Saturday, November 29, 2003
Stein: Now there's a psyche to
conjure with! Re: Your blog for November 19th. In reviewing the sequence of
Stein's early career, we see that she is first preoccupied with abnormal
psychology, then straight narrative, then early abstract Modernist painting,
then "anti-"narrative, then a long series of "abstract"
prose documents interspersed with some fairly "literal" autobiographical
panels (if you will), and lectures "explaining" her abstractNESS. The
key development is her perception of painting as an "objectification"
of reality, and the way in which non-referential (accretion of paint, words,
some SUBSTANCE) matter is a "profile" of a feeling or one's sense of
a person, place or thing (that's a Shapiro title!). The avant-garde taught her
audacity — how the insistence on a non-sequitur would be perceived as an
opacity rather than as a transparency (or, a perfect transparency showing
nothing but the age of reason's "sensible emptiness"). That opacity
could justify any representation as self-referential, complete, and profoundly
resistent to traditional explanation (external reference) — i.e., one of the
I countered that “Your argument differs from Dydo precisely in that she does see change in Stein's writing & can articulate it pretty clearly,” to which Curtis then replied:
The "changes" are
mostly in execution — i.e., autobiography, lectures, etc. — rather than in
position. That's easy to see and not particularly perceptive. It seems that
GS's sense of her own place in the world changed during the 1930's and '40's.
The Depression and War, chiefly, gave her a sense of participation in
"actual" event which she felt a new license to celebrate. Conversing
with her during the 20's in the
Make of it what you will.
Thursday, November 27, 2003
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Years ago, an interviewer asked Allen Ginsberg what he thought of the language poets. The way he asked the question, you knew he was hoping Ginsberg would say something juicy to rev up the poetry wars again. But Allen was having none of that. Instead, he made a comment about how one generation of poets points at the moon, then the next generation of poets notice that they’re pointing. I’ve always thought that was a great remark, generous & on target.
popped into my continuous mind movie when I wrote the name Armand Schwerner in
the list – indeed, really first in line – of the poets whose work Patrick
Herron’s Lester brings to mind. Lester’s Be
Somebody is rather like The Tablets turned inside out. Then yesterday I was thinking about
George Oppen & how it was possible for somebody like Edward Hirsch to completely misread him. And that
brought up the comic travails of the infamous “scholar-translator” – I love
that hyphen & all that those two terms do to one another – of The Tablets & there was Armand
again. And, frankly, of the poets I once used to think of as the Caterpillar
When I first set out to start a little magazine in the 1960s, knowing absolutely nothing about what I was getting myself into, Armand Schwerner was one of the first half dozen poets to whom I wrote, asking for work. As everybody who has ever started a little mag knows, half the reason for having one is just so you feel permitted to write to these famous older poets and ask for work, for correspondence in the most literal sense . . . for any acknowledgement of your existence, really. And Armand sent in a Tablet. I was totally thrilled, but I was also paralyzed by the daunting tasks of putting together a magazine. By the time, four years hence, that I finally managed to get the first issue of the much transformed project printed in its vast run of maybe 100 xeroxed copies, Schwerner’s first large collection of Tablets I-XV was out & I never did get around to printing any of his poetry. Looking at the back cover of that first volume now, I find a quote from George Oppen.
There were, finally, 27 Tablets, published posthumously in a sumptuous edition by the National Poetry Foundation, complete with an accompanying CD of Armand reading 15 of the texts. The CD makes enormous sense, because it brings out the full three-layer structure of the text in a way that what’s on the page itself might not. The first layer – I’ll let you decide which is inner, which is outer – consists of Schwerner himself, the second the scholar-translator, the third the unnamed author or authors of the Tablets. I have a sense that when he started the project, it was the idea of the Tablet and what he refers to in a postscript of sorts – 30 pages of notes to himself entitled “Tablets Journals / Divagations” – as the Tablet people, that motivated him, but that as the project matured, the scholar-translator loomed ever larger, more problematic, ultimately the focus of satiric text.
The idea of the long poem as fake, as satire, is markedly different from
the precious-object status that Pound, say, wants to lend his sphere of light.*
While The Tablets is the work for
which Schwerner is most well known – his Doomsday
Dictionary, co-edited with
one of the pantoums, just to give a sense of
Schwerner as a non-satiric, non-conceptualist poet. To each pantoum
Schwerner noted where he had gotten some material, in this instance from the
The Way Up is the Way Down
as if earth had a trachea
full of dust
I envision my sons Adam and Ari falling through the street
“as if earth had a trachea”
that was your phrase but
I envision my sons Adam and Ari falling through the street
that wasn’t what you had in mind?
that was your phrase but
I was drawn to an image of falling
that wasn’t what you had in mind
I was drawn to an image of falling –
the way up is the way down
did you used to have such pictures?
the way up is the way down
did you used to have such pictures
full of dust
This poem, curiously enough, is the closest I can recall any American poet – any poet, period – capturing a spirit that I would associate with the sensibility of the painter Marc Chagall. It is, all at once, both simple & complex, and in that sense balanced as few poems are.
When he died in 1999, Schwerner was translating Dante’s Inferno. My understanding is that that project was not finished, although some pieces did appear in magazines. I would love to see what passages there are.
* A phrase I can never hear without thinking of The Cantos as a giant, mirrored disco ball.
Tuesday, November 25, 2003
The Washington Post changed its online format over the weekend, so that I couldn’t find Edward Hirsch’s weekly poetry column until I got my (also weekly) email from Poetry Daily with a proper link. It should come as no surprise to my readers that Hirsch & I have different views of the world of poetry — he represents the school of quietude (SoQ) at its most hushed — but I do check out his column every Sunday. He takes his responsibility as a reporter on poetry for a mostly non-poetic readership seriously & the column on occasion is an opportunity for me to check in on older SoQ poets that I haven’t thought about in awhile, as well as to learn about new ones.
As it so
happens, his column this past Sunday focused on a poet for whom he & I both
share an enthusiasm, George Oppen.
But in his reading of Oppen — he quotes portions of two poems from This in Which, one from Of Being Numerous — Hirsch creates a
poet rather unlike the man I knew in
George Oppen (1908-1984) is widely known as an Objectivist poet, but I think of him more as an American solitary, akin to Edward Hopper. (emphasis added)
Thus this Communist organizer, this partaker of literary & political movements, turns out secretly to have been that libertarian icon, the Rugged Individual. It’s an odd, but interesting, twist to give to the man & his work, and I can’t help but think that Hirsch must have some idea what he is doing here.
His argument is anything but gratuitous. Particularly given that Hirsch has only some 530 words in which to make it — and that a second (if unwritten) rule of his newspaper column is to quote a certain amount of poetry* — Hirsch’s waltzes through a deft series of critical moves, taking on poems that can be seen as central to Oppen’s project. In Hirsch’s reading, Oppen envisions the natural as radically Other & opaque, but that words fail people because they cannot make themselves transparent & thus bring that Other clearly to us. Oppen’s goal, in this reading, is to establish “clarity in relationship, for the ‘this in which,’ the determination of the human in relation to the Other.” So far as this goes, I have no great problem with it.
But Hirsch takes it a step further — “Oppen's self-reflexive poetry of consciousness strives to restore meaning to language by faithfully using it to refer outward to a world of things” — and this seems not at all accurate to my sense of Oppen. For one thing, to restore meaning to language imposes a narrative to the conception of meaning that feels foreign to Oppen’s sensibility. And the idea that one might use it “faithfully . . . to refer outward to a world of things” cascades a series of assumptions over the conception of language that the Oppen I read would have some trouble recognizing, precisely because it is wrong.
Hirsch’s evidence, the poem this is leading up to, is “Psalm,” one of Oppen’s anthology pieces, which the online version of the Post makes a hash of, obliterating indentations, stanza breaks & the distinction of the epigram’s font.** [A correct printing of the text can be found here.] “Psalm” provides the title for This in Which, Oppen’s third collection (and second after the 25 year hiatus between Discrete Series & The Materials). It’s something of an unusual work for Oppen, in that he uses a more fixed, reiterative stanza than was generally his practice.*** After an initial three-line stanza setting up an image of deer bedding down in a forest, each of the other stanzas is introduced with a single indented line announcing its focus. The progression is worth noting:
· Their eyes
· The roots of it
· Their paths
· The small nouns
After these announcements, each stanza follows with three lines in what appears to be free verse. Yet each of the next three stanzas also proceeds by focusing the reader’s attention on a single anomalous word positioned near or at the end of the stanza’s next to last line:
· the alien small teeth
· the strange woods
· the distances
Such nebulous, judgmental terms as alien & strange seem out of place for a poet whose “ethical imperative is to reach for the actual,” in Hirsch’s terms. These words do the exact opposite of reaching “outward to a world of things.” They are, by both position & content, the most telling & important words of their respective stanzas. They are the terms on which each stanza pivots.
It is when we recognize the function of these pivot terms that the stanzaic symmetries come into focus – not just the number of lines, but that every second stanza ends in a period (which means also that every stanza beginning with Their ends without punctuation). This poem is as far from the organic mimicry of forms as Oppen will ever get in his writing – it’s a closed pattern as tight as any of Zukofsky’s.
So it is
worth noting what comes in that same position in the next to last line of the
final stanza: the wild deer. This
positioning does two things at once – first it refocuses our attention onto the
ontology of deer-ness in the first place; second, & more important, it
underscores that the adjective wild is
every bit as strange, conceptual & ultimately empty of content as the terms
used in each of the three preceding stanzas. It is the opposite of natural, the
opposite of being “rooted in the thing,” it is cultural . . . almost in the
anthropological sense of that word. The term wild has no meaning in the context of deer other than as an
Which is why the announced topic of the final stanza is so critical – The small nouns. The deer, these deer certainly & in some sense all others, exist not in “the wild,” but rather in this in which they stare back at us – through language. Escher-like in its process, the poem unveils itself at last not to be about deer, but about language. That they are there! – the final line of the first stanza now takes on a powerful new meaning that both is & is not an assertion of nature’s immanence.
The poem literally stands Hirsch’s assertion – that Oppen seeks “to restore meaning to language by faithfully using it to refer outward to a world of things” – on its head. The poem is an analog to Wordsworth’s crossing of the alps in The Prelude, looking into nature only to see his mind, unable to get beyond. The poem argues against the restoration of something that never existed in the first place, a transparent language.
gets the poem exactly backwards. And it’s a misreading, I would argue, that
occurs in good part because he wants to take Oppen out of context, right there
in his very first sentence, to make of Oppen something he
* Which is why, I suppose, the column is not the newspaper standard 700 words.
** Why can’t newspaper typesetters get this right, even on the web? The mangling of poetic form seems to be journalism’s primary contribution to the history of poetry.
*** Indeed, it is an anthology piece for Oppen in part for the same reason that “The Yachts” is one for Williams – it is the poem those who don’t like his more “extreme” works can get into, because it looks deceptively familiar.
Labels: School of Quietude
Monday, November 24, 2003
My sock puppet, my self.
The cult of the person casts a long shadow in the history of poetry: Whenever I speak, I speaks, as Creeley put it. From Dante’s poems to Beatrice, a love that would have gotten Roman Polanski or Michael Jackson into trouble, to Jack Spicer’s letters to Lorca, the poem with an intimate you has long been a text with a presumptive I. From Sappho’s love poems to Catullus’ far more sardonic fare, where there is a you, there is an I, a we, a universe of relations posed sometimes by no more than the simplest pronoun.
problem I once broached under the heading of “ventriloquism” in a piece, “Who
Speaks” – not, you will note, a question – that
Conceptual poetics is by definition problematic. When, during the last days of the Soviet state, Dmitri Prigov tore poems into pieces & then sealed the pieces inside envelopes, the role of the text & whole hosts of questions concerning literary “value,” even of the idea of value, were thus invoked. Be Somebody similarly pokes a very hard finger into the chest of Western literary assumptions. Consider, for example, this poem entitled – not numbered – “4.”
I: Hi. How am I?
I: I am fine. How am I doing?
I: Great. My me and me just bought a me up in me.
I: Is that so? I live in me too.
I: Well, that's terrific. I'll be neighbors! Say, me and I would love to have me and my me over for me sometime after the me is over.
I: Great! I think I'll take me up on that. I'm in a terrible me and I've got to run. Say 'hello' to me for me, will I?
I: OK, I'll take care. See me later.
There is a Steinian level of play here, but even more active is the
setting up of the pronoun as jarring: this is only half-hidden by the joke of
the ego-centric that underscores this
0: Hi. How are?
0: Are fine. How are doing?
0: Great. And just bought a up in.
0: Is that so? Live in too.
0: Well, that's terrific. Be! Say, and would love to have and over for sometime after the is over.
0: Great! Think take up on that. Are in a terrible and got to run. Say 'hello' to for, will?
0: OK, take care. See later.
of texts in Be Somebody is fairly wide, all the way from the epistolic to poems that border
on nursery rhymes. One hears not so much echoes of Bernstein, nor of, say, Alan
What's going on here before your eyes, on this page? Yes, I am talking to you. Is it after the end of our world? Where has everyone gone? Please reply. Speak louder, I cannot hear you. I know everyone, as I know someone, or at least that is knowledge of many and one good enough for them. What they say, everyone, is what they say. Everyone is one, yes, someone, so one is many and many, one. You read that once, in a dream, but you have forgotten it. You are everyone, you are sleeping as one, as many things, all slowing down. Everyone turns at least once each night. Please reply. Speak louder. Normally everyone is what they say. Everyone is someone, or so they say. Or so that's what they say because someone has disappeared from this page and our world is at an end. I am talking to you, only you. Everyone. Someone. Please reply. I cannot hear you. Only silent things are said after the end of our world.
In the manuscript version, at least, the cover of Be Somebody offers us a mask, specifically the hockey mask of B-horror flick fame. If we want to know who speaks, we are told Simon says. And there are poems here with stanzas like this:
01 50ld 01's 5p1r1t f0r 4 9h05t,
c0rp0r4t3 v0c4t10n, c045t t0 5cr34m1n9
c045t 4nd 1t 15n't cl34r, th3 5p3ct3r
0f th3 n34rly l1v1n9, th3
I read that as:
I sold I’s spirit for a ghost,
corporate vocation, coast to screaming
coast and it isn’t clear, the specter
of the nearly living, the
Like somebody who understands that what makes Moby Dick great is all that stuff about whales, Be Somebody is difficult in the way the very best books are – it challenges our desire for the familiar (and nothing is more familiar than my pronoun, not even my name) & holds on like a pit bull with lockjaw for the entire trip, in this instance 58 pages.
Someday, someone is going to publish this book & then we will all have to deal with Lester’s intimate striptease of the self. Until then, it will remain – like the full-length version of Mark Peters’ Men – one of the great rumors of contemporary poetry. Lester has his website. But you have to read the book.
Sunday, November 23, 2003