your work in your own way, at your own pace, without unwanted interference" and to build a community based on this. (It reminds me, tangentially, of Henry's phrase "service, not power.") Granted it's a more slippery, less objective model, but it allows for a lot more surprises.

Finally, I dislike the term "scenester" because not only does it imply a dismissive dimunition (cf. "youngster," "rhymester," etc) but because the root, "scene" is inaccurate (at least in my mind). "Scene" implies a certain transience and pretension. I'm looking for something greater than that. Something more like a Way than a job.
Yes, I'd better take back "scenester," it's a term laden with more snark than I intended. Perhaps we should call 'em "Yardworkers." But I wonder: where does Caddel's "ability to develop your own work" and the community built upon this, come from? Doesn't that require at least the minimal power of self-determination? What is the relation of the Yardworker not to the House as existing institution(s) (which is not really what I meant it to stand for) but the House as power? If you are working to "negate" a "hostile, alienating system," how is that not equivalent to working to build a better system? Power can't simply be destroyed: its imaginative dispersal would in effect comprise a new, decentralized system but it doesn't mean the end of power or systems as such. It seems to me that choosing subversion for subversion's sake, or a Way for the way's sake, is to give up on building something from which one would not be alienated—it's to surrender power for a moral high ground whose reality (and morality) seem dubious to me. See, I don't think Aaron and I disagree about the value of his Yard-oriented tactics. I just think we conceptualize the goal differently. If one succeeds in building a viable community where you can "do the work," you haven't just thumbed your nose at the House or torn it down: you've built your own wing, and rendered the House's old configuration unstable, so that you might find yourself in the master bedroom someday without even necessarily having wanted to go there. If you have a Way that works, a House will build itself around you, and maybe it will be better built and more welcoming and more attractive than the one we have now. But there is no Yard that is not either dominated by its House or presenting some kind of challenge to it.

To let that overextended metaphor go, and to go back to categories and drawing lines: I think we may be engaged in a hoary old debate about theory vs. practice. A lot of people—maybe most people—find the practice of theory alienating, and that's mostly theory's fault. Even the most open and postmodern of theorists tends to validate through their actions and stance the notion of the theoretical viewpoint as being superior to that of those who keep their heads down in the immanent periplum. Hazarding a theory can look like an arrogant gesture of foreclosure and not the educated guess intended to discover possibilities that it is. The fact that theory is associated with the academy is another strike against it, of course: many intelligent people dislike being disciplined (in all senses of that word) and with good reason. Refraining from theory can feel more organic and holistic, and strikes a blow against the relentless engine of the division of labor that is grinding all of us into more and more specialized particles. Yet you can't even formulate these ideas without a little theory; and a pure theorist of poetry who never gets her hands dirty with practice is hardly worth listening to. The intersection or point of sublation between the two poles is called poetics. I happen to believe that most poets are better off for making an effort to formulate a poetics (which is not the same thing as reifying a position or choosing a camp, though those are risks) because only then is real conversation between poets from differing aesthetics and millieux really possible. It may be necessary and galvanizing to tear down your poetics as soon as you've built one up, but that doesn't mean there isn't a great deal of energy and movement to be gained from building it in the first place. (I'm reminded of a bit from Waiting for Guffman where the music instructor tells Corky he wants the cast of the play to understand their technique so well that they can forget about it. "But they've already forgotten it," Corky blandly replies.)

Okay then, I've got shelving to do.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

I am pleased and flattered by Henry's asessement of my poetry: the fact that he finds my poems more "original" than my blog posts is something of a relief, really. My blog is an open notebook of real-time ephemera; the poems are, I hope, built to last. What Henry seems to regard as naivete, a "ponderous" reinvention of the political wheel, and even maybe a kind of sucking up (to whom?) on my part, Jonathan more charitably regards as a "youthful political earnestness." Well, shucks fellas, maybe I am as naive as all that, but what Henry calls ponderous reinvention I call thinking for oneself. The democracy Henry movingly describes as "an inspired dispersal of power" (not a bad characterization of anarchism, actually—something I incidentally tend to think of as an unachievable ideal, at least on the national level, but still literally inspiring) is not something I recognize in our present system, what with shameless gerrymandering, attacks on the courts, the paranoid secrecy of this White House, and other iniquities that Jonathan has pointed out. But you can't blame the Republicans for everything: the very undemocratic Senate and the electoral college are both enshrined in the Constitution, along with the three-fifths compromise over slavery it took a bloody Civil War to revoke—all of which are pretty damn far from the ideal of one person = one vote (not that voting in itself can meaningfully disperse power). I don't dispute the essential radicalism of American democracy, but I think it's seriously decayed and we are already living in a de facto (and nearly de jure) Galactic Empire, whose nakedness the skimpy ideological blanket of the flag can never entirely cover. Hope for the future, if I'm understanding Badiou correctly, lies in recovering our fidelity to the original Event of American democracy, or in recognizing some new, unanticiapted Event that has yet to occur or may already be in progress. If we're lucky, they'll turn out to be one and the same.

His Tiegerness writes again:
You seem to be arguing that ignoring or working against (the existing) hegemony is tantamount to engaging it. I'm completely baffled by this. I'm more engaged with the academy than you? Are you more actively engaged with the Republican party than Rick Santorum?

I'm not at the moment arguing against academic and instiutional support of poetry (another issue altogether). But I am saying that the unwashed in-law of obssessive categorization is pigeonholing. I ask again, what about those who don't fit into the categories you draw?
The analogy that comes to mind is: there's this house, that you grew up in, thinking it belongs to you. One day this guy (let's call him Otherguy) who moved in around the same time says it's HIS house and starts doing all sorts of stuff you find obnoxious: rearranging the furniture, painting the walls black, etc. Now if you stay in the house, you might fight directly with him room-to-room... or you might just shrug and sulk and say, "It's not so bad," or "I can live with it," or "At least he's keeping the REALLY scary people out," and you retreat to your room for the next four (eight, twenty) years. OR you say, "The hell with this, I'd rather be in the yard or on the porch—Otherguy can HAVE the house if it's so important to him." And you may make a nice life for yourself and your friends in the yard. But you're in a space that's defined by what it's not—it's not the inside. Standing with your back to the house doesn't make it disappear, or erase the fact that you once thought it was yours, or that Otherguy has a nice fridge where you used to be able to keep your leftover Chinese.

Genuine outsiders who don't feel the house ever belonged to them and simply want to burn it down have the simplest, most overdetermined, and most commodifiable response to hegemony: people read someone like Bukowski and enjoy the vicarious thrill of sticking it to the Man. Most of us have more complicated relations with hegemony than that—us well-intentioned white guys benefit from it in all sorts of ways we mostly don't recognize at the time. Very few people manage to unplug completely, and I'm arguing it's not even desirable to do so, at least for me. I really like Henry's phrase about an inspired dispersal of power: how can we achieve this in poetry? I think considerable strides are being made in the democratization of production thanks to the Web, the increasing visibility of small presses, DIY-stuff, etc. Consumption is the more problematic side: how do we increase poetry's readership, why do so many of the literate people who would enjoy a copy of The Hat if it fell in their lap not even know it exists? Maybe guest columns in prose-oriented venues like Reb Livingston's Crucial Rooster are part of the answer.

As for pigeonholing, that is a considerable danger: not that categories are bad in themselves but if you become overzealous about them you'll end up ignoring, condemning, or misunderstanding work that doesn't fit. The first two are pretty bad; the consequences of misunderstanding are less grave, even welcome. Exceptions prove the rule or become their own rule: really powerful work that can't be categorized is a sign of the New and recognizing that it doesn't fit existing schema helps you recognize its newness. I don't think there's anything to be gained from ignorance. The risks of pigenholing are real, but cognitive mapping must take place, regardless. Again, if you don't take an active part in it, you will take a passive one. Which is not to say that "categorization" is the only mode of such mapping: any number of poetic, intellectual, and social practices are capable of producing the maps that we need to negotiate the world with. Many people prefer and praise the mode of immersion in whatever local scene or network they have access to, which makes intimate and particular knowledge of a number of poets possible; meanwhile poets outside the scene have a more hazy reality, though usually your scene will contain people who used to have other attachments and who can therefore fill you in on what's happening elsewhere. Of course the Web has changed that a lot—it's just barely possible now for a "scene" to transcend the geographical. In the meantime, even scenesters may find the occasional book of theory useful. And the vast majority of people interested in poetry probably don't have big enough local scenes to serve as a map for them.

What am I doing here, anyway? It's a beautiful Saturday afternoon and the Ithaca Festival is on! Their unfortunate slogan is "Catch the wind," but it's a good time anyway. Emily and I caught the parade with the world-famous Volvo Ballet on Thursday.

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