Saturday, January 17, 2004
Thursday, January 15, 2004
It was a mention on Drew Gardner’s blog, Overlap, that called my attention to the fact that Roof Books has put up a few selections from its awesome catalog onto the Electronic Poetry Center website: four complete books of poetry, plus – in two parts – Joel Kuszai’s massive Poetics@ volume, documenting the history of the Poetics listserv. Included among the collections of poetry are the following:
This is as good as it gets & if you don’t own any of the above, you should hie thyself hither to download them at once. I own them already & I still downloaded the entire set – there is no telling when I might want to quote from them – like right now – or read them further in that different way (those different ways) a screen makes possible.
this reminded me of was that it was Protective
Immediacy that persuaded me of
glance – & even later – the poems here are abstract lyrics, somewhere in
that nebulous terrain between some of the poetry of Bruce Andrews & John
Godfrey’s new Private Lemonade. Like
Andrews – & also such poets as
Fire the create crate soled.
The life to get top
ought to leak decease;
There's no trap, only subtle cushion
(or torque) of that which there
on our said to it, would accumulate.
ditch the grand
task adjusts us
juggling a tune who's
masks a fluted
Not every reader will hear odalisque in that fourth line of what I take to be the double-spaced first stanza, but any one who does will, I think, be hearing the poem properly. That reader would already have noticed the foregrounding of the t, p & r sounds in the first three lines* – even above the flourish of the hard c in line two – & thus be prepared for the role of trap, trust & turns up in the next stanza. I remember that I was standing up when I first read this passage, because it made me dizzy & I had to sit down, I responded so viscerally to it. And still do, now, some years later.
Like John Godfrey, whose use of syntax within abstraction I’ve noted of late, the tonal elements of the second stanza here function transitionally as syntax becomes more important in the second & third stanzas – I read everything from The date thru accumulate as stanza three, neither single nor double-spaced. Beyond that end rhyme, the sonic engine of this third stanza is less the reiterative occurrence of foregrounded phonemes than it is the rhythm that paradiddles through that last ten-syllable line.
This in turn sets up the last stanza, which uses phoneme threads to weave an astonishing number of elements together in just six short lines:
· The a in grand, task, masks
· The ju in adjusts & juggling
· The oo in tune, who’s, nude, fluted & noose
· The n at the head of both nude & noose (accentuated as the first sound in both lines)
· The fl in both flourish & fluted
The fact that remainder of the word after the fl in flourish is radically unlike what goes on elsewhere in these six lines thrusts flourish forward in our attention, setting up its linebreak as the most pronounced in the stanza, so that the two final lines tumble out as tho a single elaborate gesture.
just the first of sixteen such pages in this poem. “Write Like Soap” is one of
those works that any writer would be happy to have as their “anthology piece” –
a poem like this can make a career. But it’s just one of many great works in
this book. The volume itself may be out of print – that might explain its
appearance at the
* All three instances of long i on the page occur in this one stanza, twice joined with r, then once with f.
Wednesday, January 14, 2004
An opportunity to feel ambivalent: I find myself in an anthology of critical writing by 20th century poets whose co-editors include Dana Gioia, and whose other contributors include William Logan, Timothy Steele & Christian Wiman. The volume is Twentieth-Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry, edited by Gioia, David Mason and Meg Schoerke. There is a companion poetry anthology more than twice the size of the poetics volume and a peek at the website informs me that I’m included in that one as well, tho I’ve not actually seen the book.
On the one hand, a part of me delights at the idea of being included in an anthology that includes the likes of Frost, Stein, Stevens, Williams, Pound, Jeffers, Moore & Eliot, all of whose names turn up on the first page of the table of contents. And I’m pleased to see that Zukofsky, Olson, Duncan, Creeley, Spicer (!), O’Hara are likewise included. All of this fits in very much with adolescent fantasies that I once entertained about being a poet.* But there is a reason why such things are called adolescent fantasies – such dreams envision a perfect (or at least perfected) world in which access is open & inclusion is simply a register of merit. The real world, however, is far more complex, negotiated & political. Thus if you scratch at this book a little, a larger worldview starts to appear, one with which I’m certain I disagree.
anthologies – and this volume is intended as one, organized chronologically by
the birth year of the poet – most often reveal their aesthetic commitments most
clearly in their most “current” inclusions. In this one, 53 of its 54
contributors were born between 1871 (James Weldon Johnson) and 1952 (Rita Dove
and Alice Fulton). There is, however, a 14-year gap – the longest jump in the
book** – between Dove & Fulton & the volume’s concluding essayist,
Christian Wiman (b. 1966), who just happens to be the editor of Poetry & a practicing new formalist.
Wiman’s inclusion is noteworthy precisely because of
all the major poet-critics who are not here:
not just langpos such as
I’ve written before that the new formalist worldview is one in which the 1930s was a particularly bad time to have been born – that’s where the break between “old” & “new” comes – and that view is visible in this volume when you look at its inclusions by decade of birth:
1870s (5): James Weldon Johnson, Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens
1880s (5): William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot
1890s (3): Louise Bogan, Hart Crane, Allen Tate
1900s (4): Yvor Winters, Langston Hughes, Louis Zukofsky, Kenneth Rexroth
1910s (8): Charles Olson, J.V. Cunningham, Robert Hayden, Muriel Rukeyser, Randell Jarrell, William Stafford, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Duncan
1920s (11): Denise Levertov, Louis
1930s (3): Rhina Espaillat, Anne Stevenson, Charles Simic
1950s (5): Julia Alvarez, Dana Gioia, William Logan, Rita Dove, Alice Fulton
1960s (1): Christian Wiman
Poets born in the 1930s who should be here include Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, Amiri Baraka, Clayton Eshleman, Jerome Rothenberg & David Antin. Indeed, this book reverses the very same blinders that limit the second volume of the Rothenberg-Joris Poems for the Millennium – if that book presumed that the center of poetry was to be found somewhere between Fluxus and the journals Caterpillar & Sulfur, this collection acts as if that aesthetic tendency didn’t exist at all. The Iowa-centric McPoetry that once seemed so institutionally ascendant in the 1970s is likewise given short shrift, with just the token inclusion of Charles Simic.***
It is worth
noting, tho, that if the inclusion of poets shows the heavy hand of a single
aesthetic bent, the choices of pieces by the poets who are included do not.
While many of the choices for a volume like this are, frankly, obvious (Eliot’s
“Tradition and Individual Talent,” Olson’s “Projective Verse,” Gioia’s “Can
Poetry Matter?”), the two short essays by
This anthology is clearly intended to be a text book – McGraw-Hill includes it among its Higher Education product line, and the selections come with lengthy biographical intros as well as bibliographies of the poets to the rear.++ So for political reasons, I almost always say yes to being included in a project like this.+++ It’s interesting to see Robert Duncan & Jack Spicer here, both of whom I suspect would have been even less comfortable than I with the company they’re seen keeping. But inclusions here never can fully account for, let alone counter, the fact that this collection has an agenda, one that maximizes the role of new formalism, and that this agenda is at best a dubious point of view.
* Of all the
adolescent fantasies I ever had about poetry, the best of the ones I’ve rather
inadvertently realized occurred when I gave a reading under a full moon at a
medieval chapel in the south of
** The next longest gap in the volume is nine years, between T.S. Eliot & Louise Bogan.
*** One might counter that the McPoets were generally allergic to serious critical writing, being, as they were, at least partly a reaction formation against the New Critics who tended to dominate the English Departments into which McPoets snuck their MFA programs, but you can’t make the same claim with regards to the Eshleman-Rothenberg axis.
+ Tho not entirely. Rhina Espaillat is clearly included here as an instance of diversity, but she’s more pointedly on the cusp betwixt the old & new formalisms.
++ My own intro, cobbled heavily from the Dictionary of Literary Biography, contains a howler or two, identifying me as an editor of Computer Land, a publication that never existed. Rather, I worked in services marketing for the ComputerLand Corporation (which did, for a time, publish a ComputerLand Magazine, to which I contributed a couple of articles).
+++ The one volume in which I refused to participate was Doug Messerli’s Language Poetries, which I felt was a conscious attempt to depoliticize & misrepresent the work.
Tuesday, January 13, 2004
Density is a nebulous quality in a poem, as it can be also in painting. Some visual works feel light, airy, ready to drift away while others feel weighted & worked. One of the reasons that de Kooning’s last works proved so controversial, painted as they were as he met the onslaught of Alzheimer’s, was because those canvases differed so materially from his “mature” style in just this way. Certainly the values in those works are different than from his dense, intense assaults on women in the 1950s & ‘60s, but my own sense is that these last works are marvelous in their own right. Indeed, I think they would have been greeted wholeheartedly as such had they been painted by an artist with any other name.
Density in painting, tho, feels relatively easy to describe verbally. Much of it has to with the uses of white space, with the artist’s relationship to the canvas. It is, I think, far harder to articulate what constitutes this quality in a poem. If I look at four books that I’ve been reading recently, what I notice first is that all four make use of relatively short forms, but that two of them feel dense while the other two do not. The two that do – Rae Armantrout’s Up to Speed & Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s Nest – are both by women, while the two that do not – John Godfrey’s Private Lemonade & William Corbett’s Return Receipt – are by men. Not a statistically significant sampling, but enough of a distinction to make me stop and ponder.
It’s not a question of words per line or the amount of white space that is taken up – Armantrout’s pages seem more spare than those of either Godfrey or Corbett, yet a passage such as
In the shorter version,
stomach swallows stomach.
In the long dream,
I’m with Aaron,
visiting his future,
helping him make choices.
be characterized as whatever we imagine the inverse of dense to be – light, airy, ethereal, etc. Yet this isn’t the
feigned depth psychology we’re so bored with from surrealism either. Rather,
the two sentences pose framing schema – the back story of the
what I sense here is that both Godfrey & Corbett are interested in are
effects that occur very close to the surface of the writing. Godfrey often is
at the edge of abstraction & Corbett literally is writing notes to a reader
whom he knows doesn’t really know him
– there’s none of the shorthand one might expect from old friends. Thus the
poems in Return Receipt strive for a
communication that is at once quite personal & yet
wrote that, of the four poets at hand, Corbett’s poems were the closest in
spirit to the kind of informalism – as distinct from
Personism – of Frank O’Hara, yet Godfrey’s were the most painterly. As a
construct of surface effects, that is certainly the case, and yet
Berssenbrugge’s poems proceed more apparently with the kind of cognitive
process one so often associates with the visual arts. Each individual poem in Nest is definitely a project – every
possible element of the poem is constructed from the ground up. The only really
consistent elements, what you might identify as style, throughout the fifteen
works gathered in this 71-page book are a long line that Berssenbrugge
So there is
no single thing we might think of as density any more than this concept can
have only one
Monday, January 12, 2004
About seven miles west of my
This, as it turns out, is the first drawing King sent to poet William Corbett, who responded with a poem, printed counterintuitively in Return Receipt on the left-hand page. Return Receipt is the limited press edition (500 copies) of this collaboration between poet & artists, 28 drawings, all done on hotel stationery, 28 short poems. Corbett’s poem for this runs as follows:
And don’t forget
Canonballs for the boys
Road signs to
by way of BLUE BALL
The bottom of the page gives the hotel’s address as Lancaster Pike – tho everyone hereabouts just calls it either Route 30 or the Main Line* – and Corbett appears to have associated this partly with the Amish towns of Lancaster County, about an hour to the west, tho Bath is north of Allentown, as is Nazareth. The hotel’s web site lists Valley Forge as being 19 miles away, tho if you drove northeast up highway 202 – right outside the hotel windows – you can cut that distance considerably.
The poem prepares us for the
journey of this collaboration & in doing so provides us with a sense of the
feel – to the degree one can pick that up from the names of towns** – of
Pennsylvania culture. The poem feels as tho it was written quickly – Corbett
suggests as much in a note that is holographically reproduced in the book’s
front matter, telling King to send him the drawings “one each day,” & that
“On the day they arrive I will write a poem responding…” – & clearly isn’t
intended to be The Cantos. But as the
initiation of this project, it feels exactly on key, extrapolating not just
from two mounds of cannonballs to
The paper King is using is a theme in itself here. Hotel stationery is a very specific form – I’m writing this literally at the Dolphin, a Michael Graves-designed hotel at Disney World in Orlando, where the architecture is willfully over the top, as is the stationery, most of which is a color midway between pink & peach, with blue-grey borders on left & right & a vaguely plant-like abstraction softening the page. Unlike the examples King selects for his drawings, the Dolphin has virtually done away with the heavy logo header that is the classic feature of the genre, simply placing small graphics in the lower two corners (one for the Dolphin, the other for the neighboring Swan), the largest type of all reserved for the URL.
Interestingly enough, hotel stationery is an endangered form, thanks largely to the internet & in-room high-speed web access. I’ve stayed at several hotels in the past few months, including other Starwood properties like the Dolphin & Sheraton Great Valley, that have abandoned the practice altogether.
As a collaboration, Return Receipt is a fascinating demonstration of the potential – and problematics – of the process. At the outset, for example, King & Corbett don’t really know one another, having been brought together through the suggestion apparently of a dealer who thought that a collab would make for a nice addition to a forthcoming show of King’s.*** Corbett of course has written widely about painting, and the works here fit well within the parameters of his mature art. His pieces operate both as poems & often as direct communications with King, as in this piece, one of the longest in the book, “illustrating” a setting sun image done on stationery from the Encinitas Inn & Suites at Moonlight Beach, a Best Western Hotel:
Dear John King: When I last wrote
it was to Dear Joe, Joe Brainard.
We turned 50 together in 1992
and soon, I hope, I will follow.
“Going like 60!” I hear my
grandfather say. He meant speed,
me racing around always eager,
having to get somewhere (nowhere?)
fast. I don’t feel slower. Well,
when my back hurts I slow down
and walk like an old man so that
your back?” “No, just slept wrong,”
I reply, stump-legged. This
has nothing to do with the drawing
it will be appended to or nothing
I can imagine from here, my MIT
poetry classroom, 12-102, the Physics
bldg., just having finished class.
for a reading.
at Balthazar and perhaps a walk
by 8 Greene where this will
one days find its way. Best for now –
Bill, whom you’ve yet to meet.
I wonder if “one days” is a typo, and if so, just whose typo it might be. The poem here is a remarkable act to show up in the middle of a collab between artists who are not, yet at least, close friends. Corbett is not only implicating King in his own personal life here (using as his starting point the literal coincidence that King now lives at the same address where Brainard once did), but he is also conveying an entire vision of aesthetics: one that is community centered & deeply personal & frankly could care less about more falutin’ orders of signification. In relationship to the long poem, say, it is as personal & minor an art as drawing is when contrasted with the major canvases of Titian or Pollock. One could trace influences in this poem back to Jimmy Schuyler (the line) or Paul Blackburn (the specificity of personal data) but the poem is very clear that this is not the issue here. Corbett might be anxious about King’s response – tho I don’t hear that in these poems – but not about their place in history. Most importantly, Corbett here is staking out his right to say ANYTHING as part of the process, even if it “has nothing to do with” a given drawing.
I’ve been waiting for Granary
Books to print Playing Bodies,
No I don’t know why the Amish would name towns Intercourse or Blue Ball, tho
*** In fact, the book lists no publisher whatsoever and identifies King as the sole holder of the copyright!