Saturday, October 18, 2003

 

Last night, 30 of us – 17 men & 13 women – sat in a circle & read our poems to one another. It’s great to see some people who are very dear to me, like Erica Hunt & James Sherry, as well as to meet others, such as John Koethe, for the very first time. Today is the main day of the retreat itself. Here is the last of the six questions we were given to contemplate:

 

Can poetry challenge militarized language and propaganda? Are textual critique, parody, and satire adequate responses or do they reify these abuses?

 

Let’s think about this:

 

¨       No one has spoken or written with more passion & commitment to the concept of a “man standing by his word” than has Ezra Pound, a fascist paranoid schizophrenic.

 

¨       The term avant-garde, the 200-year-old literary tradition with which many of this blog’s readers have some identification, has its origins in military strategy.

 

¨       A substantial portion of Americans still believe that

§         Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda were in cahoots with one another

§         Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction

§         Iraq presented a clear & present danger to the US

 

Can my linebreak here or a little heightened irony there undo the damage of the entire military-industrial complex, the concentration of news sources into the hands of a few giant rapacious corporations & the world domination politik of the Bush regime? What’s wrong with this picture?

 

In fact, poetry can function – indeed it does function – as an underground railroad of the mind, a mechanism for opening up critical thought concerning all kinds of issues, “militarized language and propaganda” included. Poetry does experientially what something like George Lakoff’s reframing project does critically & both are certainly needed in today’s world.

 

Even more important are the ways in which the arts figure change & transformation, dynamics that might be applied more broadly social.

 

None of these, however, is sufficient. There is no way to halt the depredation of the Bush regime without, in fact, taking the presidency away from the Republican party. Given that this party will stop at nothing to seize power – rig a Supreme Court vote, recall a newly elected governor, redraw congressional districts well outside of the normal guidelines – this will not be an easy task. But it is one that can be accomplished. However, this will not occur through improved tropes nor higher caliber flarf, even in the New York Times, but solely through political action.

 

I have written before – and I will reiterate the point here – that I don’t think that a member of Congress, including a senator, can ever beat a sitting president – the U.S. has only had one senator directly elected to the presidency in its entire history*, though senators traditionally clog the nomination process. For the Democrats in the U.S., this leaves very few options. The only credible ones are Howard Dean & General Clark. It may be ironic that Clark should be more credible as an outsider than Dennis Kucinich, but that is inherent in the structure of American politics more than in the positions of the two men. Between Clark & Dean, I am persuaded that Dean represents the more progressive alternative – he has a record of consistency that, while not perfect, is far better than Clark’s** – and his grassroots approach to fundraising, done in good part through the internet and “meetup,” promises to narrow the traditional Republican fundraising advantage.

 

I point this out to note that the way to challenge & defeat “militarized language & propaganda” is not through poetry, but through same political action a steelworker or waitress might take. The idea that poetry is in this sense a different practice strikes me as a genre-based mode of megalomania. If poets are serious about taking on the forces of darkness, the avenues for action are plentiful.

 

 

 

* JFK in 1960, with no incumbent and against VP Richard Nixon, in an election that depended on fraud in the city of Chicago. Eight years later, Nixon would run as an outsider, beating a man who had been VP for just a single term after a long career in the Senate.

 

** Tho it is worth noting here that the ideal ticket may be Dean-Clark.

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Friday, October 17, 2003

 

This next-to-last question for the Poetry & Empire retreat is unique in that it has literary implications:

 

Do genre models (lyric, pastoral) and other established modes of practice need to be re-articulated in light of changing modes of dissemination and the new dynamics of global/transpersonal culture and economy?

I mentioned yesterday that the dramatic monolog – one of the three innovations of 19th century poetry, alongside the prose poem & free verse – was generated in a world that lacked both electricity & indoor plumbing. Generally speaking, I think you can hear that in all three. The shift towards a poetics of polyvocality & palimpsest, which in the 20th century can be found in Pound, Joyce, Williams, Stein, & so many others, itself becomes widely used as a writing strategy in a world in which the so-called Great War is in everybody’s mind. Even the new sentence can be traced back to the days of the Carter administration, back when the only personal computer you could buy was the Heath Kit build-it-yourself system sold in the back pages of journals like Popular Mechanics. In popular music, the historic equivalent of William Carlos Williams’ Spring & All is Bing Crosby, whose great technical innovation was the recognition that if you had a mike, you didn’t need to sing at the top of your lungs. The New American poets were adamant about their love of bebop. And it’s hardly an accident that language poetry arose a decade after the transformation of pop music by Dylan, the Beatles, Stones & the so-called San Francisco Sound demonstrated how an institution such as Tin Pan Alley could be overthrown.*

 

So where is the poetics of the Justin Timberlake generation?

 

I know that’s cruel, but the point I want to use it to make is that certain parallel cultural institutions may well be in far worse shape than contemporary poetry when it comes to their ability to comment on & intervene in the real world. Capital concentrates & art forms that depend on it have generally seen that consolidating effect. Poetry to some degree has been buffered precisely by its economic marginality. That remains an important asset which we would all be advised to preserve.

 

Having said that, I want to be clear that as a poet my interests are linguistic. Those poets whose solution to literary development is to shift away from the terrain of poetry altogether, whether to intermedia, vizpo, flash programming and the like seem to me not to be addressing the issue, but rather sidestepping it altogether. That really seems no different from poets picking up electric guitars thirty years ago – thank you Jim Carroll, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Jessica Hagedorn, David Meltzer et al – or perhaps somebody a generation earlier reading aloud to a saxophone or keyboards. It’s not an attempt to innovate through language, but alongside language, using language as a supplement to whatever. When Lewis LaCook asks, in his interview this week with Nick Piombino in the new sidereality, “Will Ron Silliman write code?” he might as well ask, Will Ron Silliman take up trombone? They strike me as equivalently pertinent. Code may be a language in the sense that algebra might be one – it is a functional system – but hardly in the sense of langue & parole. Indeed, I have a strong sense that the more one mucks around with all the available toys, the less likely it is one will in fact address the problem directly, which is in the form of the poem itself.

 

Actually, Nick & Lewis entertain the idea that blogging itself may represent such an innovation of form, that the blog has at least the potential to function as a genre. Obviously, betwixt, say, I and Jim Behrle, there is a lot of room for variety. My own sense is that blogging comes closer to some of the social aspects of the reading than it does to the poem – at least the reading as it exists in some scenes some of the time (I’m think explicitly of The Grand Piano as I write that), a circumstance in which people can collectively & intensely explore issues of mutual interest. The blog does a better job of creating this aspect than does the listserv. It is certainly the case that one can pursue a serious intellectual project, such as Michael Magee’s My Angie Dickinson or even something less formal (tho no less serious), like Jonathan Mayhew’s reading of A Test of Poetry. But there is also a lot of room in the process for just chitchat, which is also an integral part of poetry’s infrastructure.

 

More serious examples of the kinds of change we need to heed & explore further, it would seem, would be genres like flarf – the deliberately disposable poem, written to identify an intuitive sense of badness – and devices like Google sculpting (Magee’s project is exemplary). Why these developments now is an important question. And if I were teaching writing, I’d probably focus more on these than on, say, the villanelle. I’ll go further and argue that were I a student, I would distrust a teacher who didn’t include them on the syllabus.** This doesn’t mean necessarily that I want to use either myself for my own poetry – tho it also doesn’t preclude it -- but I do think I need to operate in a world that recognizes their implications both for poetry & for history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

* Even more to the point, language poetry could never have occurred without the war in Viet Nam & the draft in the United States, which is why in good part so-called language poetry from the U.K. or Canada never quite fits.

 

** Students should always distrust their teachers.

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Thursday, October 16, 2003

 

If you have read the questions for the Poetry & Empire retreat from the past three days, this one should not surprise you:

 

To what degree do our local actions as poets and teachers affect larger contexts, including national and international ones?

 

I have no question whatsoever that both teaching & writing poetry creates something akin to an underground railroad of the mind, enabling other people down the line, whether our students or readers or students & readers not yet born, to think critically. That and 37 cents will enable me to post a letter.

 

The much more important question to my mind – and I’m beginning to understand that I what I think needs to be done with these questions is not to reiterate the platitudes of the past but rather to turn these questions inside out, the way one might a t-shirt – would seem to me to be what is the impact of larger context on our actions as poets & teachers.

 

Let me state this another way. Capitalism, for better or worse, is grounded upon the instability of markets, let alone individual institutions & products. IBM in the year 2100 will be as utterly different from what it is today as this same corporation is from the Tabulating Machine Company, manufacturer of the Hollerith punch card, of 1900. The same holds true of Microsoft, GE, any corporation you care to name. Further, the acceleration of change at the level of a commercial institution has been going on for some time. The wild west character of the dot com boom of the 1990s was not an aberration – indeed, even its short-lived nature underscores the direction of historic particulars.

 

Yet most forms of the anti-globalization movement, to cite a countervailing effort, are predicated on preserving certain relationships in a steady state or even returning them to a prior one. There is an almost 100 percent predictable outcome with that kind of strategy, insofar as it has prevailed not once over the past 200 years. I’m not just making the point here that the dramatic monolog, that great 19th century innovation, is a form that was generated by a world that did not yet have electricity or indoor plumbing – tho that’s certainly true also – but rather that the left within which many poets seek to work continues to organize around forms that are very nearly as retro. The result, predictable enough, is increasing marginalization as both the nation & the world system move ever rightward.

 

It is in this sense that I sometimes think that the most outré genres & the most out-there genres often offer the greatest value – they simply offer alternative modes of reality as possible, as options. This may be why I am particularly disturbed at the recent trend among the cyberpunk novelists to look backwards, to write about World War 2, 19th century British science & similar historical contexts. It is as if they are announcing that we cannot change the future unless & until we change a past that has already escaped us. That’s a grim prospect.

 

There is organization against capitalism as a force, and there is organization against capitalism’s anti-democratic tendencies. These strike me as two very different projects. The first is not at all unlike organizing against gravity as a force. The great problem that the communist movement never could overcome was that it was predicated on a particular mode of capital organization, the industrial factory, while in fact capital is not organized on any given state of production, but rather on the constant destruction of whatever the existing state happens to be in order to replace it with one that is, in capitalist terms, more efficient. Whatever success the forces for democracy, peace & justice might have cannot come through attempting to halt such forces, but rather to use them, to direct to whatever degree possible the evolution of this engine of innovation.

 

The utopianism of some of the dot com futurists was over the top in its excessive optimism. But what that social tendency had right was its presumption that the most powerful force for directing society was not to halt change, but rather to take the reigns of production, precisely by redefining them. One won’t defeat for long something such as genetically modified foods through legislation, but one could do so through the creation of corporations that successfully outperform the biotech farming conglomerates.

 

There are, of course, a variety of different ways one can define “successfully outperform” as anyone who has read the work of the likes of Francis Moore Lappe or Walden Bello on the impact of western “aid” on Third World agricultural production will be aware. But that is the nexus of where political struggle can make some difference, in slowing down the devastation through which the so-called developing world finds itself ever further behind the developed one. Such organizing efforts, however, amount to band-aids on severed arteries without the other side of the coin. The failure of the most recent WTO talks in Cancun came about precisely because western nations were unwilling to surrender the price supports and subsidies that make such anachronisms as American farming competitive. In point of fact, the anti-globalization movement eventually will have to take on the American farmer as a disproportionate political force if it hopes to have an impact of the quality of life not just in Malaysia or Cameroon, but in Tulsa & Darby & Camden. The power of the farmer is hardwired into the American system through institutions such as the U.S. Senate, which gives California just two votes although it has a population equal to over 20 other states combined. In practice, this means that such things as biotech corn & cyborg beef have something akin to 40 votes in hand on any issue they want, not only price supports, but gun control, tax fairness, a woman’s right to choose, a gay person’s right to marry.

 

Nowhere in this ensemble of forces is the coalition of capital more vulnerable than at its core, its own impulse to drive toward a steady state constructed around currently existing relationships of power – everyone presently in power would love for capitalism’s game of musical chairs to end right now – and that is its presumption that its own method of creating something such as food for profit cannot be trumped. Develop a process that brings food to market better, faster & cheaper and the entire system unravels.

 

This is true for virtually every issue in which capitalism plays some part, which means virtually every issue at all. The question that a progressive coalition has yet to address is how to beat capitalism at its own game, how to take charge of the kinds of innovation that make a difference. Mere Ben & Jerry capitalism is not enough. And I frankly don’t know if this is a challenge to which the progressive coalition as currently constituted is capable of addressing. But I do know that if it is not, then band-aids for severed arteries is the best we will ever have & no amount of holding hands & singing We Shall Overcome will make up the difference.

 

So I look to alternative realms – the arts in general are such – as models, even as laboratories for figuring new modes of action. Just as the history of literature is not the catalog of the best or most well written works but rather the history of literary change, I look at how the arts figure the struggles over change in their own dimensions. Do they demonstrate how dramatically a form can be & must be reconceived for every generation, are they a model for innovation predicated upon anything other than greed? There are artists & art forms & art movements for which I would in fact answer that affirmatively. Judy Grahn, whose work I invoked Monday, virtually invented the idea of a women’s audience as such. We see Grahn’s impact everywhere from the post-New Narrative ventures of a Kathy Lou Schultz to Oprah’s network of book clubs. Let me say this again in another way so that I won’t be misunderstood: the wealth & political power that are implicit in the Oprah Winfrey model of book clubs can at least in part be traced back directly to Edward the Dyke. People have been awarded the Nobel Prize for a lot less.

 

So, yes, absolutely, our actions as poets have impact. None more important than our relationship to change.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

 

Here is the third question from the series given for the Poetry & Empire retreat:

 

How do the structures of poetic communities resist or reinforce existing categories of power and influence?

 

In “The Political Economy of Poetry,” which you can find in The New Sentence – still in print & available through SPD – I attempted to sketch out an idea that

 

the social organization of contemporary poetry occurs in two primary structures: the network and the scene. The scene is specific to a place. A network, by definition, is transgeographic. Neither mode ever exists in a pure form. Networks typically involve scene subgroupings, while many scenes (although not all) build toward network formations. Individuals may, and often do, belong to more than one of these informal organizations at a time. Both types are essentially fluid and fragile. . . .

          Critical to the distinction between these structures are the methods of communication available to their members. . . . Because capital, of which there is so little in poetry, is necessary for the elements of network formation, competition exists between networks and scenes. Underneath lies a hidden assumption of the hierarchical ordering of these groups, and the idea that one can be the dominant or hegemonic formation according to some definition, at least for a period of time. Definitions vary, but major components include monetary rewards, prestige (often called influence), and the capacity to have one’s work permanently in print and being taught.

 

In the 22 years since I first published those words simultaneously in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E & Open Letter, I have never had occasion to doubt the broader strokes of that very general description. One could take a look at a wide range of literary social phenomena under these terms. The New Brutalists, for example, could be viewed as a scene (younger post-avant poets in the Bay Area) with some network connections, especially to writers in Massachusetts, although I suppose one could take a much narrower genealogical view (former writing students from Mills) as well. Flarf, on the other hand, seems primarily a network phenomenon. As does poetry blogging. [Does poetry blogging have scene implications? It seems quite prevalent among younger writers in the Bay Area, Boston & New York, much less so here in Philly & less still in such locales as San Diego or DC.]

 

To the person who is certain to write & ask if the advent of the Internet has transformed or eliminated the need for capital as a prerequisite for a network, the answer is “only partly.” The number of the world’s people who have access to the web on a daily basis is still something like three percent. More common than the flarfer working a day job in a marketing agency in Manhattan is the central Asian nomad. So, yes, it is possible to establish a network of some sort at a far lower cost in 2003 than in 1981, but really only in the so-called First World. A far more important question – not one that I’m ready to handle in any depth here – is how the establishment of a network changes the formation itself. Of the 180 or so poets & poetry related blogs listed on my blogroll to the left, for example, there are exactly 28 by people* whom I either read previously or at least knew through their activity in some other poetry realm, such as a listserv. Which means that over 150 of these poetry bloggers, over 80 percent, are new to my experience within the last 15 months.

 

The question posed above for the retreat, however, isn’t one of how are communities structured, but rather one of how the structure of communities “resist or reinforce existing categories of power and influence.” And here I think the answer is obvious: structures don’t, but people might. The implication of the question is that possibly certain scenes have different rules of composition, but I frankly don’t see the evidence for this. The organizational structure of Official Verse Culture may have a lot of institutional resources, for example, but it is a network much like any other. They might as well write flarf (actually, they do, for the most part, but just don’t know it). The structure of the community itself is not what determines behavior, but rather how the individuals involved seek to obtain & use power. Power is something that people almost universally seek to obtain – it is as valuable as oxygen & for many of the same reasons. & yet power, as anyone who reads Foucault with a practical mind must realize, fulfills its potential only when you give it away.

 

Here one does see a difference between communities – some hoard power, while others don’t – but not necessarily between the internal structures of community as such. I’m not going reiterate here what has been documented repeatedly in Jed Rasula’s American Poetry Wax Museum, in Hank Lazar’s Opposing Poetries, elsewhere in my own writing & in that of Charles Bernstein. But much of what is done in literature to replicate the social struggles of the society as a whole are done not in the name of those struggles per se, but rather using a discourse of quality, combined with institutions that are themselves only coincidentally literary. The purpose of the National Book Critics Circle Award, to pick the most visibly egregious, is to propagate the idea that newspaper reviews, in particular, might identify and establish a basis for moving retail merchandise. Functionally, the purpose of the Pulitzer is no different – it gains whatever prestige it has not from the value of the selections, which for both fiction and poetry have more often been just silly than not, but from the fact that, since the Pulitzer’s particular heritage is as an award for newspapers & print journalists, it gets well covered by print media. The hundreds, if not thousands, of poets whose work appears in chapbooks and small press editions that lack the kind of advertising budgets the trade presses have thus are simply outside of the picture of such processes, unless of course one is brought into it as an explicit token of openness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 * I know the folks responsible for a somewhat larger percentage of the non-poetry blogs listed, such as Michael Goldhaber who was writing about technology back when I edited the Socialist Review. His newsletter format then has transformed into a blog today.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2003

 

A second question those of us participating in the retreat have been asked to consider is the following:

 

What underlying ethical, social, and political values inform our practices as poets and poetry teachers? How can we pursue our knowledge of such values?

How to make sense of an art form that encompasses not only the politics of Pablo Neruda & Ho Chi Minh, but Ezra Pound? That was in many respects the first medium, the first profession, to embrace the lives of gays & lesbians, from Sappho to Whitman to Stein & yet also included a professional homophobe like Eli Siegel? The current head of the NEA is a poet, a registered Republican, who just in the past week talked to Terry Gross on Fresh Air of the importance of bringing art to the masses in a way that does not condescend to them while at the same time promoting a massive tour of plays by a British writer of 400 years ago in what must be the most condescending spoon feeding of Kulchur in the 37-year history of that agency, funded by no less than the Defense Department. William Logan, the closest thing there is to a house poet & poet-critic at The New Criterion, the most programmatically reactionary cultural magazine in the language, has work in the September 22nd issue of The Nation.

 

The form of a retreat itself, an internal discussion of peers behind closed doors, a mode most closely associated in 2003 with the World Trade Organization & parallel international organizations, is itself an interesting albeit problematic form through which to contemplate such things. Poets have been known to appreciate irony & I hope we appreciate that one.

 

But what really strikes me about these questions is the degree to which the one above could have been asked in exactly this format in 1970. It is perhaps the most depressing aspect – or should I say prospect – of this retreat. There is not one thing in this list of questions that could not have been asked as easily – indeed far more easily – 30+ years ago. More than anything this tells me (1) that either there are no good answers or, worse, (2) that whatever answers poets have given to date have been shown to be inadequate. Why else keep beating your forehead against the same brick wall?

 

I think it is clear that poetic form is morally neutral – it is as available to the communist George Oppen as it is to the British spy in Persia, Basil Bunting. At the same time, I think it is clear also that form itself makes an argument, that rhyme is a figure for order, that narrative – and I mean the kind of vulgar narrative that enables Logan to refer to his parents’ “rusty prewar love” as if there were nothing more to their lives than an endless string of clichés – that narrative exists through the suppression of difference, divergence, anomaly. It is how one uses these forces that interests me far more than the forces themselves.

 

In that sense, it is impossible to imagine the trope of Logan’s mother “a brunette, hurried in her cloth coat / through postwar Sundays, which fell / as they were meant to fall, too slowly” as intending anything other than the guffaw it provokes, a Bulwer-Lyttonism of the spirit, as though film director Ed Wood had reincarnated as a poet. It’s funny precisely because it doesn’t mean to be.

 

There is an entire worldview tucked into a phrase like as they were meant to fall. Meaning is positioned, but agency is invisible. Right order is something that existed in the past. The narrative, by definition, must be one of decline.

 

What are the values in a specific act of writing? Is Logan deliberately rendering his parents pathetic in hopes that we will sympathize with poor him to have been raised by such sad, inept people? There is something lurid, even pornographic in this exhibitionism of dysfunctionality and it is worth asking how it might fit into a larger program that actively argues the necessity of critics, such as Logan himself, to inform us as to what is or is not good. Even more disturbing is its presence in The Nation, ostensibly the journal of record of the American left. Logan also appeared in that journal on June 14, 2001, in which he compared a lover to “The Globe,” complete with – I promise I’m not making this up – “intuitive seas” and “rocky spine.”

 

My point is that any attempt to correlate poetry & value, especially political value, ethics, appears headed for a complete garble. We do the polis in diff’rent voices.

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Monday, October 13, 2003

 

Next weekend I will be participating in a retreat with some 34 other poets, having conversations around a variety of topics in a setting freed of the performance criteria of conferences & seminars. I have some experience with retreats, having been to quite a few job-related ones over the decades, my favorite being those at the California Institute of Integral Studies, a grad school in San Francisco where I served as the director of development in the early 1980s. We might go to Wilbur Hot Springs, a most funky resort up a long dirt road on the Southeastern rim of the Napa Valley and just sit around nekkid in extremely hot water all weekend. I don’t recall that we made any momentous decisions, although a couple of marriages got reswizzled by that process.

 

This being poets, it promises to be a far tamer affair. Participants have been invited to address a series of six questions (some of which are in fact multiple questions). I’m not sure that I have any answers, but I thought I at least would pose them aloud here over the next few days & see what surfaces.

 

The first question or set of questions was given as follows:

 

What can a poem do? What is the sphere of consequence for poems today? Are those consequences limited to established community circuits? Is public poetic language an oxymoron?

 

Poems can do what poems do, as Gertrude Stein might put it. Which is to say that the one rule is that they each are responsible for their own rules. Or, to restore the myth of agency from the poem back to the poet, each poet with every text is responsible for its rules. And thereby any possible consequence.

 

There are many instances of poetry written in a consciously public language. I think you can find some exceptionally interesting examples in the work of two quite underrated poets, albeit underrated for somewhat different reasons, Allen Ginsberg & Judy Grahn. Interesting precisely because, as I read their work, their sense of what they were doing vis-à-vis public discourse shifts over the course of their careers, not always for the good.

 

At one level, Ginsberg & Grahn went through a parallel process of becoming, over a relatively short period of time, quite famous, going from being relative unknowns to being taken as oracles by their relative communities. In the process, the writing of each was transformed. The discursive mode of Allen Ginsberg, the unknown author of Howl, differs radically from that of Allen Ginsberg, the world famous author of Kaddish. In parallel fashion, the author of A Woman is Talking to Death or The Common Woman Poems is nowhere nearly as oracular as the writer of The Queen of Wands.

 

I have no doubt that fame must be experienced, at least at first, as stress. For a poet, there is a sudden recognition that one has many readers and that, unlike the vast majority of poets, one will know relatively few of these people even casually. Conversely, the “knowledge” of this new broad array of readers is quite different from that which a poet’s audience can be have within most poetry scenes or communities.

 

There were, and are, multiple important differences between the Ginsberg of Kaddish & the Grahn of The Queen of Wands. Perhaps the most visible is that Grahn was by 1982 a far more mature poet than the Ginsberg of the late 1950s. Ginsberg’s fame came at first less from the poem or collection Howl than it did from the trial over the book’s alleged obscenity. In short, Ginsberg became famous exceptionally quickly. Grahn, on the other hand, had been working for two decades to invent what amounted to a new mode of writing, explicitly by and for women.

 

The best way to see this, I think, is to contrast the language each poet uses in some of their early work. If we might draw a connection between the use of parallel constructions in the second “Moloch” section of Ginsberg’s Howl or the “I’m with you in Rockland” third section to Grahn’s use of the same device in She Who, there is nothing in Ginsberg’s writing before The Fall of America that can come close to A Woman is Talking to Death, one of the most complex & subtle works of the early 1970s. In it, Grahn demonstrates a unique ability to employ a public discourse using what is clearly personal language starting with a tale of a fatal motorcycle accident on the Bay Bridge.

 

Kaddish can I think be read as an attempt to achieve something very similar, but to my mind it is not successful. Ginsberg deploys exactly the same devices he used previously in Howl to confront the many issues of his own mother’s troubled life. This is not to say that the work is not filled with compassion and some beautiful moments of writing, but it also reaches a level of overwriting, particularly in section IV, that makes me cringe. It’s the clearest example of using an inappropriate strategy in writing I can recall.

 

Ginsberg’s next two books identify travel as a key issue in their subtitles: Planet News: To Europe in Asia, and King of the May: America to Europe. While Ginsberg was making a transition from the Beat oracle of the 1950s into something akin to the father figure of the hippie movement in the 1960s, he did so while being away much of the time. Even if he was periodically feted, for example as Kral Majales, the King of the May, much of this travel was away from the public eye & proved an opportunity for Ginsberg to reestablish a sense of personal writing. It is this voice that we hear in what will be his finest poem & certainly his finest “public” poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” 

 

One can trace this dynamic out in the work of other poets from the same period – Olson, for example, or Duncan in the antiwar sections of Passages. And while it may be a voice that is absent altogether from some tendencies of the New American poetry, such as the New York School*, as well as individual poets such as Robert Creeley, it does seem to be a possibility for some writing some of the time. One of the most powerful recent examples would be “The Dust,” Michael Gottlieb’s catalog of the component elements of the ash that fell from the World Trade Center.

 

 

 

* Anne Waldman’s Fast Speaking Woman owes far more to her interest in the Beat scene & the work of Mary Sabina than in the work, say, of Ashbery or O’Hara.

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Sunday, October 12, 2003

 
Jodie Reyes is the 200th member of this blog’s blogroll. Not all are poetry related, but at least 180 are.


 
The calendar has been moved to Sunday, October 19.


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