Saturday, November 22, 2003

 

It's strange what one remembers after nearly 40 years. Only this week did I recall that in my senior year of high school I brought a rifle into class. Today, that would have led to all sorts of repercussions – newspaper headlines, jail time – but for my efforts in 1964, what I received was an "A" in a social science course. I wasn't bowling for Columbine, but rather taking part in what I suspect must have been a relatively common occurrence that spring, a mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. I had volunteered to be the lead "attorney" for the defense. Our strategy, such as it was, was simply to point out the logistical improbabilities of three successful shots in such a short time from the height, distance & angle of the Texas Schoolbook Depository, something we had taken more or less whole from an article that appeared in The Nation relatively soon after JFK's assassination. And since I knew that another teacher at Albany High happened to have a Mannlicher-Carcano of the same model allegedly used by Oswald, I asked him if he would bring it in one day so that I could use it in class. And he agreed. An index of how much life has changed in the ensuing four decades.

 

Actually, that event did evoke some response. The Albany City Council of that generation was composed mostly of owners of the small businesses that operated on its two commercial streets, Solano & San Pablo. Defining itself very much as the anti-Berkeley, there were active John Birch Society and Minutemen chapters in Albany, supporters of which – including one cousin of mine –were represented on the council. They asked the school board how a senior soc class could have managed to find Oswald not guilty. There was an air of something vaguely un-American, apparently, in demonstrating the possibility of a reasonable doubt. I think they were told that a student had razzle-dazzled the class. And maybe I had.

 

Nobody under the age of 40 remembers the Kennedy assassination & much of the little that is remembered by those under 50 is as heavily colored by second-hand sources – how their parents reacted, for example – as it is by their own. I certainly have my own recollections of that morning – that entire day, actually, from the initial announcement of a shooting over the school loudspeakers to the realization that Kennedy was dead – followed in my case by a considerable (tho misplaced) sense of dread that the first Southerner since the Civil War was now to lead the nation – to heading over to my best friend’s house where we simply watched TV all afternoon before I headed home, only to be upbraided by my mother & grandparents for not letting them know where I had been. It was only then that I realized that my grandfather, lifelong VFW member that he was, had entertained the idea that the U.S. was being attacked by the Communists & had been waiting for World War III to break out all day. It was an index, one of many I was collecting at that point in my life, of a gap I could see between his worldview and my own.

 

Because I was a part of the school’s stage crew – a group of a half dozen seniors, all very much proto-geeks, who set up the auditorium for assemblies, ran the lights & curtains at school plays & the like (a detail that had minimal responsibilities & enabled us to get out of class more or less as often as we wanted) – I’d been called down to the principal’s office at the first announcement of the shooting & it was there I heard that Kennedy had died. I & my fellow crew mates headed across the miniscule quad to convert the gym for an impromptu assembly &, while we were setting up roughly one thousand folding chairs, a girl whom I’d known slightly for years came up, as her phys ed class headed in for showers, to ask how Kennedy was doing. When I told her that the president was dead, her face literally crumpled in horror & grief. That was the moment when I think I really understood that everything would be different now.

 

In the ensuing 40 years, only September 11 comes close to capturing for me the feeling tone of that day, the sense that everyone – sans exception – is in shock, filled with horror, deeply depressed. Maybe if I’d been a red diaper baby with a better understanding of history at the age of seventeen in 1963, I would have had a more skeptical view of government & the people who participated in public power than I did. And thus would have experienced the entire event with a more ambivalent or at least complex reaction. But I was not and did not. Even though I was already reading the short-lived west coast daily edition of the New York Times,* I was not yet any sort of critical thinker. I was rather a receptacle for whatever mass media was projecting.

 

Mass media itself changed that weekend.** For the first time in history a murder was broadcast live & the relationship of the medium to the event shifted palpably. It was only one of a number of major institutional relationships that did so. In actuality, I suspect that many of these relationships had already transformed – the most profound one, between the state & the individual, the so-called trustworthiness of the state, already had. The executions of the Rosenbergs & whole McCarthy era, to pick just one example, was itself an enormous act of institutional bad faith, but like so many Americans of that era I was largely unaware of the implications of events that had only dimly entered my consciousness. During the Eisenhower administration, I had even imagined that Republicans – whom I already sensed to be wrong on such fundamental issues as class & race, tho I wouldn’t voiced it in those terms – to be for the common good, merely confused as to what that was. The current gangster class of Republican, always already corrupt, was frankly unimaginable then.

 

Rather, for myself & apparently millions of others, the assassination instantly unhinged a lot of comfortable presumptions as to how the world worked – again the parallel to September 11 seems unmistakable. & into that gap flooded a pent-up mass of new realities, already for the most part in play – everything from the Vietnam war to the arrival of youth culture as a social force – but not yet recognized. & it was only when these effects became recognized, one after another, that they could begin to fully interact, creating further effects. Everything from Bob Dylan going electric to Stonewall & second wave feminism. Which is why, in part, the 1960s felt like such a period of concentrated & accelerated change. And why that decade didn’t begin until November 22,1963.

 

 

 

 

 

* It was researching the assassination that first brought me to The Nation.

 

** TV’s ever-self-congratulatory pundit class loves to talk of how television “came of age” in its coverage of the Kennedy assassination, but that has always struck me as bunk. Rather, it moved from infancy into an adolescence from which it has yet to emerge. Becoming immersed in the event itself rather than separate from it, television gave up forever the promise of being a critical force, choosing instead to feed an ever harder to please adrenalin addiction. With the coming convergence of the Web & television, I will be surprised if television even survives in a recognizable form 30 years hence. The same, however, might be said of the web.



Friday, November 21, 2003

 

I was carrying around Brenda Iijima’s In a Glass Box because it fit perfectly into one of the interior pockets of my suit jacket, so when I got a chance between sessions at this conference down in Falls Church, I sat down & read. I can’t always do that at work – my head is often too filled with the clutter of the job – so it always feels like a special pleasure when it happens & I can connect with some first rate work. Genuinely good poetry – almost irregardless of kind or school or mood – makes me feel happy & optimistic, just to know that there is something new & wonderful under the sun. Which is how I respond to In a Glass Box.

 

Reading Iijima made me think about line breaks. In particular, the poem “Georgic” did:

 

Hot blood at slaughter. Immense pigs flee
and join us in the garden. Sickening stam-
pede and screeching hooves. Crush bulbs;
delicate protrusions, for they flee a farmer’s
lot, gush and intuition. Coiled barbs
rusted. Pink toes on soil and tattered leaves.
Make way among the shrub,
tree line and eye line. Solar bath. Storing
life in thick but invisible coils. Among
weather, by whistling branch, a path
determined by wind. You might. Veins
of a leaf, a thick black burl and a copse
of birch. I endeavor and echo. Color muscle
bind and mate. Spectrum lush, push mixtures;
tinted emotion, anterior spring; two bright
fools of air, our longing organs, spittle
and titted, furry bark, scarlet poison
berry. Only scantily clad like an inference,
like zealous sun; blades of wild grass.
Cool, thirsted, these bewildered beasts

I’m really intrigued by that mid-word linebreak at the end of the second line, and indeed by the line breaks in this poem & Iijima’s book overall. One can tell instantly, I think, that Iijima is a younger poet than, say, I am. It’s almost as if how, at least once free verse, so called, became the standard (or unmarked) poetic form, how line endings are handled has become almost the carbon dating of poetry. Thus one would see immediately that an Iijima is younger than a Silliman is younger than an Oppen is younger than a Williams.

 

I’m making this claim almost just by gut feel. But what do I mean if I look closer at this question? Consider, for example, this same text – although of course it wouldn’t be the same, really – if one were to string it out as a list of numbered sentences. 

 

1.      Hot blood at slaughter.

2.      Immense pigs flee and join us in the garden.

3.      Sickening stampede and screeching hooves.

4.      Crush bulbs; delicate protrusions, for they flee a farmer’s lot, gush and intuition.

5.      Coiled barbs rusted.

6.      Pink toes on soil and tattered leaves.

7.      Make way among the shrub, tree line and eye line.

8.      Solar bath.

9.      Storing life in thick but invisible coils.

10.  Among weather, by whistling branch, a path determined by wind.

11.  You might.

12.  Veins of a leaf, a thick black burl and a copse of birch.

13.  I endeavor and echo.

14.  Color muscle bind and mate.

15.  Spectrum lush, push mixtures; tinted emotion, anterior spring; two bright fools of air, our longing organs, spittle and titted, furry bark, scarlet poison berry.

16.  Only scantily clad like an inference, like zealous sun; blades of wild grass.

17.   Cool, thirsted, these bewildered beasts

The poem itself has something of an outward spiral, moving from some very specific imagery of doomed pigs have temporarily escaped into an (off-limits to pigs) part of the yard. One might conclude that the subsequent imagery represents a kind of verbal cubism of the yard & setting itself, moving even further to basic human possibilities (“I endeavor and echo.”) before being yoked back in the last line to initiating image of the pigs. In fact, the experience of reading the poem feels much richer than that simple explanation suggests: the specifics everywhere leap out, as profuse & intense in their color as autumn landscapes in New England. Some extraordinary small details are tucked in here – “our longing organs, spittle / and titted, furry bark.”

 

It would be an interesting experiment to give a writing class these numbered sentences & tell them to make a poem of them and see what you got. Here, for instance, are couplets of six-word lines, a mode that Bob Perelman has used to good advantage:

 

Hot blood at slaughter. Immense pigs

flee and join us in the

 

garden. Sickening stampede and screeching hooves.

Crush bulbs; delicate protrusions, for they

 

flee a farmer’s lot, gush and

intuition. Coiled barbs rusted. Pink toes

 

on soil and tattered leaves. Make

way among the shrub, tree line

 

and eye line. Solar bath. Storing

life in thick but invisible coils.

 

Among weather, by whistling branch, a

path determined by wind. You might.

 

Veins of a leaf, a thick

black burl and a copse of

 

birch. I endeavor and echo. Color

muscle bind and mate. Spectrum lush,

 

push mixtures; tinted emotion, anterior spring;

two bright fools of air, our

 

longing organs, spittle and titted, furry

bark, scarlet poison berry. Only

 

scantily clad like an inference, like

zealous sun; blades of wild grass. Cool,

 

thirsted, these bewildered beasts

And here is a version whose linebreaks hover between sense & the rhythms of speech (more akin to Williams, at least in my imagination, than to the Projectivists):

 

Hot blood at slaughter.
Immense
              pigs flee
and join us in the garden.

 

Sickening

stampede and screeching hooves.

 

Crush bulbs;
delicate protrusions,

 

for they flee a farmer’s lot,

gush and intuition.

 

Coiled barbs rusted.

 

Pink toes on soil and

tattered leaves.
                         Make way

among the shrub,
tree line and eye line.

 

Solar bath. Storing
life in thick but invisible coils.

 

Among weather,

by whistling branch, a path
determined by wind.

 

You might. Veins
of a leaf, a thick black burl and a copse
of birch.

             I endeavor and echo.

 

Color muscle
bind and mate.

 

Spectrum lush,

                       push mixtures;
tinted emotion,

                       anterior spring;

 

two bright
fools of air,

 

our longing organs, spittle
and titted,

furry bark, scarlet poison
berry.

 

Only scantily clad like an inference,
like zealous sun;

                        blades of wild grass.
Cool, thirsted,

these bewildered beasts

One could make a game of this almost – and with almost any text, not just Iijima’s. I can hear, for example, how a younger Creeley might have turned that four-word first line tin a couple all its own:

 

Hot blood
at slaughter.

 

Indeed, it takes almost no imagination to hear that in Creeley’s distinctive voice, the heavy, rasping break at the end of each line.

 

Now none of these versions, you will note, are anywhere nearly as good as Iijima’s. Her lines, her text actually does require the particular form she gives to the poem. And this is what most mystifies me – because given those words, I just couldn’t do it on my own. Iijima is obviously hearing something quite distinct that is just beyond my own auditory range, or at least my ability to reproduce in writing. Where this is most clear to me is that midword linebreak stam- / pede. I simply can’t imagine a midword break like that being anything other than heavily emphasized, a pause for great effect. But my reading of Iijima’s text tells me in about five different ways that to hear a heavy pause there constitute a misreading. Even the two lines that end in periods do so in ways that soften the break. Similarly, the very last line of the poem has no punctuation at all. And two employ semicolons – is Iijima the last poet to truly believe in the semicolon? Even by my own generation, this doomed bit of punctuation had largely disappeared.

 

There are, of course, some counter tricks here, reasons why Iijima’s version is the best of all. Anybody writing these words & thoughts to fall into – flow into – another form (as if into a container), would write & edit those very lines differently. It wouldn’t actually be the same text. Indeed, from a grammarian’s perspective, there are only two sentences – numbers 2 & 13 in the list above – that are syntactically complete (unless you count also the command at number 7). Iijima’s poem is very much woven from partial fragments and this seems integral to its vision & statement. Thus a phrase such as furry bark foregrounds itself as an image, tactile & funny & completely imaginable precisely because it is embedded into an allover surface composed of like parts.

 

Writing this well is never easy & certainly not as easy as Iijima makes it seem. I’m reminded of the fact that Jackson Mac Low always used procedures to break down the expository & narrative habits of mind of his early poems & that it wasn’t until the langpos, most of whom are young enough to be his kids (he’s older than either of my parents, for example), showed up that he seemed to pick up from them/us how one might free-write toward such a surface. So that’s the sense I have of this text of how Iijima is using the line. If I ever want to be able to do that, I’m going to have to study how she & others of her age cohort produce so gracefully something I couldn’t construct at all.



Thursday, November 20, 2003

 

The first time I ever read any poetry by Marcelin Pleynet, a translation I believe by Serge Gavronsky, I remember having the reaction that the post-structuralist poet (also, in his day job, an art critic) demonstrated exactly how one arrive at might good poetry using a discourse that was distinctively prose. It’s a much trickier process than it might at first seem.

 

I hadn’t thought of Pleynet in months, if not years, until I came across an excerpt from Jacqueline WatersThe Garden of Eden a College in the latest issue of The Poker. The work has an angular energy to it that you feel even in that paratactic blip in the title itself. It’s like a spark or a jump cut in an otherwise “straight” strip of film. The stanzas move across the page – the format overall is too large to fully present here – ranging between individual lines that appear addressed if not to the reader, then to an Other for whom the reader might stand, and longer strophes that balance impulses with great precision:

 

Poem on the endeavor
to emancipate the soul
from daydreams, hello

Thought, which you might seek out again
and consume in opposition
to these small snow-powdered roots
taped to the hotel guard
                      friendly with me
                      frivolous with me
     sent by a rat to pick the coat
     with the feel of being coaxed
     to accept an unpleasant ruse . . .

 

(Ellipsis in the original & I’m guessing on the positioning of the left-hand margin for frivolous – it comes right at a page break – &, thus, with all that follows.)

 

These sentences build carefully. Note how everything before that first comma is a complex noun phrase, the addressee. It was the words emancipate & snow-powdered that first caused my eye, drifting over the various texts of the journal to slow down & start reading with more attention. The same kind of paratactic spark that is visible in the title happens big time right at the point when Waters introduces the two lines that start with italics. Each of these lines as well as the first one following force the reader to decide – am I still in the same sentence? I don’t think there is necessarily a wrong, or even worse answer here, but the palpability of the question itself is a major part of the linebreak’s effect. Indeed, as this stanza demonstrates not once, but twice, Waters knows how to maximize the pause & turn implicit in a comma.

 

While this isn’t the sound-centered poetry I associated earlier this week with Louis Zukofsky or even Jack Collom, certainly “to these small snow-powdered roots,” constructed as it is from all those vowels & soft consonants leading up to the explosion of the p in powdered, then ending on the ts after the double o, demonstrates total assurance with the devices at hand. It’s great fun to read someone who can handle form with such grace.



Wednesday, November 19, 2003

 

Ed Foster asked me for a review of Ulla Dydo’s new book. Here is what I sent.

 

Stein at Her Word

 

Ron Silliman

 

Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises 1923-1934, by Ulla E. Dydo with William Rice, Northwestern University Press, 686 pages, $49.95

 

Taking Gertrude Stein at her word is, one would think, the easiest thing in the world. The woman was a literalist, which, as it turns out, is neither the same as an Imagist, nor as an Objectivist, although in fact it proves more of a kin to both than Stein’s elaborate verbal flourishes at first suggest. But it is precisely Stein’s verbal flourishes that render her something akin to a modernist Rorschach test, permitting each critic if not each & every reader to see in her writing just what they want to see. To all of this Ulla Dydo, with the able assistance of William Rice, comes along as a great wet blanket. On the other hand Dydo may well prove to be the best friend Stein’s writing has ever had. For Dydo has a novel approach: read the work. Closely.

 

Dydo has, to the degree possible via the state of Stein’s archives, gone back to trace Stein’s writing process, from an initial stage of making notes in one set of notebooks – there is evidence that Stein herself thought of these gatherings, which Dydo (in order to make a steady distinction) calls carnets, as private & disposable – to the actual construction of the works themselves in a second more permanent set of notebooks – Dydo calls these cahiers – before being typed by Alice B. Toklas. The initial notes are often hodged-podged amidst all manner of other forms of self-writing, from love notes to Alice to fragments from multiple projects that Stein was thinking about at any given moment & even to shopping lists. Most significant, though, is the fact that Stein’s first drafts, which is what these amount to, often are more explicit in determining who said what to whom, what is being cited & quoted, & thus, at least inductively, they reveal also the construction of Stein’s overall surfaces, the process by which disparate bits of writing take on the smooth surfaces (albeit textually dense) familiar readers associate with her texts.

 

This reconstruction of Stein’s writing process is one of Dydo’s two revolutionary accomplishments in this book. The second comes from following through and close reading, in minute detail for over 500 pages, Stein’s work from 1923 through 1934, an eleven year period culminating with the publication of the Toklas “autobiography” that will transform Stein from one of a few dozen American ex-pat modernist writers into an icon of the avant-garde, especially for the American popular media. In rough chronological order, Dydo offers chapters on “An Elucidation,” “Composition As Explanation,” “Patriarchal Poetry,” Four Saints in Three Acts, “Finally George A Vocabulary of Thinking,” “George Hugnet,” “Stanzas in Meditation” & The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, each centered around (although never exclusively) the text from which it derives its title.

 

The famous Hugnet incident, where Stein’s attempts at translating less than great French poetry into English destroyed her relationship with the younger poet, takes up 45 pages here in contrast, say, to the two pages it receives in Dick Bridgman’s Gertrude Stein in Pieces. But where Bridgman concludes that

 

Before the Flowers is not a satisfying composition to read. Its sentiments are as random as those in other of her works, but with the difference that much of the content is imposed by Hugnet’s text

 

Dydo goes to great lengths to first to examine what writing based on a prior text tells us about Stein’s thinking & process, & then to argue that for Stein this act of translation – writing in the voice of another – was, however unexpectedly, a rehearsal for the Toklas “autobiography.”

 

That work, which she was careful to write in the name of another, brought her readers, fame, money – and cost her her voice. She finally gave in and wrote brilliantly and seductively to a blueprint for success. Once she understood where her great need for audience, publication and fame had led her, she recovered a very different voice.

 

This passage, at what is almost exactly the midpoint of this thick, rich book, is to my reading the inflection point of the entire volume. All of Dydo’s careful preparation now comes to fruition – it becomes evident – if indeed it is not already – that her volume is something much more than just the most thorough reading Stein has ever had, it is a vision, fully fledged, of Stein herself, perhaps the most complex member of a remarkably complex generation of writers. Not unlike the sense of vertigo a reader experiences first confronting Cary Nelson’s classic Repression and Recovery, which constructs a sweeping & masterful history of American poetry from 1910 through 1945 by starting at the least likely place, 1930s leftwing doggerel, Dydo from this point forward in the book is positively dizzying. She constructs the most insightful portrait of an artist I have ever read while radically recasting her tools as she uses them. Dydo demonstrates, for example, what is possible when close reading is (a) informed by history, by a thorough archival reach into the background of any given phrase and, even more importantly, (b) is totally interested in the person behind the horizon of the text also. My experience to the last half of this book is much closer to that of reading a great novel than a work of even the highest level of criticism. And because of the extraordinarily rigorous, text-centric strategy of Dydo & her collaborator Rice, the volume never slides into psychobiography.

 

One might expect the chapter of The Autobiography to occur right at this point in Dydo’s narrative, but it does not. Rather, she prefaces it with two long chapters that are not, for once, the close reading of specific texts, but rather more general discussions – “Grammar” & “History” – that situate Stein’s work into her life more fully right at the moment when she & Toklas make a critical move away from Paris, signing their first lease on a house in Bilignin, northeast of Lyon. In fact, the two have been visiting the area for several years, but in leasing the house they did more than become short-term summer guests, becoming locals, especially as they remained in the year round after the occupation of Paris by the Nazis.

 

As she becomes removed from the modernism of Paris, Stein’s writing changes dramatically. Poems decline, replaced by fiction, Stein’s version of plays & increased critical writing. Indeed, Stein’s last great poetic work, Stanzas in Meditation, proves problematic as Toklas interprets a key word, may, as a reference to an old lover & literally forces Stein to elide its every appearance, even where the alternate can makes no sense. It is at this moment, removed from Paris, increasingly alienated from poetry, sixty years old, that Stein emerges as the author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

 

It is interesting to note just how many of the major modernists wrote a major, even defining text late in their years – Pound’s Pisan Cantos, Williams’ Paterson, H.D.’s Trilogy. Placed against the work of these slightly younger writers – all were roughly ten years younger than Stein – Alice B. Toklas represents both an example of the same phenomenon at one level, and its antithesis at another. Indeed, of the four, only Stein ever wrote a best seller. The resulting transformation not just of her persona, but of her work, style, voice, whatever you wish to call it, is remarkable and, precisely because of that, subject to a wide range of narrative frames, everything from Triumph at Last to Total Sell-out. Dydo doesn’t subscribe to the first, but sort of has a remarkably gentle interpretation that tends toward the latter end of that spectrum. Dydo’s most important revelation vis-à-vis the book is, in some ways, also the most obvious – that the “voice” of Toklas is every bit as much (if not more) of a construct than anything one ever found in Stanzas in Meditation or Tender Buttons. Typical of Dydo, she doesn’t just say it, she proves it.

 

It’s worth noting how this scenario reverses exactly the proposed narrative jumbled behind Janet Malcolm’s recent exposé in the June 2, 2003 New Yorker, “Gertrude Stein’s War,” which focuses on Stein’s property dealings & the assistance she got from Bernard Faÿ, a hanger-on from Stein’s days in Paris who as a minor bureaucrat in the Vichy regime becomes a useful sort of protector to a pair of Jewish lesbians living quietly in the Rhone Valley during the war. Malcolm obviously wants to make quite the scandal from this detail, as if Bruno Schulz didn’t have his own Nazi protector (& indeed was killed as a result of a dispute between his “protector” & other Nazis), as if every Jew who didn’t try to survive the war under Nazi occupation didn’t make use of whatever resources were at hand. While Malcolm borrows liberally – I’m being polite – from Dydo’s work, Malcolm’s own argument dissolves, leaving her narrative almost as disjointed & inchoate as she imagines Stein’s work to be.* Reading Dydo, it becomes apparent that any narrative that depends on the transformative “salvation” of Stein’s work by the Autobiography simply fails to understand that it is at least as complex a construction as Stanzas in Meditation & that it’s “clarity” in fact is just an aesthetic effect.

 

While Gertrude Stein: The Language That Rises is a work of criticism, by virtue of how Dydo goes about it, the book is in many ways one of the best biographies of Stein we have been given. As really should seem obvious – but I guess is not – nowhere is a writer’s life more fully documented than in the texts themselves. There are of course biographies that are merely dull readings of the texts, just as there are biographies (Tom Clark’s Olson comes to mind, or Mariani’s Williams) when you sense that the biographer has only the most marginal interest in the poetry. Dydo, on the other hand, has raised the bar for criticism & biography alike.

 

 

 

 

* There was a time in the history of the New Yorker when its penchant for long pieces didn’t mean simply that they went un-edited. That time, unfortunately, is not now.



Tuesday, November 18, 2003

 

I think that Curtis Faville must think I’m crazy. But he’s very polite, to me at least, in the way he suggests this.

 

Dear Ron:

 

Ah what a gadfly you are to trot out the old crazy Pound debate once more. In my description of the Cantos for our ABE listing, I say "the jury is still out on the value of Pound's magnum opus; we are still sorting out his theses, arguing with his politics, and questioning his motives. All these issues will someday seem as irrelevant as the must, given time and distance." Yesterday over lunch I was reading Cyril Connolly's piece on visiting Pound in Venice toward the end of his days. Ez was stonily untalkative, but clearly still in command of most of his faculties. There is no question that a considerable portion of the "major poets" in the world is clinically insane. It is perfectly possible to be a fascist, Communist, John Bircher, pedophile, S&M freak, nun, gangster, guerrilla, Indian (American), etc., and still be an immensely interesting, accomplished, eccentric, original, or not, artist (or writer). In fact it may actually help if one has a peculiar perception of the world. I trust there are few today who would even know what Dante's "political" preoccupations were: Does that really matter on the fairly superficial level on which he is actually read/appreciated at this late date? Do we care if Catullus was an epicurean or a sophist? Sure, it's an interesting question, but does it affect our view of his gifts? Do we much need to know that Auden is Gay to appreciate his verse, say, between 1935 and 1950? I for one don't think so. Pound's activities in Italy are part of an immensely peculiar mind which had many dead ends and false starts and self-delusional obsessions. About genius we know that a megalomaniacal "authority" in irrelevant matters almost always accompanies great work. Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry were/are all weirdly crazy in their way. But that doesn't detract from their monuments one iota. Hugh Kenner — Gay, Catholic Conservative that he is — is perhaps our greatest critic. Etc., etc., etc....

 

No, it won't do to harp about Pound's politics. The Cantos is a magnificent failure, filled with bad history, bad economics, bad sociology, and not a little bad, obscure fragmented poetry. But it does record a certain cross-section of life in a whole century, filled with ideas, "notions" and hundreds of jewels of shorthanded commentary which when you begin to understand them shine with ingenuity and eloquence. Or how about 'A' — ??? Or, is anyone making any arguments about Olson's sanity these days? Spicer's?????????? Come on!!

 

Curtis Faville

faville@batnet.com



Monday, November 17, 2003

 

There is a great line right at the end of the Jack Collom interview in the October/November Poetry Project Newsletter: “I think I’ve finally learned to shut up in my poems.” One of those snap-your-head-back-make-you-say-Whoa kinds of lines. I found myself thinking about it all day.

 

What exactly was Jack thinking of when he said that? The comment came at the end of a discussion of working with short poems & changes in his editorial process that have resulted really just from aging. Here is the entire sequence, starting with a question from interviewer Marcella Durand:

 

MD: So what have you been writing lately? What projects are you working on?

 

JC: Well, I’m cleaning my room and have been for weeks and I found this huge envelope containing a lot of very short poems. For years, off and on, I’ve enjoyed writing sorties, haiku, lunes, little senryu, teeny-weenies of all kinds, usually three-liners.  Some have been published, but I have a vast collection. Part of it too was Ken and Ann Mikolowski’s postcard project, which I did 600 cards for a few years back.

 

MD: 600?

 

JC: That’s what they did. They would send you 600. Alice Notley did it twice, I believe.* So that activity involved marshalling a lot of short works into examination. Then I stuck it away and that was years ago. I do have a habit of being organized, to an extent, of sticking things into big brown envelopes with the words “Short Pieces” on them in big marker. I get into these jags of concentrated hacking away at something and that’s what I’ve been doing, trying to mark the ones that might be possible now. I’m 71 years old and I say that because I think I’m coming to an ability to work with my own writings, better than I ever have before. Just a slight maturing of my editorial eye. In the mornings, I don’t jump up and go out to work in the factory any more, so I’ve been taking advantage of the ability to lie in bed and think about things and thinking about poems. I find it a wonderful place to just come to a very nuanced feeling about what you’re going to do with the poem once you do get out of bed. So I’m really enjoying that and am able perhaps to make good decisions with pages and pages and pages of poems. Within the last two days I typed up 50 pages of short poems and then went through and chopped some out. So now it’s got to sit there. And brew. I think I’ve finally learned to shut up in my poems. On the other hand, of course . . . .

 

That ellipsis marks the actual end of the interview, at least as printed. That passage is worth my entire year’s membership in the Poetry Project.

 

I love the idea of a writer in his 70s – where I’ll be in just 13 years – who talks about “coming to an ability” & envisions his work as changing, growing, maturing. Poets in their senior years have, in fact, always changed – Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, composed in his seventies, is one of his most sustained & brilliant projects. William Carlos Williams was in his 60s when he wrote The Desert Music, the poem & book that provoked this teenage reader into poetry. Carl Rakosi has a 29-year head start on Collom & hasn’t shut it down yet. One could argue that Jackson Mac Low, like Collom, is really in his prime.

 

Would I have said as much about senior poets 35 years ago, back when I was still exploiting the idea that I’d had work accepted by such venues as Poetry & TriQuarterly before I reached my junior year in college? I’d like to think the answer is yes – I’d had Williams as a first source, after all. But the truth is that I’ve usually had to gain my enlightenment the hard way, through specific example. I know that when Olson died at 60, I had no question in my mind that he was, in fact, an old man. Now I’m within three years of that same marker & have outlived my own father by some 20 years. And I’m just a boy. One’s sense of time does shift.

 

So Collom’s interview is a signal of great prospects, as I read it. And it will be interesting to see how a generation of older poets who have, overall, done a better job not killing themselves off through bad habits than their predecessors will impact the larger scene in the coming decades.* *

 

But what does Jack mean when he says that he has “finally learned to shut up” in his poems? My very first association, reading this, is with Jack Spicer’s poetics, which is intriguing since I don’t associate Collom at all with the paranoia & pessimism that seem inherent in the Spicerian worldview. But rather, Spicer’s idea that one doesn’t really become a writer until one gets one’s own language out of the poem, in order to – in Spicer’s terms – begin to receive dictation from “the outside.” This of course has nothing to do with taking one’s poems from the daily paper or Fox News or worse, but rather letting the world dictate – I mean this in the sense of determine more than I do, say, channel – the necessary conditions of the poem.

 

This is, I suspect, something we all struggle with as poets. Figuring out how “to shut up” is a particularly difficult challenge in a medium that is grounded, after all, in the discourse of our speaking. It’s even harder for those of us who also like to chatter – in fact, one side benefit of blogging, at least from my perspective, is that I now have a place to stick all that yackety-yak besides my poetry, definitely a good thing. But that’s still not the same, I suspect, as learning how “to shut up.”

 

It would an interesting – I’ve overused that word today – it would be a useful thing to construct an anthology of poems that “shut up” in the sense of permitting the world to speak, “on the side of things” as Francis Ponge would put it. In fact, it’s just that point in Ponge’s work that has always linked him in my mind with the Objectivists – writers from the same generation with what I take to be a very similar perspective on the role of the poem in relationship to the world at hand.*** Indeed, this is – at least as I read it (and I have no way of knowing just how much of this I’m projecting onto Jack, tho hopefully he will tell me if I’m full of it) – very close to what I take to be the original meaning of sincerity in the Zukofskian sense of things.

 

Consider, for example, the one “teeny-weenie” of Collom’s printed in the Poetry Project Newsletter &, perhaps, let’s contrast it with something from 80 Flowers, radically dissimilar project that that is.

 

Dreamed Haiku

 

Slowly the castle
draws goodies from what if,
slides off cliff.

 

 

Poppy Anemone

 

Poppy anemone chorine airy any
moan knee thinkglimpsing night wake
to short-wages no papàver world-wars
opiate bloodroot puccoon indian-dyed fragile
solitary gloss-sea powderhorn yellow-orange West
earthquake-state sun-yellow tall-khan poppy corona
airier composite eyelidless bride bridge
it
uncrowned birdfoot spurs dayseye

 

Jack’s haiku differs from Louis’ lyric overload – one reads 80 Flowers the way one does tongue-twisters, it slows the process of enunciation way down – in the stance it takes toward discourse & perhaps (but only perhaps) its perspective on popular culture, but, underneath, the two poems strike me as remarkably similar in their commitment to the role of sound. Jack’s poem is organized first around the sound of terminal f sounds, then line-opening sl combinations. Louis’ poem starts in the ear & treats visual & cognitive associations as secondary frames. In Microsoft Word, the Zukofsky poem is red with unusual formations, deliberate variant spellings, conjoined words. Does it matter that I have no clue, really, how a poppy anemone differs from an ordinary poppy, that the poppy anemone can be a deep red or even blue, or how the pupaver is or is not related? No more than not being able to place a “realistic” narrative alongside the idea of a castle sliding goodies from the what if. Both poems succeed by offering the mind more than it could except as “literal.” Obviously, these are very different poems, different sensibilities. But nowhere in either does the poet’s presence intrude, even though in each the air of personality is unmistakable. Maybe that is what Jack Collom has in mind.

 

 

 

 

* Note to Penguin: So where is the book?

 

**Or maybe not so interesting if you’re a young poet waiting for these geezers to get out of the way. But the truth, of course, is that they’re never “in the way.” You have to go out & make your institutions for yourselves, each & every generation.

 

*** And a not-dissimilar sense of politics either. One can imagine Zukofsky, if not Oppen, hiding out in the woods from the Nazi’s writing the same sonnet again & again. What would you write when your  life was at risk?



Sunday, November 16, 2003

 
Only one change this week -- I corrected the date of Anita Desai's reading. Still trying to find out the Spring schedule for La Tazza.


 
Hippity hop, the calendar has jumped to Sunday, November 23rd.


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