Friday, March 07, 2003

One thing about the Internet: when you get it wrong, you can be corrected from a great distance almost instantly. From Capetown, South Africa, Robert Berold & Paul Wessels, the publishers of Deep South, whose books include Seitlhamo Motsapi’s earthstepper/the ocean is very shallow, identify a thread I missed entirely in my reading of one of Motsapi’s poems in Tripwire 6:

dear ron silliman
we think you are making too much of the obscurity of seitlhamo motsapi's poem. how about simply
moni = money
culculatahs = calculators (with pretensions)
conputers = computers (with the con of capitalism)

robert berold+ paul wessels
Moni being money brings the stanza I was most confused by into much greater focus:

their kisses bite
like the deep bellies of conputers
the gravy of their songs
smells like the slow piss of culculatahs

But I wasn’t arguing for the obscurity of Motsapi’s poem, only my own difficulty at knowing how “to grasp some portion of the references & allusions without importing too many.” While I thought conputers  was clear enough, the initial “cul” of culculatahs threw me – I still don’t hear it, although the reference back now to moni pulls the chain of elements into a single overarching scheme of references tightly enough. The problem, if it is one, is that I personally lack the context – literally – for hearing moni as money, there simply isn’t enough diversity among the speakers in my social milieu for that to strike me as a probable variant. My own ignorance here simply underscores the question I was raising. Happily, though, my conclusion that “I don’t need to know this in order to recognize that ‘moni’ is an unquestionably wonderful poem” still stands. Motsapi strikes me as a poet absolutely worth reading, regardless of how much cultural baggage I need to shed in order to do so.

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Thursday, March 06, 2003

A couple of people wrote to suggest that my general list of outsider poets was far too “inside.” Michael Helsem notes that

Xexox Sutra Editions (now Xexoxial Endarchy) published several writers who must be considered bonafide "outsiders", notably the artist/poet Malok (who is now online); his drawings in particular bear comparison with anything at Lausanne...

Chris Sullivan, editor [if bricolage can be called editing] of the excellently weird zine, Journal of Public Domain, comments:

Todays discussion of "outsiders" got me to wonder [sic] if you are aware of the "song-poem" genre.

There's a website devoted to it, and I'm forwarding a link to a page about Thomas Guygax

To which I would note that, yep, these guys are so far outside that they need to carry sun block. In general, the writers I listed were successful poets who, for various reasons, live or lived pretty marginally, at least in economic or social terms. But, since the original note from Jason Earls to which I was responding invoked Henry Darger as its example, the hospital janitor & pedophile painter/novelist whose work would have been lost had not his landlord been an art-savvy professional photographer who discovered the paintings & writing among Darger’s effects after this escapee from a “home for the feeble minded” passed away, perhaps I should have been thinking further outside the box.

These notes harkened me back to my work with the Tenderloin Writers Workshop in San Francisco between 1979 & ’81, and some of the writers there, especially Harley Kohler, a bearded (!) cross-dresser who wrote generally obscene sonnets in a language given almost entirely over to neologisms, or “Spider” James Taylor, a young man who penned long, obsessive novels with a gritty comic-book realism. The Workshop – which had a “no guns in class” rule that I made up on the spot one evening – included an amazing diversity of inner-city perspectives, from drug-addicted street people to senior women who would crochet while listening to the different readers, then simply comment something like, “Well, I think all junkies should be shot, present company excepted.” A few of the writers who participated in the workshop – Mary Tall Mountain, Bob Harrison, Charles Bivins – went on to publish quite successfully. But one of the strongest memories I have of the group was an evening in which Bob Holman, traveling through San Francisco, dropped by in time to watch two of the writers, one from New Orleans, the other from the Caribbean, disagree on the nature of Santeria &, accordingly, cast curses upon one another.

There were even writers in the Tenderloin in those years whose lives proved so far outside that even the notably free-ranging workshop was far too confining. One man, whose name I only knew as Douglas, would pen long, mostly unreadable texts in black magic marker on the neighborhood’s few very scrawny trees.

One of the things I like most about Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945 (Wisconsin, 1989) is how Nelson constructs a panorama of the entire range of between-wars poetry starting with one of its most “despised” subgenres, leftwing doggerel published in “non-literary” political tabloids. The idea that the whole of writing might be continuous may be something of a theoretical fiction – it’s much more like overlapping tectonic plates – but Nelson’s tour-de-force (the book is a single long prose meditation on the violence hidden in canonization, while the footnotes, which consume half or more of almost every page, constitute a history of one period of American letters as detailed as any written) does demonstrate just how much further beyond the traditionally conceived boundaries belle lettre truly extends.

Everywhere, people write. My experience of the Tenderloin was that I got to see manuscripts from perhaps two percent of the adult community in any given year. Extrapolate that out across the population of the United States & you get a number in the millions. Indeed, the 1,000 actively publishing writers in the Philadelphia region that Robin’s Book Store claims to have in its database would, at that rate, represent only one percent of all the local people who actually write.  Now, inner city communities with large populations of the retired as well as the disabled may well prove to have more writers than the exurbs of quiet desperation, simply because these segments of the population have that rarest of commodities, surplus time, but the general principle itself still stands.

Over the years, I’ve learned an enormous amount from writers like Harley Kohler & Spider Taylor. These writers don’t necessarily connect to poetry as a social practice, though they do, it seems, very much rely on its role as a personal one.* They make it possible for me to see, however fleetingly, just which presumptions I might be making with regards to my own poetry. How publishing itself is predicated on a long list of such presumptions. Should I count these people in my roster of “outsider poets”? I think that may be a definitional question, but I absolutely count them among my own significant influences.

*Kohler in particular got to know some of the other poets in the Bay Area, such as Lyn Hejinian. His partner at one point was a caretaker in the first board-&-care home that Larry Eigner lived in when he first moved to Berkeley.


Wednesday, March 05, 2003


Dear Ron,

Since it seems like yr blog has become somewhat of a forum as of late, I figured I forward you this email exchange and ask your opinion on the aesthetics of dissent...

I sent four poems, including the following, the most straight-forward of the bunch, to a student organizing a Poets Against the War reading in MA:

a black mirror for the capital


Decision can still the clock’s hands,
wrap the moment in a voluminous straightjacket.

In the room, six flights underground,
two men wear identical keys around their necks, waiting,

as though the gears of the earth could be silenced
by the flick of a wrist.

Rubble, a suffix for the burning city,
a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks.


It’s clear enough:
the gutted chassis of a pickup in black & white.

& you’ve seen the girl, naked & screaming,
arms splayed as though she could take flight

from the road—from this heat.
The body shackles memory beneath the skin,

raises a map of welts:
the blueprints for a massive ark.


Will a sandbag stop a bullet,
keep a hot-air balloon from melting near the sun

Will staring at a solar-eclipse burn the retinas,
is the reflection in a puddle safe

Will the rats grow too large
to squeeze out from under the floorboards

Will Sacajawea haul her child
out of the prison of our new coin

Will she still point toward the river


Someone once asked me
what forgiveness feels like,

now I’d know to take my finger
& trace the mortar

between the bricks
of an abandoned fire station.

This was the student's reply:

      I'm happy to tell you that we have sorted through the submissions for the "Poetry in Protest" event, and some of your writing has been approved for the reading. Because of the density of most of your writing, we suggest that you only read a small piece of "a black mirror for the capital." We would like you to read only the first part of the poem, ending with "a coat stitched from the strikepads of empty matchbooks". We felt the rest of it, while good, was a bit too abstract for the setting.
      We are asking all participating poets to be at the West
Lecture Hall of Franklin Paterson Hall by 6:45 on the night of the reading, Thursday, March 6. We will get you seated up front at that time, and give you the details of how the reading will proceed (we haven't figured it all out yet). There will be a mic for you to use in case you're a quiet reader. You are encouraged to read slowly, and if you like you may say a few words about how you feel about the war before you begin your poem. We want this to be a relaxed and personal event, which is one of the reasons we opted for one of the smaller lecture halls. Looking forward to seeing you there. Email or call me with any questions.

Sean Bishop.

And here was my reply to Sean:

Dear Sean,

Let me say that it's great that you've been working on putting together this reading. It's an important event, important not because it gives folks a chance to read, rather in that it's able to offer poets a forum to publicly show their dissent against the atrocious policies of our current government; however, I'm a bit taken aback at your policing of the aesthetics of dissent. I'd completely understand if it were merely a question of time constraints, but to use a phrase like "too abstract for the setting," is problematic for me on two accounts.

Firstly, it seems to me to be a judgment not of the effectiveness of the poem to convey whatever it's attempting to convey, but a judgment of the notion of audience. I take it to mean that you want to make sure everyone "understands" the poems, that everyone is able to leave each poem with the sense that, yes, that poem is against the war, that yes, I get it, which is exactly the problem of war: it's not that simple.

Secondly, war is just about the most abstract thing to us Americans that there is. We won't see any of it on tv. Our lives will go on as usual, a bit foggy perhaps with the idea that people are dying somewhere. War really is the ultimate abstraction. That said, I wanted to let you know that I just wouldn't feel comfortable reading in such a setting and have decided that I won't attend the event. I hope it goes well, and again, it's great that you've been working to bring the event into existence.

Noah Eli Gordon

I'm just wondering where you stand on the issue of poetry of dissent, what is poetry of dissent? It seems like the last issue of the Poetry
Project newsletter took some of your comments out of context, so perhaps you could address the issue.


I asked Sean Bishop for permission to run his letter here, which he immediately gave with a couple of tiny edits, also suggesting that I should include his response to Noah:

    I'm sorry our decision upsets you, but I rather resent your remark about "policing the aesthetics of dissent." We had to make editorial decisions. These decisions were not always based entirely on the quality of the work (whatever that word means.) We weren't judging your capabilities as a poet, but yes, we were making some aesthetic decisions. The length of your poem was the largest factor in this. A short abstract poem can be appropriate for a reading setting, but yours is quite long, and we suspected the audience would be entirely lost by the beginning of the third page/section. Paul and I both felt that the piece began to lose its grounding after the first part, which is entirely capable of standing alone as a poem, and which is really quite striking all by itself.

     You wrote that you thought this was less a judgment of the effectiveness of the poem to convey its message, and more a judgment of the audience. In truth, both are true. We don't want everyone to "get" what every poem means, or to know with certainty that a poem is "against the war." We do want them to understand the bare bones of the poem: what is it talking about? where is it? how does one image lead to another or engage in dialogue with another? the messages insinuated from the imagery and language of a poem do not need to be comprehended immediately, but for the purposes of a verbal reading, we felt a certain sense of continuity was necessary.

     Yes, war is an abstract concept for Americans. No, the war is not simple. Perhaps I should have used a better word than "abstract" to explain your poem, but the only other word I could think of was "convoluted", which sounds like an attack. I'm sorry you won't be attending the event. You seem to feel that we were searching for a particular aesthetic, and anyone who didn't fit into that aesthetic was rejected, which simply isn't true. We have formalists, slam poets, and everyone in between reading at this event.

Best wishes,
Sean Bishop

I should say at the outset that I think both Gordon & Bishop are motivated here by the best possible intentions – and their mutual willingness to share this correspondence reflects that.

Having said that, the poem & correspondence itself raises questions. While I think it is possible enough to argue that the poem loses a little focus in its third section, the second – clearly grounded in part by Nick Ut’s infamous 1972 photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phuc with her clothes burned off by napalm – can hardly be called either abstract or convoluted. It’s one of the most widely recognized visual images associated with the atrocities of war.

What I do hear in Bishop’s words, especially in his second letter, is a question of intelligibility & yet if I look at the text of Gordon’s poem, no such problem even remotely exists. So I go back to Bishop’s own words, noting that he argues that the event would have “formalists, slam poets and everyone in between.” That’s an interesting phrase, precisely because it describes only a narrow segment of the literary community, maybe 25 percent of the possible range. My immediate association was to the way in which television, & PBS in particular, has tended to represent the political left through people like Mark Shields, a Democrat in name only who positions himself well to the right of center. Thus PBS can have debates between the center and far right and pretend to be representing the entire spectrum of ideas.

Bishop underscores my association in his second letter when he suggests that a reader would not get “the bare bones of the poem.” To not get the bare bones suggests a reading problem as well as fairly stunning lack of historical memory. If anything, the second section’s association of Vietnam’s brutality with other instances of devastation – I think it’s possible to associate the “gutted chassis of a pickup” with both the first Gulf War & the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, an ambiguity I believe Gordon intends: the final image of the “abandoned fire station” is being set up this much in advance.

Bishop’s phrase reminds me of all the times I’ve heard language poetry – I’m not suggesting that Gordon is in any way a langpo or even post-langpo – described as difficult or unintelligible or, in the words of Robert Swards immortal review of Clark Coolidge’s Flag Flutter & U.S. Electric, printed in Poetry back in March, 1967, “a psychedelic outpouring,” “verbal hop-scotch,” & the ever popular “chic, trivial piling up of images.” Bishop doesn’t go this far with Gordon, but he doesn’t need to. The problem in some ways reflects Kit Robinson’s wise observation that the only people who ever found language poetry difficult were a group of graduate students who no longer knew how to read. Having read my own work in the Maximum Security Library at Folsom, I know that Robinson’s take is generally accurate – there’s nothing difficult about such writing unless one brings preconceptions about poetry to the text that render all but a very narrow range fairly opaque. I’m going to test this again tomorrow, when I teach seven fifth-grade classes at a suburban middle school here on the Main Line.

School environments of course are notorious – with reason – for their lack of openness to the new. One can simply read the reviews of the student John Ashbery in the archives of the Harvard Crimson, an online archive that goes back to the 19th century. But at least Ashbery & Koch were noted as student writers there – Creeley appears to have been the invisible undergrad.

I have no idea what Bishop’s aesthetic commitments might be, whether he positions himself in that tiny conceptual slice between slam poetics & formalism – two genre that depend mostly on the same literary devices, contextualized differently – or in the far broader terrain where the bulk of American poetry has thrived for the past two centuries.

With regard to Gordon’s final question of the forum in the Poetry Project Newsletter, I’ve heard about the forum from several people – one contributor wrote me an apology – but I actually haven’t seen the issue, the first one I seem to have missed in several years.

On a more positive note, the poem I contributed to Poets Against the War finally has appeared on its database, missing only its title (sigh).

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Tuesday, March 04, 2003

Rob Stanton has some follow-up questions.

Dear Ron,

Huge thanks for your thorough and thoughtful blog-response to my query about Engines. I think I was hoping that you might say something more about collaboration in general, just as you did - the proliferation of poet/poet and poet/artist collaborations in the current poetic climate is something I find particularly fascinating (just thinking about examples you mention, I recently read - and loved - Leningrad, and the idea behind The Grand Piano seems both interesting in itself and strangely inevitable). I was intrigued that you picked "A"-24 as a possible precedent - I too feel distinctly ambivalent about whether it really does 'cap' "A" (and whether that sort of 'terminal' idea was tenable in the first place). In a sort of sentimental way, I think it does - making semi-actual the scene envisioned in "A"-11: music, words and performance. Apart from that, the nature of the collaboration in "A"-24 seems particularly complicated: firstly, there is Celia Zukofsky's work in setting Zukofsky's words to music, then there is the actual presence of Handel's music (suggesting a Handel/Zukofsky interaction, mediated by Celia), and then there's the question of whether the four 'voices' of Zukofsky presented actual represent a unified 'whole' (one of the joys of that Factory School site is the recording of the 'live' version organised by Barrett Watten*).

Given your point about how collaboration provides an opportunity to sidestep and/or interrogate the 'raging control freak' aspect inherent in an individual 'style', I was also interested in your mention of 'the metabolism of one's own processes'. I'm not sure to what degree you intended the biological inference, but this immediately put me in mind of Olson's repeated emphasis on the physicality of the poet/m. I've always felt that his talk about the individual 'breath' of the poet was strangely close to mainstream whitterings about the necessity of 'individual voice' etc., despite the very different poetic 'ends' advocated. Is 'self' inevitable in poetry? Does the inevitable communality of collaboration offer a real alternative, or does it simply place the problem at one remove (I hate to admit it, but despite the efforts toward some kind of group expression in Leningrad , I found it hard not to 'see' differing styles in the separate passages)? Or, to put it another way, if the problem with most mainstream poetry is the foregrounding of 'unified self' as end rather than mean, is all poetry simply somewhere along a sliding style of degrees-of-leaning-on-personal-experience? (I've been reading The Prelude recently and have been intrigued by the incredibly arbitrary and piecemeal nature of the Wordsworthian 'epiphany' on a larger canvas.) You've written of 'the abstract lyric' before in your blog in relation to the work of Barbara Guest, but is such a thing 100% possible?

Anyway, this has been a horribly rambling email. Apologies in advance, and thanks again.

All the best,

Rob Stanton

The question of the person, in Olson or in collaboration, is invariably a difficult topic, precisely because works are written by individuals, either singly or in groups, & yet we know that “the individual” itself is a complex & internally contradictory construction. If we follow the cognitive scientists and neurobiologists, one of the first things we will discover is that, even within the human being, there is no “monad,” no single site of thought or language. Rather, different portions of the brain work in conjunction to apprehend our world & build responses to it – many of these occur below the level of consciousness & outside of our waking life.

When Olson first began to produce the poems for which we remember him today in the late 1940s, he actually appears to have been almost the only poet in the United States to demonstrate any awareness – more anticipation than knowledge, really – of these issues. In his “Bibliography on America for Ed Dorn,” first written in 1955, one year ahead of Ginsberg’s Howl, Olson notes that “millennia . . .  & . . . person”

are not the same as either
time as history or as the
individual as single

The first three pages of “Proprioception,” written six years later & easily Olson’s most ambitious & successful critical project, show O working through this problem, this question, at great length. He is so concerned with place that he is driven to find such, somewhere. Proprioception itself, kinesthesia, one’s awareness of the actual physical rubbing together of one’s inner organs, the growl of the stomach & peristaltic pulse of the bowels, is for Olson a key, an awareness that precedes any other mode of knowing – “I am I because my little gut knows me.” The body for Olson is the place of the unconscious. The “soul,” an entity with which Olson was much obsessed, proved to be profoundly physical. Projection – the meat of his practice as a writer, a (literally) Projectivist poet –

is discrimination (of the object from the subject) and the unconscious is the universe flowing-in, inside.

Maximus, this great comic persona that both is & is not Olson – and most certainly is not Russell Crowe – represents O’s attempt to have it all ways. And while Olson is most certainly not the only poet among the New Americans to push the person beyond its traditional boundaries & unveil the constructedness of such “natural” categories – think of Kerouac’s “Imitation of the Tape” in Visions of Cody, Burroughs’ use of cut-ups in Naked Lunch & The Ticket that Exploded, Spicer’s theory of Martian radio – Olson appears to have been the only one to have had a critical understanding of the question, as such.

So, sure, there is a fair amount of persona floating about Maximus that is not so terribly different in its own way from the imaginary blue-collar worker Phil Levine posits in his “I.” The self in such poetry is largely a type, & I always think of the stereotypical signals thereof worn by the ‘70s rock group The Village People: you can tell which one Levine would have been, though I fear that may be Olson under the feathered headdress. Bly’s serape, Blackburn’s cowboy hat & Duncan’s purple cape were hardly more subtle. Yet it’s Olson, among all of these, who understands not only that it’s funny, but that there are issues here, & as such worth exploring.

That “worth exploring” is, I think, the answer to the question of whether or not “self” is finally inescapable. It will always be, like “the social,” one possible horizon among several, regardless of how nuanced our understanding of its composition might become. After all, how far have we advanced in this regard from Shakespeare’s Lear, responding with a quartet of words that operate like a series of concentric circles, moving from the outer inward: Edgar I nothing am? The same response – worth exploring – is, I suspect, also the underlying principle beneath the continued attraction of the abstract lyric, even if I personally find the issue less compelling. The answer to Stanton’s question’s isn’t ultimately so much why as it is why not?

 * For some reason, the Factory School site fails to credit Bob Perelman, though my understanding is that it was Bob who initiated this collective process in the first place as well as substituting his piano for Handel’s harpsichord. In my video copy of the November 15, 1978 San Francisco State performance, it is Perelman whom Poetry Center director Tom Mandel has introduce the event in addition to his performance therein.

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Monday, March 03, 2003

Sometime this morning, around 10 AM East Coast time, we will have our 20,000th visitor. The ratio of 1.4 pages read per visit continues even though we’ve expanded the length of the top page from 10 to 14 days. It took nearly four months to reach the 10,000 visitor mark, just two months & one week to reach the 20,000 threshold. Thanks for all your support.


Slought is a sizeable storefront gallery in an abandoned bank, complete with vault, at the southwest corner of the University of Pennsylvania campus, right about the point where university-sponsored development comes face-to-face with the low-income African-American community that is its neighbor. Were it not for the brand-new movie multiplex and natural foods market on steroids on the same block, one might be inclined to view Slought itself as a form of gentrification*. Compared with these new neighbors, however, Slought seems as frail & endangered as any of the older businesses or residences in the vicinity.

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 America – it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Levy that this stuff is supposed to be difficult. Ten years from now, several of the larger & older cultural institutions in Philadelphia are going to be wondering just how a 20-something kid managed to trump all their endowments & professional expertise.

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), Minnesota (Mark Nowak), Calgary (Louis Cabri), DC (Jules Boykoff, Kaia Sand), New York (Jeff Derksen, Kristin Prevallet, Rodrigo Toscano, Carol Mirakove, Laura Elrick, and Alan Gilbert) and even Philadelphia (Josh Schuster). It was one of those events where, twenty years from now, you will know 200 people who claim to have attended. But I’m here to tell you that there were just fifty in actual attendance on Friday & 12 of them were the poets. It was, as a result, a relatively intimate gathering of some of the best minds of a generation that is just now hitting its stride.

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 “Iraq.”

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 Indochina not as a discussion focused on horror, but on language:

Use the words
          language, language
                   “A bad guess” . . .

The war is language
          language abused
                   for Advertisement
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 Wichita in a VW minibus, that has been absent in virtually all of the antiwar texts that I’ve read or heard to date related to Iraq: a fundamental empathy for the very human beings who are ordering what we might well believe to be atrocities.

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 text that seeks agreement, or which seeks to demonize anyone. It was the problem of agreement that hung most heavily over The Social Mark on Friday – poets who had no difficulty agreeing with one another, but who seemed unable to articulate a vision of the critical in their own work that might move beyond a simple consensus. Further, the articulation of that very agreement seemed to me to make it harder to hear the quieter texts – thus Derksen’s punctuation of his reading with the names of nations & numbers (“Angola 97,” “Algeria 84”) or Cabri’s own reiteration of “the A4 was renamed the V2” or Laura Elrick’s image of “oil barons groping” or Carol Mirakove reading from Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, made it just that much more difficult to find the center of Alan Gilbert’s comments on time, or to understand why David Buuck’s use of stuttering & gagging noises in his own reading was so aggressively anti-performative, almost the antithesis of Toscano’s scat variants, or why Nowak’s aesthetics of historic documentation focuses on the Wobbly’s role in the Minnesota mines. Or, for that matter, how to balance the well-polished finish of Sand’s texts in the context of Mirakove reading from handwritten manuscripts,deep green ink in a spiral-bound notebook. Or why Josh Schuster’s short prose pieces seem so determined to push the idea of the Kafka-esque so much further than it has gone before.

In his excellent weblog on Sunday, Nick Piombino writes, give or take a typo, “There is nothing to compare with the pleasure of allowing poems to meet me halfway.” Piombino is referring I think to the process of writing, but the same rings true for the process of reading. Signaling for agreement instantly collapses the process into one of having no such room for maneuver, even when, in fact, one does agree. If nothing else, it’s almost always the weakest move tactically.  Again, let me make Ginsberg the example. As good as “Hūm Bomb” might be, there is virtually no room for the reader inside the text. You “get it,” more or less instantly, or you don’t – and woe unto the reader who doesn’t agree with the poem of concurrence!

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 Indochina, small town life in Kansas & bureaucratic gridlock in Washington. If you understood the poem, supporting the continued slaughter of innocents, theirs & ours alike, was simply unimaginable.

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, Lytle Shaw, Brian Kim Stefans, Kevin Davies, Juliana Spahr & Jenna Osman all would have been present if that were the case) and it was interesting to note that two of the poets included were part of the famous Apex of the M editorial staff, and that one, Toscano, shows up on Stefans’ mysterious list of “Creep poets.” I would like to have heard them take up the question of the social and to see if they made greater use of the critical texts that are, at least for the present, included on the Slought website for the occasion than they did the poetry posted.
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.

* Bank building preservation is a recognized mode of gentrification in Philadelphia. Two of the city’s most expensive downtown hotels, the Ritz Carlton and Loews, are situated in former bank headquarters facilities. Loews still illuminates the giant PSFS neon sign – the first neon sign in the U.S. – standing for the long defunct Philadelphia Saving Fund Society.

** 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.

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