Thursday, January 12, 2006

Enlivened by the latest issues of Chicago Review and The Poker. Highlights of the former include C.D. Wright's deeply moving long poem "Rising, Falling, Hovering" and some astounding translations of Arkadii Dragomoschenko, whose work I'll be seeking out now in book form; highlights of the latter include sizzlingly strange lyrics by a poet new to me, Elizabeth Marie Young, as well as strong work from family favorites George Stanley, Ben Lerner, Alice Notley, Ange Mlinko, and Mark Lamoureux, plus a thoughtful interview with Anselm Berrigan—I found this part very useful for trying to understand where we're all at right now:
[Anselm:] There's some kind of connection between how the culture here is so tied up with celebrity status and is passive within the functionality of a representative government. There's a sense that there has to be an individual voice who will speak for everyone and if that voice isn't out there in some particular way then by implication everybody is OK with what is going on, and this is not a sane way to actually function. And I think that the breakdowns in how the situation in the Gulf was handled, say, and the fact that there are serious questions about the level of competency of the people put in charge of making decisions that affect millions of lives is a by-product of people waiting around for one person to speak for them. And the level of participation in decision making actually needs to increase which isn't a call for more bureaucracy but a call for more participation by ordinary people. How to do that is a separate question. You can start by not having political parties draw the lines for districts in states. But, you, know, sitting around waiting for Bob Dylan to suddenly come around again...

Dan: Only Bob Dylan can save us.

Anselm: ...isn't going to get it done. Which is why I think the poetry community is really useful and interesting right now because it's a collection of voices. But if people don't actually choose to see it that way ... if they're waiting for the anti-war poem ... I mean, I saw this letter where a guy said if Robert Lowell were alive right now he would have taken apart the Bush administration in a single poem. This was written in Poetry magazine. And I thought no, this is the same thing, you're waiting around for someone to do this thing that's going to give everybody some kind of break from responsibility, but it takes everybody speaking.
I love the Heideggerian snicker in Dan's remark. And of course even Bob Dylan wasn't able to be "Bob Dylan" when the messianic rubber met the political road. But goodness knows I've been just as guilty of this kind of thinking: pinning all my hopes on "Howard Dean" and then "Barack Obama" and trying to imagine making an investment in "Hillary": trying to turn people into personalities into signifiers into gods. But that's now how real change happens, in poetry or politics. It's structurally conservative, even if your god's name is Guevara or Lenin.

Kevin wonders if my dislike of verse narrative isn't just a dislike of bad poetry, i.e. prose chopped up into lines. It's true I enjoyed Autobiography of Red (I haven't read The Face but I did find things to like in a long excerpt from that poem—I think that's what it was—in APR a year or two ago), but in that case the "verse" seemed mostly irrelevant to my enjoyment; I find myself agreeing almost involuntarily with those who complained that there was no logic, metrical or otherwise, to her lines. What I remember from that poem are the characters of Geryon and Hercules, plus a few indelible images—the words have evaporated. The use of Red being poetry, if not verse, I chalk up to a kind of expansiveness of permission: Carson's wonderfully eccentric, tensile imagination seemed unloosed by writing in lines, freeing her from her more essayistic tendencies (though I enjoy her essays quite a bit). The only other novel in verse I can remember reading would be Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate, which uses Pushkinesque fourteen-line stanzas of iambic tetrameter to tell a rather dreary tale about a group of earnest liberals in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s. In that case, the form provided the energy that I felt the narrative to be lacking, and so in a way it succeeded in being the kind of temporal experience I demand from poetry without actually being interesting—the worst of both worlds. So I believe my intuition about the link between temporality and poetry versus atemporality and narrative is more or less consistent.

On a seemingly unrelated topic, Robert Archambeau asks what I others think about New York School-style name-dropping in poems (incidentally the new Chicago Review also contains a piece of Bob's book on the Yvor Winters circle at Stanford). Well, I'm generally for it, as the same principle allows me to refer to a man I've never met as "Bob" in this blogpost. There was a time, though, when I felt that sense of outrage he describes when public sphere expectations are violated by the introduction of private codes: I remember reading an issue of The Germ years ago and reading an interview between Keith Waldrop and Peter Gizzi (long before I knew who either of those gentlemen were) and being irritated by the first-name basis they seemed to enjoy with legions of poets I'd never heard of. I felt deliberately excluded—yet if I were to read the same interview now I'd nod my head with recognition and feel a sense of warmth and inclusion more pervasive, if less intense, than my initial sense of repulsion. And for whatever reason that earlier feeling failed to deter me from my interest in the strange and marvelous world of poetry I discovered in The Germ (my tastes in literary journals before that time ran mainly to those with "Review" somewhere in the title). But come to think of it, maybe my irritation derived more from the fact that the medium was an interview, which I imagined was meant to be precisely the disclosure of a private sphere unto the public one: isn't that what we read interviews for? That this interview seemed to want to preserve its privacies made it curiously resistant to the touch. But personal names in poems just strike me as another manifestation of the beloved, and well within the circle of lyric expectation.

Still not sure what I meant by "prose as poetry" except the obvious: prose that provides a temporal and tangible experience of language, that continually tosses you off the blindly racing back of the narrative: Tristram Shandy, In Search of Lost Time, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow. Or a homelier example: when I was a kid, reading and rereading The Lord of the Rings, I impatiently skipped past the songs and poems, wanting to get on with the story. In part that's because they were bad poems. But what about a novel that contained poems that somehow forced you to stop and read them—that transformed your relationship to the prose, even? Literally arresting language, as compelling as the poems in The New Yorker aren't (the cartoons are much more successful at breaking off one's attention from the prose flow, of causing one to remember that one is reading—that one is a reader, an agent, and not a sponge or otherwise passive. So that's what I'm looking for from prose, and what I'd try to do if I were writing it in a non-scholarly, non-diaristic capacity: language at least as compelling as a cartoon. A quixotic desire to beat the image at its own game, perhaps. Or else I am only forced to resort to image-language to get at something ineffable about the pleasures of active reading.

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