Friday, March 31, 2006

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Saddened to learn, via Mark, of the death of Ian Hamilton Finlay (obituary here, an article of Mark's here, and there are other Finlay materials available in Jacket 15), just as I was becoming interested in him as preparatory for the Ronald Johnson chapter of my dissertation. He was a fascinating full-contact practitioner of pastoral, an agoraphobe who literally withdrew to his garden (with the very un-Arcadian name of Little Sparta), from which he fought constant legal and rhetorical battles with the authorities and other artists. He seems to have been a kind of anti-Pound, self-imprisoned, whose sculptures include a brick Panzer tank with the logo Et in Arcadia ego; his obsession with fascist violence seems to have gotten him mistaken at times for a fascist himself. As Mark's article attests, Finlay's work bears the stamp of the authentic avant-garde insofar as his work in concrete poetry was seen as an attack on poetry-as-such by the likes of Hugh MacDiarmid, who saw the visual as irreparably foreign to the linguistic (though class seems to enter into it; he didn't like Finlay's use of Glaswegian dialect in his earlier work either). Mark even goes so far as to say (in what's probably a pre-9/11 article but I can't quite be sure), "Finlay’s poetry is essentially a terrorist act." There is indeed a violence inherent in the idea of the avant-garde that has, for me, always been possible to link with the concealed violence of pastoral—the violent act of "clearing" and separating a natural space from the social totality. Fragmentation—breaking—as prerequisite for collage, especially the modernist collage that seeks to gesture toward a new totality. The bricoleur, arguably, picks up what's already broken, the junk lying around, and as such might represent the postmodernist position: the emphasis is on the partialness of the assemblage. The ecoleur that I posit as the agent of an avant-garde pastoral grafts the detritus (verbal and otherwise) of capitalism and state violence so that their network of relation forms a provisional Arcadian space. I don't know if this applies to Finlay; Mark writes, "Finlay’s aim, unlike Pound’s, is not to gesture back towards a lost historical unity, or some previous state of wholeness before the intervention of philistinism, or usura, or whatever: it is rather literally to create that scene of aesthetic and moral plenitude, to reinstate for the garden’s "reader" the classical wholeness towards which Keats’ 'Ode on a Grecian Urn,' for instance, looks backward." There's something too settled in that notion of "wholeness." Ronald Johnson is more of an ecoleur perhaps because of the nature of working only in text, albeit text with visual elements: there's always a minimum quantity of the indeterminate in language that is fragmentary or syntactically disordered as Johnson's work is, which I think is crucial to pastoral provisionality. Finlay's texts are too firmly embedded, literally, in the context of his garden—a positive aesthetic, if not aestheticism—to vibrate as much as Johnson's do, to have the particular energy of a self-regulating ecosystem. I still haven't fully parsed, however, the ecoleur's relation to violence: if Finlay takes responsibility for the full implications of Stevens' "A. A violent order is a disorder; and / B. A great disorder is an order," going so far as to provide the "pages of illustrations," does the ecoleur simply claim to be picking up the pieces left from the primal violence of some Big Other?

Anyway, Finlay leaves us with a great body of work and much to think about. I've been perusing Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer with great interest. The man himself was notoriously difficult; I can't help but find myself wondering if Little Sparta will now find itself open to the public sometime in the nearish future. If so, please order me up one ticket to Scotland.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Spring breaks slowly here in Ithaca. And Spring Break's broken. It's all teaching, all the time this week. Poetry talk will have to wait until I get a chance to catch my breath.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Once we'd both permitted the snark to subside, Eric Selinger comes back with some very reasonable ideas for fostering a larger audience for poetry. I think he's absolutely right about how the site that needs the most attention is K-12 education: if poetry were on the curriculum and if it were taught unsadistically (for how else can you describe the usual process by which poems are vivisected in search of "meaning," and by which students are made to feel that reading poetry is an unpleasant test to be circumvened whenever possible?), its audience would expand tremendously. (Though I'm still skeptical as to whether a mass audience could be so generated, at least not for the kind of social formalism I'm most engaged by.) The trouble with this conclusion is that its left me feeling like there's little that I can contribute toward solving the problem, since I doubt I have the temperament for teaching younger students. Eric's comments are useful because he points out the crying need for essays and texts on the teaching of poetry—because of course if the teachers of poetry are intimidated by it they're going to pass on that intimidation to their students. Perhaps we really do need a new Brooks & Warren devoted to contemporary small press work (sometimes I think Steve Burt is embarked upon such a project, albeit in piecemeal fashion: consider his Believer essay, "Close Calls With Nonsense," which carries the subtitle "How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry").

It's a tricky negotiation: the teacher and the poet don't necessarily share many concerns. The poet has to preserve his or her own freedom of aesthetic movement (which includes the freedom to associate or not), which means most poets are at least half-invested in poetry's marginality and the freedom that the margins afford. That, better than simple snobbery, I think explains the reluctance of many poets to focus on the task of audience building. It also goes some way toward explaining the confusion evident in the last several days' posts between poetry as a practice with a vexed relation to capitalism and the marketplace and poetry as its own semiautonomous political economy. The teacher's investment is necessarily in his or her students—in readers—and in ushering them into a safe space for trial and error, with the ultimate goal of empowering them to fly on their own critical wings. As I have often said, I'd like to see the gap between poets and readers erased, and I believe that poetry—particularly poetry that demands some degree of labor—has a vital role in fostering negative capability, which is the dialectic's next-door neighbor and as such the possible key to a mode of enlightenment that also has room for mysteries and doubts. A poet contributes toward this by writing; I think a teacher could contribute by helping students to read the way writers do, with an eye toward the emotional and intellectual effects of particular techniques. Which probably also necessarily means encouraging students to write their own poems—not that young people really need such encouragement. Maybe I've got it backwards: we all start as writers, but only a few of us become readers. If so, I'm not sure how to proceed. I know that reading for me was essential to imagining a community of thought and fellowship to which I might belong. Reading is a product of loneliness, but you have to feel lonely first. There are maybe too many distractions, too many alternative simulacra of fellowship, to foster that kind of passionate reading today. Am I of the last generation to have a real choice between literary nerddom and computer nerddom? Surely if I'd been born even five years later I'd be somebody's webmaster today. But then where did all these twentysomething poets come from? Not all of them have blogs.

On this, we should agree: readers are made, not born. Perhaps readers should be seen as the ultimate product of our poetry assembly line.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Dreaming in public, as Jon Frankel says in the comments box below. But as Arlo Guthrie once said: I'm not proud... or tired.

People are understandably skeptical of groupthink. Anyone who's ever taken a creative writing workshop has likely felt its effects. Consensus and inspiration don't usually share a bed, unless they literally do. Yet people do associate to mutual creative benefit. Someone offers an honest opinion when it's needed. Another someone provides encouragement. Another someone says, You ought to read Rebecca West or Barbara Guest or Lydia Davis. You'd like her, I can just tell. Another someone offers their couch for the night. Another someone takes your ideas seriously enough to argue with you about them.

The poets' union is already here, it's all around us. But I want something more. What is more? An invitation to want. Not settling.

Some people also object strenuously to the professionalization of poetry, which I can understand if by professionalization you mean the bourgeois assimilation of poetry, which brings with it a particularly pernicious and deadening brand of groupthink, the endpoint of which is the hegemony of genteel poetry. But what about poet as culture worker? Isn't "professional" in itself a middle-class marker meant to conceal the uncomfortable fact that doctors and lawyers don't actually own their means of production? Are still just highly skilled, more-or-less highly compensated workers? The objection to poet as worker is more logically a question of kind: if your work produces nothing that someone will buy, you are playing and not working. But if we believe in the dignity of labor then why not the dignity of poetry?

You make the real poem for yourself, with and for your ownmost body. But the finished poem is a gift. The capacity for giving, that's what I'd like to see enlarged. To others and oneself: negative capability. Men die miserably every day...

Yes, unions and co-ops squabble and bicker. That's what life sounds like. Life not organized for profit, but for life. The opposite of bad or malign organization is not no organization.

I'm not calling for some centralized Poet Authority. But when poets do gather, why not think in terms of mutual aid? What have you done for poetry—the poetry you care most about, the poetry that stirs you, the poetry that gets less attention than it deserves—lately? At the end of the day, with all his faults fully on view, I'd rather be Kennedy than Kruschev.

So look for the union label, every time.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Who are the capitalists? Who extracts surplus value from us? Poets with tenure? Poets who publish with the large commercial presses, or even university presses? The "big" critics and book reviewers? Or is it the universities that swell the ranks of the adjuncts? The publishers who manufacture prestige for themselves through the loss leader of poetry? The foundations and nonprofits? Put another way: with whom would we poets collectively bargain? Who would we hurt with a strike? What would such a strike look like?

I have a fantasy of the stable of "name" poets at, say, Knopf or FSG banding together and demanding a more open review and publication policy. But is that just more feudalism? Noblesse oblige?

Poets manufacture poetry. Critics, editors, and academics manufacture attention. Which is the scarcer commodity?

Attention must be paid for.

Or less a union than a mutual aid society. If the members of such a society tithed some portion of their incomes they could perhaps make healthcare available at a discounted rate. General financial assistance, etc. PLUS collective bargaining where it counts.

At the very least: more ad hoc magazines, more ad hoc presses. More blogs devoted to reviewing small press work. More Subpresses.

The traditions of collective action in this country are extremely weak. Perhaps nowhere weaker than in the arts. But if poets—cultural workers, vision manufacturers—cannot imagine a meaningful collectivity, who can?
A poets' union would not strike for fair wages: that's nonsensical on its face. A poets' union would be primarily oriented toward the fair apportionment of cultural capital—toward the redistribution of attention, the primary currency of the art. But the ultimate goal is not attention, whether in the form of publications or criticism: it's the de-alienation of poetic labor. When Richard Hugo said, "A creative writing workshop may be the last place you can go where your life still matters," he was imagining that the institutional shelter of the university might be enough of a windbreak for poetic labor to flourish, for its products (poems) to retain their use-value (their uselessness-value?). That's no longer true if it ever was: the university is a primary instigator of the desire to turn one's poems into commodities, which in sufficient number can be exchanged for the goods of prestige and jobs (though it's a peculiarity of the system that publishing less can actually vastly increase the exchange-value of your work). Yet many of us cannot resist the temptation the institution offers us to live as poets, to subtract the A from avocation. But the university does not manufacture the cultural capital (whose body is subtle, invisible even, yet real) apportioned to poetry: poets do. And the university did not invent the artwork-as-commodity; it can even, perhaps via its residual fedualism, function as a site of resistance: if not to capital itself, at least to the celebration of capital that cathects exchange-value as the only value into our souls every hour of every day.

The poem's sublime uselessness can be fetishized and sold. Is sold. What to do? Buy a goddamn big car?

A poets' union fights for the prerogatives of the verbal imagination, which belong to everyone.

Everybody rides.
Spring break is here. Time to recover from my travels and get back on the dissertation horse. Zuk's horses, still sans manes.

Questioning the efficacy of shame and ridicule as political tools. There's always someone more radical than you, more consistent than you, more married to negation. Something Jane said to me in Austin: accusations of hypocrisy generally serve power, serving to silence those who might otherwise oppose injustice, albeit imperfectly.

The politics of poetry matter more than politics in poetry. How you conduct your life in poetry, among your friends and colleagues and rivals, matters more than the positions you take in poems. The most politically effective thing a garment worker can do is join or organize for her union. What would a poets' union look like?

The most poetically effective thing you can do is claim sovereignty for the imagination you've inherited, which is a literary imagination. An experience of language in time.

Wit cuts through the bullshit and leaves an empty space. What will you plant there?

I'm fond of flowers.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

I was a huge fan of the original V for Vendetta comic book, or at least the version that was released serially in the US by DC in the late eighties. Saw the movie yesterday—"digitally projected"—in Union Square yesterday afternoon. Most of the changes, I thought, were for the worse. The grim atmosphere of postwar privation is oddly dispelled, perhaps to make V's world look more like our own—Sutler's party has apparently been delivering the material goods along with healthy doses of terror. And yet no one seems especially terrified or savvy about what it is to live in a totalitarian state. While I enjoyed the addition of Stephen Fry's character, doing his sad Oscar Wilde bit, either he or the regime are naive to the point of incoherence: how could he have gotten his staff to go along with his treasonous broadcast? Or, a better question: why would the regime have so overreacted? My first thought when I was watching was that it was a cunning attempt to make V seem ridiculous, to pull the fangs of his agitprop. Worst of all was the destruction of Parliament at the end of the story: in the comic book this is V's opening move, not the destruction of the Old Bailey, and it makes perfect sense: since representative government has ceased to exist, a logical wake-up call to send the population is the destruction of what Adam Susan (the nancy-boy name Sutler's given in the original) calls "their finest propaganda symbol." On a character level, I didn't really care for the romance they tried to create between Evey and V; it seems like an attempt to draw attention from V's unconventional sexuality. He clearly gets off on masks, knives, leather, and (this is more obvious in the original) voyeurism than he would from chaste plastic kisses with Natalie Portman. Speaking of Portman, I still don't think she can act, though she's beautiful enough (she rather resembles my sister, actually). And how in hell is a fake ID sufficient to elude the clutches of a state that apparently has the technological resources to do retinal scans of its population with its omnipresent security cameras?

In spite of all this, I loved it. First off, I had expected the story to be completely gutted, and it wasn't: most of the most powerful and involving sequences were retained and it was gripping to relive them. The story of Valerie and her note brought me to tears now as it did then, and V's "treatment" of Evey actually makes more sense here than it did in the original, given her tendency to betray him (her character would have made a little more sense though if we'd been given a better idea of the brainwashing she must have received after her parents were taken away). And some of the changes were actually good ones. V is no longer omniscient nor omnipotent, and is in fact revealed to be something of a geeky fanboy, like his core audience (we will always need our Peter Parkers and Clark Kents to identify with). Instead of an implacable force of anarchism, he is changed by his relationship to Evey—or at least they make gestures in that direction, it doesn't quite come off. The paranoid notion that the government would kill its own population to retain power while making its leaders a fast buck in the bargain seems, if not exactly plausible, the kind of exaggeration that conceals the truth: to paraphrase Kanye West, Sutler and his kind not only don't care about black people, they don't care about the people, period. And there were other nice touches: a Bill O'Reilly-type who's a former concentration camp commandant; the casting of one of my favorite Irish actors, Stephen Rea, as the dogged Chief Inspector Finch (though Finch was more interesting in the comic, where he was a former lover of the female Mengele character and took an LSD trip in the ruins of Larkhill to try and understand V's frame of mind); and although I simply can't believe that V (at least, not this V) would be able to manufacture and ship masks and cloaks to every person in London, the image of thousands of Vs massing in defiance of the army at the end is an indelible one, and makes flesh the "idea" of freedom that V is meant to represent.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Notes on Ronald Johnson Panel

On the way there on the 86 crosstown bus I notice a teenage girl writing her "Social Justice Paper" on her laptop, a woman reading about the Pataki-Silverstein brawl in the Post, and a middle-aged man sitting in the bus' center "elbow" nearly finished with Swann's Way. The subway is a zoo and I'm a couple of minutes late.

Joel Bettridge is first with a selection of Johnson's letters, mainly to Jonathan Williams, aka "Big Bear," "Banana," and a host of other affectionate nicknames (RJ himself is "Little Bear"). Starts with a letter from the 50s when RJ was a student in New York writing to Williams about a visit he's paid to the Zukofskys who fed him "sardine salad and peaches with cottage cheese." I retain some fragments from the letters that follow: "We discovered a new Palais Ideal in Chartres." On Ian Hamilton Finlay's proposed anthology of one-word poems: "They are beastly hard to write, except for amusing ones." Turns out RJ wrote many mostly unpublished poems about his cats. Then letters about ARK, "The first space-age epic, by gum!" (RJ's corniness part of his appeal.) "Also I've been working on the mind to go with the ear and eye." Prose poems as core of The Foundations. "I should give up on trying to make the 70s out of the smables of the 60s... It seems written against windmills." "I made The Garden as though it belonged in the body." Joel concludes by reading a page from RADI OS and then plays a recording of Johnson himself reading "BEAM 30, The Garden." I haven't heard him read before: he's got a slow, smoker-husky, Kansas drawl of a voice that can turn breathy, incantatory. Sometimes long pauses as if he were thinking what to say next. Not a trace of the diffidence or affected cool that can sometimes infect poetry readings.

Jena Osman is next, talking about the visual elements in RJ's early work. Originally she saw his concrete poetry work as in service to his transcendental vision rather than being particularly concerned with the materiality of language, but then her view shifted. She shows us some images from a poem called "io and the ox-eye daisy" that was published in Finlay's magazine poor old tired horse in the 60s. Mentions a book I should look into (turns out it's archived on the web), Mary Ellen Solt's Concrete Poetry: A World View. "io" is delightful, lots of play, as you might expect, on I/eye. Then a book of visual poems, Knitting Poems, published by an outfit called ExLax (!). Copied one down:
Knitting for Beginners

net net net
net net
net net net
net net
net net net
And then there's a bit from the 1966 Gorse Goose Rose:

RADI OS directly inspired by Tom Phillips' A Humument, but RJ much sparer, much more interested in white space.

I was next; I talked about RJ as "ecoleur" or practitioner of ecolage, a term I thought I invented but which is actually usefully defined here in a statement by its apparent inventor, artist/sociologist Gene Rosa. My reading includes RJ's early poem "Shake, Quoth the Dove House" and "ARK 34, Spire on the Death of L.Z."

Barbara Cole followed with a discussion of RJ and gender, beginning with a story of how she had been scheduled to read with him while an MA student at Temple in the late 90s but that he took ill and died before she could meet him—in the meantime, however, she, Joel, and others had taken part in a reading group that devoured ARK (while living on Ashland Street—RJ lived in Ashland, KS). Looking for female influences on RJ, finding only at first a few epigraphs from H.D., Dickinson, Stein. ARK as overtly masculinist project? Female writers as a fig leaf? Points to celebration of "the penis-pen of the Orphic poet" in BEAM 16. But then talks about a shift to a less essentialist view of RJ and gender in the presence of Adam & Eve in the work and an Eden that does not forbid knowledge. Eve as "even," Adam "who thinking about thinking moves atoms." Knowledge of multiplicity versus an ignorance enforced by patriarchy. Ultimately finds ARK capacious and inviting, "the body of questions." Reads ARK 50, Adamspire: "probeable as possible / be, but bear / at most the least belief."

Jonathan Skinner is last: "The more you look the more you find." Nature as fractal and the poems imitate this fractalness; quotes Gilbert White on how the most diverse of districts is the district that has been most closely examined. Talk focuses on "ARK 37, Spire called Prospero's Songs to Ariel (constructed in the form of a quilt from Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds)" and "ARK 38, Ariel's Songs to Prospero" (the latter Johnson calls "the invisible Spire" because it consists of a tape recording, "just over six minutes of 'musics' constructed out of recordings of songs of the birds of eastern United States." Jonathan quotes RJ: "I guess I wanted one coast to reverberate against the other coast." (This casts Prospero as a denizen of the West Coast and Ariel as a denizen of the East. Can't help thinking of the eponymous compass-names of the witches from the Oz books.) Jonathan points out that the "birds" of ARK 37 are "Frankenbirds," composed of fragments of description of many different birds from the Peterson guidebook, "constructions illustrating the deliberate nature of hearing." Zuk's work on herbiaries as word-hoards (I also talked about this a little bit) is extended to birding books by RJ. Invisibility of sound fascinated him. Jonathan alternates reading the five sections of 37 with playing from the recording of the six sections of 38, which I've never heard: fascinating. I tried to write down descriptions of the birdsongs:
1. Of Time and its Tree
(a bolero for one white-throated sparrow)

phwee-phwee-phwee! This sparrow opens ARK; song rendered at start of ARK 37 as hear hear hear hear / see-see-see.

2. The Origin of Language
(homage to Harry Partch)

Birds tweeting plus a knocking and thumping—human made? a sound effect? a woodpecker?

3. The Emptying of Hell
(nocturne for loon and full orchestra)

loon cry and flutter and hoot—intensifies into a great flock—then do I hear a chicken clucking? a jet engine?

4. Where the Fire Takes Me
(a souza for daylit forest)

chirps, then the tape speeds up and slows down for an eerie singsong

5. Full Fathom Five
(synthesis for slowed meadowlark & chorus)

long swooping tones like a cartoon character falling from a height—pheeooooo. Then rhythmic hooting.

6. How Feels the Fine Mesh of Space
(adagio for thrushes and woodpecker quartet)

There's the real woodpecker thrum. hi-lo hi-ho chirping, a sound like see-swing see-swing.
Talk about the inadequacy of words!

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I do plan on returning to blogging in a substantive way someday. But today I can only summon the energy to tell you about tomorrow:
>Thursday, March 16, 7pm

A Tribute to Ronald Johnson

With Joel Bettridge, Barbara Cole, Joshua Corey, Peter O'Leary, Jena Osman & Jonathan Skinner
$7, Free to Members

San Francisco poet Ronald Johnson (1935-1998), was the author of several books, among them the metaphysical ARK, a book-length poem dedicated to "the radiant structural beauty and mystery of the universe," in the words of Robert Duncan.

Joel Bettridge co-edited a forthcoming collection of essays on Ronald Johnson.

Barbara Cole is the author of an ongoing poetic project, which includes the installments situ ation come dies and foxy moron.

Joshua Corey authored two collections: Fourier Series and Selah.

Peter O'Leary is a poet, teacher and editor of the literary journal LVNG. The literary executor for Ronald Johnson, he edited two of Johnson's posthumous publications.

Jena Osman is author of the poetry books The Character and An Essay in Asterisks.

Jonathan Skinner edits ecopoetics and is the author of Political Cactus Poems.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Homeward bound today after a couple of days with the family here in the Chicago suburbs, where we celebrated my aunt Susan's 60th, my sister's 33rd, and my grandparents' 85th and 84th birthdays (all more or less at the same time).

AWP this year was more a Montana reunion than anything, but I also got to meet and hang out with such illustrious bloggers as Anne, Jonathan, and Jane for the first time, as well as the usual suspects. Too many books, not very many panels (but ours was great.)

Roller-derby girls.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Quick hello from Austin. This AWP will stand out from others as a University of Montana reunion: almost everybody I knew and cared about from my Griz days is here and we've been hanging out and having a great time. Been to the whole of one really good panel, the Beauty & Ethics thing, and I'll have some notes to post later on; I also stuck my head into the Kenneth Koch panel long enough to hear remarks by Jordan (he's doing three panels, at least!) and Jonathan. Austin makes a good first impression in spite of being very car-oriented, almost a little L.A. Heard some great music at The Continental Club right after arriving Wednesday night, and I loved the space at the Unofficial Garden Party (I won the raffle! A gorgeous chapbook from Hot Whiskey Press), though it was kind of an unfortunate venue for a reading. People really can't stop shmoozing long enough to listen to poems. Some valiant efforts did break through for me, including readings by Aaron (there's a beautiful, surprisingly Zukofskyan poem about flowers in his new chapbook February from Jess Mynes' Fewer & Further Press), Tony, and Hoa Nguyen (I missed Stephanie, sadly, but I made up for it later by recommending the Magna Cristo sandwich at the Magnolia Cafe later that night (picture a sandwich with everything on it and the bread is French toast). Also caught the tail end of the Legitimate Dangers reading, which was literally the tail end, alphabetically: Monica Youn (who I know from my Stanford Days) and Matt Zapruder. It was held in a bar called Ego's, which as Matt noted is only fitting.

That's all I've got time for—it will probably be a while before I can organize my further thoughts regarding the previous post. The Ethics & Beauty panel might have helped me along a bit there.

Monday, March 06, 2006

What with flarfists and anti-flarfists at each other's throats and a stark, team-choosing choice being offered up in Austin between the official (epitomized in this case by the Legitimate Dangers reading) and the officially unofficial, I've never felt wearier of po-biz partisanship. At its best it's a source of the vital energy that comes from self-investment in an aesthetic and community. At its worst it's a thin excuse for narcissism and bullying. Right now more of the latter seems in evidence than the former. A useful tonic for now and the plane-ride to Texas is Adam Zagajewski's book of essays, A Defense of Ardor. I've only read the title essay so far, but Zagajewski's perspective is an immediate and immense relief for the following reasons:

- His "four periscopes" that combined provide him with both a deeper historical and broader geographical perspective than most young American poets can bring to bear: "One, the main one, is turned toward my native tradition [of Polish literature]. The other opens out onto German literature, its poetry, its (bygone) yearning for eternity. The third reveals the landscape of French culture, with its penetrating intelligence and Jansenist moralism. The fourth is aimed at Shakespeare, Keats, and Robert Lowell, the literature of specifics, passion, and conversation."

- His use of the two opposed philosopher-characters of Mann's The Magic Mountain to illustrate the modern schism in "the poetry of the cosmos" that in my view may ultimately provide a more useful and dialectical understanding of the trends in poetry variously described as raw vs. cooked, flarf vs. actual, post-avant vs. SoQ: "Naphta's demonic whisper and the humanitarian discourse of Settembrini." Zagajewski summarizes one of the major arguments from Charles Taylor's book Sources of the Self to illustrate the schism: "in our age, Enlightenment values triumphed in public institutions, at least in the West, whereas in our private lives we abandon ourselves to Romantic insatiability. We go along with rationalism whenever public, social issues are at stake, but at home, in private, we search ceaselessly for the absolute and aren't content with the decisions we accept in the public sphere."

- His advocacy of "Ardor, metaphysical seriousness, the risky voicing of strong opinions"—a standpoint that has been all but abdicated to the political and aesthetic Right.

Zagajewski's essay helps me track a number of trends as well as my own dissatisfactions. It seems to me that the aesthetic Left—most especially Language and post-Language writing—with its affinities for European literary theory, Marxism, and intellectualism generally, represents a surge of public-Enlightenment values into the private-Romantic sphere reserved for poetry, an incursion which causes continual outrage on the private-Romantic side that manifests alternately as poo-poohing, anti-intellectualism, sphincter-tightening, and genuine worry that the private sphere defined by the Romantic poem (often but not necessarily connected at least unconsciously with the values of private property) might vanish or stand revealed as the fragmented nexus of consumerist desires. Poetry, in short, that is explicitly concerned with the social, and which either in itself or in its mode of production represents a challenge to the model of poetry as either a private and ephemeral pleasure or, more seriously, as a genuine, arduous, and singular path toward vision and transcendence. I'm enticed by the idea of a combination of the two modes, dreamed of half-cynically in the full title of Bruce Andrews' I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism) or ardently by Adrienne Rich. Anyway, to my mind this sets up a problematic triangle (but hey, at least it has three points!):

A - Social formalism, which tends to be critical, antimetaphysical, constructivist, and politically engaged (both in terms of content and in terms of the scene of production). It can dry, abstruse, with a deliberately repellent surface; it can also often be very funny. Flarf and other forms of the anti-poem serve largely to illuminate the social field of poetry as such, but at their furthest aperture they drench all manner of meaning-making machinery from the puerile to the perverse in pitiless light. Logopoetic practically by definition; friendly to melopoeia, which it finds generative; takes a hostile or ironic stance toward phanopoeia. Negative capability is a prerequisite for further construction. Modernist and postmodernist.

B - The private-romantic: the poem as guarantee of some minimal subjectivity (legroom in coach) through a stage-managed epiphany that claims to stand free of the social largely by virtue of its ragged right margin. Or rather, its authority is derived from some institutional structure whose hegemony it serves to conceal: this is the sort of thing Adam Kirsch and the other Contemporary Poetry Reviewboyslike, a stance toward poetry that always begins with the question, What to make of a diminished thing. Practitioners tend to make a fetish of either accessibility or tastefulness. Phanopoetic image-making is its stock in trade; its melopoeia tends to be either facile or rigid; its logopoeia generally restricts itself to allusions and heavy-handed allegory. Its negative capability derives principally from exhaustion, from indifference, or else it doesn't exist at all and yields happily to dogma. Anti-modernist or symptomatically postmodernist.

C - The metaphysical-romantic. These are the rare poems that dream big, whose private clearing begets a cosmology, whose withdrawal from the social is truly generative of vision. It enacts what Zagajewski, drawing from Plato, calls "metaxu, being 'in between,' in between our earth, our (so we suppose) comprehensible, concrete, material surroundings, and transcendence, mystery." It's difficult to privilege any one aspect of the three major dimensions of poetry, but I would say it goes primarily by ear, with logopoeia serving to generate an intellectual context (something like a "poetry of ideas") and phanopoeia generally providing relief, a touching place on the earth. Its negative capability most resembles Keats': a mode of attentive listening. In the twentieth century it's best represented by the strain of modernism coming out of Rilke and Stevens.

Whereas the trouble with Poetry B is, for me, self-evident, the trouble with A is that it tends to deny C or else attacks it as bourgeois and complacent about social conditions (including of course the social conditions of poetry). It can be mistaken for B, for its compositional space is generally conceived of as private; at the same time, though, that space is ec-centric, not a stake plunged into the hard turf of tradition but a metaphysical launching pad. It has the highest ambitions for poetry within the private-spiritual sphere to which poetry has traditionally been allocated (whereas Poetry A seeks to explode or implode that sphere). To imagine a blending of A and C is to flirt with theology, or at least the religious: it supposes that poetry could serve to organize a socius aspiring toward a particular transcendent, neither entirely private nor public—a congregation, a "visionary company." But then there's the interesting question of audience: I think most people, when they go looking for a poem, are looking for C. Sometimes they find it, sometimes they settle for B. The average literate person is simply not aware that A exists, and when they stumble across it they are usually repelled. This in no way invalidates A: it stands far more strongly for some kind of alternative to life as sheer exchange value than B does, though such is B's pose. But I do wonder about C and the quasi-religious feelings that attend upon its readers. At its worst it can mirror the cliche: spiritual but not religious. At its best I still think it has vital work to do, and may even be the "soul" of poetry as such (or is A closer to that soul, if the soul of poetry is Talmudically to contest its own boundaries?). It does not lend itself very well to talk of schools and filiations. It can fall into anti-intellectualism almost as easily as B can. But it cannot and should not become the sole property of the Right. I think there must be a place for metaphysics in poetry, even provisional metaphysics. Poetry that proposes meaning. I am becoming more drawn into notions of ecology and panpsychism that would provide an alternative to either sheer constructivism or the mandates of authoritative tradition. Could that happen in a C poem? Or is an A-C really possible, really desirable?

On my way to Austin looking for answers—or at least for better questions.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Check out Aaron Tieger's triumphant return to blogging. Reading the poets he esteems, as well as his own work, I find myself wondering about that old New Sincerity. Seems like Aaron might espouse an aesthetic (an ethos?) that could go by that name; at the same time he and many of the poets in his cohort are ineffably New Englanders, whose punk stance gets some of its bite from Cotton Mather. A yearning for transcendence and election stand behind a poetry that nonetheless continually asserts its rootedness in a damaged and sinful world. As though willing the found objects—bands, buildings, bad jobs—to become signs of the higher life, or at least markers of one's distance from it. Listening to the Sex Pistols (or maybe the Pogues) as via negativa.

Incidentally if you're here in Ithaca and you're reading this, tonight's SOON reading has been cancelled; Dorothea Lasky and Michael Carr couldn't make it. We'll be back on April 29 with Dan Beachy-Quick and Matthea Harvey.

Friday, March 03, 2006

And how could I forget what's sure to be one of the highlights next week—The Unassociated Garden Party! (Download a PDF here.)

Now back to this sickbed screening of Sanjuro, already in progress.
Well lookie here—Barbara Jane Reyes has a blog.
Good news—the Bookery's been bought! It will be re-opening sometime in late spring under new management, and it looks like I get to keep my job managing the poetry section. We are all relieved.

AWP is coming up fast, and it's going to be absolutely jam-packed with people I know, both virtually and for-reals. Mostly I look forward to seeing friends and browsing the book tables (though I've bought so many books lately I can't really justify adding to the pile). Many if not most of the panels look frankly insipid, as usual, but there are a number that could be compelling and which feature favorite poets of mine. There's one called "Thinking in 'Song'" about lyric as a mode of cognition whose panelists include Brenda Hillman, Annie Finch, and Hank Lazer. It might be fun to visit a panel called "Literary Citizens" if only because Kinky Friedman, candidate for governor of Texas, is on it. Paul Hoover, Maxine Chernoff, Rusty Morrison, and others host a panel subtitled "Experimental Forms and Accessibility" that might address the question asked here by Sarah Fox and re-posed here by Ange. Are those of us whose principal pleasure in poetry derives from "abstraction and ornament" doomed forever to the margins of "the daily lives of non-intellectuals"? (Personally I'd be happy to make a start with the numerous intellectuals or at least self-described literary people who either don't read poetry or don't read living poets.) There's an embarrassment of interesting panels competing with each other at 9 AM on Friday: in this corner Peter Gizzi, Traci Morris, Joshua Clover, Juliana Spahr, Karen Volkman, and Susan Wheeler talk about "The New Poetics"; in that corner a panel coyly asking "Do We Want to Genre?" featuring Claudia Rankine, Susan M. Schultz, Peter Conners, Michael Martone, and Joyelle McSweeney; in yet another corner there's "On Beauty and Ethics: Attempts at Writing Beyond Postmodernism" with Catherine Wagner, Elizabeth Robinson, Bin Ramke, and Karla Kelsey. That last has the most gut appeal for me in terms of topic, but it's still a difficult choice. Maybe I should just sleep in and stumble out of bed just in time for Jordan and Jonathan's Kenneth Koch panel. There's a small-press panel that afternoon with the provocative title "Accidental Dominance" with Rebecca Wolff, James Meetze, Kazim Ali, Anna Moschovakis, and Joyelle once again. Finally on Saturday at 10:30 AM there's the panel on blogs and boards that I'm participating in, alongside Tony, but if I get up early enough I might make it to the 9 AM panel "Where the Poet-Critics Are" featuring Charles Altieri, Jeanne Heuving, Jennifer Moxley, and Dale Smith. Then of course there are readings galore, plus various "off-campus" activities, plus one wants to hear a little music and eat a little barbecue. I'd better get over this cold that's been hanging around by Wednesday.

The other day the mailbox was full of treats: the long-awaited Pavement Saw #10, the "Low Carb Issue," which has a couple of my poems in it, plus appealing work from Jenny James Robinson, Robert Perchan, Susan Thomas, David Kirschenbaum, Christine Rhein, Kristy Odelius (I love her ear—check out this poem over at Moria), and others. On the other end of the production-lushness scale I was gifted with the second issue of 1913: a journal of forms—an impossibly gorgeous magazine that stints neither on ornament nor abstraction, featuring numerous translations from the French on one side and new lyrics on the other from the likes of Emily Wilson, Fanny Howe, Hank Lazer (plus an interview with Hank dealing with his most recent book, The New Spirit, Geoffrey Nutter, a couple of essays by Maya Deeren, a kind of cut-up from Ben Doyle, prose and poems from John Taggart, baroquery from John Latta ("Oh, blunt speech, come to / Me in your green greatcoat!"), translations of the Mexican poet Dolores Dorantes by Jen Hofer, Sally Keith, Cort Day, and many more: a veritable feast of forms. Also received from my father, who's a member of The Academy, a copy of Barbara Jane Reyes' Poeta en San Francisco, winner of the Academy's 2005 James Laughlin Award and so compelling that I actually sat down and read it in one sitting moments after receiving it. Like so much of the recent work I find most vital, it's a work of triangulation: an attempt by the poet, in this case a Filipina-American with a long memory of imperialist oppression, to locate herself and her community in a field defined both temporally and spatially by that memory and the ongoingness of war and xenophobia. One of the book's tropes is a critique of the representation of colonial war, specifically that of Coppola's Apocalypse Now (neither he nor the film are ever named as such, but the film's catchphrase "Charlie don't surf" recurs as an emblem of the irony that helplessly reproduces what it would establish distance from; there's also a remarkable passage about the making of the film that's derived, I believe, from the documentary narrated the filmmaker's wife Eleanor). The work of cognitive mapping is foregrounded by by the titles of the poem's three main sections: "orient," "dis orient," "re orient." The book is tightly specific to the author's Filipina-Catholic-San Francsican experience but also has a magisterial and inclusive sweep, capturing ranges of squalor and ecstasy that I more usually associate with Beat writing, but here de-romanticized, always returning us to the social text most vivid to the migrant, the Trajector (in this reminding me of Shanxing Wang whose book I mentioned the other day). I also appreciate the book's formal variation, which ranges from numbed-out prose to what presents itself as translations from or into Tagalog to fragile lyrics to dictionary definitions to enraged almost flarfy catalogs, as here:
[lakas sambayan 2003]

stone torch in nation's fist fractures

dictator's face wings flutter yellow paint

streaming from this giant's lachrymal ducts

inventoried war crimes swiss bank accounts

dialysis paparazzi copycats bless american way

iron tanks cannot deter nuns wailing

novenas guarding ballot boxes with rosaries

remember the agong as woman's breast

remember generala silang brandishing bolo knife

riding bareback where confluence of fishmarket

freeways prefab housing squares meet basketball

courts liquor stores cornrowed b-ballers sport

saggin sean john bling bling knuckles

lowering rice pockets scraping tha pavement

vinta colors billow island monsoon sky

street chrome exhaust pipes black smoke

pimpin boyz flip they caps sideways

faraway spectacle this commissioned stone face

no rushmore mere quick dry cement

block amnesia exile nation cannot dismantle
There's a rhythm there, almost a metric, like that of a hip-hop sewing machine folding discourses together—deliberately, as the last lines imply, anti-monumental. It's a map to navigate with. It shines a light.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Popular Posts