Saturday, March 15, 2003

 

It can be interesting when a great poet writes something that doesn’t quite work. There are more than a few examples of this particular sub-genre, but the poem I’ve been contemplating has been Lorine Niedecker’s “Thomas Jefferson.” It’s not in any particular sense a bad poem – the lesser works of top-level poets are often better than virtually everything else out there. But contrasted with Niedecker’s extraordinary gift for the minute details of daily life, this textbook reconstruction of the revolution’s second Renaissance man (Franklin having been the first) has the air of an exercise. One can see, for example, the influence of Pound & Pound pretty much at his worst at that, the Van Buren Cantos as a model for historical portraiture. Given Niedecker’s radically different art, the parts of it all never quite cohere. Yet portions, as with all her writing, nonetheless border on brilliance – reading it gave me the sense of attending a beautiful car crash.

 

Niedecker did not so much write serial poems as she did poetic series & this is one example of that aspect of her work. Unlike most of those poems, “Jefferson” is for the most part marked off not by periods or asterisks separating individual sections but by Roman numerals* – possibly an allusion to Jefferson’s attraction to classical & neo-classical thought, but also I suspect as a mechanism for registering her own discomfort or distance.

 

But if “Jefferson” is a car wreck, its mode of presentation is the freeze frame. The nineteen sections function as though it were a museum diorama – each captures a moment of Jefferson’s history, albeit not the traditional high points. What seems to attract Niedecker to Jefferson is precisely that quality that has so often been associated with her own very different life – his isolation. Thus we see him thinking of his wife’s illness while waiting for a quorum, dealing with migraines, his indebtedness, the death of his daughter, the loss of some slaves.

 

This sense of alone-ness reminded me of another Niedecker poem about a very different president, “J. F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs”:

 

To stand up

 

black-marked tulip

not snapped by the storm

“I’ve been duped by the experts”

 

and walk

the South Lawn

 

Niedecker can see the isolation in anyone.

 

It’s worth noting that the extraneous detail here – “black-marked tulip / not snapped by the storm” – which actually takes up one-third of the lines in this taut little poem, is something that doesn’t really occur at all in “Jefferson” – perhaps Niedecker thought the poem’s diffuseness, spread out over six-plus pages, couldn’t accommodate it – yet this tulip is precisely why the JFK poem proves so very powerful. To reduce the couplet to an “objective correlative,” as would have happened once upon a time, misses its function entirely. Rather it is the contrast that throws the human reactions entirely into relief.

 

There is a famous photograph taken by Yoko Ono of John Lennon’s glasses resting on a table in their apartment at the Dakota. One lens is still splattered with Lennon’s blood. Through the other lens one can sort of see the view out the window, that expansive sense of New York’s skyline at a distance because one is actually looking eastward across Central Park. But next to this fashion accessory that in the post-Beatles years had become Lennon’s signature, virtually his logo**, stands a plain glass of water – through it the skyline is far more visible. As with the tulip in Niedecker’s poem, it is still water in the glass, not the blood of John Lennon’s murder, that anchors the drama around it.

 

 

 

 

 

* There are asterisks, but within sections.

 

** He wore them first for his role in Richard Lester’s 1967 anti-war film, How I Won the War. They were seen by most people for the first time on the cover of the inaugural issue of Rolling Stone.



Friday, March 14, 2003

 

Yesterday, Matthew Zapruder made some comments in his email here that are worth examining in greater depth, both for what they say and what they presume. The context you will recall was some poetry by Noah Eli Gordon that was rejected from a poetry reading being staged in opposition to the impending war on Iraq. This was not a general all-purpose rally of the sort one gets in Central Park, on the Mall in DC or marching up Market Street in San Francisco – it was a poetry reading. The people coming to it were, presumably, anticipating the presence of poetry. So when the organizers of the event rejected some poetry on the grounds of difficulty, I questioned their judgment. The poem, in point of fact, was not terribly difficult, but what if it had been? Would that have made a difference? For Zapruder, whose work as a translator I’ve noted with approval here before, it does make a difference. Thus he asks:

 

Are Ashbery's "Leaving Atocha Station," or Mina Loy, or Shakespeare's sonnets for that matter, as easily apprehendible on first reading as let's say Philip Larkin or Charles Simic? I'm not talking about the further and endless levels of complexity in a good poem, regardless of its surface. Just its surface. A poem does have a surface, doesn't it?

 

I guess it just comes down to whether or not one is willing to grant that the notion of "difficulty" has any place at all in poetry. That's an interesting discussion, and one worth having here and elsewhere. But in this particular case, right or wrong, the organizers of that reading in good faith seem to believe in that distinction, and genuinely thought that Noah's poem was too difficult to work effectively in that situation.

 

It’s the belief in that distinction I want to question. Not because I want to bludgeon this particular event into the ground, but rather because a decision predicated upon that distinction stands as a metonym for a wider range of behavior that occur in & around poetry in this society.

 

It’s a distinction that underlay a decision by one post-New American writer I know over a decade ago to not recommend Robert Grenier for the short list for a teaching position at his school, a state university. This writer not only fully understood Grenier’s reputation among his peers as a poet, but also Grenier’s reputation as an innovative, engaged teacher in the classroom. “I just cannot bring myself to deal with the backlash,” is, in essence if not in words, how he explained his decision to me at the time, “if I recommend somebody whose most important work is a box.”

 

I could replicate other examples of this same sort of decision-making all across the continent with respect to jobs, to publications, to grants, the entire gamut of what constitutes the literary life. At one level, this is a type of thinking & acting with which Whitman had to contend. Certainly the growth of bureaucratic institutions in the wake of the Second World War, as the American post-secondary education system rapidly expanded toward what it is today, gave full reign to precisely the sorts of decisions that might be made around variants of this particular distinction. The first volume of Hank Lazer’s excellent critical work, Opposing Poetries, documents this phenomenon intelligently & carefully. Jed Rasula’s American Poetry Wax Museum does likewise.

 

The distinction is not about difficulty versus simplicity – although that is one form that this question can take – nor is it about surface versus depth, nor even intelligibility versus whatever the opposite of intelligibility might be. Rather it is a distinction that has to do with expectation, the expectation of what is possible. It’s a distinction between what I – or anyone – already know and what I might now confront.

 

The school of quietude is almost entirely predicated on a pathological desire to avoid just this confrontation. Indeed, as Edgar Allen Poe observed when he first coined that phrase to describe the very same tradition that persists to this day, that is why this school is so very quiet.

 

Imagine the life experiences of a person relatively unfamiliar with poetry coming to a reading in the United States the year 2003. This person lives in a society in which the Talking Heads had a hit record singing the zaum poetry of Hugo Ball in 1977. The most surreal songs of Bob Dylan were released – and not on any indy label – some 36 years ago. Eminem crams in more social observation into any given quatrain than some Pulitzer poets have managed in their entire careers. Ditto songwriters like Townes Van Zandt or Dave Carter, to pick on a completely different musical genre, or groups like Public Enemy & NWA. And Van Zandt & Carter are both dead, and those rap groups already consigned to the remainder bins of history. Or consider, for that matter, Prince, another golden oldie who managed a career without the benefit of a word for a name for several years. The most popular motion picture of the past two years had substantial portions of dialog spoken (with subtitles) in Elvish. To pick another medium altogether, television, the audience coming to this reading will have had everything from the close attention to the spoken that is Buffy, to the narrative ambiguities – including the backwards speaking dwarf* – of Twin Peaks to the multiple layers of Max Headroom, all in the range of recent references as they gather to hear somebody read a poem. This is in 2003, 172 years after the first of Aloysius Bertrand’s prose poems. Over a century after Rimbaud & Lautréamont. Forty-seven years after Allen Ginsberg published Howl, a book so obscure that it made him a millionaire. All of the above, up to & including the Vampire Slayer, require at least as much sophistication in communication skills on the part of their various audiences as the poem submitted by Noah Eli Gordon. And when we consider the number & kinds of discourses that occur simultaneously on a single screen of CNN’s Headline News channel – let alone consider the signage visible at any instant as we walk or drive down any commercial street in America – we see that it is the surface of the univocal poem (yes, Matthew, there are surfaces)  that is the deviant experience. Whether or not we approve or disapprove is entirely another matter – but the one-dimensional surface profoundly is the exception to our experience of language, not the rule.

 

In this context, which is an ordinary context for any poetry reading in the United States, would “Leaving Atocha Station” be a complex experience? Would Mina Loy? I think the answer is patently obvious: only for readers for whom the definition of poetry has somehow become so constrained that it can only mean certain things. In fact, this does not appear to be the case for ordinary readers, those who come to the experience with no prior expectation, with no need to automatically toggle between “right” & “wrong,” easy & hard. Those readers – especially those with no poetry experience whatsoever – will associate what they hear with what they already know from other experiences of language & art in their lives. And they have plenty of adequate options. To reiterate something I’ve written on this blog more than once already, this is what underlies Kit Robinson’s claim that language poetry is difficult only for certain types of graduate students. That’s not a witty rejoinder – it’s the literal truth.

 

A few years ago, my sons, who were five at the time, got into the great puzzle books of Graeme Base, and asked me if adults had puzzle books or books that were games as well. So we read together all of Tom Philips’ A Humument and then we read the first 80 or so pages of Finnegans Wake. This morning, six years later, one of my boys asked me “What was the other name of Finnegan besides Everybody?” “Humphrey Clinker Earwicker?” I asked in reply. “Yeah, that’s it,” he said. Which is not such a bad retention level that many years later. While my kids didn’t catch all (or maybe even any) of the bawdy references in either work, neither book when read aloud can honestly be said to be too difficult for kindergartners. That doesn’t mean that the Wake necessarily works as a book – I think that Joyce’s philological approach to language led him astray – but its reputed difficulty is not a difficulty of the text itself but rather of the social context into which works such as this have been integrated – or, more accurately, marginalized – in our society.

 

Another example of how people who aren’t readers read poetry. Seven years ago, I discovered a pair of siblings I had not known that I had. Both live in the Charleston area where my half-sister works as a lay counselor in a Baptist church & my half-brother tends lawns for a living. My half-brother had one semester at Clemson when he got out of high school, but gave it up to work on shrimp boats until he started to have kids – that is the bulk of their post-secondary education. In the process of getting to know these two very sweet people, I sent them some of my books. Later, when I traveled down to Charleston to actually meet them in person, I listened as my half-brother explained my poetry to his sister as reminding him of some gardening courses he had taken & that my work seemed very much to be structured like a walk on a path: “You see one thing, then you see another.” He brought what he knew of the world to this experience that was new to him, my poetry, & was perfectly able to find frameworks that suited him just fine. This is how human beings work.

 

It’s only when you know what poetry is supposed to be and you confront something that falls outside of that framework that it starts to become genuinely hard. And that knowing what poetry “is supposed to be” is taught – it’s neither natural nor integral to the poem, but rather is superimposed over it.

 

So, yes, I will admit that there is a difference between ”Leaving Atocha Station” and the work of Philip Larkin**, but it is not a question of a difficult vs. an easy surface. Larkin wrote an impoverished poetry & Ashbery respects his readers. Larkin’s work may be apprehended on some level at a single sitting – but this is invariably a sign of deprivation. Bad TV sitcoms can be apprehended at a single sitting because there is never more than a single idea to any scene. Bad poetry is not so terribly different. But even Friends & Seinfeld have strived for more than that. I have never understood why any human being would subject others to such an information-drained experience? Why would one deliberately write a poetry of sensory deprivation?

 

The presumption underneath Zapruder’s question is that univocal, one-dimensional poetry is in some way “normal,” when in fact it is radically unlike the everyday experiences of language of any human being in this society. I won’t argue the point that there isn’t a considerable amount of such poetry around, but almost invariably univocal poetics can be traced back to structural failures in the educational system, literally funneling a segment of the population into a narrow conception of poetry that is pathologically bizarre. That the school of quietude has grown into a self-reinforcing ensemble of social institutions dedicated to the preservation of this world view is something that social psychologists of the future will no doubt have lots to say about. 

 

Historically the Left has always demonstrated considerably anxiety around all issues of culture, from the faux hillbillies of the Popular Front to John Sayle’s cinematic sermonettes. In some sense, a poetry reading against the war in Iraq, noble idea that that is, almost invites these sorts of questions. Back in 1965, I helped a little in setting up the first Vietnam Day Teach-In at the University of California in Berkeley. The chief coordinator for the entire affair was a very buttoned-down newspaper reporter from, as I recall, Cincinnati by the name of Jerry Rubin – he didn’t stay all that buttoned down for long. One of the big debates among the organizing committee for that event was whether or not to invite Michael McClure to read his poetry. Rubin opposed the idea, precisely because he feared that McClure would read from his Ghost Tantras:

 

GOOOOOOR! GOOOOOOOOOO!

GOOOOOOOOOR!

GRAHHH! GRAHH! GRAHH!

Grah goooor! Ghahh! Graaarr! Greeeeeer! Grayowhr!

Greeeeee

GRAHHRR! RAHHR! GRAHHHRR! RAHR!

RAHR! RAHHR! GRAHHHR! GAHHR! HRAHR!

BE NOT SUGAR BUT BE LOVE

looking for sugar!

GAHHHHHHHH!

ROWRR!

GROOOOOOOOOOH!

 

Some time around 1970, there was a giant reading also against the Vietnam War at Glide Church in San Francisco. All the major local figures of the New American generation were there. The m.c. for the evening, or at least for the latter part of it, was Denise Levertov. Unfortunately for her, one of the people in the overwhelmingly packed auditorium dressed in a giant pink terrycloth penis costume, as he had done at numerous demonstrations around the Bay Area, earning the rubric The People’s Prick. As I recall, the room got so crowded – it was way over the fire code allotment – that Levertov sought to alleviate the problem by having members of the audience come and sit on the stage. The problem was, The People’s Prick was among those who got up on stage & the nature of the costume was such that he couldn’t sit down. He tried to stand quietly at the back of the stage, but Levertov was having none of it. If cooler heads had not prevailed, the event would have broken down into chaos.

 

These conceptions of what events like this should be have bedeviled them forever. In some sense, the organizers of this reading were only acting as links in a larger chain of fear that they share across time with Jerry Rubin & Denise Levertov. For his part, Noah Eli Gordon, like McClure & the People’s Prick before him, with his poem that read aloud slowly lasts less than two minutes, got to play the role of the barbarian at the gate, the promise or threat of a little polysemy into a world that is sworn to avoid it.

 

But Jerry Rubin, you will note, changed his mind. Within three years of putting the kibosh on McClure’s participation in the teach-in, he would show up at the New York Stock Exchange wearing only an American flag &, in Chicago, nominate a pig for the presidency, an act that helped ignite the largest police riot in decades. Perhaps Rubin noted that what got noticed – nation-wide as it turned out – from the initial Teach-In was when Norman Mailer uttered the phrase “Hot Damn! Vietnam!” and got the radio broadcast of the event over Pacifica radio instantly pulled off the air.

 

I’m not necessarily an advocate of Rubin’s politics, fun though they might have been. But it seems apparent to me that the issue of complexity is a spectre that is going to haunt poetry forever. The reason the anti-war poems of the school of quietude, well intended as they were, had so little impact in the 1960s was because, regardless of what they said about the war, the form of their work argued (sometimes, if it was well written, forcefully) precisely for all the institutions of order as they apply to language & meaning. Sam Hamill’s sad little chapbook is merely the repetition of that history, this time as farce.

 

 

 

* Not literally backwards speaking. His role was recorded with him reading his words backwards – sdrawkcab sdrow -- & the tape was then reversed so that it sounded “frontwards,” but as if spoken from Mars.

 

** There is considerably more going on in any poem by Charles Simic, so I don’t want to extend this argument to him. I have some fondness for the soft surrealists of the 1960s: Simic, James Tate, Bill Knott. There’s more to their poetry than some of their fans seem to get.

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Thursday, March 13, 2003

 

Matthew Zapruder & Noah Eli Gordon both sent in lengthy & thoughtful responses to their exchange previously on this blog. John Erhardt, who calls his own blog The Skeptic with good reason, adds his own perspective, calling me on my use of the University of Massachusetts as a metonym for a larger phenomenon. I’m going to let everyone have their say today. I’ll respond to one key point tomorrow.

 

First, Matthew Zapruder:

 

Dear Mr. Silliman,

 

I'm glad this discussion is happening, I think it's worth talking about on many levels. So this is just to briefly clarify, in order to further focus on what I think are the real issues here.

 

Calling some poetry "difficult" is NOT necessarily to say that it is "thereby excludable." I think, on the contrary, that granting that some poems are more difficult on their surface than others is to come part way towards a readership, and an audience, with respect and humility. And thereby to help more difficult poetry, and poets, gain a wider appreciation.

 

Sure, "difficult" CAN mean "excludable," and often does. And that stinks. And we should all struggle against that. But "difficult," or "dense," or "abstract," can also just mean those things. And someone can, in good faith, use those adjectives to describe a poem without inevitably exercising a value judgment. I know I often do.

 

Are Ashbery's "Leaving Atocha Station," or Mina Loy, or Shakespeare's sonnets for that matter, as easily apprehendible on first reading as let's say Philip Larkin or Charles Simic? I'm not talking about the further and endless levels of complexity in a good poem, regardless of its surface. Just its surface. A poem does have a surface, doesn't it?

 

I guess it just comes down to whether or not one is willing to grant that the notion of "difficulty" has any place at all in poetry. That's an interesting discussion, and one worth having here and elsewhere. But in this particular case, right or wrong, the organizers of that reading in good faith seem to believe in that distinction, and genuinely thought that Noah's poem was too difficult to work effectively in that situation.

 

By making that distinction, and behaving accordingly, they should not be inevitably tarred with the brush of those who are "dumbing down density," or who "argue always against social change and for a traditionalism whose sole justification is inertia." On the contrary.

 

One can agree or disagree about the judgment the organizers made about Noah's poem. I guess I just don't think it's true that the only conclusion one can draw from someone who thinks that Noah's poem was too difficult for that situation is that they believe that the audience is "functionally illiterate." That seems too extreme. After all, on first hearing, "Will Sacajawea haul her child/out of the prison of our new coin// Will she still point toward the river" is perfectly clear linguistically, but not necessarily in any way clear thematically. One might, in good faith, say, "huh? Why did he just say that?"

 

Which is a great thing to ask people to say, really, most of the time. But maybe not all the time, in all situations. It's just a matter of degree. And the organizers were making a good faith judgment, drawing the line in this particular situation where they think it belongs.

 

However, if you don't think that the distinction between more or less complicated poetry has any meaning, then of course the only possible conclusion is that the organizers are malicious policers of the aesthetics of dissent, or cretinous victims of their own preconceptions about what poetry can do.

 

My final word is the following: hammering people who are trying to organize a war protest over a borderline judgment call about a poem that, let's face it, is not exactly "The Broken Tower," seems plain old selfish and self-absorbed. All in all, it just seems like the best thing given the horrifying and helpless situation we find ourselves in -- on the verge of being implicated in a totally unjust, hegemonic, and plain old unbearably stupid and risky war, by people whose attitude about human life is hopelessly cavalier, and whose use of language undermines the fabric of our national agreement about who we are when we are at our best -- would be to put aside our own egos, and our own tendencies to obfuscate and divert the issues (which is what the government does so horribly well), and instead to do everything we can to stop it.

 

 

From Noah Eli Gordon:

 

Dear Ron Silliman,

 

Matthew Zapruder’s recent letter entirely misses the point of my correspondence, and, regretfully, in it’s vehement assertion of my intention as self-promotion and thus self-righteousness, completely recasts the discussion until, as you remarked, his argument “more or less dissolves into smoke.”  Some of that smoke nonetheless needs addressing, if only to insure that it doesn’t mask any still smoldering embers.

 

I want to briefly address the three parts to Zapruder’s stated motivation behind his letter, which are, in my mind, collectively emblematic of the “erasure” of what you call the “post-avant community”—and all the more problematic as Zapruder is the publisher of Verse Press, which is quickly becoming one of the more important and influential new small press ventures.

 

What prompted my initial email was the desire to further a dialogue on precisely the phrase which was so troubling to Zapruder, the aesthetics of dissent. The forum section from the latest issue of The Poetry Project Newsletter featured 12 poets responding to the following:

 

From Ron Silliman’s blog: “There has…been a depoliticization of younger people generally & that has impacted poets…You see the long-term result in a lot of writing these days that is simultaneously politically correct and depoliticized, a politics really of cynicism and disgust. So this also becomes an incentive not to organize, not to write critically.”

 

From an interview with Lyn Hejinian and Bob Perelman conducted by Eric Lorberer in Rain Taxi: “Lyn Hejinian: What tends now to get identified as Language Writing is identified as such on the basis of surface characteristics, surface features—things that mark the poem as ‘experimental.’ But for us there were broader motivations for using those devices than mere aestheticism… I think poets in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties now do not have a comparable [ to the Vietnam War and the 196os counter culture] historical moment… Also I think younger people are unable to sustain utopian visions—they don’t consider them to be tenable.”

 

Do you agree with these characterizations? What is your own sense of the writing/situation/outlook of the younger generation(s) vis-à-vis politics?

 

What followed this was an interesting, albeit somewhat loaded debate, as Hejinian’s comments were made prior to September 11th, and its continued aftermath, which obviously helped to codify a new historical moment, if one frames historical moments as stemming from a locus of opposition. One of the responses that I found most compelling was from Michael Magee who began by evoking Williams’ introduction to The Wedge, published in 1944 (there’s a historical moment for you!) which begins:

 

The war is the first and only thing in the world today.

 

The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.

 

Magee goes on to write, “The state has always attempted to co-opt the language of dissent and so de-fang it, and the democratic-capitalist state (yes, I know) does it better than any other because it can couch the very act of co-optation as either ‘dialogue’ or as a marketing of a revolutionary new product (cool).” 

 

So the idea of what marks dissent as such, of how one is able to articulate dissent was very much on my mind. I attended and participated in a Poets Against the War reading on February 12th in Northampton ( where I DID read someone else’s poem, section 20 of George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous” ) and, ironically, left feeling exactly the “one part amazed, and one part appalled” of Zapruder’s reaction to my email. In fact, for pretty much the same reason he brings up as the first example of the impetus behind his email; I found the “hypocrisy and self-righteousness really annoying.” But where Zapruder was referring to the context for my questioning of aesthetics, I merely mean the aesthetic framework within which the majority of the readers for that particular evening were working.

 

And just as Zapruder writes, “The fact that Noah decided not only not to read another poem, but not even to attend [the March 5th reading], makes his whole motivation more than a little suspect. I don’t want to sound crude, but what’s more important to Noah: Noah’s poem, or protesting the war?” I too felt a similar uncertainty behind the entire event (of February 12th); the utterly solipsistic nature of most of the poetry read that evening was hard for me to stomach, but I realize it’s a question of…(drum roll)…the aesthetics of dissent. I left that evening feeling quite torn, questioning, as Zapruder pointed out, the effectiveness of preaching to the converted here in what some call the Happy Valley.

 

Personally, I’ve got a lot of unresolved conflicts brewing, not only as to what the merits of political poetry are, but also as to how one defines a poem as political. Not to belabor the point, but the poem of mine included in my original email was written over three years ago, and represents an aesthetic stance I’ve moved away from, which, admittedly, as Zapruder writes, “seems to treat the whole war as a personal problem for the poet,” regardless of the fact that the “war” in that particular poem is the Cold War.

 

I think Michael Palmer’s comments in a recent interview with Daniel Kane help to clarify the discussion:

 

DK: …How do you see your writing as a “critique” of power if, as I suspect, poetry in the Untied States appeals to a relatively limited, privileged audience? I ask you this especially because the polyvocal, non-narrative language you employ is not used as a “clear” political rhetoric of a Malcolm X or, from a literary perspective, the Marxist-informed writing of Amiri Baraka.

 

MP: A poetry of instrumental rhetoric, such as some of Baraka’s, or some of Neruda’s, or some of Hikmet’s and Cesaire’s, or some of Mayakovsky’s, or some of Ginsberg’s and Rich’s, aims to incite action. It is directed outward, and is direct rather than indirect (though exactly how direct might be worth exploring in detail). It speaks for an imagined many, with whom the author identifies in terms of utopian aspirations. It is the poetry we properly think of first when considering explicitly political verse. However, poetry of critique, and critique of power, exits in many forms. Anna Akhmatova refusal to efface her erotic subjectivity was a real enough critique to draw significant attention and concern from Stalin, in a nation where poetry was known very much to matter. The complexly visceral lyric experiments of Vallejo must be read within the tumultuous field of his political consciousness. When Robert Creeley read his intensely personal and innovative lyrics at large political demonstrations against the Vietnam War, we felt their appropriateness alongside more public verse.

 

To understand the resistant effects of poetry, it is probably most convenient to consider those totalitarian societies where it is prohibited or strictly controlled, and many have done so. Yet we must look inward too, toward the censorship of the marketplace, fully supported by our supine media, for regulation and surveillance of poetry within our culture. To cite a ludicrously blatant example, we have only to turn to The New York Times Book Review where, on the rare occasions it does review poetry, only the blandest of pap receives a “safe for consumption” label. It  is not really so far from the robotic and shamelessly simplistic speech of our 43rd President, the one who was not elected, the one who is a poetry-free zone unto himself, and who would seem, at least initially, to have a free hand to direct our response to the monstrous crimes of the 11th. I fear that no terrorist could wish for more, but I deeply hope I will be proven wrong, just as I hope that the flag will not be manipulated as it has been in the past to sanction anti-constitutional measures and the murderous abuse of force.

 

Poetry in the United States, as in many cultures, does have a limited audience, but it is not exclusively a privileged one. I recently read, for example, that per capita reading and purchase of poetry books is highest in the African-American community. My own certain experience is that, while the majority of critical writing about poetry comes as you would expect from academically trained individuals, the actual audience is considerably more diverse than that would imply. I think that an audience is drawn to the space of poetry for the way in which words may operate, and images circulate, so as to offer an alternative to discourse as usual and to thought as usual, an alternative to the learned logic of our daily duties and negotiations. That role for poetry, and it is one of critique among many other things, is as old as the art and the polis both; yet it is only sustainable through the radical renewal of that art. If poetry too tests the limits of the imagination or the imaginable, it is in service to the expansion of thought, rather than its annihilation. It is that place where plain speech and strange speech intermingle, in order to exact a question.

 

And it is precisely in the opportunity (or lack thereof) to “offer an alternative to discourse as usual” where I felt taken aback by the organizers’ aesthetic stance, as the alternative to said discourse covered the narrow range you pointed out between “formalists, slam poets, and everyone in between,” a kind of “discourse as usual” in regards to the public expectation of poetry of dissent. Zapruder rhetorically inverts my original correspondence when he mentions his second reason for writing, “Also, when I see a poet self-righteously complain in a public forum about whether his poem was suppressed or not [funny, I thought I was “complaining” about the clarity of what constitutes dissent], under the guise of defending the right of poetry to be able to do whatever it is that he thinks his poems is doing, while bombs are about to fall on Iraq, as a poet I feel embarrassed.” Well, let me return to Williams: “It is the war or part of it, merely a different sector of the field.”

 

I too feel embarrassed, I feel embarrassed that I’m unsure where I stand as a poet, that I’m reluctant to merge the articulation my political beliefs and my current poetic practices, embarrassed that I’m putting time into the writing of this email rather than shouting in the middle of Main Street. But this is what I do. Tinker in the dark.

 

The third reason Zapruder supplies is where I see the problem of erasure cropping up.

 

He writes, “And third, because poets ought not sit with our arms folded pretending that all poetry is equally apprehendable (regardless of difficulty of syntax, or unfamiliarity of imagery, etc.), and that anyone who can’t see that is a cretin. On the contrary it’s our job to try to help educate and prepare our readers for the next new thing.” Holy hyperbole Batman! I was absolutely polite in my email to Sean. In hindsight, yes, it was somewhat condescending of me to refer to him as a “student.” But I hardly implied that he, or anyone else, was a cretin. I’m glad that he and others put in the effort to organize the reading and I think I made that clear in my email. But what I find most problematic about Zapruder’s comment here is the subtle way in which he argues for the oracular role of the poet. If, as Zapruder states, “it’s our job to try to help educate and prepare our readers for the next new thing,” then I am wholly outside of his choice of “our” as the operative pronoun. I don’t feel it’s my job to do anything but write as best as I can, without making hierarchical judgments of my readers, as I’m infinitely more interested in asking questions. 

 

Yours,

 

Noah Eli Gordon 

 

 Finally, John Erhardt:

 

Ron;

 

<<I’m happy to report that the poem didn’t prove at all difficult for fifth or seventh graders, which only reinforces my thesis about the community at UMass being crippled as literates by the university itself.>>

 

Your body of evidence for this statement is exactly two emails. Allow me to reciprocate. I've seen a picture of you, and I know that you are bald. I've seen Charles Bernstein read, and I know that he is bald, too. Does that mean I can say, with any certainty, that "all Language poets are bald?" or that "Language poetry makes people bald?" Of course not. You can literally go in any direction if your data consists of only two examples.

 

You disprove an entire University's literacy by appealing to a single day's visit to your son's junior high. Why such sweeping generalizations? I've gotten used to your version of inductive reasoning and am somewhat prepared for it now, but this is simply foolish. I'm happy that your day of instruction went well, and I'm pleased that the students were able to perform. Maybe "perform" isn't the best word, since that implies they were acting. I'm pleased the students were able to suspend their educations and actually experience poetry. But what does that mean? Nothing. Nothing at all. You admit that you haven't been in a school for 20 years, and so your one example is rather isolated. It's also a tainted sample set since your son attended the school; I think the likelihood that the students WERE "performing" increased when that variable was introduced. I can remember one career day where we hung on every word of a speaker, not because we were interested in sewage treatment and civil engineering, but because the speaker was a friend's father.

 

<<Considering the disputations here of late concerning poetic difficulty & ant-war readings, it’s worth noting here that I built my own little 30-minute presentation around a reading of the opening section of Ketjak, a text significantly more difficult than anything Noah Eli Gordon was proposing for the UMass reading.>>

 

Why is this worth noting? Any time one makes a comparison like this, a hierarchy gets created. Here, you are on top and Noah is on the bottom. But since I've been reading your blog since shortly after it appeared, I know that I don't expect you to put yourself anywhere but at the top. Whenever an intellectual discusses intellectualism, they will always place themselves within the circle of acceptability. But as long as we're noting things, I think it's worth noting that this reading wasn't a Umass reading at all; it was at Hampshire College.

 

If you were a lousy poet this email would have been a lot more fun to write. But I don't think that at all. I know that you are intelligent, and so this post strikes me as particularly curious. I simply cannot see how you would arrive at the conclusion that Umass is populated by "crippled literates." It can't be political, since Umass (and the community) is pretty close to Socialist, and I know of your ties to Radical Society. So I can only conclude that you've GOT to be withholding something, though what that something is, I don't know. I'm guessing you have strong feelings toward workshops in general (as I do), and that Umass proved to be a convenient punching bag at the moment. Whatever this additional evidence is, I would assume it's highly limited. I happen to know both Matthew Zapruder and Noah Gordon, and they are both very intelligent people who love poetry. Your comments make them sound like poetry clowns, which simply isn't the case.

 

I don't expect you to respond. You must get a hundred emails a day that talk about your blog, and I don't expect special treatment. But I did want to voice my disappointment with today's post. If you've made it this far, I thank you.

 

John Erhardt



Wednesday, March 12, 2003

 

This is an especially fun correspondence, taken from the archives of Whale Cloth Press, concerning its recent publication of Robert Grenier’s Sentences and the topics of identity, difference, democracy & JavaScript. Thanks to Jessica Lowenthal & Michael Waltuch for permission to reprint it here.

 

 

To Whom It May Concern:

 

I am a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, researching the long poem in cyberspace. I'm fascinated by Grenier's Sentences – I've seen the original and I'd be curious to hear whether or not you think this new publication is the "same" as the original. I sense that there's something to the handling of the cards that's important to the boxed version, but there's something more democratic in the online version that brings the new accessibility of the piece more in line with the reading experience. I'd appreciate any information you have about the journey of Sentences from box to screen and I'd also love to hear about how you randomize the cards.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jessica Lowenthal

 

University of Pennsylvania  

 

Ж         Ж         Ж

 

Michael Waltuch replied:

 

Jessica Lowenthal:

 

Thanks for your interest in Sentences. I'm Michael Waltuch. I was the "publisher", if you will, of the "original" Sentences in 1978 and most recently made the work available on the Whale Cloth Press web site. Some of the history (more or less accurate) of the publication of the original work as well as others of Grenier's can be found at Stanford University's "Robert Grenier Papers", a finding guide to which is at http://dynaweb.oac.cdlib.org/dynaweb/ead/stanford/mss/m1082/. Under the section called Collection Contents, you'll find mention therein of some of the production process of Sentences in Series IX. Histories of Making/Production of RG Works 1971 - 1997.

 

I'll try my best to answer your questions, but please note that while I was responsible for certain (very differing) aspects of production for both the original and the current versions, any opinions, intent, etc. are my own and don't necessarily reflect Grenier's.

 

The original and the "new publication" are, of course, as you indicate, quite different in the sensory aspect of handling the cards. This is the case for most every "book" or artifact that makes its way from the 3D world to non-3D representation on the web. Another aspect of the web version that differs from the original is the containment of the cards in a box. There is no box, so to speak, on the web, unless you consider the browser window or web site a container. It's interesting to note though that this aspect of the work had its own evolution. Grenier created the work on 500 Oxford 5"x8" index cards that he bought from a stationery store. These cards came in a cardboard container that was in two pieces, a "top", slightly larger in size than the "bottom". One slid the top off vertically, holding two sides; then one could take out the individual cards either one at a time or get them all out by turning the box over and then lifting the bottom off. The photos on the Whale Cloth web site show the box I designed; it was based on ones I'd see in the stacks at Widener Library at Harvard University where I was working at the time. It was cloth-covered for durability and all one piece, making handling the work a lot easier, as you could get at the cards more easily, without having to tip them out.

 

When you say, "I sense that there's something to the handling of the cards that's important to the boxed version, but there's something more democratic in the online version that brings the new accessibility of the piece more in line with the reading experience," I'm not sure how to respond because I'm not clear on what you mean. There's no prescribed way to read the "boxed version". I do remember observing that most people were careful in their handling of the cards, although this surprised me. One can read the cards one at a time, stacking them back up on top of each other on a new stack, one can lay them out in groups of one's own arrangement, one can shuffle them, one can pin them to a wall, etc. And so, in some way, one could say the "boxed version" allows for a "freer" mode of interacting with the work than the online version. Is the original then, in fact, "more democratic" than the online version or is it just better suited to an individual reader's preferences? Is this what you're getting at when you align "accessibility" and "democracy" (it can be read by more people because it's on the web) with the "reading experience"?

 

In any case, similarities exist between the two versions in that they both present(ed) design/production challenges. Containment, sequence/randomness, consistency, materials are all issues that present(ed) themselves in both instances.

 

As for how I randomize the cards... In JavaScript I wrote the following code which ensures that the array a() contains all the numbers from 0 to 499 in random order without any duplicates. This happens every time you navigate to the work. The value at each array index is used in turn as a lookup index to another array (not shown) that contains the text of the individual cards. The work is different when seen in Internet Explorer 5.5+ browsers than with any others since I use an Internet Explorer-only Transition effect to animate the cards changing. Other browsers don't support that animation effect.

 

var a = new Array();

function CreateArrayWithRandom(){

    var m,n,i,j;

    i = 0;

    j = 0;

    while (i <= 499)

    {

       m = (500 * Math.random()) + 1;

       n = Math.floor(m);

 

       for (j=0;j<=499;j++)

       {

         if (a[j] == (n-1))

         {

           j = -1;

           break;

         }

       }

       if (j != -1)

       {

         a[i] = (n-1);

         i++;

         j=0;

       }

 

    }

    return;

 

}

 

I hope this has been of some help.

 

Michael Waltuch

 

Ж         Ж         Ж

 

Jessica Lowenthal in turn responded:

 

 

Dear Michael,

 

Thanks for all the information; very helpful stuff – and very kind of you to respond so quickly and thoroughly.

 

By "more democratic" and "in line with the reading experience" of the original, I meant (as you guessed despite my cryptic prose) that although the web version eliminates the reader's ability to manipulate the cards (to stack 'em, sort 'em, shuffle 'em, or pin 'em), more people can read the text now that it's online. It's one kind of freedom for another: the "freer mode" (as you say) of the boxed version is replaced by "free access" to the website. I was trying to suggest that the new freedom of access somehow matched the collaboratory impulse of the original.

 

As to your surprise about how carefully readers manipulated the cards: I suspect that now the cards are handled with more care than ever before. I was afraid to touch the version I saw! I watched as the owner of the box flipped randomly among the cards, producing a reading experience sort of like the online version (without the script), in that I read a set of cards randomized by an external hand.

 

Anyway, thanks again for your help.

 

Sincerely,

 

Jessica Lowenthal



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