Friday, March 26, 2004

 

My nephew Peter turns one tomorrow. So I wrote him a letter. As letters go, it wasn’t much, just a one-page affair that his mother or father can read to him at his birthday party, which is actually being held this evening. Mostly what I told him was “Get used to it, you’re going to get letters on your birthday.” It’s what we do in our family. My brother Cliff has eight kids, seven of them sons. You will in fact find three of the kids listed in the blogroll to the left – Dan, the oldest boy, Valerie, the next in age, and Michael, who is actually the third oldest boy. Both Dan and Val were blogging before I was, and both were publishing little magazines aimed at Christian youth for several years before that. The second oldest boy, Dave, so far as I can tell, is still largely allergic to the written word.

 

We never wrote letters when we all lived in the Bay Area, Krishna & I in San Francisco, Albany or Berkeley, Cliff & his wife Jenny (she has a blog also) in Petaluma or Rohnert Park. But about twelve years ago, they moved to Waco, Texas, in order to join a Christian commune – not that one! – putting us at some remove really for the first time in years. At the time, I was particularly distraught by the move, because I’d seriously bonded with their kids, of whom there were then four. But it didn’t dawn on me to start writing letters seriously at the time, perhaps because Cliff’s kids were still fairly young – Dan was around ten – but even moreso because I was in denial. I felt sure that they would eventually find their way back to the Bay Area before too terribly long.

 

Instead what happened was that Krishna and I followed in their footsteps a couple of years later, not going to Waco & certainly not joining a Christian commune – our communal days were very much in the 1960s & ‘70s, thank you, with all that that implies – but moving instead out here to Chester County, Pennsylvania, twenty miles west of Philadelphia.

 

Whatever illusions I may have harbored that Cliff & his gang were returning to the Bay Area, I couldn’t much imagine that they would end up out here, especially once Cliff built a successful landscaping business. And so that was the point where, in order to connect with them more deeply, I started writing letters about whatever was going on in our lives. Letters for birthdays, letters for Christmas. And, at a certain point, without any real prompting on my end, I started getting letters in return. They’re wonderful – the best gifts I ever receive from outside of my immediate house.

 

Which is how writing became a form of giving in my family. Even my brother, who was pretty laconic when he was younger, is an accomplished letter writer these days. Which is why I sent Peter a letter for his first birthday. He’s a Silliman & that’s what we do.



Thursday, March 25, 2004

 

This seems a good moment to mention trobar clus. When I write of the novel & then cinema taking on some of the social functions of poetry, I don’t mean this abstractly. Troubadour poets, such as Arnaut Daniel, understood that the distinctions between audiences had clear formal implications some 900 years ago. Trobar leu or trobar plan, literally light or plain trobar, trobar meaning to invent or compose verse, appears to have been a populist art, immediately comprehensible to a listener with an untrained ear. Trobar clus, meaning secret or closed, represented the other extreme, writing that was principally intended for one’s fellow poets. Trobar clus is sometimes characterized as being the most difficult & obscure, but its sense of difficulty is not unlike what one finds in other fields that have an undercurrent of competition – something poetry has always had, long before slams or Yale Younger Poets contests – it’s really a mode of virtuosity, like an ice skater able to do quad-quad combination jumps in a field where everyone else is only doing triples or quad-doubles. Trobar clus was – I would argue still is – the poetics of complete engagement. It is the medium in which the poet demands the very utmost of him- or herself. And of the reader as well. It’s the mode of poetry that continually seeks to renew & expand the field of what is possible. Daniel’s invention of the sestina, for example, was a high point for the trobar clus of his time. And in its 13th century manifestation, trobar clus incorporated elements previously outside of accepted norms – for example, influences of both Arabic poetry & Arabic mysticism. Some of its obscurantism may well have been intended to keep the bonfires of the Inquisition from about one’s ankles.

 

Between leu & clus, there was a middle path, trobar ric, or rich trobar, which carried many of the surface features of trobar clus, but without the inner density. One can read this as intended to create a buffer literature, something for those beyond one’s immediate peers, but close enough to create a sense of something more than the plain modes for the masses. Over 300 years before Shakespeare.

 

The rise of the novel (and later cinema) would relieve of certain communicative duties – things that heretofore had been possible largely, if not only, in poetry – responsibilities that had in fact largely been relegated to the simpler, more narrative modes of trobar leu. One might go further – I’m sketching this out very broadly – to suggest that when cinema later emerged to relieve the novel of many of these same social requirements, the novel’s surviving social role as a form became rather like that of trobar ric. Indeed, even independent cinema carries some of the elements of self-satisfaction that attach to the ric mode.

 

Often enough we hear the phrase “a poet’s poet,” as if that were a sign of a certain marginality, yet if we follow the rather concentric model posed by the troubadours, we arrive at a different reading. Trobar clus – the poetry of total engagement – represents the elements of poetry that, by definition, cannot be bled off into other genres. It really is a kind of bindu point, an evolving center out which poetry itself evolves.

 

The novel & cinema may well have their own formal elements and histories – one can see the work of a Stan Brakhage as a filmic equivalent of trobar clus, the work of David Lynch or Antonioni something closer to trobar ric. Films like Dumb and Dumberer suggest that there is, in fact, no lower limit.

 

But something very much akin to trobar clus still exists in poetry & it’s the feature I almost always find most engaging in the best post-avant poetries. That is what unites a relatively unlettered author like Frank Stanford, at least prior to his attempts at self-taming his work through an MFA, with people like Lisa Jarnot or Jennifer Moxley or Graham Foust or Harryette Mullen – it’s not that they write alike. They don’t. But each pushes their poetry & poetics to its limit and then some.

 

Not all post-avant poetry strikes me this way – the New American poetics have been around now for over 50 years and there as many opportunities here for poets to evolve what amounts to a trobar ric – it looks like its elders, feels & sounds like its elders, & it may even be more well-crafted, poem for poem, but it’s not doing anything you haven’t seen already. It’s not so much interested in expanding the space for poetry as it is in making it shine.

 

At its best, I think that’s the major argument for most School of Quietude poetries as well. It’s a very different kind of goal for poetry & accordingly leads to very different kinds of results. The further out historically a mode of writing goes from its particular source, the more it transforms the underlying aesthetics. If Allen Ginsberg showed how to change poetry by bringing in many forgotten or unheeded elements in the 1950s, Antler’s goal as a poet seems to be to write the poetry Ginsberg made possible. That’s okay, but it’s a different project & ultimately a different poetics. But there is no way to be “like” Ginsberg by writing “like” him. Indeed, the more you tried, the further away you would get. The only way to approach it is by doing something entirely different altogether. Which is why somebody who’s just 25 looks bizarrely nostalgic & out of it if he or she attempts to write in a Ginsbergesque fashion today.

 

That nostalgia drive, the impulse to reproduce what is always already there, only with your name on it, is a powerful one. The aesthetic politics of the School of Quietude is driven by a great desire not only for order, but for the world to be made as it “always” seemed to be. There is no room there for a trobar clus, precisely because the history of literature, from the SoQ perspective, must invariably be a narrative of decline.

 

Which is why a Dana Gioia seems like a perfectly reasonable example of this mode – he knows he’s conservative, politically as well as poetically, as does William Logan. But I’m always amazed at people like Marilyn Hacker, who is not a conservative in the slightest. I sense desire in her poetry going so often in two absolutely opposite & contradictory directions. Indeed, that’s the drama in her poetry as well as its source of power. In some ways, it’s the absolute inverse of Ezra Pound, whose own writing exploded the very five-foot bookshelf his critical side so obsessively sought.



Wednesday, March 24, 2004

 

The number of active screenwriters whose work is so distinct that it matters relatively little – oh, that may be an overstatement, so how about “relatively less”   who actually directs their work is quite few. I can think of only three: David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, and Charlie Kaufman. Mamet & Sorkin, as one might expect in a medium in which so much of what the writer contributes is dialog, are masters of the music of speaking, tho very different from one another in what they hear. Kaufman, tho, is another bird altogether.

 

Kaufman is a weaver of narrative improbabilities. Perhaps the best or at least most widely known example of this comes in Being John Malkovich. It’s not the idea of setting a narrative on the 7½ floor of an office building – that half floor being exactly that, a circumstance that has almost all of the major characters hunched over for the entire film. And it’s not the idea of people crawling through a hole in the wall and ending up inside of John Malkovich’s head for a period of 15 minutes or thereabouts. No, it’s the idea that when their time is up that they fall from the sky onto the New Jersey Turnpike that is the signature feature of Kaufman’s imagination That & a long subplot on the nature of puppeteering.

 

In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a screenplay that adapts an autobiography, Kaufman focuses on Gong Show host Chuck Barris’ claim that at the same time that he was lowering Hollywood’s standards for entertainment, he moonlighted as a CIA hit man. Then there was Adaptation, ostensibly a screenplay about another nonfiction book, Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief into which Kaufman inserts his own fictitious twin brother, Donald, making the film about their attempts to make a film.

 

All of which to say that I’m going to tell you almost nothing important about Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, which I saw last Saturday night in a large, sold-out theater in King of Prussia, beyond the crux of the matter: this is a film worth seeing. One detail I will share is that during many important points in the story, the two principle actors, Jim Carrey & Kate Winslet, are having intense conversations. During one, outdoors on a city street, the signage behind them gradually disappears as they talk. Since they’re walking, you almost don’t notice it. Later, they’re in a Barnes & Noble, and as they talk, the titles start disappearing from the spines of the books. Another detail: the only way to tell time in this mad shuffle of flashbacks & flash forwards (many of which may only be occurring “in the head” of the main character, a phrase understood quite literally in this film) is by the color of Kate Winslet’s hair: blue or tangerine. Kaufmanesque is the word people will eventually apply to such details, so why not use it here?

 

I’m intrigued at the idea that possibly nothing quite exists like this faculty in poetry – the closest example I can think of is the Oulipo-triggered imagination of Christian Bök. It’s that same faculty that something like Eunoia shares with the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, although even to suggest that is to invoke immediately all the ways in which those projects are radically dissimilar as well. Oh there’s a bit of it in Nabokov, in Cortázar & David Markson as well. It’s the work-as-narrative-machine, although in the case of Eunoia I’d subtract the word narrative & underscore machine.

 

I’ve argued before, and will no doubt again, that historically the importance of cinema, especially narrative cinema, is how it has relieved the novel of certain social obligations rather in the way that the novel once relieved poetry. Another way of saying this, of course, is that the film is a tributary of a river whose main branch remains poetry. A premise of normative narrative is that its deployment of devices function in the service of the reality effect, a self-canceling invisibleness (not, profoundly not, invisibility). In a realist film, it should be hidden from the viewer. In a something formulaic, like Star Wars, the plot structure visibly lumbers along, creaking as its rusty joints swing the beast through its motions. That’s not unlike new formalism’s sense of form, which tends to be pattern defined as a lowest common denominator. None of the new formalists comes close to Bök’s facility for form itself, but I often think it’s because they’ve blinded themselves to what they’re attempting.

 

Each year, maybe ten miles to the west of me, there is an event that I think of as the George Romero Poetry Conference. Actually, I’m sure that’s a slander on George Romero, for which I apologize. The event, the largest poetry shindig out here each year in Chester County, is at some level a serious attempt to further the new formalism, as its “by invitation only” critical sessions (one this year on “Defining the Canon of New Formalism”) demonstrate. More telling is the fawning tone of the title of the panel on The Achievement of Dana Gioia, who is also giving the “keynote reading.” Note please all the little elements of hierarchy in this event – that’s the new form. Or the faculty roster, which spans the spectrum of poetry all the way from A to B (and in which context “experimental” poet Kim Addonizio does seem like the official Wild Woman, especially teaching experiments in the sonnet & sestina). I don’t if it’s the span of topics, all the way from rhyme to meter to the sonnet, or the idea of Glyn Maxwell teaching a session on “the line” that appeals to me most.

 

I actually did participate in this affair one year, when Annie Finch coaxed myself, Jena Osman & Rachel Blau DuPlessis in for a panel to discuss new forms. And there was even some decent interchange with the audience, many of whom appeared not even to have heard of the New American Poetry, let alone more recent developments.

 

But in general this conference has heartily resisted the impacts of the outside world over the past half century, maybe even the last century & a half, & is perhaps the best example that the dangers of inbreeding apply in poetry as well. What would the equivalent be in cinema, then? No subgenre that I can think of, not even the lowest level teenage slasher or post-Porky’s T&A flick, has in fact resisted evolution from decade to decade. For someone like Kaufman, that’s probably one of the larger single problems he has to face – if he’s using devices to unveil the device, as he has done in film after film, it’s much easier if you have a static target. But even the Alien vs. the Predator films are constantly evolving. Only in the amber-like fluid of the West Chester Conference does time truly stand still. Sort of like the “after” result of the memory- (also mind- and personality-) erasing program at the heart of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind.



Monday, March 22, 2004

 

I went to hear Harryette Mullen read to a standing-room-only crowd at Villanova the other night. She was – as she has been every single time I’ve heard her read, going back to her days as a grad student at UC Santa Cruz – brilliant. In spite of the large crowd, the only poets there whom I knew – Lisa Sewell & Joe Lucia – were ones connected professionally to the school. Just ten miles west of Philadelphia, Villanova might as well be in Ohio so far as the center city gang is concerned. Or Amish country.

 

Mullen read from her books, not exactly in chronological order, including the following piece from S*PeRM**K*T:

 

Kills bugs dead. Redundancy is syntactical overkill. A pinprick of peace at the end of the tunnel of a nightmare night in a roach motel. Their noise infects the dream. In black kitchens they foul the food, walk on our bodies as we sleep over oceans of pirate flags. Skull and crossbones, they crunch like candy. When we die they will eat us, unless we kill them first. Invest in better mousetraps. Take no prisoners on board ship, to rock the boat, to violate our bed with pestilence. We dream the dream of extirpation. Wipe out a species, with God on our side. Annihilate the insects. Sterilize the filthy vermin.

 

Much of S*PeRM**K*T engages the discourse of retail packaging, as does this piece, starting with the trademarked tagline of Raid, whose website is even www.killsbugsdead.com. Before Mullen expands her meditation to include the entire history of poverty & slavery, she notes that the specific literary device being deployed is redundancy.

 

What I don’t know & can’t tell from this piece is whether or not Mullen also knows of the (apocryphal, I now think) history of this tagline & it’s relationship to poetry. Somebody, perhaps Aram Saroyan, once claimed that this line was in fact first authored by none other than Lew Welch, the Beat poet who was closely associated throughout his career with his two friends from Reed College, Phil Whalen & Gary Snyder. Indeed, I’ve repeated the story myself.

 

The argument for the attribution is that Welch worked in advertising for several years and the line has many of the characteristic features of Welch’s own poetry – the use of single syllable words, especially of the consonants-on-the-outside, vowel(s)-on-the-inside variety, the use of sound symbolism – the hard stops first in the g in bugs, then the d in dead – the reiteration, which is what makes the line so memorable. If Welch didn’t write it, he certainly should have.

 

The argument against the attribution is that Welch’s career in advertising was between 1953 & ’58, when he worked for the catalog company & department store chain, Montgomery Wards, for the first four years in its Chicago office* & then in Oakland. After 1958, Welch worked as a cabbie, a longshoreman & occasionally as a teacher, until, leaving a note giving instructions with what to do with his estate, Welch walked off into the woods in 1971. His body was never found.

 

Raid first used the tag line in 1966 – eight years after Welch left Montgomery Wards – and didn’t trademark the line until 1986.** It’s conceivable that Welch may have penned it for Wards – its catalog operations generated vast amounts of hard copy & was even the site where Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer first appeared, prior to the Gene Autry song – only to have the exterminator pick the line up some time later, but absent any greater documentation I think that’s a stretch. I think it’s more likely that Welch should’ve written it, than that he actually did.

 

All this was swirling through my brain because the day of Harriet’s reading was also the day in which yours truly used the phrase “brand equity” with regards to poetry & the names of poets, thereby generating the most over-the-top hyperbolic hate mail I’ve received in 19 months of doing this blog. Several people get positively obscene at the idea that their writing may have anything, anything to do with the dynamics of marketing. The milder stuff for the most part got posted to the commentary section – which has received over 75 notes, perhaps one-third of them anonymous, since this broader thread on naming began – where I was merely called a “bully” (tho I can’t figure out from that note toward whom I am supposedly being such a bully). Sigh.

 

To tell you the truth – & why not – I think I stepped over a sacred vs. profane tripwire here, sending alarums off in all directions.*** What these emails reminded me of, more than anything, was a moment that took place when I was in college at UC Berkeley during 1970, when the students simply stopped going to class after the murders at Kent & Jackson state colleges & turned UC into a giant – population 50,000 – anti-war organization for several consecutive months. As one of just three undergraduates on the Wheeler Action Steering Committee – as we called the decision-making council that literally ran the English Department during that spring – I joined some of my colleagues in suggesting that we might want to carry our work – making silkscreen posters (an operation I co-ran) for various groups that were out leafleting every community in the East Bay, making war resistance information & materials available for every draft-age male in the region, etc. – even closer to home by setting up a session to examine the class relations of the university itself, including a close look at the working class of this factory, the faculty. There was one young professor in particular – he’s still there, or was last I looked – who just turned purple at this suggestion. He wasn’t working class, he literally screamed at the top of his lungs in the Wheeler corridors. He’d gone off & gotten his Ph.D. precisely so that he wouldn’t ever have to be working class! It wasn’t so much that he had a competing class analysis, putting the professoriate into the professional class or whatever. It was that the idea that we might think otherwise – his friends, his students, his colleagues – just broke his heart. He just couldn’t stand it. I didn’t want to shout back at him. I wanted to hug him & tell him it was okay to cry if he needed to.

 

Which is how I feel about a couple of the folks who sent me emails on St. Patrick’s day.

 

There is an impression some people have that marketing is nothing but the professional manipulation of people’s emotions & subconsciousness in order to sell products that are bad to & for them. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, I would argue. Rather, marketing is the discourse of connotation & association within a capitalist economy – which I would note further, is the only economy in the world today, subsuming whatever modest alternatives might persist in Cuba, Korea or the social democratic countries of Europe. As a discourse, it has a longer history & a lot more intellectual effort behind it than, say, post-structuralism. You can learn at least as much about your work from Kottler’s volumes on advertising as you can from reading Roland Barthes on the death of the author. And I say that as a serious fan of Roland Barthes.

 

One of the great failings of western Marxism and theory in general has been its inability to fully integrate the dynamics of the market into its very critique of same. The reasons for this, not unlike the protestations of this professor at Berkeley 34 years ago, are not intellectual, but emotional. We might even call them religious. The consequences, however, have been devastating.

 

Let me point to what I think is the irrefutable instance. In 1989 & thereabouts, we saw the collapse of “actually existing socialism,” first with the bloody repression of the regime in the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square, then with the “velvet revolution” throughout Eastern Europe, culminating first with the fall of the Berlin Wall &, a short while later, the collapse of the USSR, in which the Soviet Army proved unable to stand up to the mayor of Moscow, Boris Yeltsin, an alcoholic bureaucrat who was willing to confront the tanks with little more than a vodka and a nyet & the support of a lot of young people.

 

In theory, this should have been the dawn of a glorious period for Western Marxism, which had argued against the depredations & perversions of Stalinoid state capitalism for decades, and which had constantly had to deal with the right’s (often conscious) muddling of Stalinism with other progressive political tendencies in the West. The dissipation of the great anchor that had so long weighed down the left should have been a moment of terrific promise.

 

Instead, the western left shrank like so much cotton candy that somebody had dropped to the pavement & then puked over.

 

To say that this was at first startling, puzzling & disappointing to many is an understatement.

 

In fact, it should not have been a surprise. If those of us on the left had paid attention to the fact that Marxism was not simply a theory of social history (some, but not all, of whose versions also including something akin to a plan of action) but also a brand, we would have been far better prepared for everything that came next.

 

In the 1970s, a progressive community bookstore such as Modern Times in San Francisco made a steady income from the sale of its most popular high-priced items, such as the Collected Works of Lenin. Those sales came to a virtual halt, going from a few per week to one every several months, as tho a toggle switch had been triggered, during the second week of November, 1980, a good nine years before Tiananmen Square. What happened in that month in 1980 may have had no bearing on the validity of any Marxist theory, but it had a direct connection on how people felt about such theory – the election of Ronald Reagan as president & the ouster, during that same election, of many high-visibility progressives from the U.S. Senate. Marxism didn’t change when Reagan became president, but Marxism’s brand did.

 

Indeed, theory in the 1970s & theory in the 1980s were fairly different animals, as comic figures like Baudrillard came very much to the fore while the likes of Althusser – who murdered his wife during that same cursed November – receded into the background. Yet even as the work of Baudrillard – and some of his Situationist precursors – can be read as a recognition of the importance of a domain of marketing within theory, its resolute depoliticization during that decade kept it from being understood & looked at in precisely the terms the left needed. Thus setting Western Marxism up for an even greater shock & awe experience at the impacts it felt from the collapse of regimes whose demise it also had been looking forward to for decades.

 

® is not only the name of one of my books & the registered trademark symbol, but also, literally, a brand that I’ve seen on the side of cattle, there being a ranch by that name on the outskirts of Dallas-Fort Worth that I visited once for a “corporate rodeo” – now there is a social form – put on by Compaq. The concept of branding shows up in my poetry in a variety of places. As in

 

Becoming identified with an inaccurate but provocative name enabled the Language Poets to rapidly deepen market penetration and increase market share

 

which appears in Paradise. That line always gets a laugh when I read from that work to groups, an index at once both of recognition & discomfort. Obviously I’m being ironic, but at another level I’m not. That double edge never quite goes away.

 

One of the things I like best about Jim Behrle’s blog – this is not a goofy segue – is that his cartoons are very often about exactly this dimension – the marketing dynamics of poetry. He has found a humorous, but very real, method for discussing how poetry intersects not only with individual lives but with the economy, both in terms of social practice & as a series of messages – associations & connotations. But Jim must say it so much nicer than I do. Or else he’s just not sharing his hate mail.

 

 

 

* In the very same building on top of which Mary Margaret Sloan now has a loftspace-condo.

 

** One might infer a counterargument out of the fact that Raid didn’t trademark the line until after Montgomery Wards shut down its catalog operations in 1985. But, again, absent contrary documentation, I think that’s a stretch.

 

*** I’m hardly alone in tripping such a wire. Can-po, the Canadian poetics listserv, this past weekend has been engaged in a similarly heated – if somewhat more civil – discussion over the question of poetry, audience & markets.



Sunday, March 21, 2004

 
Revised again -- and moved to Sunday, April 11.


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