Saturday, September 07, 2002

 

Dear Ron Silliman,

 

I noticed your Blog entries this evening & wonder if you take  requests. Roger Farr & I are in the middle of a long interview with Peter Inman  about poetry& politics & we're about to ask about the exchange you had with  him at his Philly Talks discussion a couple of years ago:

 

Silliman: The side of it that sometimes comes back to haunt me when I  think of it in those terms is opening up a text of yours and thinking "oh,  here's another work by P. Inman who I've been reading for over a quarter of  a century." And it feels as totally natural as that waterfall because  I'm so habituated to recognizing the codes and systems and problems and  responses in it. So it's instantly pleasurable.

 

Inman: So, are you saying that I haven't escaped that danger of  basically doing my own signature work?

 

Silliman: You're a lot of fun.

 

Inman: Well I don't want to be fun! Is style hovering in the  background?

 

Silliman: I hesitate to use the word "voice".

 

We've been discussing problems around interpellation, collective  agency, punctuation, neologisms. I don't think you have written on Inman  (have you?) anywhere, and I'd be very pleased to hear an elaboration on this  account of Inman's poetry in terms of voice, naturalized beauty, habituation.  Please let me know.

 

Aaron Vidaver

Vancouver

 

Buffalo music theorist Peter Yates first coined the idea that “aesthetic consistency = voice,” which has always seemed to me exactly right. Take an extremely early Clark Coolidge poem, such as “Meditation in the White Mountains,” written in 1962, the oldest of the “uncollected” pieces available in both HTML and PDF format on the Electronic Poetry Center website (http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/coolidge/uncoll.html):

 

Blue sky

few crags, the slopes

are green

 

air

whistling by

the granite stopwatch

 

The utterly straight-forward pastoral lyric sets up the radical disjunct created by the out-of-context term stopwatch. Further, there is an instance of identifiably Coolidgean humor in having not either line or poem end at stop but continue through watch. In a simple single word juxtaposition, one can see the germ of an oeuvre that will evolve over the next forty years.

 

Coolidge, Inman, Melnick, Mac Low – all of the most rigorous “anti-voice” poets in fact have totally identifiable voices in Yates’ sense of a recognizable aesthetic consistency. Perhaps tone might be a more accurate term than voice, but the differences between these terms are negligible. Just as each bell has its own characteristic resonance (as has the human vocal apparatus, that conjunction of skull, larynx, lungs, sinus cavity, etc. – I can always tell which of my sons has laughed, even when they are in distant parts of the house), each poet in his or her practice has characteristic moves as inescapable as the moon’s gravity on the tides. 

 

In Peter’s case, the look of language is intimately tied into sound & meaning:

 

Asian words calved period on

carlights in a book on some hide

the cherokee a banker’s grist

schedule texture on a waist

hours within trees of literature

the peer in my neck to a point

cow glance maned into birthr.

hutterite in some grape dust

seeing cut off from some jots

 

This stanza, taken from “smaller,” a poem in criss cross (Roof, 1994), demonstrates Inman’s strobe effect shifts between words and phrases well enough. At one level, all is disjunctive, but at several others connections are pulling the text tightly into a center that cannot be paraphrased.

 

At the level of sound, we find the “i” from “hide” setting up its appearance in the last word of each of the next two lines, only to have the “st” from “grist” lead even more strongly into “waist,” an off-rhyme that is strengthened even further by the shift from the sound of a short “I” to that of a long “a” in “waist.” These terms foreshadow “dust” in the same position of the line five lines later, which then inverts the “t” and “s” in the last word “jots.” In a similar fashion, that curious “r” at the end of “birthr” (which the mind can only hear as a truncated birthright) leads directly to the “ri” in “hutterite” at the start of the very next line. One can follow the hard “k” sound through its five occurrences in the first four lines of the stanza, see the humor of “ch” in “cherokee” as it slips back into a “k” sound in “schedule” only to hear (subliminally?) its echo hidden in the “x” of “texture.”

 

But just as “texture” contains “text,” meaning here is organized through iterations of nuance. The stanza carries us from “words” to “jots,” the latter figured as a noun, through “book,” “literature,” and even perhaps “hutterite.” Similarly, “calved” prefigures “cow” and “maned” and “period” projects what will be the only instance of punctuation in this text. It is only when one recognizes how much time is being referenced in this stanza – for me it was the line “hours within trees of literature” – that it becomes apparent how concise a history of writing we are being given. Or that it is being contrasted with the writer’s almost alchemical processing of phenomenological perception.

 

I’m not suggesting that one need do a close reading of every Inman stanza or poem, but rather that such elements are to be found throughout his poetry and trigger associations within a reader that are far from random. Inman’s voice is as clear as a bell.



Friday, September 06, 2002

 

Two books that surprise me with their similarity are Frank Stanford’s The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You and Lyn Hejinian’s A Border Comedy. On the surface, two more dissimilar poems could hardly exist. Hejinian’s exegesis on the comic is such a compendium of her reading that each section has its own bibliography. Stanford’s surreal memoir was written when he was a teenager and barely admits to its literacy, let alone the encyclopedic reading that one suspects lurks below the deep swamp facade.

What these two projects share, however, is their conception of the line. In each, the line is highly flexible: basically long, but with great variety in length; basically discursive, a monolog that readily admits other voices; close to speech and yet not tied to it in the strict sense of the projectivist uses of enjambment.

Stanford:

who is that Sylvester

why that’s my cousin McGillicutty

what’s he doing with them boards

he’s mending the fence son

why’s he doing that

cause I got him the job

what’s he doing with the bootlegger’s lumber

he’ll never miss it

what’s he making

that’s his trade he has to make them

McGillicutty you say why he’s the undertaker

like I say somebody got to

I don’t care what he is you tell him to quit hammering on that coffin

Jesus was a carpenter

he wasn’t no undertaker and he didn’t build no caskets though

I say McGillicutty he said you spooking this boy

how bout fixing me that swinging board so I can get my whiskey

will do brother

McGillicutty limped over to where we were he said I through anyway

who passed Sylvester said

boy child drowned in the barr pit

what your first name I said

Mulciber he said

what happened to your leg

mule fell on it

don’t you know no better than to be nailing coffins when it’s dark

I like to work at night

take your work someplace else then

yassuh

you ain’t got to leave you can stay with us but the casket give me the heebie jeeies

I see

Sylvester said cousin you got the dimensions right

well now I don’t know

I knew the two negroes was jiving me

look here at this boy reckon he’s about the right size

Sadday night if he ain’t

they got ahold of my arms and legs like I was a dead man

leave me lone I said

but they dropped me in the coffin

it was shored up on two saw horses like a boat

the shavings of wood inside were like a nest of dead wasps

it felt so good real tight like new clothes that fit

like a muscle man T-shirt

 

Hejinian:

 

A comedian is a foreigner at border

Or comedienne – antinomian

Performing the comedy known as barbarism

This

An encounter

(Encounters, after all, are the essence of comedy)

With forge and link

Which doppelgangers (perfect matchers) match

With whistling in the left ear

And symptoms of melancholy – gloomy dreams, twitching, jerking, itching, and swift changes of mood

With the capacity to transform an inaccessible object into something we long voluptuously to embrace

And ourselves into an unquiet subject – at last! Baffled!

After all, it’s a rare miracle (called “omnipresence”) when one can appear in many places at once

Change, then, is the exemplary connection

Between romance and improvement

The press of the curling tree in the pink of the shadowy snow

Out of nowhere – uncanny

And falling under a squirrel’s frenzy

The color of  the sky is cast in territory belonging to “the public”

Under spell part globe, part departure of a vessel

Passing speech through law

Turning south

Where we’re the oddballs and peppercorns

Picking pace

Like other comic poets

I should point out here

That tragic writers have merely to let their characters announce who they are for the audience instantly to know everything

Whereas comic writers use original plots

And start from scratch

 

I’ve seen Battlefield characterized as a novel, as has Hejinian’s My Life – it is evident that the 19th century novel, as well as the great personal narratives of that era, continue as influences on her writing. A Border Comedy and Battlefield are both booklength poems deeply involved with the telling of stories. The diversity of characters – voices – that shows up in each is extraordinary (and accounts in part for the richness one feels reading either work). Yet the differences between Stanford’s backwoods America and Hejinian’s internationalized urban one could not be more pronounced.

 

The fundamental neutrality of the device has seldom been more clear. The writer who understands its potential can put any formal dimension to almost any purpose imaginable. In each poem here, the line governs the reader’s experience. Line breaks are almost always perceptible, but largely deadpan in affect, not eroticized the way one finds in works of high enjambment (even as the erotic enters into both poems). The variety in line length controls tempo and can make the process of absorbing long passages far less difficult – though Stanford at times stretches the line out for just the opposite effect. The result is two irresolvable visions of American life.



Thursday, September 05, 2002

 

There is a fallacious presumption in my comments about Christian Bök: the implication that one might “improve” a poem or that a “better version” might be unearthed lurking in the published text. This fallacy of the well-wrought urn fails to acknowledge that “well-made” poems are little more than the bland pastel background against which important poetry, such as Bök’s, is written. In fact, if one were to look at the texts of, say, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Williams, Stein, Olson, Duncan, Ginsberg, et al, what one notices, over & over, is that it is the rough spots as much as anything else that tells us we are in the presence of significant work. This is true of fiction also, from Melville to Joyce & Faulkner, and to Kerouac, Pynchon, Delaney & Acker. And it is what I trust about the very best poetry of new writers as they emerge on the scene. You can see it in Lee Ann Brown, Linh Dinh, Eleni Sikelianos, and Lisa Jarnot, to name four. 

 

This is not to suggest that any of these writers, past or present, doesn’t create the best possible works they can, but rather that obsessiveness with smoothing out the dissonance of the creative process is ultimately a destructive impulse, born of a decorative conception of literature. Yet it is precisely this process that is inscribed as the core activity of so many creative writing classes wherever they are taught, people sitting around in small circles, suggesting how this or that line break might be tweaked, this word choice “strengthened.”

In 1977, Curtis Faville self-published a brilliant & troubling collection of poems entitled Stanzas for an Evening Out. Faville (who these days runs the Compass Rose rare book operation, one of the best for modern poetry: http://www.abebooks.com/home/COMPASSROSE/) is/was an extraordinary student & mimic of contemporary style, but also someone who seems always to have felt a most charged & ambivalent relationship toward writers in his own generation as well as those who came before. (No accident here that the first poem in the book is entitled “Second Generation.”) I’ve always read that book’s title with the pun (Evening as a verb) in the foreground. So while I don’t share his cynical view of the state of writing (which may have moderated over the past quarter century), I think that title captures the problem as it confronts not only creative writing students, but so many poets today.

Evened out describes quite fairly what is wrong with poetry in the New Yorker, Nation, Atlantic Monthly and like-minded venues.



Wednesday, September 04, 2002

 

It is not simply the Oulipo-derived games, impressive as they are, that makes Christian Bök’s Eunoia (Coach House, 2001) so notable, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize and, most wondrous, an avant-garde title with 8,000 copies in print within its first year of publication. (See a flash presentation of “Chapter e” here: http://www.ubu.com/contemp/bok/eunoia_final.html.) Bök’s book’s driving pleasure lies in its author’s commitment to the oldest authorial element there is: a great passion for rigor, particularly at the level of craft.

 

Consider:

Relentless, the rebel peddles these theses, even when vexed peers deem the new precepts ‘mere dreck’. The plebes resent newer verse; nevertheless, the rebel perseveres, never deterred, never dejected, heedless, even when hecklers heckle the vehement speeches. We feel perplexed whenever we see these excerpted sentences. We sneer when we detect the clever scheme – the emergent repetend: the letter E. We jeer; we jest. We express resentment. We detest these depthless pretenses – these present-tense verbs, expressed pell-mell. We prefer genteel speech, where sense redeems senselessness. (32)

 

In addition to the evident wit & active sense of jest throughout, all winking meta-commentary, there are just two small moments here (“hecklers heckle” and “sense redeems senselessness”) in which a reiteration of root terms raises the possibility that another line of attack might have been posed, e.g. “even when the hecklers’ specter severed speeches.” But this alternative (for example) adds one extra character, and just might render the typesetting – every line in the title text is justified so that no paragraph ends mid-line (this rule is adhered to also in the Ubu.com version, which presents each paragraph in 10 lines as against Bök’s book’s 13) – impossible. Add to this an awesome ear and, well, ease awes. And it is precisely because Bök makes it all feel as natural as rain that makes us swoon. Great stuff!

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Tuesday, September 03, 2002

 

When I read Keats, I sense the potential for a new and different kind of relationship between the sentence and line, one that is more modular and sensuous. But whenever I have tried to reach this intuited new balance, it dissolves on me, a chimera. Someone who comes much closer to this balance than anything I have ever been able to achieve is Jennifer Moxley in The Sense Record and Other Poems (Edge Books, 2002), although whether she has Keats in mind or not would be strictly conjecture on my part – the book’s epigraph thanks Keith (presumably Waldrop) “for Yeats.” Of course the use of long sentences running over multiple lines has been associated with Ashbery (and behind him, Stevens), but The Sense Record in no way comes across as being Ashberyesque in the way that works (especially early ones) by Yau, Towle or others have. Rather it seems that Moxley is after a new mode of discourse – one might call it a rhetoric – both calm and thoughtful, more sensuous and serious than any we have had in poetry in some time. It doesn’t always work, but the intellectual ambition that drives this poetry is riveting.



Monday, September 02, 2002

 

The abstract lyric certainly existed before Barbara Guest – Stein, for example, and some of Williams’ work, especially prior to World War II; the French can go back to Mallarmé – but it was/is Guest who in English seems to have perfected the form in the 1950s, a period in which she was largely (and unfairly) unnoticed with the significant exception of the Allen anthology – it is Guest who lead off the New York School section in that epochal collection, even as she had the fewest pages of work represented. Reading her poetry of that period sends me back along a different coordinate – to the texts of David Schubert and through him to the short poems of Hart Crane. I don’t know if Guest read Schubert, who seems to have largely slipped through the cracks of literary history (albeit acknowledged as an influence by John Ashbery and visibly evident in the poetry of Frank O’Hara). 

 

There is a tendency in American poetry that one might characterize as academic in the old-fashioned pejorative sense & certainly the letters and essays in the 1983 QRL issue on Schubert reflects that tradition: Alan Tate, Ben Belitt, Horace Gregory, Louise Bogan, Ted Weiss. In a sense, the New American poetry and its descendents (which include virtually every progressive mode of U.S. poetry some 50 years hence) has exorcised itself of even the memory of that tendency. Pound and Stein were geographically inoculated from it, the Objectivists simply avoided all interaction (the feeling appears to have been mutual). Yet Williams dealt with it and Marianne Moore positively thrived in that environment, and it is evident that at least through Auden (curious interloper that he is after the Second World War) the New York School was willing to let some elements in.

 

In some sense, trying to sort out the role of such influences is not unlike those followers of Creeley who do not understand his enthusiasm for Crane or Stevens. Reading is itself always a narrative, the unfolding of meaning in time – I read this book before that one. In my own life, it was Philip Whalen’s poetry that gave me the inroads I needed in order to appreciate Clark Coolidge’s work in the 1960s, yet I know of poets who came upon those two writers in the opposite sequence and I simply cannot imagine what one would make of it: I cannot fold my mental map into that configuration.

 

An analogy from music might be the relationship between Bing Crosby and Jimi Hendrix. Before Crosby, singers belted out tunes as if they were still performing from the stage of an auditorium, even as they were finally being recorded. It was Crosby who understood that the implication of the microphone was that you could sing softly and bring out a whole new range of possible music. Similarly, Hendrix was the first performer to understand the full implications of the electrification of the guitar. Crosby and Hendrix equally revolutionized music.

 

In a decade in which so many academic poets continue to sound as if they were the contemporaries of Bing Crosby, I find it intriguing that Barbara Guest should become the most influential of the New American poets. In part, it no doubt is because her work has not yet been fully incorporated, much as the Objectivists of the 1930s needed to wait until the 1970s to be brought completely into view. So perhaps it is because the current generation of academic poets seems as relevant to poetry as astrology does to astronomy, the abstract lyric carries forward within itself aspects of a tradition all but unheard elsewhere.

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