Saturday, September 20, 2003

 

The death of Wayan Limbak at the age of 106 the other day caught my eye for the same reason that Barrett Watten later posted a link to the New York Times obit to the Poetics List. As one of the co-creators of the Ketjak, Limbak was a key innovator in the arts of the 20th century. And he unwittingly played a huge role in my own aesthetic development.

 

Ketjak, as you may know, is the title of this very long project I’ve been embarked on for several decades now. Originally, this Dutch transcription of Balinese word was the title of a booklength prose poem I composed in 1974, the year Watten & I shared a flat on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. That poem proved also to be the first installment of a four-poem cycle, the remainder of which came out under the collective name of The Age of Huts. Ketjak is also the name of the larger, still on-going process that includes

 

·         (first part) The Age of Huts

·         (second part) Tjanting

·         (third part) The Alphabet.

 

There is a fourth part, too, which I’m about to get started on. Each part is approximately as long as all of the preceding parts – that’s the core premise (working, as I said in my review of Tom Meyer’s Coromandel, from the innermost part of the mollusk outward).

 

Even more importantly, Ketjak is the title of a piece of music & a dance in Bali. I first discovered it on a recording made by David Lewiston entitled Golden Rain, first released by Nonesuch Records in 1969. I’d bought the album for its gamelan music – the Nonesuch Explorer series, only now being reissued on CD, was in many respects the first great project of widely available field recordings of world music. Somewhere in my travels in Berkeley I’d discovered that for me at least gamelan – the Balinese word for orchestra – was more than just another mode of music.

 

But it was the oral chant of Golden Rain’s “B” side, 200 men participating in what Lewiston’s notes characterized as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, that mesmerized me. At 22:08 minutes, it was – still is – the most amazing oral performance I have ever heard. Pavarotti singing “Nessum Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, even at his best, has nothing on this. Nor Janis Joplin or whatever model for the vocal you might invoke. In Ketjak, & specifically in Lewiston’s recording of a 1966 performance, the effects of accumulation, reiteration & collaboration are instantly available to any ear. It was those aspects that I had in mind when I chose to name my evolving non-narrative prose poem Ketjak.*

 

To some degree, I must have been counting on the idea that my “audience” – something I could count in the low tens back in 1974 – for the most part wouldn’t recognize the word’s context & thus would take it first of all as an opaque instance of recognizable language, word as object. Ketjak is the Balinese term for monkey. But, although there are allusions to monkeys & the Ramayana myth embedded deep within the poem, I don’t think there’s any way to tell that from the poem. &, while I was interested in exploring the music’s formal features, the presence in the word itself of a tj, a consonant combination that does not occur “naturally” in English, was also important.** That combination served at once to make the word both recognizable & quite unfamiliar.

 

The title, which I knew almost the instant I started the poem, functioned in at least two more ways that I was conscious of at the time. First, it gave me permission in terms of my following a structure that had more to do with music than exposition or narrative. Second, it provided a steadying influence, a register to which I could return, something I could think about, even hear, as I thought inevitably, What next?

 

Not long after I composed the poem Ketjak, I came across some articles on the dance & learned that (as Lewiston insinuates without fully acknowledging in his marketing-driven liner notes) Ketjak was by no means an instance of “native” or “tribal” culture, but had in fact been constructed precisely to perform for tourists in search of the exotic. While its origins began with Sang Hyang exorcism ritual dances, a Javanese choreographer, Sardono Kusumo, made modifications sometime in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, Limbak and at least two westerners, Walter Spies and Katherine Mershon, transformed the ceremony by inserting a danced narrative from an entirely different tradition, the Ramayana. The two layers, each of which entails both singing & dance, occur simultaneously. The very opposite of “indigenous authenticity,” Ketjak  is a modern – even postmodern – pastiche targeted directly for the tourist dollar, the Balinese anticipation perhaps of something like the Blue Man Group, those “avant-garde” performance artists even Jay Leno could love.

 

Given how much my poetry has always entailed layering, juxtaposition & appropriation, it was the history of this form, as much as the form itself, that caused me to extend it from being the title simply of one poem I wrote in 1974.

 

 

 

 

*Ironically, I began working on that poem after hearing not a performance of that piece, but rather a percussion ensemble piece by a gamelan influenced American composer, Steve Reich, Drumming.

 

**As it is also in the word Tjanting, also a Balinese word in a Dutch transcription, this time the name of a pen or stylus used for “writing” or doing linework in batik.



Friday, September 19, 2003

 
After 17 hours without power, the lights have flickered on again.


Thursday, September 18, 2003

 

Salam Pax is on Fresh Air today!




 

I wasn’t supposed to be here today. I had a “mandatory company meeting” in Stamford, Connecticut. But over the weekend, I began to pay attention to Isabel, that bright orange spiral then well out over the Atlantic. By Monday, it seemed evident that Isabel was on a path to come ashore & then head up inland just to the west of Harrisburg, 90 miles west of Paoli. Given how many miles wide this storm is, we’re certain to get hit with something. What nobody seems to know is just what.

 

Normally, when hurricanes hit the east coast, they “bounce” off the coast & head upward, becoming Nor’easters. If they’re still hugging the coast when they go up the Jersey shore, we get a serious rain dump. We live fairly high up in a section of Paoli called Valley Hills. We get a lot of water cascading down the hill, taking off top soil &, if the gutters are clogged or the storm’s bad enough, some water in the furnace room.

 

When Hurricane Floyd came through in 1999, there was serious flooding in the Philadelphia region. I worked in the IBM offices in West Goshen then & I remember that at noon, we were all told to head home before the rain got too hard. Because I live just five miles from that office, I stopped to run an errand & while at the store heard that Paoli Pike, my direct route home, had flooded in Malvern. So I headed up 202, a longer route but generally on higher ground. It was one of the scariest experiences I’ve ever had – the rain was so heavy as to make visibility near zero and there were spots on the freeway itself that were rapidly turning into ponds. I felt like I just barely made it home.

 

We never lost power, so were able to keep in touch with the outside world, and only had a few buckets of water to deal with in the furnace room. But there were several deaths, almost all due to flooding, in Chester County and in the larger Philadelphia region. Manayunk, the Philadelphia neighborhood that sits on the banks of the Schuylkill River, was inundated. They had to evacuate people in boats.

 

So Monday, I took some precautions & made sure that my boss – who lives in Orinda, California – and the team putting on the meeting in Stamford both know that I might not show up. It looked pretty clear that I could get to the meeting. But it also looked pretty clear that I might not be able to get back home again. Especially if I took Amtrak.

 

Yesterday, the meeting itself was cancelled, suggesting that either enough other people were in the same boat – literally – as me, or that there was some concern that Isabel might turn into a Nor’easter. The office in Stamford is just one block from the water.

 

So I’m home today, planning to put up a Plexiglas window bubble that should limit the water-to-the-furnace-room problem & read the instructions on my brand new “wet-dry vac.” We’re officially in an “Inland Tropical Storm Wind warning” & a flood watch until some time tomorrow. (A watch being one step below a “warning” as these things go.) It’s supposed to start raining around 3:00 today, though the eye won’t reach up here until midnight or later. Isabel herself appears headed straight for Buffalo, a town I don’t associate with hurricanes. By then it should just be a big ole rain storm.



Wednesday, September 17, 2003

 

A chapbook-length poem about ships is not what I would normally expect to come from Milwaukee, but Milwaukee is a surprising city. This Midwestern metropolis began as a Great Lakes port in 1835. Milwaukee also has – and has had for some 24 years now – hands down the finest poetry bookstore in the United States, Woodland Pattern, with over 25.000 small press titles.

 

There was a time, early enough into this bookstore’s history, when Woodland Pattern was virtually the only place in the United States where one could get a broad & diverse selection of Canadian books of poetry. In these days of easy internet access & international exchange, it’s hard even to keep in mind just how disconnected these literatures were a couple of decades ago. One reason why this is no longer true can be traced back to the efforts of people like Anne Kingsbury & Karl Gartung, co-founders of Woodland Pattern.

 

There is an integral connection between the bookstore & the idea of a poem about ships, which is simply that Stacy Szymaszek, author of Emptied of All Ships, a chapbook released by Bob Harrison’s Bronze Skull Press, happens also to be the Literary Program Manager at the Pattern.

 

Szymaszek’s writing is spare & clean, giving it a sense of austerity that might remind one of George Oppen’s very earliest poems. This is the sixth of the poem’s ten sections:

 

game of

checkers

 

wood-

pecker

 

gazebo

lemon

 

 

marlin

 

wide

brim

 

song

belted

in a note

thought

mutineer

 

 The inescapable rhyme of the first two stanzas triggers the reader’s attention to hear the great divergence of sounds that show up next, gazebo, pulled immediately back tight into the following lemon. The extra space given before the first word in this section that ties it back into the sea & ships motif of the overall poem allows us, I think, to hear more clearly how marlin & lemon exploit the same three consonants. The two words of the fifth stanza – wide / brim – shift our referential focus once again, but more importantly return us to an elemental state – one syllable, one word – a space this section has not in fact seen since its first line. But before these two adjectives can arrive at their inevitable noun, the reader’s attention shifts again to a final, longer stanza, whose lines proceed syllabically one, two, three, before suddenly bringing us back to the single syllable of thought, leading finally to the gaudiest word in the whole piece, mutineer. Mutineer is not the first three-syllable word in the piece, which in part is why wood- / pecker carries above over two lines. Mutineer has the same burst of sound & color as does gazebo.

 

There’s much more going on here than just this – the lovely shifting of the O sound from note to thought, for example – but I want to give a sense of how a section functions, the importance of each word’s physical qualities before I call attention to the two aspects of this piece I find myself thinking most obsessively about. The first is how the two terms that might fit into the shipping cognitive frame do so at great distance from any association with Midwestern industrial cargo logistics – sport fishing & mutinies. The second is how this poem is & is not “about” shipping at all.

 

The poem itself begins with three parallel stanzas, all in italics:

 

ships launch

into world

from stripe

in garb

chemical sails

float them far

 

 

ships launch

into world

from crash

in flesh

tugboats

tow them far

 

 

ships launch

into world

from excised

anchor

reef knots

pull them far

 

 

watch blips

on hour

 

 

hand glides

into chest

of slippery

combs

 

 

emptied of

all ships

 

One carries a sense, after the image of a radar screen & the final couplet of this opening section, that the ships have gone, leaving one – less a persona or narrator than a point-of-view – behind. This is reinforced in the opening stanza of the second section, which recalls the “domestic” crafts that underpinned the sailing industry for centuries:

 

mother

folds

sails

as I

count

flower

parts

 

But from this moment on in this work, the sea literally recedes. Just three strophes hence, we will find the lone-word stanza Pompeii. Other exotic names & adjectives are soon invoked as the poem unveils: Egyptian, Elysium, Cypress, Finnish, Chinese, Nefertiti, Arabic. This is very much a work about the distance of the Other, a concept that is extremely hard to convey in the hard, almost Objectivist language employed by Szymaszek, which she manages with great dexterity.

 

The poem ends satisfyingly, but I think it would be wrong to say that it concludes. Emptied of All Ships feels open-ended & consciously indeterminate. The sea, sailing & ships offer a cognitive frame for a series of moves, but it seems to me almost always the case there that it is the underlying dynamics that is the thrust of Szymaszek’s writing. As in the sixth section, quoted above, the continuing refocus of attention seems most truly the point (or, as I quoted Olson just the other day, “that movement or action is home”).

 

I would be curious to understand how Emptied of All Ships fits in with Some Mariners, another series by Szymaszek that you can find on the web (for instance, here, or here), which uses the same at sea construct. I invoked Oppen earlier &, as I also think of him as the “poet who sailed,” I turned back to the Collected, reading in particular first the poems from Seascape: Needle’s Eye and then the sailing pieces from Discrete Series. I was surprised to discover just how much more spare than Oppen Szymaszek really is.

 

To suggest her own reading, I note that she is included as one of the recommenders in the “Staff Picks” page of Woodland Pattern. Here is her current list, an interesting mix of New American & other post avant writing:

 

 



Tuesday, September 16, 2003

 

It was Kasey Mohammad’s brilliant note, appended as a comment to my September 9 blog, that got me thinking more about the Houlihan question yesterday. Kasey’s argument is that

 

you've sketched an axis whose poles are the external ("audience") and the internal ("community"); I wonder whether there couldn’t be other axes that figure in here as well. 

 

In that sentence “you” is me and “I” is him (which sounds like it ought to be out of a John Lennon song somewhere). And I of course agree that things never are that simple. But simply recasting my terms thus reminded me instead of how much our Official Poets of late have in fact cast their lot around a series of activities that posits appreciation as the major relationship towards the poem. Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project, Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 and Dana Gioia’s “Art for the Masses” NEA Shakespeare Campaign all are premised on a few common presumptions, principally that poetry is written by the very few & consumed largely by a passive audience of non-writers. That seems to me to be a very specific – and very political – theory of literature.

 

One feature of post-avant poetics, regardless of the tendency, is that readings often occur in which the audience is at least half composed by other poets. It’s not unusual for the poet to know a good number of the poets in his or her audience, even when reading in a new city for the very first time. That’s an implicit presumption in Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto & it is what literally authorizes the use of a form of shorthand in the critical writing, for example, of Charles Olson. It’s also the feature of post-avant poetics that is being identified whenever a School of Quietude poet accuses some part of the post-avant scene of having coterie poetics.

 

That’s always struck me as being a peculiarly Orwellian charge, in that the presumption of the literacy of an audience – that its members could just as easily be the writers speaking – is taken as a sign of elitism, whereas the contrasting model is one of a functionally non-literate (because non-writing) audience appreciating the work of an anointed few. That Gioia’s anglophilia takes him out of American literature altogether is almost too deliciously ironic for words.

 

Those of us in what Bill Knott recently called the School of Noisiness – I’d use terms more like vibrancy & life, Bill, just to contrast it with the embalming elixirs of the Other – really don’t think in terms of audience, precisely because it posits an unbridgeable gap between those who write & those who don’t. So, in fact, I would disagree with Kasey about the model of an axis being posed that has audience at one extreme. Rather I see the universe of writing, which includes all readers, as a series of constantly shifting ensembles of tendencies, directions, & what I’d characterize as interest clusters. And while I do often think about poetry in terms of political organization, the dynamics of it are most amenable to a Gramscian view of a poetics of movement & position, more than one of winners & losers. The short-term gains I posited as one aspect of a position not unlike Houlihan’s yesterday are real, even if the longer term dynamics – School of Quietude poetry always dissolves in the long run, overwhelmed by the crazies, the Blakes, Dickinsons & Whitmans – are likewise inescapable. Periplum, that Greek term for navigating a constantly reconfiguring universe, is indeed the point.

 

 

 

Ш         Ш         Ш

 

 

The blog recorded 441 visits yesterday, a record. There were a total of 729 pages views, also a new high.

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Monday, September 15, 2003

 

I thought about stepping into the Joan Houlihan fiasco – especially the exchange betwixt Dale Smith & Bill Knott on the Skanky Possum blog* – but then I just thought “Ick!” And that Jim Behrle had it pretty much accurate as to Houlihan & the broader social phenomena of which she is only a symptom:

 

·         They don’t get it

·         They’re “scared of us”

·         They think we’re all language poets

 

Houlihan herself underscores that last point when she uses Sheila E. Murphy as an example of, as Houlihan calls it, I=N=C=O=H=E=R=E=N=C=E. But while Murphy’s painterly linguistic abstractions might be viewed as extending from, say, Clark Coolidge’s early books, I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen or heard her describe herself as a language poet, nor have I ever seen anyone I would associate with langpo do likewise. The painterly & abstract elements in her work are entirely her own. Houlihan’s calling Murphy’s work a “language poem” simply demonstrates that, in fact, Houlihan doesn’t know how to read post-avant work in any of its varieties & can’t even see the differences when they’re up front & fairly obvious.** This is just a replay of the review ages ago in The Nation that similarly abused Jorie Graham as a language poet. Sheila Murphy & Jorie Graham are both fine writers, but neither is doing anything remotely similar either to language poetry or to each other.

 

There are other questions one might ask about Houlihan’s performance here: Does she, in fact, know what she is doing? Is this really just a cynical attempt to generate tourist traffic around her writing by generating an artificial scandal? Is Houlihan another Bill Bennett, a compulsive gambler who inveighs on the topic of values while practicing a lifestyle in direct conflict with his screeds? The test of this is whether or not Houlihan really believes what she herself is writing or only thinks that her own supporters are too stupid to know the difference. That’s not an attractive choice, but those really are the options. I often wonder this same thing about William Logan, the New Criterion critic whose fulminations are the closest thing that journal has to a comic strip. Nor are these hardly the first instances of this same phenomenon. We could just as easily ask if Norman Podhoretz understood in 1958 that penning “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” would make him a laughing stock forever. What all of these defenders of a beleaguered norm have in common is not just a rhetorical stance – one that has clear enough political implications – but also a perfect historical track record. Dating at least as far back as Henry Theodore Tuckerman & the original School of Quietude of the 1840s, these misfortunates always lose.

 

So whenever one these routines shows up in a new guise & with a new name, the questions one needs to have answered are:

·         Is this person ignorant of history? (Position A)

·         If not, which of the following are their motives?

o        Short-term gain & notoriety? (Position B)

o        A commitment to values so strong that he or she is willing to accept the historical consequences in order to make a stand? (Position C)

I have a lot of respect for that last position, although it is by the far the most rare. I’ve said this before, but I think that the poetry & work of Wendell Berry is perhaps the best example of Position C extant. Positions A & B are far more common.

 

More interesting, because it is so much more complex, is a certain kind of middle stance taken these days by the likes of bloggers Gabriel Gudding & Henry Gould along with fellow traveler Kent Johnson. None of them is ignorant of history but all three seem to share an instinctive suspicion of much of the new, even as they themselves are often practitioners of same. I don’t think any of them would mind gain or notoriety, frankly, short-term or otherwise, but I also sense that they understand the hollowness of its promise, so that rather than being defenders of an Olde Order, they have chosen instead to become the guilty conscience of the New. There is a risk in this, because it is a complex position, and that is that they can be taken for or confused with the likes of a Houlihan. I’m not sure that any of the three manages that risk as deftly as I would like, but at least I will take what any one of them says seriously, even when, on the face of it, some of their critical writing makes me think we must be inhabiting parallel (if not perpendicular) universes.

 

 

 

*67 comments to a single blog!

 

**In the same piece, Houlihan misspells Lyn Hejinian’s first name.

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Sunday, September 14, 2003

 

Wayan Limbak was an inventor of the Ketjak. He just passed away at the age of 106.

 



 
The new version of the calendar has moved to Sunday, September 21.


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