Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Truth and Life of Myth

This past Saturday I made it down to the School of the Art Institute to catch the tail end of the Robert Duncan Symposium. It's apt, I think, that they called it a symposium rather than a conference, because the point seemed to be to celebrate and reflect on Duncan more than to criticize him. I was only able to attend the last pieces: Michael Palmer's poetry reading, and a conversation between Peter O'Leary, Joseph Donahue, and Nathaniel Mackey. But it was more than enough to stimulate a great deal of thought and reflection on my part.

On the back of the Symposium program was placed this quote from the essay from which it took its title, "The Truth and Life of Myth":

The surety of the myth for the poet has such force that it operates as a primary reality in itself, having volition. The mythic content comes to us, commanding the design of the poem; it calls the poet into action, and with whatever lore and craft he has prepared himself for that call, he must answer to give body in the poem to the formative will.

I have a lot of resistance to Duncan, which centers on my resistance to myth and magick and the occultist claims he and his circle were inclined to make about poetry. I'm too much a child of the Enlightenment not to be repelled by the figure Duncan cuts as a seer: he really puts the mystification into mystic. Yet I find many of his poems profoundly moving, and even appropriated "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" as an epithalamium to be read at my wedding, recentering the quest it describes for originary creative power (which necessarily brushes up against darkness and the demonic) inside that most mythic and everyday of ritual constructs, marriage. So profound ambivalence is what I carry into any encounter with Duncan as bearer of the part of the Modernist tradition that engages most profoundly with myth and hermetic knowledge, as opposed to the Modernism of cultural critique and collage which I find a far more congenial site of engagement.

Ron Silliman, an anti-Duncan if ever there was one (really, the entire Language tradition is against Duncan), once wrote perceptively if polemically about how the hermetic knowledge that Duncan and his circle used as an armature for poetry had been supplanted by Silliman's generation by Marxism and post-structuralism. And it was thinking about this, as first I listened to Palmer read and then to the conversation with Mackey, that has helped me to articulate my discomfort and fascination with the place of myth in poetry. For the poet, myth is a form of capital, and too often the Modernist engagement with myth has looked to me like a form of primitive accumulation, given that form of capital acquisition's reliance on enclosure. That is, the desire to create a hermetic circle, open only to initiates, has the effect, intentionally or not, of excluding those with no knowledge (literally, no investment) in the fate of Osiris or who Aleister Crowley was or ritual sacrifice in ancient Sumeria or whatever. It all seems impossibly remote from how life is actually lived. And, if you're at all invested in a materialist worldview, it seems less like a quest for reality than an escape from it, a shying away from the forces of social production that actually make the world.

But of course myth is not the only form of poetic capital, and the discourses of post-structuralism, as Ron observed, make a dandy sphere of hermetic knowledge penetrable only by initiates; as my colleague Bob Archambeau (who provides excellent coverage of the day I missed over at his blog) remarked this afternoon, the major difference is that abstractions like difference assume the role that myth reserves for the gods. And there are generational differences; in his conversation with Mackey, Joseph Donahue remarked that in Michael Palmer's work there's a layer of irony calling attention to the gap between the world of myth and the disclosure of reality that myth promises, whereas Duncan's writing is an irony-free zone. (This also explains my preference, when the chips are down, for Jack Spicer, and my sense that ours is a fundamentally Spicerian moment.)

Post-structuralism is the received mythic structure of poets younger than Palmer, many of whom are disturbingly uncritical about it; at least, that's how I'd describe the post-Language crowd. Frank O'Hara, on the other hand, freely mythologized his own life, offering a charismatic model for poetry's relation to myth that has similarly become encased in irony for the nth-generation of New York School practitioners (a practice that goes hand in hand with the ironic mythification of pop culture—though you can't ironize capital, and references to Hanna-Barbera cartoons from the 1980s can be just as effective and exlusionary in establishing one's cultural bona fides as Pound's use of Greek and Chinese characters).

The poets who still engage with myth qua myth are harder to assimilate into groups, which is one of their strengths: here I think of Olson-indebted poets like C.S. Giscombe and Dan Bouchard, and Duncan-inflected poets like some of those prominently featured at the symposium: Mackey of course (whose great contribution comes in reimagining and restructuring the Modernist appropriation of African myth) and also Peter O'Leary. If I had to choose a mode, I'd say Olson's archeology of morning is a more attractive model for the process of assimilating myth into poetry than Duncan's hermeticism. But there's no question in my mind that Duncan wrote better poetry.

There's no getting away from myth, then, or no evasion of allegory, to shift to the term that the conceptual writers have sent buzzing into my head for the past several months. One is always working with some felt (if often untheorized) structure of knowledge and feeling that poetic language rises from and intersects, like a net taking shape around something unseen in deep water; a thing that in its hiddenness, its occultness, is at least homeomorphic with the Real ("a primary reality in itself, having volition"). What I ask of a poet is not that he or she explain myth, but that its force be fully felt: if I can't get a theoretical discourse around it (that's what makes me most comfortable, but who wants to be comfortable?) then I want to feel, for lack of a better word, the myth's authenticity for that poet. Or as I tell my writing students, Don't write about any gods you don't actually believe in.

What follows are some less organized thoughts based on the notes I took during the reading and subsequent panel discussion:

John Tipton introduces Palmer, telling us, "A Michael Palmer poem is not received," and quotes a phrase of Gadamer's characteristic of the poetry: "the questionability of what is questioned." (I hear in this an echo of Duncan's definition of "responsibility" as "Maintaining the ability to respond.") Talks about how, like a famous photographer of industrial sites whose name I didn't catch, Palmer can arrange banal images in a way that we can "hear" and so make us think about them. Speaks of Palmer's next book, to be titled Thread.

Michael takes the stage in brown shirt and brown suit. Begins with some poems that incorporate subtle bits of rhyme, which I love. English rhyme can help retrieve his poetry from the sense it sometimes gives of having been translated from the French. Reads a poem with a personage named "the Master of Rochester." Ashbery? This intuition seems confirmed by a prose poem, "L'Agir," that addresses Ashbery directly.

Hearing Stevens in the surprising words "dudes" and "squeezebox."

A gorgeous poem "After Hölderlin."

"Madman with Broom." Drily: "A poem about the Bush years. You remember them. Great times, they're gone." The central image is of a man trying to drive away crows with a broom – "realist crows," Palmer says, a phrase from Stevens' dreadfully titled poem "Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery."

Here's "Poem against War" in its entirety: "She raises both arms / to free the clasps binding her hair"

Funny poem called "Traumgedicht" featuring a dream of Gustav Mahler in a café listening to… Gustav Mahler. Nudging the speaker: "It's so much deeper than Strauss, don't you think?" I never really noticed this preoccupation of Palmer's with masters and mastery before. Of course he himself is a master.

"lodestar, lexicon, labyrinthos"

"It is the role of the lovers to set fire to the book."

Does Palmer put air quotes around mythic images as well as banal ones? The word "pentacles."

Now Mackey, Donahue, and O'Leary take their seats. Mackey is advertised as a man who speaks in complete paragraphs. A phrase from Olson, via Mackey: "I care for a field of discourse: call me tantra."

They discuss the "high style" in poetry and how Duncan sought to reclaim it. William Carlos Williams, who did so much to speak up for the American vernacular and against the "catastrophe" of appropriating European discourses and structures, nevertheless resorts to the high style more often than you'd suspect. And Duncan, as Mackey says, sometimes recognized a need to come down from his "high hypnagogic mode."

(High style. Masters. Is it a will toward monoglossia? Is that where myth becomes capital, a form of power and domination? I think of The Education of Henry Adams and "The Virgin and the Dynamo," which I taught as the last text in my nineteenth-century American literature class. About how Adams claims that the mythic figures of the Virgin and Venus have no force for Americans, but evoke at best only an empty sentiment. A feeling to be consumed, not a force for production (thinking of his claim elsewhere that the Virgin essentially caused Chartres Cathedral to be built). By contrast the dynamo, modern technology: but Adams sense of its "moral force" is surely anachronistic, all the more so now that we don't even have mythic machines, like the dynamo or the steam engine, to confront as emblems of our own alienated majesty. As Adams says, the world of the new science is "supersensual"—not supernatural.)

Instead of narrative in poetry, the world-poem, world-making. "A better word for story as far as Duncan goes would be fate." (Does myth-based poetry engage directly in world-making, sidestepping or subsuming narrative? Foregrounding the machinery of meaning-making, turning allegory into atmosphere, that which pervades and rises, supersensually, from the ground of language?) Mackey: "Paradoxically, the world-poem is a broken poem. That guarantees its truth." "Incident" as a link to story but not itself a narrative.

Mackey on serial form, as practiced by himself and Duncan: it's a form of apocalypse, an ongoing revelation and uncovering, always incomplete.

Mackey: Poetry as "prophylactic," that which makes it possible to encounter and handle terrifying truths. Which connects obscurely back to a connection Donahue tried to make earlier between the high style and "ecstasy.

(Poem as armor? Can only be justified by the worthiness and power of one's opponent. A knight in shining armor is ridiculous and out of place with no dragons in the vicinity.)

Mackey bringing African myth into the field of American poetry, Modernist poetry. (It seems that an ethnopoetic myth has more urgent reason for being, given the leveling tendencies of a white-operated culture industry.)

(If myth is played with, as Mackey seems to be suggesting—played the way a jazzman plays his horn, in the spirit of improvisation and collaboration—that might be a way round the problem I formulated earlier: myth as capital. That is, the gift economy, or potlatch. Creative destruction.)

(But myth is always collapsing into kitsch. Which at least removes the mask. Camp and kitsch may be the best means we have of encountering capital in the cultural field and discovering/declaring that the emperor has no clothes.)

[UPDATED 5/3/10]

Monday, April 26, 2010

Late Adopter

Yes, you can now follow me on Twitter @joshcorey. This is an experiment that I mean to try for a few weeks and then I'll assess whether it serves a purpose that complements this blog and its own obscure purposes. As I'm no doubt not the first to observe, the 140-character limit is a tantalizing sort of constraint, ideal for producing tweets that operate for all intents and purposes like lines of poetry. And yet the "turns" between lines are collaborative: the sidebar at right deceives in presenting only my tweets. What seems more native to the experience of Twittering is absorbing whatever I might have to say as one among a cacophony of voices that the consumer, not the producer, controls.

So far on my own feed I mostly have institutions—NPR, the Times, the Poetry Foundation—as well as a few easy-to-find prominent individuals like Susan Orlean. (So far I've resisted Ashton Kutcher.) But my own Twittering will probably not come into its own until I'm "following" a suitably eclectic mix of other Twitterers, some of whom will no doubt be engaged in their own quasi-poetic and quasi-critical experiments.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

From Denver


  • Arrived today, made very welcome. The air is thin and the light is hard.
  • Immediately run into Mark Tursi and Johannes Göransson at the hotel. Beers around the corner at Leela's. Topics include: small-press publishing, reading fees, Jennifer Moxley is our Tennyson, Mark Levine's poetry, guilty pleasures, Romanticism, flarf.
  • Go up to hotel room. Come back down from hotel room.
  • Thai noodles with Richard Greenfield and, briefly, Carmen Gimenez Smith.
  • The Omnidawn/Ahsahta reading at the Magnolia Ballroom. Open bar for first hour. Sit with Richard, Dan Stolar, Dan Beachy-Quick. Seemingly dozens of readers in quasi-alphabetical order; last only to the end of G. Richard has become a very strong and confident reader. Sneak out after his reading with Sarah Gridley.
  • Second dinner at overpriced Italian place with Sarah Gridley. Topics: overpriced wine, rush matting, family, dissatisfaction with poetry, old friends.
  • Midnight double scotch with Christian Bök, Jon Paul Fiorentino, and assorted Canadian comrades. Topics: Christian's "Xenotext Experiment," my "Poem for the Inaugural Poem," Jon's "Stripmalling," favorite Canadian versus American cities, the United States as greatest/worst country in the world.


  • Breakfast with my chair and colleague Davis Schneiderman. Topics: our respective paths to academia, Ithaca, NY, William S. Burroughs, the challenges of getting enough protein when you're a vegetarian. (I had bacon.)
  • A little late to 9 AM panel on integrating wireless technology and social networking into the poetry classroom. Read all about it: http://networkedpoetry.wordpress.com. I most like Eric Baus' idea about exposing students to poems through audio recordings, preferably multiple versions, before they read the poem, as a way to break away from poem-as-inviolable monument.
  • Assorted characters at bookfair, too numerous to list here. Buying very little as yet. Susan Schultz gifts me with a desk copy of Hazel Smith's The Erotics of Geography when I remark that I might want to use it in my senior seminar next year alongside The Writing Experiment. Shanna Compton sells me a copy of Bloof's latest, Peter Davis' Poetry! Poetry! Poetry! which made me laugh out loud. They're prose poems that are kind of like the voice-overs to other poems. Here's one in its entirety:

    Poem Addressing My Past, Current and Future Students Who Are Sufficiently Interested in Our Class to Check Out My Work

    I hope you learn something from this poem and the powerful, mystical way it concludes!

  • Noon panel, "Women & Nature, Thirty Years Later: Our Evolving Otherness." Stay only long enough to hear Sarah Gridley's lyrical essay on Simone de Beauvoir and Medusa. Dodge out to other noon panel, "Poetry and Memorability." Stay only long enough to hear Paul Hoover conclude a talk on the poetry of memorability (beginning, middle, end) and the poetry of forgetting (middle, middle, middle). How even the latter—Language poetry for instance—has trouble not producing metrical, memorable lines. Am reminded of this when I return to the bookfair and encounter Johannes again along with Kasey Mohammad, where the conversation somehow turns to the David Lynch version of Dune, and I realize that free verse, et al, is simply an ingenious way of preventing sandworm attacks. To break the pentameter, that was the first heave of Muad D'ib.
  • Attend bizarre smackdown between Tony Hoagland, egotistical humanist, and Donald Revell, ascetic desert father, at panel with the misleading title "Poetry After the '00s: What Comes Next?" It was supposed to include Stephen Burt and Laura Kaischiscke, but instead turns into debate between two poets who seem mostly unqualified to talk about "next." Hoagland is pluralistic in a sneakily dismissive way, acknowledging the tremendous energy of contemporary poetry but coming down hard on the side of poems with tones that communicate "existential weight." He thinks the purpose of poetry is to bring the reader to presence. Revell comes across as a Christian Buddhist; for him the "new poetry" can't exist yet or we can't recognize it because it's going to take us beyond the human to "the other shore." Could be talking about nirvana, is really talking about Jesus. There are a few worthwhile aphorisms (Revell) and bits of repartee (Hoagland):
    • Revell: "As long as we don't say anything, Tony and I always agree." Hoagland: "That's so postmodern!"
    • Revell: "Humanity is one of those experiments that didn't quite work out." "What is humanity except a genre?"
    • Revell : "Most poems are rearranging the furniture in the Norton Anthology." "What is a line? it's a turn. It's a conversion. If you are not willing to be converted, you are not able to write line two of your poem." "'I remember poetry! It sounded like this!' Which is what most poems are…merely the memory of poems." Hoagland: "Poetry isn't born from the history of poetry. Poetry is born from our suffering."
    • Revell: "Anthologies are a form of suffering." "No Christian believes in tragedy. You cannot have a tragic world-view and faith. It all has a happy ending." Hoagland: "I'm looking for a happy middle."
    • Revell: "We are so attached to the conversation, so attached to the canon, so attached to the métier, when simply we are called to let go. I happen to believe there is another shore…. We're not going to get there by clinging to the old conversations. Suffering is for schmucks! Stop it! Stop suffering, please! I have to read it!" Hoagland: "There's a bin here for crutches and eyeglasses!"

It's all quite strange. Revell comes across as a "posthuman" (he even uses the word) and could be interpreted as saying, "All poetry is flarf." He quotes Endgame: HAMM: We do what we can. CLOV: We shouldn't. His position is indisputably the more rigorous and ethical one. But he's a Christian, so I don't quite trust that he's credible when he says that we don't know what the new is. It's not the void he's pitching for—he wants to empty poetry out so that his Emersonian faith can come rushing into fill the vacuum. Hoagland's position is therefore the more "human" one: given a choice between nothingness and something, he'll choose something every time. It's bathos. Both these guys are asking poetry to disappear in some sense, to reveal either something or nothingother than poetry. Why can't it just be poetry? "Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is."

More Thursday:

  • Acquire a few books at the book fair, but mostly keep my powder dry. Finally meet Jeffrey Levine and Jim Schley, my new publisher and editor respectively, at the Tupelo Press table.
  • Attend Tupelo Press Tenth Anniversary party and reading, shake lots of hands. Read some poems. Fill up on hors d'oeurves. Resume a chat with Tess Taylor that we first began at a Poetry Society of America shindig in New York in 2003.
  • Wind up evening at hotel bar where I run into David Lau and Kasey Mohammad. Topics: conceptual poetry, Notes on Conceptualisms (insufficiently rigorous or enabling fiction?), Lana Turner. Early to bed at 11:30.


  • Foggy, hazy mind in diamond-blue Denver sky. Coffee helps. Attend panel on queer translation with Brian Teare, making a fool of myself beforehand mistaking Nathalie Stephens for Gabrielle Calvocoressi. Stephens and Timothy Liu are the panelists and John Keene is the moderator; Jen Hofer doesn't show. Fascinating and labyrinthine discussions of translation as a kind of metaphor for desire—what's "lost in translation" can be equated with Lacan's La relation sexuelle n'existe pas. That is, one desires to cross the gap between languages but it's what gets lost in that gap that endlessly regenerates that desire. I meditate on the value of queer sexuality as a mode of consciousness that plays with the manufactories of desire rather than simply accepting their products unquestioningly off the assembly line. What would a queer heterosexuality look like?
  • Hang out at book fair. Chats with G.C. Waldrep, Paul Foster Johnson, Janet Holmes, Rachel Loden (who generously insists on giving me a much-coveted copy of Dick of the Dead gratis). Sit at Apostrophe Books table and pretend to be a publisher for a while. Run into my old student Emily Capettini, now in the creative PhD program at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
  • Attend insufficiently memorable panels.
  • Awful dinner at Johnny Rockets. It's all Richard Greenfield's fault.
  • Attend WILLA reading at Denver Press Club. It's a worthy organization and the set-up is promising: burlesque dancers, roller-derby girls working security, and feminist poetry. But the place is overcrowded and hot and stuffy and most of the first poems are just plain bad. Escape at intermission, regret not hearing Lara Glenum, Cathy Park Hong, Carmen Gimenez Smith, a few others.
  • Encounter Zach Schomburg and Noah Eli Gordon tearing up the open mike at the Mercury Café. Can't tell if they're being ironic or not.
  • Maybe it was tonight I had that conversation with David and Kasey?


  • Somehow up in time for the Flarf vs. Conceptualism showdown panel, by far the most entertaining official event that I attend at this year's AWP.
    • Kasey's intro: flarf and conceptual poetry are the poetry we deserve. Rattles off the numerous critiques of both movements. Claims that they are working to "recycle" the innovations of the historical avant-garde, "because the first times, they didn't take. The opposite of damage control—they try to do the damage that didn't get done before." But it's hard not to get absorbed by the poetry-industrial complex—"It's like fighting the Blob—you plunge in your fist and soon you're just part of it. After all, here we are." Flarf is controversial because it asserts centrality. Conceputualism is suspect because it approaches "relevance." Quotes Unforgiven: "We get what we get. Deserve's got nothing to do with it."
    • Vanessa Place's paper is killer: "Notes on Why Conceptualism Is Better Than Flarf." A few gems:
      • "Flarf is a court jester. As such, it is still a member of the court."
      • "Flarf is a one-trick pony that thinks a unicorn is another kind of horse."
      • "Flarf still loves poetry. Conceptualism loves poetry enough to put it out of its misery."
      • "Flarf wants to be funny." "Conceptualism wants."
      • Flarf engages the amygdale, conceptualism the cortex.
      • "Flarf is a whoopee cushion in the world of the new and old lyric poetry. Conceptualism is a fart."
      • "Ron Silliman likes flarf. Ron Silliman does not like conceptualism."
      • "Flarf looks like poetry." "Poetry looks like conceptualism."
    • Mel Nichols next. "Cute Gone Wrong," referencing Sianne Ngai's "Cuteness of the Avant-Garde." A book called Journey to the End of Taste, about disliking Celine Dion. "Flarf rocks harder than conceptual writing." Kind of a parody of a paper presentation—she talks about what she's going to talk about instead of actually talking.
      • Cute = helpless. Perceptions of vulnerability contribute to perceptions of cuteness. Big eyes, floppy limbs, small voice, wobbly head, etc. Extreme youth, harmlessness, helplessness, need. We are hardwired for cuteness.
      • Cuteness as what flarf messes with, confusing our aesthetic response. Rob Fitterman: "Don't make it new. Just make it fucked up." The combination of the cute and the horrible.
      • Rod Smith poem "Widdle Biddy Bong Story" – baby talk to a parakeet that parodies "I Know a Man."
    • Matthew Timmons' presentation is an inimitable and unrepresentable performance. I like this phrase: "The new friction surface modifier." Compares Flarf to Renaissance Faires. "Conceptual writing has been defined by Kenneth Goldsmith as, 'Writing.'" It's all tap-dancing on the edge of the abyss, I think.
    • Katie Degentesh talks about vampires versus werewolves: which has more control over its dark side? "Hooking up with a vampire is fun, disgusting, and vulgar." John Ashbery, Kevin Davies, the young Auden, rumored to be vampires."One of the purposes of vampirism is to defeat and render irrelevant close reading." "Shifters hate vampire and vampires hate shifters." So flarf as vampirism and conceptualism as lycanthropy? Or is it the other way round?
    • Christian is last. Talks about Kenneth Goldmsith and his essay that argues that flarf is Dionysian and conceptualism is Apollonian. "Being somewhat lazy, I have decided simply to read you that essay by Kenneth Goldsmith…but using the techniques of flarf, albeit in a more advanced and rigorous manner." Paper title: "Flarf! Arf Arf Arf!" Another inimitable performance but:
      • "We imagine that a bottle of cleaning fluid must be totally fucking clean inside!"
      • "I steal the letter M because it seems like the letter M must weigh the most."
      • "I write a few sincere lines, and then I have to make fun of them."

Q&A. Aaron Kunin questions Vanessa as to what she means by allegory. Allegory = reference to extra-textual narrative. Radical evil: a poetics that is an affirmative will to evil toward poetics itself. Another Q for Vanessa: conceptualism addresses a fundamental absence. Using Lacan. Absence of meaning/signification, desire for same. There's something that's not there: ideally the person who reads the text enters that space and puts its (?) desire into the work. The thing in the poem is not what satisfies—radical evil asks, "How can I take that thing away from you?"

Good stuff.

  • Books, books, books. I can't write down all the titles because I haven't unpacked my suitcase. Especially pleased, though, to have acquired John Beer's miraculously titled The Waste Land and Other Poems (aren't you jealous you didn't think of it first?) from the Canarium table; a sheaf of essay chapbooks from Ugly Duckling Presse; a pile of beautiful Wesleyan hardcovers, deeply discounted, by Brenda Hillman and Roberto Tejada and Rae Armantrout and Kazim Ali.
  • Lunch with Sarah Gridley, then we hike over to the Museum of Contemporary Art for the flarf/conceptualism reading—it's not Sarah's thing at all, but she's curious. The reading is less satisfying than the panel—it comes off as something of a refuge for smug hipsters, though Christian's sound poetry is always delightful and it was amazing to hear Christine Wertheim, whom I think of as a visual poet, do uncanny, jouissance-inducing moves with her voice. Argue about its relevance and value with Sarah all the way back to the hotel instead of attending the rooftop party for flarftinis.
  • A well-deserved nap.
  • Cab it out to the Plus Gallery for the Possess Nothing mega-reading organized by Richard and Mark. The stand-out readers are Johannes (reading from A New Quarantine Will Take My Place), Gordon Massman (talk about queer heterosexuality! reading from The Essential Numbers 1991 – 2008), and Abraham Smith, an electric hopping presence (reading from a book I regret not purchasing, whim man mammon). Afterward fall in with Johannes who insists on "famous tequila shots" and leads a small group of us, pied-piper style, to the Whiskey Bar. I wander off and meet Mark and Richard for late night fish n' chips at a pub.
  • Home to bed at the semi-reasonable hour of 12:30. Up today at 6 for the flight home.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

I Go to the AWP

Leaving this morning. Looking forward to seeing old friends. Sporadic reporting may follow.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

The Possessed, or: Creative Writing and Curiosity

Elif Batuman's new memoir is compulsively readable and entertaining. But this is not a review, any more than my assessment of the book's physical properties was a review. Instead, it's a personal response to something from the book's beginning, and something close to its ending.

In her introduction (which you can read a version of here) Batuman writes of wanting to write a novel after graduating from college, and the choice she faced between the disciplines of creative writing and scholarship (specifically, comparative literature). She dismisses MFA programs "because I knew they made you pay tuition, and go to workshops. Whatever reservations I had about the usefulness of reading and analyzing great novels went double for reading and analyzing the writings of a bunch of kids like me" (17). But she does apply to go to an unnamed "artists' colony on Cape Cod," which I imagine was probably the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, and is accepted. When she visits, she has the following conversation with the program's director:

"What will you do if you don't come here?" he asked. I told him I had applied to some graduate schools. There was a long pause. "Well, if you want to be an academic, go to graduate school," he said. "If you want to be a writer, come here."

An invidious choice if ever I heard one (for more on reflexive anti-academic sentiment see my colleague Bob Archambeau's recent post on his appropriately-named-for-the-purposes-of-this discussion Samizdat Blog). But it's Batuman's response to that logic that fascinates:

I wanted to be a writer, not an academic. But that afternoon, standing under a noisy tin awning in a parking lot facing the ocean, eating the peanut-butter sandwiches I had made in the cafeteria at breakfast, I reached some conclusive state of disillusionment with the transcendentalist New England culture of "creative writing." In this culture, to which the writing workshop belonged, the academic study of literature was understood to be bad for a writer's formation. By what mechanism, I found myself wondering, was it bad? Conversely, why was it automatically good for a writer to live in a barn, reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students?

The blindingly accurate phrase "transcendentalist New England culture of 'creative writing'" transported me instantly back to the summer of 2000 and the weeks I spent as a "scholar" at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, where it indeed seemed that breathing the self-consciously rarefied air breathed by a klatsch of more famous writers we all crowded around with plastic cups of wine in our sweaty hands was the acme of all imaginable felicity. Zing! Of course Transcendentalism has its roots in Puritanism, as Batuman intimates in an account of her investigation into the series Best American Short Stories, referring to "the puritanical culture of creative writing, embodied by colonies and workshops and the ideal of 'craft.' She continues:

I realized that I would greatly refer to think of literature as a profession, an art, a science, or pretty much anything else, rather than a craft. What did craft ever try to say about the world, the human condition, or the search for meaning? All it had were its negative dictates: "Show, don't tell"; "Murder your darlings"; "Omit needless words." As if writing were a matter of overcoming bad habits—of omitting needless words.

This explains far better than I've ever done my own visceral dislike of craft-speak, even though it often finds its way into my own mouth, since undergraduate writing students do start out with "bad habits" that they need to overcome (but needless words, et al, tend to be symptomatic of a single bad habit: the failure to acknowledge the absent presence of the reader, whose imagination must be imaginatively and imaginairily engaged by the writer). I would have liked to see Batuman explore what seems the logical extension of this critique of "creative writing": that literary criticism embraces "telling" and "darlings" and "words," that it gets drunk on them, that it articulates a vision of literature as pleasure.

She doesn't quite do that—and how could she, given how literary study is taught and practiced today? But she does show the backdoor into a theory of literature as intellectual pleasure. Because lit crit is not only fundamentally collaborative—with every scholar's work self-consciously built upon the edifice of hundreds of others—but the heart of its project can be described not just as writing but as research. More fundamentally, what's behind research is curiosity, which I believe to be the single most fundamental attribute writerly attribute after a basic intoxication or preoccupation with words. And as her survey of a couple of numbers of Best American Short Stories reveals, curiosity is the pleasure most foreign to creative writing as Puritan practice: "Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or a hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things." Zing again.

The Puritan prejudice against curiosity rigorously conceived—that is, as research, as intellectual practice, is an attitude I've encountered frequently. While an MFA student at the University of Montana, I had the same conversation again and again with fellow students in bars and coffee shops. "I don't care about any of this academic shit," they'd say, peering deeply into an amber glass. "I just want to write." A few of these rugged individualists, those not too deeply sunk in primary narcissism, might then ask me, "So what's with the Derrida? Do you really understand that bullshit?" Or naming Professor X, whose lecture that afternoon had taken in a broad swath of the history of literary Romanticism in the English and German traditions, "I just can't understand what the hell he's talking about or why I should care. I mean, he's brilliant and all, but what's it got to with writing?" Which was my cue to look down into my own glass and mumble something.

"I don't know," I might say. "It's interesting."

No zing for me, but double-zing for Batuman. And then triple- or quadruple-zing: "reading short stories by short-story writers who didn't seem to be read by anyone other than writing students"? If the palpable scorn in this line doesn't wither the die-hard fiction writers out there, who have things like agents and movie options now and again, how is a poet supposed to feel?

Which takes me to the bookend. Batuman's book consists of essays interlaced with a longish memoir, "Summer in Samarkand," that's cannily broken into three parts so that we can take a break from a long fish-out-of-water story—an account of the author's quixotic attempts to study the Uzbek language and literature in the titular city while enduring innumerable misunderstandings and cultural enigmas. The essays it's interlaced with are highly entertaining: one on an Isaac Babel conference at Stanford (an institution where I've done time, so those scenes are especially vivid to me); one that purports to investigate the murder of Leo Tolstoy; on a bizarre "House of Ice" built in St. Petersburg in 2006 as a replica erected in 1740 on the orders of the grotesque Empress Anna. But "Summer in Samarkand," along with the final essay, "The Possessed," holds the key to the book's thesis, which is that the study of literature can be as generative of good writing as the "study" of life so long romantically prescribed by New England transcendentalists and Hemingways manqués. This is an idea that I've long-embraced, though I've rarely found it as well articulated and defended as here, and without the sense of apology that flavored my responses to my macho MFA-mates. I recognize Batuman as a member of the tribe: creatures of literature and our own unquenchable curiosity about it, down to our very bones.

But we don't agree about poetry, or at least not any more. After her summer in Samarkand, surrounded by mysteries of personality and behavior that poor translation cannot fully account for, Batuman writes that "I almost entirely lost the ability to read poetry. It was like a language I didn't speak anymore. What I used to enjoy in poetry was precisely the feeling of only half-understanding." She goes on to quote an observation of Tolstoy's on reading poetry in translation:

Without entering into the meaning of each phrase you continue to read and, from the few words that are comprehensible to you, a completely different meaning arises in your mind—unclear, cloudy, and not in accord with the original phrasing, but all the more beautiful and poetic. For a long time, the Caucasus was for me this poem in a foreign language; once I deciphered its true meaning, there were many cases in which I missed the poem I had invented, and many cases in which I believed the real poem was better than the imaginary one.

What Tolstoy describes in such dreamy fashion is, I believe, really a skill. Poetry demands of its readers a version of literacy that's the near-neighbor of illiteracy: its obscurities (which might be as minimal as the artifice of meter and line breaks; as we know, the obscurities of poetry have no known upper limit) license the reader or demand of the reader that she give up, at least for a time, "deciphering" the words in front of her in favor of the "different meaning" or "invented" poem that spontaneously arises. You have to be either an expert or—it nearly amounts to the same thing—lack all the expectations that ordinary educated literacy installs in readers. A good poem offers not communication but communion and imagination. It asks the reader to become, at least for a moment, the writer or the breather of the poem. It inspires.

Batuman's experience of the Caucasus "cures" her of this knack for poetry, so close in its way to an illness—aphasia maybe, or maybe just another form of narcissism. She turns away from "poetical meanings conjured out of associations and half-grasped words—the beauty of things that don't appear on the page" toward "huge novels." And not just any novels—in "The Possessed," in spite of that essay's title, she declares herself a Tolstoyan and not a Dostoyevskyan. She explains this distinction rather charmingly after a reading, as reported by Cynthia Haven: "Dostoyevsky is the literary equivalent to theater, with 'allegory intensified 10,000 times.' Tolstoy is the stuff of movies, with costumes, elaborate scenery, and orchestral score. She falls for Tolstoy. 'Tolstoy is girlie—he wouldn't like my saying that, but he's not here anymore, any more than the Uzbeks are.'"

My takeaway is that she values Tolstoy for his explicitness—for the way in which he puts everything on the page, questing to make himself understood by the reader as completely as possible, while providing lushly lived in details, characters, and scenes for the reader to romp among. Tolstoy is the opposite of poetry, since so much of the action for poetry is conceptual—it happens in the reader's head, an action taken, and communication of anything whatsoever is a secondary or tertiary goal. Dostoyevsky offers a sort of middle ground, maybe, given the hyperallegorical character she ascribes to him. It's interesting that her book and its final essay take their titles not from Tolstoy but from Dostoyevsky's most enigmatic novel, which she explains rather brilliantly as being about the empty center that holds/fails to hold its characters and their increasingly demented actions together, the enigmatic Stavrogin.

I won't repeat her argument here. But as a poet who's taken up with the project of fiction, I certainly feel that Dostoyevsky offers a more conducive writerly terrain than Tolstoy does. Certainly, more than Tolstoy, he breaks all the Puritanical creative writing rules: he tells and tells, he uses five words where one would do, he's acutely interested in psychology and uninterested in the tenets of realism, and he's curious. His novels are intensively researched investigations into human character, thought experiments in the highest sense of the word. They're messy, they don't always make sense, the rhythms of their plots are mysterious and sometimes uncomfortable for the reader whose first question of any novel is always And then what happened? They're nothing like poetry if we think dichten = condensare. They're everything like poetry if poetry is the patterning in language of the half-grasped, the half-understood, which the reader must grapple with and experience and never quite complete. The act of reading such texts stimulates and exalts one's own curiosity.

The pleasure of finding things out. That's my creative writing program. I am still working to construct a pedagogy, as well as a practice, based upon that. I'm grateful to Elif Batuman for helping me come a step closer to that.

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