Saturday, February 08, 2003

 

Reading a magazine that I have not yet seen, Tom Fink notes the containment strategy often imposed by conservative poets with regards first to langpo & then more broadly to the entire post-avant tradition.

 

Dear Ron,

 

          When I got a contributor's copy of the Winter 2002 issue of Barrow Street, an eclectic New York City journal, a very interesting juxtaposition hit me. The magazine's first poem is an excerpt from Lyn Hejinian's The Fatalist, a potent example of the self-reflexive and, as she puts it, "analytic lyric" drive of her work. (Like you, I'm especially drawn to My Life.) One of the last pieces in the magazine is an interview of Robert Pinsky by Daniela Gioseffi, author of 11 books of poetry, the latest from Rattapallax Press, and an anthology, Women on War, and someone who has favorably reviewed close friends of mine. The interview is subtitled "On Poetry and Social Conscience." Gioseffi asks Pinsky what he feels "about the current abstract school and the so called 'language school of poetry'; for example, John Ashbery or Jorie Graham or Charles Bernstein – which has seemed to dominate much of the poetry of our time and to which the average reader not schooled in poetry seems to have such difficulty responding to. Do you find it solipsistic in nature?" (76).

 

          If we slightly correct Gioseffi and see Ashbery as a synecdoche for the New York School, Bernstein for the Language Poets – and such synecdoches repress much difference within those non-schools – and Graham for the recent Iowa Writer's Workshop trend to fuse mainstream and experimental poetic practices, then perhaps these 3 "tendencies," combined, may account for half of what's published in the poetry presses and magazines and e-zines. But the word "dominate" implies a lot more than half; it demonstrates the angst that you noticed in Edward Hirsch's claim that there were "too many" poetic experimentalists: 10,000 practitioners.

 

          Gioseffi doesn't know or ignores that Language Poets are overtly political. Perhaps "difficulty" makes her use the label "solipsistic" (without conscience? apolitical?). Has she encountered the "Language" argument that the illusion of unmediated communication in "easy" poetry is itself an ideological construct in need of politicized demystification? Poetry educators like Juliana Spahr can and do talk with the "average reader" about politically progressive poetry that disrupts complacent expectations of transparent mimesis, but have her mainstream sources told her this? (Also, to read Ashbery as solipsistic is to miss a kind of Bakhtinian dialogism, a carnival where one can read social conflict into his poems' heteroglossia.)

 

To Pinsky's credit, he doesn't quite take Gioseffi's cues. First sounding like a serene, tolerant pluralist who will admit star experimentalists into his pantheon, he then exposes his biases:

 

As you have said, in every kind [of poetry], some is good and some is bad. In relation to your concern with social and political materials, it is true that the more cerebral, self-referential or linguistically complicated the writing is, the safer or more armored it is. For lesser writers than those you name, an avant-garde surface is protection from the difficulties and embarrassments of subject matter. Language poetry of that kind is safe; it cannot sprawl because it holds its pose behind a protective wall of texture. Abstraction and opacity can be places to hide from the difficulty or passion of the world or oneself. But what about examples like Paul Celan – a great writer who is very difficult, often opaque, and a great writer of the social and political tragedy of modern Europe? (76)

 

Pinsky's concluding question is very good, but Gioseffi parries it by going on to an unrelated question. When Pinsky signifies on the usual safe/dangerous binary by making safe literary forms/modes seem dangerous, some will find it clever. But the implication that linguistic complexity is an evasion of psychologically difficult confession ("embarrassments") about the self's imperfections and its most difficult emotions or an evasion of the difficulty of making a determinate political judgment implies that the tasks being "evaded" are the "true" tasks of poetry. What if confessional poetry a la Lowell or Sexton is seen as just plain self-indulgent? What if a poet doesn't want to ignore the complexities of political theory and praxis and thus refrains from making "sound-byte" political judgments. The trope of "sprawling" suggests that LangPo is "uptight," ignoring how funny it often is, whereas poetry with clearly packaged "personality" is more relaxed. What if the poetry of "subject matter" that he implicitly valorizes is a protection against a more difficult subject matter: relations between areas of linguistic "experience" that are not immediately recognizable, that do not easily fit together but have metonymic contact in the multiplicity of the social spaces that people experience as their daily lives? Pinsky may see in a Bernstein or an Ashbery that even when language itself is the subject matter, a large part of the interest in such writing is investigation of the social functioning of words, but he will not allow that framing assumption to be in place when he reads "lesser writers" that he considers part of the Language group. Near the end of the interview, Gioseffi weighs in once more on the poetry she finds apolitical, this time differentiating between the LangPos and the New York School:

 

The language school of poetry seems to be about art for art's sake; and the abstract or action poetry schools, or the New York School, a sort of laid-back observation on the poet's experience. (77)

 

Does action poetry=action painting? Does she link the visual New York School with the poetic one? The caricature of the "laid back" New York School could have been obtained from some journalistic account, not from reading many NY School writers. But where did she get the idea that LangPo is "art for art's sake"? From a preconception that poetry, to be political, must tell a story or present a single ideological perspective, and that, poetry that cannot be pinned down to a single subject must only exist to glorify its status as art? That linguistic inventiveness is just hedonism and teaches us nothing about the world? What if the accusation of "art for art's sake" were contextualized, instead, as an indication that the accuser believes that a realm of "pure formalism" can exist outside of the socius, and that this belief, rather than a partial (not total or totalizing) attention to formal qualities, is a mystification of the interpreter, not the poet? Hejinian's poem at the beginning of the issue of Barrow Street could help answer some of the questions, if the interviewer and interviewee chose to read it carefully.

 

All Best,

Tom

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Friday, February 07, 2003

 

There is never a word nor syllable nor the slightest scratch upon the paper in any of Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ Drafts that has not been thoroughly vetted through the mind &imagination of the poet. So when I find indeterminacy & surplus in her texts, I know that they haven’t gotten there by accident, that even when it appears “meaningless,” it means something.

 

I was reading “Draft 2: She” this morning, which is replete with such effects. A case in point:

 

Dabbles the blankie down

din

do throw foo foo

noo

dles the arror

of eros the error of arrows

each little spoil and spill

all during pieces fly apart.

Splatting crumb bits there and there.

Feed ‘n’ wipe. Woo woo petunia

pie.

Hard

to get the fail of it

large small specks each naming

yellow surface

green bites

Red elbow kicks an orange tangerine.

 

If my HTML skills were up to it – they aren’t – I might offer some even more extreme examples: there are are twelves places in this eight-page poem in which DuPlessis offers alternative word choices typed almost literally atop one another, as in “the mother/the monster” or “hurl/hole/hurt.” But, as DuPlessis herself notes in the passage quoted above, “large small specks each naming.” Just because these uses of alternatives & of baby talk don’t resolve to traditional denotations does not make them unmeaningful. Woo woo petunia!

 

The question here is what. At one level, “She” is about gendering the family & the intricacies of mother-daughter roles. At another, it’s about the acculturation of the child into the world of adult roles & values & systems, language foremost among them. It’s precisely in the use of language that cannot be resolved into normative concepts of meaning that I most hear the world as it was viewed by Louis Althusser, the late French political philosopher, at least in his saner moments.

 

Althusser’s observation was the world replicated itself through two systems – repressessive state apparatuses (RSAs) and ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). We are, all of us, only too familiar with RSAs, which include everything from stop signs to the Justice Deparment (even when it’s not in the hands of a maniacal neo-fascist like John Ashcroft) to the version our government is about to visit on the people of Iraq. ISAs are more numerous, more complex, more subtle & ultimately more powerful. The church, family, popular media, even poetry, generally fall in the Althusserian scheme onto the side of ISAs.

 

I should say something about ideology here, which in the Althusserian model is only incidentally about being a Republican, a Democrat, a Libertarian or a Green, or even about being “for” or “against” capitalism. Rather, as Althusser saw it, ideology is that which calls your name & by which & through which you recognize yourself. As such, it is precisely a subconscious process, exactly the level on which the material signifiers of language operate.

 

For all of the unquestionable pleasures of the Lacanian & for the ways in which, say, a Carla Harryman might make use of a Kristeva, my sense has been that with the notable (& almost sole) exception of Nick Piombino, the unconscious in writing has been given short shrift at best by my own generation of poets. Most of the effects of a text such as Clark Coolidge’s The Maintains or Polaroid occur at the subconscious level or else can be described in the matter-of-fact language of feature analysis, a close reading of surface devices that never actually gets to what occurs elsewhere when one reads. At one level, I think one could much the same about Lee Ann Brown or Quincy Troupe or even Billy Collins. But, at another, the absence of such critique seems especially galling in the case of poets whose work actively eschews normative expository, figurative or narrative frames.

 

When I think of the poets of the New American generation, three in particular seem to have made active reference to, or use of, psychoanalysis in any form: Charles Olson, Robert Duncan & Robert Bly. Duncan, in good part because of H.D.’s influence, made active &, I think, relatively effective use of Freud, although now that I put those words to screen, I realize that I cannot fully articulate what I mean by that. Olson poured Jungian analysis into his vast grab-bag of intellectual discourses that he might call upon, but, while the spectre of Jung has sometimes been raised to suggest a reason & underlying cohesion for the great & wonderful mess that is Maximus, Olson’s own approach has always struck me as remarkably unsystematic, forever opportunistic, & as indebted as much to Mao as to the Vienna gang.

 

Bly? Well, it rhymes with sigh. Invoking Jung in a very different light & yoking it first to bad translations of the especially narrow swath he cut through the surrealists & later to the Iron John one-man comic philosopher shtick, Bly went a long way toward making psychoanlysis, Jungian or Freudian, off-limits to a younger generation of poets unable to suppress their snickering.

 

Bly was one of a generation of poets who was raised initially within the framework of the old New England formalist tradition, but who in the 1950s rebelled against its even then moribund dynamics. Including W.S. Merwin, James Wright & Adrienne Rich in addition to Bly, these poets did not turn automatically to the growing alternative of the New Americans*, but rather struck off in a new direction, which for the male poets among them meant a version of surrealism and, at least for Bly & Merwin, a turn toward European influences.

 

For a brief moment in the early 1960s, Bly in particular made an attempt to forge a synthesis with some of the next generation of New Americans, most notably Robert Kelly, whose interest in all matters occult took him through Jung, and Jerome Rothenberg, whose interest in ethnopoetics took him far closer to native roots than the pancho that was Bly’s omnipresent clothing accessory during that decade. The “deep image” movement didn’t last long. I’ve written before of how Kelly’s interest in the alternative wisdom traditions helped to cut him off from some of the younger & more secular poets who would come up around langpo. The figuration given to the unconscious in the work of some of the poets around first Caterpillar & later Sulfur, especially that offered by Clayton Eshleman, only furthered to steer the next generation of poets, already deeply suspicious of figuration itself, in the opposite direction.

 

One of the great ironies in this is that the unconscious is to analysis what birds are to ornithology, and it’s the unconscious processing of poetry that’s of interest here more than the extrapolation of intellectual systems. It has long seemed to me that the New American who most directly raised the issue of the unconscious in his poetry was not Olson or Duncan, who tended more to talk about it, but Jack Spicer. Spicer’s use of contradiction & overdetermination is unparalleled in his generation & tugs continually at the ways in which we utilize & experience just such phenomena, not merely mentally but in day-to-day life.

 

It’s interesting in this regard that there really was no such thing as a second generation San Francisco renaissance. Spicer’s early death in 1965, preceded by the decline of his health due to drinking, set his own circle adrift, with significant portions ending up in Vancouver & even, in the presence of Larry Fagin, in New York. The poets who most deeply reflected Duncan’s influence – David Bromige, Michael Palmer, Aaron Shurin, David Melnick – seem to have worked with him serially. Duncan’s imperiousness & his public battles with Spicer in their later years made it even less likely that anything cohesive might arise out of such a problematic context.  

 

So when Rachel Blau DuPlessis roars out “Woo woo petunia,” I sense her taking up something that has lain untouched for some time in writing – not that it isn’t present, say, in the work of Frank O’Hara or any of another 100 poets you could name, but rather that it exists there unaddressed, not unlike the alcoholic uncle at the end of the couch nobody quite mentions. And I wonder if poets such as Coolidge (or even, for that matter, myself) have felt safer precisely because a discussion of the unconscious has been off the table for so many decades, as if we could venture into this territory knowing that no critical frames existed that could be usefully employed, precisely because they had been blocked by the use of the discourses (Freud, Jung, but as read by Bly or Duncan) that had been there previously. Like Grenier’s use of the literally subliminal in his scrawl works, DuPlessis gives us a writing in places – it’s not the only thing she’s up to here, just the one that I’m intrigued with today – that can only be forever beyond the rational. At one level, it’s a demand, a demand that we come to understand exactly what it means.

 

Woo woo petunia

pie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Although Rich’s pivotal poem “Diving into the Wreck,” made its first appearance in Clayton Eshleman’s Caterpillar.



Thursday, February 06, 2003

 

Unquestionably the most ironic inclusion in the new issue of Radical Society is Andrei Codrescu, the Romanian exile turned Louisiana academic & part of NPR’s decorative collection of “quaint dialect” commentators alongside the likes of Bailey White. For reasons that are understandable enough, Codrescu has always been an anti-Communist & resistant to the idea that would be shades of difference between the likes of, say, Stalin & western Marxists in general. To find Codrescu in a journal that was issued initially under the banner Socialist Revolution is itself an index of exactly how much the world has transformed in the past thirty years.

 

Not that Codrescu can stop himself from revisiting the past in introducing the work of Eugen Jebeleanu (1911-1991), whom he characterizes as the “epic poet” of Romania’s Communist period (1947-89). In Codrescu’s narrative, Jebeleanu started as a true believer in Soviet bloc modernism. Codrescu compares him with Nazim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda & Yannis Ritsos, all of whom played important roles in their own national literatures. However, as the Stalinist project decayed into “folk kitsch,” Jebeleanu rebelled. In Codrescu’s words, “Jebeleanu woke up.”

 

The poetry we are offered in Radical Society comes from Jebeleanu’s later works, when he has become a lyric surrealist of a modern, maybe even post-modern type. Vasco Popa & Tomaž Šalamun are closer in temperament & style to the works that Mathew Zapruder has translated here (and elsewhere across the web – Zapruder has been the key to Jebeleanu’s arrival in the West) than Yevtushenko or Vosnesenski.

 

The poems themselves are okay but the question they raise for me is one of value with regards to the context of language & state. What does it mean to be a national figure as a poet when the nation itself consists of just 22 million people? It’s a question that bedevils any thoughtful writer, regardless of our proximity to the imperial center. Twenty-two million people is notably fewer than the number who live in Canada, which itself has only two-thirds of the population of California. The situation for any Canadian poet is in some ways more complex, given their participation in at least two larger linguistic literary traditions as well as their nearness to the heavy-handed hegemon along their Southern rim. But these broader traditions mean that a writer like Steve McCaffery, George Bowering, Michael Ondaatje or Nicole Brossard can reach & have an impact far beyond their borders without necessarily having to submit to the curiously alienating process of translation, whereas the Romanian-writing Jebeleanu was constrained by a literary community that did not exist significantly outside of his country’s own borders.

 

Twenty-two million certainly makes a nation if it so chooses. Romania’s population today ranks 47th among the 235 nations of the world, well ahead of Australia & Greece, though smaller than Uzbekistan or Tanzania. It’s twice the size of Pennsylvania, maybe 1½ times the size of metropolitan New York. This is precisely where questions of state & language on the one hand and the value of the local on the other flood one another. One poet becomes, in Codrescu’s formulation (for which he credits Allen Ginsberg), the “epic poet” of his nation, another is merely a New York School writer in a town that is itself wider & more diverse than that.

 

One Sunday last November, I posted an email from Juliana Spahr in which she argues for a diversity of literatures:

 

I think it is crucial that we all not be scared of the diversity of contemporary poetries. I think it is a great sign of health. I love it. I like to think, and I think it might be true even, that right now, when I am alive, right now there are more poetries or I have the possibility of reading more poetries than humans at any other time. What a huge weird world of poetries! I can't read it all. I admit it. But what a great thing.

 

Yet, now the note of sadness, what has happened is a peculiar myopia. I say this over and over, but one of the strangest, saddest?, things that is the result of this wealth is not that it is hard for readers, but that so few of these poetries talk to each other. So language poets and Nation language/Caribbean poets and pidgin/Bamboo Ridge poets and Scots poets and etc. all have these arguments against standard English. They are different arguments but they meet in various ways. And yet the poets so rarely meet in journals, in readings, at parties. What a lost opportunity.

 

Spahr’s complaint, which is completely legit, seems to me the obverse face of this same coin. For these poets to meet, to truly commingle & communicate, there has been a commons & little magazines are never that. Either they are local, if not to a region, then to an aesthetic, or else they are entirely shapeless. Neither strategy can claim to solve the problem of the minority language writer exiled within a city or state of another tongue. Neither can bring Jebeleanu’s poetry to us without the intermediation of a Mathew Zapruder (aided in Radical Society by Radu Ioanid). Writers who inhabit more than one such world – I’m thinking of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa as one example, but Edwin Torres could just as easily serve as another – never do so abstractly. They are as specific to their respective contexts, each one, as a human could be.

 

It’s not clear what the role of poetry will prove to be in Radical Society over time. The history of Socialist Review doesn’t necessarily auger well. The journal has had what can only be characterized as a tortured relationship to culture over the decades.* The presence of so much creative work in the first issue of the new regime is noteworthy, but so is the somewhat scatter-gun nature of its aesthetics. Hirschman’s Depestre and Codrescu’s Jebeleanu fall into the category of a late modernism of the margins. Charles Bernstein & Katha Pollitt may have attended Harvard at the same time, but they represent radically divergent poetics. & only Sikelianos offers a sample of what writing might be like by anybody under the age of 50. Samples of diverse poetics presented precisely as that comes closer to a mode of literary tourism** than it does to the commons for which Spahr & I yearn alike.

 

Where is Radical Society heading? We shall see.

 

 

 

 

 

* Thus the journal may have published Donna Haraway’s “Manifesto for Cyborgs,” but it twice – several years apart – failed to accept Samuel R. Delany’s classic response to Haraway.

 

** Thus it strikes me -- & the Sikelianos piece I looked at yesterday is what really drove this home – as being poetry for people who don’t read poetry, that curious genre. But does that expand the audience for poetry or merely absolve these non-readers from ever having to confront all of poetry’s gloriously incommensurate difficulties?



Wednesday, February 05, 2003

 

Reading Eleni Sikelianos’ poem, an excerpt from a longer text entitled “California,” in the new issue of Radical Society, I had a strange experience. I felt the presence of Michael McClure. Not the McClure of the Ghost Tantras, the plays or the ecstatic howls of the should-have-been ineffable, but rather the cosmological McClure, the PBS pop science McClure, casting into centered texts meditations based on things he’s seen or read about the natural world in the popular media. For example, this piece, entitled “For the Death of 100 Whales”:

 

Hung midsea
Like a boat mid-air
The liners boiled their pastures:
The liners of flesh,
The Arctic steamers

Brains the size of a teacup
Mouths the size of a door

The sleek wolves
Mowers and reapers of sea kine.

THE GIANT TADPOLES
(Meat their algae)
Lept
Like sheep or children.

Shot from the sea's bore.

Turned and twisted
(Goya!!)
Flung blood and sperm.
Incense.
Gnashed at their tails and brothers
Cursed Christ of mammals,
Snapped at the sun,
Ran for the Sea's floor.

Goya! Goya!
Oh Lawrence
No angels dance those bridges.
OH GUN! OH BOW!
There are no churches in the waves,
No holiness,
No passages or crossings
From the beasts' wet shore.

 

This poem, which McClure read at the Six Gallery reading in 1955 that helped to spark the so-called Beat Revolution – & not co-incidentally first pointed out to the world at large that San Francisco was as vital a center for American letters as New York – is predicated on an April 1954 story in Time magazine about, in McClure’s own words,

 

seventy-nine bored American G.I.s stationed at a NATO base in Iceland murdering a pod of one hundred killer whales. In a single morning the soldiers, armed with rifles, machine guns, and boats, rounded up and then shot the whales to death.

 

Although this is not the kind of poem that McClure is typically represented by in the anthologies, it is a type of poem that he has written his entire life. Its value lies not in McClure’s research – none is involved – but rather in the way he imbues the topic with emotion & narrative figuration. In a sense, this is the opposite of the “research poem,” whether of the Pound-Olson variation with their unintentional parodies of the scholar fumbling around in the archives or of the more journalistic “investigative poetry” approach advocated in recent decades by Ed Sanders. Another poet who literally made use of PBS and other mainstream media not only for ideas, but for layers of content thus displayed, was Larry Eigner.

 

When I was growing up as a poet in the 1970s, I used to hear other writers comment negatively – sometimes emphatically so – about this side of McClure’s poetry, as though it were a kind of debased product & that, in working from sources in everyday media, McClure was essentially revealing a kind of laziness that was at the heart of his project, not unlike the equally scandalous process of allowing other people type up his holographic manuscripts & perform what in the age of the typewriter was not an inconsequential function: the centering of his lines.

 

Somewhere along the line I decided that this was a bad rap. In an age where Andy Warhol & others – this was still pre-Jeff Koons – were utilizing assistants to help construct the work of art*, any insistence on doing your own research struck me as a kind defensive measure on the part of writers who felt that, if such aid & delegation were possible, then perhaps readers might not appropriately appreciate their own devotion to all the ancillary tasks that might envelop the act of writing. The work that struck me as the decisive argument for the permissibility of appropriated materials as a source for literature was Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony.

 

The primary differences between Reznikoff’s approach & McClure’s are (1) Reznikoff’s focus was the social while McClure has been more drawn to the natural world & (2) Reznikoff’s approach to these materials has been one of minimal overt commentary, almost a deadpan transparency, while McClure’s has been one of a drum-beating & hollering display of empathy. Empathy, of course, has ever been “uncool” & “unhip” & I suspect McClure had to deal with that prejudice back in the 1950s every bit as much as in the 1970s & ‘80s.**

 

Sikelianos’ poem skips the drum-beating & ALL CAPS HOLLERING, but in fact is an act of empathic inhabitation of a milieu inhabitable today only in the imagination:

 

There was still the problem

of the mystery of regenerative forces here on Earth.

 

My early Californians

might have been prowlers & plunderers, lover of the lower orders of intelligence

They might have had a fortunate notes or eyes or horns

of surprising size.      They were

4-handed animals or omnivorous quadrupeds or

My early Californians might have been 8-feet tall stomping around in the glacial ice

 

Ages-extinct fires nearly tiny dragon-headed lakes

Chasing the American camel, chewing the fat fireside & touching up a wooly mammoth,

mini-horses, imitation

bison four times the weight

of buffaloes, ground sloths the size of tanks,

giant shining armadillo roll over, silver

wheels crushing tender grasses,

Edentata belonging to the (inhabited) Earth,

edacious at the tooth

of Time, nibbling some sweet thing, fiery

Hymenoptera edulcorated by their history with men

 

Shades of Forrest Gander! This text itself has been edulcorated – that c can be pronounced either hard or soft according to the OED – by polysyllables a-babble. What we have here –the quotation above constitutes maybe one-fifth of the Radical Society excerpt – is poem as nature museum diorama.

 

Writing of Earliest Worlds last September, I noted how Sikelianos’ work there included lines that were “among the most thoroughly conceived and written, most thoroughly heard (&, not coincidentally, felt) since Charles Olson was a young man.” Almost by its nature & certainly by its genre, “California” is a more relaxed piece of writing. It’s probably accessible to a broader range of readers, albeit at the cost being less exhilarating to that core who’ve seen what Sikelianos at her most intense can do.

 

Which brings my back to Michael McClure & the question of choices in writing. The very qualities – empathy & narrative figuration – that I suspect enabled the Radical Society editorial board to include this work in the first issue of the journal’s new life are those which are most apt to divide poetry’s primary group of readers, who may well find it all too “inauthentic.” Since this is an excerpt, it will be interesting to see how “California” develops & also how it’s received.

 

 

 

 

 

* If Sol Lewitt actually drew all those lines on art museum walls himself, he’d end up in the American Visionary Art Museum.

 

** Thus, for example, I don’t recall ever having seen an article that fully explored what I take to be McClure’s greatest contribution to poetry – his exquisite sense of the pacing of detail. It’s a side of his writing that shows up most sharply delineated in the cosmology poems.



Tuesday, February 04, 2003

 

Radical Society is here. Its very first issue is labeled Vol. 29, No. 1, because the journal is in fact a reinvention, a resurrection of the old Socialist Review, whose executive editor I was from 1986 until 1989*, originally founded under the name Socialist Revolution in 1970. You could, if you wished, trace the journal back further to a split in the editorial board of Studies on the Left in the 1960s, when one faction wanted to make that journal the official publication of what was then presumed to be a potentially successful revolutionary party that was seen to be forming in the United States.

 

Socialist Review found a good deal of its liveliness & an even larger portion of its own internal strains & turmoil in having not one, but two editorial collectives, geographically distant, each with its own demographic, politics & culture. That the journal survived as long as it did under the stewardship of dueling collectives was itself a miracle, a marriage born to some degree out of mutual convenience. Originally founded by a group centered (and largely funded) by Studies on the Left veteran James Weinstein (who would later create & publish In These Times), SR, as everyone seemed to call the journal, originally was the project of a group of folks in the San Francisco Bay Area who had gone through the 1960s together. Some were out of school & working as political activists; others had gone on to grad school. All shared the perception that the left in the United States suffered from a lack of theoretical understanding. When three of the first-editorial-generation grad students all got jobs in the Boston area, a second editorial collective was started**. Very soon, one collective had evolved entirely into tenured academics, while the other consisted of (generally younger & poorer) grad students & activists. While the tension between the two collectives was sometimes unbelievable, the Boston’s group economic focus proved a useful balance to the West Coast collective, which periodically introduced some extraordinary work, perhaps most notably Donna Haraway’s “Manifest for Cyborgs.”***

 

SR very much reflected the history & fate of the ‘60s generation up until the early 1990s, when an attempt to “pass the baton” to a younger cohort ran into difficulties, the collectives seemed to fall apart, as did a distribution deal with Duke University Press. Now Radical Society has emerged with a mostly new collective – SR veterans Barbara Epstein & Howard Winant on the new editorial board – the term “collective” seems to have been retired – as are, among others, Kira Brunner, a former editor of Dissent & co-editor of The New Killing Fields; Peter Marcuse, an urban planning professor from Columbia; Vanessa Mobley of New Republic Books; fiction writer Rachel Neumann; Greg Smithsimon, a grad student at Columbia; Daraka Larimer-Hall, organizer for the Young Democratic Socialists (the youth organization of Democratic Socialists of America); Ellen Willis, author of No More Nice Girls who teaches communications at NYU; and Laura Secor of the Boston Globe.

 

Radical Society continues SR’s tradition of left contrarianism by making its big article in its first issue Ellen Willis’ “Why I am not for Peace.” While hardly an endorsement of George W’s cowboy imperialism, Willis does outline the case from a position not far removed from the one being made these days by Salman Rushdie, that Hussein must be removed to end the torment of the Iraqi people.

 

This is followed a column in which four commentators respond to a blurb from U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz. As interesting as the responses are the respondents: journalist Abid Aslam, psychoanalyst George Saki, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt & poet Charles Bernstein, who offers up a theory of spf – surreptitious policy factor.

 

Nor is Bernstein the only poet to show up in this issue. “Café Europa” is a talking piece given by David Antin, presented here as an essay with curious formatting. There is a sizeable selection of works by Romania’s epic poet Eugen Jebeleanu, with an introduction by Andrei Codrescu. There is a full-page poem, “A Rainbow for the Christian West,” by René Depestre, translated by Jack Hirschman. And finally, there is a two-page excerpt from a poem entitled “California,” written by Eleni Silelianos.

 

 

 

 

* I stayed on the West Coast editorial collective until the pressures of a difficult twin pregnancy swallowed up what little time & energy I had available in late 1991.

 

** There was briefly an attempt to create a third collective in New York, but it failed to take root.

 

*** Unfinished Business: 20 Years of the Socialist Review, published by Verso, is an excellent collection of pieces reflecting the perspective of both collectives (I write this as a co-editor of the volume). Even the blurbs on the back of the paperback reflect the tension between the two: Noam Chomsky weighing in for the Boston Collective, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for the West Coast.



Monday, February 03, 2003

 

One poet who appears to be doing something completely different from virtually anything I’ve written about on this blog is Marianne Shaneen – that at least is my first impression on reading “from THE PEEKABOO THEORY: object permanence” in Snare 3, the first issue of I’ve actually seen of Drew Gardner’s little magazine.  You can miss Shaneen’s work – it leads off an issue filled with writers whose poetry I already know I like: Bill Luoma, Mitch Highfill, Elizabeth Willis, Gardner himself, Rod Smith, Tod Barron, Rodrigo Toscano, Bob Harrison, Edwin Torres, Kim Lyons & Allison Cobb. Indeed, the only other poet in the entire issue whose work I’m not already familiar with is Jen Robinson, not to be confused with Kit or Elizabeth. Marianne Shaneen is positioned first amidst all these relatively well-known poets &, at ten pages, her contribution represents nearly 20 percent of the entire issue. As an editor, Gardner is definitely making a statement.

 

Visually, it takes a nanosecond to see that Shaneen is doing something different. Her text fills the page as though it were prose & the long lines tend more toward the logic of the paragraph than that of verse, even within the broad range of post-avant varieties.  Here are the first two passages – I started to type “stanzas” then stopped myself; they don’t come across with the feel of a stanza:

 

1825: U.S. postal service creates a dead letter office

1825: Persistence of vision shown with the pre-cinematic Thaumatrope, a disk with an image on each side:

bird, wings up on one side and down on the other. eye, lid open on one side and closed on the other.

when rotated rapidly, the observer perceives

 

an eye opening and closing or, a bird in flight

 

 

 

I saw my breath today:

your absence has weathered its first change of the season

buzzer range I rushed down the stairs it must be you but only mailman. drops of sweat on my forehead betrayed my hopes while simultaneously becoming sign of hope’s betrayal: skin weeping or, I was wept.

 

By my count, that is eight lines of type: four, then one after a single-line break, then, after a noticeably longer break, three others in the second stanza-thingy. That I’m having to calculate this out & ponder the issue – I could be wrong in this, I realize – tells you a lot about how Shaneen attacks questions of form. The next line of the next passage includes both italics & boldface. When I said that her lines tend toward the logic of prose, it was not merely the length or prosody I had in mind, the relative absence of signs of compression that are so characteristically the graphemic signals of verse (but note the missing article in front of mailman), but that when lines “run over” the relative space of the page, they come back flush against the left-hand margin. No verselike hanging indents here.

 

What I don’t get, either in the snippet above or elsewhere in the ten-page excerpt in Snare, is a sense of Shaneen’s ear. She simply appears to have no interest in that dimension of the text. This seems important, if only because it will help to contextualize this piece for me, away from, for example, the information-junky aspect of Olson’s Projectivism, toward something that falls somewhere between the fiction of ideas & an enlightened notebook – philosophy in the literal sense of that word, rather than in the normative or even traditional senses of it. Rather, this work seems to seed concepts – the mail, cameras, blindness, shadow, writing, the game of peek-a-boo – into a field of action (I is present, you is missing in action, though also the addressee), permitting a maximum of consequences.

 

A writing of this type demands a high tolerance for ambiguity. An eventual volume of this text is, like a book length prose poem such as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, certain to befuddle the beleaguered bookstore employee who has to figure out not only where to stock the item, but also where prospective customers are going to seek it out.* As a verse novel, it has less in common with Hejinian’s Oxota than with, perhaps, James Merrill’s The (Diblos) Notebook. The questions it asks of a reader are ultimately no less complex – for example, how to judge the question of figuration, or of character, terms seldom invoked these days with regard to the poem.

 

Another section of “THE PEEKABOOK THEORY” can be found in Beehive. Like what I find in Spare, it’s complex, often brilliant, but utterly unconcerned with the ear. It may ultimately turn out that the work of this Brooklyn-based performer, photographer, novelist & poet gets characterized as poetry, but I suspect that will be because this is what we have come to call things we don’t quite know what to call.

 

 

 

 

 

* Just watching how poorly bookstores handle a genre like the graphic novel should give some sense of how hard this is for them, especially in an age when many bookstores don’t pay well enough to attract serious readers for employees.



Sunday, February 02, 2003

 

I was explaining to a would-be anthologist who asked, just how I had selected works for my anthology In the American Tree, how I had set up a series of rules – writers had to have appeared in two or more contexts from a specific set of journals & book publishers – that gave me a core list from which I subtracted those who already had firmly established literary identities (such as Bill Berkson & Larry Eigner), those who were not primarily working in the United States (Steve McCaffery, Tom Raworth) & those who had either apparently stopped writing or were principally involved in another art form (Curtis Faville, David Gitin, Abigail Child). I had noted that while all of the exclusions were regrettable & some had proven controversial (as in fact were some of the inclusions), what I found myself most often regretting from the entire process was that I had not gone ahead and at least include Curtis Faville’s great poem of the 1970s, “Aubade.” It goes like this:

 

Light

tousle of damp hair

on the forehead

blur of leaf

and yellow sprinkling

of sun across the

window-sill – real

butter; crisp

sweet and toasted

at the edge

warming up around

the wrists

they creak slightly

and the eyes

rust; solid

functional wooden

cupboard from which

a dishtowel, red stripe

at each end, tumbles

into the light,

the rub of it

over wheezy nose;

sloshing mouth

and bowl spinning

noises, the

toilet; the tulips

beside the garbage cans,

even a black one,

coffee-grounds and

grapefruit rinds

mixed nicely with

cinnamon and

aluminum pop-top

cans, a dozen;

oatmeal flesh numb

but horny, errands

that keep us

apart; salty

shoulder, the

grovel of steamrollers

rolling sunlight

over the asphalt or

a yellow streetcleaner

with giant brushes

that rinse; the nightlight

forgotten until noon,

swapping curtains

for bathrobes or a

blush”-towel, blue

yellow or seagreen;

delicate crush

of cellophane or packed

lunchbags; cold

gold ring, the first

thing, reaching over the

bed, the clock full

of water or dripping

with darkness; the grass

knifing up through

leaves face-down, birds

looking worried but

proud, a little frenetic,

bobbing; first

swish of vehicles over

the breathing roads,

coughing motors, scattering

at crossroads; wall

of white tiles or

pills dissolving on

the tongue; wobble of

dripping milk cartons,

soft torn webs

behind the eyes and

brassiness like a

bit behind the tongue;

shuddering whistle

blowing the top

off a factory of

grammar school; fatigue

like planned

obsolescence in the

marrow – built-in

bone-dry or allergic

to the clouds

in the sky; iris wide-eyed

but coy in its bed;

sap returning like air

to a butterfly’s

wings, slowly opening

and closing like first

breath; tropical vine

drooping like an eyelid

under the eaves, one

side of the house

still asleep in the shade,

bricks slanting

out of the ground

wet from brittle snails;

the doorknob befuddling

in its simplicity,

the door a blank; moths

flapping like bats

from mouths held open

with toothpicks; un-

foldable newspaper with

totalitarian BOLDFACE;

chainsaws bawling

over the bark;

yawns steep as mines

or wells with

shaggy moss; the stranded

frog splashed in the

street, cats

sniffing it; unplugged a

cork in the ear

floats away, a fly

stuck to the wall, drugged;

soap streams

and squeaks, a dull

razor in the trash;

white foam cool

and stiff, hushed-

up; combing the sparks

from my hair, that

bright blue arc

beside the switch in the

hallway; and then

a record, something

spiny like Scarlatti

or heavy and driving like

the Stones; that lush

static off the diamond

scratching plastic;

paint chipped, blistered

peeling or powdered,

white siding shutterless,

roomfuls of night, eating

it up; putting out

flames right from the fore-

head, a cock, crowing

from God knows where, dirty

and well-laid

scratching up fire

from hard earth; probably

not possible, I didn’t

go to sleep, sat up all

night and just

to say it a little differently,

washed-out and touchy

a whole day ahead

of me.

 

Twenty-eight years after this poem first floored me when it led off Ready, a mimeo & staple volume published by Adventures in Poetry, retyping it simply for the pleasure of putting her leaves me positively dancing with excitement. Of course, I am obviously the right reader for this poem: its aesthetic of plenitude, of description for the sake of detail, plays right into the poetry I was writing then. As it still plays into my own aesthetic all these many years later.

 

The poem reappeared two years later in Stanzas for an Evening Out, one of the best books of that decade, possibly even the best. A 203-page volume published in what was, for a generation just coming into its 30s in the mid-70s, a large edition, 950 paperback copies & 50 hard cover, Stanzas was & still is an awesome demonstration first of ambition & achievement, but also of deep ambivalence toward the poem. In some ways, the book was designed precisely as a farewell to writing.

 

The title of the very first poem, “Second Generation,” offers a clue as to the origin of Faville’s great discomfort with poetry. To a degree unmatched in his generation (or for that matter, since), Faville had an uncanny ear for the poetry of his time & was an almost perfect mimic of any writer’s style. Here, for example, is Faville’s version of Grenier, an untitled poem:

 

This morning got up saw

 

THE WHITE GEESE

 

IN THE WHITE GRASS

 

then went back to sleep

 

One that recalls the first phase of Objectivism (especially Reznikoff) is entitled “Ghosts”:

 

The wire wheels of the Stutz Bearcat

when time applied the brakes

I saw the sensuous manifold

breathe the fumes of another age

 

“The Knife in the Water,” a poem whose subtitle acknowledges that it is “(after Polanski)” also keeps an eye on Robert Creeley’s use of enjambment:

 

The object is

to keep the

knife between

the fingers of

 

the woman

spreading her

vast spaces

apart from

 

rain which

falls upward

through the

sail’s arc

like pick-up sticks

 

Bill Berkson, Larry Eigner, Louis Zukofsky, Jimmy Schuyler, Anselm Hollo & William Carlos Williams turn up again & again in these poems, often in complex duos – thus in “Aubade” I hear echoes of both Schuyler & Zukofsky, two New Yorkers not normally associated with one another. Ashbery & O’Hara & Berrigan also turn up, though less often. It’s a particularly 1970s gathering – very white male, for one thing – in part because the Creeley that turns up is the Creeley of Words & Pieces & in part because Grenier, who at that point still was close to unknown outside of a relatively tight circle of like-minded writers, is so visibly the uniting influence here, as though Faville has somehow found the Grenier in Berkson, the Grenier in Schuyler, the Grenier even in Williams:

 

I

hear

 

huge

fragments

 

of music an

amplified guitar

 

makes to sound

like

 

trees in the

wind.

 

After Stanzas, Faville stopped writing for a while, then produced a short chapbook mostly of prose pieces called Wittgenstein’s Door, published by Tuumba in 1980. If Faville has written anything in the past 23 years, I haven’t seen it.

 

There are different ways one might read a volume such as Stanzas. One would be to dismiss it as a derivative project that invariably had to come to an end. This, I think, would be a serious mistake. Faville is, or was, derivative in much the same way as Robert Duncan, a self-proclaimed derivative poet*, using influences as tools, critiquing them in the same instant as he employs their devices.

 

One might also view the work as an instance in which a gifted student never finds his own “voice.” Again, this reading would be a mistake. If anything, Stanzas can be read as a devastating critique of the concept of voice, which was far more seriously ascendant in the politics of poetry in the 1970s than it is today.

 

Rather, I read this work – and I think this is both the most accurate & most fruitful approach – as if it were an argument with Grenier. Faville shares much if not all of Grenier’s analysis of the limits of a writing in which The Literary has been superimposed. What Faville doesn’t share is Grenier’s conclusion. The same set of constraints that led Grenier into language & the ultra-minimalism of Sentences – really a mode of magnification, the tiniest elements blown up under the microscope of inspection – to something beyond what most of us have traditionally thought of as writing, which comes out in Grenier’s work as drawn poems, as “scrawl,” take Faville to a position that shares more than a little with, say, Laura Riding, or with the last sentence of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus:

 

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Whose influence stylistically is not in evidence in Faville’s work. Nor is Olson’s. Faville’s interest in Creeley clearly did not spread to the more ponderous Projectivists.



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