Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Risking Exact Metaphors

In the full throes of packing, and when I'm not doing that, I'm making plans for my fall classes. So posting could be spotty for a while. I do, however, want to mention a book of essays by Vivian Gornick, The End of the Novel of Love. Gornick hasn't been on my radar before and the only reason I encountered her is because Emily and I are packing our respective libraries (yes we are) and I saw it on the top of a pile of her books. Gornick writes literary essays on literary topics without even a whiff of academia in her prose, which nowadays makes her a rare bird. She's a tough, unsentimental feminist with the highest ambitions for writing, and when she's not making me want to seek out and read nineteenth-century novels I've never heard of (such as George Meredith's Diana of the Crosways), she's casting a cold eye on some of the very same things I find dissatisfying in contemporary fiction. For example, her essay "Tenderhearted Men" acknowledges the powerful prose of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, and Andre Dubus (the first two were very important to me ten years ago) even as it locates what I came to find grating in these authors: their nostalgia for a mode of masculinity and for a kind of clear-cut relation between men and women (the kind, that is, where the entire purpose of women is to succor the men) that's all the more oppressive for never really having existed. (This brand of sentimental masculinity is also the defining feature of the personae of James Wright and Richard Hugo, poets who I can now only value in spite of the very personae that attracted me as a young man.)

The title essay's thesis is that Love, like the defining capitalized abstractions of previous eras (God, Nature), can no longer be taken seriously as the goal toward which a novel's characters should be steered, so as to achieve transcendence. Not so long ago, the rigors of bourgeois society meant dire consequences for those who pursued love as opposed to simply settling down: to marry someone from the wrong side of the tracks, or to get divorced, meant an earthquake not just for the people involved but for society in general. Now, divorce is just a plot point, without any revelatory power. Here's Gornick:
Love... like food or air, is necessary but insufficient: it cannot do for us what we must do for ourselves. Certainly, it can no longer act as an organizing principle. Romantic love now seems a yearning to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed; when what is required for the making of a self is the deliberate pursuit of consciousness. Knowing this to be the larger truth, as many of us do, the idea of love as a means of illumination—in literature as in life—now comes as something of an anticlimax.
Gornick sometimes seems to imply that "the deliberate pursuit of consciousness," which I would join with her in rating as one of the highest human goals, can and should be achieved through analytics alone—I am not so sure as she seems to be that something along the line of Rimbaud's "systematic derangement of the senses" might not be a necessary tool for achieving such consciousness (I think too of Kafka's famous remark that "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us"). I also believe that love and relationships are a necessary foundation for true independence, for full living—and that this idea is not as obvious as it appears—so that there might in fact be some undisclosed social truth to be found in the novel of love and marriage. But what really grabs me about Gornick is her ability to put her finger on what most dissatisfies me about most writing:
In great novels we always feel that the writer, at the time of the writing, knows as much as anyone around can know, and is struggling to make sense of what is perceived somewhere in the nerve endings if not yet in clarified consciousness. When a novel gives us less than many of us know—and is content with what is being given—we have middlebrow writing. Such writing—however intelligent its author, however excellent its prose—is closer to the sentimental than the real. The reader senses that the work is sentimental because the metaphors are inaccurate: approximate, not exact. To get to those nerve endings a metaphor must be exact, not approximate. The exact metaphor is writer's gold.
When I read this paragraph I sat bolt upright in my seat and muttered, "Finally!" Finally someone has succinctly summarized what I find so awful and deadening about most fiction (and, increasingly, much of the poetry I read): the writers aren't giving us everything they've got, but instead labor to conceal their knowledge of what they don't know. If more is dreamt of than can be found in your philosophy and there's no Hamlet there to tell you, well, perhaps that's not the writer's fault, but in any case their minority is assured. But the writer who knows there are things he or she doesn't know, and who isn't willing to risk breaking him or herself on the reef of that unknowing—who settles for pieties or mysticism—is contemptible.

Exact metaphors: here I think Gornick's complaint is close to that of Simon DeDeo's in his blog post "the defeasible pause," which critiques one of the lazier techniques in the post-avant poet's bag of tricks. The "defeasible pause" is a (dis)juncture in a poem, a deliberate gap into which the reader's interpretive powers are meant to rush:
The defeasible pause, at first pass, means whatever you want it to mean: it means "fill in the reading", it means "work for free." It is an invitation to a kind of complicity with the author, a kind of strict liability of language in which to read a defeasible pause is to already be committed to its relevance. The language poets never used it, but perhaps they can be blamed, à la Marx, for the conceptual ground they laid for its current day prominence.
Absent a larger rhetorical strategy (such as that of the Language poets and their intention to critique the politics encoded in normative language), the defeasible pause is a mere tac-tic, a shrug, an abdication. If minor novelists sin by writing less than they know, minor poets sin by disavowing all knowledge of their own language's activities, like parents who don't know where their children are.

The test of poetry, then, like the test of fiction, comes down to something hard to quantify, something akin to sincerity. I use these Zukofskyan terms in part because Zukofsky seems like the limit case of a writer who demonstrably knows everything, or who at least has read everything, and whose work can't be valued without an estimation of the author's sincerity. If you believe, as I do, that Zukofsky's finical mania adds up to a meaningful excess—a straining up against the bounds of what's possible with the language of his time, an agon with what he doesn't know about language and life—his poetry is of immense value. But if you think him a charlatan, then there's no reason to work through his bewildering text—the whole of "A" becomes a defeasible pause, a permanent, seemingly unmotivated hesitation between syntaxes. It's similarly difficult to evaluate a poem or story—to judge whether the writer's reach is properly exceeding his or her grasp—without knowing something of the context from which it emerges. What did the writer risk? This sounds a lot like the workshop question, "What's at stake here?", but because it's centered on the writer's own spiritual education, her Bildung if you like, it's difficult to quantify without actually knowing the writer. Yet most of us have better bullshit detectors than we admit to. When we read a poem or story and it happens to be "the real thing," we recognize that. It's much harder to judge whether or not something that's not real is nonetheless the product of sincerity, or whether the writer's primary desire is to conceal his or her own ignorance.

I've hinted here that excess can be one indicator of "the real thing," the overflowing of the Real that the writer refuses to blind himself to, but is minimally protected by his ability to ride the flood, as a surfer protects himself from the wave. That's the egoless, unarmored way of writing. There must be other paths to what I'm talking about: risk, sincerity, commitment (even and especially the trickster's risk, sincerity, commitment). It's what I demand from writing, and finding it—even a shred—is enough to lure me back.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Doctor Me, PhD

Thanks, friends and well-wishers.


Grad school is over.


1:30 PM, me and my committee in a room. Three PhDs enter, four PhDs leave... with any luck.

A word of gratitude to J.K. Rowling for providing some much-needed distraction this past weekend (both book #7 and movie #5). People disparage and dismiss the Harry Potter books, and it's true that they're hardly beyond criticism either as writing or as cultural-capitalist phenomena. But every artist who contributes an entire world for imagination-starved people to wander in deserves, I think, our thanks.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Introducing Creative Writing

The challenge before me is not that of teaching poetry. If such were my task, I would take it as my clear responsibility to introduce students to the Anglo-American literary tradition (and a smattering of examples from other traditions) and to give them a full understanding of traditional forms and prosodies before introducing them to the paradigm-swerving alternatives from which the most interesting contemporary poetry derives. Instead, I am tasked with providing my students with an "introduction to creative writing" in accordance with the course description provided in the Lake Forest College catalog: "A beginning course in the art of writing fiction, poetry, and nonfiction prose. Literary analysis will be combined with creative assignments." And so I assume the stance—necessarily in advance of actually meeting my students, or coming to know the learning environment of the college—that my primary task is to inculcate a spirit of possibility, and to criticize the communicative assumptions most beginners bring to the notion of "creative writing." I take my cues from Thoreau, in a passage from the last chapter of Walden:
It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor women nor toadstools grow so. As if that were important, and there were not enough to understand you without them. As if Nature could support but one order of understandings, could not sustain birds as well as quadrupeds, flying as well as creeping things, and hush and who, which Bright can understand, were the best English. As if there were safety in stupidity alone. I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra-vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced.... I desire to speak somewhere without bounds; like a man in a waking moment, to men in their waking moments, for I am convinced that I cannot exaggerate enough even to lay the foundation of a true expression.... The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.
Thoreau throws down (Thoreaus down) a gauntlet which I feel anyone of real sensitivity and intelligence must respond to, and I take it as a welcome antidote to the crummy philosophy evoked by phrases like "Write what you know." Thoreau's is not an invitation to formlessness, though he could be read that way; had I world enough and time I would familiarize my students with every context and boundary that they would then find permission to exceed. But in a single semester, I can’t hope to teach the tradition: I can only create boundaries within the limits of the class (formal experiments, exercises, genres) and provide limit-testing examples. Their necessary education in the traditions of (minimally) their favored mode (poetry or prose) is something I can only encourage them to pursue in other classes and on their own. And so, though I have techniques and tricks aplenty to offer them, what I really hope to give my students is an example of a stance toward writing, and to contribute toward their unlearning the notion that writing is simply a matter of self-expression (as though either "self" or "expression" could be simple). How very, very little of each other do we actually understand, the more we submit ourselves to conventional codes of "hush and who" So I put my faith as a teacher in texts the students will find bizarre or opaque, the better to demonstrate the difficulty of actual communication between the awake and the awake. Only then can I teach them the sensibility that an artist needs to have, by which we recognize that before we can paint what we see through the window, we have to build the window. Knowledge of the full context is necessary and desirable—who built the house in which I construct my window? in what neighborhood do I find myself?—but far beyond the scope of a single semester.

To speak more pragmatically, my chosen texts for the class are once again the Norton anthologies Postmodern American Fiction and Postmodern American Poetryalongside Ron Padgett's wonderful Handbook of Poetic Forms. Postmodern Fiction is better organized and has a more useful apparatus than Postmodern Poetry, but I haven't found an adequate substitute for the latter for a course like this (again, I will do things differently in courses that specialize in poetry). I will supplement these readings with a sprinkling of canonical ones, which I think is preferable to the tokenism practiced by more staid anthologies. And instead of separate poetry, fiction, and nonfiction units I'm building the course around nodes that cross genre lines and interconnect them in hopefully useful ways: point of view, responding to media, the line versus the sentence, ekphrasis, constrained literature, writing the city, etc. I wish to stimulate and provoke, asking with Thoreau, "Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense?" It may be difficult to judge the success of such a course, at least at first. But I have a great advantage now that I didn't enjoy as a grad student teacher: I'll be sticking around, and it will be possible for me to get to know and mentor my students over the course of years, so that they shall certainly teach me a thing or two about how best to teach them. And after all, Thoreau's polemic is aimed first of all at himself. If I am not learning alongside my students, if I am not also stretching my capacity for being in mysteries and doubts, I will be of little use to them save perhaps as an obstacle. Teaching creative writing is difficult because it doesn't adapt well to the discourse of mastery that pervades academia, and that may also be its most valuable trait. The term "creative writing professor" is almost a contradiction in terms: I am going to do my best to live that contradiction. Hopefully, my students will go on to challenge and be challenged by the canon(s), but my primary interest in this kind of class has to be in the venture, the lines of flight, and not the filling in of blanks.


This past Saturday saw the last SOON Productions reading that I'm likely to attend for a long while: we hosted Michael Carr, an editor, poet, and publisher (he and Dorothea Lasky run Katalanche Press) out of Boston, and Geoffrey Olsen, late of Boston but now living in New York, for whom this was his first non-open mike reading ever. Some stimulating conversation afterward about syntax of the line versus syntax of the stanza. It will be an enormous change for me to suddenly be immersed in a large and vibrant poetry community in Chicago, as opposed to importing new talent every month. (Not that Ithaca lacks a poetry community—it just doesn't have anything like the critical mass of a big city.) I'm looking forward to it.

On Wednesday I defend my dissertation. Hopefully the experience will be less medieval than the expression.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Biggest Announcement of All

The vigorous discussion of the preceding post has given me a lot to chew on—but just now I have another fish to fry. I am extraordinarily pleased to be able to tell you that Emily and I are expecting our first child. The little tyke is expected to arrive sometime in mid-January. How the hell do you like that?

At this moment I am simply filled with gratitude.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

"...your life really matters": Aesthetic Education

Sitting on big news, confronting the task ahead, trying not to fret about my dissertation defense a week from tomorrow. I am about to become a full-time teacher of creative writing—not solely creative writing, but it's a major part of my Lake Forest portfolio. What does that mean? What do I want to accomplish, and my students to accomplish? For a while now I've been meditating on the comments of G.C. Waldrep on that subject just a few months ago on this very blog, the relevant portion of which seems worth repeating here:
After four years of teaching undergraduates, I'm convinced that one reason they come to c.w. classes--one reason they "want to be writers" (so different from actually wanting to write!)--is a desire for "authenticity." They aren't sure what that is, but they are sure it's a problem in our culture, and they see poetry (rightly or wrongly) as one sphere in which "authenticity" (of a putative self) can be achieved and celebrated. Hence your first camp.

What I have tried to get across to my students, increasingly, is that if authenticity of (a) self can be achieved in language, then craft matters. The host culture has sufficiently colonized our brains with language--we are awash in media--that the seemingly simple act of stripping away cliche from one's writing can take years of self-conscious, often discouraging effort. That through solving problems of craft a writer is not distracting him- or herself from that authenticity, but rather finding ways to deepen that authenticity: of voice, of form, and yes, in the end, of self. I'm one of those characters who doesn't know what he means until he sees what he says, so for me the idea of a self coming into being even as the words unspool is a potent one, at least in theory.
I was reminded of G.C.'s theory (and of some of the comments made at the time by Reginald Shepherd and his readers) by the stance of Carol Bly, whose Beyond the Writer's Workshop I read some of yesterday as I was working on the syllabi for the Intro to Creative Writing and Advanced Nonfiction classes I'm teaching this fall. Bly, who has a lot of tart things to say about workshop culture and the "junk culture of the U.S.A." takes a very firm, moralizing stance (some would call it "shrill"—as she herself concedes) about writing: she believes its purpose is or ought to be to change the world, or at least to tell the truth about it. Ethics trumps aesthetics: or rather, following Schiller and Kierkegaard, the aesthetic stance is a phase to be passed through on the way toward realizing oneself as an ethically responsible agent in the world. Bly's voice is cranky and unsympathetic—she paints pop culture with a black, tarry brush like Adorno at his most undialectical—and she comes across as something of a Mrs. Grundy. But she assumes a profoundly countercultural stance when she demands of writing and the workshop that it provide a space in which people can take things seriously, think, and then act. She deplores the reflexive irony and "whatever" posture of American culture, one ideally suited to consumerism and the avoidance of hard choices, even arguably full participation in one's own life. It's a more polemical, harder-edged version of Richard Hugo's "A creative writing class may be one of the last places you can go where your life still matters," though Bly would probably deplore the narcissistic spin that statement is susceptible to being given. Though I find her personality hard to swallow, I think it's a position to be taken seriously, insofar as it suggests that the purpose of writing is the creation of meaning—not just on the page but in and for oneself and the community of readers that every writer hopes to find.

The gamble of this notion of aesthetic education—I really must read Schiller's Letters sooner than later—is that an aesthetic education will somehow ineluctably lead to an ethical education. And Bly's assertion that the aesthetic is simply a stage to be mastered and overcome strikes me as highly problematic. One of Bly's core claims in her book is that "content" is overwhelmingly more important than form—she takes a very dim view of formal experiment for formal experiment's sake, and not coincidentally shows very little patience for poetry (she likes Wallace Stevens' idea about the imagination's trumping what's perceived—for her this means a moral imagination that overcomes the lure of sensation, so it's Schiller again in miniature, which I'm not sure Stevens would agree with—but finds his poetry "fussy" and impenetrable). Me, I'd like to see an approach to writing in which neither "content" nor "form" is fetishized, but I appreciate Bly's position more if I translate her "content" into a word that means more for me: commitment. By which I don't necessarily mean "engaged writing" (I'm not against it by any means but I do believe there is a powerful ethical component to writing that denies the authority of the commonplace through displacement rather than naming names) but simply writing that you make part of your life, like one of your limbs, which suffers as you do and hopes as you do and isn't a device for concealing your character defects or projecting a glamorous image into the world. Politics is part of that, but part of the continuum of your life, not some kind of mantle of authority or finger-wagging you pull over your shoulders when you sit down to write (and put away again when you stand up).

The argument for education that moves from aesthetics to ethics is possible, but not rock solid. There's plenty of evidence that aestheticism in the sense of withdrawal from commitment to anything but one's own pleasure and cleverness is still alive and well. On the flip side of the coin is the regularly made assertion that formal innovation alone can have ethical and political force. To be fair, I think this assertion is less often made by avant-garde writers than it is attributed to them—the Language poets are often tarred with this brush, but at least some of them have displayed a thoroughgoing commitment to Marxist theory and praxis both and off the page; many of the attacks on their perceived avant-gardeism or elitism are actually veiled attacks on their Marxism. I don't believe there is any royal road from the appreciation of beauty to right action—the cliche of the Brahms-loving Nazi is evidence enough on that score (and incidentally, I cringed when watching the otherwise very watchable German film The Lives of Others when the novelist character, after playing a haunting piano piece, asked the tendentious and rhetorical question, "Could anyone who had heard such music—really heard it—really be a bad person?" Uh, yeah, they could. Next question). The connection, if it exists, between the aesthetic and the ethical is a tenuous and mysterious one, and too many of the people arguing for it, the conservatives and cultural heritage types, are actually arguing for conformity and the normative. But I am half-persuaded by Bly's notion that it is possible for aesthetic consciousness to be a stage prior to a fuller ethical consciousness, if only because such has been my own experience: my commitment to poetry and writing was a key part of the shift I underwent from uninformed liberal apoliticism in my twenties to the socialism and anarcho-syndicalism I espouse now. It was the critical capacity of writing—a capacity that, when fully and sympathetically engaged, does not spare the self from the scope of its critique, yet does not lay waste to that self—that has helped to activate my sense of commitment to, most fundamentally, myself. Not myself in any isolated or narcissistic way, but myself as part of my place, people, and time.

This concept of education is a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian drama of redemption, in which we take seriously the notion that God and the Devil are striving for the student's soul. Yet we should give the Devil his due: I don't think it's realistic or desirable to ask students or teachers to completely remove themselves from what Bly disparages as "U.S.A. junk culture." Among other things, you'd be depriving yourself of a major source of material: if that junk, our junk, can't in some way be redeemed through creative activity, there's really no hope for anyone outside a monastery (or the Iowa Writers Workshop). And the greater danger is to think that the aesthetic must be put aside like a childish thing to reach the sphere of ethical commitment: you may choose to do so, but I don't think there's much chance of your being much of a writer in that case. You can't write in anything but some sort of form. And to imagine form as a vehicle for content, rather than its transformer, is a sure path to hackdom.

The only question remaining for me here is whether it is in fact necessary for every creative writing student to remember the aesthetic: it's neither realistic nor particularly desirable to insist on every such student's becoming a professional writer. I want my students to take away from my classes a richer sense of the possibilities of commitment; I want them to risk earnestness; I want them to submit themselves to language and rattle their own cages. But they don't all have to become writers, except insofar as I sometimes conflate "writer" with "person" or "citizen"; that is, someone who takes a critical and creative stance toward their world rather than simply accepting its givens. I think aesthetic play is a path to such consciousness, but once it's achieved, I don't know if it continues to be important save as a source of pleasure—which, God knows, is important enough, and rare enough, if we speak of pleasure in one's own capacities for intelligent feeling and empathic thought ("think with the senses, feel with the mind," as the motto of the Venice Biennale has it). Imaginative pleasure, you might call it, as opposed to the sizzle of sensation that Bly is a little too quick to deplore.

Next I'd like to take up a question of mechanics: is it better to immediately immerse beginning students in the kind of paradigm-testing work that I've come to value most, or should one rather lead them through the garden of more conventional works so that they'll know what the rules are? I'll be thinking out loud about that soon.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

New American Writing

There are a lot of things I ought to be doing right now other than curling up with the twenty-fifth issue of New American Writing—a magazine I actually had to pay for at the local Borders rather than part of the mail pile. But I started browsing through it yesterday afternoon before a matinee (the ludicrous, forgettable, rather enjoyable new Die Hard movie—it stirred my nostalgia for big, noisy films that don't overdo the digital effects) and it was too good not to take with me. Maybe I've just been disconnected for a while, but I find it a highly stimulating reintroduction into the energies of the contemporary.

NAW is a centerpiece of what you might call the postmodern establishment of American poetry, as stewarded by Paul Hoover (editor of the still-useful 1994 institutional doorstopper Postmodern American Poetry) and Maxine Chernoff (who has two terrific pieces in this issue, a play of sorts featuring the lovers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, and a kind of Dickinsonian ballad in twelve quatrains called "The Commons"—a subject near my heart—"No one goes there now / There is not a place— / our commons but a song / lost as it is sung"). Hoover and Chernoff's magazine constitutes an establishment insofar as it palpably conserves the tradition of postmodern lyric that occupies, I think, the capacious middle ground between the austerities of Language poetry and the ironic "personal" characteristic of the New York School(s). It's a mode I often associate with California, perhaps because that's where I first became aware of it in its various manifestations hard (or abstract, or minimalist: Michael Palmer, Elizabeth Robinson, Rae Armantrout) and soft (more narrative, expansive, "hooked": Robert Hass, Donald Revell, Jeff Clark). But I think it's now accurate to characterize such poetry as the new American mainstream, retaining whatever oppositional force it still possesses only through institutional memory—though it still stands strongly enough as a bulwark against the laziness and anti-intellectualism of the genuine mainstream of American cultural life. Or as Brenda Hillman puts it in an essay I comment on below, "Current aesthetic quarrels and conversations between poets are real enough, and the aesthetically abstract or non-referential lyric poetry may have a different readership from poetry that announces its purposes in more narrative styles, but these issues should concern poets far less than keeping poetry alive in a culture of appalling greed, a culture that doesn't read much of anything, a culture that does business as usual in a time of Enron and retributionist wars."

The issue opens with new translations of some haunting sonnets of Borges, includes a telltale poem by Cal Bedient (one of the most passionate advocates of a return to lyric modernism in contemporary poetry), and includes an essay, "On Song, Lyric, and Strings," by Brenda Hillman, who is as close to the center of the postmodern lyric assemblage (I hestitate to call it a "movement") as anyone, as witnessed by the rather remarkable collaborative review of her most recent book, Pieces of Air in the Epic, published in the latest issue of Jacket. In her essay, Hillman makes a case for the lyric as exceeding and preceding whatever aesthetico-ideological program you want to assign to it:
It's hard to know what lyric means for post-romantics, post-symbolists, post-modernists and post-postmodernists. Lyric is an element in poetry, not a type, rendering human emotion in language; attention to subjective experience in a songlike fashion seems to be key in all definitions of lyric, and when "lyric" has been pitted against "epic" and "dramatic" forms, it has mostly been thought of as short, though it isn't always. Once lyric meant unbroken music, but since the nineteenth century, it may be broken. It cries out in singular, dialogic or in polyphonic protest. There is the question of the individual "singer," not to mention the individual lyre or the famous problem of the solitary self—can't live with it and can't live without it. Since the twentieth century unseated all certainty, the lyric is rendered on torn, damaged or twisted strings. A lyric poet sings boldly and bluntly to the general populace or is visited quietly and obliquely by the distressed hero who needs an oracle.
You can hear a bit of Hillman's own post-romantic commitments in that last sentence; elsewhere in the essay she writes, "Robert Duncan uses the word 'romantic' to recall a process-oriented seeking of original song," and then goes on to discuss the quest for originary "poetization" found in modernist commentaries on Romantic poetry (Benjamin on Holderlin being the primary example). She shows her hand further, claiming "almost all lyric poets are beauty-mongers in some way," and I think of my own attachments to and discomfort with beauty. Ultimately the essay makes a stand for the necessary messiness and fragmentation of postmodern beauty, which Hillman deliberately opposes to the newspeak of our time, wondering "how the outlaw poetic sentence can address itself to the meandering sentence of official bad faith, and so makes again the large claim that poetry, audibility, synesthesia, are weapons with which to oppose the culture that our politics produces, if not the politics themselves. It's a claim I subscribe to provided we detach it from grandness and rhetoric: I think poetry does constitute a form of resistance but only on a micro, cellular level, perhaps only on the most basic level by which life opposes death.

I find less beauty in the poetry in this issue of NAW than I do adrenaline, a jazzing and jangling of the nerves, pleasurable but also anxiety-inducing, like a coffee mug filled to the brim with espresso. I get the high of contact with reality as it's being processed through clever, linguistically attuned minds all seeking for it in idiosyncratic ways. Their language vibrates with a dual awareness of history—the history of now, what I think of as "nap of the earth" historicizing, an aerial view necessarily and perilously close to the surface, under the radar of the large dumb arguments that constitute our everyday comportment—and history's impact on that subjective kernel that each writer proudly or shamefacedly or matter-of-factly carries with him- or herself, the energetic and continual collision of the unconscious with our intolerable Real. Some poets, like Andrew Joron, make the collisions and elisions explicit in their play, as words transform themselves to translate their nervous seeking into the reader's own nerve network:
I, my
        being to begin, my die
To decide my deicide, am

Gone again to distance, & sand, & stand
        by fear
Entranced before the door.

Or do I travel as travail of a veil?

(from "I Am the Door")
Flarf is not outside the task of the lyric as Hillman broadly defines it, as demonstrated by the inclusion of two poems by Rodney Koeneke. "A Birthday Poem for Nada Gordon" praises the Bellydancing Queen of Flarf in ludicrously elevated yet utterly sincere terms for her work "water[ing] the meaty blossoms of excess," "generously spiking our brownies with hashish" and otherwise disordering our capital-confiscated senses:
Pack animals drop from exhaustion daily
in the snowy Himalayas of the everyday;
businessmen enjoy their vinaigrette
at busy restaurants where the unconscious scrunches uneasily in booster chairs.
Above them, cool in the mind's high court you sit
invigilating specialness
the non-fun want eclipsed.
These poets are resurrection-men and -women, raiding the graves of "post-romantics, post-symbolists, post-modernists and post-postmodernists" to assemble their ungainly, occasionally gorgeous creatures with their organs on the outside, to remind at any rate this reader that he has a pulse, neurons, hormones, ears, and a tongue. And I'm not sure it's fair to ask more of poetry than that, though we do, of course, we ask the moon, we ask for some sensation, some friction, of what we're pleased to call "the self" rubbing up against "the world," hoping for sparks, or to discover there's no separation, or that there is. Lots more for me to absorb here; I want to close with the first stanza of Lisa Samuels' poem, "Open your eyes to the terrible sculpture of bedclothes," a poem and title representative of the impulses I've tried to describe here:
Kenneth Koch held three oranges, waiting for the bus.
The oranges were self-mesmerized: each was one side of his
four-sided-self. He was taking the bus to present his ideas.
He had to keep his sole awake (fourth side) awake.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Coming Home

Yes, Ithaca is home. Arrived yesterday evening in hallucinatory blue skies, the local climate of gentle hippies and spaced-out kids immediately asserting itself. But it won't be home for very much longer, and that fact keeps me from feeling fully landed here. Home is this enormous pile of mail: student loan consolidation offers, a soup recipe from my dad, Vassar's alumni magazine, NYSEG bills, notice of not-having-won a book prize, Robert Strong's snail-mail blog, or SNOG, though this one is labeled "BOG" (toward the end I like this: "Art: recognizing good mistakes. Craft: anticipating around bad mistakes"), issues of the London Review of Books which I don't remember subscribing to but am glad to have, copies of my own books from a defunct job application, and the following new items I wish I had time to read: Michael Scharf, For Kid Rock Total Freedom (Spectacular Books); the second issue of Practice: New Writing + Art; Soft Targets 2.1; Gunnar Björling, You go the words, translator Fredrik Hertzberg (Action Books); and Pleiades 27:2. Nothing I'd like better to sit in the back yard and page through all these, and perhaps I will.

We have about a month to enjoy an Ithaca summer, during which time I must prepare to defend my dissertation and to teach my Lake Forest classes; we make the move in mid-August. Plus there are all the friends to hang out with and play D&D with and read poems with before we say goodbye. And with everything else that's going on there's writing: where to find time and space for it, including writing this blog—which has strayed, I feel, from its initial impetus and bounds, and may stray further if it continues. After all, I began it in 2003 with the hope and desire of making stronger bonds between myself and the larger literary world from this island of Ithaca. In Chicago I will no longer have such isolation (whether it was real or perceived) to overcome: there is a large and vibrant community of poets there, and strong institutions to work with or against. Of course urban poets blog, maybe even most of them, but the impetus must shift, coming perhaps more from a desire to be heard than from a desire for inclusion. And there's the chasm that I must navigate between student and professor, journeyman and "master," someone with students of his own and a task of his own superadded to the most basic task of writing. "All is, if I have grace to use it so, / As ever in my great taskmaster's eye."


A select handful of European photos:

A travelers' self-portrait in the Newark departure lounge.

Me with a statue of Dr. Johnson's cat, Hodge.

Roman pillars and the Colosseum.

The statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo dei Fiori.

Emily poses in Calcata, the medieval village north of Rome inhabited entirely by artists and craftspeople.

A view in Umbria.

The courtyard of Agriturismo Marciano, where we stayed for four nights, on the northern edge of Siena.

The ancient Etruscan Gate in Volterra.

Emily with a view of Tuscany.

Obligatory view of Florence.

The beach at Vernazza, one of the five villages of the Cinque Terre.

I gatti di Vernazza.

View of Riomaggiore.

Piva, trattoria-owner and troubadour, in action in Vernazza.

Obligatory view of Venice.

A Venetian door-knocker.

The grave of Peggy Guggenheim... and her pets.

The Bridge of Sighs.

A view from the tram in Trieste.

Me and James Joyce.

The Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia in Trieste.

My Triestine friends Michela and Mario.


Vorticist-ish statue of Duke Amedeo of Savoy, an honorary citizen of Trieste who fought for Mussolini, in the park at Miramare.

Vienna powerlines at dusk.

Bust of Mahler inside the Vienna State Opera House during one of the intervals at a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin.

"Fear eats the soul": motto on the safety curtain at the Opera House.

"Art is my hobby." In one of the courtyards of the Museumsquartier, Vienna.

The Hundertwasserhaus.

The Secession Building—locals call it "the golden cabbage."

A curiously nautical ornament of the Secession Building.

Freud's cigars, as displayed at the museum at Berggasse 19.

Outside Vienna state radio.

The blue (?) Danube with a view of Margaret Island, Budapest.

A statue of the world's greatest author in Budapest's City Park.

The Chain Bridge by day.

The Chain Bridge at night.

Fisherman's Bastion in Buda.

Entrance to the Gellert Baths.

Gellert Baths interior.

Marchers in a parade of Hungarian ethnic minorities, Saturday June 23, 2007.

The church-like Great Synagogue in Pest.

Weeping Willow Holocaust Memorial. Each "leaf" has a victim's name inscribed upon it.

Detail from the Weeping Willow.

A menorah from the Jewish Museum honoring Napoleon for giving civil rights to the Jews.

The view from Fisherman's Bastion.

Popular Posts