Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gudding, Bolaño, and the Limits of Literature

Last week I had the pleasure of having Gabe Gudding up to Lake Forest to talk to my Modern Poetry students and give a reading. I'd recommend him to any teacher and any class anywhere. One of my students marveled afterward about how unpretentious he is. Both in conversation and in the reading he was a quiet, yet commanding presence, the best imaginable soft advocate for his own work. At least three of my students wrote or are writing pieces inspired by him and Rhode Island Notebook in the wake of his visit, and it's some of the best writing they've done all semester.

But I come not to praise Gabe but to bury him, or rather to contemplate his own flirtation with the limits of poetry. We were all struck by his admission in the class that he often doesn't like or feels embarrassed by his old work—something most writers can surely relate to—but during the Q&A after the reading he went further and told us that he doesn't read much poetry any more and doesn't really like or trust it. "I want poetry to be useful," he said, and said he was moving away from beautiful language and metaphors (things he clearly loves and which come naturally to him as the leaves to a tree) toward simply presenting the things he finds in the world—an Objectivist-inluenced stance. The example of the new style that he presented was an section from his horological essay, "Praise to the Swiss Federation," a portion of which was excerpted in Harper's. I took this piece for a poem in the spirit of Christopher Smart, but Gabe calls it an essay, and as such evidence of his move away from poetry and, it would perhaps not be too much to say, an expression of his unease with the literary as such.

Given my obsession with Roberto Bolañno, it was natural for me to connect Gabe's unease with the central quality of Bolaño's greatness, as asserted by the clever boys at n plus one, following up their own Benjamin Kunkel's review of The Savage Detectives that first appeared in the London Review of Books. There Kunkel wrote, "Here is a writer, then, who writes as if literature were all that mattered, and at the same time writes in a distinctly unliterary way." The collectively authored n plus one piece goes further, comparing Bolaño or at least his similarly sudden canonization to W.G. Sebald (have they been reading my blog?) and saying of both authors, "neither fiction writer writes as if he believes in fiction. Our canonization of these writers implies a sense, even a conviction, that you can't be a really important novelist anymore unless you can't really write novels" (italics original).

We have overshot, then, the hermeneutics of suspicion that characterized "theory" in the 1970s to arrive at a poetics of suspicion: only literature that puts the very premises of the literary into question can now summon the aesthetic impact we associate with great literature. This may represent the most complete assimilation by authors of the skeptical stance that diffused itself in the last universally acknowledged great wave of postmodern fiction (Pynchon, Delillo, Coover) and poetry (Ashbery, Ashbery, Ashbery). Now it's not merely literary strategies that are picked apart and turned around through unreliable narrators, disordered chronologies, the blurring of fact and fiction, extreme parataxis, etc. It's the literary itself, the summoning and deployment of aesthetic effects, summarized in the phrase "beautiful language." It's like the avant-garde attack on art as an institution, but the spirit is less merry prankster than Beckettian: I can't go on writing, I'll go on writing. Which tone makes me wonder if this new anti-literary strategy isn't just modernism through the back door, since it's modernism's aura of mournful remembrance that most superficially distinguishes it from the products of postmodernism.

The only problem with this thesis is that it isn't really true. Sebald's work first shocked readers with its apparently artless photographs and endless paragraphs, but in recollection the work is nearly limpid, its melancholy polished to a high gleam. If Sebald's writing drew sighs of longing from its American readers, that had less to do with a sense of liberation from the literary than it provided a frisson of contact with a culture and history and tragedy that seemed far weightier and more substantial than ours during the decade of his American emergence. He seems less strange and more realistic in post-9/11 America, with his endless search for lost people, lost time, lost atmospheres. As for Bolaño, I suspect the artless, "lurid and flat" storytelling we accuse him of now will become not the surface to be broken by the diving reader in search of deeper, more duende-like qualities; instead, it will eventually be seen as the very thing that attracts us and which marks his writing as literary: that is, language hijacked on the road to representation by the very starkness and strangeness of the real that infiltrates and suffuses the work of Sebald and Bolaño alike. Or to put it another way, this is writing that doesn't pretend to understand the strangeness of life but lets it unfold, never shaped in any form save by storytellers who don't disguise both their interest in and their lack of control over the outcome. Sebald did this monologically; Bolaño's major innovation is his dialogism, as seen in the innumerable narrators of The Savage Detectives. None of them has a handle on the truth, but collectively they present us with the restless search for truth, for a truth that can account for the fate of the novel's antiheroes on every level: social, economic, juridical, literary, geographical. From what I've read of 2666 he pursues a similarly dark and heteroglossic investigation, one with far more chilling consequences in its irresolution.

Which takes me back to Gabe, whose Rhode Island Notebook already shows signs of the anti-literary, hyper-literary stance he now wants to take toward poetry. In its seemingly artless, scatological, essayistic progress, the book picks up and discards language both lyrical and mundane, sometimes sadistically so, reckoning experience through that simplest and most flexible of narratives: there and back again, anabasis-katabasis. So when Gabe talks about wanting to somehow move beyond poetry, yet in poetry, I want to send him one of those old Publishers Clearing House envelopes that says YOU MAY ALREADY BE A WINNER. And I wonder what his model may have to teach me in my own moment of revulsion (too strong: recoiling? re-collection?) against my own literary DNA, my own restless distrust of the beautiful language I seem so badly to need.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Flowers in My Hair

Caught in the feedback loop of silence. Wanting to write—there's no more futile emotion. You have to want to write something. And I am writing, here and there, but it never seems like the thing. But wanting it to be "the thing" is what defeats me.

There are two books I want to read between semesters: Robert Bolaño's 2666 and Lewis Hyde's The Gift. Bolaño draws me in much the same way W.G. Sebald did years ago, though he entirely lacks Sebald's lyricism (in spite of being a poet) and studied sense of guilt (except in the fictional sense, as in the sensational, abject guiltiness of Father Urrutia in By Night in Chile. As for Hyde, his book is a vade mecum that others have tried to push on me in the past, but I always avoided it, knowing little about the author and suspecting, because of the title and the way it's marketed, that it's basically a glorified self-help book. Just look at that little heart! But from what I've heard, it really is a masterpiece and a boon to the thinking of any poet who seeks escape from markets (especially the market in recognition that is the subject of Adam Kirsch's latest dismal screed in the same November issue of Poetry that gave me my first taste of the poetry of Robert Bolaño [typically, though he always thought of himself first and foremost as a poet, only his fiction has made it over into English]).

But I mention Kirsch because of his essay, with its anatomy of the scorn that has been heaped on the head of Keith Gessen, author of a novel that both chronicles the literary ambitions of young men and is the ourouborian document of Gessen's own ambition—much misplaced, it seems, in these unliterary times. Why didn't he just do a virtuosic job of lip-syncing something on YouTube? But then, why don't I? Because I have this faith in literature which is yet killing my ability to produce any. The desire to speak from the mountaintop—to go big—to take on one's era—shames and paralyzes. We must think small, instead, but cannily: to assume that our petty obsessions are the keys to something greater. Joyce's silence, exile, and cunning must meet with Emerson's core belief: "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius." And that is how I recognized the genius of Bolaño, who writes frankly and astonishing about the pettiest of worlds—the world of poets—and ends up going very big indeed, stalking nothing less than the wounded utopian specter that haunts the Americas, manifesting in the present tense as farce (in the government and persona of a Hugo Chavez), as cynicism (it's hard not to feel hopeless at Obama's apparent transformation into Clinton III—but did he really promise us anything different?), or most starkly as murder (the countless unsolved murders of young women in Juarez that are the major subject and backdrop of 2666).

The very little I've seen of Hyde is a tonic for all this. I couldn't find The Gift in the Evanston Public Library, but I did glance at his introduction to the collection of Thoreau essays he edited, in which he talks about Thoreau (and I think Emerson) as a master of the prophetic voice: that which stands upon the hilltop above the valleys of venal life and proclaims—not the future, but truths which must be eventually be fresh again because they are eternal. Up to this point Hyde seemed a talented hagiographer. But then came this astonishing passage:
A Thoreauvian prophetic essay leads us on a redemptive journey... but there is a redemption of the valley as well, one that comes from abandoning all hope of getting it together. If you need to come apart, you do not need to listen to the prophetic voice. Stop trying to be a hero. There is a time to fall to pieces, to identify with the confusion of your life as it is, confined absolutely to the present November sunset and your present apartment. (Emphasis added.)
This is exactly what I needed to hear, exactly the cure for the itch of objectless ambition, or more simply the desire to "get it together": to seamlessly synthesize a life that, in its multiple spheres—writing, new fatherhood, marriage, teaching—resists all my efforts to be glued into a whole. If I can take Hyde's advice and be an upended Thoreau, who goes not into the woods but deeper into his own messy life, maybe I'll find my way back to the writing that matters to me, without letting everything else go any more to pieces than it already is.

As a step in this direction, which may superficially resemble the urge to get it together, I'm taking a holiday to San Francisco at the end of this month, roughly coinciding with MLA, though I have no plans to attend the conference itself. Instead, I'm going to meet up with the poet-friends who will be converging there, to talk poetry and read manuscripts and browse Green Apple and Moe's Books like in the old days, and reconnect with that hauntingly beautiful cityscape, and just be a poet for a few days, letting the ties that bind me unravel a little bit without worrying about reraveling them later—they'll do that themselves, god knows. My beautiful wife is willing to let me go for a little while, though it will be painful to miss even six days of little Sadie Gray's growth. (She's dabbling now in language: show her a picture of a dog or say "dog" to her and she makes a little "uff-uff" sound, almost reflexively, her bright and shining eyes as yet displaying nothing like consciousness, present-tense eyes like those of dogs themselves.)

And so I have no plans either to get this blog together. Let it hang out as it will, a post per month or per day or per year. Let it and the pace of expectations adapt to my life and not the other way around for a change.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Troublesome and Lamentable

In one of the odder choices of entertainment that I could have made post-election, I went downtown this past Wednesday to see Sean Graney's ferocious production of the play I wrote my master's thesis on, The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward II, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer. I've seen one other production of the play in San Francisco, a more conventional staging that emphasized its homoeroticism at the expense of other qualities, and in fairly blatant ways (the first scene finds Piers Gaveston cavorting on a gigantic bed with half-a-dozen other naked men). Graney's production emphasizes the sheer dreadfulness of the story: a weak, vain king's passion for a French commoner destroys him and everyone around him. But he tells the story with a kind of black joie de vivre: a spirit emphasized by the gleeful intensity of the actors with whom the audience interacts very closely, for the play is done "promenade" style. That is, most of the audience is right there on the "stage" with the actors, and we moved or are moved about to follow the action from corner to corner. The mood was set from the very beginning, as a kind of club beat pounded while audience and actors shmoozed under the lazy eyes of King Edward, watching from his throne:
At one end of the floor, where stage center would be in a more conventionally blocked piece, was the arresting image of a heap of broken images—sorry, chairs:
Most ominous was the grisly bathroom to the audience's left as we entered the space: the room into which, one after the other, the play's principal characters are led to be executed (with of course the singular and "fundamental" exception of the gruesome onstage murder of the king himself—the murdered played, as was the case in the San Francisco production, by the same actor who had been Edward's lover earlier):Out of the mob of actors and audience order of a sort does emerge once the play gets going. Graney cuts a lot of Marlowe's text, inserts a number of anachronisms, and unbalances the balance suggested by Marlowe's long title: in spite of his childishness and spitefulness, our sympathies are engaged by the fey, hapless Edward much more than they are by the thuggish, homophobic Mortimer. One ought to feel, I think, a bit more strongly how Edward's distraction has put the entire kingdom at risk: Mortimer ought to emerge as a thug, driven to unspeakable evil by noble motives, if the play's design of darkness is to properly appall. But it was cracking good theater nonetheless. One element I liked was how, after each character's death, he re-emerged bloody from the bloody bathroom to be led offstage by a hideous masked Death ringing a bell. At the play's conclusion, young Edward III mourns his father and one of his attendants is a figure wearing a similar mask, though smaller and daintier. As the last line rings out, this figure whips off his mask to reveal the face of the murdered king. And so Edward II's identity with death is made clear.

Here's hoping that the coincidence of this tale of mischief, mayhem, and misrule has nothing whatsoever to do with the atmosphere of our new administration. So far things seem to be going smoothly with our new, rockstar President-elect. The sense of relief I feel about the presidency's being assumed by a genuine grown-up—an intellectual, even—grows and grows. It remains to be seen just how progressive he will be, but I continue to be stunned by the sensation of having a leader I don't have to be ashamed of. A few poets have already begun to muse about what Obama's rise means for American poetry: some seem to conclude it means—drumroll, please—the death of irony. Others have come to the same conclusion in a decidedly tongue-in-cheek fashion. I'm beginning to assimilate various thoughts about it.

In the must-read insider's account of the two campaigns in the latest Newsweek, the writer remarks on how after World War II, Democrats and Republicans fought as hard as they ever had, but they both had the shared experience of war in their backgrounds, which bred a certain degree of respect, or at least recognition. We don't have that. Instead, we have echo-chambers, crystallized now in the very, very large chamber of Obama's supporters (whose sudden disconnection from the feeding tube of electoral news has become an instant joke) and the somewhat smaller chamber of Republican dead-enders now busy telling each other that McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough. Now there's talk of bipartisanship, about which I have very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I don't understand how we can even begin to talk about sharing power with the people who have been so cynical about power and government: whose skill (up to now) in winning elections was inversely proportional to their basic competence, even in pursuing their own fucked-up goals (c.f. Iraq). On the other hand, to turn around and pretend that a massive swath of the population which continues to be conservative—"Real America"—is actually faker than fake, means to buy into a similar kind of cynicism. Count me one of those stirred by Obama's 2004 claim that "there is not a red America or a blue America but the United States of America!" But joining hands with the people who've done so much to make the very word "America" into a dubious object doesn't sit well either.

I find myself thinking, of all people, of Giambattista Vico, whose New Science I'm being reintroduced to as I finally start to read a book I've long delayed reading, Robert Pogue Harrison's Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. Harrison and Vico together both seem like practitioners of what Isaac Asimov called "psychohistory," studying the past in order to predict the future. Harrison takes the title of his first chapter, "First the Forests," from Vico's analysis of the progress of human civilization: "First the forests, after that the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies." But in Harrison's reading, this account of progress and synthesis is really an account of disintegration and decline. His reading of Vico reminds me of nothing so much as Adorno and Horkheimer's analysis of the dialectic of enlightenment, by which that which disintegrates myth—critical reason—becomes itself a myth that must itself distintegrate. It's the nutshell version of postmodernism. Breathtakingly, Harrison shows how Vico presents humanity emerging from the forest, only to recreate a "forest" of isolated individuals within the bounds of the city as myths and traditions fall apart to be replaced by naked self-interest. Vico:
But if the peoples are rotting in that ultimate civil disease [skepticism] and cannot agree on a monarch from within, and are not conquered and preserved by better nations from without, then providence for their extreme ill has its extreme remedy at hand. For such peoples, like so many beasts, have fallen into the custom of each man thinking only of his own private interests and have reached the extreme of delicacy, or better of pride, in which like wild animals they bristle and lash out at the slightest displeasure.
Does this not describe our culture as it is, or as it was on the verge of becoming, before we agreed on a monarch from within (deeply within, I take it, as Obama's multiracial appeal makes him truly resemble an image of America as it is and shall be, more than any visage featured on any currency)? Are we not, in our respective blogospheres, at the extreme of delicacy and pride, reacting disproportionately to every stimulus that penetrates the bubble? It doesn't seem like too much to say that, had McCain prevailed, Vico's account of the ironic society could and should have been printed as the most accurate front-page news of our condition. It remains to be seen whether Obama is the symbol of a counter-impulse for a new, progressive mythology, or if his election will amount to too little, too late.

Is the poet's task now, then, to consolidate the new myth? Are we to become court poets singing the praises of our new king? I wonder. The New York Times has poems about the election from John Ashbery, August Kleinzahler, Joshua Mehigan, Mary Jo Bang, and J.D. McClatchy. Only McClatchy's poem is free of irony, and in fact it stages a little morality play about hope versus cynicism. It is also of course the least interesting poem, language's little perversities having been ironed out by its firm-handed message. So again I wonder: where does politics leave poetry, now that poetry, or at least oratory, has re-entered politics?

Perhaps more free than ever before. Certainly not less relevant to public discourse, because there's nowhere for a needle to go beneath E. But poetry still wants to be public, still wants to tease out myths, still needs to believe it's stitching something together more perdurable than the animal media and the quick, unsatisfying his of connection it offers.

The hopefullest time I can recall as an adult. A time which will no doubt pass too quickly: the troublesome and lamentable will no doubt return. For now I take comfort in Whitman's remark about the President: that he takes off his hat to the people, not they to him. That there is some hope in hope's endurance.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Free at last. Free
at last. Thank God Almighty
we are free at last.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

One Vote

From Emily's phone.

My turn comes later.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Nothing Up My Sleeve, or, Teaching the Extraverts

There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't. Clearly I'm the first kind, though I try to remain skeptical and self-conscious about my own tendency to do so, and so is the artist referred to universally on the Lake Forest College campus simply as "Archambeau." He has a fascinating recent blog post titled Roberto Bolaño and the Extravert Muse that uses the Jungian categories of "intravert" and "extravert" to characterize artists and their relationship to their work (or maybe more precisely, their muses). As Bob points out, these categories roughly correspond to Schiller's "sentimental" and "naive" modes of poetry, and one could actually easily come up with one of those x/y columns like the ones that I remember use to lay out the vulgar distinction between modernism and postmodernism. So:

meaning creates music
the 18th Century
traditional form
music creates meaning
the 19th Century
open form
One could easily make too much of this. But like all such divisions, as a quick graph it has some utility, and just now what concerns me is the problem it suggests (Bob touches on this too) for the teacher of creative writing. It's relatively easy to teach the first column, and in fact the notion of poetry as teachable derives from that zone. What's seemingly impossible to teach is the second column, and that more romantic notion of what a poet is inspires the saying, "Poets are born, not made," and lead all sorts of people to doubt and calumnify the value of creative writing programs. The best we may be able to do, as Bob suggests, is to offer students Noulipo-type constraints which will produce a poem of the second column using the methodology of the first.

The alternative that I've seen put into practice most often relies on sheer charisma: the students sit at the feet of a poet-guru who may or may not be able to articulate the rules of craft, but whose value as a teacher relies largely on simple proximity. The poet-guru is a role model for how to be Dionysus in a world run by cut-rate Apollos: a lady of first permission, to paraphrase Duncan. Jorie Graham is such a teacher, and a wildly effective one (you can see it in her hair), but it's a pedagogical mode that is itself unteachable. And in a way, to be an extravert teacher doesn't at all address the problem of being an effective teacher of an exravert student. The very framework of the academic creative writing classroom and workshop is intraverted, and the charisma of the extravert teacher may actually do more to loosen up her intravert students than it is likely to foster a sense of permission among those already basically alienated by the workshop structure. What I've seen more often is high- or low-speed collisions between teachers and students of the same extraverted ilk, resulting as often in confusion and bitterness as it does in a sense of discipleship (itself a problematic outcome).

The extraverted students of mine that I can identify are few in number; I think it takes a sense of self unusual in an undergraduate to share writing that one can't or won't explain (most of my creative writing students are ready and eager to explain their work: "No, see, what I meant here was..."). They come to me sometimes expressing frustration with their workshop group, whose response to their original, striking, but messy work is generally one of bafflement. I try to offer them my encouragement and appreciation for what they do, which is after all the poetry I'm most inclined to think of as "the real thing." If they're receptive, I also try to verse them in the intraverted language that can be so helpful to a poet when it comes to presenting his or her work, but is even more important as a shield: the worst thing that can happen to such a poet is if someone steals or vandalizes or changes the channel on the radio from which he receives his Martian transmissions. I point this out more often in my modern poetry lit class: how necessary it is for many poets to be tricksters, to come up with a convincing stream of patter to distract the critics from their essentially ecstatic practices. The alternative for many has been drugs and alcohol, which is of course in the long run as fatal to one's self as to one's art. If Hart Crane had come up with some decent patter for Yvor Winters, he might have lived longer.

When I've taken the Jung-inspired Myers-Briggs personality test, I come up as an INFP: an Introverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiver. But it's always a close thing: my scores hover around the fifty-percent mark in three of the four categories and if I just answered a few questions differently it's conceivable I'd turn out an ENTJ—an Extroverted Feeling Thinking Judger. That suggests a degree of ambidexterity, or maybe a comfort zone that's broad enough to be fungible. Because I can talk the intraverted, craft-y, Apollonian talk as a teacher and critic and inveterate categorizer; but when I write poetry, I don't feel at all the sense of Arnoldian mastery and control that I imagine the true intravert poet does. The words lead me on, and only retroactively can I construct the narrative that might help me present that work for an audience of listeners or editors. I'm not lying when I explain my poems, but I don't feel like I'm being true to my process either, because the meaning of my work, to me, only becomes hazily apparent when I read it.

Only to friends and intimates am I comfortable admitting that I don't know what something I wrote is about—yet. For everyone else, I've got the necessary patter. Nothing in my hand, nothing in my other hand, nothing up my sleeve. Asking myself at every moment of the act: is this my card?

ADDENDUM - 11/3/08

A remarkably relevant paragraph from Adam Gopnik's essay "Last of the Metrozoids," which my creative writing students are reading in Heather Sellers' The Practice of Creative Writing. Can't help but see its relevance for our political moment as well:
It is said sometimes that the great teachers and mentors, the rabbis and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers—and, for that mater, the truly long-term winning coaches, the Walshes and Woodens and Weavers—do something else. They don't mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of rabbinical authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunications. The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model—they probably have to—but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Barack Obama for President

The urgency of electing this man—with his curiosity, his compassion, his steadiness, and his pragmatism tempered by idealism (not the other way around)—seems to me blindingly obvious yet worth saying and repeating. Only fear of his otherness, which the Republicans are pushing hard, would seem capable of derailing him now. I hope it won't happen. I've read all the polls, I've heard many anecdotes, and I think it won't happen. Barack Obama is our next president. But will he win a powerful enough mandate to counter the vitriol, hatred, and cries of illegitimacy that will be coming from the radical right-wing margin that dictates the agenda of the so-called mainstream? If you thought the wingnuts were at their nuttiest during the Clinton years, you ain't seen nothing yet.

So let's vote for him in vast and overwhelming numbers. Let's see all the new voters that the pundits are so skeptical about actually show up at the polls. Let's suspend for just a moment our natural skepticism and believe, not in Obama the man, but in what he's come to represent. Not so much a new politics, for I don't recognize the "Obambi" figure that Roger D. Hodge laments in his extraordinarily cynical "Notebook" piece in the latest issue of Harper's. Obama's thrown plenty of elbows: this has been the most efficient, ruthless, anti-Roveian campaign a Democrat could wish for. I hope and expect that Obama will play the game that needs to be played—not a post-politics (as another Harper's piece suspects and fears) but a politics that effectively mobilizes the majority of the people to act in and fight for their own best interests: a well-managed economy that is also a green economy; a foreign policy that wins friends, influence, and partners; health-care as a human right; peace. Will Obama bring about these things? Almost certainly not. But he might be the tipping point which helps all those thousands of people who've turned out to see and hear him realize their own power, contra Hodge, and take new responsibility for their own destinies.

Michael Schaivo has said all this more eloquently than I, so go read him and forward that to your friends and relatives on the fence. And go vote.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


An unhealthy obsession with political blogs, plus keeping up with three classes and spending time with my family, has left poetry (and this blog) in the dust. This worries me a little. It's not that I think the world thirsts for my opinions, but rather that the blog has been my primary means of engaging with poetry for so very long. And if neglecting the blog had somehow led to my writing or reading more poetry that would be an acceptable bargain, but it hasn't. Instead the only poetry I read is the poetry I teach: very good stuff (Whitman this week and Dickinson next week in my nineteenth-century class; Ginsberg this week and Gwendolyn Brooks next week in my modern poetry class), but by no means new to me. Which doesn't mean I won't make discoveries reading Song of Myself for the umpteenth time, but my role as a teacher does tend to confine me to reading for the clearest through-line that I can offer my students, as opposed to getting caught up in eccentric eddies as I would be if reading for my own pleasure and advancement.

On the other hand, engaging in the contemporary for the contemporary's sake may be the most rapid path to irrelevance. Getting the news from poems doesn't mean reading the latest poems as though they were the newspaper (or Juan Cole or Talking Points Memo). Having for a while been most engaged by the poetry of news, or the pomo poetry of poets striking tragical-comical-pastoral poses amid the potpourri of capitalism, I now feel my inclination drifting toward a more Romantic stance. Which leaves plenty of room for political engagement and critique, but doesn't depend on a shielded persona, either. The contemporary poets who've been my most steadfast mental companions are those who—I hate to resort to workshop-speak, but it seems inevitable—stake themselves in and on their poems. Julianna Spahr, Lisa Jarnot, Jennifer Moxley, Claudia Rankine, Lisa Robertson, Alice Notley. It's not too much to say that these women are some of my heroes for writing smart, thorny, sometimes luxurious and sometimes threadbare verse in which I feel the presence of a living person who situates her whole mind and body in a world I recognize anew through her vision. They bare their injuries to the reader, but not to feed her prurience a la the Confessional poets; they're simply unwilling to play the fundamentally adolescent game summed up in the warning phrase, "Be cool."

It's strangely difficult to think of contemporary male poets who do this, whose work isn't suborned in some way by the need to shield their egos. (Heterosexual male poets, I should say: I would classify the work of my friend Brian Teare, for example, with that of the women neo-Romantics I've mentioned.) Older poets come to mind, Allen Grossman chief among them, but not those of my own generation or younger. Because of that I've come to prefer those male poets who are very far from cool—whose vulnerability is made transparent by their self-aggrandizement—a mode I associate with the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Ted Berrigan. But it's hard to write that stuff without veering off into camp, which is another defense, another version of "the cool." Gabe Gudding comes very close to what I have in mind. So does Dan Bouchard, and my other great poetry friend, Richard Greenfield.

This is all very personal: I've never been cool, and now that I'm a father I feel warmer than ever, repelled by even the mildly ironic carapaces of the professoriate I'm now a part of. And the temptation of being accepted as "one of the cool kids"—a running buddy of the Flarfists or post-Language poets or any clique you'd care to name—has lost much of its hold over my imagination. Which is not to say I reject the possibilities of the group or wish to retreat to some naive atomized model of the lone poet. Most of the poets I've mentioned have been part of some group or other at one time in their careers—we all need comrades. It's more that I want to take up the other strands of relationship in my life and have those networks be of at least as much importance in my work as other poets and writers. The point of writing for me, always, is to put an end to isolation.

That also means ending the isolation of the body. I want to get closer to the physical in my writing, both in terms of sound and image, and in terms of content. The body in poetry seems either to lyricize into the ether or else present the sick plummet into matter and mortality. There has to be another way simply to breathe and move and touch in poetry. Maybe I should try rhyming again.

In between, for now.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Race

In the latest New York Times article on the election, this paragraph appears:
“Senator Obama has more money than God, the most favorable political climate imaginable — a three-week Wall Street meltdown and financial crisis — and with all that, the most margin he can get is four points?” said Bill McInturff, one of Mr. McCain’s pollsters. “That does speak to the questions there are about lack of experience, his candidacy, and other things that make people say, ‘Gosh, is he really ready?’ ”
This is, I believe, a fundamental error on the McCain campaign's part. I think Obama passed the experience threshold after the first debate, if he hadn't done so already. The reason that he doesn't have a double-digit lead—though some polls give him close to one—has nothing to do with McInturff's argument. It's because of his name and because he's black.

I think that this means that the viciously negative campaign the McCain campaign says it's going to run in the next month is a waste of their dwindling resources and time, because nothing they say about Obama's supposed associations with radicals or his lack of experience or his "dangerous" willingness to use diplomacy is going to be scarier to the American people than the scary stuff that's already on the surface—stuff they are apparently willing to overlook to the tune of a 5.9% advantage to Obama according to the Real Clear Politics average of the current national polls. That doesn't mean we don't live in a racist country, only that our fear of the unknown is now less great than our fear of a known quantity: the bankrupt (in every sense!) Republican leadership of the past decade.

Obama's rope-a-dope strategy seems to be paying off big right now. I can only hope—in spite of the lack of evidence, in spite of his apparent "pragmatism"—that he has a similarly cool strategy for installing and pursuing a genuinely progressive agenda as President. We may, however, have substituted progress on the level of identity politics for the kind of progress that would really move large numbers of people at home and abroad toward justice and equality.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Birthday Baby Blogging

My birthday, not hers. I've gotten two mealtime snapshots to sustain me through a long workday:

Yay, food!

The biggest eyes.


We spent the week in Modern Poetry reading excerpts from The Cantos. The students were surprisingly game for it all. I think it helps that I confess my own ambivalence every time, so that they neither feel they must celebrate his genius nor denounce his nastiness but can instead actually respond to what's there. Next week: Gertrude Stein.

Tomorrow Lake Forest's Homecoming Weekend begins. I'll be taking part in an Alumni College event in which alumni get to feel like they're students once again. My chair, Rick Mallette, and I will discuss Frost's "Design." A spooky old chestnut of a poem. He's going to do an old-fashioned close reading, and I'm going to try and get all ecocritical about it.

And next week I come out as a poet to the rest of the faculty: we have a lunchtime series here where people present on their work or research to other faculty members. After some deliberation as to whether to talk about scholarship or my own poetry, I chose the latter. This is the squib I came up with to publicize the event:
Severance Songs: The Odyssey at Home

A reading from and talk about Joshua’s recently completed manuscript of poems, Severance Songs. Begun in the wake of September 11 and continued through the Iraq War, these poems ask whether it’s possible to live a right life in a wrong world. Or to put things in terms of the book’s enabling counter-myth: what if Odysseus had never gone to Troy? How do you find Ithaca if you’ve never left it? How do we take responsibility for a world we never made? And if we do not, who will? War, pastoral, humor, and love move in these poems toward his tentative conclusion: in severance there is yet a bond.
I do hope I can find a home for this book someday soon; I believe it has some of my best work in it, and it's come to seem like the most complete gesture that I've made poetically in the past decade.

Homeward bound now for birthday cake (if I'm lucky) and Palin's making a complete ass of herself in the VP debate (if we're all lucky).

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Life? Or Blogging?

There's probably no more tiresome sort of blog post than the apology for not blogging, but that's what circumstances have reduced me to. These days, I find teaching and family life absorb nearly all of my energy, and what little is left over goes either toward other projects (writing reviews, talks I'm giving at Lake Forest in the coming weeks) or leisure reading (last week's spare moments were consumed by a copy of Woodward and Bernstein's The Final Days that I found in a box on the street—anticipatory schadenfreude on my part). Current literary events, like the sad and sudden passing of David Foster Wallace, are passing me by. I'm not even reading blogs much anymore, a new trend as disturbing as it might be healthy.

If I did have time to blog, I'd blog about the Modern Poetry course I'm teaching, which has been a very exciting adventure. I have some very bright students in that class (including Brother Tom, who's auditing) who have never before encountered the likes of Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, or William Carlos Williams (the story so far). One beneficial effect for me has been to reread these writers as a clever undergraduate might—I find myself concerned with what these poets might mean, whereas normally when I read poetry I just permit myself to be ravished by surface effects and sociohistoric echoes. So I have to construct a narrative for each poet's work to guide the class, while letting the range and scope of it suggest to the students the necessary provisionality of such a narrative.

I'd also probably blog—it's a mercy I do not—about the presidential campaign. Despite his being by any world measure a center-right candidate, despite the likelihood of his turning into neoliberalism with a (multicultural) human face, I badly want Obama to win, and to win big. I have a daughter—have her while she is mine—and that puts me a lot closer to Polonius and his desire to keep the ship of state afloat than it does to Hamlet's revolution. If McCain and Palin get in—satyrs to Obama's Hyperion?—I will fear not for the decline of the American empire (that would be just fine, I long to live in a "normal country"), but its convulsive self-destruction. Which is to say, my little family will likely be stumping for Obama in Kenosha, Wis., this weekend. And I'll be checking the latest polls every spare second between now and November 4, hoping for current financial crisis-driven trends to continue to boost the guy who does indeed offer hope, however slender a reed that might be.

Going back underground, for a time.

Friday, September 12, 2008


I emerge from start-of-semester-induced silence blinking into the bloglight. I've got an enviable Tuesday-Thursday teaching schedule this semester, with Wednesday devoted to grading and committees, giving me a four-day weekend to spend with wife and daughter and do my own work (and, okay, a bunch of grading). But my abbreviated workweek is extraordinarily intense, and that combined with the vagaries of a seven-month-old's sleep schedule has left me with little or no extra energy that isn't being consumed by class preparation, futzing with my Olson article, reshuffling manuscripts, and fretting about the election.

Saddening news of the passing of Reginald Shepherd yesterday. We never met, but I had a stimulating and occasionally contentious online relationship with him for years. His apparent esteem for my work and opinions did a lot to help me feel that I had something valuable to contribute to the discourse surrounding American poetry, for which I'll always be grateful. He unfailingly addressed me as "Joshua" no matter how often I signed my e-mails "Josh," and I came to welcome the grace notes of his formality. I'll miss hearing what I imagined his voice sounded like: a bass-baritone with a rare glinting laugh attached.

Over at Exoskeleton, in between posting about his own election anxieties, Johannes Göransson has been taking issue with some of my blogpinions. I seem to be something of a bête noir of his, for manifesting insufficient political sensitivities. Now I read his blog with some regularity, but I still want to say: Johannes, by all means pick bones with me, but link to the posts you argue with, eh? Otherwise I may not find out you've been criticizing me until weeks after the fact.

Most recently, Johannes expressed irritation with the "tribes" model that Scott McCloud adapted for talking about comics, and which I've found useful for thinking about poetry—my own most of all. He objects, if I read him aright, to what he sees as my belief that political poetry (i.e., iconoclasm) is less artistic than the other kinds (such as formalism). For Johannes, all poetry, indeed I'd say all artistic production, is political, a point that any longtime reader of this blog knows I agree with. But he seems to think that when I describe a certain kind of political poetry as "angry" or "feces-throwing" that I'm denigrating its artistic value. Far from it! He seems entirely to have missed my genuine sense of envy when confronted by the work of poets and writers whose self-identification, if offered McCloud's model, would certainly fall heavily on the Iconoclast/Animist side of the street—the real shit-stirrers, people like Kent Johnson and caconrad and some of the Flarfists and some of the "gurlesque" writers (and Johannes himself). Hurling feces is entirely appropriate behavior from an artist who feels him or herself to be in a cage, and the art of attracting spectators in that situation, who risk being themselves beshitted but are nonetheless drawn to that implicating spectacle, is a very fine art indeed.

As I'd want to make use of it, the four tribes model is in no way prescriptive, but descriptive, and of less use in categorizing art than in assisting in an artist's own fuller self-perception and positioning. It's a means of situating oneself in the field, and of assessing one's own inclinations and fears. It's true that, unlike Silliman's quietude/post-avant bifurcation, it's not a historicizing model, which may be a weakness. But I'd argue that a model that can be used historically (to talk about what Iconoclasm might have meant to the second-gen New York School poets, for example) is more useful than a model that purports to do all the critical work for you, so that nothing remains to you but sorting the poets you encounter into this category or that.

Finally, the question was raised as to whether I read comics. Yes I do, but much less than I used to, because they're so darned expensive and because comic book store owners, in my experience, are paranoid about people lingering over their wares, insisting that you buy something if you spend more than a couple of minutes with any one title. This forces me into the arms of Barnes & Noble, where you can sit and read for hours, but the selection is much more limited. It's true I've mostly read Anglo-American comics, and my favorites aren't particularly outré—Harvey Pekar, Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, more recently Alison Bechdel. But I do enjoy the work of Jason (I got a big kick out of his book The Left Bank Gang, which reimagines the American expatriate writers of the 1920s—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, etc.—as both comic book artists and criminals), I watched a lot of anime in college, and I also used to read Heavy Metal which introduced me to French artists like Moebius. So I been around.

Friday, August 29, 2008

When Four Tribes Go to War

Ron has linked to a blog entry by Damien G. Walter on Scott McCloud's theory of the four tribes of artists in his book Making Comics. Longtime readers may recall my excitement about McCloud's classifications in this post that I wrote two years ago. I only call attention to it now because of the spiffy graphic, which I may print out and give to my creative writing students late in the semester, after they've had a chance to build up a small body of work and some confidence, just to promote discussion.

My own natural orientation tends toward Formalist/Classicist, the two "headiest" tribes, but I often look with longing at the greener grass of the Animists and Iconoclasts, grubbing and hooting and blazing with passion and hurling their own feces at the looky-loos. Flarf has attracted so much attention, I think, for being a counterintuitive blending of the Formalist and Iconoclast positions, whereas most of the Language and post-Language writers tend to be either strongly Formalist or strongly Iconoclast without much mixing (Michael Palmer versus Bruce Andrews, say, or Lyn Hejinian versus Alice Notley). The good old School of Quietude writers form an occasionally fractious alliance between Classicists and Animists; for a long time they had many people persuaded that their dyad was the only game in town. One could go on mapping poets and movements this way, but as a cognitive model it's probably most useful for obtaining a better self-understanding.

For a writer like me, uneasily perched between "emerging" and "mid-career," McCloud's tribes help me explain a little better to myself my own dissatisfactions with my writing, and will maybe even serve as fingerposts pointing toward new goals, new processes.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reintroduction to Creative Writing

If you Google "creative writing" you come up with images like the one above, which serves if anything to remind me how resistant the act of writing is to visualization. A flip through the latest Poets & Writers reveals various attempts to overcome this difficulty in the selling of journals, books, and MFA programs. Images of young people in presumably intense discussion, famous or semi-famous faces, romantic landscapes and cityscapes, and abstract designs: you see all this, but the default image still seems to be the image implicit of some older mode of literary production: 1930s manual typewriters (I've never seen a Selectric in an ad, I don't think), fountain pens and inkbottles, or even just the graphic background of a yellow legal pad. You will never see a laptop so fetishized, at least not until we're all writing in the air like Tom Cruise in Minority Report.

The image of the writer is on my mind as I put the finishing touches on my third syllabus for the fall semester, which gets started this week, Introduction to Creative Writing. Last year I was preoccupied with the question of creative writing as self-expression, given that young college students are rather more concerned with self-construction. Estrangement therefore guided my thinking about how to teach the course and what texts they should read: I wanted to destabilize the "naturalness" of prose narrative and rhymed verse.

This time around, without losing sight of the need to keep my students just a little off-balance, I'm taking a more pragmatic approach which might appear to be a retreat from Thoreau's "Why level downward to our dullest perception always, and praise that as common sense?" Partly this is because I've discovered my students don't have, for better or worse, as many allegiances as I'd expected to normative modes. I've come to accept the necessity of teaching them how to make a chair you can actually sit in before you start experimenting with the number of legs. And I've adopted a textbook with an eminently pragmatic approach to literary carpentry, Heather Sellers' The Practice of Creative Writing. What I like most about Sellers' book is the vocabulary and framework she provides for addressing creative writing—a vocabulary particularly valuable for being applicable to any mode of writing, or arguably any artistic practice at all. Rather than grouping into units on poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, etcetera, like most such textbooks, the Sellers book is organized around six principles or strategies that every beginning writer would be wise to become conscious of:
- Energy is what keeps readers turning the page. Subject matter is a big part of this: choosing a subject you know a great deal about, or are intensely curious about, will bring more energy to the writing. Leaps and gaps—what you leave out—are critical, as are word choice (concrete nouns, strong verbs) and pacing.
- Images refer not just to the visual element but to what you might call the "experientiality" of a text: its capacity for making the reader feel that he or she is there in the world of the story or poem. For Sellers the image is fundamentally opposed to "ideas" and intellection. I have some reservations about this, but really this section boils down to "show don't tell," and for beginning writers I'm on board with that.
- Tension is something many young writers neglect—I can't tell you how many stories I've read featuring a single protagonist alone with his or her thoughts and feelings, as opposed to being in actual conflict with other people. One thing I really like about the tension chapter is the strategy of "layering": images that contrast with the action, triangular relationships, and action that contrast and conflicts with dialogue (she calls this "facade," and it's another extremely useful tool for younger writers, who tend to write dialogues in which the characters say exactly what they mean, exactly unlike real human beings).
- Pattern has two divergent meanings for Sellers: pattern by ear (that is, the musical tools of verse: rhyme, meter, rhythm, consonance, etc.) and pattern by eye, which refers both to visual images created within a text (objects that form a significant pattern, characters' gestures) and visual arrangements on the page (this refers mostly to white space but is also an opening for talking about page-as-field).
- Insight—this is a category I'm really glad to devote some time to. This addresses the "So what?" question raised by any piece of writing on a deeper level than tension or energy; it refers to what we might call the truth content of any piece of writing. For Sellers, the means of achieving insight with writing are accuracy, particularly about human behavior; generosity toward one's characters and one's reader; asking questions with your writing rather than providing answers. She's careful to point out that these can be small questions as well as questions about death and the meaning of life (though one certainly shouldn't shun those).
- Structure: Elements. Sellers does another smart thing by dividing "structure" into two sections. The "Elements" section deals with the components of a piece, the moving parts of a narrative or a poem. She offers the categories of "bits," "beats," and "scenes" for thinking about prose, while for poems she focuses on words and lines. Commonsense stuff, maybe, but worth spending a chapter on.
- Structure: Forms. For poems she offers an expected handful of traditional forms: the pantoum, ghazal, sestina, and villanelle (why not the sonnet?). For narratives she breaks things into linear and non-linear structures: the former includes the classical dramatic structure we all learned in high school (rising action, climax, falling action), the journey, and the journey's inverse, the visitation (reminding of someone's axiom that there are only two plots: a young person leaves town, a stranger rides into town). I'm glad she offered some nonlinear structures to think about as well: the list, the alphabet (shades of Walter Abish!), and the braid (three or more interlocking strands of narrative).
In general I find the materials Sellers has to offer on prose are more interesting and useful than those to do with poetry, a feeling confirmed by the mini-anthology that the books effectively contains. The prose pieces include an excerpt from Amy Fusselman's terrific The Pharmacist's Mate (an example of braided narrative and an early McSweeney's production), stalwart stylists like Michael Chabon, Rick Moody, and Michael Cunningham, and some expected but nonetheless welcome contributions from the likes of Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore. The poems, on the other hand, are almost invariably either anecdotal or precious, reflecting Sellers' simplistic division of all poems into narrative or lyric categories (though she does make space for the prose poem). This would bother me more if I weren't confident in my ability to present the students with broader poetic options. It's prose I need a little more help with, and in any case the six strategies Sellers provides are perfectly viable for describing the workings of a poem by Lisa Jarnot or Ron Silliman, say.

Sellers stresses the difference between images and "thought" to a degree that makes me just a little uneasy. She's absolutely write to point out that student writers tend to put a layer of insulation between their readers and their texts; instead, "Your images shouldn't be about describing, they shouldn't be about anything at all; they should be the thing." Well, William Carlos Williams could hardly disagree with her. But on the same page she claims, "Creative writers don't want their readers to think. We want them to see and feel." This is a false dichotomy. I can understand why Sellers puts so much stress on sensory detail and experience, because students are likely to be uncomfortable with putting their own sensual experience on the line in their writing. But I, for one, want my readers to think—it's really just a question of priority, in that I want the thinking to happen after, or maybe just at right angles, to the sensual presence of the language. Maybe Sellers just trusts that this kind of thing will take care of itself: first the elements of craft, then cognition or Geist may follow.

Sellers has another idea or first principle for beginning writers that seems useful but questionable: a stress on audience, which takes us back to the self-expression problem. In the first chapter, she distinguishes between writing for yourself and writing for others, and puts "creative writing" firmly in the second category. This is an expedient means of transmitting what we might call a "professional" attitude to students: their first and last concern is the effect they want to have on readers. It's an effective message in contradiction of a younger writer's more solipsistic tendencies, accompanied as it is by the message that the writer should never be having more fun than her reader. But it is a push toward professionalization, and the way the book is composed leaves little room for the possibility of different notions of audience, or the audience one's writing is intended to create. Maybe this is an unnecessary layer of sophistication for an introductory class, but I worry that as a strategy this passes writing too quickly out of the question of, if not self, of different sorts of community for readers and writers other than those determined by the insatiable market for sensation (tension, imagery, and all the rest).

Quibbles, really, given the usefulness of Sellers' six strategies, which provide a simple theoretical armature that I wish had been available to me when I was a creative writing student, told that certain lines didn't "work" or that I hadn't "earned" a particular image. They also provide a useful simulacrum of objective standards by which writing can be judged, which goes some way toward addressing the always vexing question of how to grade a piece of creative writing. More on that perhaps another time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Man on Wire

I don't get to the movies much these ways (see below for the reason why) but last night I saw this haunting documentary. The director, James Marsh, said he conceived of his film about Phillipe Petit's insane and triumphant endeavor to walk a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974 as a heist picture, and that's exactly how it plays (the tagline is "1974. 1350 feet up. The artistic crime of the century"). But as if that weren't pleasure enough—suspenseful in spite of knowing how it turns out—it's also a film about an artist at work, and about collaboration. Petit's obssession, and his ability to bring others into his obsession, make this one of the finest films I've seen about artmaking, comparable in its way to my all-time favorite The Five Obstructions. The obstacles in this case are not those posed by a diabolical apprentice but are simply, staggeringly logistical. Yet in both films the artist in question has to cross the black territory of the unconscious without dwelling there in order to achieve works of lacerating perfection.

The lyricism of the images of Petit on his wire take on an additional elegiac resonance given the further destiny of those towers—an event referred to not at all by the film. Marsh knows that he doesn't have to mention it, and the peculiar interpolation of History with Petit's defiant assertion of art-for-art's sake (he derides, in a friendly way, those Americans who kept asking him "Why?" afterward) for me raises anew the necessity of art's autonomy from life. But Petit's autonomy is achieved almost literally on the razor's edge of life—it's astounding he didn't fall to his death—and this perhaps reminds us that one shouldn't speak too glibly of the imagination as that which resists the pressure of reality (to use Stevens' language—I'm reading him again in preparation for my modern poetry class). Petit staked his body on "le coup" as he and his team called it, and if poets don't do the same in kind, if not in degree, their work might succeed didactically or be politically engagé without having the real savor of what is simultaneously escape from reality and the penetration of it. "Strike behind the mask"—Petit is a good-natured Ahab who neither kills the whale nor tames it—he rides, he surfs, he flies, at one point on one knee, paying homage to the spirit that's within him.

The dark and utter contrast between "the artistic crime of the century" and what Karl Stockhausen infamously termed "the greatest work of art ever" requires no further comment, except perhaps to say that when you wield a razor instead of walking its edge you pass from revelation to obscenity. Perhaps there's a dialectic here, but it's one I haven't the stomach for.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Late Summer Cuteness

More substantive and less cute blogging to follow in the not too distant future.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Forward to the Nineteenth Century

For the past couple of weeks I've been ruminating the various aspects of my pastoral project—the Olson paper, ideas for an anthology, plans for a book—trying to decide, in effect, where to plant my Archimedean fulcrum. On the one hand I've been reading a lot of poetry and criticism, particularly Olson and Oppen, and thinking about how their paths of innovation lead toward the postmodern pastoral. On the other hand I've been sunk deep in theory, most especially that of Fredric Jameson, and constructing what might be meant by a postmodern pastoral. My habits of mind lead me to get more excited about writing big-picture theory than I do about the more painstaking and empirical task of criticism. But whichever end of the fulcrum I emphasize, I'm going to need both if my dissertation ideas will be reborn as something fresh, relevant, and urgent.

But goodbye to all that, because August is here and I need to get my syllabi in shape. Today it's not the Modern Poetry course that preoccupies me but the hoary old survey class, Nineteenth-Century American Literature. This is a repeat course, unlike Modern Poetry, but I'm not satisfied with how things went last semester so I'm making some changes. The most basic change is switching anthologies from the Norton to the Heath—the latter puts more emphasis on presenting the spectrum of nineteenth-century cultural writing than the Norton, which is a canon-making machine. The representation of non-white-male authors in the Heath is much higher than the Norton, and their notes suggest a more overtly politicized approach to the material (that is to say, they don't pretend there's a politically neutral stance from which to regard these texts). At the same time, all the classics that I want to teach are still included, and often in superior versions: the 1855 version of "Song of Myself," "Bartleby" and other major works by Melville (no Moby-Dick, but the excerpts provided in the Norton seemed to confuse my students more than enlighten them), a cluster of Hawthorne stories plus the entirety of The Scarlet Letter, plenty of Emerson, Frederick Douglass' Narrative and "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?", a useful chunk of Cooper's The Pioneers, stories by Washington Irving, etc.

Last year I broke the course up into five units: Lighting Out for the Territory (we read all of Huck Finn), The Original Sin of Slavery, What Was Transcendentalism?, American Gothic (Poe, Hawthorne, Melville), and Containing Multitudes (Whitman and Dickinson). I will use units again this year, but I want them to be more cumulative this time, so that each text we read will have clear roots and antecedents in what went before, to give my students a stronger sense of literature as conversation and contest. And I'm letting go of Huck Finn (and also of Walden, another long book we read in its entirety) for the sake of greater breadth: I want to start earlier in the century and end later. Finally, I want to regionalize/spatialize this great unwieldy "American" beast—so after some initial questioning of the "American," I want to devote each unit to a different region of the emerging nation and its distinctive literatures. But I won't necessarily think of "regions" in the conventional way. So:

- Becoming American: This section will focus on the earliest moments in the American experience as they were being recapitulated, celebrated, and criticized by nineteenth-century authors. Texts will include some propagandistic poems by Lydia Sigourney, Washington Irving's scathing satire on the white campaign against Indians from A History of New York, "Rip Van Winkle," Emerson's "The American Scholar," three chapters from Cooper's The Pioneers, excerpts from Catharine Maria Sedgwick's novel Hope Leslie. The urge to separate from Europe, and the urge to at once destroy and assimilate American "wildness," will be counterposed.

- New England Transcendentalists: This unit will focus largely on the theory and nonfiction associated with New England in the first half of the century. We'll read Emerson's "Nature" and "The Poet," Margaret Fuller's "American Literature," Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," "Walking," and some excerpts from Walden.

- Slavery and the South: In addition to Douglass's Narrative and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, we'll read some of the abolitionist rhetoric addressed directly to Southerners (particularly Angelina Grimke's Appeal to the Christian Women of the South) and two Southern apologists, Caroline Lee Hentz and George Fitzhugh (the latter is particularly interesting for his quasi-Marxist argument—saying in effect that the feudal institution of slavery is kinder than capitalist wage-slavery). We'll also read some Civil War literature: bits of Mary Chesnut's Civil War and some of Melville's Battle Pieces and Whitman's Drum-Taps (kind of a back-door into Whitman).

- American Interiors: Two parts to this unit. One focuses on women's writing and the ways in which they subtly or overtly revise the more usual narratives about American values and expansion. So that means pieces from Fanny Fern, excerpts from Caroline Kirkland's A New Home—Who'll Follow? (my mostly midwestern students will no doubt be amused by her depictions of a wild and untamed Michigan)), and Dickinson's poems. But the other part will focus on the rise of "psychological" literature: Poe stories and poems, some Hawthorne stories, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening.

- Containing Multitudes: I'm keeping this title for Whitman, but I also want this unit to address the rise of industrial-urban America after the Civil War. There's a useful section or "cluster" in the anthology titled "Literacy, Literature, and Democracy in Postbellum American" that addresses the question of which Americans get to speak and shape America. I'd also like to include Rebecca Harding Davis' "Life in the Iron-Mills," Melville's "Bartleby" and "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids," and finish up with Henry Adams's famous chapter on "The Virgin and the Dynamo."

This is a lot to cram into fifteen weeks, and I'm sure the actual syllabus will be more selective than this list indicates. I'm also not sure if the thematized units shouldn't be taken more loosely, because there are texts I'm interested in teaching that are hard to categorize in this fashion (where do I put Daisy Miller, for example?). I need to strike a balance between a larger narrative about American self-fashioning and the perverse individual will of each text to be itself alone.

When I've worked this all up it will be time to address the last class I'm teaching this fall, which I've also taught before: Introduction to Creative Writing. This time I'm using a textbook I've found that's not bad, principally because of the critical vocabulary it offers to young writers. But that's another post.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

O Superwoman

This bit from a Village Voice interview with one of my favorite artists caught my eye:
I’m not messianic about this. I don’t need to bring my message to the world. I’m a classic case of talking, you know, to the people who agree with me in a lot of ways. And it’s also because I’m a snob, you know. I don’t think art’s a very good way to convince people. This material came into my work not because I was trying to deliver a message, but because I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It just became about that. I’m not a missionary. I’m not trying to convert anyone to see things a certain way, at all. I’m really not. Why do I use political content? Because it’s the crossover with journalism, and with anyone who tells a story.
The sentence I've italicized there is really what I believe distinguishes artmaking from rhetoric, and I think one of the most difficult tasks for an artist is trusting the—I don't know, veracity?—of whatever it is you can't get out of your mind. And when I encounter a book of poems these days, I find I'm looking for evidence of that kind of commitment—the commitment of a ghost to its haunted house. So often I read poems or collections of poems whose reason for being seems merely whimsical or merely rhetorical. Whereas what turns my head is committed to the generally unenviable task of articulating something that other people don't necessarily want to hear—hell, that you don't want to hear.

I find it interesting, though, that in spite of Laurie Anderson's self-deprecating frankness, she still represents her work as that of being the kind of storytelling that's meant to call attention to story-making: in other words, there is still a critical task in hand, even if she knows she's preaching to the converted. Here's the rest of what she had to say in response to the interviewer's question about audiences:
You know, when we were invading . . . or saber-rattling last November about invading Iran, Bush’s story was ‘Here’s an evil dictator with weapons of mass destruction.’ Jaw-dropping, you know. Like, we’d all heard that story before. We saw where that went. But, you know, there was still some people who went, ‘Oh, okay.’ Instead of going, ‘What are you telling that story again for?’ So it didn’t matter than it wasn’t a true story. It mattered that it was a good story, with the evil guy and hidden treasure and all the things that people want. It’s not a complicated one, but it’s got a good cast of characters. So it’s a fantastic time to be doing this kind of work because everybody’s got their story about where we are, where we’re going. ‘We’re going to be at war for 100 years.’ You have to say, you know, ‘Why is he telling that story? Why is he smiling when he’s saying that?’ But I don’t think there’s a lot of that real kind of analysis going on, so that also is what Homeland’s about, you know, stories and how you tell them.
What I like about this is how on the one hand Anderson's standing up for the artist's right—her imperative—to follow what compels her, no matter how strange or redundant that thing might be... and on the other hand, her work performs a task of analysis that is at least potentially socially useful (if only in the sense that it's useful to her and makes it possible for her to go on telling these stories, which clearly some few of us need to hear). That said, other remarks she makes in the interview suggest that for Anderson, the socially useful is beside the point:
- ...part of my downfall in a way is I kind of like the world as it is. I don’t really feel like, ‘Wow, I have to change it.’ I don’t. It’s kind of always fascinating.

- I really do think that we’re here to have a really good time, shallow as that may sound.
At the same time, she's an acute observer: "You know, we voted in an anti-war government in ’04, but they didn’t stop the war because, you know, basically the government doesn’t run the war." But these observations are a part of her storytelling in a way that doesn't, or isn't meant to, motivate or rabble-rouse. At most, you hear that sort of thing and you recognize the truth of it. And what you do with that recognition is up to you.

I'm a fan of Laurie Anderson, probably the first contemporary artist I was ever made aware of, thanks to my friend Rachel who I knew when I was in fifteen and who was in love with her. She gave a tremendous performance as part of Ithaca's Light in Winter festival that we saw a couple of years ago. I hope to catch her in Chicago sometime—I understand she's from here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Shaping Up

With some trepidation, I've decided to ditch Whitman and Dickinson from my modern poetry course and to focus on the twentieth century instead. The texts I've ordered for the class are:
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, Prufrock and Other Poems
William Carlos Williams, Imaginations
Ezra Pound, Selected Poems
Wallace Stevens, The Palm at the End of the Mind
Gertrude Stein, Selections
Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Frank O’Hara, Lunch Poems
Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems
John Ashbery, Selected Poems
Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
Gabriel Gudding, Rhode Island Notebook
I've decided to trust that my students will have at least some familiarity with Whitman and Dickinson (this trust based in part on the fact that at least a couple of students signed up for the fall studied those poets in my Nineteenth-Century American Lit class last year (which I'm also teaching again this fall). Which is not to say I can't start the course off with a little sampler handout, just so they can begin to appreciate and start noticing some of the most elemental modern tactics: whether a poem has short lines and a basically vertical movement on the page, or long lines and a horizontal movement; musical effects in the absence of rhyme; leaving-it-out versus putting-it-in; etc.

Strategy versus tactics: I read with interest the comments of Nada Gordon and others on my original post about the course's composition. I definitely think I've constructed the course less as a theory of influences and more with a pedagogical framework in mind: as Kasey says in his comment, my theory is that "the majority of contemporary practice which might appear strange or challenging to the uninitiated reader has been anticipated in one way or another by the particular methodological and presentational choices made by the [poets] in question." In other words, I'm thinking primarily as a reader, seeking to provide a map (there's navigation again) for less experienced readers. I would never presume to create some kind of schema that looked like (Pound + Stevens)/Stein = Ashbery; I know that influence is a much stranger and more unpredictable beast than that. I doubt I'm even aware of every one of my own poetic influences: any such list is potentially of infinite length, given the fact that other poets are far from the only influence on a poet's writing. (Annette Funicello, anyone?)

I haven't tried to free myself or my students from the canon, because of the shaping force it's had, for better or worse, on my own ideas about poetry. I can conceive a course in reading poetry that ignored all canonical figures and poems and instead focused entirely on the contemporary, and maybe I'll try that next time. But I fear this would only deepen, or rather fill in further, the shallow sense of literary history that most undergraduates have. Which raises an interesting question: how can you teach the history of an art form without resorting to canons (or counter-canons through a feminist approach, a Marxist approach, etc.)? Maybe one of my cleverer readers could enlighten me.

Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Stein remain the core quartet, the poets whom I believe have done the most in terms of innovating and creating the field of modern poetry. Then I decided I couldn't leave out Stevens, if only because he's been the greatest single influence on my own work and I might as well cop to that. After those five we move into the postwar period and a sampler of poets of varying canonicity who all, I believe, adopt tactics the core five would recognize—collage, found texts, parataxis, imagism, association, page-as-field—but with wildly different strategic goals. Ginsberg is someone my students have probably read, but Howl is such an epochal poem and I doubt they've read it very closely. O'Hara's mannerisms are maybe over-influential, but what really interests me about him is how, to use a Heideggerianism, he dwells poetically in New York and New York-ly (queerly, visually, cacophonously) in poetry. Brooks is a very different urban poet and a Chicago poet too; I'm interested in how she uses narrative to reconcile aesthetic and political purposes. Ashbery is Ashbery. Mullen combines playfulness and serious critical intent to a high degree, and students love her. And Gudding's book is almost certainly too long a book to end a semester with, but it was one of the most moving reading experiences I had last year, and I think he'll give my writing students permission to write about dimensions of experience they may not have realized are possible to bring into poetry. Plus one of the other elements I want to weave into the course is the function of long poems versus short poems: to finish with a long poem that calls itself a "notebook" and consists of innumerable fragments should leave us with interesting questions.

Obviously I've left out many, many poets who are important to American poetry and to me personally: Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, Hart Crane, H.D., all the Objectivists, Charles Olson, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Bernadette Mayer, etc., etc. We only have fifteen weeks. But if I get to teach this course on a recurring basis, I'll mix up the reading list, and I might even specialize in a given school or movement to further test my theory about teaching transferable reading strategies. It would be amazing to teach a "modern poetry" class that focused exclusively on the Objectivists, for example: Williams, Zukofsky, Oppen, Niedecker, Reznikoff, Rakosi. A course in the generations of the New York School would also be a no-brainer, or a course in Language poetry. I hope this time around to learn a great deal from my students: what they already know or think they know, what their expectations for poetry might be, who or what they see in their mind's eye when they hear the word "poet." We shall see.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Poetry as Navigation

In some ways what preoccupies me most in poetry is navigation: the poem as cognitive map; the poem as an imaginative attempt at orientation, in and through language. Jameson’s Postmodernism appeals to me most of all for its notion of cognitive mappig and what it suggests for postmodern poetry as a series of attempts to navigate and make palpable the capitalist world-system that is rarely if ever visible to the naked eye. In this respect for me poetry is no different from criticism and theory, as discourses which illuminate invisible connections both vertically (the modernist "depth model" of what’s beneath the surface: Freud and the unconscious. Marx and the mode of production, Darwin and natural selection) and horizontally (the postmodernist network of metonyms: Derrida’s chain of signifiers, Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomes, Lyotard’s implosion of master narratives).

What draws me to the great modernist long poems—The Waste Land, The Cantos, Trilogy, Paterson, “A”, ARK—is their epic-scale attempt by an individual to situate him or herself in relation to a culture or cultures dynamically conceived. Even their most conservative attempts to arrest that dynamism—to save a tradition from decay, dissolution, or outright destruction (Pound, Eliot, H.D.), or to preserve a place, a family, or their own imaginations (Williams, Zukofsky, Ronald Johnson) from the pressures of capital—manage to include that dynamic through the fundamental modernist technique of collage, so that each poem is, in Stevens’ terms, a pitched battle between "reality" and imagination. A battle which can never be won; yet merely to locate the enemy’s ground and engage him is a tremendous victory of perception, given the pressure we all are under to submit to the most expedient narrative frames for our lives—frames that omit reality and imagination in almost equal measure.

I'm drawn to pastoral as one of the oldest literary modes of mapping, which is simultaneously a troubling of the territory: where does nature end and culture begin? And as I immerse myself more deeply in ecocriticism I recognize its attempts to think space, place, and history in a fresh way. Struck by the mutual hostility and incomprehension of mainstream ecocritics and postmodernists, and by the similarity of their projects: deep ecology, which seems to be the most influential ecocritical impulse (versus the shallowness of "environmentalism" as just another attempt to manage nature), takes a post- or anti-humanist stance that Foucault might recognize in its decentering of the human subject. The difference is that Foucault, et al, would say that there is only discourse (il n'y a pas hors de texte) and the power relations that generate and situate subjects, whereas the deep ecologists privilege the nonhuman and in their more enthusiastic moments claim the nonhuman as a kind of ur-discourse (mystical, scientific, or both) through which we can access reality directly. I'm too far gone in postmodernism to go there: I think all our claims about nature are saturated in ideology, even and especially when they're made in scientific language. The virtue of pastoral is the transparency of its relation to ideology, and a properly postmodern pastoral will deconstruct its own claims about nature while its powerful affect remains intact.

I say that navigation is what I go to poetry for—Pound’s periplum, Olson’s 'istorin—but it’s more atavistic than that. Reading in Lawrence Buell’s Writiing for an Endangered World an observation of Leslie Marmon Silko’s that "particularity of environmental detail may actually betoken lack of connectedness," I immediately think of my own childhood and my sense of being trapped in a world I never made. The social relations that others seemed to swim in like fish in water were at once visible and opaque: I saw clearly the power struggles that governed relationships, but my vision seemingly disqualified me from joining the struggle in a meaningful way. I suspect this experience is typical of many intellectuals, or at least it’s typical of nerds as they’re described in a useful taxonomy I read recently. I wrote and later read poetry (that’s the usual order, no?) because it promised to reintegrate what I saw and what I felt: as a cognitive mode that involves the body (by ear, he sd) it creates danceable maps of experience. Later on I became more interested in collective modes of experience, in more layered and detailed maps (whereas the lyrical-confessional mode of poetry that I was originally attracted to was more concerned with points than lines: for such poetry YOU ARE is more important than YOU ARE HERE), and I was also not coincidentally discovering the great theoretical maps of psychological and social and historical being (I’m a latecomer to the biological via my new interest in ecopoetics). For a long while the more abstract something was—the more of a God’s eye view it promised of the territory—the more seductive I found it. Only recently has this tendency been counterbalanced back toward a concern with more local and particular details, and in my rewrite of Severance Songs I'm trying to rediscover the unabandonable "I." Because creating a map, however variegated and gorgeous, may be less important now than the act of tracking and orienteering, of living off the unstable postmodern "land" without accepting it as the only possible reality. (I find I am incorrigibly diasporic in my thinking, a sojourner, most un-at-home when at home. But maybe this feeling has been intensified by moving twice in two years.) Another way of saying that I want to preserve something of the modernist preoccupation with history—the absolute present of the postmodern nullifies the very notion of a future that doesn’t look like the present, but more so.

Popular Posts