Saturday, November 09, 2002
First thought, best thought
I’ve always been interested in the poem’s relationship to the process of thinking & often see poems as documents of that process. From Kerouac’s speed-ridden prose scroll through Olson’s sometimes stumbling forward, using enjambment & variable line length in his poems to lurch towards an idea, to Ginsberg’s transcription of audio tapes in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” or Duncan’s wrong-headed insistence that his final book appear typed rather than typeset so as to capture best what the poet thought he was doing at that instant, I’ve been drawn to works that often are written so as to appear unfinished, in progress, the poetic equivalent I suppose of “distressed” furniture or pre-faded jeans.
Not surprisingly, then, I think of myself as somebody who doesn’t revise much in my own poetry. So I was surprised this past Spring doing a little tour of the Southwest (Tucson & San Diego) when a woman at one of the events insisted that my own writing process appeared to be one of total revision. What I do in practice – and this pretty much has been the process for the past few years – is to gather individual sentences into a notebook (of late, into a Palm Pilot) until I have a decent number of them, at least 100, sometimes as many as 150. I then sit down with whatever notebook I’m using and with my trusty (if rusty) old Waterman felt-tip pen that I bought at a stationer’s just down from Zabar’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan back in 1981 and use those sentences to compose the next passage of whichever work is at hand. Sometimes I’ll use just a few sentences, but other times it might be a fair number. On rare occasions, I’ll insert some sentence that occurs to me during this process, usually out of a sense that “this sentence belongs right here.” Once the number of raw sentences “in the hopper” drops down to a certain level, however, somewhere around 80, I seem to need to stop, there no longer being enough raw material from which to select. From the Palm Pilot to the notebook, I do make significant changes, even rewriting the basic sentence, although this occurs maybe in no more than five percent of the sentences I eventually use. & it’s possible for a sentence to “hang out” in the Palm Pilot (or the pocket notebooks & Sharp Organizer that I used before that) for perhaps two years or more before I decide that I really must not be intending to use that sentence. One the notebook itself is “complete” (& my definition of what that means changes from project to project), I type the poem into the PC. At this level, I change well under a single word per page – and this is what I’m thinking about when I say that I don’t make much use of revision. From end to end, this process can easily take years.
The argument that this one
questioner put to me was that the revision was in the translation from Palm
Pilot into the notebook. I’ve been mulling that idea over for
One of my favorite poets in
the universe, Rae Armantrout, however, has a radically different approach to
the question. Revision plays a strategic role in her writing process, perhaps
its most critical element. Armantrout tries out an almost infinite number of
possible combinations before committing to even the shortest passage. In
addition, Armantrout is one poet who uses what any marketer or product
development specialist would recognize as a focus group as part of her process.
She sends draft versions of poems to a handful of friends, myself
among them, asking for our response, advice, possible revisions, etc. She used
to do this in person when we lived not so far from one another in
One side effect of this process for me is that I often see so many versions of a single poem that I have no clear idea in my mind which version Armantrout eventually settled on until I see the work in print. Sometimes it’s a version that’s slightly different from every version I’ve seen. No one is more surprised by Armantrout’s poetry in a new volume than I am.
Today about dawn I was
reading a passage in Frank Stanford’s The
Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You in
which the writing is, as often it is in this fabulous book, delightfully
God has lost so much blood now he can’t speak he had to go to giving
hand signals like a deaf and dumb man
all was silent as a winter pond silent and untrue like a featherless arrow
like a shaft of sleeping wine beneath a tree the rotting teeth
and the dreaming knife and my dreams still ricocheting so close
and so far apart like journeys into space like the fast madness
of butcherbirds like field mice and toads and grass snakes all of them
with holes in their head have you seen that bird beating the
against the branch he’s got him by the tail the eyes of the
tin lids with their duets under the creek in the moonlight
like planetoids who
buzzing like a hornets’ nest full of snakeskins made by the sparrow
the pieces of stars passing my ship
so slowly I can reach out and touch them if I could
I lay in slumber charged with death
stuck like a sword in a battleground giving its aria
like a dancer coming to life
in the solar ditch I ask the sailor of space touch one
finger with the other like a symphony the blessed legend in the void all over
again o how we died
ago we slept friends I tell you I heard the oboes that belong to the wolf
the opera two steps from the blues the light years boogie all the
time I heard the blind tiger guitar so that is how it goes how my dreams
those sad captains
treat me the unkept rendezvous with the void which is black the pocketknives
I lose in infinity those blades of grass that cut you in the dark
“Those sad captains” stopped me cold, although I’d already tripped over the reference to Peter and the Wolf three lines earlier. Is Stanford here alluding to Marc Antony? To Thom Gunn? To the sentimental story by Sarah Orne Jewett? Is it something that just popped into his head from the overheard & undigested language of everyday life? If I had to guess, I’d wager Shakespeare, but, like the allusion to Prokofiev, the intrusion of any sort of book learning is so curiously Other in this text that it can only send shivers through the poem, a memento mori to the preliterate society Stanford is exploring.
These lines are filled with
phrases that don’t bear too much probing “like planetoids who
Without ever having seen the
original manuscript of Battlefield, I
would suspect that it doesn’t show much in the way of revision – other than
* I’m totally weird & neurotic about notebooks as well, but that’s a topic for another time.
But this does raise the question of what I think I’m doing when I’m writing/collecting sentences into my Palm or a pocket notebook. Research, perhaps. I don’t at that point in the process have any commitment, emotional or otherwise, to the sentences collected. & I’ve gathered them under conditions that felt like the furthest thing from “writing poetry” – in the middle of business meetings, while driving, twice while undergoing eye surgery. Whereas “writing poetry” for me has an emotional feel to it that is very little changed from the days as a kid when I would sit on my bed in my room with a spiral-bound notebook in hand, writing away with some kind of deep pleasure.
Friday, November 08, 2002
This blog is not the official sponsor of the
Canadian poetry wars. Nor, for that matter, any other.
There has been speculation on at least the Poetics listserv as to why there
isn’t a comments section here. Part of it simply has to do with Blogger’s lack
of such a function in its software & my own meager HTML skills, attempting
sans success to import a comments capacity from a third-party provider.* But I
haven’t tried harder to solve that technical challenge because of the quality
& tone of such discussions as one sees them, for example, in emails &
on listservs. The vituperation that has characterized some of the recent
Underneath the name calling
of the Canadians lies a more serious issue: the
question of literary formation in a time of extraordinary post-avant
productivity. There are, as I’ve listed by name in the postscripts to more than
one anthology, literally hundreds of
poets now writing compellingly in ways that can be traced back to the New
American Poetry, the Stein-Pound-Williams-Zukofsky tradition or parallel
What about all this writing? No individual, regardless of how voracious &
encyclopedic a reader, can ever hope to take in all of
it. Therefore, by definition, one is forced to make choices. Will I read Eunoia or The Mood Embosser? Hoa Nguyen or
Such conundrums may bedevil
the individual reader, but they have corollaries throughout the field of poetry
that have consequences – many of them less than happy – for
In the current highly
atomized state of the literary scene, books do get published, but what occurs
to them after that remains far too much a matter of happenstance. When a volume
happens to sell well, become, at least in poetry terms, popular, and gets
sucked up into the highly tokenized process of the print industry’s publishing
awards, the phenomenon appears all but random. Thus Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, Alice Notley’s Mysteries of
Small Houses and Christian Bök’s Eunoia
end up both carrying the hopes – and resentments –
of large numbers of other poets. It’s as though out of the
We need to look at this process more critically. I would argue that it is in large measure because of the almost total absence of discernable shape & shading within the literary terrain, its sheer unmappability, that such exceptionalism becomes, by default, the only means available for the culture – by which in this instance I mean the totality of readers of poetry – to organize itself around points of discernability. But what it really points to is an abdication by the poets themselves -- & I don’t mean Harryette or Alice or Christian. By leaving a vacuum, poets permit other institutional forces – especially trade & large institutional publishers and the awards-givers who are really just an adjunct to the trade publishers – to occupy the very space that makes it possible for newcomers to get a sense of what’s where in the world of poetry.
I’ve ridden this hobby horse before. & I probably will again. The failure of poets, particularly when they are acting as editors & critics, to articulate a shape for the writing they want most to see & with which to be associated, is the necessary precondition for the disappearance of many, perhaps most, poets. To return to an old lesson from Jean-Paul Sartre: your choice is between the series – absolute atomization – and the group. Though that latter term has multiple meanings.
So almost as distressing as the name calling in the Canadian dispute is Darren Wershler-Henry’s reflexive denial of group status: “there's no Oulipo branch office here.” It’s as puzzling and ultimately self-defeating a position as that posed by Juliana Spahr on this blog back in September when she characterized the creation of Chain as an act against articulation:
we started chain b/c there were too many arguments being made. we started it in the climate of apex and o-blek. there were arguments already and we needed other sorts of conversations to happen. this felt crucial to us. we needed to make a place for us to think about things in our way--a more sideways way or a less declaratory way. now, perhaps, we/poetry community need arguments again. it is sad that apex and o-blek are gone and really haven't been replaced. and somehow for some reason that i'm not sure i know yet, we keep doing chain. (my emphasis)
Chain’s co-editor Jena Osman poses it as being a choice against canon-building. Which might be the case if one poses it solely in a my community vs. your community context. But, one thing the poetry of the 1970s certainly attempted (with mixed results) to demonstrate in practice, articulation – argument – need not be destructive at all. Dialogues between communities ideally begin with an interest in what the other community is doing. So what is edited out when editors opt for a telephone book or dictionary model of the alphabet as organizing principle is precisely “Combinations, interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over.” What is left is everybody talking simultaneously with a minimum of listening to one another.
The poets behind Apex of the M and O•blēk argued for a new spirituality in American poetry. That may seem like a quirky, even perverse place to begin, but it was at least an attempt to make a start. In retrospect, those new gnostics look like the last gasp of poetry organizing itself before utter atomization left every woman & man to themselves and the poetry scene surrendered over to the infinite consumerism of picking this book here, that book there, with no hope of ever creating a larger sense of event.
Let me pose what
seems to me an obvious possible grouping, something that, to borrow a phrase
from Peter Balestrieri, I will call The Collectors. The Collectors acquire that
name because of a predisposition to utilize & recycle found language,
although this can also mean the use of a poetic
This literary formation
exists in everything but the real world. While some of these writers know one
another and might even work together from time to time, there is no attempt
that I’m aware of on anybody’s part from within this potential formation to
point it out as a major tendency in contemporary poetry. Which
means as a direct consequence that there is nobody trying to create the kind of
internal – and external – dialogues
that would enable it to accelerate its own development. And that its
potential as a point in common for other groups to bounce off of is muted, if
not nil. Only when such formations exist in real time can the “combinations,
interruptions, complex conversations and crossings over” that
The benefits of literary formation
seem to me obvious: we would not have the ready availability of the work of
Carl Rakosi without his relationship to the Objectivists, nor this big fat new
volume of Lorine Niedecker’s so lovingly produced by the
But at that level, the idea of the Collectors is as much a fiction as M.L. Rosenthal’s Confessional Poetry once was. So, if we believe Wershler-Henry, is the experience of a Toronto-centered process-driven poetics. What it all points to is a profound silence precisely where there needs to be discussion. And organization. And arguments. On this point, Juliana Spahr is absolutely right: “we/poetry community need arguments again.” Lots of them, conducted in the poems, in readings, in the fundamentally political act that is editing, in forums like talks & seminars & conferences.
To which I would add this one word of warning: name calling seems a better way to shut discussion off, that it does to open it up.
* Ditto for a search engine.
Labels: Canadian Poetry
Thursday, November 07, 2002
In a footnote on Halloween,
that “it seems unlikely” that Jack Spicer “would have heard of” the fictive
literary figure Ern Malley. This brought the following note from
I'm not sure this changes your point
much, but I know you'll be glad to know that further research indicates that
Jack Spicer was indeed aware of the Ern Malley/"Angry Penguins"
affair, and that indeed he came up with a plan to imitate the hoaxers in a
variety of US magazines some 20 years before the Book of Magazine Verse. I don't want to blow all the surprises, but
the next issue of the new Bay Area magazine 26
will publish an article by me and Lew (Ellingham) which grows out of our recent
interview with Barbara Nicholls, a woman who now lives in
* Some Gene Stratton Porter links:
Wednesday, November 06, 2002
I was reading an Allen Curnow poem from the early 1960s, “A Small Room with Large Windows,”* when the prosody of its fourth section struck me:
kingfisher’s naked arc alight
Upon a dead stick in the mud
A scarlet geranium wild on a wet bank
A man stepping it out in the near distance
With a dog and a bag
on a spit of shell
On a wire in a mist
a gannet impacting
Explode a dozen diverse dullnesses
Like a burst of accurate fire.
This passage, by no means
Curnow’s best, stood out in contrast to the section immediately preceding,
which carried an AABBCC… rhyme scheme, a relatively rare occurrence for the
Which reminded me of how
seldom this is the case for me with poets from English-speaking countries other
There are of course
exceptions, but I notice how many of them are poets who seem to have taken a
particular interest in the American tradition of poetry –
I also wonder if there isn’t
something specific about
doan you think he chop an’ change all the time
stubborn az a mule, sah, stubborn as a MULE,
got th’ eastern idea about money”
Something Josephine Miles once said to David Melnick & myself jumps out at me here. Recalling William Carlos Williams’ poetry in the 1930s & ‘40s, she noted that she could not – these were her words – “hear him,” she and her friends had no idea how to read those texts that today seem so self-evidently the paradigm for spoken English. The very features of his verse that today seem so obvious as to be boring – a level of acceptance that has come to hurt Williams’ reputation – were in fact impenetrably opaque not that long ago.
In fact, in spite of his own critical comments, these features may have been somewhat opaque to Williams as well. Robert Creeley, one of the first to recognize Williams’ poetry as an apotheosis of transcribed speech, has commented on how surprised he was to discover that Williams himself did not respect his linebreaks when reading the poems in public.
Olson in theory took care of that. With the Projectivists proposing a hard or rigorous version & the New York School and the Beats offering “soft” ones, U.S. poets from the 1960s onward have had a ready toolkit available for what speech might look like translated into line & stanza. & for the past 20-odd years, these have been supplemented by a variety of post-avant text strategies intended to problematize a too simplistic one-to-one correlation, ranging from sound poetry at one extreme to visual poetics at another.** What these various interventions have not done is to add significantly to the prosodic vocabulary of the poem.*** The number & potential combination of sounds in English is not infinite, even though the number of possible meanings & utterances is. Thus the elaboration and expansion of poetic forms over the past 30 years, impressive as it has been, has not been accompanied by much in the way of a new cadence.
The limits of prosody are a
major motivator behind the technological augmentation of poetry, substituting a
divergence in lieu of an advance. To paraphrase Robert Grenier, all
technologies say the same thing: hummmm. The
margins of poetry have been littered with attempts at expanding the terrain of
verse at least since Hugo Ball and the Russian zaum poets aimed at writing beyond
language, but to date no one seems to have noticed that such projects age
at an accelerated rate, moving from startling to quaint in something less than
30 years. This difficulty is not coincidental and promises only to get worse
the more closely it attaches itself to
A by-product of this
phenomenon is that books that do think seriously about the question of poetic
sound, such as Charles Bernstein’s Close
Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (Oxford, 1998) or Stephen Ratcliffe’s particularly excellent Listening to Reading (SUNY, 2000), have yet to tackle the problem
of prosody as it impacts the relative impenetrability of different variants of
English. It may be easy enough, outside of Boontling,
Gullah or Hawaiian pidgin, to envision American English as one language,
but the minute you cross national borders it patently is a problem of another
order, a larger & radically different context. In Close Listening, the essays that do focus on the poetics of
specific communities do so in terms that are more
social than linguistic, with the pointed exception of Dennis Tedlock’s “Toward a Poetics of Polyphony and
* Early Days Yet: New and Collected Poems, 1941-1997 (Auckland University Press, 1997), pp. 177-178.
would have thought that fewer than forty years after Olson celebrated the ‘LINE’
as the embodiment of the breath, the signifier of the heart, the line would be
perceived as a boundary, a confining border, a form of packaging?” Marjorie Perloff, “After Free Verse,” in Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, edited by Charles
*** The two writers who perhaps represent the most aggressive attempts to expand prosody would probably be Ted Enslin with his endless (or very nearly so) variations on the line in his long works from the 1970s and, somewhat more recently, Clark Coolidge, whose sense of jazz rhythm, from bebop to pomo, clearly informs his sense of line and stanza.
+ In this sense, the move away from something that is simply “the verse print bred” that makes the most sense to me are Grenier’s hand-lettered scrawl works.
Tuesday, November 05, 2002
NB: Tom Devaney tells me that the next-to-last item among the poetry links of his below (http://www.toolamagazine.com/Zone.html) actually is an unsigned review of a single poem, written by Erik Sweet. It’s still very cool and worth reading.
Ange Mlinko at La Tazza, a cavern of a tavern with a modicum of food on
Chestnut off Second in
that lion on the stamp of the
New York Public Library! Is it Astor,
Lenox and Tilden in composite? Like an ascot
blending with swept-back locks
away from the arch of the half-closed eye!
In the fact of a whole head in its halo of motto,
like a coin, is it the final pursuit of such men
to stock a library with rare books
on a marble avenue, with an exhibit
this go-round of “utopias”, an inevitable
speculation with the bums & the rich
brothers in desultoriness studying
Jefferson’s handwriting in a fair copy
of the Declaration of Independence?
Ice grips the steps of stopped hands.
Violin wood of the reading room,
violet snow in the window.
You said you loved a photocopied book
like a keeper of mysteries, like a visitor
to libraries, under the hieroglyph
of light rays
or the trompe l’oeil skylight
of perpetual sunset (or dawn?)
along the wool blanket with flashes
lighting up the dark. They gathered into
a tooth that nipped when I reached out
of a repetitive dream.
“Come to bed,” I said.
“No, why don’t you sit up with me awhile?
The mountebank insomnia has me.”
You called me to the window to see a man
hail a cab. Had a hand in the writing
of the Russian constitution.
and aren’t I a connoisseur?
I don’t hear those exclamation points in her reading of this piece. I do hear this extraordinary ear:
Ice grips the steps
of stopped hands.
Violin wood of the reading room,
violet snow in the window.
I resolve that I have to read more of her poems on the page when I can. There is a book I believe from the defunct Zoland, but I don’t know if one can find copies now. “One more sad one” Mlinko says with a smile. It doesn't sound sad at all.
Tom Devaney's poetry has a social edge**, but isn't political in the narrow sense. If anything, it’s as personal as Mlinko’s, although I suspect that what either of them would mean by that term would turn out to be quite different. The contrast with Mlinko at La Tazza works to everyone’s benefit, as if each maximizes the ability of the audience to hear the distinctness of the other. It’s a happy event in the history of curating poetry.
Devaney is one of the most
visible presences on the
"The airport parking lot was known as a free-for-all where tow trucks routinely had to sort out the handiwork...cars parked at all angles,...often with no discernible ingress and egress."
Not an accident, but constant accidental.
Parking space is
the central fact to man born in
There are several hundred ways not to understand.
invitation to excess, in A.C.
no bets are placed on the stay-at-home team, Pomona Nomads.
Park and lock your car 2.) Fly to
3.) Remember, there's little reason to think
there--even if that's where you parked.
Fluxus is the
name of the vapors coming off the cinder fields
meeting the black birds as they come in at night.
Before the war,
getting a good spot
was what most Americans considered warfare.
The forward function
is a maneuver
all novice tow truck drivers like to do for you.
Your delight in
pattern and repetition is dropped off
to search a dusty field filled with hundreds of towed cars.
actually say it, unscriptability and
The State's equilibrium is located elsewhere.
car alarm. The unison HONK. The techno field jam.
The songs Bruce Springsteen will not write anymore.
* An Ange Mlinko sampler:
** A Tom Devaney sampler:
in the sense that Mlinko, who has been active with the St. Marks Poetry Project
& lived for a time in
Monday, November 04, 2002
David Bromige & New Zealand poet & book dealer Richard Taylor have been discussing the relative value of some of David’s books in the rare book market on the Poetics Listserv. It made me think of the path mapped out by the early Bromige, volumes that I still consider indispensable, but which have become hard to find. The list that follows is not exhaustive. But what matters to me personally is the absolute logic of his journey, as articulate a personal history of the evolution of poetry from the 1960s to the 1980s as has been written.
The Gathering (Buffalo, Sumbooks, 1965). My copy of Bromige’s first book has turned almost
unimaginably dark with oxidation, worse even than Wieners’ Hotel Wentley Poems (which is seven years older). The Gathering shows a still-Canadian
Bromige moving under the spell of the Projectivists, a consequence of the first
mushrooms out of a horse
pasture, evening, seemingly
none when we first look, then
one, a dozen, luck turns or they
grow, youd swear, at the turn of a back –
The Ends of the Earth (Los Angeles, Black Sparrow, 1968). Bromige’s one true Projectivist
volume, written while in graduate school at
aches to know
one fact as axiom
to act. Whatever I do
also at times doubt
the beneficence of the inevitable
Earth-bound as one is.
The work in this volume is
what Bromige was writing when I first saw him read with Harvey Bialy in the
Albany Public Library Series (the same reading where I was to meet David
Melnick while hitch-hiking back to
helped you in the past
Okay, go ahead, help me in the past again
It seems like a wise crack –
& at one level that’s exactly what it is – but at its core, Bromige’s
poetry is starting to look at the role of logic & its relation to both
meaning & syntax. It was only today (after having owned this book for 31
years) that it dawned on me that the other major influence at that first
Birds of the West (
Tight Corners & What’s Around Them: Prose &
Faceless Fussduck put away his dry revolver. The closet was wet.
As the title of the book suggests, Tight Corners is obsessed with the connections between things & the possibility of altering direction (a process that at a line “break” is called “verse”) while in motion. This will be Bromige’s last large collection of new work for six years.*
Many of the poems, from My Poetry & the other early books, can be found in Desire,
Only 650 copies of My Poetry were ever produced, in spite
of the lush Francie Shaw cover that suggests to my eye a much larger printing.
Only three copies are available through abebooks,
the website for rare and used books. The same site currently shows seven copies
available of The Gathering, 15 of The Ends of the Earth, eight for Birds of the West. These are among the
treasures of our literary heritage and, as a group, an
* There is, during this period, a selected, Ten Years in the Making, which is typed rather than typeset but which includes two dozen otherwise uncollected pieces; plus some smaller items, such as Three Stories, Out of My Hands and Credences of Winter, all chapbooks from Black Sparrow; a slightly larger collection Spells and Blessings from Talonbooks that I’ve never seen; a collection of songs written with Barry Gifford & Paul DeBarros, also something I’ve never seen.
** That section of this series turn up in different places, to different effect, within My Poetry is characteristic of Bromige’s approach to his work. My only complaint about this book is that it failed to include my personal favorite of the “My” works, one with a curious title I recall as “Glurk.”