Saturday, June 12, 2004
Forthcoming Readings & Talks
Boston Tuesday, June 22, 7:00 PM, WordsWorth Books, 30 Brattle Street, Cambridge, reading with Daniel Bouchard
Seattle Thursday, August 12, 7:30 PM, SubText, Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue, Capitol Hill neighborhood
Philadelphia Tuesday, September 21, 7:00 PM, Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk
Lawrence, KS Monday, October 4, Hall Center for the Humanities, reading & talk
San Francisco Thursday, October 7, 3:30 PM, San Francisco State University, The Poetry Center (Hum 512), talk on Robert Duncan’s HD Book
San Francisco Thursday, October 7, 7:30 PM, Unitarian Center, 1187 Franklin @ Geary, reading with Judith Goldman
Philadelphia Monday, December 6, 6:30 PM, Free Library, Logan Square, open reading follows
Washington, DC Thursday, February 3 (2005), Georgetown University, a “short talk,” plus a reading with Leslie Scalapino
I will add more details as I have them.
Җ Җ Җ
Here is a peek at me on the day job.
Friday, June 11, 2004
If the 150,000th visitor* to this blog will identify him-, her- or itself to me, you will receive a signed copy of Woundwood, plus acknowledgement here. The perfect addition to anyone’s FBI file.
* You will find your number just below the bio-note in the black box in the left-hand column.
Then I looked at today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, only to discover that the New Formalists have “declared victory” less than ten miles from my house.
There is an interesting – if a tad strange – debate visible in the comments section to my review of Lisa Lubasch on Monday. Eric Elshtain, who is critical of Lubasch’s writing even though he’s published some himself, wants to contrast Lubasch’s poetry as being driven rhythmically through “dramatic” timing in contrast with the “comic” timing of poets like Armantrout, Hejinian & R. Waldrop: “they use a comic's timing, a footed time that is carried forward by not only a thought logic but a sonic one.” The implication is that the latter three are “good” or at least “better” for their approach to this issue: “There is no robust embodied element [in Lubasch’s poetry], in either the rhythms, the aphorisms, or the intellectualisms.” Curtis Faville – who may be my most frequent commentator – challenges the contrast and asks further about Elshtain’s characterization of “footed,” to which Elshtain replies “I just mean that one can tap one's foot to the times of an Armantrout poem, much more so than w/ Lubasch.”
Ignoring for the nonce the minor detail that Armantrout, Hejinian & Waldrop have radically dissimilar senses of time & sound in their work, the issue that Elshtain raises for me is one of what constitutes a music in poetry. If I think of the generation before mine, for example, the poet who comes first to my mind as a writer driven by sound, a “sonic” logic, is also the poet who most distinctly conceptualizes sound dramatically, even theatrically – Robert Duncan. And, indeed, when I characterized Lubasch “something of a formalist, in the sense that one might characterize Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan & Robert Kelly as formalists,” it was exactly her sense of sound as dramatic that brought Duncan to my mind.
Part of what resonated for me in this exchange was a glance the same day at the latest issue of that living oxymoron, the Contemporary Poetry Review, in which Jan Schreiber writes not one, but two mostly positive reviews of the critical writing of Timothy Steele, a poet with a comically tin ear –
From breezeway or through front porch screen
You’d see the sheets, wide blocks of white
Defined against a backdrop of
A field whose grasses were a green
Intensity of light.
(from “The Sheets”)
Here is a stanza whose prosody’s awkwardness discredits itself before it completes the first line & whose next-to-last line is virtually all stuffer in order to set up green as a cringingly predictable rhyme, a text that takes 30 words to say what a poet like Larry Eigner could have communicated in less than five – & with greater force & specificity. It’s almost a textbook example of how not to write, prolix and intellectually sloppy. Perversely, Steele has written at least two textbooks & it is these that Schreiber examines. Confronting Missing Measures: Modern Poetry and the Revolt Against Meter, a 14-year-old volume, Schreiber notes:
Steele examines many of the reasons for this state of affairs [the abandonment of metrical conventions by the high modernists], among them the influence of aesthetics as a discipline (which worked to homogenize thinking about poetry, music, and painting), the prestige acquired by science in modern times, tending to validate anything seen as experimental, and the evident despair of many writers that they could ever achieve the power of their forebears by using the same methods. He is particularly acute in describing the efforts of twentieth-century writers like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to reconceive the structures of poetry in musical terms of phrasing and breath. He might have observed further that these writers seem limited in their understanding of underlying musical principles. First, music depends deeply upon a fundamental beat, analogous to the metric pulse the revolutionaries were trying to discard. Phrasing in music works in relation to the beat, not as a substitute for it. Second, although it lacks the denotative elements of poetry (elements the revolutionaries were doing their best to obliterate), music has unavoidable melodic and harmonic qualities inherent in the scale, qualities that can be reduced in importance by adopting certain compositional strategies but never abandoned altogether unless one gives up all instruments except the drum - and then we are back to a fundamental beat. So the yearning for music as a model for a new structural principle of poetry is a wistful and romantic yearning founded on ignorance of music and a rather surprising lack of insight into the resources of one’s own medium.
Schreiber’s comments are worth citing here just to highlight what a bollocks he makes of the idea of music.* He proposes a single, narrow (& in his mind no doubt “classical”) definition & then attempts to imply that all deviations reflect a “limited . . . understanding of underlying musical principles.” Such an approach is not only tautological, but would suggest even that the likes of Wordsworth & Coleridge, attempting to shift poetry toward an aesthetics of speech – exactly the same project that preoccupies Olson 150 years later – were likewise part of the problem. It’s a strategy that basically is forced to define anything written since Pope as either part of a long narrative of decline or else as a (failed) attempt to counter what must appear to be a confounding historical tendency.
Schreiber’s position is nonsense – any attempt that is forced to explain away two entire centuries ought to be laughed off stage at the outset – but it is the kind of nonsense that it is that intrigues me. Not unlike Elshtain, his stance is predicated on accepting one, and only one, conceptualization of prosody as “correct,” which then allows each at least theoretically to map out how all poets – past, contemporary & even future – by their distance with this miraculous bindu point of poetic sound. That Elshtain & Schreiber would disagree entirely as to what that point should be only underscores their problem.
What we have here is a question of how to think about at least five separate realms of human possibility when they appear to come into conjunction at once:
Not one of these realms is identical with any of the others. An entire critical tradition, for example, has evolved out of the nonidentity of language with either writing or speech. Further, it is humanly possible to think about each of these dimensions in radically dissimilar terms. In Schreiber’s formula, there is only one kind of music & no other permissible relation to sound for the poem, which is constructed out of a tradition of writing with no particular regard for either language or speech. But there, at bare minimum, 24 other combinations of these dimensions that are possible, each of which is subject to an almost infinite number of human interpretations. Even another poet with as rigidly prescriptive an idea of music might have a thoroughly dissimilar concept of what, exactly, is being prescribed.
In practice, Louis Zukofsky’s definition of an integral – upper limit music, lower limit speech – has always struck me as being “sort of” accurate, in the sense that I think most poets tend to have a personal range that they sense or hear. In Duncan’s work, the lower limit tends very much to be a prose writing that I would associate (as I think Duncan did) with a personal journal. The upper limit for him was a “music” very close to Miltonic declamation. In Robert Creeley’s work, however, the lower limit is very close to a music one might associate with hard bop sax solos, but the upper limit, visible in his prose & in the longer verse compositions of Words, is writing. One can organize one’s work along a virtually infinite number of such coordinates.
All of which is to say that Lisa Lubasch definitely has an ear. One element in her integral may move toward drama – as I think happens with Duncan’s Miltonic mode – but that doesn’t make it better or worse than Hejinian or Armantrout or Waldrop. What makes Timothy Steele’s ear “tin” is not his conception of what poetry should do, but his inept execution of same, like a player piano trying to work through a crumpled score. You can see what he wants to achieve, but he has to add so much extraneous verbiage to get there that it all breaks down. There’s a difference, and readers as well as writers should pay heed.
* Schreiber’s mangled conception of science & its influence on modernism & the arts is another story.
Thursday, June 10, 2004
I passed the halfway mark in The Guermantes Way, the third volume in Proust’s great work. I started reading the book the week before Christmas, a rate that suggests that I should finish this volume just around Thanksgiving. Since I began, I’ve bought maybe a dozen other novels & had perhaps another ten or so arrive by the mail. Read one book & discover that you’re now 20-some other books “behind.”
I had been reading one volume of Proust roughly every 15 months, but the first two seemed to go much quicker. While each was shorter, neither was all that much more slender – Swann’s Way, the shortest, is 606 pages, compared with Guermantes’ 819. Rather, what has happened is that my reading style has evolved to accommodate the pleasures of the work – rather than reading as an activity of forward motion, it’s become immersive. One doesn’t so much read Proust as one does submerge oneself in the work. There are days in which a single paragraph feels like an evening’s reading – and it’s a fine, completely satisfying evening – and days even in which two or three sentences have that same effect.
I’ve come across this before in fictive prose, though really only in the work of three writers: Faulkner, in several of his books; Joyce, in Ulysses; Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow. I’ve had this experience as well with critical prose – and am in fact having it now, both in Robert Duncan’s HD Book, which I’ve been steadily as long as I’ve been doing this blog (it’s mentioned in the very first entry); and Barrett Watten’s Constructivist Moment. And I’ve had the experience with certain poems as well – Pound’s Cantos, Olson’s Maximus.
One aspect of immersive reading – though only one – is a desire that the book never end. There is something deeply familiar – I associate it with childhood, early childhood at that – about that sense that a book can be, to use Wittgenstein’s phrase, all that is the case. I’m sure that this is what the Tolkien fanatics confront, going from The Hobbit, to the Trilogy to the Silmarillion, then back again, over & over.
I’ve been known to have, even in relatively short books, a sense of grief & despair as I grasp at some point that there are only twenty or thirty pages remaining. & I suspect I’m not alone in that sense that completing a great book can leave one feeling bereft & depressed for days, even if, as does sometimes happen, one also feels great joy to have seen such a project to conclusion.
Reading is completely emotional, in addition to everything else it is. They don’t teach that in school, which is a little like not teaching that bullets can discharge to various effects – malpractice by omission.
Wednesday, June 09, 2004
When I first heard that Alfonso Cuarón was hired to direct Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I’m sure my eyebrows must have twitched. Recruiting the auteur of the masterpiece of adolescent sexual fantasy, Y Tu Mamá También, to direct one of the two most bankable franchises of preteen cinema may not be as risky as naming your childcare coop after Michael Jackson, but it absolutely suggests that J.K. Rowling’s trio of main characters, who in the first two films existed in a timeless – and largely genderless – Dickensian childhood will now become something quite other. And Other the new HP film certainly is. Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione) & Rupert Grint (Ron) are now young teens – they dress like teenagers, stand like teenagers & have gone lanky, as indeed have virtually all of the returning student characters. And through a series of looks, touches & blushes, Cuarón suggests a realm of surging hormones that give these characters an edge their counterparts in other preteen fare – think Spy Kids – will never have. It’s not coincidental that several of the films first reviews have pointed to Emma Watson for her fine acting – Cuarón in many ways has made her the star of HP3, or at the very least Harry’s equal. She not only proves capable of undoing the fatal results of the tale’s frame narrative, she’s the center of an unspoken Jules et Jim ménage binding Ron & Harry to each other.
But that’s not what’s really most interesting about HP3 (which I admit to calling HP3: This Time it’s Sirius) – this after all is a dimension that could dissolve entirely in the hands of Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), currently directing HP4. That the screenplay for at least the first 5 HPs will all be done by Steven Kloves (Racing to the Moon, Wonderboys) will simply, I suspect, deepen the ongoing demonstration that the director’s vision – let alone product – is something very different from a screenplay.
For what really matters about HP3 is something that is mimicked structurally in the film when Hermione & Harry turn back time in order to redo the narrative, rescuing two critical characters, one of whom is unambiguously “good” only in the second version of the tale. HP3 appears to occur in a completely different universe than the first two installments directed by Chris Columbus. In the first two Harry Potter flicks, the only moments in which the viewer senses that we’re not on some sound stage are the train (or train & flying car) sequences. In HP3, however, Hogwarts seems to exist in a gothic physical universe. One sees Hogwarts, looking more angular & goth, set into a landscape. Rain pelts the characters & blurs the camera’s lens. The Whomping Willow is both smaller & in a different location.
These are not insignificant changes. Indeed, whether or not Newell turns out to be half the director Cuarón – and half the director would be pretty good – it’s almost inevitable that the universe of HP4 cannot be the same as either Columbus’ or Cuarón’s. What we have here is Rashoman for kids, a demonstration of deconstruction as an inevitable critical practice. The idea that the remaining films in this series of seven might continue this cinematic cubism is, to my mind, one of the most compelling promises these films can make.
How is this different from other kids’ serials that have had different directors – Star Wars, say, or even Godzilla? The intense identification many juvenile readers have with the fictive universe created by Jo Rowling’s books is approached by only the Tolkien trilogy and Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series. I don’t think it could have worked if the books had not existed prior to the films as a social phenomenon – and I don’t think it could have worked without the success – and imaginative continuity – of the Chris Columbus films of the first two Potter volumes. That acceptance – that these films present that world – is the key. This means that, later on, the films probably can’t serve that function for a future generation of youngsters coming into a world in which both the books & films always already exist.
But this of course means that I’m presuming that it does. And that is a presumption I am making – at least for some kids some of the time. My own sons and their best friend, all avid 12-year-old fans of the books, saw the distinctions as being related to the development of the story itself. Characters changed because the books forced them to evolve. Indeed, the lone major complaint my focus group had about the film was its failure to fully identify the origins of the magical map of Hogwarts as being the four old friends Lupin, Sirius Black, Peter Periwinkle & Harry’s father. Will they, I wonder, feel the same way if HP4 isn’t consistent in its stylistic extensions of what has already come before? Or is this kind of reading even developmental? After all, I know middle-aged Tolkien fiends every bit as literal as this? Or is this, as Paul Verhoeven is said to have characterized the layers of political commentary in his Total Recall, something that was put in because the director thought it was “fun,” and because it could broaden the appeal of the movie?
At least for once, I find myself interested in how Harry Potter the Movies will evolve.
Tuesday, June 08, 2004
Self-parody is everywhere this week.
The worst collection of poetry I have ever read can be found here. Complete with this justification for its existence by Simon Armitage. I’ve met Simon Armitage, even read with the man, so I can confirm that they do let him out of the house. I cannot imagine what might excuse this laughably bad gathering of imitation verse. There does seem to be an unwritten rule that one must be a clone of some previous form of conservative British poetry, only worse. Much worse.
Closer to home, William Logan’s “review” (the quotation marks are deliberate) of George Oppen’s Selected Poems should be read, just for its sheer nastiness:
In the late Fifties, Oppen began writing again, in the starved, cruelly compressed style abandoned decades before. This resurrection of a poet so long out of touch, and even out of date, proved irresistible to young writers influenced by William Carlos Williams. The minor figure of the Thirties became a minor figure of the Sixties. . . . Oppen’s spareness was like that of a Zen master with a migraine . . . .
In all fairness, Logan dislikes almost everything & has little good news for the School of Quietude either. Logan wants to like Franz Wright’s “crude, unprocessed sewage of suffering,” but can’t quite bring himself to do it. Tony Hoagland is dismissed as a Frank O’Hara clone. Charles Wright’s poems are bundles of lines “loose as kindling.” The only poets here Logan can find anything positive to say about are Philip Larkin & Larkin’s “model,” A.E. Housman. Logan may be a caricature of a conservative critic but, perhaps because of this, he does an excellent job of demonstrating just why it makes sense to call such a poetics reactionary. At least, unlike Armitage, Logan wants the real thing, not a copy.
Monday, June 07, 2004
There is a heft to Lisa Lubasch’s To Tell the Lamp – not the 120 pages of the book so much as its shape, which is square, 8½ inches in all directions – that reminds me of how a lot of poetry books seemed to be made in the early 1970s by presses like Station Hill or Pym-Randall where attention was given first of all to the spatial requirements of the text – a long line demanded a wider page. It’s an amazingly comforting feeling to hold a project like this book, just out from Avec Books, in which it is the poem that dictates the form, not vice versa.
Not that long lines per se cannot be done in a standard width – hanging indents work just fine much of the time. But this is manifestly not the case when the long lines have wide gaps in them, the page being very much treated as tho it were a field of composition in the classic Duncan-Olson sense, as much a canvas as it is a page. There is really just one poem in To Tell the Lamp that fits this description, “Ordering Things,” the sixth & final section of the book. But the commitment involved in building the book to accommodate its most difficult poem, physically speaking, just speaks volumes about the integrity of the publisher. Conversely, holding this in my hands made me aware also of how seldom this is the case today, of how often we justify compromise in how we go to press. Praise be to someone who still designs books the old-fashioned way.
Over the years Lubasch has evolved into something of a formalist, in the sense that one might characterize Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan & Robert Kelly as formalists. One senses that she hears the poem – at the very least hears its pacing – before, above & even after all else, as tho it were some form of transcendental pulse.
One consequence of this is that Lubasch writes more in the first person plural than do most contemporary poets:
Letting words go
Tearing them from the path
Some point us toward
Water, lead us directly into
The past, like an act of consciousness
Will often split
Away from us.
Everywhere we go,
We see it, parting.
This is, in its entirety, the first poem of the book’s second section, “Much Beyond Us Gets Inside.” It’s a poem, like a fair number here, that I think readers will divide over – either you will like it a lot (which is where I fit into this scheme) or you will find it completely off-putting. A device as small as the choice for caps at the left margin gives the poem a sense of order, even of self importance, that can be sustained only if you make the connection between the way a boat or swimmer moves through water & the way we experience language. The first line of the second stanza is one of those hinge moments, as it can be read as completing the statement of the first stanza &/or as initiating a new statement that continues. It strikes me as self-evident that and is the better interpretation, rather than or, that all enjambment in the first two stanzas (and none in the last three) is intended precisely to set up that experience of, as Lubasch characterizes it, parting.
A work this tightly governed can read as a set piece, almost too well wrought. Yet the very next poem in that section – as indeed the longer work in the first – shows Lubasch as a poet perfectly willing (& able) to take considerable changes. This piece, “The Sum of Things” (a fabulously Pongean title) is built up out of short passages that read in places a little like the work of Rae Armantrout –
A belated gesture
Keeps composing us,
Motion, within ourselves
– although the sum, to call it that, is broader & more indeterminate than Armantrout’s hard edges would find comfortable.
Lubasch is manifestly her own poet – these comparisons are clumsy at best, although hopefully they give some sense of where she has found what already exists to be useful. What seems most evident to me is that she’s spun them into something quite different from anything any other younger poet is doing today without in any way becoming simply an echo of her elders. Lubaschism is post-avant in tone, neo-classical in spirit. It wouldn’t shock me, ten years out, to discover that a lot of younger poets have found their way there.