Thursday, June 29, 2006

Gratefully received: Rodney Koeneke's Musee Mechanique. Also appreciating the verse "Introduction" to Susan Schultz's A Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary American Poetry, which I took out of the library for its chapter on Ronald Johnson as cookbook writer. I love the idea of writer's block versus reader's block, how both can be taken as learning experiences: a dialectical approach to what we can't write, what we can't read, confronts us with real and not imaginary difficulties.

Talking about my Zuk chapter with Roger Gilbert yesterday, he pointed out that a utopian version of pastoral largely excludes or leaves to one side one of the major dimensions of our pastoral inheritance: mortality. Perhaps I should plan a sequel on the postmodern pastoral elegy. But it got me thinking about how maybe the wing of poetry that's not about the social (as Roger nicely put it, "the corrigible") is that concerned with mortality and the passage of time; this seems more specific and useful than what I've been thinking of as the poetry of the transcedent or even simply the Romantic. How to think the incorrigible with the corrigible in poetry: can it be done? Is it useful to try? Perhaps a true Marxist would say that fear of death would be mitigated or dispelled by the quality of life in a truly revolutionized collectivity, but I don't think I buy this. And of course one of the major, rarely articulated fears of collectivity is that one can only enter the collective by somehow dying as an individual. I remember as a kid hearing about how socialism meant no private property, and I immediately thought: you mean I can't have my own toys anymore? Now I understand better that it's collective ownership of the means of production that Marxism aims for, and not the abolishment of private property in this intimate sense of what's proper to one. But it ought to be obvious by now that individuality is as prone to corruption and corrosion by a synthetic rugged consumerism as it is by the actions of any politburo. Anyways. One possible path is a poetry that reflects on the mortality of a collectivity. The lyric returns containing multitudes, subjectivity gets broadened and complicated. More attractive to me than the effacement of the subject or attempts to prove it's an ideological mirage.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Home from engagement celebrations, which were simultaenously enlivened and dampened Sunday night by the torrential rains that swept the Washington, DC area. Drove in the rain yesterday, too, and it's about to rain here in Ithaca. Catching up with my contributor's copy of Denver Quarterly, in which a portion of Compostition Marble appears under its original title. Wonderful percussive popcorning ears on display from Stephanie Anderson ("It's my turn for callus. Tussle and muster / me to ore"), Crystal Curry ("morning's throat & navel / play / my flatterman, my strapless cop, my / star to string / the wires up"), Sarah Goldstein ("Juggernaut, give me all you have— / flower band, bait whistle, morning on a branch"), and Joshua Harmon ("Green bolts in hills' haet: nub and quick, windy and wracked, pulls a slip: a furl limns tips split, a sleaving, slift"), while more sibilant musics are on offer from Chris McDermott ("Chronic simpers in between. / They temper an otherwise / ache niche") and Sandra Miller ("neither is the shady vox in the open savanna / open to ask a snare or ask / to snare itself")—her splendidly strange book oriflamme. is engagingly and perceptively reviewed in this issue as post-zaum rather than post-language by Karla Kelsey). The contents in general seem nightly pressurized: there's a long-lined meditative poem that somehow reminds me of Coleridge by Ben Doyle, two suggestive poems titled "Installation" that are both artworks and descriptions of the encounter with artworks by Joe Bonomo; a conversation between and poems by Aaron Kunin and Ben Lerner; a vein of elegy illuminated somehow between some Mandelstam translations by Andrey Gritsman and a poem of Joanna Klink's titled "What (War, 2003—); some poems and an essay on the poetry of nightlife by Daniel Tiffany; and other riches not yet plumbed. If I may strike a Sillimanian note for a moment, I think DQ and Chicago Review between them demonstrate some of the finer possibilities of academic literary journals when permitted to bear the stamp of a viewpoint.

Also read the Mark Halliday piece on Helen Vendler's Invisible Listeners in Pleiades that Jordan commented upon last week. Like Jordan, I find Halliday to be an engaging and entertaining writer, even though he's as willing to divide the poetry world into halves as Ron is, and though he would firmly locate me in the "wrong" half of "postmodernist blur-buzz boosters." I actually have a lot of sympathy for his notion of the centrality of the person and the interpersonal to poetry, something articulated at considerably greater length by himself and Allen Grossman in The Sighted Singer—but I fail to understand why a poem must actually contain some sort of rhetoric of paraphrasable address to show "interest in the reader": Halliday complains that Ashbery's poems show very little interest in their readers and therefore it doesn't make sense to call him a poet of "intimate address" as Vendler also does with George Herbert and Whitman. It's true that Ashbery isn't solicitous of the reader: he doesn't take you by the hand, or rather when he does it's to lead you down a blind alley that then opens onto surprising vistas. But Halliday seems to diagnose the contemporary poetry of "blur-buzz" that isn't in the line of "the greatness of Yeats, Frost, Stevens, and Eliot," "poets who make earnest, urgent, paraphrasable declarations about life," as contemptuous of readers, or worse, feigning uninterest in being read. "Poems seek readers," Halliday writes. "Poems are social acts in relation to anticipated readers." Absolutely. Maybe even it's true that the best poems are paraphrasable—I just think maybe they're not paraphrasable yet. That is, they offer an experience in language, rather than represent an experience with language, and one might then try to represent the experience one has had—in conversation, in a review, and best of all I think, in a poem of one's own. That still remains my highest mark of quality in poetry, my equivalent of top-of-the-head-removal: the itch set up by words in my own fingers and ears. Good poems are catching, even if you don't fully catch the meaning, even if you don't feel quite qualified to be a given poem's addressee, yet. I don't see why such a model of reception should disqualify anyone from eventually achieving the "greatness" that Halliday talks of: "Like Vendler, I love the idea of greatness, and I'm repulsed by the notion that in some politically salubrious way we have outgrown the idea of greatness." There's still some essential, inimitable spark that a poet brings to his or her language and surely bonfires are still possible. But I'm still convinced that the more open forms (whether or not the communities that gather around these forms are genuinely "open" is another question) that invite the participation of reader/writers are both more democratic and more true than those which package a readily paraphrasable meaning, while by no means foreclosing the infinite possibilities borne by individual talent.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

It's raining cats and dogs in Maryland. Caught a snippet of an interview with Michael Stipe on TV last night, and said a lovely thing, more or less this: An artist begins at the bottom of a circle in which they know nothing. Then they progress clockwise up the circle until they're at its summit, at which point they know everything there is to know about their chosen medium, materials, etc. If they stop there, they become a craftsperson. But an artist is to keep going, to forget what you've learned and go back to the bottom of the circle (the zero of the circle) and become a beginner again, start the process over again, be willing to make mistakes again.

Friday, June 23, 2006

It's hot in Maryland. Taking an early morning break from the family vortex (first typed "vortext") to see what's what. I really like these poems by Tim Botta at a journal new to me, Alice Blue Review. And Jessica Smith has a great post on the topic of self-publishing. She claims as an aside that visual poetry is the most radical wing of the language writing vortext. Hum. Don't have enough experience with vispo to judge, but I'm certainly intrigued, via RJ, with what I've seen of the visual work of I.H. Finlay and assorted Scots, plus I've been browsing through the Solt book. (Ian's son Alec, I discover, has published a book of Football Haiku in celebration of the World Cup. Not being a sports fan generally (except newly and strangely of golf) I don't think my lack of interest in soccer can be entirely attributed to American exceptionalism, but who knows for sure. Anyway, the link's there for the 99% of the world population that does care.

Off again.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Senesence setting in in blogland, at least this corner of it, but in that I resemble the duck (the drake) who's paddling fast as he can. Making slow progress on the opening of the Johnson chapter—that protracted moment in which you realize what you thought you wanted to say may not be what you wanted to say, at least not in the way you imagined. It's happened with all the other chapters and it almost doesn't bother me now. Almost. Also trying to put my study in order for the first time in almost a year—bought a new bookcase in an attempt to get sundry books, magazines, and papers up off the floor. Haven't seen the top of my desk in months. And getting ready to go to Maryland this weekend for an engagement party that Emily's dad is throwing for us. Such things can be fun, but they're stressful too.

Speaking of engagements and weddings, Aaron and Wendy's went off without a hitch: a beautiful ceremony chock-a-block with poets. Mark gifted me with a copy of My Spaceship, which I regret having been too lazy to contribute to: so far I've especially enjoyed the spaceships of Maureen Thorson (who is THE person to talk to if you're putting a themed anthology together; her contribution to Aubergine was one of my favorites, and her spaceship poem, "Astrogeometry," is in truly heroic couplets), Stacy Syzmaszek's "Aircraft Fourier" (natch), Catherine Meng's "Documentation From Initial Landing & Colonization" ("POWER ME OFF"), and William Corbett's nostalgic "When Mars Was a Candy Bar." Also freshly gifted to me from the poet herself, Theo Hummer's The Parrot Bride, very handsomely produced by Chris Rizzo. It's part of a burgeoning poetic microgenre inaugurated, so far as I know, by Laurel Snyder's Daphne and Jim: the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure poetry collection. Laurel's book turns the history of her own parents' love affair into a kind of unfinishable Mystery of Edwin Drood; Theo's is a more whimsical yet strangely mythic pastiche of a pirate story, gentle iterations of Ishmael's impulse to knock people's hats off in the street with echoes of country music and Joyce and the Gospel of John reverberating throughout. I like the epigraph, taken directly from the original corporate publisher of those books:
What happens next in the story? It all depends on the choices you make. How does the story end? Only you can find out! And the best part is that you can keep reading and rereading until you've had not one but many incredibly daring experiences!
"Incredibly daring experiences"—I like the old-fashioned, J.M. Barrie-ish whiff of that. And it's a nice trope for the reading of inclusive texts, the spirit required to forego closure. As Peter Pan said, "Death shall be an awfully big adventure."

Friday, June 16, 2006

Rachel Blau du Plessis' Ronald Johnson article in Facture 1 mentions a 1960 book of "vatic criticism" by Elizabeth Sewell, The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History, which proposes a biological approach to poetry and a poetical approach to biology. Of use to my dissertation because pastoral's variations on the pathetic fallacy are articulated by what Sewell identifies as the first phase of the Orpheus myth: nature's responsiveness to the poet's song. (The other two phases are the failed expedition to resuce Eurydice from the underworld and Orpheus' dismemberment by the Maenads and his subsequent incarnation as a singing prophetic head.) Du Plessis sees the Orpheus myth as central to Johnson's work, and interrogates the problematic gendering of that myth; I'm inclined to be more interested in Johnson's inclinations toward science and natural history. But Sewell wants us to see the term "myth" much more broadly, just as she wants to use "language" more broadly to mean the formal basis for any activity whatsoever, with the difference between birdsong and human song being our ability to reflect on it; as Sewell puts it, "The invention of a language entails the seeing of a distinction between the form constructed and used by the mind-body and the form as perceived in the material of experience to which the language is to correspond. This may have been a gradual process, perhaps akin to the perception of a self distinct from surroundings though remaining intimately linked with them, which is the nature of self-consciousness" (29). She's a determined monist, as the phrase "mind-body" makes clear, and she insists on the presence of the body in the most abstract mental operations, which makes me think of the passage from "A"-14 that proceeds from lower limit body to upper limit mathemata. Myth thus monistically becomes the name for meaning-making in general, its capacity for deception no greater than its necessity for speaking truth:
All formal operation is myth. Logic, under which we include all the highly developed forms of apparently purely formal mental activity in which attention is not paid to the participation of the body, which is nonetheless, tacitly, part of the process and a vital part. That mathematics, for instance, is not a detached activity may be seen from the passion with which it is pursued and the use of such terms as "elegance" or "beauty" in connection with its workings.... The only choice for the mind lies not between mythology and logic but between an exclusive mythology which chooses to overlook the body's participation and an inclusive mythology which is prepared in varying degrees to admit the body, the notion of the organism as a whole, as a partner in that very odd operation known as thought. (38)
Reminds me of another Zukofskyan moment when he recalled how as a student he observed one of his professors sit on a radiator while discoursing and then jump up again when he found it too hot; the professor's discourse did not interest him "but the preoccupied man did." Anyway, I find this distinction between "exclusive" and "inclusive" mythology, particularly as it pertains both to the body and reflecting on the body's participation in meaning-making, very useful and attractive. And Sewell follows up the above with a wonderful paragraph that helps me reflect anew on my desire to attempt fiction:
Word-language, in the course of its development, has itself acquired two modes of operation, a more exclusive and a more inclusive one. The first is prose, which does not necessarily recognize the agent's participation in the system of words and ideas under construction; the more it does so, the closer it may approach to poetry. Prose has as its aim to establsih a form of words which shall be equivalent to experience, the self participating in the construction being disregarded. To examine an inclusive mythology we must turn to language's other mode, poetry. Here the inclusion of the participating self (poet or reader, it is all one) is open, deliberate, an active ingredient in what goes on. Poetry is the most inclusive form of thought we have yet devised, a conscious call upon those resources of myth which underlie all language and all thinking. If the self is involved in any working system of thought, wheterh it is recognized or not, poetry, with its recognition of the self's cooperation, is in fact nearest to reality. Exclusive mythology, in its preoccupation with abstract form, embarks on a wholesale game of make believe by the exclusion of the self. Poetry, metaphor, mythology are highly realistic and down to earth. It is logic and mathematics which are the imaginative and fantastical exercise. (38-39)
I like this a great deal, even as it makes me wonder anew: why is "inclusive" writing, which includes the active participation not only of the body but as Sewell maeks clear, the self, so much less popular than that which "excludes" participation? Simple laziness? Or do we mostly just seek "escape" from our reading—an escape from the responsibility of participation in our own lives that daily life demands (not that those lives don't offer plentiful other means of diversion and distraction, most often in the form of addictions—to TV, alcohol, caffeine, bad relationships, what have you. Is exclusive-absorptive narrative just another addiction?). I would further extrapolate from Sewell's sketch that just as prose can tend toward poetry by tending more toward inclusiveness, so can poetry tend the other direction: the urge toward experimental dissonance in poetry might be an attempt to break away from modes of poetic discourse that we can no longer see, or are no longer using, for purposes of inclusion-participation. And Sewell's monistic foregrounding of the body's role might provide an incentive beyond the democratic for reading poetry: simply as the mode of language that invites our bodies to the scene of discourse rather than pretending they don't exist.

Most contemporary American fiction is either comfortably exclusive-absorptive or else dabbles with the participatory in superficial ways; a handful of aging or dead modernists bring us fully into the kitchen of language-making as they tell their stories (Pynchon, Gass, Gaddis), and then there are the prose stylists who are practically poets in my book whose narratives are a decidedly secondary pleasure (Lydia Davis and Carole Maso come first to mind). Where do I see myself? I'm drawn toward the latter category as being closest to poetry, and as being an approach to prose in the spirit of poetry: the desire to test the balance of sentences and paragraphs as I currently test the balance of sentences and lines (and individual words, phonemes, and fragments). But I'm interested in characters and story too—gamemastering a D&D game has awakened me to my interest in melodrama and has helped me to realize that I'm not as clueless about plotting as I once thought I was. Yet the pleasures of a page-turning plot, like pleasure in characters or even images, seems secondary, if not actually opposed, to the pleasure of sentences and paragraphs. Perhaps I'm creating problems where others don't see them, but I think that contradiction is the fundamental one to be navigated by a writer whose first allegiance is to the kitchen of language rather than the elegant dining room (or the fast-food joint for that matter). At any rate, Sewell's own limpid prose is helping me to think more rangingly around the the question, for which I'm grateful.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Thinking a lot about fiction and its discontents. Producing not very much poetry lately and feeling the gravitational pull of prose. Short stories don't interest me very much, it would have to be a novel. An insane proposition with a dissertation and a wedding and a job hunt all looming. But. The folks behind National Novel Writing Month say you can do it regardless of what's going on in your life. A kind of mental traveling that you slice sixty to ninety minutes out of every day for. But. What are novels for, anyway, in 2006? What can they do that movies and video games and plays and (most especially) TV dramas can't do better? You might say that fiction is still the premiere genre by which we represent inwardness—more specifically, the experience of subjectivity within a given milieu or social moment. But poetry, or at least poetry taken beyond the constraints of the personal lyric, is entirely capable of doing this, superbly. The thing novels have going for them is: people read them. I don't have statistics on hand, but I suspect even the strangest or most marginal novels sell five to ten times more copies than your average poetry book. I think of an especially "poetic" novel that I read and enjoyed many years ago, Mark Richard's Faulknerian fable Fishboy. This debut novel circa 1993 has no plot to speak of, is written in baroque and labyrinthine prose, and features a rather passive boy (well, fishboy) as its hero: it was reprinted at least once and has eleven Amazon reviews. And I think of how Verse Press slyly stamped FICTION on the back of Joe Wenderoth's uproarious book of prose poems, Letters to Wendys, no doubt to the benefit of its sales; at least one of its Amazon reviewers (one of twenty-three!) goes along with the fiction/Fiction by using scare quotes: "This little book full of little 'poems' packs a thunderous punch." Protect your readers from having to read "poems," and they will come and read them.

The guy behind NaNoWriMo, Chris Baty, has written a book based on the concept: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. Now I must admit to being a sucker for this kind of thing: the constraint on time, the imposition of an arbitrary deadline (which is Baty's single brilliant idea), is as satisfying a constraint as a sestina or an abecedarian poem or writing a line of verse for every one of Charles Fourier's personality types. When I was in college I wrote a screenplay with the help of Viki King's How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method (the book makes a cameo appearance in the desk drawer of Tim Robbins' murderous movie executive in The Player); it was a lousy screenplay, Tarantino-lite, but at least I wrote the damn thing and learned a little bit in the process. Baty's idea is basically similar: give yourself permission to write something shitty, and "win" NaNoWriMo by producing a text of 50,000 words or more: no aesthetic judgments shall be rendered. The pursuit of "exuberant imperfection" is undoubtedly liberating, and the book in its chatty and cheerful way presents an eminently sensible formula for launching a big writing project and staying sane: securing support for friends and family, strategies for recovering from slumps, and so on. Content, like quality, is almost beside the point: this can be taken in a spirit of experimentation, or it can present the unappetizing spectacle of an indiscriminate prose factory, especially given the implied constraints of realist fiction (though NaNoWriMo-ers have worked in every conceivable genre). The point of limiting oneself to 50,000 words in one month, after all, is to transform the self-evidently Herculean task of novel-writing into something doable: in other words, it's an at least implicit constraint on ambition. You can read Baty's ambitions in the first of his sample "Magna Cartas": a list of answers to the question, "What, to you, makes a good novel?" It's actually an extremely useful question; here's how Baty answers it:
first-person narration
quirky characters
true love
found objects
feisty old people
strong, charismatic protagonists
improbable romances
smart but unpretentious writing
urban settings
cliffhanger chapter endings
characters who are at turning points in their lives
books set in the workplace
happy endings
To me, this list blares that Baty's aspirations are no higher (and no lower) than to write Nick Hornby novels: entertaining, quirky without ever venturing into the truly maudit or srange, thoroughly middlebrow. An impression confirmed by his second list of "things that bore or depress you in novels." This just isn't as good a question, immediately putting aside an affect, depression, that I associate with a great deal of unquestionably great fiction and prose (Dostoyevsky, W.G. Sebald, Kafka, Nabokov, you name it). But okay: "boring" is at least properly subjective and individual to the writer. Here's what bores and depresses Baty:
irredeemably malicious main characters
books set on farms
mentally ill main characters
food or eating as a central theme
ghosts, monsters, or demons
dysfunctional sibling dramas
books consisting largely of a character's thoughts
weighty moral themes
books set in the nineteenth century
unhappy endings
To each his own, right? But I can't help but feel that Baty's desire to evade some of the elements I associate with great (and to a large degree, modernist) novels means that the entire project of writing 50,000 words in 30 days is itself designed to evade not just "depression," but thinking about fiction and what fiction does well, what it's for, what your fiction might contribute. I am probably here just singling myself out as one of those people who the Frequently Asked Question bar from participating: "People who take their writing (and themselves) very seriously should probably go elsewhere. Everyone else, though, is warmly welcomed." To which I say, two cheers for democracy! Two cheers for the organizers' thinking behind NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to extend "the glow from making big, messy art, and watching others make big, messy art" to the multitude. But doesn't the emphasis there shift from writing to having written? Isn't the thirty days a kind of endurance trial, a pleasure of renunciation as much as it is of excess? What about literature, goddamnit? Baty's book and the NaNoWriMo site can't answer these questions. They can't help me understand what writing fiction might feel like and how it might change me.

For what it's worth, my own personal Magna Carta: what, to me, makes a good novel, even though it can't answer the larger question of what novels are good for:

witty and graceful prose
intelligent but flawed characters
an immersive and believable world
news I can use about how people behave
memorable images
memorable sentences
short and dense or long and airy
conversations about ideas
hanging out with likable characters
learning something about a trade, a culture, an area
weighty moral themes

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Belated SOON report: Aaron Kiely and Kish Song Bear rocked the proverbial house on Saturday. Aaron's work uses subtle interlacing webs of repetition toward political-poetical ends: he made me think of Stein plus Gandhi, with a little punk rock flavor thrown in. Here's the poem that our own Aaron (who's getting hitched this Saturday!) reproduced on his usual beautiful broadside:
Monday Morning Poem

Oh yeah,

Fuck War.

Fuck War Forever.
Any War.
Forever and Always.
Without exception
til the end of Time,
Fuck War.

Fuck War and Its Defenders
and Rationalizers
and Explainers
til the end of time.

Fuck War and its Zombie Parots forever.
Blunt, simplistic even, yet memorable—he read a longer version that was even better in my opinion, engaging the reader/listener: words to the effect of, "And if you've ever rationalized a war, any war, any just war / Fuck you." This is all conveyed with the sweetest imaginable affect and gentleness, like a precocious child. His partner Kish Song Bear had a slyer faux naif persona: her background's in theater and her poems often have a surreal narrative quality to them. Not what's usually meant by surreal in the American context—the surreal of dreamlike juxtaposition—but rather narratives that startle even as they pull you in through their apparent coherence. I wish I could reproduce here an amazing prose poem she wrote about Oprah and Katie Holmes and Katie Holmes' ass, but maybe more typical is her broadside poem:
The Person I Love Is Distant (Because I Love Someone Else)

How do you say "straightjacket"
in Japanese? Would James Bond?
Dear Octopussy,
I have one glass eye. Meanwhile, I'm a marvel
with a chainsaw and one eye came loose
because it's just a marble. It's easier to crack
two nuts together than each separately.
Dear Dr. No,
what are you going to do with that cold slab
of meat and all them eggs? I take my hardcover
on and off. Dr. Yes, I'm never sure what story
I'm telling. I'm waiting for a filing cabinet.
You know what I'm going to say
to the person at the box office?
She read this and other poems with an air of ironic kittenishness—both readings were very sexy in their different ways, Aaron through a kind of potently straightforward vulnerability, Kish through reflecting on feminine objectivity and the objectification of the feminine. Don't miss a chance to hear them if they come to your town. And don't miss, wherever you happen to be, next month's reading (July 15), which will miraculously feature two of my closest friends in or out of the poetry world: Richard Greenfield and Brian Teare.

Meeting folks report: G.C. Waldrep came through town yesterday and we had an enjoyable long lunch together talking poetry and pastoral and whatnot. I think we have interestingly complementary but not exactly congruent aesthetics. I hear his manuscript Archicembalo has won the PSA's Alice di Fay Castagnola Award, and good for him: it's remarkable work.

Dissertation report: Officially began writing the RJ chapter yesterday. Today not much progress but I am immersed in what little critical writing there is. Rachel Blau Du Plessis' essay in the first issue of Facture (is that magazine still in production?) is particularly brilliant; Eric Selinger's "ARK as a Garden of Revelation" has also been very useful to me.

Weather report: After days of unseasonable grayness and cold, today brilliant sun and just enough clouds.

Extracurricular reading report: Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings. I love a good nautical yarn.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Reading and enjoying Brent Cunningham's Bird & Forest, which is a tour-de-force of and in rhetoric, as it happens, thinking hard about the staging of the scene of speech and the positing of a field (or forest) through which meaning can be set singing and fluttering. Good stuff; I may have more to say about it later when I've actually got the book on me.

I also continue to be absorbed in rereading Emerson's essays as a way of getting into or under or behind Ronald Johnson. And becoming more interesting in ecopoetry proper. The Gilcrest book sees a line from Merwin, Snyder, Moore, and Stevens toward a poetry of "meditative consciousness," by which he somewhat contradictorily means the unmediated experience of nature: a poetics of référance, to use a coinage of Leonard Scigaj's, by which language (that is, symbolic action; that is, the Burkean "terministic screen" by which a given terminology ends up deflecting as much reality as it manages to represent) actually fades out or throws you back upon the "outside": a curiously antipoetic poetics. Actually Burke's ideas about language, which I'm just being introduced piecemeal to via Gilcrest, have fascinating implications for poetry's relation to the world, or to the real. This is a little piece of Burke's Language as Symbolic Action that Gilcrest quotes regarding the "entelechial principle," according to which many of our observations "are but implications of the particular terminology in terms of which the observations are made. In brief, much that we take as observations about 'reality' may be but the spinning out of possibilities implicit in our own particular choice of terms" (pg 5, emphasis in original). Isn't that precisely the wager of poetry: that "spinning out" the implications of a terminology or terminologies (the linguistic material that poetry reflects on as a matter of the poet's choice and preoccupations; poetry has no terminology "proper" to it), when put under pressure by means of meter, syntax, rhetorical maneuver, collage, etc., will in fact put us in closer contact with reality, or at the very least cause us to question the adequacy of those terminologies and the picture that they present to us?

It's time I sat down with Burke, or would be if I had the time. The study of rhetoric fascinates me, and it seems more than a little assbackwards to have spent so many years trying to understand poetry without a solid education in rhetoric.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Always interesting and provocative: via wood s lot, a 1993 interview with David Foster Wallace. I wish I'd read it back then:
I think TV promulgates the idea that good art is just art which makes people like and depend on the vehicle that brings them the art. This seems like a poisonous lesson for a would-be artist to grow up with. And one consequence is that if the artist is excessively dependent on simply being "liked," so that her true end isn't in the work but in a certain audience's good opinion, she is going to develop a terrific hostility to that audience, simply because she has given all her power away to them. It's the familiar love-hate syndrome of seduction: "I don't really care what it is I say, I care only that you like it. But since your good opinion is the sole arbitrator of my success and worth, you have tremendous power over me, and I fear you and hate you for it." This dynamic isn't exclusive to art. But I often think I can see it in myself and in other young writers, this desperate desire to please coupled with a kind of hostility to the reader.
To use an Emersonian phrase, I've clapped wings to a number of copies of Compostition Marble and they are winging their way toward expectant and unexpectant owners. Meanwhile I take crabwise steps toward my Ronald Johnson chapter: taking another look at Emerson's essays, rereading the early work in The Valley of Many-Colored Grasses, poring over Yves Abrioux's Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer, and boning up on ecopoetics with ecopoetics and David Gilcrest's Greening the Lyre: Environmental Poetics and Ethics. Like many of the more interesting ecocritics (Lawrence Buell, Leonard Scigaj), Gilcrest engages with postmodern theory in order to foster arguments for the significance of a decentered poetics based on deep ecology; yet also like them, his horizon is limited to poets who use a minimally heightened plainspoken rhetoric to represent the confrontation with nature and/or the nonhuman: Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pack, Gary Snyder, Linda Hogan, Ira Sadoff, Carol Frost, A.R. Ammons, and, centrally, Robert Frost. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and to his credit, Gilcrest's focus is specifically on a Kenneth Burkean "rhetoric of ecological poetics," so it's natural he'd be drawn to poets whose engagement with nature is primarily rhetorical rather than mimetic: arguing for the decentering of the human from a more-or-less centered position, as opposed to performing that decentering at least partly by means of form.

I generally find this kind of poetry unsatisfying: it stacks up layers of description like an air traffic controller stacks up circling planes, then lands them smoothly and epiphanically. I actually don't mind the descriptive, especially when it's charged with energy by some means (verbally, formally, metrically, or else with scientifically or philosophically charged thought)—it's the rhetorical itself I resist, the authoritatively stated conclusion or (equally bad) the overwrought assertion of amibguity. I'm not sure this allergy does me any favors: the decline of rhetoric and the suspicion of noble speech has not to my eye brought about a corresponding increase in the quantity and quality of our democracy, either in poetry or in our public life. How I yearn for a president, even a president of imperfect politics (the only kind we're likely to get), who can actually talk. But I think most of us take in a blanket suspicion of rhetoric at an early age in this culture—a suspicion which does not replace an education in rhetoric and its devices that might enable us to defuse obfuscation and the illogical. Instead we seem to have only a YES and a NO button: the whole thing or no thing, you're either with us or against us. I have an intense longing for high speech, for speech that appeals to whatever it is in me that has contact with what's greater than me. I love Milton and Stevens, Shakespeare and Keats, largely for this reason. But the suspicion is in me, and is only appeased by New American appeals to the open field, the signifying chain, high-low juxtapositions, and whatever else serves to crack open the frozen sea of dead language. Still. I would like to see some new Romantic dispensation, something less self-centered and more truly Emersonian, Ronald Johnsonian—centered on a transparent eye/I that is constantly being overcome by fresh perception of the field, that draws new circles around onself and ones habitus. That does for oneself the act of opening and rebirthing without appeals to some always already reified Power. Another path to the numinous, and to consciousness, and to caring (Sorge) for one's world.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Compostition Marble?

So I brought in some copies of the chap to the bookstore this morning to put on consignment there, and I'm showing it to the owner, Gary, and he squints at it and says, "Compostition Marble"?

Yup. There's a typo on the cover.

But you know what? Compostition is an extremely cool neologism: in addition to "composition" I hear compost and stich and even superstition in it. It's actually quite appropriate to the text, though not my original intention. So I think I'll let it stand. I only wish it were also "properly misspelled" on the title page as well.

We are all of us in the gutter/margins/prisonhouse of language, but some of us are looking at the stars.
The competition is closed! The lucky winners should receive books soon—thanks to everyone who wrote in.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Composition Marble Is Here!

Clad in a simple yet elegant blue jacket, my new chapbook from Pavement Saw Press is here for the reading. I'm giving away one free copy each to the first five people who e-mail to ask me for one; after that it will be six bucks—less than the price of a matinee, without popcorn even—from Pavement Saw.

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