Saturday, October 27, 2007

Autonomous Me?

In an hour I'm hopping on the train and heading downtown to join Chicagoans Against War and Injustice; it seems important to stand up and be counted. The efficacy of these protests, I've come to feel, is less political than spiritual and imaginative: it seems pretty obvious that our political leaders aren't listening, but everyone in today's march will be making visible and apparent an alternative way of thinking and feeling about the war machine we are so smoothly assimilated to so much of the time. It's water for the grassroots, and it's also at least potentially the inculcation of a local community that can stand against and offer resistance to the violence of globalization. So with mingled hope and heavy heart I'll be a marcher again.

Lunch yesterday with my colleague Bob Archambeau, the author of a recent blog post titled"Classical Music Between Adorno and Bourdieu, has me thinking about that old modernist bugbear, autonomous art, in which I've made investments I'm not quite prepared to liquefy. I've read the New Republic article by Richard Taruskin to which Bob refers and whose argument I likewise recognize as applicable to the question of the crisis in poetry—a crisis in which not all of us are obliged to believe. The article, and Bob's discussion of it with the historian D.L. LeMahieu, is refreshingly free of the heavy-handed shorthand that characterizes most of these discussions. On the one side, there's the strangling populism evoked by such book titles as "The Trouble with Poetry" (Billy Collins) or "Can Poetry Matter?" (Dana Gioia), or in apologias for the MFA establishment (I wrote about one such by D.W. Fenza last year). On the other side there's Ron Silliman, or the Adornian counter-institution that's come to be known as "Ron Silliman," whose single most influential intervention since blogging became popular remains the sometimes invidious distinction between the School of Quietude and the Post-Avants. Between or under or to one side of these two cartoons, the signifier Collins/Gioia and the signifier Silliman, a great deal of careful, authentic, and important thinking and writing goes on—and as Bob points out, if the monthly readership of Salt actually outstrips the monthly readership of Harper's (or, it's probably safe to say, the circulation of The New Republic itself), then the death of poetry and its readership has been greatly exaggerated.

Nevertheless, the debate has caused me to re-examine some of the Adornian articles of faith that Taruskin pillories mercilessly in his article. I think he's right to point out the limitations of the autonomy model of high art—it's worth requoting the pertinent paragraph, which Bob also quotes:
The main tenet of the creed is the defense of the autonomy of the human subject as manifested in art that is created out of a purely aesthetic, hence disinterested, impulse. Such art is without utilitarian purpose (although, as Kant famously insisted, it is "purposive"), but it serves as the symbolic embodiment of human freedom and as the vehicle of transcendent metaphysical experience. This is the most asocial definition of artistic value ever promulgated. Artists, responsible to themselves alone, provide a model of human self-realization. All social demands on the artist--whether made by church, state, or paying public--and all social or commercial mediation are inimical to the authenticity of the creative product.
Postmodern poetry, more specifically Language and post-Language poetries, refurbishes this high Romantic ethos for its own purposes: as disinterest is a means to transcendence in the Romantic model, so transcendence is a means to critique for its postmodern doppelganger: the ground of given discourses, both poetic and political, is deprived of the normativity that makes it look like ground in the first place. All that is solid (in poetics, in rhetoric) melts into air, and the reader is putatively freed to pursue new, non-hierarchical pathways of meaning. I still find this appealing, though perhaps I'm addicted more to the vertigo of transcendence itself as the poem momentarily defies social gravity. But the hard-won transcendence of art must have a context, whether or not you intend that context to wither, and that context can be framed as "social demands on the artist," which cannot simply be wished away, or made to shrink in the face of mere authenticity. The authenticity of art, it seems to me, is entirely dependent on its means of attaining leverage on the social—a leverage that can never be fully Archimedean. It's your attitude toward mediation, your approach to the problem it presents, that matters—the denial of mediation in art is mere snake-handling, a spectacular gesture that reassures the faithful but is likely to bite you back in the end.

So I believe in autonomy, and in authenticity too—it's just that I think these will always be partial and mediated states of being, and experiencing them demands continual efforts of new creation. You free yourself from something just enough to get a new perspective on it; in the next moment you are reabsorbed, but the velocity of your inquiry may be sufficient to fling you free of the next context (the artist as elliptical orbiter). What fascinates me is the continuum that this conception of artmaking suggests: one can be preoccupied with the moment of (partial) liberation itself (ecstatic negativity, or—does it amount to the same thing?—formalism), with the sensation of contact with a new configuration of the real (the divine), or with the critique and dissolution of the context that had seemed so unshakeable prior to your intervention (materialism). Is it possible to treat all points on this compass equally, or is it in our dispositions to prefer one or the other? There I go mapping and charting again, but it's how I make sense of what it is I seem to be about.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sunday Morning

Last night Emily and I attended the gala reading in honor of The City Visible: Chicago Poetry for the New Century—okay, just the first two-thirds of the reading, because we hadn't had any dinner (I'm used to one-hour poetry events that start on time; Chicago poetry events, so far, are a lot more like cocktail parties with extremely flexible start and end times) and by nine o' clock there were still five readers to go. But we did get to hear some exciting stuff (I was particularly blown away by Eric Elshtain's tour de force, closed-eye, cubist recital of one poem from innumerable angles) and this morning I'm feeling mournful about how little writing I've been able to do lately. This is of course the utterly unsurprising by-product of a new teaching job, but I'm still feeling the loss of what amounted to ten glorious years as a grad student. Consider:

- From 1997 to 1999, I was at the University of Montana. I was teaching for the first time and writing up a creative and scholarly storm as I pursued an MFA and MA simultaneously. This ought to have produced a nervous breakdown, but it was one of the richest times of my life, all the more so for being so concentrated after years of reading and writing without particular discipline or direction. I was also part of a close-knit creative community, which included professors as well as fellow grad students; and I was living in a truly magnificent environment that influenced my writing in indirect but, as it now appears, permanent ways. The manuscript that morphed into Selah and The Nature Theater of Oklahoma got its start here.

- From 1999 to 2001, I was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. I've complained in the past about the aesthetic conservatism of that program, but from my present perspective that seems churlish: two years to write, just write, with no responsibilities beyond writing. I was a little surprised to find that I missed the discipline of scholarship, but my Montana training stood me in good stead as I read more widely than I ever have while putting together what became Fourier Series. I had some great friends there, though except for Brian Teare they weren't associated with Stanford. And I was living in the antechamber to paradise: my little room in Menlo Park was nothing to shout about, but every chance I had I was in the Berkeley hills, or wandering around the Presidio, or driving up through the wine country and down along the coast.

- From 2001 to what feels like five minutes ago, I was in the PhD program at Cornell. It was a little strange at first to be in an academic program with no official affiliation to creative writing, but this soon proved liberating: my poetry life became entirely a DIY affair, thanks largely to this blog and the SOON series that Aaron Tieger, Karen Leona Anderson, Theo Hummer, and I put together. PhD work is consuming, but as I'd first learned at Montana, the kind of focus and discipline that scholarly work demands can produce surprising dividends in those spare moments when it's just me and my notebook. So while I was finishing my coursework, writing my dissertation, and having a wonderful Ithaca life (falling in love, playing D&D, hiking in gorges, getting married), I somehow also managed to write Severance Songs, Compos(t)ition Marble, and the forthcoming Hope & Anchor. Not bad.

Now I'm in a new phase, with fatherhood just around the corner (we're at twenty-seven weeks and our midwife said she could feel the baby's head in an examination yesterday), working my ass off with three classes at Lake Forest. It's rewarding work, and I'm learning a lot about my students, the craft of teaching, and myself. But it's left no time for either focused attention on scholarship or the daydream believin' that together have produced my most creative hours. I've written almost nothing since we moved here, and you might have noticed that the blog has suffered, too. This situation is almost certainly temporary: everyone seems to have a similar experience when they first start teaching full-time, and then as they get their ducks and preps in a row things start to smooth out; plus there's always the summer to look forward to. It's true also that I have particularly demanding schedule for an academic: few professors teach every weekday as I do, and in the future I'm going to have a more enviable schedule. Still, I feel I've experienced a loss, and I register that loss here.

I chose Lake Forest because of an intuition that undergraduate teaching would challenge me not in a strongly intellectual way, but because it would put me in the way of growing my wisdom and compassion. I think I was right, and I think it's the right choice for me at this time in my life. But I do miss the rigorous stimulation that my Cornell life provided, and I'm wondering how I can get my mojo back while also fulfilling my responsibilities as a teacher. It's probably just a matter of time, and of getting to know my new environment better and the people of ideas who are here: as I found my true creative life was not at Stanford, but in the Bay Area at large, so too may I find my intellectual life flourishing in Chicago. But I may also have to face the fact that this next phase of my life is not about that kind of concentration and depth. Everyone says parenthood fragments your attention, and I don't see why I should be excepted from that. This may be a time of broadening my experience more than deepening it, and that could be okay. At Lake Forest, for example, I'm getting to know professors in various disciplines—music, Chinese, biology, anthropology—something that the culture of a larger university doesn't particularly encourage. It returns me in a way to the terrain of my adolescence, when I aspired above all to be a polymath—to learn something about everything—acutely conscious, of course, of all I didn't know, most especially about being human.

A second adolescence: mentally uncomfortable and awkward, casting about for identity, as a new world opens in unexpected directions. Sounds about right.

Monday, October 15, 2007

My Korean Doppelganger

Images courtesy of my friend Josh Wright, currently traveling in Korea.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Dreaming the Pines

Two men appreciating strong women makes for necessary reading in the New York Times Book Review this week: Joel Brouwer reviews Alice Notley's latest, In the Pines, while John Leonard writes with lyric intensity about Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, a soberly outraged new book about how we as a nation went insane after the attacks—written, as Leonard notes, from a rigorous feminist perspective that produces insight in direct proportion with its theoretical consistency:
Feminism — fierce, supple, focused, filigreed and chivalrous — has steered her inquiries and sensitized her apprehensions of a celebrity/media culture and national security state that honors men more as warriors, actors, cowboys, athletes and killers than for skilled labor, company loyalty, civic duty, steadfast fatherhood, homesteading, caretaking and community-building, and that tells women to lie down and shut up. Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book, levitating to keep company with Hunter Thompson’s fear and loathing, Leslie Fielder’s love and death and Edmund Wilson’s patriotic gore.
A welcome mainstream endorsement of the power and truth-telling capacity of criticism sustained by latter-day Enlightenment values. Brouwer's review of Notley has less urgency to it, but he does astutely describe her as "a poet who persistently exceeds, or eludes, the sum of her associations"—as good an indicator as any of the majority of an artist (Ashbery can also be described this way). Plus he has the wit to quote much more of her verse than is usual in the Times' desultory treatments of poetry, to wit:
Whose mind are you? All of those I say. No one and my defect tells you nothing. When
your baby’s on the cooling board. Yes I’ve see that too.
You aren’t telling me anything.
The wind blew that way because it liked to.
No one will tell me where they’ve gone ...
We know a different language, for when the mind breaks. Or the oldest explanation of the failure to love her.
‘I knew you were in charge of me but my mind broke on its own.’
My mind is rubbed raw. The people who are in charge of me are happy.
A nice meaty quote like that means that readers can actually experience the process of thinking and writing that is uniquely Notley's. At the same time, Brouwer's description of this process, which follows the excerpt, is evocative of much that I find of worth in contemporary writing:
Notley suggests narrative linkages rather than enforcing them, working not by logic but by accretion, circularity and chance, calling to mind (to add a few more barnacles) the spontaneity of abstract expressionism, the intuitive transitions of free jazz, écriture féminine’s emphasis on nonlinear writing and, above all, since he was a strong early influence on Notley, Frank O’Hara’s exasperated wave of the hand in his 1959 faux-manifesto “Personism”: “You just go on your nerve.”
Any weekend O'Hara and Notley make it into the Book Review has to be a good weekend, and I'm looking forward to this one: some New York friends are in town and we're going to hang out with them downtown. It will be my first visit to the MCA and then we're going to see the new production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, for which another friend of ours, Rob Berman, is the music director. Kulchur galore!

By the way: Cleveland really does rock. I had a very full twenty-four hours there in the delightful company of Sarah Gridley: we visited the West Side Market; strolled around the campus of Case Western Reserve, admiring the rippling Frank Gehry roofs on display there; taught a remarkably talented group of mixed grad and undergrad students in Sarah's poetry seminar (more precisely: Sarah taught, I kibbitzed); scurried across town to read together at John Carroll, where we were both introduced with extravagant generosity by the earnestly charming Philip Metres (pronounce his last name "MET-riss"); went to dinner at an excellent Brazillian restaurant, where we were joined by Michael Dumanis, fellow new-Chicagoan Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and our moment's most prolific younger poet, Noah Eli Gordon (the latter two had done a reading simultaneous with ours, alas; I would have liked to hear them—but I did get gifted with their collaborative book Figures for a Darkrom Voice); talked and drank till late; and bleary-eyed picked up amazing baked goods and coffee in Sarah's neighborhood before she drove me to the airport. One thing I liked about our reading is that we did a Q&A: I suspect many poetry audiences, and not only those composed mainly of students as this one was, would appreciate the opportunity to ask questions, and it was fun to try and answer them. Among other things it gives you a little bit of insight into the actual effect your words are having, and how narrow or wide the gap between your intention and the poem may be.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Thing That Ate Cleveland

A reminder to Cleveland poetry fans that Sarah Gridley and I will be reading at John Carroll University tomorrow, Wednesday October 10 at 7 PM in Rodman Hall, Meeting Room A; for more information call 216-397-4221. Should be excellent. Apparently we've been billed to the students as "spiritual" writers; it will be interesting to see in what ways we meet and/or confound their expectations. Curator Philip Metres told his students that "Corey's work draws upon Biblical sources, philosophy (Charles Fourier is an inspiration), the pastoral tradition, Gertrude Stein, among others." Fair enough, I suppose, though it's always odd to hear one's own work described, like listening to your outgoing message on the answering machine. Philip quotes a review of Sarah's work that describes it as "intelligent poems that think with the whole body"—now that's a description you can sink your teeth into. He alludes to her fascination with Merleau-Ponty; I wonder if that fascination is as present-tense now as it was when we were students together at Montana and she was devouring The Phenomenology of Perception. Maybe it is, but it's curious how writing inscribes one's interests (onto one's body of work) and turns your reading into your biography. Suppose obituaries preoccupied themselves entirely with the books that had most fascinated the deceased?

Finding a bit of a rhythm now with my teaching, which is to say I'm getting used to being behind on prep and papers. Deep in Walden for my Nineteenth Century American Lit class, in some ways my favorite because I get to encounter and re-encounter some very odd ducks: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman are yet ahead of us. Reading Thoreau makes me want to return to Lawrence Buell's book The Environmental Imagination, parts of which informed my dissertation. But I didn't spend much time with his writing about Thoreau, and I'm increasingly enamored of Henry David's brand of prophetic eccentricity; he's wonderful company. That plus my weekend's immersion in Into the Wild has me hankering for a little wilderness. I'm missing the great landscapes I've known: the Bitteroot Valley in Montana, the coast of northern California, the woods and gorges of the Finger Lakes in New York. Lake Michigan is beautiful to walk beside and like all vast waters offers scope for meditation, but its shores are entirely too domesticated to provide the sort of transport I've derived from the places I've mentioned. Beginning to wonder whether and how I'll be able to whisk my nascent son-or-daughter to wilder places now and again.

In the spirit of contrariness to my own mood, here's a surprising taste of the pro-globalization Thoreau:
Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied. It is very natural in its methods withal, far more so than many fantastic enterprises and sentimental experiments [Brook Farm?], and hence its singular success. I am refreshed and expanded when the freight train rattles past me, and I smell the stores which go dispensing their odors all the way from Long Wharf to Lake Champlain, reminding me of foreign parts, of coral reefs, and Indian oceans, and tropical climes, and the extent of the globe. I feel more like a citizen of the world at the sight of the palm-leaf which will cover so many flaxen New England heads the next summer, the Manilla [sic] hemp and cocoa-nut husks, the old junk, gunny bags, scrap iron, and rusty nails.
I must admit to the possibility that Thoreau is being ironic here; but if so, he's playing a very deep game.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A crammed family weekend. Student papers and student conferences. Poems out of reach.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A Little More Middle-Aged

37 today—my last birthday before the commencement of fatherhood. Yip.

The Guild Complex reading this past Saturday was a very satisfying experience. Chicago continues to impress as a poetry center: the audience was large, diverse, and appreciative—there are genuine poetry fans here. I kicked off with "The Moth Poem" from Selah and then some poems from my recently revised and resuscitated manuscript of The Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Krista Franklin brought a wiry sort of charisma to her performance—my favorite piece was a work of 80s nostalgia, with homage paid to the deathless Def Leppard. Philip Jenks turned his self-admitted nervousness into a work of art, reading wryly funny and wryly serious poems (get a taste here. Like me, Philip is a recent addition to the Chicago scene and I'm grateful to Kristy Odelius for putting us on the same bill.

After a break, Robyn Schiff read—I'd heard her recently at Danny's but for some reason I found this reading more deeply engaging. She brings a lot of narrative to what I suspect are very long-lined poems; it's a strategy that I used to find irritating and superfluous given my mania for the pure lyric, but these days I find I'm much more receptive to it—it's a very inclusive style. More and more I'm drawn to poet's prose—not that Robyn's poems are prose, but rather that they seem to point toward a kind of cyclopedic inclusiveness of thought and subject and subjective response (I felt this when listening to Joyelle McSweeney read from her novel last week—which by the by I misidentified: it's called Nylund, the Sarcographer; her other novel, Flet, hasn't been released yet). The evening finished up with a poem-play presented by Murakami Sound Machine, an assemblage of Kristy's students who proceeded to hilariously conflate the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers with the lonely vagaries of poetry-making. You kind of had to be there.

There's lots more I'd like to reflect on here—Bolano, the film and book of Into the Wild that I first saw, then read this weekend, when I should have been doing other things; and Emerson's essays, which I'm currently teaching. But there's no time.

If you've made it this far down then perhaps you'll make it a little further—to Cleveland's John Carroll University, where my old Montana comrade Sarah Gridley and I are scheduled to read alongside Michael Dumanis and Lev Rubinstein on the evening of Wednesday, October 10. The whole thing was organized by Philip Metres (great last name for a poet, no?) whom I'm looking forward to meeting—any man who'd title a blog post about Emily Dickinson, "The Belle of Amherst Will Kick Your Ass" is okay in my book.

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