Saturday, January 17, 2004

 
I added several additional Writers House events to the calendar.



 
The calendar moves around it does, most recently to February 1.


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:

 

·         Kildare, by Stacy Doris

·         Gorgeous Plunge, by Michael Gottlieb

·         Protective Immediacy, by Rod Smith

·         The Future of Memory, by Bob Perelman

 

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.

 

One thing this reminded me of was that it was Protective Immediacy that persuaded me of Rod Smith’s greatness as a poet. I’ve known Rod for some time & had of course read his work in little magazines. Since I’ve moved to Philadelphia, email orders to Bridge Street Books, where Rod works, have become a primary means for me to get access to books of poetry & criticism that I find essential. But I don’t think I fully “got it” that Rod was already much more than a local poet who was a dedicated community worker, a meticulous & responsible editor, & all-around good guy. Partly this is due, I think, to the “aw shucks” presentation of self that Rod diligently promotes & partly it’s due to the fact that he is a quiet person operating in one branch of poetry where not a lot of the guys (I include myself) are quiet.

 

At first 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 Louis Cabri & Jeff Derksen – Smith is hyper-attuned to the social nuances of language. What seem at first to be clusters of random words almost subliminally transform themselves into a constant track of political commentary with a sense of humor that is both dry & dour: But what really distinguishes Smith is the degree to which the poems here are driven not by the mind or eye, but by the ear. Smith struck me, when I first read this book, as the direct descendant not of Zukofsky or Oppen or Coolidge, but of Robert Duncan & W.B. Yeats. Take the following page, the first of “Write Like Soap”:

 

We're tired.

Fire the create crate soled.

The life to get top

ought to leak decease;

 

There's no trap, only subtle cushion
gathers sanction.
sanctions trust,
turns up

The date

(or torque) of that which there
on our said to it, would accumulate.

 
ditch the grand
task adjusts us
juggling a tune who's
nude flourish
masks a fluted
noose.

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.

 

This is 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 Electronic Poetry Center – but we’re fortunate in extremis to have it so freely available.

 

 

 

* 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.

 

Historical 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 Charles Bernstein, Barrett Watten or Robert Grenier (how can a volume of this kind not include Bernstein or Watten?), or feminists like Rachel Blau DuPlessis or Susan Griffin, but also Robert Lowell, Richard Wilbur, Phil Levine, Robert Hass & Edward Hirsch.

 

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 Simpson, Donald Justice, Jack Spicer, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Adrienne Rich

1930s (3): Rhina Espaillat, Anne Stevenson, Charles Simic

1940s (9): Jack Foley, Robert Pinsky, Lyn Hejinian, Louise Glück, Mary Kinzie, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Marilyn Nelson, me, Timothy Steele

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 Robert Creeley, “To Define” & “Poems are a Complex,” are the works by him that most directly point toward the evolution of language poetry, and the ones most often read & cited by langpos a generation later. While we’ve all seen conservative poetry anthologies that treat Pound as the guy who wrote Mauberly & maybe a little more, and that fixate on Williams’ “Yachts” & Creeley’s rhymes from For Love, this particular collection strikes me as accentuating differences rather than occluding them.+

 

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 France, which I did with Lyn Hejinian & Tom Raworth back in 1988.

 

** 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,

tentacled
stomach swallows stomach.

In the long dream,
I’m with Aaron,

visiting his future,
helping him make choices.

 

can hardly 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 text, so to speak – that reach into the world in complex, divergent ways. One can envision the stomach here as self-consuming artifact & yet here is a mother invoking the concept of tentacles as she depicts the dream life of her relationship to her son. One might envision the two sentences as equivalents, one being the short version, the other the long. And yet and yet . . . none of these readings is in any way mandatory.

 

Instead, 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 never private. On the one hand, this is almost the opposite of confessionalism & yet, on the other, Corbett really is telling King things about himself that the visual artist can’t otherwise know.

 

I almost 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 breaks as tho it were prose & her signature attention to specificity. The last three poems in the book all bear the same title, “Safety,” tho each is “about” something entirely different. Yet the three combine to balance perfectly the book’s initial poem, “Permanent Home,” & it is absolutely no accident that the book’s centerpiece, the eighth poem, dedicated to Gayatri Spivak, should also be the title poem. On one level, Berssenbrugge’s book feels as simple as someone sitting down, casually writing in a journal. On another, Nest is an edifice of intellectual construction as complex as any we’ve inherited from Ronald Johnson, say, or from Louis Zukofsky.

 

So there is no single thing we might think of as density any more than this concept can have only one antonym. Instead, I find directions & probabilities, sensibilities really. These four books are terrific to read alongside one another – it’s almost as those they were pointing to the four directions, each balancing the others.



Monday, January 12, 2004

 

About seven miles west of my home in Paoli, Pennsylvania, is a mid-sized corporate hotel of no particular distinction, the Sheraton Great Valley – I can’t trek over to the Exton Mall without passing it. It’s not the sort of architecture – or location – to make one dream great dreams of travel & flight. But, then, what do I know? It so happens that visual artist John King has made a lovely graphite drawing on the stationery of this hotel – “from the guest rooms” the page says at the upper left, just below the hotel’s “letterhead.” The drawing consists of two mounds of balls – cannonballs? elephant turds? who’s to say?” – each mound being five layers high, the top layer starting with a single ball, the next one having four or five balls, and so forth. Between them, coming literally out of the top ball on each mound, appears to be a pair of pliant boards. While the balls are black, these two planks are white. Balanced between the two planks is yet another ball. The perspective on all this is from slightly above and at a bit of an angle, so that the mound on the right is closer to you than the one to the left. If you stare at it long enough, you realize that the structure between the two mounds looks a good deal like a cartoon eye.

 

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:

 

ALL ABOARD!

NAZ-AR-ATH, Bath

And don’t forget

Your pack-ag-ASSS

Canonballs for the boys
at
Valley Forge

Road signs to Paradise
by way of BLUE BALL
and INTERCOURSE

 

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 Valley Forge, but from the whole of this quirky “canvas,” taking clues from the address imprinted as well as the image drawn thereon.

 

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
to your
Greene Street address
it was to Dear Joe, Joe Brainard.
We turned 50 together in 1992
Beverly too who will now be 60
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
young
Jim Behrle asks, “Hurt
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.
It’s
Portland, Maine tomorrow
for a reading.
Long Island Saturday,
Manhattan Sunday breakfast
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, Bob Perelman’s collaborations with the painter Francie Shaw, certain that it would be the big poetry-art collab of 2004 & while that may turn out to be the case, Return Receipt (a 2003 publication it says right here in the verso) is up there with the very best examples of this sort of project such as the work of Charles Bernstein & Susan Bee, or Robert Creeley’s collabs with several different folks over the years. The thought of this collaboration was, in fact, a great idea.

 

 

 

* Pennsylvania purists argue over where the western end of the Main Line ends, tho all agree that the eastern terminus is the border of Philadelphia. The hotel is to the west of every definition I’ve heard, save those that refer to it as the entire route between Philadelphia & Lancaster. The road existed as a walking path used  by the Lenape tribe when the first white settlers arrived in Pennsylvania & was in fact known as the Main Line long before the Pennsylvania railroad was created. Corbett is totally on target in invoking the importance of the railroad to the development of this region.

 

** No I don’t know why the Amish would name towns Intercourse or Blue Ball, tho Paradise I can understand.

 

*** In fact, the book lists no publisher whatsoever and identifies King as the sole holder of the copyright!



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