Saturday, November 16, 2002

 

Philadelphia Progressive Poetry Calendar

Version 1.2

 

Updates, this version: La Tazza readings added; also more Spring events at Penn (Laurie Anderson, Brad Leithauser, Johanna Drucker, Simon Ortiz, Simon Pettit, Susan Sontag), Daisy Fried at Swarthmore.

 

 

November

 

16, Saturday, 7: Abigail Susik & Fran Ryan at La Tazza, 108 Chestnut (off S. 2nd St).

 

18, Monday, 7: George Economou & Rochelle Owens. Two of the younger poets associated with the New American poetry and around such journals as Caterpillar. Both have recently moved to Philadelphia. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

18, Monday, Daisy Fried, 7:30 at Scheuer Room, Kohlberg Hall, Swarthmore College.

 

30, Saturday, 7: Michele Myers & Greg Fuchs at La Tazza, 108 Chestnut (off S. 2nd St).

 

December

 

3, Tuesday, 6:30: Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Among her books are Drafts 1-38, Toll (Wesleyan, 2001), part of her long poem project, and Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-1934 (Cambridge, 2001). She is also the author of Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (1985), H.D.: The Career of that Struggle (1986), both from Indiana University Press, and The Pink Guitar: Writing as Feminist Practice (Routledge, 1990), a book of experimental essays. She is the editor of The Selected Letters of George Oppen (Duke University Press, 1990), and the co-editor of three anthologies: The Objectivist Nexus: Essays in Cultural Poetics (Alabama, 1999), The Feminist Memoir Project: Voices from Women's Liberation (Three Rivers/Crown, 1998) and Signets: Reading H.D. (Wisconsin, 1990). Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT

 

4, Wednesday, 2 events with Michael Ondaatje at Penn. 1:00 PM: Lunch with author Michael Ondaatje sponsored by Women's Studies, and co-sponsored with the Kelly Writers House. RSVP to wh@english.upenn.edu.  4:30 PM: Michael Ondaatje will read at a Penn location TBA, sponsored by Women's Studies.

 

9, Monday, 6:30 – 8:30 PM. Celebration of the 2002 Pew Fellows in the Arts. Includes poets Rachel Blau, DuPlessis; Mytili Jagannathan; Teresa Leo; & Trapeta B. Mayson; plus performance & visual artists: Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Dan Rothenberg, and Dito Van Reigersberg; Candy Depew; Lonnie Graham; Whit MacLaughlin; Caden Manson; Thaddeus McWhinnie Phillips; and Mark Shetabi. Arden Theater, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia. For information, write pewarts@mindspring.com or call 215-875-2285.

 

14, December: Michael Gizzi & Sarah Arvio at La Tazza, 108 Chestnut (off S. 2nd St).

 

January

 

30, Thursday, 8 PM, Erica Hunt. Author of Arcade and Local History. Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street.

 

 

February

 

11, Tuesday, 5 PM. Steve Benson, poet & performance artist, author of Blue Book, As Is and Reverse Order. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

20, Thursday, 8 PM. Eileen Myles, poet, novelist, former presidential candidate, author of Chelsea Girls, Skies, Not Me & other books, reads in the Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street.

 

26, Wednesday, 4:30 PM: The Poet & Painters series presents poet Ron Padgett. Cosponsered with the Graduate School of Fine Arts and the Creative Writing Program. Padgett is also the author of New & Selected Poems (David R. Godine, 1995), The Big Something (1990), Triangles in the Afternoon (1979), Great Balls of Fire (1969), and other collections. Two new volumes are forthcoming: Poems I Guess I Wrote and You Never Know. ). Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

27, Thursday, Time 4:30 PM, Norma Cole, poet & translator, author of Mace Hill Remap, Moira, Mars, will present “The Transparency Machine” at Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

27, Thursday, 8 PM, Norma Cole will read in the Temple Writers Series, Temple University Graduate Creative Writing Program, Temple Gallery, 45 North 2nd Street.

 

 

March

 

5, Wednesday, 6 PM: Johanna Drucker, poet, novelist, theorist, book artist. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

19, Wednesday, 5 PM: Dennis Barone, poet, novelist, critic, editor. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

20, Thursday, Time TBA: Poet & lawyer Brad Leithauser, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

20, Thursday, 6-9PM: Brad Leithauser at the Levy Conference Center, room 245 A & the Great Hall at Penn.

 

24, Monday, 6:30 PM: Laurie Anderson, reading & performing. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT. – This requires an advance rsvp to whfellow@english.upenn.edu.

 

25, Tuesday, 10 AM: Laurie Anderson in an interview. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

27, Thursday, 8: Symposium on Blues, Jazz, and American Literature, with Pew Fellows Sonia Sanchez (so many books, including *Does Your House Have Lions?* and *Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems*) and Major Jackson (*Leaving Saturn*), with critics Robert O'Meally (Director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, editor of the anthology *The Jazz Cadence of American Culture*, biographer of Billie Holiday etc) and Farah Griffin (*If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday*). Scheuer Room Kohlberg Hall, Swarthmore College. For further information, contact Peter Schmidt at pschmid1@swarthmore.edu.

 

27, Thursday, 4:30: Simon Pettit, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

 

April

 

3, Thursday, 4:30: Simon Ortiz, the great Acoma Pueblo poet. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

3, Thursday, 7:30: Reading & Discussion with Tom Devaney, Jessica Lowenthal & Gil Ott, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT.

 

8, Tuesday, 7:30: Nobel Prize winning poet Derek Walcott (*Omeros*, *Tiepolo's Hound*, *The Bounty*, *The Odyssey: A Stage Version*, *What the Twilight Says*), in a reading sponsored by the Marianne Moore Fund for the Study of Poetry, Thomas Great Hall, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr. For further information, contact Helene Studdy at the Bryn Mawr College Office for the Arts, 610-526-5210.

 

21, Monday: 4:30. Susan Sontag. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT. – This requires an advance rsvp to whfellow@english.upenn.edu.

 

22, Tuesday, 10 AM: A conversation with Susan Sontag. Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, on the Penn campus. For more information, call 215-573-WRIT



Friday, November 15, 2002

 

On Tuesday, I noted my confusion as to whether Thom Donovan’s “towards 24 Stills” in Kiosk no. 1 should be read as a complete work or as an excerpt. In a footnote, I suggested that such confusion wasn’t restricted to just Donovan’s work or to my own experience as a reader. Mulling it over further in the days since, I have been reminded of A Technographic Typography, a poem reportedly of more than 800 pages that was being produced by Thomas Meyer back in the 1960s when he was still a student at Bard.* Anyone who has read the crisp, clean, short work of Tom’s mature poetry in books such as At Dusk Iridescent (Jargon, 1999) will find it hard to believe that there was once was a sprawling, potentially endless text, even if, line by line, it showed that same attentive care for craft that has become Meyer’s signature. In somewhat parallel fashion, the teenager who was the late Frank Stanford completed the 15,283 line The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You – nearly five times the length, say, of Beowulf – went off to college & transformed into a writer of much tamer short poems by the time he put a gun to his head at the age of 29. At some point during each of their careers, both Meyers & Stanford appear to have shifted their idea of the scope of a poem.

 

I on the other hand seem to have gone in the opposite direction. Before I wrote the booklength prose poem Ketjak, let alone Tjanting or the on-going Alphabet (800 pages in manuscript & counting), I published nox with Burning Deck in 1974, a collection of 60 poems that use a total of 135 words. Here is the only poem in nox that stretches out to four lines:

 

cabin

 

quilt

 

river

 

latch

 

More typical are:

 

ease

awes

 

Or:

 

bolism

 

Because nox is set in a series of fifteen quadrants, four poems to a page, I’ve heard some readers report that they could not tell if each page was one poem or even if the book was a single work. It’s not an unfair question, even if an answer in the negative seems transparently obvious to me.

 

This question of scope or scale is not precisely the same as the question of when (or how) a poem ends, although I sense that the two are closely intertwined. The problem of endings, of closure, is even more complex & difficult than that bit of magic through which a poem begins. That fact alone accounts for any number of phenomena, including the trouble readers, myself included, have deciding what the boundaries of a given text might be.

 

At one level, one of, & perhaps the, strongest attraction of closed forms in poetry lies not simply in the pale pleasures of pattern recognition (real though they may be), but in the fact that the end point is déjà toujours determined before a single letter has been committed to paper. Since the poet knows in advance where he or she is going – on a journey of three or fourteen or however many lines – the opportunities for getting lost along the way are proportionately fewer. Conversely, the old creative writing school saw that a novel is a “long fictional prose work with a flaw,” all but acknowledges that a major engine of flawedness is precisely the difficulty of locating the right end-point for an indeterminate work, a potential problem that it shares with all poetry that is not defined in advanced by a fixed form. More than one long poem has been started only to disappear into in an inconclusive never quite finished state: Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, Beverly Dahlen’s A Reading, & the long untitled prose work from which Clark Coolidge managed to rescue “Weathers” all demonstrate aspects of this issue. Only Celia Zukofsky’s grafted-on “A”-24 spares her husband’s epic that same fate.

 

The question of size or scope impacts poems in all sorts of ways. Lines, sentence, even individual words near the beginning or end carry a different sense of position than those that appear to float “freely” in the middle. Indeed, one of the most interesting moments in any poem, especially when one is reading a text on paper, is that transition that occurs into an ending of the text, the moment at which the logic of each word is dictated by how it will set up the final phrase. It can occur in the last line or stanza, or even several pages from the end, but you can almost always find it if you look closely. A poet such as David Ignatow made a minor art form just out of this moment, the twist into the conclusion – in some instances, it’s the only thing happening in the poem.

 

An inverse transition occurs near the start of a text, as it shifts from “setting out” to “settling in,” but I think the reader is less apt to recognize its presence as the sense of anticipation is quite different: it occurs at a point when the range of reference in a text is still opening up. Most often it arrives at that exact moment when the reader recognizes just how far & wide the text itself can go. At the far end of the text, just the opposite occurs: possibilities are progressively stripped away until the poem arrives at an instant that is (or should be) unavoidable. I would argue that these moments are as true for haiku as for epics. In this sense, even the one-letter poems of Joyce Holland’s Alphabet Anthology (Iowa City: X Press, 1973)** have a beginning, middle & end.

 

These are not the only changes that take place when works are exceprted. Part : whole relations become entirely invisible. But it’s just these transitional cues that are blurred whenever poems appear only in part. Sometimes – though not always – other language in the excerpted text takes over the role, assigned to it as much by a reader’s intuition as by the text itself, surrogate transitions specific to the local occasion.

 

Thinking about it, it seems entirely possible that neither Stanford or Meyer did change their sense of completeness when they shifted away from the epic-length projects of their youth. In Meyer’s case especially, it may have been that he wanted (or even needed) at that point to compose without the necessity of such closure. I know in my own case that the transition from the microwriting of nox to book-length projects, such as Ketjak, proceeded very quickly. At the time it seemed that I was merely focusing in on the smallest elements in the writing, without which I could not have attempted anything on a larger scale, although in some very clear way in my head, I knew that I was a writer of long poems almost a decade before I sat down & started to write one.

 

 

 

* I would scarcely believe my own memory in this if I had not published “Fragment from Graph 42” in Tottels 4 back in July 1971. The engineering vocabulary, in both the work’s title and segmentation, is another radical difference from Meyer’s later poetry.

 

** Joyce Holland is, or was, Dave Morice.



Thursday, November 14, 2002

 

I sat down with yesterday’s post to the blog from K. Silem Mohammad & Tom Orange & just listed the points to which I personally wanted to respond: my list came to three pages single spaced. It’s just not possible in blog form to approach anything with such obsessively pointillist detail, so I thought instead to group these sometimes disjunct ideas, each one of which could spark a more thorough discussion somewhere,  & came up with two intersecting axes of concern:

 

          My definition of abstract lyric – “bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within”

          The role of “the social” within & around poetry, a question that has been raised by Louis Cabri & others

Hovering around these two axes I find a third key issue: the role of close reading & “bean counting” in thinking through issues of poetry. I want to approach this one first, because I think its implications impact what can be said about either of the other two.

 

Close reading’s association with the New Critics (NC) is often treated as grounds for distrust because of NC’s alignment with a reactionary aesthetic tendency in the United States – one that joined the poetics of the Southern Agrarians to those of the Boston Brahmans – but it is worth noting that key NC theorist René Wellek’s training in critical practice came through the Prague Linguistics Circle, founded in 1926 by a group of scholars that included Roman Jakobson & incorporated many of the tendencies that originated within Russian Formalism (& in relation to Russian futurist poets, from Mayakovsky to Khlebnikov). Unless one adopts the dual theory that (1) structural elements have inherent political biases – an argument that would be kin to an equation of, say, Poundian metrics with fascism &/or that (2) aspects of the Prague School itself were part of a larger historical drift of a rightward moving avant-garde, the way the Trostskyists of the 1930s New York Intellectuals transformed themselves into the Neocons of the 1970s (the history, say, of Partisan Review) – an argument that again puts close reading into a fundamental(ist) relation to a political tendency – then in fact one needs to look at the practice of close reading in the light of its materialist roots.

 

The process of bean counting – a phrase I really like, by the way – is predicated on the reality that beans exist. Signifying elements (that could be saying anything) actually are present & countable in a poem (as in a novel or any other social product). One major – and characteristic – failing of much bad critical writing (which is in fact most critical writing) is that, in literal terms, its practitioners don’t know beans. That is, they make sweeping generalizations that cannot be tested because if they could, their assertions would collapse from the weight of contradictory data. Again, let me pose the example of M.L. Rosenthal & confessional poetry. Rosenthal’s attempt to bind together disparate tendencies of poetry in an attempt to rescue the direct inheritors of NC’s aesthetic program from a fate it so richly deserved would fuel concepts such as Jim Breslin’s likening American poetry to a land of many suburbs, absent conflict & ultimately lacking shape & content, sort of a Columbine of the heart. Dana Gioia’s terribly incomplete (& too often inaccurate) social history of the institutionalization of poetry in “Can Poetry Matter?,” is merely that same argument presented with a Music Man exhortation for the masses to go out & buy trombones. Not coincidentally, many of the arguments made about langpo over the past three decades – that it is theory driven, humorless, anti-referential, anti-narrative, self-consciously difficult, etc. – are all disprovable simply by actually looking at what is there. So, yes, I will continue to favor the enumeration of beans. I think it’s the most materialist critical practice available, when used appropriately, & an excellent inoculation against all manner of mythology & self-interested hokum.

 

Kasey states that he is “skeptical about such designations as ‘social’ and ‘asocial’ as polarized ways of conceiving lyric formally.” That’s not precisely what I had said – although it is close to Tom Orange’s paraphrase – but the concept as such is worth pursuing. Tom’s own argument was rather the reverse: for him, a work that could be unpacked hermeneutically is less transgressive than one that resists by presenting an impenetrable surface of signifiers. It’s a logic by which Christian Bök’s Eunoia or the poetry of Sheila E. Murphy or Peter Ganick might be seen as more social than Louis Cabris’ The Mood Embosser, Barrett Watten’s Bad History or Bob Perelman’s The First World.

 

From my perspective, lyric is a formal category, neither a pejorative nor an adulatory term. There are lyric poets whose work is wonderful (Joseph Ceravolo, Kit Robinson, Barbara Guest, the Zukofsky of Barely and Widely) & there are lyric poets whose work would make any sensitive reader cringe (fill in the blanks). Contrary to Tom’s argument, however, I do not think that the capacity of a poem to be unpacked hermeneutically is by definition the determination of what is or is not a lyric. Rather, it is the poem’s sense of its own boundaries vis-à-vis the larger world. The New Critics’ passion for the lyric is separate from their own use of methodology to demonstrate why this or that lyric, this or that poet should be anointed. As I tried to demonstrate awhile back with the poetry of Bruce Andrews, any text can be unpacked through close reading – that is a condition of the reading mind, not something to which only some poets are subject to some of the time. Eunoia is as much subject to such a process as would be The Mood Embosser or Barbara Guest’s “Defensive Rapture.” What privileged the lyric for the New Critics was not any hermeneutic depth, nor any relation to personal expression, but rather the lyric’s sense of itself as aesthetically contained – “focused on the elements within” – which spared this genre entanglements with the social, a category that in the 1930s was at least as charged & problematic as it is today. It was containment precisely that enabled the New Critics to claim that they were reading only what was in the poem & nothing extraneous that might “pollute” the critique. Only lyric could thus verify their claim to be specialized – and hence professional – readers, the position that in turn enabled them between 1935 & 1950 to become the dominant power within American English departments.

 

Guest, on the face of her poetry, is clearly a lyric writer. That she elsewhere has been active in service to the field, as biographer & teacher, doesn’t actually alter what is on the page, any more than Jack Spicer’s or Ezra Pound’s notoriously antisocial comments & activities in the real world erases the value of their poetry. In this sense, Kasey is quite correct in asserting that the social is not a formal term. Where form does intersect with the social, however, has to do with the poem’s own sense of its permeability vis-à-vis the world. This has less to do with reference in the sense of “this poem is about the struggle of the heroic people of Lichtenstein” than it does with language sources, image schemas & -- the deciding factor for me – the way in which the poem structurally defines itself.

 

The most interesting instances in this territory (as in many others) are those that situate themselves ambiguously along the border. Larry Eigner is an excellent case in point. His poems are as contained & formally balanced as any written over the past 50 years:

 

walking

 

      the idea of dancing

 

             time

 

                       making room

 

This untitled piece from The World and Its Streets, Places (Black Sparrow, 1977) could be analyzed in exactly the same kind of formal terms that I used with Barbara Guest on November 3. The poem proposes itself almost as the essence of lightness, with extra spacing between lines & the characteristic Eigner sweep down across the page. Its use of suffix & sound organizes the prosody: hear the k move from walking to making & the elegant use of the liquid m from time to making & finally to room. There is nothing apparent within this text to suggest anything other than what is on the page – even the casual or unfamiliar reader will recognize that the relation between walking & dancing (think of a choreographer like Simone Forti or Sally Silvers) could be very adequately characterized as time making room. & yet here is a poet who could not walk, who spent his life confined to wheel chairs. Nowhere is that mentioned: the fact simply haunts the poem for anyone who ever knew Eigner or knew of him well enough to know how cerebral palsy shaped & limited his physical vocabulary. At what level is this poem a lyric?

 

Eigner is justly famous for his use of simple nouns – wind, tree, sun, sky – and yet it is relatively rare in his poems for these items to exist as abstractions. The presence of the human world repeatedly invades & contextualizes.

 

damp

wind

 

    the birds chorusing

 

           clouds moving the sky

 

                                the haze

 

                   blast the foghorn

                 through the trees

 

Bounded at either end by couplets, the birds anthropomorphized, clouds assigned intentionality, the key verb blast is as much a curse as a description of sound. Nature, in Eigner, is never innocent. Nor at times is it even nature. Another poem in the same book reads

 

the rain and the stars

 

                            in the head

                            in the head

 

                                        beaches

 

                              slow clouds, the dark

 

Where exactly does this take place? What is the ontological status of the dark?

 

Not all of Eigner’s poems work like this, but a substantial majority of them do. While his palette is very much that of the lyric, these poems are not contained but are often, as with these three, records of an intense struggle against constraint. These poems are in fact social very much in the same way that Olson’s Maximus, or Pound’s Cantos or Du PlessisDrafts are. They take as a given their interactions with the world.

 

Another poet who very much straddles & plays with these borders, albeit in a very different manner, is Jackson Mac Low. Characteristic of his approach is the book Twenties (Roof, 1991) in which each of the 100 twenty-line poems is fixed not just formally, but in time – each text both as to the date of composition & the location. Here are the first two stanzas of 44, written on March 2, 1990, in “Dr. Wadsworth’s consulting room”:

 

Certainty       tardive dyskinesia   Pascal   quilt

swift adjacency    directed   cliff     waltz

nostrum     Galatians       seed difficulty      inert

parse quelled draft marzipan            pileate

 

 

Zesty quaff varnish      nice ol’ obedience

lira ingression       price of ineptitude   readiness

lean-to fortunate obligation        needle paddle

assignation league         reach    Portugal plot

 

Each poem in the book is composed of exactly five such stanzas, almost all of whose lines also exhibit a spatial caesura. Exoskeletally, the poems are as fixed or closed as any sonnet series. Aurally, they’re a riot, sounding like a calliope heard under the influence of some bad psychotropic, with just a hint of the Daytona 500 buzzing in the consonants. To call them “lyric” in the prosodic sense is to parody the notion, which I think is part of the point. Most significantly, however, is the range of possible linguistic inputs into this verbal machine. Its first line consists of an abstract state of belief; a chronic condition resulting from anti-psychotic medications, characterized by uncontrollable chewing motions; a philosopher whose most famous work’s title could be translated into English as Thoughts; and a homey object – one that very often is composed of a limited set of repeated patterns – associated with craft more than art.  At one level, Mac Low is playing with our definition of the work itself. At another, he is pulling material in from everywhere – there is no part of the human experience that cannot be sucked into this process, & like both tardive dyskinesia & Pascal, many of the individual words & phrases by their very nature function as barbs or hooks to the social universe.

 

If Eigner gives us what we expect in a New American lyric form, he does while continually problematizing & subverting the notion. Mac Low on the other hand fulfills the social contract for a lyric work with the passion of an obsessive compulsive. The poems are closed formally. At one level their sense of containment is complete. But at another, the world is traveling through these Twenties like so much Port Authority traffic at rush hour. Mac Low gives us the outer structure, but violates its implicit (or possibly hidden) assumptions with an abandon that is often breath-taking.

 

Mac Low & Eigner each raise the question of lyric containment, but do so in ways that raise the stakes for the genre considerably. Like Rae Armantrout (who might be thought of as a third front in this assault on the lyric), they demonstrate how a poetic palette – a set of traditional devices – developed to insulate the poem from the dirty world can itself be socialized & that, in fact, there is not just one right way to go about this. They functionally disprove the core tenet of New Criticism & have expanded the possibilities of the poem not just for our time, but for the future.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2002

 

K. Silem Mohammad responded to a question of Chris Stroffolino’s on the Poetics List concerning my comments regarding Barbara Guest, which in turn generated a correspondence between Kasey and Tom Orange. The two of them offer an enormous number of good & interesting ideas, more than a few of which challenge some of my own thinking – a good thing I’d like to encourage. While I generally feel it doesn’t make that much sense to replicate on the blog – which gets between 50 & 160 hits per day – what has already appeared on the Poetics List, with its distribution to 900 people, I do think it’s useful here, to flesh out all of the issues. I’ve added italics where email discourages it – those asterisks at the beginning & end of a word are bloody ugly – added a link to Tom Orange’s essay on Clark Coolidge, which enters into the conversation, and corrected a couple of typos, but otherwise not mucked with the text. Here is Kasey’s letter to Poetics:

 

on 11/4/02 6:36 PM, Chris Stroffolino Stroffolino at cstroffo@EARTHLINK.NET wrote:

 

> So, what do you plural all think of this statement on the Blog? > > "one sees quickly that Barbara Guest has become the single most powerful influence on new writing by women in the U.S."

 

I thought as soon as I read this that it was a controversial claim, to say the least. Certainly she's one of the most influential. But what about Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Rae Armantrout, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Susan Howe, and at least a dozen others I could probably list off the top of my head? Obviously these are writers who cover a wide spectrum of different schools and approaches, not all of whom we all will admire equally, and maybe we're dealing with very specific definitions of "powerful" and/or "new writing," but certainly the existing population of younger women poets, even if we limit it to "experimental" communities, is by no means a uniform mass of Guest-imitators. For that matter, a lot of male poets (including myself) have been influenced by Guest as well, and a lot of male poets have influenced women writers.

 

As a matter of fact, I have some problems with the piece on abstract lyric as a whole. (Ron, just for the record, I think your blog is a great thing—not least because I frequently find myself disagreeing with you in ways that stimulate my own thought.) To start with, the very notion that "it is in the poetry of Barbara Guest that the form really comes into focus" begs a lot of questions. Was it not in focus in the work of Wallace Stevens, for example? Ron (or others), would you even consider Stevens an abstract lyricist? Hart Crane? H.D.? Dickinson? Etc.? Why or why not?

 

Ron, you define the A.L. as "a poem that functions as a lyric, bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within." The italicized phrase seems to explain only circularly. Do you mean that it functions primarily on the level of music (as opposed to, say, logical argument)? This would eliminate a lot of reflective, philosophical work that nevertheless strikes me as "lyric" (e.g., Keats). Do you mean simply that it is relatively short (which seems to be covered by "modest scale")? In what sense is A.L. any more "focused on the elements within" than other kinds of lyric or poetry in general? The examples you give are often examples of compact syllabic patterning, consonance, and so forth; are these the "elements within"? Do you mean that the A.L. isolates these elements as material language over against their function as units of sense? Again, isn't this true of a lot of other poetry as well: that it foregrounds the signifier?

 

I'll accept that "not all short poems are lyrics," but in what sense is Rae Armantrout's poetry "only incidentally lyrical, if that"? This claim, more perhaps than any other you make, bewilders me. "Lyric in her case," you write, "is a feint or strategy, but is very seldom what is actually going on within the poem." I'm fascinated by the idea of lyric as a "feint"—the notion that lyrical effects can be randomly simulated or hastily approximated rather than meticulously orchestrated, and that it might nevertheless be very difficult for the reader to tell the difference. But how, then, is it possible to tell when lyric is not a feint? When is it "what is actually going on" as opposed to something that is ... what? Not going on? Then how can it be perceived as a "strategy" or anything else? I don't have Veil in front of me, but when I picture a page of it from memory, "lyric" is one of the first terms that comes to mind, and elegant, graceful lyric at that. Have I been fooled in some way?

 

You provide a possible clue when you say that in comparison to Armantrout's poems, Guest's are "as closed as sonnets." The implied distinction here is one between an "open," and therefore non-lyric, poetic, and a "closed," or rule-based(?) one. But can this possibly be right? Do we really want to say that intuitive, "pattern-free" (if patternlessness is ever possible) composition can never count as lyric, or at least not as "abstract lyric"?

 

You compare Guest's poetry to Clark Coolidge's: "where Coolidge's works revel in the sometimes raucous prosody of his intensely inventive ear, Guest's return the reader again & again to the word and its integration into a phrase, to a phrase and its integration into a line, to a line and its integration into a stanza or strophe." You go on to give some examples of this multi-level integration in Guest, and oddly enough, the first thing that came to my mind was a very methodologically similar recent reading by Tom Orange of Coolidge's "Ounce Code Orange." (Once more, I don't have the reference or a reliable memory handy—Tom's piece is in either New American Writing or Jacket or both, and it's a great essay, despite my vague skepticism regarding this particular mode of close reading, which I too indulge in from time to time.) I won't quote at length, but I encourage everyone to visit Ron's blog and decide for themselves whether the syllable-counting in question can really yield the kinds of aesthetic evidence that Ron claims for it. I won't deny that the lines do exhibit an admirable balance and sense of sonic precision that has something to do with syllabic disposition, but I'm not yet convinced that it's a balance or precision that can be explicated via quantification—that there is a substantive difference, in terms of what can be materially demonstrated through structural analysis, between Coolidge's "raucous prosody" and Guest's "instinct for balance and closure." The differentiating element here would seem to have to amount to either intention or instinct, and if it is the latter, as this last quote would suggest, the line is thin indeed between Coolidge's reveling and Guest's integrating.

 

I've belabored this at such length not just because I'm ornery (tho I am one ornery cuss), but because this is something I'm wrestling with a lot myself at present. So thank you, Ron, for the blog in general, and in particular for this opportunity to flex my thinking-fingers on the question of lyric "authenticity" vs whatever the opposite of such authenticity is.

 

—Kasey

 

 

 

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Tom Orange replied to Kasey, copying myself, Louis Cabri & Kevin Davies:

 

kasey,

 

you raise some (actually a lot!) of good questions here. i can't speak for ron here of course but i've been thinking about role/place of "the social" in poetic form a bit in terms that ron and louis cabri have staked out on the blog. and i've been trying to formulate my own thoughts so maybe this will help as much along my own lines as much as yours.

 

cetainly ron's initial definition of abstract lyric — "a poem that functions as a lyric, bounded by modest scale and focused on the elements within" — is, as you point out, partly circular or tautologous. i don't think this necessarily means music to the exclusion of logical argument: see e.g. zukofsky. or another example that i think ron might agree with in terms of what i guess i can call the "social lyric" as opposed to "abstract lyric" or "asocial lyric": dickinson. (more on that shortly.)

 

"modest scale" certainly implies short in terms of length but more i think in terms of scope: pound's scale is epic, as is say zukofsky's again in late "A" (i forget, 22 or 23) where thousands of years of history (large scale) are compressed into 1000 lines (not page-long lyric but not, standing by itself, epic either).

 

"elements focused within" again refers i think to scale, as well as something like "attention" (in the objectivist/projectivist sense). there are no (or at least few) "figures of outward." the poem's referential structure is largely not directed outward, it's somewhat self-contained or self-reflexive. something of a well-wrought urn.

 

which is i think what leads ron in part to a highly formalist, bean- counting exercise with the guest poem (as to some extent i've done in my work on early coolidge, as you point out; yes it's jacket 13 and new american writing 19.) now don't forget, he's done this kind of thing with armantrout too: the essay (i think in the burning press collection) where he tracks the evolution of her work in terms of the asterisk-separated "sectionings" of the poems, putting the results into pie charts and whatnot. and with leningrad, running each of portion authored by himself and his peers through computer-assisted stylistic analysis.

 

so in a sense, although bean-counting can be instructive for both the abstract and asocial lyric, there's a sense in which i hear ron saying there's not much more to be done with the abstract lyric. and you see this curiously when you get to the very next sentence in ron's definition, to me just as if not more important as the first part:

 

"Not all short poems are lyrics – the intense social satires & commentaries of Rae Armantrout, for example, are only incidentally lyrical, if that. Lyric in her case is a feint or strategy, but is very seldom what is actually going on within the poem."

 

in a way, yeah, i think ron's saying if yr only seeing rae's poems as "lyric," in a sense buying into their seemingly transparently "lyric" form, then yr missing out or being fooled. in ron's terms, it's the "intensity" of social satire and commentary as opposed to and outweighing the "incidental" lyric appearance.

 

for me again dickinson is a case in point, especially having just taught her to college freshman again recently. those are deceptively simple looking little suckers, which is part of the initial appeal of her poems to them. "much madness is divinest sense" for example, or "faith is a fine invention": there are clearly the "intense social satires and commentaries" that can be unpacked in these poems as in armantrout's.

 

but here, with the notion of "unpacking," which i take also to be a central activity to new critical close reading and especially to the form that the new critics prized so much, namely the lyric — here it seems to me that an armantrout poem, bearing only the feint or strategy of lyric and hence "social" rather than "abstract," is in fact AS IF NOT MORE lyric than guest precisely in that it operates through a model of hermeneutic unpacking to arrive at a message ("intense social satire and commentary"). by contrast, guest's poems resist that very unpacking activity. and to me the gesture of poems that resist being unpacked, that resist "easy access," are more of a challenge to new critical reading and interpretive models and can even be seen resisting the very commodification that language poetry in part set out to resist.

 

in other words, it strikes me as a kind of curious return to "content" at the heart of this debate about the social and asocial word.

 

as a corollary, and to come back to coolidge: ron said in his post philly talk discussion, "I don't think you could ever by any stretch of the imagination argue a coherent politics out of the work of Clark Coolidge. [laughter] I love Clark Coolidge's work, but that's not a dimension it has been engaged with — and if it was, it would change in ways that I would find interesting, and Clark would find problematic." (16) <http://www.english.upenn.edu/~adlevy/phillytalks/archive/pt6.pdf>

 

even if "coherent" were the key word here, i'm not sure ron's right. jerome mcgann's essay "truth in the body of falsehood" (from parnassus, 1988 i think; it's published under the noms de plume anne mack and jay rome) certainly points the way to a start i think. i've not read the essay in a while so can't offer a precise sense of how, but for me it has to do with that very resistance to unpacking, meaning, content, all of which lie primarily (and as so much of our public discourse today) which falsehood rather than truth. coolidge's "raucous prosody" is a bit of truth that challenges, calls such falsehood's bluff.

 

t.

 

cc: ron, louis, kevin

 

 

 

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To which Kasey then responded:

 

 Thanks for this response, Tom—I've been thinking about these issues in different contexts for the past couple of days. Reading your message makes me realize more clearly than before that a major motivation for Ron in performing his "bean-counting exercise" is precisely to demonstrate what he perceives as the "asocial" signifying structure of Guest's poetry, and thus to impugn the value of what he perceives as the tendency among contemporary women writers to imitate this structure.

 

Ron, I think it's undeniably the case that there are plenty of contemporary writers out there, both female and male, who are writing asocial poetry, in the sense that what they write serves primarily to advance their own careers, mystified notions of their own romantic identities, etc., but I don't think this can be coherently mapped onto a preponderance of concern with abstract formal elegance, as against predatorily encoded social "messages." The "ellipticist" trend, for instance, strikes me largely as vapid not because its practicers adhere to an inward-directed formalist poetic, but because they are absorbed in a superficial conception of "elegance" that attains neither social nor formal relevance.

 

It may be the case that the surface elegance of Guest's poetry has led some to generate jejune imitations, but such imitators are "fooled" by that elegance in the same way that some readers might be "fooled" by Armantrout's strategic "feints." This is not to say that Guest and Armantrout use the same strategy; in fact, what the inferior Guest-imitators lack, I would argue, is the very instinct for balance and closure that you point out, Ron—though I still wonder whether syllable-counting is a useful way of demonstrating that instinct.

 

I am skeptical about the value of close reading as an index of sociality or asociality in isolation from the actual social context of the poet's work, just as I am skeptical about the value of judgments on a poet's social or asocial status made in isolation from close reading of the poet's actual work. There are two diametrically opposed fallacies here, both equally common and both equally counterproductive.

 

I am skeptical about such designations as "social" and "asocial" as polarized ways of conceiving lyric formally. To equate a poetics that works extensively on "inward" principles of structural "balance and closure" with a removal from the social, or conversely, to equate a poetics that invokes the social in more or less explicit ways via "outward," referential gestures of satire or critique with an anti-lyric sensibility, seems to me to be committing an oblique version of the fallacy of imitative form. This is the problem, for example, that I have with the last thirty years or so of attacks on the lyric "I." The whole bourgeois narcissistic confessional trend in mainstream workshop poetry occupies a very small space in poetic history, and constitutes a very small sampling of all the poetry out there that uses that "I." Same thing with things like referentiality, disjunction, fragmentation, etc.—all formal features, and nothing more in and of themselves.

 

Tom, I find your reflections on "unpacking" very useful. You're right: Armantrout's work invites unpacking in inverse proportion to the strength with which Guest's resists it. And I think we're more or less in agreement that it would be a mistake to conclude on the basis of either mode that one poet is more or less "social," since there are ways of deploying either unpackability or un-unpackability in the service of poetic sociality (Coolidge being a good example of an equally service-oriented point in between). Going back to the ellipticists, maybe a big part of my distrust has to do with the way they seem not to be doing any work outside the poems, whereas Guest does seem to be. Part of this, of course, has to do with being more familiar with Guest, Armantrout et al. than with the mass of recently-generated MFA poets who are adopting the techniques of "disjunction" etc.: I don't know them, I don't know their philosophies, ethics, politics, and I don't feel compelled to get to know them, as they don't appear to be making any effort to insert themselves into the social context by means of any device other than surface form. It's not that the forms they use are themselves invalid; there simply has to be something more. In Guest's case, for example, her engagement with modernist history and culture are evident at every turn, even when not specifically referenced in her work. She has established social credentials that provide the reader with a sense of trust, and therefore give the reader a sort of permission to enjoy the formal textures of her work without feeling that to do so is to neglect "more important" matters.

 

I realize I am coming close to suggesting that the poet may be more important than the poetry, that we may be misguiding in attaching any kind of autonomous authority to the text itself. Well, so be it. People are more important than texts, no? This is what sociality means to me: that we enjoy, and benefit from, reading literature when we are invested in the beliefs and values of the people who create it, either individually or collectively. The mistake, I believe, is to insist that these beliefs and values be manifested formally in the work (or for that matter, that they not be).

 

K.

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