Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Off to Philadelphia tomorrow—purely for the fun of it. Will see friends, go to some panels, attend a reading or two, and report back.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

We interrupt this creeping sense of morbidity to tell you about two more interesting new books from Fence that I received recently, Tina Brown Celona's Snip Snip! and Ariana Reines' The Cow (click here to see 'em). Celona's last book for Fence, The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems, didn't make a big impression on me, though it was entertaining and whimsical. Snip Snip! has more meat on its bones: the whimsy is still there, but I'm more forcibly impressed with Celona's sense of the metaphysics of female embodiment. Her consciousness is saturated with afterimages from the work of Neruda and Paul Klee, while she also appears to have been designing surrealist covers for Vogue and O: The Oprah Magazine in her head. Like Chelsey Minnis, another Fence-published practioner of the gurlesque, she's also acutely self-conscious of the conditions of poetry production, as reflected in this excerpt from the last piece in the book, "Poem for Matt" (the ellipsis is in the original):
A poetry joke: A Language Poet and a Black Mountain School Poet and a Fence Poet are sitting around chewing the fat. What do we have in common? asked the Language Poet? But the Black Mountain School Poet was tired of stupid poetry jokes. He wanted to go to Asheville and smoke pine needles.

The Fence Poet kept getting up and going to the bathroom.


The old poets are afraid
The young poets will find out
They aren't interesting.
The young poets are afraid
Of getting old.
I have been cold all day, said the lemur,
When will people talk about my poems?

You can't trust me, I can't help being mean and clever. In a lot of the poems I AM JOKING.
This desperate tongue-in-cheek disavowal of sincerity exposes the bare rusted infrastructure of our poetry moment, caught between the exhaustion of the confessional impulse and the exhaustion of ironic wordplay. The naked desire to be somehow affirmed as a poet thrums like the nerve in a rotten tooth. Brown reminds me a little of Baudelaire, seeking to transform her lowest, most abjected moments into some kind of transcendence. Her language moves nervously back and forth between delighted wordplay (a delight in which she seems somehow ashamed) and an affectively reduced Valley Girl-type plain speech. Both formally and in terms of content she seems trapped in a series of mirrors, unable to stop looking at herself looking at others looking at herself:

There is some rotting fruit on the ground, a melon and some bananas. The men are sated and lie back on the ground naked. They are interested in each other's athleticism and their interest is not sexual. Where are the women? The women are absent. The colors are green and gold and black (shadow). I want to fight the men who look so tired. I want to revive them and straighten their shoulders. I want to transpose them to another painting and wipe their faces and give them sustenance. I want to give them milk.


The woman has a man's face. She is staring at her parts. Her breasts denote womanhood. She is in gray. She is naked and she props herself up on her arms. The ground takes up most of the canvas. I want to fight her and hide her belly folds. I want to fight myself with all my arms against all my arms. The pain causes me to become rigid and when I fight myself I know I am not coming back. This is totally fine with me.
Brown's book is primarily concerned with evoking the pathos of choosing an identity, or in having one chosen for you. She squirms, she tapdances, she smiles coquettishly while throwing up in her mouth. Ariana Reines' The Cow is fiercer and wilder, embracing the persona of the eponymous ruminant, taking the consumption of (female) flesh literally. Brown flirts with obscenity, or more precisely our fascination with obscenity; Reines is viscerally, exuberantly obscene, yet somehow more in continuity with the hidden obscenity of the Real discovered by modernism and psychoanalysis—I think of Sianne Ngai's essay "Raw Matter: A Poetics of Disgust," but also of the primal scene of modernist poetry, The Waste Land, where the corpse planted in the speaker's garden turns out to be the mass grave of the (feminine?) nature that our civilization perches precariously upon: the cow with her vulnerable eyes and the cattle industry that produces and consumes her is the figure for this. The body is cracked open, violated, marked for death, taboo rather than sacred:

She clasped the event to her and proceeded. Fucked her steaming eyehole and ended it. The cracked things was a doomed pidgin, it meant something.

Yesterday. A patience would be ideal. Make an art of it, sere notes winding their way through an air to have become the name of her going. Her name on the list, and some certain information they had.

After a time there is no more accuracy, after a time you can't get the note clean of what it might have been.

Under the skirt of Mother Ginger huddle little boys and girls. A holiday shit stain. His scholarliness justifies those flights

Of fancy you condemn in him. And the gummy hulls of words muzzle the chaw, a kind of cud that will not do. An umlaut could be a cousin's bone,

The poisoned nuance that started everything. It was from eating ourselves. It had to be

Someone else's sickness first, our silence, our good balance, our usefulness. There is something certain creatures long for. To be hacked up and macerated. That's having it come out and go into another body.

Eaten, gemmed with grease and herbs. Whose low language ruined our bowels. Whose lowing eventually meant nothing. We knew we were to become a ream of flesh. Another nothing.
"Gemmed with grease!" I can't recall the last time I came across a text so scarifying, so disgust-ed/ing, that also seemed so verbally alive. Like Brown, Reines is also concerned with the position of poetry and herself as a speaker within poetry, though the sheer force of her negativity seems just possibly to contain its own seeds of regeneration. From the last page of "Transport," toward the end of the book:
It's the same old story and you have to learn to speak the CLAMATO language of the elders or they will fuck you too.

You have to learn to speak the deciduous vocables of the true poets a beautiful whiteness.

The feet of white girls in flipflops. Fake hippie skirts from Forever 21. I hate the fop in me I want to eat a nipple of Venus because I am becoming a magnificent woman. Hurting culture want to bleed faggot

Leg wax high heel lipstick cuntface a marketing job designers wanting the best I want filthier but not to be homeless because I love myself too much bluebell cups in the rain a poetics of the music of the poolside therapy. Hate me. We are still thinking too much.

At this site, at this juncture, we are going to be we are becoming free.
Maybe Beckett is the more appropriate forebear to cite (the phrase "Go go" appears repeatedly, while its last words are "Go on. Go on"), and Stein if Stein were unable or unwilling to recuse herself as completely as she seems to from the matrix of heterosexual desire. Desire/disgust is the axis both of these books travel upon, Brown empahsizing the former and Reines emphasizing the latter. Above all I am impressed by their vulnerability, their angry nakedness. The only book by a young male poet that comes close to this level of lacerated sexed scrutiny that I can think of is Aaron Kunin's Folding Ruler Staranother Fence book. Say what you will about the magazine: as a press I think they're demonstrating some real vision over there, and an admirable willingness to tolerate discomfort. The pleasure of these books is in their sting.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Read Andy Gricevich's essay (warning: PDF file) from the new issue of Absent. A gem, and an excellent, more affectively appealing companion to Simon DeDeo's "Towards an Anarchist Poetics" in the same issue. "Reading and writing [vulnerablist] poetry can be a training in the flexibility of thought, a way of making explicit the ordinarily unconscious ways in which we synthesize experience and a weaning of oneself from the demand for completed narratives." That says much better what I was trying to say about anti-absorptive poetry, and even retains a hint of my initial judgment that narratives of completion and closure satisfy less-than-adult needs. I'm interested in the style in which it's written, too: the ends of sentences are more distinguishable than their beginnings. A little like Adorno's prose but (thank goodness) much, much shorter.

"It's precisely the fact that poetry is not politics, that it's always at least one step away from immediate need and external struggle, that makes it a potential source of new possibilities, to be heard from time to time in the silences between the insistent beats of triumph and rectitude."

Vulnerablism is an ethic to which this blog aspires.
Lovely weekend in New York celebrating Emily's birthday and visiting with Mary Jo (who I found in excellent form—look for her newest book, Elegy, from Graywolf in October 2007) and la famille de Camille Guthrie. Sorry to miss the SOON Reading, though—Aaron has a report on it. While in the city, I read an advance copy of Michael Earl Craig's second book, Yes, Master, which I found winningly, darkly surreal, as I did his first book. Many of the poems take the form of twisted, superficially red state narratives whose real interest and pleasure comes from the sudden hairpin turns—as is so often the case with good postmodern poetry, it's the paratactic structure that asks the reader to take little, uncanny leaps from line to line and sentence to sentence. Craig's work is on the lighter side of the spectrum—closer to James Tate than to Ashbery, and closer to either than he is to the more calisthenically demanding leaps of a Clark Coolidge, say, whose parataxis is unified more by sound than by mood and tone, as here. Craig is a balletic comedian, like Chaplin or Jacques Tati (he has Tati in a football helmet suspended in midair on the cover), whose comedy derives from the discomfiture of the human being in a world of perverse objects. That Craig's landscape is that of Montana rather than the urban world of Chaplin serves to remind us, if we needed to be reminded, that the logic of the commodity which animates things and deanimates people is alive and well in the pastoral West:
Because of Roy

Roy could move a lot of sheep.
He moved them off the mountain
with his arms outstretched
at forty degree angles.
Roy never spoke.
He wore navy corduroys.
This annoyed some of the guys.
He walked like a foster child
stepping carefully
and sometimes robotically.
The sheep respected this.
They kept their mouths shut
for once, and flowed down, down,
in a tight and docile band
over the uneven terrain,
because of Roy.
While in the city I acquired a couple of used books: a battered fourth printing of Kenneth Koch's Thank You (one day I hope to own the new collected poems, but this is much handier and more portable) and a book that called to me even though I didn't quite recognize the author: Frank Samperi's The Prefiguration. It's a physically beautiful book published in 1971, and at first glance (all I've had time for) seems very early-Poundian in its aesthetic: brief lyric landscapes in a classical Chinese mode vie with scattered bits of Italian that make me think of Dante and the troubadours. Might be a good book to relax with in between bouts of dissertation-writing and paper-grading.

Bob Archambeau has joined the pleasure discussion, to which I don't have much to add right now. But Mark and Eric do. High-ho, high-ho, it's off to work I go.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Round-Up

Off to NYC this afternoon for a weekend celebrating my wife's birthday. We'll see movies, friends, and the revival of Company. I'm especially looking forward to catching up with some old poet friends: Mary Jo Bang from my Montana days and Camille Guthrie and Duncan Dobbelman (and their little son, Pierre!) from my Vassar days. In the meantime, some things that have caught or held my attention lately:

- The conversation on literary pleasure between Eric, Mark, and myself. I don't have very much new to add on this—I was planning on saying something about the difference between the demands and pleasures of anti-absorptive poetry versus the critical practice of approaching an immersive text anti-absorptively, but Mark beat me to it. I'm intrigued by his call for "a more nuanced, more 'thick' description of the experience & the pleasures of anti-absorptive texts," and I'd like to hear/think more about this. Such acts of description might be more compelling, and more ethical, in acquiring more readers for the kinds of writing I love than the tactic of shaming and scolding people. And as Eric points out:
It seems to me that you're not talking about the ethics of a particular pleasure at this point, but rather the pleasure of acting and thinking ethically. Through essays and other para-poetic work, "anti-absorptive" poets have framed their verse as an ethical / political project. The sensory and aesthetic pleasures it offers, and the intellectual pleasures (of "figuring things out," or simply "figuring") thus have added to them a new, third pleasure: that of doing justly, or developing one's moral sense.
(Hey Eric, how do you make your blockquotes so cool-looking?) I think this is an astute rephrasing of what I was trying to say, though I also have to credit Mark's arugula metaphor and wonder if ethical pleasure isn't in fact supererogatory to the pleasure in difficulty for difficulty's sake. I don't believe that it is, but more needs to be done, as Mark says, to qualitatively describe (if not quantify) the pleasures of the anti-absorptive so that we can make the distinction. Otherwise we're left with de gustibus non est disputandum and "Some people just like spinach."

- Tangentially related: as many of you have heard, Simon DeDeo, late of Rhubarb Is Susan, along with Christopher Douglas, Elisa Gabbert, and Joanna Guldi, have launched a new magazine, absent. So far I've only read a few terrific poems and Simon's manifesto, "towards an anarchist poetics::". I love manifestos, I like the way they can stir the pot, and I'm curious to see what response this one will generate. I myself bristled a bit at the first section, because it seemed to me that he was conflating the power of theory (or more specifically, the Foucauldian theory of power as that which surrounds and penetrates all language, like the Force) with the corrupted language of Bush/Cheney, thus drawing no distinctions between their corrosive/coercive speech and that of literary theorists. There is, of course, a kind of violence in disciplinarity, as Foucault would be the first to remind you: certainly I've had to learn to write and speak a certain way to be accepted into the institutional framework of the academy in which I wish to make my living; still, I believe I have far more discursive freedom than the hapless job interviewees Simon describes overhearing at his local Starbucks. But it does not appear on second look that Simon really intends to start his revolution in the English departments: he has bigger fish to fry.

I'm not fully persuaded by the specific critical gestures Simon makes to show how the poetry he wishes to valorize (his example-poets are Mina Loy, Tom Raworth, and Lisa Robertson) functions as anarchist text, because it seems to reduce to the old Language-y argument that anti-absorptive writing (a more general description than "anarchist" that seems to fit the poems he quotes) permits/demands democratic participation from the reader in the creation of its meanings. More compelling to me is Simon's extremely clear explanation of anarchist poetry as that which seeks either a line of flight from power (all "power" being ipso facto bad to an anarchist) in a kind of primitivism (this has implications for my thinking about pastoral that I'm going to have to, er, think more about it) or fights it, attempting "to batter the language into shapes that cannot be conduits of power." This seems like it could be a very productive path toward understanding what flarf is trying to do (flarf is anarchistic, it seems to me, in the old-fashioned bomb-throwing sense), though I don't quite see how flarfists or any group can avoid becoming power-structures in their own right, if only because every group has an inside and an outside. But perhaps that's just why Simon doesn't consider flarf, but rather three poets (he also mentions Julianna Spahr, Laura Glenum, and Frederick Seidel—whatever else I can say about Simon, I certainly approve of his taste) who are outside any groupings less porous than "Modernism" (Loy), "an avant garde body aligned in many ways with American experiments such as Language Poetry" (Raworth—the object of the clause is actually Raworth's work, not his body, but I like the effect produced), or "a kind of nomad" (Robertson). Robertson is recently on record with her rejection of "community" and embracement of "the real texture of friendship," which certainly seems in line with Simon's anarchist reading of her; it may also have the salutary effect of making anarchism seem more homely and indigenous, as it were: an expression of how many people actually live or wish to live, rather than a doxology. Is friendship a form of the "counterpower" that Simon speaks of, tantalizingly, at the end of his essay? Much to ponder and like in the new absent: I'm looking forward to reading the other essays from Thomas Basbøll and Andy Gricevich next.

- Finally, I'm a little surprised by how much I'm enjoying the latest issue of APR. I'm finding things to like about almost all the poetry I've read in it: Yusef Komunyakaa isn't much on my radar these days but there's a lot of heft and moral grandeur to the excerpts here from The Autobiography of My Alter Ego; Cynthia Cruz is sharp and spiky; a resurrected essay on "Poetic Listening" by Merle Brown has interesting things to say about an odd-seeming couple, Wallace Stevens and Frank O'Hara; Mark Doty, another big-deal poet who I don't read very often, blew me away with his beautiful "Theory of the Sublime" (and I enjoyed the essay on its composition that followed it); Sarah Maclay, who I hadn't heard of before, contributes two prose poems whose whirling rhythms will stay with me; David Trinidad has an enjoyably gossipy, almost trashy account of the friendship and rivalry between Sexton and Plath, along with a more thoughtful examination of their work and influence on each other; Anne Carson introduced me to one of the greatest poems of Denmark, Inger Christensen's It, which I'd never heard of; and Robin Becker sheds some light on Virgil's Georgics as a poetry of sustainability, of obvious interest to me (I was also surprised to discover, though she doesn't say this explicitly, that a significant portion of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech might have been lifted from Virgil: Becker quotes David Ferry's translation on those fortunate enough to avoid "experience of the iron / Hard-heartedness of the law, the Forum's madness, / Insolence of bureaucratic office." Doesn't that sound just like "the whips and scorns of time, / The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, / The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, / The insolence of office and the spurns / That patient merit of the unworthy takes"? Why have I never seen a note on the play calling attention to this?). There's more I haven't gotten to, but I'm impressed with how much better a job APR seems to be doing at being ecumenical than the higher-profile and vastly better-funded Poetry.

Monday, December 04, 2006

My musings on fiction and pleasure have produced valuable responses from Eric Selinger and Mark Scroggins, as well as a tip fromo Ray Davis to check out an old essay of his which reframes the debate in terms of science fiction. I'm grateful for all of these interventions, though I feel closest to what Mark has to say in a passage that Eric rejects:
The deus ex machina here is to invoke a political or (which often boils down to the same thing) moral argument: that anti-absorptive work is somehow bbetter for you, or that it somehow works to change the world (not immediately, not directly, not vulgar-Marxistly) by altering the way you or your readers conceive the world.

In my bones I believe that these arguments are more or less right, tho I have yet to see them stated in a way that I find more than temporarily convincing.
For Eric, all pleasure is equally valid and anyone who says otherwise is deluded or a snob. Whatever my moral/psycho-sexual/pathological choices of metaphor, I too tend to look at pleasure as an absolute good—or it would be more accurate to say that I'm extremely suspicious of those who would regulate or prescribe pleasures. But I have no problem being a sort of carnival barker for the pleasures undreamt of by those who've never been properly exposed to more sophisticated pleasures than the McRib of middlebrow fiction and poetry. Come see the Bearded Lady of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E! Thrill to the feats of daring of the New York School! This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Dark Ride!

Eric is absolutely correct when he says, "Don't think that reading immersive fiction is 'passive'; it only feels that way because the skills it takes come so easily to you, have been so naturalized, that you no longer notice you're deploying them!" But doesn't that suggest an argument based on education: that the anti-absorptive requires the development of a new skill set, one that develops one's critical capacity because it at least potentially resists being so "naturalized"? And wouldn't that be a change in the world, if more people were capable of registering the Other in others and the Other in themselves through cultivating texts that resist "naturalization"? The opposite of the impulse to repeat, "That's just the way it is"? (Cue Bruce Hornsby.) It's certainly changed my world. It feels like an ethical opportunity if not an ethical imperative: a chance to enlarge and develop one's moral senses.

More later if the mood strikes.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The other thing that bothers me about much of the contemporary American fiction I've read is the condescension shown to the characters. When Russo writes about the hapless ex-wife of his sympathetic if nebbishy hero in Empire Falls we are invited to feel superior to her, to shake our heads at her inability to recognize her folly in throwing over a good man for the sake of a blithering, dishonest chump. Perhaps that's just a function of comedy: "Comedy is, as we have said, an imitation of characters of a lower type—not, however, in the full sense of the word bad, the ludicrous being merely a subdivision of the ugly. It consists in some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive. To take an obvious example, the comic mask is ugly and distorted, but does not imply pain." But even if you hold with Aristotle here, there is genuine pain in the portrait of this character—most especially in her alienation from her sensitive daughter—and pain in the book which (spoiler alert) ends with a school shooting. Empire Falls is a tragicomedy, and in an almost classical way Russo emphasizes fate, as symbolized by the Knox River whose course was changed by a local millionaire only to end up sweeping away that millionaire's widow in a flood decades later. But I find myself impatient with the schematics of this. The book is more memorable for its evocation of a small world, which is as I've said Russo's specialty. It's why I actually think the bagatelle Straight Man is his most successful if least ambitious novel, because it's almost purely comic.

I dislike Russo's fiddling with tragedy because it seems to depend on a constriction of what's possible. You might call his portrayal of poor people stuck in their ruts a form of versimilitude, but it seems willful to me, like the predicaments of some of Hardy's characters (I sometimes feel that the Wessex novels are nineteenth-century versions of the Kobayashi Maru test from Star Trek): the character's every chance of escape from his or her situation is cut off so that we can see them squirm. I suppose my complaint isn't much different from D.H. Lawrence's in his marvelous and idiosyncratic "Study of Thomas Hardy." And Lawrence in fact points the way toward the mode of fiction I have the most respect for. His most exciting novels are polyphonic in the Bakhtinian sense: Women in Love presents us with vividly strange characters with passionately opposed belief systems, and the novel gives us a struggle between and among those characters that seems in no way predetermined by the novelist's own convictions. The world Lawrence builds is open-ended: he does not pretend to master the fates of each character or to understand their folly as just folly. His characters strive to be as intelligent and critical and perceptive as Lawrence himself does. It's a strange sort of fiction—we aren't likely to recognize Women in Love as "realistic" in the ordinary sense of that word. But it's intensely realistic and gripping in its portrayal of the struggle to found a basis for one's own identity, and for one's relations to others, when the given social roles available to us (sometimes for reasons of class, sometimes of gender) fall short. In Aristotlean terms, Lawrence's characters are not of a "lower type" than us, nor are they the higher types to be found in Greek tragedy: they are like us, but profoundly dissatisfied with that condition. There's a rigorous morality to that, or rather the potential for transcendental morality (in the Kantian sense of discovering the necessary preconditions for morality) that attracts me.

Should I ever attempt to write another novel (a first attempt at high school tragicomedy, written in my early twenties, is hiding in a box under the spare bed), I would want it to make full use of novelistic resources: otherwise I might as well just call it prose. And it seems to me that the greatest of those resources—tantamount to world-building—is the ability to accurately describe and manifest the struggle of individuals who are permitted the same resources, and the same fundamental unknowing, as the author possesses.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

For my fellow job-seekers: a Lacanian take on the academic job search by Geoffrey Wilson: "MLAlienation."
Freakishly warm weather in Chicago and now back in Ithaca—if it's global warming, it's a case of the frog luxuriating in the pot before the first lethal bubbles form. I've been reading realist fiction by acclaimed middle-aged white men recently. First it was Tobias Wolff's Old School, because I'm a sucker for boarding-school stories (though I never attended one), then Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Wolff's is interesting because it's transparently the autobiography of the particular writer he became, one who almost literally navigates the Charybdis of personality (in the forms of Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway) and the Scylla of ideology (in the form of Ayn Rand) to strike at the heart of a kind of self-exposing authenticity achieved, somewhat paradoxically in the story, through an act of plagiarism. Really it's a book about piety, and one's patience for that sort of thing depends largely on whether you yourself have the kind of religious feeling for literature that Wolff's narrator does. Though in his case, that religious feeling is linked to a powerful case of class envy: Wolff's narrator is from, one gathers, a working-class family in the Northwest, and is part Jewish besides, so the tony Northeastern private school he attends in the early 1960s is part of a project of self-invention that is ironically completed by his expulsion. In its sly way the book is a manifesto for the kind of antimodernist storytelling that it is such a fine example of, but it's the self-consciousness required by a manifesto, even a covert one, that makes it most interesting to me.

Russo's novel won the Pulitzer and was thus almost guaranteed to be mediocre: I still found pleasure, though, in Russo's facility in conjuring the small-town Northeastern Rust Belt world that has been the main character of all his novels with the notable exception of Straight Man, a hilarious academic satire. World-immersion is for me the most primordial pleasure of reading fiction—I think of the "vivid, continuous dream" that John Gardner called for—and it's a pleasure diametrically opposed to the Barthesian bliss of language: an imagistic dream virtually requires the disappearance of the language, sheer transparency. But it's also a distinctly bodily pleasure, if only in the negative sense: one morning, groggy from my own dreams, I picked up Empire Falls and immediately fell into the story, my eyes moving rapidly back and forth as though I were still in REM sleep, ignoring my system's cries for the usual morning dose of coffee. If dreams are, as many believe, a means of absorbing stimuli so as to keep you from waking up, then reading immersive fiction works similarly on me, so that I forget to eat or go to the bathroom or even to move my limbs. That's why such fiction is the best tonic for flying on airplanes: for several years I flew without discomfort by reading and rereading the Aubrey-Maturin novels. When I do notice the language in a book like Russo's, it's generally an infelicity, a speed bump: an ambiguous pronoun, a clumsy simile, which I'm sure the author would revise if he could so as to go back into the dream. (The single deliberate resistance the text offers to the reader takes the form of occasional italicized interchapters: but as the content and tone of these interchapters doesn't actually vary from that of the main text, one merely strains one's eyes in irritation trying to fall asleep again.)

All this is antithetical to the pleasures I seek from poetry, or from fiction that foregrounds the language through the beauty or ugliness of its sentences. Most readers (on airplanes or elsewhere) are after the infantilizing dream-state, and yet I can't blame others or myself for wanting to be nurtured by certain reading experiences rather than pricked into greater consciousness. A healthy diet, so to speak, probably requires both. But isn't the moral content that creeps into my language here interesting? Immersive fiction as trans-fats, innovative writing as leafy greens. I am loath to become a scold, urging children to read Language poetry because it's good for you. Is the pleasure of anti-absorptive writing simply the masochistic pleasure of self-denial, of anorexia? Is it a "higher" pleasure because further from the pleasures of the flesh? And yet the anti-absorptive is closer to the body of language than immersive fiction is: we savor the materiality of phonemes and syntax and sentences, provoked into the kind of apperception that requires us to look up from the book now and then and figure. One type of reading is active and closer to writing; the other is passive and demands our submission—there's a masochism for you.

So you could turn it either way: one's own stance is what determines whether a text will provide jouissance or pleasure. This is all commonplace enough. As a writer, though, I wonder about the writer's pleasure, since what doesn't please oneself probably won't please others. The pleasures of anti-absorptive writing are manifest to me, because one thinks into the language—but if anyone's a masochist in this scenario, isn't it the author of absorptive fiction, whose language is at best a tool, at worst an impediment, designed to disappear into the reader's dream? Where's the fun in that? It probably comes not from language, but from the elements of the dream: one must abstract oneself from primary concerns with idiom and syntax and instead focus on the larger linguistic constructs that we call plot, character, setting, etc. There's pleasure enough: and for me, it's the pleasure of world-building that has the greatest appeal.

What I wonder, then, is what combination of the two modes is possible. World-building would seem to require a writer to peer through language toward what he wants to represent, whether those representations are achieved through meticulous research or first-hand experience or both. The best example I can come up with of a world built out of language as such—the anti-absorptive world—is the one that's always before my eyes these days, Ronald Johnson's ARK. Here is language that wants to be literal without ever being less than itself: here is a structure that communicates, like a concrete poem, primarily its own structureness. The experience of reading ARK is the experience of wandering through a world, but one's eyes are always wide open, else you'll trip over the ambiguities of his symmetrical syntax. His is the complexity of interwoven surfaces, with none of the "depth" we seem to perceive in the submarine fictions of a Russo or an O'Brian or a Tolkien. This too, finally, is dissatisfying: but what might an ark make possible, what survives from it once the waters have receded? I aim to find out.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving from Buffalo Grove, Illinois. Today I'd like to give thanks for the moral and imaginative vision of Adrienne Rich:
But when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder we are, to an almost physical degree, touched and moved. The imagination's roads open before us, giving the lie to that brute dictum, There is no alternative."
And we should not omit the following paragraph, which is the one many would most wish omitted:
Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images - is it the constriction of literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism - a stunted language? Or is it the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? Poetry has the capacity to remind us of something we are forbidden to see. A forgotten future: a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, the subjection of women, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom - that word now held under house arrest by the rhetoric of the "free" market. This on-going future, written-off over and over, is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Goodbye, Robert Altman. And thanks.
Why did nobody tell me that Rodney Koeneke has a blog? Or that he's changing the way he pronounces his name?

Also, I'd like to alert you to the publication of Danielle Dutton's Attempts at a Life, forthcoming in March from Tarpaulin Sky Press. Christian Peet sent me an advance copy: it's a gorgeously produced book, but of course it's the content that's really grabbing me. She calls them stories but I think of them as prose poems, and I'm taken with the first one, "Jane Eyre," which is a bent retelling of the novel that engages, I think, with the powerful sense of identification that most women (and quite a few men) have with its uncannily "real" heroine. It's a kind of wreading that foregrounds subjectivity as an activity, as recognition. I'm trying it myself right now with a piece called "Les Miserables"; I'll post it when it's ready.

Time to prepare for class: The Winter's Tale, which is for me one of the most moving of Shakespeare's plays: the scene of Hermione's resurrection brings me to tears every time. Not sure how well it's playing with my students.
Last week Cornell's English Department was visited by David Hinton, the poet and translator of classical Chinese poetry. I was going to blog about it but Julie Phillips Brown (an MFA/PhD student here who's read for SOON) has gone and beat me to it. Generally been slow on the trigger with blogging lately. The semester's winding down (or rather, up) and keeping me in a busy and distracted state. Normally busy-ness is an kind of aid to concentration, like the prospect of hanging, but not lately.

I am at least getting some work done on my Ronald Johnson chapter: right now I'm thinking about his engagement with Concrete Poetry, and I've been immersed in books on the subject, especially Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View, which the good people of UBUWEB have archived in its entirety along with a vast wealth of hard to find texts on experimental poetry—I never realized the depth of their collection before, it's an invaluable resource. I don't know why it didn't quite consciously occur to me before, but of course Concrete Poetry has obvious affinities with Objectivist writing, which in turn of course derives from Imagism and "No ideas but in things," etc. From another angle, Concrete Poetry (and I am mostly thinking of the texts I've found in Solt that are part of that 1950s-60s movement, not visual poetry more generally) is just a more radical form of the fundamental avant-garde art technique, montage: the constructivist syntax that determines connections between elements of a collage or constellation (Eugen Gomringer, the Swiss-Bolivian "founder" of CP, called his early work "constellations"—I don't know if he was aware of the Frankfurt School's concept of the same name) is magnified or refracted so as to break up the syntax on a level smaller even than that of the line—even the "syntax" of the individual word or phoneme. By these lights some of late Zukofsky has begun to appear to me as a kind of concrete poetry: 80 Flowers achieves its compressed and ambiguous syntax in part through the concentration of each "flower" into the space of five "words" (hyphenates permitted) and eight lines, claiming for itself something of the telegraphic immediacy of the concrete poem even as the syntax denies or rather radically slows access to whatever a "flower" might have to "say."

What has this got to do with pastoral? In part, I think it's the naivety deliberately assumed by the concrete/Objectivist/Imagist poet, and the naivety of the claim that one can transform something so slippery as language into an object as available as a billboard. This also points toward the problem all pastoral poetry has in drawing the line between critique and commodification: the image that puts us in the presence of "nature" may reject and negate capitalist exploitation or simply be another manifestation of it, like the Marlboro Man. Some form of rigor—mayhap the "slowing" I referred to in Zukofsky—is required to produce the valuable sort of pastoral. The plain-speech rebellion against rhetoric of Williams and Pound seems pretty much exhausted by now, and most plain-speech pastoral poems nowadays just read like miniature vacations, with little or no critical bite unless an oppositional context can be found for them (a chapbook of plain pastoral from a small press will seem more valid to me somehow than a perfect-bound one—but how legible is that shift, really?). Some kind of torque on the language is required. I guess this whole project has been an attempt to find a formal or constructivist affiliation for this mode of writing. It seems most likely that it would succeed when the naivety is tactical rather than genuine—when the poet is "foolish like a trout," in Richard Hugo's phrase. One may say these things about the immediate objectivity of the poem, just as one may put elegant language into the mouth of a shepherd—but in the service of some goal that goes beyond mere nostalgia for some imaginary pre-modern way of being. Nostalgia as a means, not an end—what good is it to say, with Emerson, that words are fossil poetry (and isn't that the sentiment that the desire to objectify the poem stems from)? What shall we do with these fossils, besides dig them up? Shall we use them to prove evolution? Or to claim that we haven't evolved at all? Shall these bones live? And what could that mean, what would that look like?
But no matter where the concrete poet stands with respect to semantics, he invariably came to concrete poetry holding the conviction that the old grammatical-syntactical structures are no longer adequate to advanced processes of thought and communication in our time. In other words the concrete poet seeks to relieve the poem of its centuries-old burden of ideas, symbolic reference, allusion and repetitious emotional content; of its servitude to disciplines outside itself as an object in its own right for its own sake. This, of course, asks a great deal of what used to be called the reader. He must now perceive the poem as an object and participate in the poet's act of creating it, for the concrete poem communicates first and foremost its structure. (Solt)

What, in short, to make of Johnson, whose pastoral is of the liveliest, most delightful sort—but who appears completely uninterested in critique or social engagement? What to make of someone so in love with surfaces? Do I force depth upon hiim by finding allusions and symbols and all the other "burdens" in his work that Solt claims the concrete poet wishes to discard? "Structure" is undoubtedly what interested the writer of ARK, who plainly states his desire to produce something non-discursive, an anti-Cantos. He communicates a structure. But what does this desire to communicate structure first and foremost itself communicate?

Friday, November 17, 2006

News from the Department of Unsettling Coincidences. And yes, my middle name happens to be Michael.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Someone found this blog with the search term "cheap HEADstones."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

It was a pleasure to have Shanna Compton and Ryan Murphy up to Ithaca for the SOON series last night. The mysterious Mr. Murphy read first: if you saw the profile of him that appeared in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers then you know about his "one-shots": chapbooks and broadsides that are each attributed to their own imaginary publisher. They're not available on the Web or in any stores that I'm aware of except for McNally Robinson in Greenwich Village: Ryan calls this "anti-marketing," by which I think he means that remaining a bit mysterious actually intensifies the demand for what he publishes. He was kind enough to gift me with what I presume to be one of his own one-shots of his own work, a handsome chapbook called Poems for the American Revolution whose publisher is given as "The Dutchess County Department of Occupational Training," along with the somewhat more conventionally published Down with the Ship from Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, a product of the MFA program of the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.

Ryan read from both books and I was particularly taken with the chapbook, whose six short poems are titled after famous figures from the American Revolution but whose content is obliquely and tenuously determined by those titles, which serves to suggest new possibilities for what we might mean by an American revolution, even if only a turning in place. I like the incantatory qualities of the first poem, "Revere":
Bombardier, you laid the tracks
For our hundreds of eyes
Spine for flowers, spit azalea

The lush lawn of the vacant girls' school
Tuesday is Sunday only
No one is dreaming

Bunker Hill, I-98, the harbor subs
Like the face of a watch.
I should like to wake you, minute by minute

Clatter through the restless green night.
Bombardier, with your lantern eyes
And lantern head

If if
And by sea.
Shanna was next, and I've already had a bit to say about the pleasures of her work. She read a few poems from Down Spooky (including, I'm pleased to say, "Post-Texas Expressive Heat," quoted in full in my review) and then more recent work from a promising sequence called For Girls, inspired by a 19th-century manual of etiquette written by a Mrs. E.R. Shepherd which purports to tell young women how to be young ladies. Here's the poem that Aaron ably transformed into a broadside (really a trifold) for the occasion (I use asterisks to represent the breaks, but you should try to envision three columms, side by side):
You can carry, girls,
a little distance

your influence
to the new side

your awakened study
of formation, requirements


First then, girls, you should
fasten onto your shoulders

a strap for purpose
for industrious earnest

pressure, for attending
to the demands of nature

Think of it
as a uniform

outside of which
you'd be too apart


All rooms have doors
& also windows

I haven't actually
heard that said, but

a draft might come
at right angles

toward the animal
part of you

the portion you've
bitten raw
I look forward to seeing these poems collected in a book, as I suspect they eventually will be. Thanks to both our readers, their significant others Kira and Shawn, and the folks who come out to hear a little poetry on a very rainy Saturday night.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Caustic empathy.
Poetry does a far better job of coming to grips with contradiction than the political prose I've been hacking at all morning. To wit: Rick Snyder's exceptionally useful "The New Pandemonium: A Brief Overview of Flarf" that's up at Jacket. His take on Nada Gordon's V. Imp—really, the poetry itself that he reproduces there—moves me deeply. I'm going to reproduce the passage from “Foreword: The End of Greed, Imperialism, Opportunism, and Terrorism" that Snyder quotes here:
Mule and Ostrich took a walk in the vale of tears. Their minds were elsewhere.

“Tread lightly and accurately,” Ostrich reminded Mule. Mule nodded solemnly.

The hoi-polloi stormed around them, rending their garments: Brooks Brothers suits, red suspenders, tallises, green headresses, burkas. Everyone was spewing so much vital fluid that their faces, hands, and chests had gone all viscous.

“No one had a clue,” said Mule, lowering his head and pawing at the rubble, his mane and eyelashes thick with white dust. “I feel so mournful.”

“Don’t you still want to take the language somewhere else?” Ostrich asked, swerving his head around to stare cross-eyed at Mule.

“Of course I do,” sighed Mule, “I’m a beast of burden. That’s all I know how to do. But right now I wish we had hands so we could hold hands.”

“That’s liberal humanism,” said Ostrich, looking ruefully at his leathery talons and Mule’s splayed, yellowing hooves.

“So?” said Mule, his lip quivering.
Yes, Mule. Yes, Ostrich.
In what could be the biggest policy divide on the panels, Senator Barbara Boxer, the liberal California Democrat and environmental advocate, is in line to take control of the Environment and Public Works Committee from Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, who has disputed the existence of global warming.

“He thinks global warming is a hoax and I think it is the challenge of our generation,” said Ms. Boxer, who said she has a cordial working relationship with Mr. Inhofe. “We have to move on it.”

You can't tell me that's not, at least potentially, a change for the better.
For two posts in a row, Joshua Clover laments the foolishness and ideological blindness of other poets (and, as his second post makes clear, this poet in particular) who ran out to vote for, as he puts it, "candidates more conservative than the Republicans they found beyond revulsion twenty years ago" and who now dance pathetically in the end zone celebrating a Democratic Congress. Apparently I didn't express nearly enough skepticism to satisfy him: indeed, his tone makes me think he lives in a world comprised of a virtuous Berkeley-Marxist-anarchist minority who are all "in the know," and who behold the majority of marks and suckers with mixed pity and contempt. There's hardly any distinction to be made between liberal marks and conservative suckers in the bargain, since both by voting at all vote to perpetuate the system. Those of us who, in spite of our misgivings about a badly damaged political system, joined the less-than-half of the eligible population who voted (does that mean in fact that 60 percent of the electorate are Marxists and anarchists rather than apathetic? Would that it were so!), discover that we did not in fact vote for change, for some kind of brake on an incoherent, compulsively violent, and reckless administration, but for more of the same. The "personnel," as Joshua would have it, are all empty signifiers, so that by his own lights he can plausibly plug in "Condoleeza Rice" for my "Nancy Pelosi." It's a gross misinterpretation: I am not celebrating the rise of any old woman to the post of Speaker of the House, but the rise of a specific woman who is probably more sympathetic to Berkeley-style politics than anyone in the new Congress (with the notable and welcome exception of Bernie Sanders, I-VT). Joshua takes such a long view of our admittedly disastrous era that individuals and institutions scarcely matter: we are all fiddling while Rome burns and it signifies little who takes the part of lead violin.

Perhaps he is right. And I have nothing to say to anyone who is actually pursuing an alternative politics: who doesn't just stand aloof with jaundiced eye but actually works for radical change. I don't see myself as someone who does this, at least not yet: I am at best a sympathetic fellow traveler, reading Rexroth and Bookchin, trying to formulate an adequate response to the crises of the world I find myself in, while at the same time unwilling to make the complete separation from the mainstream—the world where most of my friends and family and ordinary people live—that the radical position seems to demand. I criticize myself constantly for not being more active, more courageous, more clear-sighted. But when I look at the world I find more questions than answers. I am not satisfied by any single political program that I've ever become aware of. And I persist in seeing difference where Joshua sees identity: Democrats, even conservative Democrats, are not Republicans, for the simple reason that they've been out of power for the past six years and have had no significant influence on the ghastly policies of Bush-Cheney. I want opposition to those troglodytes on almost any terms, because I think they are way, way beyond the ordinary ghastliness of neo-liberalism: they are fanatics personally responsible for the loss of more than half-a-million Iraqi lives. And maybe I really have been suckered—"please don't throw me in that briar patch!"—maybe the neo-liberal machine will simply function more smoothly and destructively now that we have divided government. But maybe not. I'm taking a chance on "maybe."

We Americans do need to imagine something new, we do need to take on responsibility appropriate to our power to affect the world. But right now I want to slow down the pace of destruction: when the big crisis comes, the Depression-equivalent that I'm expecting sometime in the next decade or so, I don't want the damage to our environment to be utterly beyond repair. I don't have the answers, or a fully consistent political philosophy. But given the simple choice between casting a vote that might do something to impede the flow of greed and and arrogance and fanaticism, and not voting—irrespective of what other activities or criticism I might be able to muster—I chose to vote. And I am provisionally pleased with the results.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Reading the Kenneth Rexroth issue of Chicago Review. Put off to some degree by the man's old-fashioned displays of sexism and machismo: these seem rote, tiresome, and predictable, but his affinity with Lawrence (who I feel has genuine insight into the workings of sexual desire and sexual difference, however obscured these insights might be by talk of loins and plasms) might point toward an at least partial redemption of these unattractive qualities. More impressed by his seriousness and sense of mission: though wary of messianisms, I think poets with a genuinely elevated sense of what poetry is for preserve the art as a whole from the inconsequentiality it's perpetually teetering on the brink of—though at the same time I'm glad not everyone thinks this way, it would severely restrict poetry's imaginative range. I can only think of two living American poets who convey a Rexrothian depth of seriousness in all they say and do (without, I hasten to add, sharing Rexroth's essential poetics or politics): Allen Grossman and Jorie Graham. Both produce work that can edge into self-parody, but it's easiest to parody those who actually stand for something: call it the Old Sincerity. Anyway, Rexroth has this to say on the subject in a 1931 letter to Louis Zukofsky that seems startlingly relevant to our present situation:
The poet has, after a few perfunctory struggles, acquiesced in the judgment of capitalist civilization: that he is a weak, lazy fellow, incapable of rational thought, merely a convenient dispenser of vicarious spasms of emotion. The unconscious efficiency with which a class preserves itself is uncanny. The greatest enemy of social stasis is the subterranean transvaluations which go on in the arts, and this enemy operates most efficiently in the art of poetry for the reason that poetry is, or can be, most intimate with the values concerned. Poetry is the symbolic criticism of value and because this criticism can garb itself in even the most random subject, it is specifically inapprehensible. Many a panegyric, written as a set subject for the enthronement of a monarch has been part of the exploration of avenues of thought which has led to the overthrow of his dynasty. Therefore, as the range of value for poetry reduces to a minimum the security of the prevaliing ideology approaches a maximum.
This seems entirely consonant with Adorno's argument in Aesthetic Theory and elsewhere that the critical power of an artwork resides in its "subterranean" negativity, its implicit rejection of things as they are—Rexroth's remark about the panegyric would extend that possibility of rejection even into a poem that superficially affirms "the prevailing ideology." At the same time he seems to say that when poetry is not valued dominant ideologies go unchallenged, but maybe he's saying something else: that poetry needs to be able to address the entire "range of value" or be a test of value in general if it is to have critical and I daresay (for the 1931 Rexroth) revolutionary power. Read that way, Rexroth's paragraph would affirm a diversity of seriousnesses and a variety of means by which poetry can act as "the symbolic criticism of value"—which itself might encompass anything from an attack on prevailing values to a conservative call of return to forgotten or negelected values to a fully Blakean transformation of values. Rexroth seems to have managed all three in the course of his career and I may have more to say about him when I'm finished reading the issue.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Two Cheers for Democracy

I am skeptical of the Democrats' power to deliver change—or their commitment as a party to the kind of progressive values and socialist programs that I favor. Our political system seems all but bankrupt and broken to me: for a long time it's been a servant of short-term business interests and poorly defended against the tyranny of the majority. God knows what kind of voting problems are going to come out in the wash over the next few days. And the Senate, which is still too close to call, will be in the power of "moderates" who are in fact serious social conservatives even if it swings to the Democratic side.

That said... "Nancy Pelosi, first woman to serve as Speaker of the House," has a nice ring to it.

I'm going to bed.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I voted. Ithaca is a left-wing bastion and all the Democrats are a lock (with the possible exception of our sheriff, who's got two opponents this year), but the more votes recorded for non-Republican candidates, the better. Plus I voted the Working Families ticket to give genuine progressives a boost.

Nonetheless, the heavy lifting is up to you folks in red states/districts. I hope your voting machines work (we have the old-fashioned lever system in Tompkins County, it works just fine).

Why isn't Election Day a national holiday?

Monday, November 06, 2006

The week's getting off to an ugly start: Republicans are gaining in the polls, and I just learned that Adrienne Shelly, star of two of my favorite movies from the early nineties, Trust and The Unbelievable Truth, apparently committed suicide last week.

Gimme some sweet redemption, sometime.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Ever since 2001 when it first came out and I read Elvis Mitchell's review, I've wanted to see Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang's film What Time Is It There? and last night I finally did. The plot is extremely simple: a man dies, and his wife and adult son are cut adrift from themselves and each other. The son, who sells watches on streetcorners, sells his own personal wristwatch to a young woman on her way to Paris; thereafter, the film intercuts between the lives of the son and mother and the young woman's alienated tour of Paris. The son becomes obsessed with Paris and specifically life lived on Parisian time, resetting every clock he encounters seven hours behind Taipei time. The mother obsesses over the possible reincarnation of her husband, shrouding their apartment in darkness so as not to "frighten" the father's spirit and making meals for him in the middle of the night. It's a slow film: one unsympathetic critic said it was like watching paint dry. The literature on Tsai confirms what the style of film suggests: a man in love with cinema, particularly what we might call its high European Modernist period—the Italian neorealism of the forties and the French Nouvelle Vague of the fifties. Not only does the male lead watch Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows but the female lead actually ends up sharing a park bench with Jean-Pierre Leaud, the star of Truffaut's film. Sounds pretentious, no? But what drew me into the film was its adaptation of the estranging devices of modernism—in cinematic language that means medium shots held by a static camera, no music on the soundtrack, a cast of uncharismatic actors or non-actors (on the DVD Tsiang claims that Lee Kang-shen, who has been the Leaud figure to Tsiang's Truffaut in many films, is not really a professional actor, and that Lu Yi-ching, who plays his mother, keeps a coffee shop between films), and long, long takes—in the service of a kind of realism. Or to put it another way, if the conventions attending a Hollywood film are artifices of absorption, the static, painterly frames of Tsiang's film (but "painterly" isn't quite right, it suggests a degree of aestheticization belied by the banality of what most often holds his camera's attention) foreground their artifice so as to foster both a deeper and more superficial level of absorption in the viewer.

Watching Tsiang's isolated characters struggle for some sense of connection in the wake of the father's death (a moment that is beautifully and hauntingly elided in the opening scenes: first we spend several minutes watching the father sitting around in his Taipei apartment, then we cut to the son being driven in a car with—it took me several moments to realize this —a cannister containing his father's ashes in his lap), my eyes glided across the screen, noticing details of the composition (often one character is foregrounded and isolated from another character in the same frame but in the background, in deep focus), while the characters do things like wait for trains, eat, lie in bed, go to the bathroom, or watch TV. Yet these details have a curious cumulative power. In the final scenes, the young tourist, Chen Shiang-Chyi, has failed at making a sexual connection with another Taiwanese woman she met in a cafe (simultaneously with similarly frustrated connections on the part of the other characters—Lu masturbates while a photo of her dead husband stares at us, and Lee has sex with a prostitute who later steals his case of watches). She lies asleep in a chair by a pond while some youths make off with her suitcase. In the next shot, while she is still sleeping, the suitcase floats across the pond from left to right. Then we see a well-dressed gentleman standing nearby who retrieves the suitcase from the pond with his umbrella and sets it back upright near, but not too near, Chen. When he turns we recognize the figure of the dead father. In the last shot he is standing with a Ferris wheel behind him in the distance: he lights a cigarette and walks off toward it, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Chaplin, as the clocklike Ferris wheel slowly begins to turn. I was moved nearly to tears by this unexpected and silent resurrection: the effect was not unlike what I feel reading The Winter's Tale when Hermione comes back to life at the end.

Though the characters are lonely and sorrowful, the film has a lightness of touch: there's nothing ponderous about the long shots, only a kind of mysterious dwelling with what feels like the shifting reality of human experience when strong emotion pulses under the banality of everyday life. Where opera or melodrama use dramatic confrontation and arias of feelling to illuminate character, Tsiang subsitutes more obviously formal devices—principally the sheer looking of the still camera, which when extended over time both invites and frustrates penetration of the characters' subjectivity. We cannot touch them but find we have been touched by them, lightly yet hauntingly, without seeming to move. I find myself likening this to the effect that a pattern in language can have on our emotions almost irrespective of the content of the words in that pattern. The rhythm of iambic pentameter, or the pulse of white space, or the sinuous sustaining of a sibilance, does secret work on my emotions while the poem seems to dwell on something ordinary—a red wheelbarrow, maybe, or a blackbird in a tree. Sometimes too a poem will work on me because I'm moved by its scale: the intensity of its presence whether almost instantaneous or drawn out over many pages. Pound's work demonstrates both ends of this: "In a Station of the Metro" can almost never be read, only reread, because it's over before you've properly begun it, and yet the kernel of experience that it contains has been transmitted straight into you; while The Cantos provoke, enrage, and move me to pathos almost by their mere being, their massive and monumental ambition, the scope of their failure. There isn't really a sufficient language for the affective dimension of formal devices—but I recognize and am drawn by works of art that foreground the means by which they were made, and the passion of the maker for those devices, while encoding more immediately recognizable human experience with those devices. I am moved by the very fact of the objective correlative, a variation on the pathetic fallacy: that objects rendered with a sufficiently exact attention might weep for us, or with us.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

November has come. Thanks to Mark, Craig, Jonathan, and Arthur for their comments on the poet-critic question. (All boys! Is there something inherently masculine about this kind of fretting over categories?) Certainly a big part of my interest in this question is professional: if I weren't an academic-in-training I wouldn't be quite as affected by the rather peculiar disciplinary demand of having to put my interests more or less in order. My list of "research interests" seems arbitrary to me, with a lot of overlap: Modernism, Twentieth Century, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, American Literature, Literary Theory, Critical Theory, Creative Writing. And where in there do I cram my love for Joyce and Woolf and Lawrence, or for Boswell's Life of Johnson, or Andrew Marvell and George Herbert, or Keats?

Love is the question (the answer?). While part of me instinctively accedes to the notion that the practitioner has insights unavailable to the non-practitioner, I fall back on my belief that poetry, more than other verbal arts, calls upon all its readers to become practitioners: to think and feel from inside the poem they read (especially a poem they read aloud). Lyric especially demands this, given how much it leaves out. Nearly everyone has at some time or other written poems (even if only between the ages of thirteen and seventeen) and feels the impulse to encode some momentary experience in memorable language; at the same time, the implicit demand of poetry that it be responded to with writerly impulses helps to explain why most people find poetry to be intimidating. Even if you don't buy this reading-is-writing argument, most readers of poetry will concede that it demands a different range of mental activities than prose does. But the question for me has always been: given that my most instinctual response to poetry is a desire to write, what sort of writing shall I do?

My purest impulse—the one resulting most directly from the stimulus of a good poem—is to write a few lines of my own. But I also have the choice of writing something more or less critical, ranging from sincere puffery ("You have to read this!") to close analysis and historical contextualization. The sort of writing called "poetics" divides and includes these impulses: critical writing intended to enable the production of new poetry. And when I look at the first draft of my Zukofsky chapter, for instance, I find I have produced something closer to poetics: a largely affectionate treatment of Zukofskyan pastoral that has stimulated my more global desire for what I loosely call postmodern pastoral poetry. My reading of Zuk helps me read for that impulse in other poets, and nudges my own work in that direction. Very useful to me as a poet—but as a critic, I must sit down now with a colder eye and rework that chapter to be more dialectical, more skeptical, about Zukofsky and pastoral both. The illumination my writing/reading accomplishes, if it does, will then be less personal and idiosyncratic, but arguably more useful for those less interested in furthering their own projects than they are in arriving at some clearer view of Zukofsky and his engagement with pastoral.

That's as near as I can figure it, for now. Further comments are always welcome.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Had an interesting conversation with one of my advisors, Jonathan Monroe, yesterday—about the Zukofsky chapter but more generally about the sometimes incommensurate demands of poetry and scholarship (or to put it a bit more finely, criticism). He reminded me that serious criticism of contemporary poetry, especially by poets, is quite rare, unless you are critiquing a poet from a different aesthetico-political "camp." Even dead poets are not exempt: Zukofsky, for instance, has been vigorously embraced by the Language poets and most of their writing about his work praises it or actively seeks to elevate and canonize it. On the other side you have more conservative poet-critics who simply dismiss Zukofsky as eccentric and irrelevant. There's very little genuinely dialectical criticism of his or any other experimental poet's work: criticism which accepts as given that a particular poet is important and worth critiquing, but which then goes on to discover ambiguities and contradictions in that work and in that work's reception. (One major exception that comes to mind is the work of our leading Zukofsky critic, Mark Scroggins, whose rigorous scholarship is backed up by a healthy, though never cynical, skepticism.)

Part of the problem is simple human craving for approval: we do not want to alienate other members of the community we see as ours. But there's another rift between poetry/poetics and criticism: as a poet, I am primarily interested in what enables my own work and the work of other poets I care about. When I read a poet like Zukofsky, I am looking for news I can use: techniques and themes and turns of phrase that Zukofsky made more possible. For me, one of poetry's primary functions is the generation of more poetry—reading is writing, or wreading in Jed Rasula's phrase. That's a fundamentally different attitude than that assumed by the critic, who reads in a more specifically interrogatory mode, and with a more or less specific ideological axe to grind. It's the old battle of Beauty vs. Truth, really. And the question for a poet-critic like myself has to be not, Whose side are you on?, but: How are these different modes of reading implicated in each other for me? Why am I hyphenated? How can this tension be productive for both kinds of work, both modes of questioning? Mark, you're a poet-critic. Care to address this question from your perspective?

Much to ponder. In the meantime, I'm on the road again: to western Massachusetts for the wedding of our friends Jen and Bronson at Gedney Farm. See you when I get back.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

I have become an academic job applicant cliche: obsessing over paper quality, staples vs. no staples, tearing apart and rebuilding my c.v. over and over. It's not pretty. By the time you actually get around to applying for an academic position, most of the real work is behind you: you have to stand or fall on how you've spent your time as a grad student. What I, and hundreds of other people, are doing now is akin to the twisting and contorting of one's body after the bowling ball has already been thrown, in a futile and entirely magical attempt to further shape its destiny. It's not exactly ergonomic or sensible behavior and I should cut it out. I will cut it out. Next week, maybe, after the applications have been sent.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Grieved to learn, via Jasper, of the death by cancer of Deborah Tall, who held what was perhaps her last reading at Bookery II the day of my wedding, September 17 (for obvious reasons I did not attend). She was a beloved figure here in Ithaca, particularly of young writers and poets, and she will be missed.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I am moved and enthralled to discover, via Nada, that Richard Foreman of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater has started keeping a blog, named for his upcoming show Wake Up Mr. Sleepy! Your Unconscious Mind Is Dead! Like Nada, I find his statements about theater applicable to poetics. I am especially interested, in the context of my dissertation and thinking about the poetics of fragmentation in general, in his desire to avoid the completeness that generally comes with theatrical or cinematic representation: the Gesamtkunstwerk that's pretty easy to associate with fascism, though not necessarily political fascism. (On the other hand, that seems exactly what Pound was after with the Cantos—but lacking the collaboration of history they devolved into something more useful and more interesting.) As Foreman writes, "Why can I return to a painting, a poem, aphorisms, music—? Yet to see a play or film more than once is usually unbearably boring? Because these other forms elude one by leaving out at least one level of perceptual experience." Of course this makes "a poem" a sort of undefined baseline, when in fact there are poems and poems. Those I tend to think of as being more aesthetically conservative do seem intent on presenting a kind of miniature totality of expression: here is me, here is something authentic, here is a piece of my beautiful soul. Sometimes I think poems that do not actually belong to this category are misread as such: in fact, maybe Foreman is right about the nature of language as a means of representation, and it's the reader who brings totality to the work. In that case the question is how ready-made a given reader's responses are (and thus more or less able to respond to a work that doesn't belong to some genre the reader's already familiar with).

Anyway, Foreman's method for avoiding completion in theater is worth reading about: he cites Stein, who saw her plays as "landscapes" for consciousness to wander across, and seeks to achieve a similar affect through his juxtaposition of stage and film:
No—-we seek a form that forces the perceiving mind to “jump” like a spark from one level of “potential content” (film) to another (on-stage performance)—-which means that normal “tracking consciousness” is bypassed while the new field created between spectator and the “in between” space manifest on-stage in a field of total alertness --without a subject! (The minute you have a subject, you have a prison created by that subject—and the deep content of this art is freedom)
In his first entry, Foreman elaborates on the nature of that "freedom":
What I do in my theater is simply to layer different self contained ‘realms of being’ (image, sound, idea, or movement) over one another in ways that allow such overlapping layers to bleed through each other and create thereby, maps of new mental territory in which heightened sensibility re-energizes the internal mechanism we all share in common.
Inspiring stuff. For some reason it has me thinking about the Adorno project currently being engaged in by Robert (love that photo of Adorno on the beach with headphones on—sounds like a sequel to Einstein on the Beach, don't it?), Mark, and Dave Park are currently embarked on. I'm fascinated by this because Adorno is probably the single most important theorist to my dissertation: the idea for the "negative pastoral" that I see avant-pastoralists like Zukofsky and Ronald Johnson practicing was inspired by the tantalizing hints Adorno drops in Aesthetic Theory and elsewhere about the nexus of the modern artwork (critical and negative) with utopian representation (almost always a false image of reconciliation between human beings and nature). How does Foreman enter into it? Because of that phrase "maps of new mental territory," which for Foreman seems more psychoanalytic than Marxist-utopian (I'm thinking of Frederic Jameson's "cognitive mapping"), and that interests me because sometimes negative pastoral as I've sketched it can seem a little abstract and dry, without the excitement of libidinal charge that Foreman's artwork, unashamedly pursuinng in full cry the riches of the (dead?) unconscious, wants to carry. In the context of my project, the joy and sense of freedom he describes comes closest to articulation in works like Zukofsky's 80 Flowers (which by at least doubling the meaning of every word and every provisional syntactic structure demands split consciousness from its reader, even as an affect of delight prevails over the text as a whole) and Johnson's writing (especially the concrete poetry, which cultivates the gap between visual and legible). It seems to me that the preservation of this gap (formal manifestation of the negative) is what makes it possible for these works to pull off an amazing trick: they are pastorals, having all the energy of the truly utopian, yet avoid being false. They are stimulating rather than wholly consolatory.

A last note, irrelevant to what's gone before: I'm very interested in the exchange between Mark and Ron that suggests how literally Ron may have taken the notion that Quietude = Anglophilia. Is that whole trouble-making dichotomy Post-Avant vs. SoQ derived from Ron's inability to "hear" English verse? A gag reflex his only response to "ceremonious words"? (Mark quotes a blogger new to me named Sean Lysaght as saying, “I think the missing piece of the Yank auditory canal is the ability to hear 'ceremonious words'. American poetry is so tuned to the vernacular that it no longer recognises poetry pitched in a higher key.") This is too simplistic, as Mark goes on to point out: but I wonder how much of it explains my own unwillingness to sign on to Ron's dichotomy? As I mentioned in reviewing Camille's book the other day, at Vassar in the late eighties/early nineties we English majors got a pretty traditional education in the British literary tradition, which did in fact seem vampirically to embrace the few American poets taught there (Bishop, Lowell, Berryman). My ear was very much conditioned by iambic pentameter, so much so that it took me some years to accliimate myself to the wild proliferation of New American vernaculars. But I'm still very fond of English verse and there's no erasing the primal grooves Herrick and Herbert and Milton and Shakespeare have carved in my mental records. In fact lately I've been contemplating writing some blank verse, partly because teaching a Shakespeare course has reminded me what an amazingly flexible and powerful instrument it can be. Anyway, it would be amusing if much of the controversy between the raw and the cooked simply comes down to "He (or she) who has the ears to hear, let them hear." Me, I plan to continue to cultivate binaural listening habits.

Off to Maryland for a couple of days tomorrow for a last wedding-related hurrah.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

My old friend Camille Guthrie from Vassar days has a new book out from Subpress called In Captivity. The title refers to the last of the famous Unicorn Tapestries on display at the Cloisters in northern Manhattan; I blogged about seeing them and Camille's engagement with them back in July 2005. The "In Captivity" tapestry seems anomalous to the sequence as a whole, which depicts the hunting and destruction of the unicorn: where in the sequence, if anywhere, does it belong? Do they catch it, then release it and kill it? Were there two unicorns? Or does the tapestry represent an alternate, choose-your-own-adventure style ending to the pursuit? At any rate, now I've read Camille's book and it's marvelous: wryly funny, lyrical, even mesmerizing in spots. I've admired her formally adventurous and daring work since college, but I think she's achieved a new fluency and wit here to accompany the mythic landscape that she generally chooses as the backdrop for her poetry. For one thing, New York City is as fully present and alive in this book as the medieval world of the tapestries is, and our contemporary idiom is woven seamlessly into a tapestry (the pun is unavoidable) of high lyric. Rilke and Rabelais coexist here, while I fancy I can hear the "classical" education in English literature that was on offer at Vassar (i.e., strong doses of poetry and prose from the English literary tradition with little or no theory gumming up the works) in Camille's citations of Milton, Shakespeare, Blake, and Edward Lear. There's also a splendid assortment of forms on display: the funny and erotic list poem "My Boyfriend," the Steinian stanzas of "The Hunters," a masterly sestina called "My Psychomachia" ("He who knows the word for a thing I know masters the thing"), and a sequence called "Defending Oneself" that consists of "mirrored" quatrains, two above and two below a single black line.

Any New York book nowadays is a post-9/11 book: Camille handles the disaster obliquely and yet personally, stalked and stalking through the streets, which can at times appear as a Waste Land but with the survivor's ironic distance constantly punctured and punctuated. There's a welcome sense of bodily experience that I can't help but think of as the feminist difference between what Camille's up to here and the Eliotic in general. Plus the pieces of literature and myth she conjures seems fresh and alive: not fragments shored against ruin but the palpable elements of one woman's experience. From "Defending Oneself":
The finest I could've afforded
I sent him ten pairs of antique Levi's
As soft as a rabbit napping on moss
I'll overnight twelve more Tuesday

Forget it all, Leaf Litter
Your letters were shredded in the Reign of Terror
Then used to cover potatoes from frost
It was a fairy vision


True and False Heart
She'll do it you can count on it
She'll chop off their candied heads
And pretend not to like the sound effects

I'll still speak to her reddening while we talk
But only in answering couplets
She—celebrated oil of vermin
Me—genuine dust of scorpion
There's an uncanny knowledge on display here, a rounded awareness of one's one darkest corners and the difficulties of an ambiguous cultural inheritance. It captivates me and I hope it will captivate many more readers.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Excellent reading last night. Wyatt's short fictions are sly and funny, with a surprising amount of pathos creeping in between deadpan deconstructions of the domestic New Yorker story. Michael was finishing up a Northeast tour promoting his comic novella Martian Dawn: a slow-burning satire on the personalities and producers of American culture, high and low, spiritual and commercial. Afterward Michael was generous enough to gift SOON with a slew of copies of SHINY, plus a couple of copies of his 2000 book of prose poems, Species. Huzzah for the gift economy!

Next month it's going to be a small-press fest featuring Erica Kaufman of Boku Books, Stacy Szymaszek of Instance Press, Shanna Compton of Half Empty/Half Full, and Ryan Murphy of innumerable one-offs and invented publishers (see the profile of him in last month's Poets & Writers. In addition to reading, we're planning to have them talk about small press publishing. A can't-miss event!

One of the SHINYs (Issue 9/10, 1999) contains some excerpts from Ted Berrigan's journals between 1961 and 1969. A couple of gems:

[Sunday Feb 10th 8 p.m.]

I want to write poems that cannot be understood until they
are felt. They must be read, then must germinate in the brain
until they flower. Then they will be apparent—but still
cannot be paraphrased with any meaning for others. Each reader
must make something out of them himself, w/o effort.

What a poet
"does" is like
what a yo-yo
champ does—

But what is that

Now back to my regularly scheduled Sunday: grading papers and making diabolical plans for this evening's D&D game.

Friday, October 13, 2006

SOON Productions Presents a Reading by Michael Friedman and Wyatt Bonikowski

It's prose for a change! Come tomorrow evening to the State of the Art Gallery in downtown Ithaca at 7 PM to hear the work of two exciting experimental prose writers.

Michael Friedman has edited the influential literary journal Shiny since 1986 and is the author of six collections of poetry. Several poems from his most recent book of poetry, Species (The Figures, 2000), were included in the anthology Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (Scribner, 2003). His first book of fiction, the comic novel Martian Dawn, was just released by Turtle Point in Sept. Friedman grew up in Manhattan and has lived in Denver since 1995. He has taught in the MFA writing program at Naropa University in Boulder.

Wyatt Bonikowski's short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Denver Quarterly, elimae, Exquisite Corpse, and First Intensity. He has also published articles on twentieth-century British literature and psychoanalysis. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a book on war trauma and narrative called Traces of War. While his parents are both from Philadelphia, he and his siblings were dragged around the country while growing up. He has lived in Florida, two cities in North Carolina, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, and California, and he and his wife have driven across the country, with three cats in the backseat, three times. He recently received his Ph.D. in English from Cornell University, where he currently teaches, and he lives with his wife and daughter in Ithaca, NY.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Immersed in the first stages of the kabuki dance that is the academic job application process: writing letters, extracting a twenty-five page writing sample from two-hundred-odd pages of dissertation, and trying to parse what a particular school's advertisement signals about what they're really looking for. An unexpected benefit of this sort of head-scratching is that it re-engages me with my dissertation work, which has been lying fallow since midsummer, when the wedding preparations were first starting to heat up. Writing an abstract has been especially useful, as well as something of a relief: the damn thing coheres after all! When the envelopes are all licked and stamped I should be more than ready to return to the chapter on Ronald Johnson. I'm interested right now in his engagement with Ian Hamilton Finlay and wondering how I can learn more about it. It seems that they would have had very different temperaments: Finlay is actually much closer to the sardonic, critical spirit that I associate with "negative pastoral" than Johnson is. But then I see the three poets my dissertation deals with as something like stages in a dialectic: Pound as overreacher, Zukofsky as poet of renunciation, and Johnson as author of a radiant new attempt to "write paradise." Though I have no evidence as yet to support this, I suspect that Johnson's ARK was in part a reaction to Finlay's darker temperament. It will be interesting to see what I can turn up.

Feminism and chauvinism are very much on blogland's mind right now; as far as my own position goes, I'm somewhat inclined to agree with Jonathan when he writes that "nobody really wants to hear a man congratulate himself about how feminist he is." I will say, however, that the discussion has sharpened my approach to reading Beverly Dahlen's new book A Reading 18-20, just out from Instance Press (they don't seem to have a website but the book's available from SPD) and kindly sent to me gratis by Stacy Szymaszek, whose Emptied of All Ships I admire (I'm just a sucker for sea chanteys, I guess). I haven't read the other installments of the "A Reading" project, but this one impresses me as being one of the more moving and thoughtful variations on the subgenre that I've come to think of as "Frankfurt School poetry": poetry that immerses itself in the language and spectacle of modern capital, Arcades projects crammed with dialectical images, seekers after the truth content concealed by bits of governmental- and corporate-speak. The poetics of cognitive mapping, usually but not always unfolded over a particular urban space: the most recent work of Joshua "You can't spell 'Marxist' without 'Matrix' Clover comes to mind but also Rob Fitterman's Metropolis project, Kevin Davies' work, and almost everything I've seen from Atelos (especially books by Rodrigo Toscano and Ed Roberson). While many, many poets work this territory, these writers stand out for me for writing most often in books and series rather than individual poems: they take deep breaths and plunge for long periods into the spectacle, scalpel in hand. The major precedent or "root poet" for this approach is probably Jack Spicer, whose Collected Books map a lot of territory, including American politics and baseball, the currents of homosexual desire, and quite often the literary itself (from the first book, After Lorca, a necography of the Spanish visionary poet, to the last, The Book of Magazine Verse, a witty riff and deconstruction of the American media scene in the mid-Sixties). I don't know if this comes close to explaining the generally masculine tenor of this mode of writing: certainly Spicer himself had little use for women. But I am interested to see that Dahlen, who like Lisa Robertson seems interested in interrogating not only capital but poetry itself, engages directly with Spicer, not only in the title of her book A Reading Spicer and 18 Sonnets but in the present volume, who makes an appearance at the beginning of "A Reading 20" as a kind of revenant of negativity:
Redundancy is an antidote to psychic noise Ted says and writing it now I wonder can that be part of the poem or I'm starting to worry what's part of the poem like Spicer who seems to be fussy about that all the time what's in the poem and what's not what you can bring in and can't how old that feels to me how long I've thought of that not wanting it never occurred to me to credit Spicer now there's a paranoiac boob old false face lumbering, something about the raw and the cooked, bulges, and what you could put into that sack and maybe watch it squirm out the edges the poem a sack of kittens to be drowned. reading Spicer that's morbid his morbidity one side of that affects me strongly something at the boundary of civilization someone who lots of the time was beyond the pale.
I'm engaged by the personal tone of this, the sense of Dahlen's presence as a thinker: she seems to have less need of the ironic mask that most of the other poets of this mode that I've mentioned feel compelled to wear. Reading Dahlen reading, I often feel like I'm both enjoying the poetry and also reading a kind of brilliant textbook or at least sketchbook of a poet's progress: a poet who's also very much a critic (and isn't that what consistently appeals to me the most, the poetical-critical boundary?). The poetry per se, or rather the verse, happens between prose poems that take up the texts of predecessors and comrades, continually resituating Dahlen's "reading" in a shifting yet bracingly contemporary landscape. This is where we come from, this is where we live, this is the voice of the real mumbling in the breath of the commodity:
sheltering tough thought in exchange for the thickened plot
the deliberate colors of the fall from grace in a frosted glass
an eternal winter sunset qualified by artifice
by the hairs on her chin dowdy gray
by sexual ambiguity by the refusal to be the classic straight line
by prickly holly thorns below south the sun in the shape
of a rooster's foot inching towards Lapland
where the witches live

upon whom the sun has gone down

quoted on the bare bricks of Market Street
is it the end yet said my grandfather dying
darkness is all Were
proud? Of what? To buy

a thing like that.
I'm moved by Dahlen's attempt to construct a usable past in this poetry, a past which she puts under considerable pressure, finding what's living and vital in old chauvinist bastards like Spicer and Pound. It's a path that has, I feel, much to teach me.

Friday, October 06, 2006

I'm not Tony Hoagland's biggest fan, but this article, "Fragment, Juxtaposition, And Completeness: Some Notes And Preferences" from The Cortland Review on the uses and abuses of fragment and collage is quite useful and balanced: I would happily give it to undergraduates to whom I was teaching collage as a mode. When I come across an article by Hoagland I'm usually waiting the entire time for the other shoe to drop: for him to come out and express his preference for the easiest and most accessible kinds of poetry, and to dismiss other modes as highfalutin'. (The title of the book his essay comes from, Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft, is an example of the kind of pseudopopulism and false self-deprecation that I find so irritating.) But here Hoagland only gently questions the rising popularity of collage as a mode, and he raises a pertinent point of comparison that should have us all thinking: "Contemporarily, in some poetic circles, fracture and breakage have become the techniques by which authenticity and energy is certified—perhaps not much differently from the way in which explicit confession was used in the past to certify poetic authenticity." Also, his counterexample is one I find easy to embrace: Allen Grossman's weirdly skewed and prophetic poetry, which performs its feats of wonder within the bounds of normative grammar and syntax, leaving Hoagland to conclude, "The powers of complex coherence, visible in Grossman's poem and available to all of us, shouldn't be lightly abandoned, or shunned." He's absolutely right. But it's as yet sadly rare to find arguments of this sort for the broadening and deepening of the palette/palate, as opposed to mortar shells of snark and dudgeon inaccurately lobbed from one camp to the other.

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