Saturday, December 20, 2003

 

I’m just starting The Guermantes Way, the long slow march through Proust – long, slow, luxurious, I should say – is taking the better part of a decade. I do roughly one book per year, except that Guermantes will be both 2003 and 2004. Some nights I read only a few sentences, less than a page, yet it feels as though I’ve read a lot, each sentence is such a construction. Construction’s not the right word for it, tho, for coiled about syntax as every sentence is, it feels more organic, even more organicist, than it does built. Even in the English of the Moncrieff / Kilmartin / Enright translation. Proust is one of the very few authors – in English the closest I can imagine are Faulkner & Kerouac – for whom reading a single sentence can feel like a significant reading experience.

This edition translates À la recherche du temps perdu as In Search of Lost Time, but I’ve been so conditioned over the years to think of it as Remembrance of Things Past that I still do. And know that I always shall.



Friday, December 19, 2003

 

James Rother is a man after my own heart. It’s his head about which I’m less certain. Rother, a comp lit professor at San Diego State, has for some time written passionate, engaged criticism of modern & contemporary poetry, mostly from a post-neo-formalist perspective. The following 112-word sentence will give you a taste of his manic, even gleeful overwriting – Rother is describing the reactions of Donald Hall & Robert Pack to the sudden – “unbelievable popularity” is Rother’s phrase for it – ascendancy of the poets contained in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry in the early 1960s, as evidenced by the introductions to their response, a revised edition of their own anthology, New Poets of England and America:

 

While Hall attacks British quarterlies and their parochialism with the impatient civility of one loath to be reminded of the ease with which apologists for poetry downshift into “second-best is still best” rhetoric resorted to by used car salesmen, Pack, blistering with a rage that is nearly uncontainable, makes it clear that, had he been allowed to, he would in a New York minute have swapped all six pages of his introduction for a single wordless pop-up conveying, as would an unequivocal semaphore of a catastrophe already visited and intent presently on spreading pain as far and as wide as it can, how palpably horrendous the state of American poetry had become.

 

This sort of bells-and-whistles harrumphing is a pleasure regardless of whether or not the critic gets it right. Rother’s project, interestingly enough, is a reading of the differences that occur between this 1962 edition of the Hall-Pack anthology & its immediate predecessor, The New Poets of England and America, edited by Hall & Pack with Louis Simpson and published just five years earlier. All of this can be found in the current issue of The Contemporary Poetry Review, an online journal devoted to criticism that shares with Rother a desire for the School of Quietude to be louder & just possibly even better & more rigorous. That’s a noble aspiration, I suppose, even if it strikes me as predicated upon more than a few false & blatantly silly assumptions.

 

But Rother’s question in itself is certainly worth exploring. Why would these editors & their publisher release two versions of this same anthology if, in fact, the Allen anthology had not seriously undermined their presumptions about the world? Rother explores the newfound humility with which the second selection deliberately drops the definite article from its title. As I don’t have a copy of either edition – there is a limit to my masochism – I can’t comment directly on his analysis per se. When I was younger & still trying to sort different schools of poetry out in my own mind, I owned a paperback copy of one of them, probably the second. But I recall thinking at the time that the Robert Kelly-Paris Leary Controversy of Poets anthology, with Kelly’s New Americans situated directly alongside Leary’s Old Formalists, decisively closed the door on that debate – half of that anthology is brilliant while the other half reeks of mothballs. I still keep Controversy of Poets close at hand, but that is pretty close to all I really need of the likes of Anthony Hecht, X.J. Kennedy, Galway Kinnell or Richard Wilbur. Not unlike Jonathan Mayhew’s side-by-side comparison of the last two volumes of Best American Poetry in his weblog earlier this year, the conservative tradition wilts the instant it is placed into direct contrast with even the most excessive or indulgent progressive writing.

 

What Rother is tracing here, though, is not simply his version of Us vs. Them, but rather why, in his view, ye Olde Formalism failed to simply brush aside the likes of Gregory Corso on the one hand & why what Rother himself calls the “abortive extremity of the ‘strong measures’ movement some twenty years later” would amount to so very little & similarly prove incapable of putting the world of poetry back together again. Along the way, Rother is rather loose with his characterizations. Here, for example, is a depiction of the New York School:

 

Centered about a nucleus of defrocked abstract expressionists including the just returned from Paris, John Ashbery; Reikian clown Kenneth Koch; fast forward lens adrift in New York, Frank O’Hara; cut-up sonneteer Ted Berrigan; and the Mark Wahlberg of this entourage, Bill Berkson, this unabashedly queer conclave struggled to be reborn from the phoenix ashes of French surrealism and the Lower Manhattan art scene.

 

The “unabashedly queer” Ted Berrigan is an idol to conjure with, for sure; ditto for Kenneth Koch. Yet, after dissing virtually every tendency of poetry active in the 1960s, what Rother arrives at, in tones as irked & fuming with protestation as anything he reserves for the failures of Pack or Hall, is an inescapable – and here I agree with him – conclusion: the New Americans got it right. Pointing in particular to such “chips off the Poundian block” as Zukofsky, Olson & Creeley, Rother concedes that the blasts at the Beats in the fifties that focused on their lifestyle completely missed the mark:

 

Somehow it never occurred to critics and reviewers until very much later—the 1970s, really—that the tablets codifying the new laws of poetic procedure that had descended from Black Mountain in the mid-‘50s not only anticipated a wholly new type of poem that was for the first time in history as uniquely American a creation as the Coke bottle, but provided, within limits, an accurate shadowplay of its lineaments and roulade of externalizing forces.

 

One can only wonder what a new formalist would make of Rother’s argument here, made as it is more or less from, if not exactly within the temple, at least one of the most simpatico publications they are likely to see.* I think it is evident, if only from the tones of hurt & outrage that characterize his writing style, that Rother would prefer a world in which a lively & vibrant new formalism continued the traditions with which he is most comfortable. Yet, in his own view, formalism, so-called, has failed to do so.

 

Where is this going? I can only think that Rother is trying to clear the ground for a new School of Quietude, one that confronts – rather than sits sullenly or silently by – the problematics posed by the presence of all modes of post-avant writing. What that writing might be, I can only wonder. But that someone has decided to address the task head on is, I think, healthy for poetry of all manner & stripe.

 

 

 

                                                                                              

 

* At an earlier stage in its existence, CPR claimed “to encourage criticism that is clear, spacious, and free of academic jargon and politics.” Rother’s piece is guilty of violating every one of these conditions & his work is the better for it.



Thursday, December 18, 2003

 

I go on the road for a couple of days & all heck breaks loose.

 

Specifically, I appear to have turned into a windmill. That at least is the only way I can interpret Leslie Scalapino’s tilting at my praise for her work here. It is, I think, impossible to misread this blog as an attack on either Scalapino or her father. It is patently clear that I did not call her father a right-winger. Indeed, I called him, accurately, a “cold war liberal” who took heat for his views against apartheid. I also called him a Vietnam war hawk, which is also accurate, and quoted a public comment he made in my presence at a meeting of the World Affairs Council. The complexity of these positions is real. But they hardly make the man a right-winger.

 

I also wrote that Leslie “notes, understandably, her displeasure at people, men specifically, who make assumptions about her predicated on her relationship to her father.”

 

It is sad enough to watch a poet flail at phantoms in public. But in addition to attacking me for things I never wrote, Scalapino’s email to the Poetics List also uses unnamed sources to attack another poet who has nothing to do with this. I thought that sort of behavior disappeared with the McCarthy Era. Apparently not.



Tuesday, December 16, 2003

 

I’ve been looking at unusual formats of late & one of the strangest to come across my door is Lorine Niedecker’s Paean to Place, co-published by Woodland Pattern & Light and Dust on the occasion of Niedecker’s 100th birthday. It’s a standard enough book from the outside – but its heart beats to a different printer, if not drummer.

 

The book is holographic, but not in the poem-as-calligraphic-art-object we might be familiar with from the work of Phil Whalen or Robert Duncan. Rather, Paean to Place is a fairly straightforward 6-by-9 inch trade press book that reproduces a version of this famous poem Niedecker gave to her friend Florence Dollase in 1969, hand copied into an odd-shaped little “autograph” book, 5½ inches wide & 4¼ inches high. Although the paper in the original ran, as Karl Young notes in a lively & useful afterword, “a gamut or pastel colors in random order,” the paper of this edition is the whitest of whites. Acknowledgement of the original page size is made only with a horizontal line across the page (at the 4¾-inch mark, a full half inch lower than the original). In his afterword, Young makes a case for why the book was printed this way, though frankly I don’t buy the argument that an odd-shaped book necessarily damages the taller texts next to it – even standard book sizes vary considerably in any poetry book collection. And I disagree also with his assertion that Niedecker’s “penmanship seems exemplary according to the standards of her generation.” The Palmer Method had thoroughly infiltrated American curricula by the time Niedecker was in school. Rather, this seems the ordinary handwriting of a reasonable human being in her mid-60s, not so inscrutable as, say, James Joyce, but hardly apt to get even a passing grade on a fifth-grade cursive assignment. Since Light and Dust has been good enough to put the original manuscript itself on-line – here you can see the page color & get a sense (still imperfect, I think) of the page size – you can judge for yourself. Click on the page image & it will take you to the next page. Like Michael Waltuch’s online edition of Robert Grenier’s Sentences, it’s a great way to read a work.

 

So these are just quibbles. The real question, it seems to me, is does this version illuminate or detract from the poem itself, not how does it adhere to some standard of replication I have in my head – tho I concede I have it – as to what a holographic reproduction ought to entail? Especially with Jenny Penberthy’s marvelous edition of the Collected Works still quite fresh & new. The news on this front is very good indeed. Paean to Place re-presents (hyphen definitely intended) the poem in an entirely new & transformative light. The text functions, as I presume Niedecker’s original did, by placing each five-line stanza alone on the right-hand page, which visually – and intellectually – is very different from the (relatively) crowded run-on printing of the Collected Works. Thus the holographic edition gives us a 41-page text, interspersed with an equal number of blank left-hand pages, where the version in the Collected takes just nine pages.

 

A more radical change, however, occurs in how the holographic edition handles what the Collected treats as internal divisions, or individual poems. In the Collected, the 41 stanzas are divided into 13 clusters – one might call them poems. In the holographic edition, each stanza is radically distinct, but the work doesn’t appear to divide further into individual sections or poems. To my ear, it brings the sound organization of individual stanzas forward – Niedecker is one of the great musical poets & this for me is all to the good. Young, in his afterword, writes that “The page breaks in this edition make the silences and the major disjunctures of the work more apparent and more palpable.” I’m not sure that’s quite how I hear it, tho. Rather, it shifts them around, accentuating the space between one stanza & the next, but de-emphasizing whatever conceptual space exists between “sections.”

 

One result is to accentuate Niedecker’s formalism – she is, after all, the Objectivist most directly influenced by Louis Zukofsky. Her five-line stanza is impeccable & remarkable. One could profitably read this poem for no other purpose than to see the different ways in which a five-line free verse structure could be composed, how the weight can shift from line to line. The poem at this level is a study in dynamism that is as good as it gets:

 

Fish

        fowl

               flood

     Water lily mud

My life

 

by itself is very different – profoundly so – from the same stanza seen as running directly into

 

in the leaves and on water

My mother and I

                      born

in swale and swamp and sworn

to water

 

Indeed, set apart on its own, the rhyme of water is radically different in this stanza. The text casts the capitalization of My differently as well, making it an even larger quality than, say, the motherness of mother. The end-rhyme of third & forth line of both stanzas is an organizing principle that Niedecker moves away from gradually in this work – one can still hear her rhyming water & sora as well as tittle & giggle several stanzas later – in fact the first of those two captures for my ear the dialect in this poem.

 

Karl Young, tho I’ve disagreed with him a few times here, offers some superb close readings in his afterword & I won’t try to duplicate his effort. I did note – for the first time really – that the sea is a presence in this poem, one of Niedecker’s most personal, which would have surprised more I think if I hadn’t already noticed its presence active in the writing of a more recent Wisconsin poet, Stacy Szymaszek. Bi-coastal boy that I am, the idea that the sea lurks so palpably in the upper Midwest jars me, I must admit.

 

There is also, on the cover – also visible on the web – a photo of the poet as a young girl – maybe ten – that is worth noting. That intent look, which can be seen in all of her mature photos, is already firmly in place.



Monday, December 15, 2003

 

Gabe Martinez’ Confidence & Faith was a site-specific work that existed for a little over two hours at the Philadelphia Art Alliance – a sort of old-school “arts club” in a mansion that anyone west of the East Coast would find unfathomable – last Saturday. To get a sense of the project, I’m going to describe it more or less sequentially – gaps reflect gaps in my memory, as I was too busy enjoying to take notes.

 

After gathering, in the lobby where people were given free glasses of champagne in appropriately fluted glasses, groups of 30 or so were let into the first of the occasion’s events, seated in two semi-circular rows around a podium, a grand piano, and a trio of musicians from Relâche, Philadelphia’s one world-class contemporary music ensemble. Behind the musicians were three screens lowered in front of the room’s high arched windows. A young woman got up and read an interview that figure skater Michelle Kwan had given concerning advice offered her by Brian Boitano. The gist was that Kwan had been entering her jumps in competition thinking of all the ways in which she could mess them up. Thus she was more apt to fall, precisely because she wasn’t visualizing her success as she entered the process of execution. After this brief reading (maybe five minutes total), the three screens lit up showing Kwan in black & white as she competed flawlessly in the 1996 U.S. Nationals women’s competition, a “long program” – which like all “long programs” in figure skating is just four minutes long – Kwan calls Salome. The three videos were slightly skewed temporally, with the one on the left proceeding first, the one in the center no more than one second behind, the one on the right no more than a second further behind. As Kwan on screen prepared to skate, the ensemble – violin, cello and piano –

performed the music of her exhibition, a collage of Salome-related pieces from Rosza, Strauss and Ippolitov-Ivanov.

 

Old figure-skating junky that I am – I attended the Women’s Finals of the 1993 Nationals in Oakland where Kristy Yamaguchi defeated Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding & others – it was fun to watch Kwan at her best, which the 1996 long program was. But it was much more startling to see the program on these very grainy black & white projections while the music was live – I was no more than five feet from the musicians. Anyone who has ever been to a skating competition will tell you that the experience is exactly the reverse: the skating is live, while the music one hears in these large, acoustically bad auditoria is recorded, often sounding as if projected from one tiny boom box somewhere in a corner. Martinez’ discourse here was about not just the two terms of its title – confidence & faith – but immanence & aura, all those Benjamin-esque issues played out real-time for each group of thirty.

 

After the performance, our group proceeded up the staircase – where more fluted glasses of champagne awaited those who imbibe – and went into a room whose white drywall surfaces at first appeared blank until one’s eyes gradually adjusted to the fact the each section of wall was “scratched” or cut in what seemed to be a series of continuous loopy doodles. Each such figure had a title – placed so low  & off the left that they weren’t at first noticeable – which I believe were the title of various Kwan programs, such as Scheherazade. At which moment, I realize that these doodles may well be graphed from the designs on the ice made by each named program. If the first room of this event brings in issues of Benjamin & presence, this second gallery invokes the entire history of “white paintings,” erased deKoonings & the whole history of the way documentation transforms performance into set pieces. (Consider, for example, the role of documentation in the work of someone like Christo – it’s really all he has to sell & his impeccable studies & sketches do quite well, thank you.)

 

In an adjoining gallery is a large section of a holly bush from which hang many good luck charms – presumably the same simple design of the one given to Kwan by her grandmother when she was a child & which she continues to wear constantly. While a “Chinese” or family token at one level, the charm – which each member of the audience takes & wears out of the event – is also decidedly Christian, showing what appears to be a saint or Madonna figure. The only words legible on mine are “Little Flower,” & I frankly don’t catch all the symbolism. But its presence is unmistakable as the next large gallery makes evident. It is a large room covered with pure white sand (a rough approximation I suppose of the slippery surface of an ice rink, but also the one element of the entire project that didn’t really resonate for me). Alongside were a series of white candles – eight? – each in the figure of the Virgin Mary. Apparently at the start of each show (roughly 15 minute intervals – though they were running close to 30 minutes late by the time we arrived for our turn in the final group), an additional candle was lit, so that what you saw passing through this sandy room was a sequence of melting Madonnas in various states of decay.

 

The final unlit gallery consisted of what I can only call an altar to the stuffed animals & teddy bears that are hurled onto the ice after a major ice skaters performance. Here a giant mound of them rose up against the wall & had been covered either by some clay mold or gray spray so as to form a single large ominous object, a giant fossil through which one might recognize a toy kangaroo or the like. To one side, a 1930s radio consol (but with modern interior) played the recording of other Michelle Kwan competitions, not all of which have been successful. (In spite of her long dominance of the sport, she has never was the Olympic gold, as small errors – those problems of confidence & faith invoked in that initial interview – combined with performance-of-a-lifetime skating by the likes of Tara Lipinsky & Sara Hughes have kept Kwan from ever achieving this goal.)

 

One of my companions for the evening compared Martinez’ work with Matthew Barney’s Cremaster project, only more optimistic. In fact, I found the work mixed, ranging between the optimism figured in Kwan’s admittedly great skills & the darker side, figured in the question of the role of confidence & that brooding altar to fan worship of the final gallery. Figure skating, perhaps more than any other major sport, is deeply subjective & that subjectivity has led, perhaps inevitably, to the sort of corruption at the heart of the most recent Olympic competition, not to mention the assault of Kerrigan by “friends” of Tonya Harding. Faith & Confidence is far from being just a “celebration” of a hero & much more an analysis of different aspects & tensions of an event structure. Indeed, those dimensions of subjectivity are much of what figure skating shares with the arts.

 

Perhaps the largest issue this work poses for me is the relationship between one person’s art & the life & reality of any other individual. That may seem obvious in an homage to a “hero,” as here, but it’s present as well in any elegy & implicit at least in any love poem or work that pretends to “communicate directly” with its audience. Martinez balances form & wit, a knowledge of cultural history & his own enthusiasms, with great élan. He’s already won all of the major local awards a cultural worker in Philadelphia might achieve & seems positioned to explore whatever in the world of art he might wish to take on.



Sunday, December 14, 2003

 
This list is replaced by the one on December 28.


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