Monday, March 03, 2003
Slought is a sizeable storefront gallery in
an abandoned bank, complete with vault, at the southwest corner of the
Not coincidentally, Slought
is also the brainchild of Aaron Levy, one of the most energetic art impresarios
I’ve come across in decades. Slought has taken on one of the most ambitious
programs of exhibitions and performances of any space in
Last Friday, for example,
Slought brought together 12 of the hottest younger poets in North America for a
reading, the first half of an event dedicated to something ambiguously titled The Social Mark Poetry Symposium. They
came from the Bay Area (David Buuck),
Of course, the best minds
isn’t always identical to the best work & more than a few of the poets
involved read works that seemed to me a fair distance short of the finest
things I’ve seen in theirs in print. While some poets were, in fact, riveting –
an especially awesome feat in a setting where each reader had only ten minutes
within which to work – particularly Toscano, Derksen and Sand (the “bracket
readers,” the first two & the last one), several others chose texts that
were timely, or social, primarily by virtue of being recent anti-war tomes.
This reached a strange apotheosis during the second half of the reading when
two poets, Kristin Prevallet & Jules Boycoff, both read pieces that
subjected the same
speech by His W-ness to the U.N. to something very close to the same
literary procedure, one associated with Kevin Nealon’s
old “subliminal man” routines from Saturday
Night Live. In each instance, the appropriated material is interrupted by a
disquieting word or phrase that reveals the surface text to be essentially
hypocritical. Where Nealon’s routines offered entire
running commentaries on the surface text, both Prevallet & Boycoff used the
device more bluntly, essentially inserting a single percussive term that
gradually expanded through reiteration to overwhelm the surface text. For
Prevallet, the term was “oil,” a word that she can pronounce with a remarkable
number of different emphases and enunciations; For Boycoff, the word was “
Boycoff, who went after Prevallet, gets points in my book for having the chutzpah to read his piece after hearing hers, knowing for instance that her work had gone for – quite successfully – flashy performative aspects that his own quieter version did not exploit. I was especially glad that he did, because Boycoff raised the very questions of a “social mark” to the level of manifest content in a way that had been heretofore absent in the reading. It is one thing for all of these poets to believe that King George is quite mad, but what does it mean as poetic practice? By demonstrating how two very different poets from different cities had arrived at virtually the same strategy of response – though in practice, the two works sounded fairly different – Boycoff & Prevallet brought the limitations of this strategy right to the fore.
Several of these are among the problematics of any group reading: the performative drowns out the contemplative; flash obliterates the subtle; agreement overwhelms ambiguity. It’s a context in which one is better off being humorous than insightful. In not trying to outdo Prevallet’s literally combat-boot stomping rendition, Boycoff put all those issues out for everyone in the audience to see. In a sense, this tendered the question more fully than other, relatively quiet readings by, say, Buuck or Gilbert.
I’m afraid that we’ve all been to readings in which one of the readers attempts to “Mau Mau” the rest, as we used to say in the 1970s, but this was not an example of that. Prevallet had merely written a rousing poem & given it a reading appropriate to that spirit, not so terribly dissimilar in tone to Allen Ginsberg’s famous antiwar chant, “Hūm Bomb.” In a sense, Prevallet had recognized most fully the impossibility of presenting a full-featured distinctive reading in ten minutes & figured out a way around that.
Yet it is worth remembering, asI wouldn’t have without Boycoff’s
reading, that “Hūm Bomb,” even though it is a
wonderful set piece, isn’t Ginsberg’s great anti-war poem, “Wichita
Vortex Sutra, Part II” is. “Vortex” has layers of compassion, insight,
ambiguity & nuance that were seldom equaled in the 20th
century’s long contemplation of humankind’s collective self-abuse, and really
transcends Ginsberg’s usual stance (present even here) as public satirist.
Think, for example, how the phrase “bad guess” reverberates through “Vortex,”
which approaches of question of the American holocaust in
Use the words
“A bad guess” . . .
The war is language
like magic power on the planet . . .
O longhaired magician come home take care of your dumb helper
before the radiation deluge floods your livingroom,
your magic errandboy’s
just made a bad guess again
that’s lasted a whole decade.
The image of McNamara as the
beleaguered Mickey Mouse in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of Fantasia highlights one other feature of
Ginsberg’s great poem, dictated into a tape recorder while tooling around
Like its cousin ambiguity,
empathy is something that is exceptionally difficult to communicate in any function
of life, let alone a poem. It is absolutely not possible in a
In his excellent weblog
“Wichita Vortex Sutra” is a more complex experience, with lots of places inside the text for readers to move around, even to disagree without necessarily falling out of the reading experience. This text particularly has stuck in my head this weekend because of a review in the Philadelphia Inquirer of a new book of critical prose by Robert Pinsky, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, by Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano. Without defending Pinsky’s position – which I generally tend to think as hopelessly self-contradictory – it’s amusing to see him being attacked essentially from the right by Romano. But when Romano writes
What does it say about American poetry today - whatever the insider stock valuations of Frank Bidart, Jorie Graham, Yusef Komunyakaa, or anyone else - that there's not a single line of contemporary American poetry important enough for Americans to know and hold in common?
Romano demonstrates not only
his lack of grounding in cultural history**, but specifically forgets that one
poem – and it wasn’t Howl or Kaddish – transformed Allen Ginsberg
from being, to Romano’s world, which is that essentially of People magazine, a cultural curiosity of
the 1950s into the most popular poet of his generation. The poem that moved
Ginsberg from the larva stage of Beat satirist into something akin to an oracle
in the 1960s was “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” read over & over at protest
demonstration after Be-In after rally. Although Ginsberg read it less often
after the mid-1970s, it was almost certainly the most widely consumed poem –
especially aurally – to have been written in my lifetime. If a single poem can
be said to have had an impact on the course of the Vietnam War, it was
Ginsberg’s great juxtaposition of apocalypse in
Ж Ж Ж
I was unhappy not to be able
to attend the second half of the event at Slought, a panel discussion the
following afternoon, albeit with the same ten-minutes-per-poet constraint,
because the evening left me with a lot of ideas & even more questions. Certainly,
the selection – made, I take, principally by Cabri – of poets wasn’t intended
only to identify younger writers with politics (Jennifer Moxley,
The question of the social itself is one that I think haunts us now as poets for good reason. And I don’t think that we have anything like the time that existed in the sixties to mount a challenge to what is occurring on the world scene today. So I want to thank the poets of Slought for having raised the question, and especially Jules Boycoff & the quieter poets on that agenda for having given it depth.
building preservation is a recognized mode of gentrification in
** Nowhere in our K-12 educational system is the actual difficulty of reading & writing taught for what it is, as a direct source of pleasure, so what a shock to discover that there is not a popular movement to appreciate such a thing, nor what a surprise that poets who compromise what they attempt as writers in the mistaken name of “communication” merely find themselves muddled in the middle. If ever there were to be such a thing as a popular poetry, it would not occur through poets retreating to a trobar lieu that disappeared several centuries ago & has no social reason for returning, but only through a readership that is truly literate, that is to say, prepared to appreciate trobar clus. And when book critics & poets laureate don’t get it, you can be sure there is a long way to go.