Friday, January 09, 2004
Most of my co-workers know that I write poetry, tho few of course have any idea exactly what that might mean. I tried to keep that fact under wraps on my first job out of college, back in the 1970s, but when I published an admiring review of Tom Clark's book Neil Young in Rolling Stone somebody saw it & posted it on a bulletin board.
Nowadays everybody just Googles you when you start a new job. It doesn't necessarily work the other way, tho. Of the 7,500 or so sites Google lists in relation to my name, only 100 actually are in reference to my job.
Thursday, January 08, 2004
Another note from
I shall probably tire of this editorial letter writing soon, so don't despair.
Of course (! )it makes almost no sense to see any meaningful thread from Emily Dickinson to Marianne Moore to Lorine Niedecker to Rae Armantrout—I think the hallowed word is "invidious." But it isn't the desire to see something where it isn't, nor to rope off spurious influences and false genetic markers as some kind of artistic fraud. The interesting thing about all four of these poets is the degree to which they are each NOT derivative. You could say Sappho's poems are like all of them, to a degree. Or you could more easily say Moore is like Catullus, Armantrout like Djuna Barnes, Niedecker like Thoreau—these kinds of gratuitous, easily drawn pairings are useful to establish something called the "continuity" of literature, of interest to professor/authors of college textbooks attempting to construct a chronological tapestry of anthology-pieces, but for the purposes of the appreciation of individual writers or works—completely beside the point. I say this, having myself made just such assertions about the ladies-in-question.
By raising the question of taste as it relates to literary form, it is extraordinarily difficult (probably impossible) to make historical arguments about the development of styles as a function of political difference. When I was first introduced to "poetry" in school, probably in the 8th grade (?) [actually I had read poems on my own prior to that—Ogden Nash, Rupert Brooke etc.], I remember distinctly wondering how poets could make "rhyme"—I thought, okay the first line ends in the word "California", so the next line, or the next line after that could end in "horny. A" but the trouble was I couldn't determine how the potential rhymes that popped into my head had anything to do with what I was thinking about (i.e., the argument of the poem). How poetry got hung up on rhyme is an interesting historical question, but I wonder 1) whether it was in any important way a political issue, or 2) whether it makes any difference to us (readers) today if it was. Isn't it a measure of the failure of a work that it cannot be meaningful without elaborate historical explanations of content (i.e., Dryden and Pope's literary disputes)? It is probably true (as Robert Duncan said) that Zukofsky's Communism is not likely to be an important fact for his readers 50-100-200 years from now and beyond. How shall we convince posterity that the flashpoints of our consciousness were not temporary, ephemeral preoccupations that died with us. Footnote: Does it matter? Bertholt Brecht would probably say "fuck posterity! where's dinner?"
I saw the best minds of my generation cranking out doilies to be sold at 50 cents a line to Poetry Magazine!
All this talk of schools and institutions becomes quite weird and incoherent after a while. Wendell Berry (or Gary Snyder) writes in a very unadorned, formally plain style, with an agenda wholly out of keeping with the Eastern Establishment's notions of appropriate subject-matter and stance. The divergence between radical/reactionary politics and traditional/innovative forms is not one that can be delineated accurately, or convincingly. Left and Right become as meaningless as they are in contemporary politics. Spokesmen for respectability, in any age, risk espousing mediocrity. That they have the power to bless it with patronage—of whatever kind—is a great pity and to be resisted in any time. It is probably not possible, however, to entirely prevent good work from becoming known and appreciated, even if it takes 500 years (i.e., Vivaldi). The dimension(s) of audience are not irrelevant here, either. It is as true to say of Billy Collins that his work will not live, no matter how many enjoy his work today, as it is to say that few in the future will ever appreciate Armand Schwerner. Schwerner is so obviously a more accomplished poet, but to make extraordinary claims for his posterity turns out to be special pleading.
Probably the politics of literature in
Faustian bargain. In other words, have Lowell, Schwartz, Shapiro, Jarrell, Bishop and Berryman all been summoned from the pantheon by an "establishment" that no longer needs them once they've died? That's a peculiar notion! Isn't it truer to say that none of them—despite their many gifts and talents—wrote work that appeals to our immediate present. The future changes the past, as Eliot astutely said; surely, our sense of post-War literature is still in flux, and not fixed, even by selective neglect.
"Tactical"—"strategic"—words of expediency. Does not the whole edifice of ranking qualify as a model of expediency? Aren't schools, even when self-consciously promoted (i.e., the Fugitives), entirely irrelevant in time? Does anyone care about Merrill Moore's sonnets anymore??????? It is entirely possible that the 22nd century will find Barbara Cartland, Jackie Collins, and Stephen King the most interesting examples of their times. If that bothers you, you don't appreciate history.
Wednesday, January 07, 2004
I saw three films over the holidays &, as it happened, all three – Lord of the Rings: Return of the King; Cold Mountain; & House of Sand & Fog – were adaptations of novels, only the first of which I’d read (and that some three dozen years ago). But I felt an unease especially with House that made me stop & wonder at the problems of narrative & the relationship between narrative & the form of the novel, cinema & poetry.
I’ve written here before that I see cinema has having drained many of the formal prerogatives of narrative away from the novel, much as the novel itself a few hundred years ago drew narrative away from poetry, a process through which both genres gained immeasurably. More problematic, I’ve felt, is the future of the novel once narrative became merely a “nice-to-have” element, rather than its reason for existence – a point that I see as having been reached with Joyce’s Ulysses on the one hand, and the rise of the first generation of great directors, the likes of Eisenstein & Griffith.
House wants to be a tragedy – almost a
Greek one at that – and at the same time a character study in which all the
doomed figures are sympathetic even as they move inexorably toward an
unavoidable conclusion. This works in good part because three of the lead
players are superb – Ben Kingsley gives what is easily an “Oscar-caliber”
performance his portrayal of an exiled Irani colonel trying to get an economic
toehold in a fictionalized San Mateo County, south of San Francisco. Jennifer
Connelly, fresh of her Oscar & Golden Globe performance in A Beautiful Mind, is superb in a more
difficult role of a young woman almost paralyzed by depression, torn between
her sense of doing right & doing what comes easily. Shohreh
Aghdashloo, herself an Iranian actress living in exile in the
The plot, such as it is, is that the young woman’s husband has left her & she has responded with a deep depression – the house is a mess, mail is unopened, etc. – which leads to her defaulting on $500 worth of taxes that she, in reality, doesn’t even owe, for which “Pacific County” then evicts her & sells the property, a three-bedroom house walking distance from the ocean, for some $45,000. The Iranian family buys the property while the woman is attempting to appeal this & has construction done immediately in hopes of turning it around for a quick profit that will then enable them to live more comfortably, and just maybe pay for the son’s college education.
for a moment that there are enough gaps in
make much the same charge at
Let’s assume for a moment, then, that the gun goes off as well in Dubus’ book. What does that tell me? That it was written to be made into a motion picture? (Maybe – it’s actually a fate that relatively few novels ever meet.) Or that Dubus as well as Perelman took a short cut right at the most important juncture in the story? I’ll have to read the book to find out.* But it reminds me of the way in which mysteries in particular mime the narrative process as both hero and reader get to discover the predicate: whodunit. One reason that genre fiction has survived more effectively than, say, novels that seek to explore literary values is that such genres have other social reasons for being, sci-fi especially, where the minute that narrative & literary value are uncoupled in fiction, fiction struggles for a good reason to survive. Indeed, much of what has been published over the years by the likes of the Fiction Collection or the Dalkey Archive is fiction that is nostalgic for the novel, and which stretches out different aspects – some better, some worse – as it seeks in vain to find out its way out of the checkmate that cinema has become for narrative-as-plot.
I like a good story as much as the next bloke, but it seems to me no accident that my favorite novels over the past 50 years – Gravity’s Rainbow, V, Satanic Verses, Visions of Cody, Naked Lunch, Underworld, Dhalgren, Islands in the Net – are almost all narratives that “go nowhere,” & which would be unrepresentable in film (as, I would argue, David Cronenberg, proved when he “made” Naked Lunch). And the problems with films like House of Sand & Fog is that, the minute they take short cuts because, narratively, they have “somewhere” to get, the social contract with this viewer has been broken.
* Not really – by the time I’m done reading Guermantes Way, I won’t even remember the problem, only the luminous acting of Kingsley, Connelly and Aghdashloo.
Tuesday, January 06, 2004
The first book I received this year – Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed – already has a 2004 copyright date. It also has a book jacket on which Susan Howe compares Armantrout to Marianne Moore’s depiction of Anna Pavlova, & a web site on which Marjorie Perloff invokes Marcel Duchamp & an otherwise unidentified Boston Review piece cites both William Carlos Williams & Emily Dickinson as Armantrout’s “teachers.”* That’s a lot of forest to get through in order to reach the tree, I think, but happily Armantrout is well worth the effort.
of this blog, or elsewhere in my critical writing, it should come as no
surprise that I think of Armantrout as one of the half-dozen finest poets of
the past half century, perhaps the last two centuries. I also wonder if that
comes as any news. It has occurred to me that a positive word here about her
book might be chalked up to the unsurprising response of a full-time
enthusiast. I had not reacted well, say, to Richard Tillinghast’s piece in The New Criterion on Robert Lowell even
though Tillinghast does in fact try to make some salient points with regards to
Up to Speed is Armantrout’s very best work. While at 69 pages the book may be no larger than most of her non-selected volumes, it feels larger, richer, with a fuller emotional range. Often in these poems, I hear not what I would call anger exactly, but a sharper tone than we have had before:
The point is to see through
who pinch non-existent
objects from the air
to this season’s
laying on of
This is an exceptionally complicated sentence, even for a master of them like Armantrout. Nothing twists the knife of angst half so clearly as the question mark at its end – where precisely is the question? & why is seeing “this season’s / laying on of / withered leaves” the point? The punctuation is at least as much a matter of pitch as it is of syntax – Armantrout intends those i & e sounds to be voiced higher than the o tones of the previous line. Given how variously any two of us actually voice the language (my own twin boys speak very differently from each other), it takes an enormous amount of confidence to write a poem – or in this case, one section of a poem – in which the point, to use Armantrout’s term, occurs through a shift in pitch.
This poem, which is entitled “Seconds,” is worth exploring in greater length, both as an instance of this sharper edge & because it is an excellent example of how Armantrout uses the sectionality of her poetry to create objects that are every bit as torqued as the syntax of that first sentence. The title can be read in multiple ways &, always a good strategy when reading Armantrout, all of them bring something to the text. In the second section, lines are double-spaced, as tho stressing the ambivalence of their connectedness:
A moment is everything
takes in simultaneously
or much of what
a creature feels
may not reach
and only a small part
(or none) of this
will be carried forward
to the next instant.
These linebreaks are chasms – the first line is a possible sentence in itself & its meaning transforms the instant that it becomes qualified as what a person takes in, tho the echo of our initial reading never fully fades. Again we have a reference, this time parenthetical – (see below) – that seems potentially as wayward as that question mark in the first section. And again we have words selected so carefully – creature, for example – one can almost feel the pain of precision literally exacted by such writing. The temporality of this section, driven by space & so many enjambed lines, slows down our reading &, with it, our perception of time.
The final section – these are numbered 1, 2, 3 – consists of three lines. Are they the below of which we have been warned? A demonstration of the first section’s point? Far from answering any of the questions raised during the poem, this three line piece presence is at least as mysterious as anything that has come before:
burns up in rage.
This kind of tension without release is a rare effect in poetry, in any art form really.** The last poet who was this good at it was probably Jack Spicer, but only in Language & Book of Magazine Verse. Too often, though, Spicer’s poems can be taken for the frustrations of love. Armantrout’s accessing a much more existential dimension here, so that it feels constantly in these poems that there is much more at stake than just the recognition that love can’t relieve us of our essential loneliness. Once one sees this in these poems, the seeming lightness of this book’s title is turned inside out, so that what we sense in the concept of Up to Speed is a kind of vertigo we’ve all felt, but never quite known how to put into words. Armantrout here shows us how.
* For the record, Armantrout studied with Kathleen Fraser & Denise Levertov while she was in college.
** Think of the impact it had on rock & roll, when Bob Dylan learned how to do this on Highway 61 Revisited & Blonde on Blonde. And it’s the effect that none of the Dylan imitators could ever learn how to achieve.
Monday, January 05, 2004
Year’s Eve, the Philadelphia Inquirer
ran a review* of Lorine Niedecker: Collected
Works by John Timpane, who is a poet & author of the surprisingly
for Dummies, as well as the newspaper’s Op-Ed page editor. Given that
the Inky’s primary poetry reviewer these days is
new formalist Frank Wilson, this was a great breath of fresh air & a good
way to cap off the old year. I posted the link above to the Poetics List & Wom-Po, where I thought there might be others interested in
reading Timpane’s piece. This led, eventually, to my receiving an email from
This reminded me of how we deploy such tropes, generally. Rae Armantrout, for example, has more than once been compared with Niedecker. Yet once the core elements of the trope are examined, any true parallels between these poets seem trivial. Indeed, once one has gotten beyond the “woman who writes short poems & lives at some distance from a cultural center,” one tends to have exhausted whatever might be gleaned from the figure. Rather, tropes work in other ways &, I am reminded, are not at all unlike the utilization of rubrics, banners beneath which one might cluster all possible modes of poetry. Thus, for example, the two figures I’ve used a lot here – post-avant and School of Quietude (SoQ) – but also beat, modernist, Romantic, Black Mountain, agrarian, Projectivist, New Formalist, New York School, Language, Harlem Renaissance, San Francisco Renaissance, McPoet, etc. And there are a lot of et ceterae in these woods.
Every time I employ my post-avant/SoQ figure in this blog, I tend to hear from certain readers, sometimes directly, sometimes in the comments box & occasionally on other blogs. Generally, objections fall into three general types.
Type A: I have inaccurately included poet X in some category.
Type B: A particular category has been inaccurately drawn.
Type C: Categories in & of themselves are problematic.
it’s worth, I tend to agree with most of these complaints. I have sometimes
been sloppy and committed what might be called Type A & Type B errors.** But it’s the Type
C problem that strikes deepest into my soul, simply because I think it’s
unavoidable. There is no way to throw a conceptual rope around a particular
kind of behavior – which can include poems of a given type, any given type – that does not alter the
landscape, highlighting some features while casting others aside or into some
sort of intellectual shadow. In identifying the New American Poetry,
Many, perhaps most, poets – one might even say people – experience categorization, whenever it is applied to them directly, as the mode of violence it inevitably entails. Yet to avoid categories altogether would reduce any speaker or writer to a kind of nominalism that renders any kind of predication, including description as well as judgment, impossible. No ideas but in things, Williams argued, failing to note that these are two of the broadest of all philosophical categories.
I hardly proceed with the kind of rigor that contemporary philosophers can summon to such issues as categorization, explanation, causality, probability and the like.*** Rather, my approach tends to be strategic: I deploy categories when & where I think they will do some good, and only to the degree that they might accomplish this. When I’m hurried or sloppy, the strategic tends to devolve into the tactical, but I’d like to think that I’m at least conscious of that as a problem, even if I don’t entirely avoid it.
I prefer post-avant precisely because the term acknowledges that the model of an avant-garde – a term that is impossible to shake entirely free of its militaristic etymological roots & that depends in any event upon a model of progress, i.e., teleological change always for the better – is inherently flawed. The term however acknowledges an historical debt to the concept & recognizes the concept as temporal in nature – the avant-garde that interests me is a tradition of consistently oppositional literary tendencies that can be traced back well into the first decades of the 19th century, at the very least. The term also has an advantage in being extremely broad – Tom Clark is post-avant & so am I – nobody gets to lay claim to it.
School of Quietude is more complex, I think. The phrase itself was coined by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840s to note the inherent caution that dominates the conservative institutional traditions in American writing. I’ve resurrected the term for a couple of reasons:
· It acknowledges the historical nature of literary reaction in this country. As an institutional tradition that has produced writers of significance only at its margins – Hart Crane, Marianne Moore – the SoQ continues to possess something of a death grip on financial resources for writing in America while denying its own existence as a literary movement, a denial that the SoQ enacts by permitting its practitioners largely to be forgotten once they’ve died. That’s a Faustian bargain with a heavy downside, if you ask me, but one that is seldom explored precisely because of the SoQ’s refusal to admit that it exists in the first place.
the most significant power move that the SoQ makes is to render itself the
unmarked case in literature – it’s poetry, or perhaps Poetry, while every other kind of
writing is marked, named, contained within whatever framework its naming might
imply. Hence Language Poetry, Beat Poetry, New Narrative, the San Francisco
Renaissance, etc. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the few cases in
which SoQ poetics has named some of its own subcohorts,
such as the agrarians or new formalists. These can be read, rightly, as the
sign of a struggle within the SoQ
over relations of hierarchy & institutional advantage. The agrarians, as it
turns out, were successful, the new formalists it would seem were not. I choose
This is hardly the only tool in the SoQ kit, but it’s the one that empowers the others, such as:
o “Salting” their movement presses – FSG, for example – with token examples of other kinds of poetry (Ginsberg, Ashbery) so that readers presume that an FSG poet might be something other than a militant member of a small literary cult.
o Treating the process of naming per se as though words have no consequence – M.L. Rosethal’s cockamamie “confessionalism” is a reasonably blatant example, as is Alfred Corn’s infamous statement in The Nation (9/16/1999): “I mean ‘postmodern’ in the sense of returning to narrative transparence in place of Modernism’s hermetic and allusive texture.” That’s a proclamation that means nothing unless & until one realizes that by postmodern, Corn means both premodern & antimodern. But by 1999, even the SoQ had heard of postmodernism & was trying to sound hip, just like Pat Boone in biker drag.
I have read that it’s “hurtful” to be called a member of the SoQ – this would distinguish the process from being called a language poet or a beat poet or a fauvist in what way, I wonder. At some level, who among doesn’t think, I’m not an adjective poet, I’m just a poet? And who among us doesn’t know that any poet who tells you that he or she is not an X or Y kind of writer, but is “just a poet,” isn’t being deliberately disingenuous? I wouldn’t say that’s hurtful myself, but the process may in fact be painful. If, after 160 years, SoQ poets still object, I’ll be happy to call things square. However, what I’d really prefer to see is those poets actually taking up the question(s) inherent in their poetries, addressing them positively, even naming themselves. Ed Hirsch & Dana Gioia could learn a lot by paying closer attention to New Brutalism & how those poets are taking charge, however deeply Brutalist tongue may be embedded in cheek.
But in the meantime, I think that I will try harder here to be conscious of the implications in categorizing any of the poets I’m discussing. Tropes like the Dickinson = Niedecker = Armantrout one may be well meaning – the insinuation is that these latter writers are important figures not being taken seriously enough in their own lifetime+ – but it’s a slippery slope, and one should be conscious as to just how far downhill terms like that may lead.
* This link will work only through Tuesday, at which point the article will convert to the Inquirer’s archive collection, available for a fee.
+ This seems particularly spurious in the case of Armantrout, who is justly considered one of the major writers alive.
Sunday, January 04, 2004
The big news in blogville is Nada’s ring! Congratulations to both her & Gary! And while you’re admiring the ring, check out that very cool nail job Nada has as well.