Saturday, November 23, 2002

 

Ruth Lilly, heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical fortune, has made a donation to Poetry magazine estimated to be worth at least $100 million. It’s an interesting proposition, not nearly as random in nature as some of those who have publicly bewailed her foolishness have suggested, and is likely to set off any number of consequences, intended and otherwise. Let’s cast a cold eye at the facts:

 

§         Poetry is a monthly magazine that has been around for some 90 years, currently with a subscription base of about 10,000, down some 20 percent from its high point of a few years back.

§         Its current annual budget of around $65,000 enables it to actually print over 100,000 individual copies of the magazine per year and employ a staff of four, a record of frugality that is worth noting (though subsidized by such things as free rent and, I believe, academic salaries).

§         For the past 33 years, since the sudden death of then-editor Henry Rago, Poetry has been merely one of several larger publications associated with what I’ve been calling the school of quietude, no better, no worse.

§         Poetry’s fabled beginning as the official publication of American modernism, of which much has been made, is to some degree a myth – a look at any early issues that do not reflect the somewhat overbearing assistance of Ezra Pound shows the publication to have almost always been at heart muddled in the middle of the road, with a bias toward the conservative.

§         There was a period of greater diversity and experimentation between the late 1940s, when Hayden Carruth & Karl Shapiro were briefly in the editor’s role, & Rago’s death in 1969 – particularly during the latter half of Rago’s 1955-69 tenure – but was something of an aberration in its history.

§         During that brief period – 1962 through ’69 – Poetry actually achieved for a brief moment what its editors seem always to have envisioned as the magazine’s true role, as the closest thing possible to “the publication of record” for American verse culture. During this period, it was where poets of all stripe would invariably send the poems they envisioned as the title pieces for their next works. It not only published the best of everybody, but did so with a balance that reflected a much larger vision of American poetry. Let’s look at three representative issues from that period:

1.      October , 1965. The issue is devoted to a single poem, Louis Zukofsky’s “A”-14, Beginning An. In addition, there are three reviews: one of All by Robert Creeley; a second review of the same book by “Thomas” Clark (not yet Tom, although already poetry editor of The Paris Review); a review of Bottom and After I’s by Gerard Malanga. Finally, there is an article on Blake by Zukofsky, “Pronounced Golgonoozà.” Is the publication you associate with Poetry today?

2.      March, 1967. A general issue. The lead poet on the cover is Denise Levertov, listed next to the title of her poem, “A Vision.” Also on the top portion of the cover with their works more or less listed are, in this order, John Logan, Tom (now it’s Tom) Clark, John Woods, Thomas McGrath & Edward Dorn (“The Sundering U.P. Tracks,” one of his finest poems). On the center of the cover, six other poets are listed without mention of titles: Barry Spacks, Etta Blum, James L. Weil (a fine poet in the Corman tradition, better remembered today as the publisher of Elizabeth Press books), John Ingwersen (“his first appearance anywhere” according to the contributor’s note), Louise Gluck and Frank Samperi. There are also five critical articles by Laurence Lieberman, Hayden Carruth, Donald W. Baker, Robert Sward, and Philip Legler. These reviews cover some 19 books of poetry, ranging from Richard Lattimore to Harriet Zinnes. Sward’s review includes, in addition to a volume by Keith Wilson, three books published by Aram Saroyan’s Lines Editions, by Richard Kolmar, John Perrault and Clark Coolidge. Levertov & Logan, Woods & Dorn, Spacks & Weil – this is an almost panoptic view of American poetry. The Sward review, which infamously slam’s Coolidge’s Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric (“slippery sort of instant poetry,” “a psychedelic outpouring,” verbal hop-scotch,” “an inspired centipede,” “no actual imagination” “a dead-end,” “chic, trivial piling up of images,”  “finally a bore,” “irrelevant preening,” “self devouring cuteness,” “virtually without voice,” “nothing of any human urgency,” “pointless curios”) is entitled “Landscape and Language,” the first use of that latter noun in association with Coolidge or any of the langpos yet to be. While Sward’s piece is hysterically (& historically) wrong in its view of Coolidge as a dead-end, the willingness of the publication to offer such partisan fare differs sharply from Poetry’s current approach to the post-avant world, one of benign neglect, acting as though it simply does not exist.

3.      January, 1969. Another general issue. Just two poets listed alongside the titles of their contributions in this issue, Kenneth Koch (“Sleeping with Women”) and Helen Singer. Then comes the first of two clusters of other poets: Philip Booth, Anselm Hollo, Larry Eigner, David Galler & Lewis Turco. That’s quite a quintet. The second group includes four poets making first appearances: Mitchell Goodman (the novelist & then still married to Levertov), Stephen Dobyns, Hugh Seidman and “Ronald” (yes!) Silliman, identified in the contributor’s notes as a sophomore at “San Francisco College” (sic) and a postal clerk. Ralph J. Mills has the entire critical section in which he actually reviews 30 books – just try to imagine that as a project – a strategy to reviewing that was not uncommon at Poetry during the 1960s. Contributing Editor Hugh Kenner has a letter, correcting a detail from an earlier article on Pound.

This last issue appeared just before Rago’s death, which occurred while he was taking time off to write, leaving “Visiting Editor” Daryl Hine (a Canadian old formalist) to accidentally inherit the journal and take it rightward with a vengeance.*

 

I go on at some length here to make a point. Putting Kenneth Koch along side Helen Singer, or Louise Gluck on the same line as Frank Samperi is an act of radically representing the breadth of American poetry on a scale that has not even been attempted in the 33 years since Henry Rago died. While there certainly are a lot of little magazines, especially around colleges, that will publish poetry of any stripe, none do so with any sense of shape as to the broader whole, even if that vision is understood as the editor’s first responsibility. And without that sense of shape, they also lack the potential for impact.

 

It is worth noting that this broad view was still the image of Poetry that lingered for some time after Rago’s passing – indeed, it was still the image of the magazine back when Ruth Lilly was submitting her poems to then associate editor Joseph Parisi. If the publication today is viewed as sleepy & harmless, a narrow journal that drifts between the sclerotic & the bathetic, it was not (and need not be) always thus.

 

If Hine’s takeover was accidental, so in a way is the Lilly endowment – while it was not an accident that Lilly chose Poetry, the publication appears not to have planned for such a gift. $100 million might do a lot. But let’s take a look at what it will not do – change the balance of power between the two primary traditions in American literature. The mainstream will continue to have all the resources. The Whitman-Dickinson / Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky / New American tradition will continue to have all the poetry & fun.

 

What it is much more likely to do is to radically transform the power relations within the school of quietude. APR and all the other pretenders to Poetry’s role as the hegemonic “mainstream” journal of verse are now cast as establishment subalterns, a curious phenomenon indeed.

 

Parisi, to his credit, seems – if his public statements are any indication – to understand that this changes his role dramatically. He is now the CEO of the largest poetry non-profit organization in the world, a role that may well soon preclude his editing a journal that is sure to be only one of many Modern Poetry Association projects. Parisi himself is already talking about teaching institutes, high school programs, and a line of books.

 

I have seen the word “horror” used to describe the potential of a generation of high school students introduced to American poetry through the vision of Poetry magazine as it is currently edited. But I don’t agree. It hardly matters what poetry a teenager is introduced to if they have, at some point, that “aha” experience that will set them off to be serious readers & possible writers of poetry for the rest of their lives. The absolute number of post-avant writers who themselves began as students of the most reactionary professors imaginable makes it quite clear that, if these students are going to find their way, they will do so as people always do, on their own.

 

So even in the worse case scenario, one in which Poetry & the Modern Poetry Association acquire pseudo-state status over many institutions of poetry, rather like the role of the Red Cross in medicine, it is likely to have very little impact on the post-avant world that I inhabit, and the poetry about which I care most deeply. In this sense, it is a non-event.

 

If anything, simply the need to expand its horizons in order to make use of such sudden abundance, Poetry might even take a step or two back in the direction of Henry Rago’s heyday. One obvious first task would be to hire a new full-time editor for the magazine so that Parisi can turn his attention full-time to the institution building tasks that are now on his plate whether he wants them there or not. It would be great – even utopian – if he were to hire somebody with the breadth and vision for American verse that Rago had and who would stretch the magazine beyond its current narrow confines. C.D. Wright would be an stellar example of such a person, but even in Parisi’s own back yard he can find Paul Hoover and Maxine Chernoff, whose New American Writing for over 20 years has done a far better job at representing its subject than Poetry.

 

 

 

* It was Rago, not Hine, who accepted my work for publication.

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Friday, November 22, 2002

 

Here is the third & final installment of Carl Boon’s questions:

 

7.  "Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World" is your major contribution to the debate over reference in poetry. Some critics see the question of reference as the major theoretical battleground in the wide debate between "Language poets" and the group Charles Bernstein calls "workshop poets." Do you think the question of reference continues to be an important, relevant one? How have your ideas about reference changed, say, since the publication of "Disappearance of the Word" or The Chinese Notebook

 

“Disappearance” was really the first serious piece of theoretical writing I ever attempted, so I’m both very fond of it while simultaneously a little appalled at the impact it seems to have had over the 27 or so years since David Highsmith and Carl Loeffler talked me into writing it. I basically just sat down, banged out what I’d been thinking, sent one copy to their publication, Art Contemporary, with a second copy to Alan Davies,\ for his photocopied newsletter, A Hundred Posters. Since then, it’s been in The New Sentence, been reprinted three times in anthologies – one in a collection of pieces on Baudrillard that features a debate he & I had at the University of Montana of all places – and translated into Croatian, German and Dutch.

 

I do think that referentiality continues to be important, not because I privilege the opaque signifier as such, but because I think it reveals a range of phenomena both in writing and in the world that become invisible the instant that language is presumed to be transparent.

 

Whenever I think of Jakobson’s model of the six functions of language, I tend to group them into three pairs or axes: contact & code; addresser & addressee; signifier & signified. I envision the model in my head as a six-sided three-dimensional figure, not unlike a die, although in practice I don’t think it really works like one. Non-referentiality focuses on the signifier, de-emphasizes the signified, tends to ignore addresser & addressee and generally privileges the contact (e.g., the physicality of sound) over code (including, though not limited to, syntax). In practice, individual texts tend to be very complex & interesting when looked at in terms of their relation to these six aspects of the linguistic experience, and the idea that one would want to fixate simply on one of them seems to me inherently narrow & limiting.

 

8.  A related question. In his essay "Poetry as Explanation, Poetry as Praxis," Bruce Andrews engages a roundtable discussion of poets and theorists on the question of reference. (Andrews, as you well know, has written extensively on the question-especially in "Total Equals What" and "Constitution / Writing, Politics, Language, The Body.") But in that roundtable, Jackson Mac Low, Barrett Watten, Nick Lawrence, Andrew Levy, and others discuss the political ramifications (and risks) of "obliterating" reference. In other words, if reference is obliterated (or even "diminished"), political change becomes harder because, in theory, fewer people can be reached. More people can be reached, perhaps, if the language remains transparent. You address this question specifically in The Chinese Notebook when you write:

 

192. A friend, a member of the Old Left, challenges my aesthetic. How, he asks, can one write so as not to "communicate"? I, in turn, challenge his definitions. It is a more crucial lesson, I argue, to learn how to experience language directly, to tune one's senses to it, than to use it as a mere means to an end.

 

If you would expand on that answer, just how do we "experience language directly"? Twenty years later, does your answer to your friend remain the same? Has history altered your answer? Does the current political situation (a conservative administration intent on dominating the world for economic interests) impact it? How would you frame the question today?

 

We experience language directly whenever we sense its presence as embodied, whether it is as a “pure” signifier or just as the embodiment of whatever message might be associated with it. Often, in practice, this is felt as a form of alienation. We hear someone’s accent as “difficult,” recognize a verb phrase as “non-standard,” or are irritated that a comment is sexist, racist or ageist. If the message is transmitted electronically, there may literally be static.

 

There are multiple elements in play with any statement. All six functions come into play and there are many times in which something other than the signified is the most significant. This is most evident in forms of advertising, as when a McDonalds campaign introduced breakfast menus with the tag line “Dawn Good Foods,” the mind literally flipping that “w” upside down, for example, or political ads use omission and innuendo to make their points. But such phenomena present everywhere and at all times.

 

As your question suggests, we’re at an especially dangerous time in human history, but the ability to actually hear & read are skills that are always useful.

 

 

9.  Another related question. Your aesthetic, at least in many volumes of The Alphabet, is considerably more traditional (in terms of reference) than the work of Watten or Andrews. I see this as a departure from, say, Tjanting, which goes further in challenging our perceptions of words and grammatical construction. I think Tjanting is more playful with language than many of The Alphabet volumes. Am I all wrong, or does this perhaps indicate a discord between your theories on reference and your poetic practice? 

 

This goes back to the question of reference you asked in connection with “Disappearance of the Word, Appearance of the World.” Referentiality is not a toggle switch of avant attitude, or even of playfulness. The idea of maximum non-referentiality is every bit as boring as the idea of maximum referentiality. Rather, there is a range, really a series of registers, which move both closer to and further from any idea of unproblematic depiction through language. I have no interest whatsoever in being at either extreme. What does interest me is a full exploration of the range & all the various points along the way.

 

One of the things I wanted to accomplish with The Alphabet was to explore as many different aspects of my poetry as possible. Almost by definition, that desire moved me into a variety of different pursuits. Simply repeating what I had done before would have been the least interesting of possible alternatives. Thus, to pick a pointed example, Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect continues the poem Ketjak per se, but does so without the repetition that was its original organizing device.

 

On the question of playfulness, I hardly know how to gauge that. Jonathan Mayhew’s blog commented the other day on the “earnestness” of my blog as though that were some kind of fault. But there has always been a divergence here between my critical prose and my poetry. Even in the poems, however, I’ve never been that attracted to the New York School mode of humor – from my perspective, it has always been a distraction to the many interesting things I find in their work. Anyone around in the 1970s & ‘80s got to see what the poet-as-standup-comic looked like, just as audiences at poetry slams get to see it today.

 

 

10.  Here is a quote from Gregory Jay's American Literature and the Culture Wars (1997), a book that captures (from the standpoint of pedagogy) the firestorm and subsequent debate E.D. Hirsch stirred up with his theory of "cultural literacy." Jay's book explores what's often sensationalized by the popular media in headlines such as "Berkeley's not teaching Shakespeare anymore" or "Yale doesn't require English majors to read Milton anymore." It's a book about the politics of the syllabus.

 

"What is the aim of teaching 'American' literature?" Is it the appreciation of artistry or the socialization of the reader? The achievement of cultural literacy or training in critical thinking? Can it be all these things without contradicting itself (or hopelessly confusing the student)? (5)

 

I have argued that your work is a better teaching tool than, say, "Sailing to Byzantium" owing to its greater capacity to "socialize" students. In demanding students (especially those new to literature) to be active, inventive, and always thinking critically, Hidden, for example, engages students on more levels than "Sailing to Byzantium," which demands, most of all, understanding. I have had great success teaching your work.

 

What do you think the aim of teaching American literature should be? Is there such a thing as the perfect syllabus? Should "classic," canonized works be taught at all? What would be the point of doing so?

 

There is a presumption here that this has something to do with writing. But the reality is rather the other way around. The question has to do with how poetry  might be utilized for other social purposes that are not really connected to the writing. That famed Martian sociologist might find it strange indeed that historically the basis for what once was the standard educational program, especially at the college level, consisted in good part of the systematic study of works that were produced entirely for other purposes & uses. The poet’s game becomes the student’s midterm.

 

I’m not qualified to pontificate about the broader issues of curricular theory any more than I am to prescribe medications for high blood pressure or provide a recipe for cheesecake.

 

Having said that, I do think that there is a difference between a canon and a classic. Every individual carries around within himself or herself an intuited view as to the works that matter – that is an inescapable part of being human. This intuited map might be characterized as a personal canon, but it is the adjective that matters rather than the noun in that phrase. Further, groups of individuals might share some of the same enthusiasms, such as the ones that have rescued the work of both Gertrude Stein and Louis Zukofsky in the past half century, ensuring that their works stayed more or less in print, or which got Lorine Niedecker really into print in the first place. That is a social canon, and there are literally thousands of them co-existing at any given moment in time. Again, the adjective is more important than the noun.

 

It is when you superimpose one fixed structure over all of the possible ensembles of personal and social canons that you get a “classic,” which is essentially a canon with power. And that’s not about writing or literature or literary value. That’s about power, pure and simple: the power canon.

 

Before the 19th century, the amount of actual writing in English was little enough so that there really isn’t that much difficulty reading key figures from the various centuries. But with the extension of the English speaking world, fissures seriously do begin to develop & by the start of the 20th century, they are already pretty deep.

 

 

11.  You have chosen not to pursue a teaching career in the academy, yet professors and graduate students have written about your work extensively. At last count, there have been nine doctoral dissertations about your work and dozens of critical articles and books. Do you find this ironic? Do you find it disheartening that what you have taken a political stand against (the academy) seems to latch onto your work?--that is, at least a few of us.

 

Actually, I think it’s more like two people have written dissertations on my work while another half dozen or so have found it to be a useful terrain for examining whatever issues their dissertations directly addressed. My work hasn’t been so much an object of study as an example.

 

Use in any critical writing targeted toward the academy is always something about which I’ve been ambivalent, partly because that is not where I myself would direct my own energies but also because the actual quality seems so random. Some of the most very positive articles about my poetry have struck me as being the crudest readings imaginable. And I think that one result of that is to reinforce some of the stereotypes of language writing or of my poetry, even when the article was intended in a helpful way.

 

Having said that, though, I’m hardly an absolutist in opposition to the academy or to teaching. I’ve taught at San Francisco State, UC San Diego, New College & the Naropa Institute over the years and enjoyed it every time. There is a genuine value to spending one’s time talking intensely about something you love with people who share that interest. But I am very sensitive to the proclivity of the academy toward abusive relationships, both of faculty and students. And while I’ve declined tenure track appointments, I’ve never been offered an academic position that did not propose to cut my earnings by at least 40 per cent per year. 

 

But if a school were seriously interested in having me teach, I wouldn’t be shocked to find myself doing more of it in the future.

 

 

12.  In her new book, 21st-Century Modernism, Marjorie Perloff claims, as other critics have previously, that Language poetry (she looks especially at the work of Steve McCaffery, Lyn Hejinian, and Charles Bernstein) should be considered "a carrying-on, in somewhat diluted form, of the avant-garde project that had been at the very heart of early modernism" (3). By "early modernism," she means especially Stein and the early Eliot. Do you think Perloff's is a fair assessment? Would you like to elaborate on her position?

 

A year or so ago, somebody posed something very close to the question to P. Inman at Kelly Writers House and several of the students in the audience seemed surprised at his announcement “for” modernism. That is where that sort of stereotyping by one’s advocates comes in, joining language poetry to postmodernism simply because that latter term has, for a period, a certain cachet.

 

But this attraction to the modernist project has been a thread you can find in many, perhaps most, of the contributors to In the American Tree. I’ve never thought of langpo as being post-modern or post-structural, but rather much more in line with Habermas’ argument that we need to return to the modernist project and see how it might be done without the internal contradictions history imposed – totalitarianism chief among them.  

 

 

13.  What do you see beyond The Alphabet? Are there any new long-term, long creative projects on the horizon?      

 

I think I’m finally ready to tackle a long poem. I have some ideas about a project that I found literally on p. 61 of Anselm Hollo’s book Corvus where he writes “alphabet ends    universe begins” and I thought, Aha! So I’ve been making notes, looking a lot at Stephen Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science. But I’m a year away from completing The Alphabet – if I’m lucky – and I feel that I’m learning so very much right now that it would foolhardy to get ahead of myself.

 

 

14.  I think The New Sentence was one of the best books of literary criticism to come along in a while. Do you envision putting together any new books of criticism in the future?

 

I’ve had the makings of a new volume more or less ready for some time, but don’t really plan to do the work I need to package it up qua book until I get The Alphabet complete and make more firm arrangements for getting a complete version of The Age of Huts ready.

 

15.  And finally, recently you wrote to me that Bob Dylan is one of the few artists from (near) your generation still doing "relevant new work." I am including a chapter on Dylan in my project, arguing that his songs and liner notes from the mid-1960s constitute a kind of "Language poetry," that he indeed is one of the originators of the school. How would you respond to that? Additionally, why do you think Dylan's new work is "relevant"?

 

Well, as you might imagine from my previous responses, I don’t agree with the premises of your argument. Dylan as a musician has had a serious influence on poets, not just because of the extraordinary concision and use of metaphor in his lyrics, but also because he has been such an example of a person consciously shaping & changing an art form in response to his times. But his liner notes & the novel Tarantula are really imitative Beat fare, sort of adolescent Ferlinghetti as swirled through a blender that would include William Burroughs, Jacques Prevert & the surrealists. At that level, I would pay more heed to Ray Bremser or Charlie Plymell. & I would pose the question of what your argument has to do with either Dylan’s music or the writing to which you might yoke it.

 

In one narrow sense, though, you might be right. Burroughs is certainly the not-so-secret source of much of the imagery one finds in Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde and, in the process, Dylan does demonstrate how such elements might be brought into play in the radically different form that is song. As such, he does demonstrate how any genre incorporates material from beyond its traditional borders, a process that Shklovsky argued was essential to the vitality of any art.** In showing just how far a mainstream medium such as rock & roll can go in terms of its exploration of meaning, he did set a bar, sort of a level of minimum acceptability, for any self-respecting poet, not in terms of style so much as in just how much the writer will require from him- or herself as a functioning artist. One could make the exact same argument – and I have, basically – about the early novels of Kathy Acker. If you aren’t willing to accept this level of risk, why would you expect anyone to want to listen to you?

 

Further, Dylan’s sense of what his style was or means has changed constantly, even restlessly, over the years. When I last heard him live just about a year ago, he was singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” in a style that was on the hard edge of Nashville-type country, closer in tone to the Southern rock group Alabama than to either his earlier versions or, say, Peter, Paul & Mary. And the songs on his last two albums show him as somebody still responding actively and formally to his environment. At a time when most of the other members of his own generation have turned into historical recreators of their own younger selves – viz., the Stones – Dylan & Neil Young (inventor of that neglected genre, folk-metal) seem to be the among the few still pushing themselves as artists. But Roger McGuinn’s decision to resurrect the archive of the cowboy song, which has been the focus of his recent work, out of a concern that the current phenomenon of the singer-songwriter means that traditional songs per se are endangered is itself such a noteworthy project, so it really isn’t about the lyrics in that sense.

 

Similarly, the artist who may be closest in cultural impact to the young Dylan in how he pushes peoples buttons, Eminem, also demonstrates precisely how a form can expand & redefine itself. A song such as “Cleaning Out My Closet” could be examined in the terms that one sets for the analysis of any Dylan song (& its video adds layers Dylan has never achieved) or for the highest order poetry. But that doesn’t make it poetry any more than his extraordinary talent makes Marshall Mathers a nice guy.

 

 

** The absence of which is also the death of a genre, which is precisely what is wrong with the school of quietude. 

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Thursday, November 21, 2002

 

Carl Boon’s sixth question feels more complex to me and, as it also addresses the question of blogging per se, I’m going to just focus on this inquiry for today.

 

6.  Your recent project is a web log, or "blog," that chronicles daily and in great, tedious detail the goings-on of the avant-garde writing community in and around Philadelphia. Your daily entries, often a thousand words or more, are filled with analysis, links, schedules for readings in the community, and miscellaneous poetry talk. Can you talk about this project? How do you see its role, its importance? Does it fill some need in the poetry community? How long will you maintain it?

 

I’ve been thinking critically – even obsessively – about poetry since I was a kid. After The New Sentence, I continued writing criticism pretty regularly until our twins were born in 1992. That first year or two with twins is pretty intense & there was hardly a moment in which one might have a complete thought, let alone have the time to write it down. My goal was to not stop writing poetry and I felt successful just to have accomplished that.

 

But, as my kids have grown older, I’ve gotten back to thinking about writing & publishing critically. First, it’s excellent discipline. The process forces you to read more intelligently. Second, all critical writing is a form of organizing, even when the writer doesn’t realize that. My problem was/is that I saw few contexts that struck me as useful in sharing this writing.

 

There has been a real falling off in critical thinking since the 1970s when various talk series in particular got a lot of people up and speaking intelligently about writing, their own & that of others. Part of it no doubt is the fault of writers in my own age cohort, me included. The poetry wars of the late 1970s were hardly an attractive proposition for younger poets, but in part that is precisely why the various provocateurs started them.

 

And part of the problem of course is the continuing near-monopoly on critical writing by institutions in & around the academy. To be of any value at all, critical thinking about poetry needs to be directed to poets. In the academy, poets are at best eavesdroppers.

 

But there has also been a depoliticization of younger people generally & that has impacted poets. Some of it has to do with the lack of tangible alternatives to unfettered capital following the collapse of the old Stalinist bloc – although for decades it has been difficult to find any western Marxist who would defend the so-called “actually existing socialist countries,” in large part because state control over capital is not socialism. In the West, there has been no primary shared point of agreement as to the goals of the left since the U.S. exited Vietnam in 1974. That’s a long time for groups to go without much sense of cohesion. The antiglobalism movement is not one thing, but many, & many of them contradictory.  Identarian tendencies were a logical extension of the civil rights movements of the 1950s & early ‘60s, but they have inescapably fed into this demobilization by isolating the very people they seek to empower. You see the long-term result in a lot of writing these days that is simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized, a politics really of cynicism and disgust. So this also becomes an incentive not to organize, not to write critically.

 

On top of all this, I had a personal reason for thinking about starting my blog. Since this past spring, my wife has been struggling with a chronic disease called Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, a neurological syndrome that is both painful & nasty. The condition has been hard on her and put an enormous strain on everyone in the family. It was in that context that I felt my sitting around thinking about poetry, but not actively doing anything about it beyond the simple production of my own poem, was really lazy & inexcusable.*

 

So I decided to try a process in which I would just write something critically pretty much daily and find some means of putting it out there where poets might see it. It’s really as simple as that.

 

Because my nephew Daniel has had a blog for some time, as now do both his mother & sister, I had some familiarity with the form and its potential. So while my family was having something of a disastrous vacation this summer on an island off Nova Scotia – not a good place to be if your meds aren’t working – I mulled over the idea of how I might start a blog that simply focused on one thing: poetry as I experience it. I began it three days after our return to Pennsylvania.

 

I’ve been pleased with the response it has gotten so far – I’m getting an average of over 60 hits per day, over 100 three or four times each week – and the response, with a few notable exceptions, has been positive. Right now, it is sort of the flavor of the month with a certain strain of younger writer, but that will certainly pass.

 

Marjorie Perloff pointed out to me, right at the beginning of the blog, that a major limitation of the form is its scale. These are really short notes, mostly sketched out early in the morning, then fiddled with over the remainder of the day before being launched. In this sense, the blog is closer to, say, L=A=N=U=A=G=E as a project than, say, either Poetics Journal or Chain. Though I guess it’s worth noting that it has added up to more than 150 pages in less than three months.

 

As to how the blog will develop or how long I may maintain the site is really something I can’t tell. I’m learning as I go along & it’s still fun, not a sense of obligation at all. I don’t see it continuing on indefinitely any more than I would a poem.

 

But what would in fact be even better would be to see a number of other blogs on the same general subject that would take off & do their own thing and carry the conversation ever so much further out into the universe. Right now the ones I read most constantly & closely are those of Jonathan Mayhew, Brian Kim Stefans & Laurable. May a thousand blogs bloom!

 

 

 

* My wife has noted that I began writing as a ten year old because of the difficulties of growing up in a dysfunctional household. That the stress of her illness should lead to my blogging strikes her as profoundly parallel behavior. 

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Wednesday, November 20, 2002

 

Doing research for his dissertation, Carl Boon sent me a series of 15 questions. It’s going to take me a couple of days to get through them all, but it occurred to me that this really was an interview & Carl consented to the idea of posting them here. Here are the first five questions:

 

1.  My thesis is that your poems describe explicitly and consistently what I call the "clash zone," the space where technology meets nature, where, in Heidegger's terms, "World" meets "Earth." To what extent are you conscious in your work of addressing environmental concerns, the environmental crisis? For example, a passage from Jones reads, "Diamonds cut into the walk where once trees were planted, harbor only rubbish, and here a great burst of yellow-headed weeds through the cracks in the walks" (24). Seemingly "things" replace nature. This happens in many of your poems. Would you discuss this phenomenon?

 

I don’t think of myself as a naturalist or even as especially ecologically minded. I do however try to be conscious of how I live in the world.

 

I grew up in what I would characterize as an urban suburb. By the end of the 2nd World War, the ring of towns along the north side of Oakland: Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond had, at least in the flatlands where I lived, largely filled in any open space that might have existed when my mother – who’s not quite 20 years my senior – was growing up in the same house. The family across the street had a chicken coop in their backyard, but no chickens. I used to hear of cows grazing along Gilman right where the BART tracks come up out of the earth into an elevated system now, but there was no evidence of it during my lifetime. But when I got to know some of the “rich kids” who lived in the Berkeley hills – they were all the children of UC Berkeley faculty, mostly psych department faculty – I could see how the infill of new housing was transforming even their privileged world. That faux forest effect of affluent suburbs – exactly the kind of space in which I now live – was rapidly being replaced.

 

And although Berkeley has one of the great nature areas in Tilden Park further up in those hills, no more than three miles from my house, we never went there when I was a kid. My grandfather’s idea of spending time outdoors was going to watch trains along the tracks off Albany Hill, or maybe driving out by the airport to watch airplanes take off. So nature in that sense was always Other.

 

Yet San Francisco across the Bay was clearly a far more urban environment than the one in which I grew up. Kids lived in apartment buildings (which I did also, but only during the last year or two of my teen years), there was no space whatsoever between houses. When I had a friend, George Murphy, who moved to the City when we were ten, I never saw him again. I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up in that environment, but I couldn’t.

 

Now for reasons that are much more social than natural, I’m somewhat obsessed with documenting “the invisible” in our lives. If there’s an enduring theme in my work, that’s it. And in urban environment especially, nature is one of those dimensions that recedes. One tends to forget that sparrows are great urban foragers, or how weeds fit into the ecological chain, but they’re there.

 

Jones is a work in which each sentence describes the ground – one sentence per day for a year, to be exact. Jones Street, from which I derive the title, is – or was in the late 1970s, early 1980s, when I worked in the Tenderloin – the most déclassé street in San Francisco. It was where the transvestite prostitutes worked, for example, and it had unquestionably the worst residential hotels. So that’s what invoked by that title, but in practice, I wrote about whatever bit of ground I found myself in. A few times, such as once in New York while staying with James Sherry, I remember running downstairs at one point to his street, Bowery off Houston, in order to be able to write something.

 

That piece is a companion to Skies (one of a few such pairings that occur in The Alphabet) in which the same kind of discipline was turned toward the sky – a sentence per day for a year. I discovered as I wrote that piece, which is “earlier” than Jones chronologically, that often what I described was the horizon, the border of the earth (usually civilization quote unquote) and the sky itself. Looking at the sky will tell you a lot about the world that abuts it.

 

In fact, one of the great attractions of Hawai’i for me is not that it is the lush tropical habitat of the travel ads, but that as a series of lava rocks jutting out of the ocean, everything there has arrived by transit, all the vegetation, for example, coming as seeds in the stomach of birds. Which is why the ecosystem there is so volatile. The most common bird one decade might well have receded twenty years later. It was apparently the bulbul in the 1950s, but when I was there in the 1980s it had become the mynah. So the idea that natural is in any sense “timeless” or ahistorical is one of those myths that we impose on the world.

 

 

2.  I argue repeatedly in this project that technology, as one of the most powerful weapons of capitalist global ideology, is nefarious. First of all, do you agree? If so, do you think technology can be "saved"? Can it be useful as a tool to ease worldwide oppression? If so, how? Or will it continue to be a part of globalization ideology?

 

Technology predates capitalism & might outlast it as well. Capitalism is much more a consequence of technology than the other way around. One could say, in fact, that capitalism arose precisely because it enabled technology to become “self-motivated,” to progress faster. Disruptive innovation, the process by which one technology replaces another, literally doesn’t happen in socialist societies. It’s clearly never in the interest of the people who would be displaced.

 

If you read the most passionate love-letter that capitalist innovation ever received, the Communist Manifesto, a document written before electricity had been fully productized, it becomes evident that even as the Manifesto revels in the process by which capital tears down whatever it has just created, the form of organization it envisions to combat this problem is predicated first on industrialism, with its concentration of workers into debased and demeaning and dangerous manual labor, and second on the idea that capital, as all-powerful as it might seem, is and will continue to be relatively immobile. The first was a remarkable recognition of a process that would not reach its apotheosis for half a century. The second was a phenomenon that would not change really until after the Second World War. But both conditions would eventually be transcended, leaving movements created by workers in the untenable position of attempting to fight the last war while entirely vulnerable to the one that is going on today. 

 

Capital’s first defense has always been capital flight, whenever it becomes clear that modest (or not so modest) forms of tyranny will not quell the troublesome workforce. Marx’s presumption that international organization is anywhere on the horizon or remotely possible is itself predicated upon an implicit racist presumption that the white world is what counts and that the pre-capitalist Third World is not really an option for capital.

 

History however shows that capital flight and the rapid evolution of technology beyond the epoch of industrial organization both strengthened capital and proceeded to divide workers in new ways that they have yet to imagine themselves beyond. Indeed, it has been just capital’s willingness to go anywhere for a profit that has provoked the eruption of premodernist resistance by Muslim fundamentalists. Fundamentalism of all types can almost always be traced back to the reaction of premodern peoples to the intrusion of capital.

 

 

3.  Your series of volumes which comprise The Alphabet is my primary textual inquiry here. So, a couple of specific questions about The Alphabet:

 

a) Repetition. I couldn't help but notice, as I was reading Paradise, that many of the sentences in that book appeared elsewhere. Would you talk about how you see repetition as important to your project? You are certainly conscious of repeating images in several books (the plum tree, the parrot, etc.). Why do you do this, besides the obvious thing we tell freshmen, that a repeated theme or image must be an important one?

 

It’s interesting that you should ask that in the context of Paradise, where it seems mostly incidental, since it is Ketjak and Tjanting where the device appears as a relatively strict formal element. In each instance, repetition serves multiple purposes. Perhaps what I am most attracted to is the push-pull effect of two of these purposes: at one level, repetition ties a text of otherwise diverse materials together. It enables memory to create a matrix of thematic materials that impacts not only the reiterated elements but also many aspects of other sentences or phrases that now get thrown into a kind of spotlight. On another level it does this also rhythmically. In Ketjak in particular, that was the element I was most interested in.

 

But if it functions to bind a text together, strict repetition also calls up the impossibility of experiencing any written work synchronically. When I write “This this this this,” there is a beginning, middle and end. Individual words function differently even when they’re the same word. Stein of course makes great hay out of this aspect of repetition. It really disrupts the idea of before and after, and of progression. So on the one hand, reiteration ties the text together while on the other, it accentuates the separateness of individual elements.

 

b) Would you discuss your favorite volumes of The Alphabet, and why they are so?

 

This would be like discussing my favorite children. On any given day, I am apt to answer the question of which ones are my favorites with entirely different texts. I have had such an intense & uniquely personal experience with each that the idea of comparing it with another – which from my perspective would simply reduce it to writing – isn’t really possible.

 

So whenever I do tend to think of this question, which is only when other people think to pose it, I do so in terms that completely extraneous to the texts. I really like certain book covers – like the painting by John Moore that Geoff Young used for the cover when he published What. The neighborhood in which my mother still lives is visible down in the flatlands of that painting. That, or the typesetting that Charles Alexander did for Demo to Ink or that there was a hardback edition of Paradise or the wonderful image that Bill Luoma produced for the cover of ®, is what I think about when someone poses this question.

 

 

4.  Is the "new sentence," as you described and defined it in your essay of the same name, still a relevant way of describing your poetic method? Do you still adhere to that method to create poems? Have you deviated greatly from it? Would you like to update or expand, in some way, your discussion in that essay?

 

I wrote “The New Sentence” at a very specific moment in time – 1977 – when the turn toward forms of longer prose was just starting to be visible among the poets of San Francisco. I had written Ketjak three years earlier and had completed (or was very near to doing so) the other poems that make up The Age of Huts, and was just starting Tjanting. What I wanted to do in that talk was two things – first to situate what I saw being written in the mid-1970s into a broader historical framework, second to identify a device that struck me as turning up in various modes in the work of a lot of different writers.

 

The new sentence was/is any sentence placed into a text so as to minimize any cognitive mapping back to the previous sentence, as well as to limit mapping going forward. It might have been more properly termed the new space, insofar as it is in that gap between sentences – a location in the field of writing for which we still lack a decent term – that the new sentence’s functionality appears. But as this device turns the reader’s attention to the immanence of the sentence at hand, whatever it might be, I settled on that broader category for my noun.

 

I still use the device quite a bit – it’s sort of the default option for me – although I never was completely under its sway even back in the late 1970s. It’s one possibility amid a rich palette that any writer has at his or her disposal. But I think its moment as a social phenomenon, when it was being tested and tried by all manner of writers more or less simultaneously, had passed even by the time that talk made it into print. 

 

 

5.  How would you advise dealing with those in the mainstream academy (poets, professors, and critics), who continue to be downright hostile to the concerns of those who fall under the umbrella of "Language poetry"?

 

While I’m afraid I have a bad habit of tweaking their noses in print, my interest in both pre- and anti-modernists is more anthropological than literary. If they had any sense of history, let alone literary history, they would understand the implications of their own roles better. But if they did, they would have to change their lives.

 

Now, having said that, I should note that there are any number of conservative writers whose work I genuinely like and read with enthusiasm: Bob Hass, Annie Finch, Jack Gilbert, Paul Muldoon, Daisy Fried, Wendell Berry, Alan Dugan. I’ve given readings with several of these poets in the past and no doubt will do so again in the future. I think that it is completely possible to write such poetry from a position of integrity with considerable intelligence and skill. It may even more difficult to do so, given that the social conditions for such poetry disappeared roughly the moment the South seceded from the Union.

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Tuesday, November 19, 2002

 

To read another take on this same material by Spicer, check out John Erhardt’s blog. Two blogs on the same Spicer poem in two days & a meteor shower to boot!



 

Of all the New American Poets, just two proceed as though the language of poetry were primarily a process of logic and not of speech: John Ashbery & Jack Spicer. I literally had this thought while taking a shower this morning, the cleanest thinking I’ve done on the subject.

 

I never join Spicer in my imagination to Ashbery. Their sense of what that logic might be or might mean is so very different. In Spicer’s case, it’s a process of perpetual, even compulsive, contradiction*, lines & ideas constantly undercutting one another until the final result cannot possibly be added up to a single idea, but rather a pulsing, resonating core of contrasting impulses:

 

Get those words out of your mouth and into your heart. If there isn’t

A God don’t believe in Him. “Credo

Quia absurdum,” creates wars and pointless loves and was even in Tertullian’s time a heresy. I see him like a tortoise creeping through a vast desert of unbelief.

“The shadows of love are not the shadows of God.”

This is the second heresy created by the first Piltdown man in Plato’s cave. Either

The fire casts a shadow or it doesn’t.

Red balloons, orange balloons, purple balloons all cast off together into a raining sky.

The sky where men weep for men. And above the sky a moon or an astronaut smiles on television. Love

For God or man transformed to distance.

This is the third heresy. Dante

Was the first writer of science fiction. Beatrice

Shimmering in infinite space.

 

Joining war to love is a typical Spicerian strategy. But look at the length of that third line or Spicer’s use, here as well as elsewhere, of starting a sentence with a single word on one line – the enjambment is felt, but for emphasis – with the remainder on the next. Plus Spicer capitalizes Him precisely at the point where the poet suggests that He might not exist.**

 

I’ve suggested elsewhere that Spicer’s formal training as a linguist is what inoculated him from the mystifications of speech that accompanied the most extreme Projectivist pronouncements. But virtually all of the New Americans bought into speech as a model for directness in their poetry – you can see it in people as diverse as Frank O’Hara, Paul Carroll or Lew Welch. & some, like Paul Blackburn, went to even greater lengths than Charles Olson to demonstrate how transcription might be utilized to represent various aural aspects of the spoken.

 

It is one thing to note that speech is not the model Ashbery relies on in the disruptive texts of The Tennis Court Oath such as “Europe” or “Leaving the Atocha Station”:

 

The arctic honey blabbed over the report causing darkness

And pulling us out of there experiencing it

he meanwhile . . .   And the fried bats they sell there

dropping from sticks, so that the menace of your prayer folds . . .

Other people . . .               flash

the garden you are boning

and defunct covering . . .***

 

That first line is virtually a linguist’s example of “impossible language.”+ But what about this text from that same volume, its famous title also the first line?

 

How much longer will I be able to inhabit the divine sepulcher

Of life, my great love? Do dolphins plunge bottomward

To find the light? Or is it rock

That is searched? Unrelentingly? Huh. And if some day

 

Men with orange shovels come to break open the rock

Which encases me, what about the light that comes in then?

What about  the smell of light?

What about the moss?

 

In pilgrim times he wounded me

Since then I only lie

My bed of light is a furnace choking me

With hell (and sometimes I hear salt water dripping).

 

I mean it – because I’m one of the few

To have held my breath under the house. I’ll trade

One red sucker for two blue ones. I’m

Named Tom. The

 

I’ll break here mid-sentence just to note use of the first-word-at-line’s-end tactic deployed here pointedly mocks the possibility of such positionality lending extra emphasis for the sake of meaning.

 

Because Spicer & Ashbery both use address – the language of the dramatic monolog – as the exoskeletal structure of their poems, we generally do feel spoken to as we read them. But neither ever uses line breaks to approximate any element of breathing, a la Olson, Creeley or even Ginsberg. And while Spicer’s logic is one of constant undercutting, Ashbery’s is more faceted. The next sentence is apt to take one term of the previous one and take it into a different direction, the way light & rock are used in the passage above. It is also apt to stop and go into an entirely different mode of address – Huh – such as the metalanguage that stops mid-thought to suggest an exchange of lollipops.

 

There are, of course, other New American Poets who show disinterest in fetishizing speech through poetic form – Jimmy Schuyler for one. But Schuyler is principally a poet of sublime description. It is only in Spicer & Ashbery that you find logic raised – though hardly as one might find it in a philosophy or rhetoric program – to function as the actual engine of verse. What amazes me is that, having read each of them for some 35 years, I’ve only just now noticed.

 

 

 

 

* The “Not this. / What then?” structure of Tjanting comes right out of my reading of Spicer.

 

** Spicer’s god might be terrible & terrifying, but any other than  a brand new reader of Spicer’s will realize that this poet was deeply a believer.

 

*** Ellipses in the original.

 

+ Although, thanks to the parsimony principle, perfectly readable.

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