Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Jasper talks about books versus poems, or in Derridean style, books versus writing, taking a kind of aerial view with an astute comment from ground level by Jake York if you scroll down. We certainly do fetishize the book nowadays, for reasons close to those described. I like the idea of books as the residue of some more fundamental activity (Jasper gives the example of Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day), or as media for larger arcs and projects—Nathaniel Mackey comes once again to mind, as someone who's been unfolding large scale narratives over several books for years. Duncan's Passages—a poem-series which I feel compelled to italicize, even though it is pointedly not a book—is probably the ur-text of this sort for the New American traditions. But it's difficult to evade the imprint (so to speak) of the MFA and book-contest cultures, which have set up the equation book=legitimacy. Kate Greenstreet's excellent series of interviews with "first-book poets" (a label I take from my own first book's Pinsky blurb) reinforces this idea with her question, "Did you expect the book to change your life?"—a question whose provenance and emotional truth all the interviewees recognize. And I, for one, cherished the idea of "my book" long before I even knew that poetry was what I wanted to write. That's the product of being raised in a family where books were reverenced, particularly by my mother. And that reverence may have even deeper roots in Jewish culture. The actual objects out of their packing cases, the actual books, are inevitably slightly disappointing given my history of feeling toward books. Yet I do feel that they've brought me bodily into a stream of discourse that has become a significant tributary of my identity.

Poetry is a river and individual books are stones and pebbles that divert or churn up its flow. Few of us identify with the water itself, unless it's the white water of a particular aesthetic or camp. But it might be spiritually and poetically enlarging for some of us to get back to poems instead of throwing all our energy into books. That's why dealing with the Nature Theater manuscript is interesting for me: for the first time, I'm thinking of the book as a vehicle for poems I believe in, rather than an end in itself.

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