Saturday, June 21, 2003

 

I have a dream. It’s the idea that once each quarter, all of America’s major metropolitan newspapers should publish & distribute, as a Sunday supplement, a genuinely good book review. I’m not thinking of the jokes that are the book review sections of papers like the San Francisco Chronicle or Washington Post, or even the dowdy advertisers’ shill that is the New York Times Book Review, but one that genuinely explores the whole range of published work in the United States, and perhaps even beyond. I’m thinking of Rain Taxi.

 

Rain Taxi has been publishing for the past eight years from the improbable city of Minneapolis – improbable because reviews such as this depend so directly on advertising from publishers & the New York trades think of Minneapolis as being Garrison Keillor maybe with a hint of Prince & Kirby Puckett. Or maybe just as the place where the L.A. Lakers used to play.

 

Rain Taxi just plugs away, providing a genuinely eclectic & democratic view of publishing in America. The current issue, which I picked up at Kelly’s Writers House in Philadelphia – you can almost always find the current issue by the table at the foot of the stairs – reviews 17 non-fiction volumes, 22 books of fiction, 16 more of poetry & drama & 5 graphic novels. Some of the writers &/or producers of these books include the great photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard, intrepid world traveler Robin Magowan, Ishmael Reed, Kim Stafford, Wislawa Szymborska, Lynne Tillman, Lisa Gornick, Stephen-Paul Martin, Theodore Roszak, Octavio & Marie José Paz, John Latta, Jordon Davis, Jack Collom, David Bromige, Lytle Shaw, Susie Cataldo, Gabriel Gudding, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Edwin Torres, Muriel Rukeyser & Howard Zinn. On top of which, the issue  contains interviews with Andrew Vachss, Meg Randall & Lord Nose himself, Jonathan Williams, plus essays on the poetics of exile, the music of Henry Cowell & the memoir of an Alcatraz “screw.” On further top of which, Rain Taxi has so much good stuff on hand that the interview with Jonathan Williams, for example, which is a hoot & a half, appears in much fuller format on the magazine’s website. Plus there is an essay on the website on Bei Dao, a lengthy interview with poet, artist & gender activist kari edwards & reviews of still more books by the likes of Joanne Kyger, Arielle Greenberg, William Gibson, Gore Vidal, Edmund White & more. It’s such a rich, well-considered gathering that Rain Taxi just stuns you when you first see a copy. This is what a book review really could be like if only editors dared to be great. If only! I don’t agree with every review & some of the writing certainly is pedestrian enough – but there is more in the way of good material in a single issue of Rain Taxi than you will find in a year’s worth of the NYT Book Review.

 

I’m looking at the current issue & thinking of the drivel that is Parade, which passes for “the Sunday magazine” in maybe half the newspapers in America, & of the ridiculous chain store catalogs that are the Christmas-time book catalogs of papers like the New York Times, thinking to myself that if only Rain Taxi could get itself into the daily papers, perhaps with advertising (and even sponsorship) of local independent bookstores – the stores that are most apt to carry the small press titles that Rain Taxi actually understands are the core & soul of American publishing – it would be an instant, nation-wide success.

 

 

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El Mecurio, the Chilean daily newspaper, ran an article in its Arts & Letters section on June 8 on weblogs, written by Sergio Coddou, entitled “El autor al poder,” which I would translate as “Power to the Author,” with a subtitle roughly along the lines of “Internet weblogs or the death of the editor.” It’s a reasonably broad survey of mostly English language sites – Heriberto Yepez’ & Jonathan Mayhew’s Spanish language blogs are exceptions – that ranges from Andrew Sullivan to Nick Piombino & covers several poetry blogs, including mine. Of this one, Sr. Coddou wrote, “Un verdadero lujo para los amantes de la literatura contemporánea,” which translates pretty directly into “A true luxury for the lovers of contemporary literature.” Thank you!

 

 

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Lanny Quarles had an interesting & detailed exegesis of my reading of Bob Perelman as well as of the excerpt of Bob’s “Writing Time With Quotes” in his blog ::(solipsis)//:phaneronoemikon:: (say that three times fast) on June 18. Google doesn’t find an instance of the word, presumably Greek, phaneronoemikon that doesn’t link back to Lanny’s site, so I can’t tell you what it means either.

 

 

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Yesterday, this blog greeted its 40,000th visitor. I’ve expressed my amazement on this aspect of the blog more than once, and I continue to be amazed. I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off next month – my idea of a vacation involves leaving any computer I can’t fit into my shirt pocket at home – and thinking about what this all means. To date, the blog has run to just about 900 pages since last August.

 

I have a number of hesitations & criticisms of what is going on here – the limitations of Blogger are maddening, but I don’t really want to have to learn a program like Radio or Moveable Type. If Brian Kim Stefans can’t figure out how to replicate the poetry formatting I’ve managed to get done with this particular template (written initially in Microsoft World, which I have to open in HTML to strip out all of the extraneous code & debug every single blog – that’s why you find the occasional yellow paragraph & Macs for awhile got variable margins not quite the same as what we in the Windows world saw), my chances of doing so are nil. Contrary to Mike Snider’s opinion, I’m not really a computer geek, but rather a market analyst who works in the computer industry. There’s a difference.

 

But I wonder more about my stamina – will I recognize the moment when I start to repeat myself & become predictable?* I’m also quite aware that, while I love this short pieces for the range they permit, the presence of the blog has made the production of longer critical projects infinitely more complicated. I have a talk I want to give next spring on Duncan’s H.D. Book & it’s not something I want to slough off or do in any perfunctory manner.

 

One of the functions of the blog, as I near the end of my work on a poem I’ve been writing since 1979, is to reorient myself to the scene of writing as it exists today, as I think about What Comes Next. I already have some inkling, of course, but I’ve promised myself really to not get started until I complete The Alphabet. So until then, the blog functions as a kind of intellectual prod – a goad to pay attention. It’s really all input, not output.

 

&, if you want a clue as to what comes next, I’ll offer you the same one I have. You’ll find it on page 61 of Anselm Hollo’s book Corvus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Worse still, of course is the nagging variation: did I recognize the moment when I started to repeat myself & became predictable?



Friday, June 20, 2003

 

My big summer reading book has arrived. It might also be my fall one as well, truth be told. It’s a volume I’ve been waiting for literally for eighteen years & now that it’s here, my very first impression is that it’s a thing of beauty, a 430 page cornucopia of tightly packed, brilliant prose from the best critical mind of my generation. Its title is The Constructivist Moment: From Material Text to Cultural Poetics & its author, Barrett Watten.

 

I’ve been waiting for it since the publication of Total Syntax, published by Southern Illinois University Press in 1985. Total Syntax was – & still is – one of my favorite critical texts ever. It’s one of those books of which I own multiple copies, one of them fully marked up. Watten’s take-no-prisoners close readings of Coolidge, Olson, Eigner, Russian Formalism, Robert Smithson & many of Watten’s own peers gives, even at nearly two decades’ remove, the best feel for the actual experience of language poetry on a day-to-day basis of any book I know. A major reason for this is that Watten was central to virtually every important discussion &/or initiative that took place associated with the western version of langpo from the first issue of This magazine onward. Any history of the phenomenon that doesn’t put a substantial focus on Watten’s work as poet, critic & organizer, really can’t be said to be even marginally adequate.

 

That’s the test I always use when I see an account of this writing between, say, 1970 & the mid-80s. Watten’s poetry, as well as his prose, doesn’t lend itself to a casual reading, for some of the same reasons that Olson or J.H. Prynne have likewise resisted litcrit tourism. Accordingly, there are more than a few histories out there, some of them well intended, that don’t address his role fully or even directly, & which then proceed to get most everything else wrong also.

 

Watten’s project in The Constructivist Moment strikes me as broader & more ambitious. Within the introduction, Watten positions Total Syntax this way:

 

My early criticism, in Total Syntax (1985) and an article titled “Social Formalism” (1987), may be seen as attempts, before the dawn of the material text (which had everything to do with the emergence of the Language School and its textual politics), to find models for an avant-garde textuality within a larger syntax of cultural meaning.

 

The new volume “addresses the gap between constructivist aesthetics and a larger cultural poetics.” By constructivist, Watten means literally “the imperative in radical literature and art to foreground their formal construction,” but he’s not interested primarily – at least this is my take, having read some of these pieces previously in journals – in mere exoskeletal exhibitionism. What he seems to be most interested in – it may be the link to the cultural poetics part of the subtitle’s equation – is their negativity, the gap they initiate or articulate or define by their process:

 

The constructivist moment is an elusive transition in the unfolding work of culture in which social negativity – the experience of rupture, an act of refusal – invokes a fantasmatic future – a horizon of possibility, an imagination of participation. Constructivism condenses this shift of horizon from negativity to progress in aesthetic form; otherwise put, constructivism stabilize crisis as it puts art into production toward imaginary ends.

 

As I read that, the constructivist work necessarily plays a specific role within the dialectic between art & the social world from which it inevitably derives & in which it then participates as a disruptive intervention.

 

But I shouldn’t pretend to know more than I do. Watten’s table of contents will give a far better sense of the path of his argument than I can here:

 

 

 

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Thursday, June 19, 2003

 

Another writer whose poetry appears in Van Gogh’s Ear 2, as it seems to be doing virtually everywhere of late, is Eileen Tabios. On top of her work as an editor, publisher, blogger, vintner, Filipina activist, art critic, conceptual artist & promoter of hay(na)ku, Tabios either has a mountain of writing tucked away from her days as an executive in the financial services industry or else she must be the hardest working person on the planet. I have a hunch that we’re dealing with a serious Type A personality here.

 

Tabios’ prose poem “Helen” consists of twelve single-sentence paragraphs, although one of the paragraphs resorts to a favorite device of mine – the em dash – to create the typographic impression of being a single unit. The poem at heart is a dramatic monolog, although one written with such discipline that you can read it, as I did more than once, with total interest & pleasure without even thinking in terms of the theater of a projected persona.

 

Part of what makes the text work is that it has a killer first sentence:

 

Part of mortality’s significance is that wars end.

 

That’s one of those lines you can mull over for days, knowing you’ll never exhaust it. The lines that follow for the most part likewise stand on their own. Moreover, there is enough conceptual distance between them that the reader, in order to render it into a dramatic monolog, has serious work to do. The line / sentence / paragraph, for example, that follows the one above, reads:

 

Yesterday, I determined to stop watering down my perfumes.

 

The third paragraph connects with the second principally by referring to the first person:

 

Insomnia consistently leads me to a window overlooking silvery green foliage – tanacetum argenteum – whose species include the tansy which Ganymede drank to achieve immortality.

 

If the first thing that “holds” this text “together” is the two references to the first person, the second is the binary mortality/immortality, although they are not presented as though we were discussing a paradigm at all. Third, the title “Helen” & the reference here to Ganymede, classic ideals of heterosexual &  homosexual beauty, project a similar semantic field. Yet at this moment in the text, none of these connections are intrinsic or necessary, but rather are accumulating through what may appear to be incidental details.

 

There is a care & specificity here that is fascinating to watch, for example the choice of the Latin name, tanacetum argenteum, a European plant. The reason Ganymede – a.k.a Aquarius – might have been given a tansy is that, as a plant that grows in dry soil, it could retain water in an otherwise parched climate. Tabios takes considerable care with her diction – there is an ever so slightly elevated solemnity to words such as determined & consistently being deployed precisely as they are here. As a textural, as well as textual, strategy, it’s close to the prosodic restraint that another author of a poem entitled “Helen,” Hilda Doolittle, used to employ.

 

Just as Tabios has already set up one schema (insomnia) as a metaphor for another (immortality) that may at first seem rather at odds with it, this poem will be constructed around details that operate counter-intuitively on multiple levels, even as it will turn out in the final moments to be “about” nourishment – that tansy is not incidental. Against the discursive formality, however, the reader is presented with language that operates at different extremes, from the bathetic – But to be human is to be forgiven – to over-the-top depiction:

 

Soon, summer shall bring a snowfall of daisies across these leaves whose mottles under a brightening moonlight begin to twinkle like a saddhu’s eyes.

 

Summer always makes me think of snowfalls too.

 

Reading the poem over, as I have now a dozen times, my sense is that Tabios wanted to structure a narrative with an extraordinary degree of tension – it is as though she wanted to see just how far she could pull it apart without having the sense of its unity dissolve, to approach without crossing some intuitive breaking point. That’s not unlike the strategy in Zen gardening of pulling one stone out of place in order to create a “circle” with far more cognitive power than it could have were it, in fact, perfectly round. Thus, in the third sentence of “Helen” quoted above, the tansy is silvery green. This gives it a dynamic it could never have if it were merely silver or green alone.

 

Narration at the limits of cohesion is an especially challenging project. I remember once trying to read a novel in which every single scene was constructed by focusing initially on some detail – a lampshade, a wall socket, a crack in a windowpane – entirely extraneous to the narrative “action.” But it was in translation & you could tell that the translator really didn’t grasp what the writer was doing, so the process felt like trying to focus through a film of molasses & I gave up. Faulkner much more successfully does something similar in the Benjamin chapters of The Sound and the Fury, presenting “the story” in part (but only in part) from the p.o.v. of a developmentally disabled member of the family, incapable of comprehending the significance of anything. Unlike Faulkner, I don’t think that Tabios grounds what she does in “Helen” in psychology, which literally is why it’s poetry & not, say, fiction. Like Faulkner, though, she’s obsessed with surface & texture – they are what a reader experiences directly when confronting a text.

 

I like writers who take risks – taking responsibility for the whole of the text is for me the primary test of a poem. Tabios tries for more in one page than many other poets would attempt in 20. And she pulls it off.



Wednesday, June 18, 2003

 

There is a new Bob Perelman poem in Van Gogh’s Ear 2 that reminds me – yet again – of why he is one of my favorite poets. A single paragraph from “Writing Time With Quotes” will illustrate my point:

 

Cognitive science has lots to say to playground bullets circumcising the split subject, and can rescue a diffuse but real enough sense of accidental agency, which, even if 2% accurate, is enough to fatally contaminate a person’s empirical bathwater. The sloshes provide some sense of motion between the ears, never forgetting the communicating vessels between legs, thus one stoops to be conquered by unconscious syntactic tactical groups, literate messengers repeatedly tearing back to report a sense of language as “profoundly alienating.”

 

Just two sentences, but invoking far more than simply two “complete” thoughts. Grammatically, there are no particular pyrotechnics in these sentences, none of the elisions or disruptions that we saw Monday, for example, in John Wieners’ poem “Loss.” Yet in some key respects, Perelman’s poetry is more like Wieners’ later work, say, than one might suspect. There is an intellectual – indeed cognitive – restlessness in both poets, as each very much heeds Olson’s core admonition, the importance of which Olson emphasized all in CAPS: ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. Thus Perelman’s grammatically reasonable sentences are filled with radical flights in different semantic directions, giving the reader (at least this reader) the double experience of moving as if normal through a landscape that is constantly altering.

 

The first time you confront such writing it’s a deeply unsettling phenomenon, yet like every literary device it has a history. At one level, this destabilized referential schema that is constantly shifting under otherwise conventional discursive models can be traced back to Ashbery – it really is his contribution to the elaboration of forms – & through Ashbery back to glimpsed antecedents in Stevens & Hart Crane. Yet where Ashbery’s kaleidoscope of references tends never to resolve, but rather opens outward limitlessly towards a hazy plenitude & where Charles Bernstein’s variants on this linguistic model almost invariably turn back toward the twitchiness of the grammatic devices he employs, a constantly deconstructing dramatic monolog, Perelman’s palette leads him to a far more constrained outer universe, one whose very claustrophobia is experienced by the reader – and possibly by Perelman himself – as a form of urgency.

 

Thus in the first sentence we find Cognitive science, a term embracing disciplines & discourses that include psychology, linguistics & neurology, having “lots to say” to the schema of school violence* which is seen to perform ritual mutilation on the problem of subjectivity. Accidental agency is a curious application of a standard theory term, again surrounding the question of subjectivity, joined as it is with an idea that sounds at once both true & surprisingly New York Schoolish. All of which “contaminates” – a very charged verb – in which the body side of the mind/body problem appears to be residing.

 

The second sentence continues the image of the bathwater – these are quite consciously not new sentences in the classic or narrow sense of that term** – only to return of a physical characterization of mind (some sense of motion between the ears) which links immediately with the body – although it is worth noting that genitalia here are characterized as communicating vessels, rather than as ends in themselves. The phrase thus one stoops to be conquered is, in fact, the largest hinge or syntactic leap in the entire paragraph, especially if the reader has embodied the narrating persona as being in a tub of water, leading to a curious inversion, that added verb be, of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy of manners in which everyone is not quite as they seem. The next phrase – unconscious syntactic tactical groups – is the most complex of the paragraph, echoing at least in that first adjective the concept of accidental agency. Syntactic plays into several of the schema that have come before: Cognitive science, has a lot to say, split subject, communicating vessels. It is in some ways the most vital term in this packed little phrase, setting up the paragraph’s payoff in the last long clause that follows the comma. Like unconscious, tactical also recalls the prior appearance of agency, but it is the noun groups that is completely without earlier insinuation. It occurs abruptly, as if from nowhere at the end of this phrase every previous term of which has sunk its hooks back into earlier conceptual & image schemata.

 

Groups is the surprise, yet it turns out to be the subject of the final long dependent clause. These groups are literate messengers whom Perelman describes as if they were international observers. (What Perelman doesn’t say here is that such international observers were originally called theors, and their work collectively theory.) Now, at this moment, all of the linguistic schemas click together into a final image that would unifying were it not so consciously claustrophobic & paranoid. Indeed, the structure of the paragraph is not unlike that of a slasher flick as clues accumulate until, in the final moment, one tears back the shower curtain to confront the hockey-masked marauder & it all makes perfect / terrible sense. 

 

This is just one moment in a larger work, one of six paragraphs in Perelman’s poem, the last of which is either quoted or paraphrased from Creeley – shades of Allen Ginsberg! But it shows the layers of Perelman’s imagination as he continues to demonstrate that he can keep more themes & images active simultaneously in a reader’s imagination than almost any other poet alive.

 

 

 

 

* See in the same issue of Van Gogh’s Ear, Dennis Cooper’s dramatic monolog in the voice of Kip Kinkel, the Springfield Oregon student who, having been expelled for bringing a gun to Thurston High School, returned with a semi-automatic, shooting twenty eight people, killing two.

 

** Though in all other respects, they may well be quite a bit newer than that even.



Tuesday, June 17, 2003

 

Van Gogh’s Ear (VGE) is one of those strange journals that focuses almost exclusively on the writing of poets and authors who possess major name recognition. Indeed, a poet has a better chance to getting into print here dead – Quentin Crisp, Allen Ginsberg, Phil Whalen, even Marilyn Monroe – than young. It’s not that there are no younger writers here, but for the most part those who do show up amongst the 86 contributors to VGE’s second issue are poets who have already established themselves with audiences – Anselm Berrigan, Lee Ann Brown, Jena Osman, Edwin Torres – or who are now taking off like rockets, such as kari edwards & Linh Dinh.

 

Although the journal’s tagline is “Poetry for the New Millennium,” VGE 2 includes eight contributors whose work appeared in the Allen anthology 43 years ago: Ashbery, Blaser, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, McClure, Orlovsky, Snyder & Whalen. Second generation New Americans turn up (Berkson, Malanga, DiPrima, Notley) as do a few langpos (Bernstein, Hejinian, Perelman, moi) as well as others who fall generally into this same post-avant territory, such as Tom Raworth, Bob Holman, Sparrow, Eileen Myles & Paul Auster. Editor Ian Ayres’ view of American poetry is basically European, which in practice means that the school of quietude is accorded only token representation. I wonder what W.D. Snodgrass must think about finding his “Gringolandia” – it’s even worse than the title sounds – sandwiched between the writing of yours truly & Gary Snyder. John Updike’s “Trees” follows similarly on the heels of Edwin Torres’ “The Theorist has no Samba!”

 

One poem in particular first caught my eye because I recognized the handwriting, literally, as it’s presented on the right-hand page in holographic reproduction, the identical text printed on the left. The poem is by Allen Ginsberg, but it doesn’t look anything like your typical Ginsberg work & indeed acknowledges its source by its title, “Lines for Creeley’s Ear”:

 

The whole

weight of

everything

too much

 

my heart in

the subway

pounding

subtly

 

headache

from smoking

dizzy

a moment

 

riding

uptown to see

Karmapa

Buddha tonite.

 

One can hear what Ginsberg is finding in Creeley’s line – that almost gamelan precision as the mind steps through the syllables, something Creeley gets not from the Projectivists but from Zukofsky. The parameters of the project are simple enough: quatrains with no more than four syllables – the first three stanzas each have ten syllables, the last one 13. If you track the quatrains even closer by syllable count*, you see that Ginsberg has done an admirable job in creating not only a sense of variety but of aural development, starting with two of the shortest lines, ending with three of the longest.

 

Ginsberg plays with some of Creeley’s famed enjambments in the first two stanzas, but it’s interesting that the third – when the impact of smoking is being described – seems almost the most flat-footed. It’s an inspired, counterintuitive way to mimic tobacco’s impact on blood pressure.

 

The one line for me that doesn’t work is the second one of the last stanza. No other line in the entire poem contains what is so clearly two distinct aural units & I suspect that Creeley, faced with the same set of choices, might well instead have run them as two lines & to have ended with Buddha tonite as its own separate one-line stanza. It’s conceivable that Ginsberg heard it as taking a longer breath before the final sweep of the last two lines, but to end of the first word on n  & start the next with t breaks that movement for my ear.

 

Ginsberg seems to have been similarly bothered by that final stanza. The poem appears in what I take to be a revised form in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. In the Collected,  it is titled simply “For Creeley’s Ear. Buddha has been moved up to the third line alongside Karmapa, with tonight – now spelled the traditional manner – alone on the fourth line. The problem of the second line now tends to dissolve – it becomes a step toward the only five syllable line in the work, with the two-syllable last line functioning almost as a coda or bell to signal the poem’s end.

 

That’s an interesting revision, in that it does solve the problem that nagged at me from my first reading, yet overall I think the Collected Poems version is weaker for it. The revised version puts the climax of the poem on the penultimate line, almost to the point where the final line seems added on in order to avoid violating the form. In the Van Gogh’s Ear variant, the weight falls on the final line & the equation of Karmapa** with Buddha is offset by the acknowledgement of the marketing of a public event, tonite being sort of the apotheosis of the spelling associated with billboard-speak. The VGE version thus has layers of meaning & humor that are lost when one moves one word up a line and alters the spelling of another. It’s a great argument for the care of the poem, for recognizing that every character has a role.

 

My sense is that neither version quite works as well as it might, that the stumbling block of the second line of the final stanza can’t really be addressed anywhere but in the second line itself. It’s intriguing to watch Ginsberg make the attempt, but it’s a mistake to have tried to resolve the issue elsewhere in the stanza.

 

That Ginsberg in 1976 is still writing what is clearly a “Creeley study” is, I think, a sign of how little affected by his celebrity Ginsberg at least sought to be. These lines may be for Creeley’s ear, but the work itself is clearly for Ginsberg’s benefit. That we benefit also is just part of its charm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Thus the syllable count of the lines for each quatrain:
2 – 2 – 4 – 2
3 – 3 – 2 – 2
2 – 3 – 2 – 3
2 – 4 – 3 – 4

 

** This would have been Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa, who traveled to the U.S. in 1976.

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Monday, June 16, 2003

 

Before he began Fait Accompli, Nick Piombino had to put up with me encouraging / harassing him to do so. Nick is one of the most intellectually well-rounded & wisest thinkers I know & has been for decades. His educational background & inclination to root his thinking in the real world makes him an all too rare double threat as a commentator on just about any subject, & his core optimism resonates with something very deep in me. Indeed, Piombino’s prose got him into In the American Tree as a critic before his own poetry had been widely published &, since he has left his job with the schools in New York, he’s had time to become one of best reasons to stay active on the Poetics List. It seemed manifestly self-evident to me that if any human being would make a great blogger, it was Nick Piombino.

 

What made me think of this was an unusual experience that I had this week of reading an almost perfect blog in the form of a chapbook, Loss by Ben Friedlander, just out from Pressed Wafer, one of the most prolific & useful presses we have. Loss consists of a close reading of the poem “Loss,” by John Wieners, a poem Friedlander first encountered in a recording of the same reading you will hear should you click on that link.* While I’ve listened to that recording a few times, I’ve done so I must admit less for the poem itself than for the way that particular piece captures perfectly the qualities I was enraptured by the one time I heard Wieners read at the San Francisco Art Museum many years ago – simultaneously rushed, breathless & with his voice trailing off as though distracted by a surfeit of emotion.

 

Friedlander offers us a 12-paragraph critique of a 12-line poem, primarily addressing it in terms of the relative positions staked out for poet, reader & referent in its use of pronouns. It’s a tour de force of intelligence & balance – Friedlander’s always been an excellent critic. But at one dozen paragraphs, it would make a perfect blog, possibly even more so than as a miniature book. Friedlander dates the project right down to the day, 31 December 1999, the very last day of the second millennium, if you’re counting the Y2K way. I can envision this as a daily entry in a terrific web journal that would make us all infinitely richer, because Friedlander so often has things of great value to say.

 

But in 1999 relatively few people had begun to figure out the power of blogs – the most notable example at that point was Matt Drudge, impersonating the worst journalist imaginable, right down to the pork pie hat. & I’ve noticed how, even now, relatively few of the poetry bloggers work as professors, a job famous for sucking intellectual energy.

 

Friedlander builds his analysis around what he characterizes as the poem’s two sentences, each marked by a terminating period. & even though Ben goes so far as to claim that the “formal precision of this writing belies the poet’s apparently unrehearsed outburst of direct address at the end,” these are not by any stretch of the imagination formal sentences. Here’s the poem:

 

To live without the one you love

an empty dream never known

true happiness except as such youth

 

watching snow at window

listening to old music through morning.

Riding down that deserted street

 

 by evening in a lonely cab

   past a blighted theatre

oh god yes, I missed the chance of my life

 

  when I gasped, when I got up and

    rushed out the room

      away from you.


Friedlander addresses the grammatical idiosyncrasies of this text only in passing:

 

Enjambed lines lacking punctuation, the words slip away in a blur, their meaning lost in a series of overlapping syntactic possibilities.

 

That’s not exactly how I hear these lines, because the elisions & aspects of torque created by the redaction of punctuation do far more than create a “blur” of lost meaning. The first such instance occurs around the phrase never known at the end of the second line. The phrase itself can be read both as referring back to an empty dream & forward to true happiness. As such, never known functions not just as condition extending both the emptiness & dreamlike qualities of the previous phrase or as part of a complex qualifier to true happiness, but also as a conjunction. Even normally, conjunctions tend to reflect kinship both with prepositions & verbs – thus that last phrase requires the presence not only of with but of &, asserting a relationship that is always a mode of closeted predication.

 

Consider the next line, perhaps the most complex in the poem: true happiness except as such youth. Friedlander’s pronoun driven analysis picks up the you in youth, but doesn’t address the way in which this line is governed first by a powerful series of vowels, a classic instance of the tone leading aspect of vowels. Part of what makes them so powerful is the contrast with the consonants of the line: the first phrase consists of two words that end on open, flowing sounds, while the next three units** end on sounds that begin with a full hard stop (pt), then one almost as hard (ch) & finally one (th) that mutes – but doesn’t reverse – its hardness.

 

The line integrates into at least three concurrent readings – I think a good reader will sense all three – that can be stratified thus:

 

·         true happiness

·         true happiness except as such

·         true happiness except as such youth

 

Only the first of these can be called simple or uncompromised. The second reinforces the linkage back to the previous line, while the third suggests, among other things, that youth itself is a necessary condition forth happiness. The most interesting aspect of these variants, at least to my mind, is the gap that occurs between the second & third. If the gap exists – occasioned by the relatively hard consonant stop within such – then one linkage that can then occur is youth / watching snow at window, an image. Yet youth can also be read in a standalone fashion which would make it a broad abstraction.

 

The compression enacted through the absent articles of the fourth line – watching snow at window – does a couple of different things simultaneously. At one level, it renders both nouns as abstract as the preceding youth. At another it functions as a governor of the poem’s rhythm, the first line since the first stanza that can be read without sensing the splice of anything that redirects the reader’s attention. The degree to which this works can be felt in the next line by how much old jolts us into sensing its additive function on top of the bare bones narrative.

 

Old serves no less than three other functions in the fifth line. One is to accentuate the presence of o sounds generally, the second – aided by this emphasis – can be heard in the pun in morning. The emphasis on that vowel, especially conjoined with the l, returns us to the sound organization of the poem’s first line, which is built around l, o & v.***

 

Based on the period alone, Friedlander calls this the first of two sentences, yet it is worth noting that this predicate, if it is one, everything from lines two through four, occurs without a main verb. Grammatically, it is an independent clause, followed by a series of dependent ones, a sentence fragment. The second unit or sentence is as idiosyncratic as the first, but in very different ways – there are at least four verb phrases, arguable five, that will be experienced as such, so that the static landscape (watching snow at window) is now replaced with the frenetic throb of action. The first of these – & the one I think is least likely to be experienced simply as a verb is Riding down. The other four occur in rapid succession right after the exclamation oh god yes. At some level, it’s as though the poem has delayed action all this time only to unleash here in the four last lines.

 

Between god, gasped & got, the sound of air being explosively expelled is the dominant reiterative mode of this passage, leading to the radically unlike sound of rushed. The absent preposition in the middle of this next-to-last line, rushed out the room, both enacts the breathless, hurried prosody & harks back symmetrically to the poem’s second line, an empty dream never known.

 

Yet it is two other preposition out & away are what dictate the movement of the final two lines, in part because of the dramatic placement of away in the last line, but also in part because the liquid r of rushed is anchored in the echo of room. Out & away are significantly different movements, especially tonally, thus conveying the movement as centrifugal.

 

There is one other element of the Wieners’ poem that Friedlander lets pass without comment that strikes me as notable – its use of adjectives. Consider this sequence: empty, true, old, deserted, lonely, blighted. With the notable – indeed shocking by its contrast – exception of true, the emotional baggage associated with the other five is profound. Not one occurs after the exclamation of oh god yes in the 9th line.

 

The poem “Loss” is extraordinary. Written in 1968 – that reading at St. Marks dates from January, 1971 – the poem is still the work of Wieners’ early period, prior to the disruptive works that dominate his writing from the 1970s onward. It shows Wieners both totally in control of his medium & totally unafraid to take serious liberties & risks in the service of his poem. Friedlander’s reading, the book Loss, is itself excellent, & there’s relatively little in the way of overlap between his approach & my own here. But as I said, or wrote, at the outset, Friedlander’s book would have made a perfect blog. It is in fact shorter than this note.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Curiously, Laurable’s usually impeccable Complete Audio Links is missing Wieners altogether. How many other items from Ubu’s awesome MP3 collection are similarly absent?

 

** I definitely hear as such as a single unit.

 

*** This also accounts for the choice of known at the end of the second line, which serves not only to bind our hearing back to the first line, but sets up the beautiful vowel progression of youth in the next line’s last slot. Remember that, in free verse, the emphasis almost invariably falls to the very beginning and end of the line, with the interior syllables carrying less aural weight.



Sunday, June 15, 2003

 

On Friday, I made Technorati’sTop 50 Interesting Recent Blogs” roster, checking in at number 20. That’s out of a total of over 360,000 blogs that Technorati tracks.  



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