Saturday, October 04, 2003

 

How often do you get to hear the significant poets in your region? Once a year maybe? That number has always seemed about right to me, but it varies considerably depending on how many active reading series there are, how many poets & of course how many poets in whose work one is genuinely interested. Writers in Missoula are confronting a considerably different reality than those in Manhattan or San Francisco.

 

I must have heard Leslie Scalapino 20 to 25 times in the years I lived in the Bay Area. We’re of the same generation and grew up in such proximity that Scalapino is one of the poets – along with Stephen Vincent, Greg Djanikian, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Davidson & Barrett Watten – whom I sometimes think about not in terms of which college she attended, but which high school. Leslie & I once gave a reading together at USF to a rousing crowd of three people, the result of a scheduling snafu (there was somebody terrific from out of town at Langton Street that night, although frankly I don’t remember just who). And Leslie has always been somebody who was willing to offer you her honest opinion if & when she thought you were screwing up. We haven’t always agreed, but I’ve learned a lot in good part thanks to her willingness to explore in good faith whatever points of divergence we’ve had.

 

So I was more than happy to hear her Thursday night at Temple’s central city extension site, literally in an office building a half block from City Hall. It’s been a few years since I last heard her read & it’s always an illuminating event. Thursday was no exception.

 

Scalapino read from four works: Zither, It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, The Tango and a new as yet unpublished manuscript called Can’t is Night. At the outset, she said that she had a musical structure in mind when picking which works from which to read. & I could hear it, more so than I had in the past, which made me wonder how much Leslie had changed since I moved east in 1995, how much I had, or maybe how much the world of poetry had so that my expectations were different. It was aurally the most fascinating reading I’ve been to in years. So much so in fact as I drove west out to Paoli afterwards, I tried to think of another reading that had struck me in just that fashion &, in all honesty, the one that came to mind was a trio of Friday night readings Robert Duncan gave in Berkeley around 1970 in which he read all the sections of his long poem Passages that had been written to that point.

 

Which made me think of how few poets – unless they’re explicitly doing sound poetry, another kettle of fish altogether – foreground the syllable, the grainy surfaces of consonants or the clear tones of vowels to the degree that Scalapino does. And I think that the answer really may be that since Duncan passed on some 15 years ago virtually nobody has articulated this domain of language with such precision. It’s not the only thing she’s focusing on, but it is an aspect that is almost unique to her. I’ve never thought of her as a projectivist – her lines are not “breath units” in the Olsonian mode – but Scalapino’s poetry, to listen to her reading, lives in the syllable.

 

But as I said much more is always also going on. The one work I had in front of me as Scalapino read from it was It’s go in / quiet illumined grass / land, -- that’s the kind of complex, multi-line title one normally associates with the late Larry Eigner. In it, the stanzas or passages function as individual units, sometimes one to a page, more often two or three separated by just enough space so that the eye instantly registers the individuation. It’s the same sort of spatial separation that generally divides sections in the booklength prose poem Sight the Scalapino did in collaboration with Lyn Hejinian – flat out my favorite collaboration ever. There I thought it had been a part of their strategy of keeping their individual moments in the text distinct – the work has a ping-pong quality that is startlingly energetic – but here I see it is (or has become) integral to Scalapino’s own process. In addition, Scalapino is also using what I would characterize as interlinear margins – most of these works have not one but two (and occasionally even more) distinct left margins, such as:

 

wall standing rose could just

                           ‘place’

                           together

as evening in the middle of

                           people

                           speaking        

and so no space even there

                           one?

freezing pale night at wild (only)

                           day

‘there’ only, no rose even so can

                           ‘place’

the day there being no people

                           speaking

                           one

Only one place is a thought that I can’t quite shake from a stanza like this, as tho solving a riddle by combining the key (or at least reiterated) terms into what, for me, makes the most sense.

 

This is a sense of stanzaic form I can’t recall ever having seen before. It’s not the kind of interlinear textuality that might make one want to have two separate readers, but rather a model that permits both one-words lines and longer ones that tend toward six words (there’s one of five, another of seven). But how account for the moments when there is only one one-word line between the longer ones as distinct those where there are two?

 

Contrast this sense of line & stanza with this sentence, which opens up Bob Perelman’s “Driving to the Philadelphia Poetry Festival by the Free Library,” which to my delight I found on DC Poetry website the other day.

 

Emerging from the middle

of a donut-shaped dream, I rolled out of yesterday like there was no tomorrow, turning left

onto Crittenden

 

with its consonants and trees,

right onto the not necessarily bitter irony of Mt Pleasant, which goes both up and down,

like life they say

 

but maybe not.

 

Both passages here are predicated on the tension of long vs. short line, but in Scalapino’s there is an ambiguity as to how much “turn” the reader should here in the break – some resolve into more recognizable syntax that what may exist within the longer line – the first three lines a perfect instance of this – but then there are one word lines – one? is such a one – that utterly resist such grammatical integration.

 

In Perelman’s work, the line is visual & almost inaudible, the normative syntax unfolding as though the text itself were perfectly ordinary, a register of ironies not unlike Mt Pleasant, smooth as a ride on an elevator.

 

One source for Scalapino’s form here must come from her collaboration with sculptor Petah Coyne (visible in the book in only a single print).* Coyne’s drip wax sculptures are the upper limit of sensual surfaces in contemporary three-dimensional art & I see that relation in the shifts between lines, for example, in the sample of Scalapino’s work above – it’s a feature that I think you can hear if you just read her work aloud roughly the way she does, slightly faster than one syllable at a time.

 

I’m not quite sure what I make of it all, but this isn’t a statement of ambivalence in the slightest. Rather, I’m going to need to absorb it, as I did Sight (and as I am doing her Autobiography), knowing that it will come to almost in a generative fashion, in waves in the days & weeks ahead.

 

 

* My nephew Dan & I saw a Coyne exhibition in New York a couple of years ago. I was taking Dan on a tour of the Chelsea galleries so that he could see how art might exist apart from its embalmed state in museums & how one might think of different galleries as carrying forth a conversation. The two shows that day that really spoke with power were Coyne & Richard Serra’s giant rusting curlicues one could circle into.

 

 

Ш         Ш         Ш

 

 

I want to note something else that the Temple Writing Series does that I think makes great sense. Before each “visiting” writer reads in their series, a student in the writing program reads a short set of their own work. They almost always pick somebody whose work has something simpatico with the visiting writer & it’s often a very interesting balance. I first heard Pattie McCarthy “open” for Charles Bernstein this way & generally all of the work at these readings has been quite credible. Sharon Nowak’s reading on Thursday was much more than just credible – her first piece, of which she read only an excerpt, could have gone on for hours & nobody would have complained. Make a note of the name.   



Friday, October 03, 2003

 

Yesterday, I characterized Fanny Howe’s booklength verse drama Tis of Thee as a “completely narrative work” that “focuses on parallel stories of interracial love, a birth, and a male child given up to others, once in the 1890s, once in the 1950s.” This is accurate enough so far as it goes, but it hardly goes far enough. Narrative in the hands of Fanny Howe, who has written more than a few works of fiction since publishing her first collection of short stories, Forty Whacks, in 1969, is no more “ordinary” in her hands than in those of, say, Kathy Acker.

 

Tis of Thee entails three voices, one of a white woman, two those of black men, describing, in Sherwood Anderson-like soliloquies, twin tales of emotional devastation that result from racist reactions to the question of “mixing.” Most if not all of the philosophical, historical & social consequences of crossing this barrier that exists, not biologically, but politically, between races are examined in a way that is, on the one hand, quite methodical, & on the other driven first of all by & through emotion. There are subplots as well, not simply giving away the child & the inner death that must entail for the “abandoning” parent, but a second one involving the female figure & the most important unvoiced persona in the drama, that of her father. (At some point, a serious critic is going to examine that “substitute the father” syndrome Howe suggests might drive one to first transcend whatever social taboos one might internalize. It’s a powerful force & one that is not resolved in this text.)

 

If the voices represent historic figures, they don’t quite exist as personas, as each must inhabit two roles – that of the 19th century tale, the second occurring in the middle of the 20th century.* Indeed, they have no names & are merely identified as X, Y & Z. If, on the CD, for example, it’s never necessarily clear which woman Stephanie French is giving voice to in a particular stanza, it’s precisely because Howe isn’t after that. What matters here is not how the voices are individuated, so much as how they are not. For it precisely the trap of social category, gender as well as race, that is being etched verbally:

 

Across one century, and into the next, I became the mother of his child—

Twice at least—but let each child be taken away from me.

Naturally I grew nauseous from loneliness.

By night-fits and shadow-language of the trees I tossed

my knees this way and that—my bed a raft on a sea ill-lighted and deep.

My cries were dry.

The leaves rattled the glass.

Outside sirens would invent the whole city’s anthem,

a tune of anonymous personal pain,

and trash cans smashed against teenage hands. Now I would see

reflections like stains in a clear swamp . . . . White lilies cupped by greens.

Trees twinned and echoes on a grassy pond.

It was really a mirror for me. My birthright with its clear glass tables

in livingrooms—except where the cocktail left a circle—or the peanut a shower

of salt—was never to be mine again.

I had stepped outside a magic circle.

And I couldn’t take care of myself

even though I could talk eloquently about many liberating subjects in 1890.

And yet again in the middle of the 20th century.

 

It’s worth noting, in the section above, which sentences are given their own lines for emphasis & which are embedded into larger structures.

 

This passage, I think, makes clear many of the strengths of the work, but also some of its limitations. The writing itself is terrific, but the dramatic monolog as a form confines the text, especially here when in fact it is more than one woman speaking in a single voice. As the CD makes all too evident, this is especially a problem for the two male roles in this play. Because their multiplicity renders it impossible to individuate them linguistically (one speaking more “correctly,” say, the other using slang), it becomes almost impossible – and more than “almost” if one doesn’t have the text in front on one when listening to the recording. After hearing the CD five times over three days, I still cannot tell the two male voices apart at all. Only part of the problem lies with the actors or the director – the real issue is textual: “transpersonal” voices don’t so much articulate positionality (which is what I think Howe is after) as they do dissolve “personality.” Yet there is an opacity in the latter that is utterly essential for the question of positions.

 

But the category, not the person, is the problem & the problem should not be underestimated. When I was working in the prison movement in California in the 1970s, one of the things we had to confront was that the best predictor of prison time for a crime for a white woman was not the offense itself, unless it was homicide, but whether or not her crime partner had been a black male. One of the reasons I & so many others in that decade worked to end the indeterminate sentence in that state was that, when individuals are given discretionary power over other human beings, that’s the kind of result one invariably gets.

 

But for all of its power & sadness, Tis of Thee only partly confronts the depths of this problem. That it event attempts it is a testament of its power & of Howe’s fearlessness as an author. Yet rather than articulating the three positions—male, female & offspring—that Howe has written, what I hear instead is a different triad: black male, white female, absent (but controlling) father.

 

Miles Anderson’s score, which ranges from Henry Cary’s 1740 Thesarus Musicus (from which both “America” & “God Save the Queen” are derived) & something I could only characterize as Phil Glass lite, is unobtrusive when it needs to be & in some places quite lovely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* The text implies, although it never really addresses, the question of how might these dynamics all play out today, as far removed from that second tale as it is historically from the first. Do younger people have more freedom in this respect? I certainly hope so, although one sees the same dynamics worldwide cast in a thousand different forms, Serb & Croat, Hindu & Muslim, Arab & Jew.



Thursday, October 02, 2003

 

The Nobel Prize for literature has just been awarded to novelist J. M Coetzee.





 

There is a motto that has stuck in my head for a quarter century that says “Aspire to read more than what comes in the mail.” The source for this is a statement made by my late friend Jim Gustafson in the anthology None of the Above. His version is wordier – typical enough for Jim – but his point is exact. But then his mailbox isn’t my mailbox – and it’s not 1975 any more, either. When I went out to the end of the driveway, I came back with three separate envelopes from greater Boston:

 

·         Carve, Issue 1, edited by Aaron Tieger, with work from Gregory Ford, William Corbett, Joseph Torra, Dorothea Lasky, J. Kates, Sara Veglahn, Eric Baus, Noah Eli Gordon, Nick Moudry, Travis Nichols, Michael Carr, Aaron Belz, Beth Woodcome, Mark Lamoureux, Brenda Iijima, Anna Moschovakis, Aaron Tieger, Christina Strong, Kent Johnson & Marchello Durango. Cover by Brenda Iijima.

 

·         Tim Peterson’s Cumulus, a beautifully designed chapbook from Portable Press at Yo-Yo Labs in Brooklyn. Artwork by Toshi Iijima. Tim’s somebody I associate in my mind with Tucson, where he used to live, but he has an MIT email address these days.

 

·         Mike County & Del Ray Cross, a chapbook from Pressed Wafer composed of County’s Three Deckers & Cross’ Poems. I have no idea where County lives, though I’m vaguely aware that Cross lived in the Boston area before wending west to the promised land of the Bay Area.

 

There is also a letter from Larry Fagin, suggesting (as have a few emails from others) a correction to my piece on Paul Blackburn’s “Ritual XVII.” The idea that O’Hara ever wrote any of his lunch poems on a department store typewriter (or anything like that) is, in Fagin’s words, an “old wives’ tale”: “There was an Olivetti dealer in the MOMA neighborhood, with a sample machine bolted to a stand out on the sidewalk, (I tested it once, myself, being an inveterate Lettera 22 fan) and while it’s tempting to think so, none of Frank’s poems issued from it.”

 

Finally in the mailbox under several computing magazines is a thicker package from Berkeley containing the latest books from Atelos:

 

·         Tis of Thee, by Fanny Howe, a booklength verse play, complete with CD. This completely narrative work focuses on parallel stories of interracial love, a birth, and a male child given up to others, once in the 1890s, once in the 1950s. After several years of teaching at UCSD, Howe has returned to Boston.

·         Poetical Dictionary, by Lohren Green, actually (as I read it) a sequence of works written as dictionary entries, a preface that is itself a meditation on the dictionary as form, complete with some strange tables and great illustrations by Robert Hullinger. Currently a San Franciscan, the globe-trotting Green joins writers as diverse as Armand Schwerner & Clark Coolidge in engaging the dictionary as discursive model.

So far as I can tell, Green has no visible connection to the Boston area, although he does have a degree from the other Cambridge.

 

This many Boston-related items in one day’s mail, though, gets my attention. In my own mental map, the U.S. has two premier literary locations – New York, since forever, & San Francisco, since the end of the Second World War. Boston is one of several second-tier literary metros – Philadelphia, Washington-Baltimore, San Diego would be the others – after which there are an ever-changing number of locations that make up a pretty widespread & diverse third tier. Most third-tier metros tend to be relatively short-lived, at least as “happening scenes” – Atlanta & New Orleans are obviously “hot” these days, but it’s open to question as to whether this will be so in ten years – unless the scene is related to a critical location institution, such as the Writers Workshop in Iowa City, Naropa in Boulder, Woodland Patterns in Milwaukee, the Writing Program at Brown or the Poetics Program in Buffalo.

 

Some scenes are more heavily identified with one side or the other of the Great Divide betwixt post-avant & quietude. And I have to admit – having just seen the most cloying preview of Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in the forthcoming biopic SylviaBoston has been the City of Quietude. I’ve noted before, of course, that this is not “really” or even necessarily the case. No place that is or was home to the likes of John Wieners, Bill Corbett, Steve Jonas, the aforementioned Ms. Howe or the Jimside could ever really be called quiet.

 

Rather, what might be said about Boston is that its colleges are institutions that were created for the most part during a period in American history when one sought legitimacy not by stressing one’s differences with the United Kingdom & its traditions, but rather the continuities. One catches the odor of the same institutionalized Anglophilia at Yale. That the institutional programs and agendas that were set in place over 200 years ago continue to some degree today should not be all that surprising.

 

But as the city of New York is not one scene, but rather several cohabiting the same geography, so apparently is Boston. While it & Boston really do appear to be the only major cities in the U.S. that can truly be said to host serious scenes from the School of Quietude, both also obviously harbor an alternative universe, one in which, as in Fanny Howe’s Tis of Thee, the political history of motherfucker can be examined (it’s not what you might think), Joseph Torra can work late as a waiter & write intelligently of exhaustion, while Bill Corbett watches a man rise up to pull down luggage on a train, Tim Peterson pen a poem entitled “The Age of Advertising,” which asks the question “Why are you writing a poem called the Age of Advertising / anyway?” & Mike County writes “Taking the Folks for a Drive,”

 

Stinking, dreaming out loud

in balloons overhead

overheard.

Handle arcade change like

 

peep show quarters;

ate for years, but

wouldn’t put lips to food.

Nowadays he reads from

 

the Collected Charles Whitman,

spray paints his own poems

to a canvas stretched

with old cinema screens.

 

Holes enough

to drive both parents through.

 

That’s a complex, intense little poem, one that expects readers well-read enough to recognize the name of the Texas tower sniper of 1966.* It exists in a world rich with meaning & intention, a Boston that I seriously suspect Gwyneth Paltrow’s Sylvia – which I suspect has very little to do with the one of flesh & blood & considerable pain & some great poems – will never see.

 

 

 

 

 

* One of whose victims, 18-year-old Thomas Eckman, was the son of poet Frederick Eckman.



Wednesday, October 01, 2003

 

In recounting his visit with collagist Wendy Kramer on the Philly Sound website, CA Conrad mentioned of Jonathan Williams that “so many writers my age and younger seem to be ignorant of the man and his press.” This may well be true, but, if so, the loss belongs to these younger writers. Williams has been, from the beginning, a one-of-a-kind renaissance tucked down there in the western mountains of North Carolina (albeit with more than a few visits to the United Kingdom). His influence pops up in the oddest places in poetry – you can find it, for example, in the uses of humor in Clark Coolidge’s verse* – & to some degree, conscious or otherwise, in the verse of any writer who gives him- or herself permission to joke in the poem.

 

Among other things, Williams is not only a master punster, but the first of the Black Mountain poets – and him you can legitimately call such, since he not only went to that august but dishabille institution, but has lived nearby most if not all of his life – to understand that Projectivism’s rigorous scoring of the line for sound could be used with a much sharper sense of satire than, say, Pound’s mere mocking of southern accents in The Cantos. Williams ear, as well as his wit, turns out to be far sharper. Here, almost at random from the earliest book of Williams I have, Amen / Huzzah / Selah, published as Jargon 13 in 1960, is “Hojoki

 

If you can keep straight you will have no friends
but catgut and blossom in seasons.

— Basil Bunting, from Chomei at Toyama

 

no loot, no

lust to string a catgut

in a banjo

 

to hoot

or holler into

Nawth Jawja

 

too effete to

chant “Chattahoochee

in trochaic feet

 

all’s quiet at

Hut City

 

It’s hard to imagine a poem in English more organized around the regional possibilities of h, u & t, not to mention ch, as this. That last line echoes long after – indeed the whole poem has stuck in my head for at least 35 years.** Conrad or someone is sure to point out that the word “straight” in Bunting’s poem here is heard as a binary pair to the unspoken “gay” by Williams’ own text & that this poem invokes the particular problems of cruising in the rural south of the 1950s, a circumstance I can’t even fathom in that era of institutionalized homophobia. 

 

Within a decade, Williams’ work would appear to be everywhere – a selected poems, of sorts, from New Directions, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, a booklength long poem, Mahler, from Cape Goliard/Grossman & a large, fabulously daffy collection, The Loco Logo-Daedalist in Situ, as from Cape Goliard/Grossman** & then another, Blues & Roots, Rue and Bluets: A Garland from the Appalachians. But as Projectivism itself receded in the 1970s after the death of Olson & divergences by Creeley, Dorn, Baraka, Levertov & then Duncan’s long hiatus, the context in which Williams work had first been received itself seemed to dissolve. Since then, Williams has been one of poetry’s great secrets, central to almost anyone familiar with the work, but apt to be bypassed by less careful students of the form’s heritage.

 

Fortunately, he seems to keep writing and his press, Jargon, has proven critical over the years – giving us Lorine Niedecker’s work, for example, at a time when it could be found nowhere else. Williams is himself also a master photographer. I’ve had the Gnomon edition of Portrait Photographs since Jonathan Greene first published it in 1979 & Williams’ photos of a young Robert Duncan & Louis Zukofsky, torn from a Poetry Society of America publication, stare down at now as I type. Check out this history of the press and, while you’re at the site, marvel at the galleries of photographs.

 

Back in 1999, Sylvester Pollet published Amuse-Gueules for Bemused Ghouls in his Backwoods Broadsides Chaplet series. It’s the most recent Williams I have on hand. As I read “La Grande Cuisine Corniche,” I’m happy to report that, as that one line poem aptly attests, Williams unique combination of ear & wit is as vigorous as ever:

 

soggy ratty tatty oggy

 

 

 

 

 

* Indeed, it was recognizing the Jonathan Williams’ influence that first made it possible for me to really get into Coolidge’s work, realizing that it was not, as Robert Sward once charged, mere psychedelic word salad.

 

** In my mind, I inevitably pair it with Grenier’s famous ”Wintry,” which ends

 

oh vell I, oh well, I

well I don’t know

oh, vell, I don’t know

 

Ah yah

ah, yah

ja

a sod hut

 

*** Check out the options for Daedalist in Microsoft Word’s spell check!



Tuesday, September 30, 2003

 

I got one complaint yesterday from a color-blind reader who had trouble with my coding of Charles Bernstein’s poem. My own color-blind son tells me that he could distinguish all three colors, but could understand how somebody even more color-blind could not. If this applies to you, send me an email and I will send you the text in Word with the colors swizzled to avoid the problem.

 

Ш         Ш         Ш

 

According to The Simpson Archive, Thomas Pynchon will appear as himself on a show later this season. The premise being that Marge has written a novel. Tom Clancy also appears. No sign on the Archive site if they have any idea (a) what an odd combination that is, or (b) how many Pynchon fans will be wondering if “that” is really what he looks like these days.



 

The DC Poetry web site is one of the smartest ideas I’ve seen in terms of both documenting a community & making poetry more widely available. The site includes schedules for (& a few poems from pretty much everyone who in recent years has read in) the Ruthless Grip, in your ear & Bridge Street Books reading series, plus some historical documents, such Joan Retallack’s 1988 essay, “Mass Transit: The Dupont Circle Circle” [not a typo], chronicling the early history of post-avant poetics in the nation’s capitol. 

 

Rae Armantrout asked me if I’d read any poetry by Richard Roundy, a writer whose work she has found interesting of late, and – though I’ve got “Occupation of Green,” a longish poem that appeared in Sal Mimeo 3 awhile back, my first impulse wasn’t to plough through my mags, but to Google the man – and by far the best sampling of work I’ve found comes from the DC site, a trio of lovely & funny poems that seem fairly different from his work in Sal & even that which appeared back in 1995 in RIF/T 5.

 

While I’m there, it’s impossible not to take a look-see at all the other great poetry this site has been gathering. In addition to Bob Perelman, Alice Notley, Leslie Scalapino, Kit Robinson, Tina Darragh & other members of my age cohort, there are lots of younger poets included as well. Particularly tasty I found was an essay by blogger Katie Degentesh on my favorite food, the banana.* Other bloggers who have work incorporated here include K. Silem Mohammad, Jordan Davis, Drew Gardner, Patrick Durgin, Nada Gordon, Michael Magee, Gary Sullivan, CA Conrad & Tom Devaney (of the Philly Sound** poets). An even greater number of non-bloggers appear – the 190 or so poets among the blogroll to my left here turn out to be just the tip o’ of the iceberg when it comes to poetry these days. For example, the best link list I’ve ever seen for the poetry of Mary Burger is to be found in the “Fall 1999” of the 2000 anthology web page.

 

Some of the link sites have gone dark (where are you now, Shawn Walker?), especially for poets listed in the site’s first season, but on the whole this is a terrific resource – not just for poets in DC, but anywhere at all. Jennifer Coleman, Allison Cobb, the reading coordinators and whoever else has taken part in this project have done – and are still doing – a wonderful job connecting community & poetry in the best possible ways.

 

 

 

 

* Degentesh also has a homophonic translation from the Bhagavad-Gita that I sure wish I’d known about when I was thinking about such things a few weeks ago: “this samizdat should have a child.”

 

** Which as a collective blog is becoming a serious resource of its own these days.



Monday, September 29, 2003

 

Thank You for Saying Thank You

 

This is a totally

accessible poem.

There is nothing

in this poem

that is in any

way difficult

to understand.

All the words

are simple &

to the point.

There are no new

concepts, no

theories, no

ideas to confuse

you. This poem

has no intellectual

pretensions. It is

purely emotional.

It fully expresses

the feelings of the

author: my feelings,

the person speaking

to you now.

It is all about

communication.

Heart to heart.

This poem appreciates

& values you as

a reader. It

celebrates the

triumph of the

human imagination

amidst pitfalls &

calamities. This poem

has 90 lines,

269 words, and

more syllables than

I have time to

count. Each line,

word, & syllable

have been chosen

to convey only the

intended meaning

& nothing more.

This poem abjures

obscurity & enigma.

There is nothing

hidden. A hundred

readers would each

read the poem

in an identical

manner & derive

the same message

from it. This

poem, like all

good poems, tells

a story in a direct

style that never

leaves the reader

guessing. While

at times expressing

bitterness, anger,

resentment, xenophobia,

& hints of racism, its

ultimate mood is

affirmative. It finds

joy even in

those spiteful moments

of life that

it shares with

you. This poem

represents the hope

for a poetry

that doesn't turn

its back on

the audience, that

doesn't think it's

better than the reader,

that is committed

to poetry as a

popular form, like kite

flying and fly

fishing. This poem

belongs to no

school, has no

dogma. It follows

no fashion. It

says just what

it says. It's

real.

 

© 2003 Charles Bernstein

 

Last Friday, wading in some of the bathos that is Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi, I footnoted the caveat that, had Charles Bernstein written those lines, I might have read them differently. Of course, on Thursday night last week, I sat outdoors in the new Class of 1942 garden at Kelly Writers House & listened to Charles read the above poem, which appears in his relatively new Chax Press chapbook Let’s Just Say.

 

Bernstein’s poem raises the question of how one reads or believes a text in interesting ways – and it’s not the only poem of his to raise that issue. Nor do I think the question is nearly so simple as it might first look.

 

The first question here might be posed as when does the reader “know” that at some level this plainspoken text is ironic. Different readers will answer this differently, of course. Is it the word ideas, with its resonance of William Carlos Williams? Is it the phrase purely emotional? Is it the title? And, had I put Charles’ name at the top, would it have right there, even before getting into the text?

 

Seeing this work in print fails to capture Charles’ reading style, deliberately employing “inappropriate” pauses & the most awkward imaginable pauses for linebreaks. What stands out is the degree to which “plain speech” is anything but transparent, but rather is something much more like a membrane, a surface controlled in large part (although not exclusively) by the speaker. For the listener to “get to” he- (or she-) who-speaks represents an almost language-shattering task.* To expect transparency of a language object, however well intentioned, is inevitably to court disappointment if not outright disaster.

 

At one level, this poem might be read as a joke, the verbal equivalent of a Magritte painting. Yet on another, also like a Magritte painting, this poem no less conscious of its process, that it needs to govern the rhythm of the reading – it is no accident that the longest sentence comes close to the end. Only four short sentences follow with the last sentence the shortest of all.

 

But like the painting of the not pipe, Bernstein’s “plain speech” depends on a shifting set of referents – contexts in which we might understand each sentence, both separately & in conjunction with all these others. Much of what makes this poem work is that not every sentence here is a lie. In fact, I think one could go through the text assigning “levels of confidence” to each sentence, lets say green for those that can be taken at “face value,” red for those that are patently false and – just because of the color scheme of the blog – blue for statements that fall into some ambiguous space in between:

 

This is a totally

accessible poem.

There is nothing

in this poem

that is in any

way difficult

to understand.

All the words

are simple &

to the point.

There are no new

concepts, no

theories, no

ideas to confuse

you. This poem

has no intellectual

pretensions. It is

purely emotional.

It fully expresses

the feelings of the

author: my feelings,

the person speaking

to you now.

It is all about

communication.

Heart to heart.

This poem appreciates

& values you as

a reader. It

celebrates the

triumph of the

human imagination

amidst pitfalls &

calamities. This poem

has 90 lines,

269 words, and

more syllables than

I have time to

count. Each line,

word, & syllable

have been chosen

to convey only the

intended meaning

& nothing more.

This poem abjures

obscurity & enigma.

There is nothing

hidden. A hundred

readers would each

read the poem

in an identical

manner & derive

the same message

from it. This

poem, like all

good poems, tells

a story in a direct

style that never

leaves the reader

guessing. While

at times expressing

bitterness, anger,

resentment, xenophobia,

& hints of racism, its

ultimate mood is

affirmative. It finds

joy even in

those spiteful moments

of life that

it shares with

you. This poem

represents the hope

for a poetry

that doesn't turn

its back on

the audience, that

doesn't think it's

better than the reader,

that is committed

to poetry as a

popular form, like kite

flying and fly

fishing. This poem

belongs to no

school, has no

dogma. It follows

no fashion. It

says just what

it says. It's

real.

 

I read the poem has having eleven red or “false” statements, seven “green” or true ones, four “blue” or ambiguous ones. Thus half false, but also half something else. It’s possible of course to argue with any one of these designations – and in fact several of the sentences, within each color set, are entertaining to think of as fitting into a different color. There is, I would argue, a valuable reading to be had here precisely by taking the statement about the author’s feelings as true. & I think Bernstein both feels & appreciates exactly these tensions. It is because this poem can be read just as it claims to want that we can feel all the complex tugs & strains at its various divergences, the result of all the complex social relations we’ve experienced in our lives, making it impossible at least here for us to proceed as naïve readers.

 

Thus the level at which this poem’s claim to be “purely emotional” can be understood as true is important. Bernstein here is not mocking emotion but rather the mask of sincerity – consider that title – that serves as an elaborate filter between our lives & the social world in which we must live.

 

 

 

* Indeed, getting beyond language represents one of the true thrills of sexual intercourse, at least until one realizes that this too is another “discursive” mode, filled with all the positionality & power of anything else.



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