Saturday, September 20, 2003
Limbak at the age of 106 the other day caught my eye for the same reason
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
· (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).
importantly, Ketjak is the title of a piece of music & a dance in
But it was
the oral chant of Golden Rain’s “B”
side, 200 men participating in what
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?
after I composed the poem Ketjak, I
came across some articles on the dance & learned that (as
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
Thursday, September 18, 2003
supposed to be here today. I had a “mandatory company meeting” in
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
When Hurricane Floyd came
through in 1999, there was serious flooding in the
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
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.
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
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 today, though the eye won’t reach
up here until or later. Isabel herself appears headed straight for
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
chapbook-length poem about ships is not what I would normally expect to come
There was a
time, early enough into this bookstore’s history, when Woodland Pattern was
virtually the only place in the
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:
in a note
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:
float them far
tow them far
pull them far
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:
this moment on in this work, the sea literally recedes. Just three strophes hence,
we will find the lone-word stanza
ends satisfyingly, but I think it would be wrong to say that it concludes. Emptied of All Ships feels open-ended
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.
her own reading, I note that she is included as one of the recommenders in the
Picks” page of
- Head, Bill Kushner, United Artists
- Voice-Over, Elaine Equi, Coffee House Press
- Tea Shack Interior, Andrew Schelling, Talisman
, John Wieners, Black Sparrow Boston
- Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn, edited by Edith Jarolim, Persea
- Evidence, Ted Pearson, Gaz Editions
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.
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
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
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
Those of us
in what Bill Knott recently called the
Ш Ш Ш
The blog recorded 441 visits yesterday, a record. There were a total of 729 pages views, also a new high.
Labels: School of Quietude
Monday, September 15, 2003
I thought about stepping
into the Joan
Houlihan fiasco – especially the exchange betwixt
· They don’t get it
· They’re “scared of us”
· They think we’re all language poets
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.
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
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?
& notoriety? (
A commitment to
values so strong that he or she is willing to accept the historical
consequences in order to make a stand? (
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
*67 comments to a single blog!
**In the same piece, Houlihan misspells Lyn Hejinian’s first name.
Labels: School of Quietude
Sunday, September 14, 2003