Friday, January 14, 2005
On Wednesday, I thought to write a note on the changing status of literary magazines in the age of post-mechanical reproduction. For, while there are certainly some print journals – Chain, Kiosk, Poker, Combo – as great as any that have plied their trade in & around the fields of verse, there is also Jacket & a rapidly growing legion of online journals that have demonstrated that they can be just as well-edited – and just as creatively formatted – as anything in print. I was thinking about a conversation I'd had with Laura Moriarty at the books exhibit at the MLA last month -- she had told me, in so many words, that my contention that the chapbook was the primary unit of exchange or of production -- I can admit to being vague here -- in contemporary poetry was so much hooey. She sees, as she noted, so many more books than I do -- and of an aesthetic breadth that I can barely imagine (indeed, I could never work at an operation like SPD precisely because its view into the world of poetry, not unlike that of institutions like Poets & Writers or CMP, would depress me to the point of psychic paralysis). Bookstores hate chapbooks for obvious reasons -- the cost of retail space argues against presenting anything not a best-seller face up to potential consumers. But, even with perfect binding & high-format covers, "nobody wants journals, either." On this, Laura & I were forced to agree.
This puts the print magazine into a curious double-bind, one from which I'm not at all certain it will be able to emerge. The expense of publication is prohibitive. Distribution borders on the impossible. Unlike a book, back issues become an albatross of storage. When I was with the Socialist Review in the 1980s, we struggled with finding the right balance on any given print run between enough volume to drive down the cost per copy & literally having to bring in dumpsters to handle overstock that was crowding us out of our four-room office in
Jacket, with its strategy of publicly building each issue up from scratch on-line, actually solves one of the inherent problems of the online journal: how to cope with the out-of-sight/out-of-mind issue that can make "distribution" online even more of a challenge than getting bookstores to carry little magazines. Where most other online zines have to start from scratch getting a readership for each & every issue, Jacket gives its readers a reason for checking in with great regularity -- there's almost always something new. This I suspect makes it not only the most well-edited poetry journal online, but the most widely perused as well.
Journals exist for a reason -- yet in the print world, the most common path for a small press publisher has been to begin with a journal & to shift at some point into doing books. A lot of presses go through a both/and stage, but sooner or later, it's usually the journal that gets jettisoned. Publications with the lasting power of Jacket do exist of course -- think of Sulfur, let alone the institutionally based journals like Chicago Review -- but by keeping all 5,000 web pages (some of them quite long) online, Jacket demonstrates how the online journal can even trump the availability of something like Sulfur or Poetry. Too often e-zines keep only the current issue online --
All of which I was about to write on Wednesday, when Verizon's DSL service to the
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Martin Scorsese at the top of his form is a sight to see. I’ve seen some reviews that have suggested that The Aviator is his best film since Raging Bull. But The Aviator is considerably better than Raging Bull, even if Leonardo DiCaprio will never be a Robert DeNiro. That, in fact, is the secret to this historic ballet. Rather than have his film overwhelmed by a towering lead performance, the way DeNiro does Bull, Taxi Driver & King of Comedy, The Aviator is built around a more static actor – exactly the way Mean Streets is constructed around Harvey Keitel – which then enables several more powerful supporting actors to use the lead almost as if he were their stage. And in this instance, it is Cate Blanchett who is the DeNiro to DiCaprio’s Keitel.
DiCaprio – who has been better in a number of vehicles, including Romeo & Juliet, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries & Catch Me If You Can – has a daunting task. Even his eyebrows have been died black in an attempt to both make him look more like Howard Hughes & less like someone doomed to appear eternally 25 years old. He’s onscreen virtually every minute of a film that runs some two hours & forty-five minutes. DiCaprio is forced to appear both smarter than any actor gets to be & brimming with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that feeds increasingly into a paranoia over the course of the film. A lot of this DiCaprio conveys by furrowing his brow, but you can see the actor attacking Hughes’ spells & ticks from the outside in.
Blanchett on the other hand has simply an impossible task. She has to become one of the most recognizable film icons of all time in some fashion that makes you believe in the possibility. And she does a tremendous job. Like DeNiro in Mean Streets, her presence alone brings every scene in which she appears to a point of extraordinary intensity, even when she is doing nothing more than walking across a golf course or sitting at her mother’s table in
But she is only one of several strong female roles in this film – indeed, the key actors around DiCaprio’s passive center here are Blanchett, Kate Bekinsale as Ava Gardner & Kelli Garner as Hughes’ jailbait paramour who actually auditions for the job. Around this are a series of strong supporting males – John C. Reilly & Matt Ross in particular, as well as Ian Holm playing a fusty professor & Alec Baldwin as the head of Pan American & Alan Alda as Baldwin’s personal go-fer in the U.S. Senate. Beyond this, Scorsese has salted the film with an extraordinary number of significant cameo roles – Brent Spiner, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, Gwen Stefani (or, more accurately, Gwen Stefani’s hair). The degree to which this is carried out can be seen in three scenes at a more fabulous than can be imagined Copacabana Club. In the first, the lead singer in front of the band is Rufus Wainwright, looking very 1930s. In the second, a female lead singer is portrayed by Rufus’ sister, Martha, & in the last number we see a band leader, played by daddy Loudon Wainwright III.
Scorsese can get away with this because its ultimately his film, not DiCaprio’s or Blanchett’s or writer John Logan’s. This is why I called this a ballet at the start of this note. It’s about conducting a story as much as it one about directing it. Much of The Aviator is about pacing & a lot of it is also about the use of color in film to convey historical time. Large portions of Hughes’ black & white war epic Hell’s Angels appears here not sans color, but in blue & a neon orange in cuts so quick that you never get to stop to notice how unlike the original that really must be. The flying sequences – and especially the use of planes that I can only imagine had to be created via computer graphics – are breath-taking, one of those “how did they do that” experiences. The film’s one extended crash – Hughes lived through five, both in planes & cars – is worthy of Spielberg.
Being an artist of any sort is an athletic activity – it’s rare for a poet, for example, to be consistently at the top of their game for any more than 20 years, often far less. The same is true for directors & actors – look at how much better DeNiro’s recent work would be if he just took on roles that go these days to Sean Connery or Bruce Wills. It’s been fifteen years since Scorsese directed Goodfellas, 22 since King of Comedy. The Aviator is better than either of those pictures & it just may be a fluke, but it’s as good an example of mainstream American cinema as you are apt to see for some time
Wednesday, January 12, 2005
These would appear to be examples of pwoermds, a term – if not a genre – coined by Geof Huth back in 1987, an interweaving of the plural of poem & word. The samples above come from my own book, nox, published in 1974 by Burning Deck, representing maybe half of the one word poems in the book. There are some additional pwoermds in In the American Tree, tho not by me:
s o m e o l d g u y s w i t h s c y t h e s
The first three of these are by Robert Grenier, the last two by David Melnick. None of the poems I’ve quoted thus far, as it turns out, appear in Geof Huth’s &²: an/thology of pwoermds, published in 2004 by Bob Grumman’s Runaway Spoon Press. Therein, I suspect, lies a tale. Huth – that’s his visage at the head of this note – if you read his work or his website, is the most serious theorist of visual poetry I’ve ever seen. He is, in a sense, exactly what the genre needs, a systematic thinker & a goad, someone who will – by example if nothing else – prod others to try harder, do better. His collection is something anyone who has an interest in literary minimalism will want (will need) to own.
&² is not a big book. Tho it has a ten-page bibliography at the end, it lacks page numbers & a table of contents. Read that table, after all, & you will have read the book. Many of the poets included here, as it turns out, should be familiar to readers of this blog: Miekal And, Jonathan Brannen, John Byrum, Grumman, Crag Hill, Karl Kempton, Richard Kostelanetz, Mark Lamoureux, bpNichol, Aram Saroyan, Karl Young & Huth himself, among quite a few others. My favorites, probably not surprisingly, are Saroyan’s famous
& especially John Byrum’s
Too often, tho, the poems here are ponies that perform the same trick over & over – the same one, in fact, that both lighf & my own trickler do – add a letter to give the poem a recognizable twist. That, if anything, seems to be the primary move in the pwoermds. Saroyan’s poem above offers a biological variation while Nichols’ reverses the move, which only serves to confirm its importance. So it’s Byrum’s adamant insistence on the role of immanence in the work of art that really captures my heart. UTTER is the point exactly.
Huth’s introduction is, as we might expect, erudite & informative – it is, in fact, better in some ways than the collection that follows. He argues that the pwoermds functions like any other poem – a point I made just the other day vis-à-vis Mark Truscott’s leaf. But some of the works here demonstrate that making it a poem doesn’t make it a good or interesting one. It is not news that Richard Kostelanetz is incapable of subtlety.
Subtlety is in fact a particularly important dimension in poems on this scale. Like all forms of minimalism, pwoermds are not about making things small, but rather just the opposite – magnifying the most minute details of the language to bring them to our attention. So the poems that work best are generally those that use the mode to explore some dimension of language itself. Which means that the weakness of &² lies in its concentration around poets primarily known for their work in & around vispo, as such. Indeed, save for a couple of pieces that use disruptive marks of punctuation (‘I’m’, voice(s), glim/mer(e), mag((((net))))ic, etc.), and some others that space letters rather like the longest of Grenier’s pieces above, hardly any of these poems have a visual component as such, which seems odd given how many of the poets here are at their very strongest when exploring language’s relationship to the written system that represents it. Huth's orientation is never more evident than in coining a neologism for the genre that cannot be reasonably pronounced.
I departed minimalism as quickly as I moved into it in the early 1970s, in good part because I found that I could incorporate those same moves I was interested in exploring into works built around the new sentence. What seems obvious to me now was that I was intrigued especially by the latter portions of words & the collapsing of possible syllables. But I wanted a writing that would encompass that degree of focus & engage the world beyond words as well – and for that inserting such moments into larger structures was the better solution.
Grenier on the other hand has remained a minimalist, but has tended to focus mostly on phrase level works, engaging not just a word but also its angle into & out of syntax, a dimension lacking in this anthology entirely. Indeed, a comprehensive anthology of literary minimalism – from the one-letter poems of Joyce Holland’s Alphabet Anthology up to, say, haiku – would generally reveal pwoermds to be the weakest mode therein.
I have no idea what &² might cost, but if you’re interested, I recommend writing to Runaway Spoon Press at
Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Jill Scott – Taped, 1975
Lately I have been asked more than once about this weblog’s “conservative” stance on poetics. The scenario is generally the same. The person asking reminds me that my own work is perceived as quite post-avant – 2197 in particular gets cited as an instance of this – I edited In the American Tree – and yet many of the poets whose work I’ve praised here, from Robert Kelly to Tsering Wangmo Dhompa & Devin Johnston, appear on the surface to be more conventional than my own writing. At the same time, I’m seen as being unduly harsh toward “post-language” poets such as Brian Kim Stefans or Kenny Goldsmith. One person went so far as to suggest that I thought history – or at least literary history – ended with Bob Grenier. What gives?
It is, on the surface at least, a disturbing critique. The most virulent & upsetting attacks on langpo came not from literary conservatives in the 1970s & early ‘80s, but from writers associated with the New American Poetry of the 1950s & ‘60s. I’ve always felt that the most shrill of this critics objected to language poetry not because of the writing itself, but rather because the social phenomena of it changed one’s sense of the map & that therefore the underlying literary terrain to which they’d sworn allegiance would be perceived as no longer existing if I & my friends were allowed to persist. Am I simply revisiting this same problem on the next generation of poets? Doing onto others as was done onto me?
I sure hope not. The question – and the issues it invokes – reminds me not a little of a parallel issue in the arts that was taking place simultaneous with elaboration of what came to be called language poetry during the 1960s & ‘70s. Up until the mid 1960s, abstract expressionism had been the dominant mode of painting in the United States – indeed, the thumbnail history of langpo found in the blurb on my work in the new Addison Street Anthology, by Robert Hass & Jessica Fisher, explicitly associates language poetry’s interest in the materials of writing with AE’s parallel concern with the uses of paint & plane.¹ During the next decade, however, AE was overthrown – or so it was perceived – by movements coming from a variety of different positions: Pop Art brought back figuration as a possibility & would soon exfoliate outward into a wide range of pictorial aesthetic tendencies; conceptual & performance artists dematerialized the entire art process, challenging the very materiality that AE was perceived as putting at the center of its cosmos (&, given the work & statements in particular of Barnett Newman & Mark Rothko, the spiritual or religious implications of all this could not have been more explicit).
Beyond the Haight coffeehouse of the Grand Piano, which hosted the first reading series associated with langpo in the mid-1970s, the other space that came to be associated with it – primarily for hosting Bob Perelman’s famed talk series – was what was then known as
While some poets – Steve Benson & Carla Harryman mostly – incorporated performance into their presentation (& in Steve’s case, composition) of writing – & everyone was already quite aware of Jackson Mac Low & Vito Acconci on the East Coast – the principle relationship between the two aesthetic phenomena in San Francisco was primarily cohabitation of this space, made possible because the first director of 80 Langton, Renny Pritikin, was also a poet. At one point a couple of years later, I and painter/performance/media artist Jill Scott co-curated a series called Verbal/Eyes at an art space on Potrero known as The Farm² that attempted to join – or at least bump – the two arts communities together.
I bring up this bit of history, because it has echoes for me of the same discourse as I’ve heard it of late with regards to this site. There were a number of disjunctions between the performance folks of that generation & the language poets, but the major one – Scott was the person who first noted it – was that the practitioners of langpo had a shared vocabulary, whereas each performance artist was pretty much doing his or her own thing.
The other aspect – the one I’m hearing/think of today – is that the same sort of terminology about the visual arts – “post-painting,” for example – was being tossed out that is now being used with regards to “post-language.” Yet, with 25-plus years hindsight, it seems quite apparent in 2005 that San Francisco’s performance work of the 1970s – much of which was terrific, tho far too spottily documented – was anything but “post-painting” any more than such East Coast examples as Lawrence Weiner’s art gallery wall slogans or Carolee Schneeman reading from a scroll extracted from her vagina were.
As everyone from Anselm Kiefer to Richard Tuttle to Susan Bee & Francie Shaw demonstrate, there is no such thing as post-painting any more than Carl Andre or Jeff Koons or Christo could be characterized as post-sculpture. Rather, there exists a wide range of genre – wider than existed earlier in the 20th century – that all be called visual art, but which function more or less independently.
The same is increasingly true of poetry.
Thus vispo is not the same as what I might now call Flashpo, tho both extend genres that can trace their heritage back to the “golden age” of concrete poetry in the days of May Ellen Solt & Emmett Williams. Neither is related particularly to the kind of performance/documentary poetics being articulated these days by Kenny Goldsmith. None of the above has much to do with the various trends that exist within the School of Quietude, that traditionalist poetics that tends to view American literature as a branch of British literature – tho not the Brit Lit that could include the likes of Bunting, Jones, MacDiarmid, Raworth, Oliver, Prynne, Pickard, Clark or Fisher.
I suspect that now we are moving into a space even within the traditions that trace their heritage back to the New American poetries & to the Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky tradition before that are themselves evolving into different traditions that go well beyond merely sometimes contentious literary tendencies. They are (we are) gradually transforming into multiple genres of verse.
There are – and will continue to be – all manner of interesting border questions, just as Anselm Kiefer raises them in his own work: is he one of the best abstract painters alive or merely a great representational one? How is it possible to be both?
If you read In the American Tree at all closely, you will note that it is hardly the trashing to the New American tradition that it was once imagined to be. Indeed, as I noted in my introduction to that volume, Grenier – in his major theoretical statements that kicked off the first issue of This – proposed a writing that he himself characterized as projectivist, literally manifesting what had only been implicit in the writing of Charles Olson & the early work of Robert Creeley. There were also a number of poets in that collection whose writing reflected a sympathy towards the
¹ Tho they call AE “abstract impressionism.”
² At the intersection of what is now
Monday, January 10, 2005
Last Monday, I asked, of the appearance of a half dozen ballads showing up among the 47 performances at the MLA off-site reading, “Why the resurgence of a template that is nearly 400 years old?” Norman Finkelstein, one of the balladeers, responded in the comments box.* Rachel Blau DuPlessis, another balladeer, offers her perspective today. Some of what follows has been adapted from her forthcoming Blue Studios: Poetry and Its Cultural Work:
Why the ballad? It has to do with the politics of the form — but like many such politics, this form is not a one way street, and uses a double figuration. I’m going to emphasize one part of that figuration, but the poems we heard might not fit this genre information perfectly. Here’s a definition first. "A ballad is a [folk] song that tells a story with stress on the crucial situation, tells it by letting the action unfold itself in event and speech, and tells it objectively with little comment or intrusion of personal bias." (Alan Bold 1979). I’ve bracketed the word [folk], since basically Susan Stewart has argued that ballads had single authors, but ones who for various reasons (gender is one) did not make their authorship public. (Hence “folk” or collective authorship is a myth, although different people might add to a particular ballad and change it as it is transmitted.) When a particular named, non-anonymous poet writes a ballad in imitation of what used to be thought of as “folk” work, we are in the realm of the literary ballad. It probably should be added that there is a stock stanza — of 4,3,4,3 stresses and b rhymes — that defines the ballad formally, but need not be adhered to slavishly.
Certain elements of the ballad might have had a particular intellectual and emotional appeal now. For one, there is little of the personally expressive "I" in them, appealing to a long-standing contemporary coolness to romantic subjectivity. The “I” of the ballad speaks from a place of collective articulation by mixing first person statements with third person observation. The politics of the ballad (hard to generalize on this, but I will anyway) or the politics of the form, or the ideological stance implied is ethical witness without a lot of social power — except the power of that witness and that song. The implied speaker may not have a lot of social power at the moment of the song — except the power of the song (like Mary Hamilton — the lady-in-waiting who committed infanticide, in the old ballad).
Not only do ballads override the claims of ego, the personal, the poem as personal expression, they also leap between materials, do not back and fill narratively, are low on exposition. A traditional description of the ballad is “leaping” and “lingering” — words (in Francis Gummere, 1907) that refer to its narrative tactics. Lingering occurs with the use of stanzas identical except for several pivotal words; repetition is a very powerful tactic in poetry, and the deliberate unfolding one may get from incremental repetition in the ballad offers a devastating emphasis on one’s point (I seem to remember Mike Magee’s poem working this way). Leaping is the narrative tactic of cutting to the chase, skipping exposition. Leaping involves a springing forward, the omission of details, the overlooking of connective and explanatory materials, a lack of causality, the disregard of elaborate narratives of time and place. At the same time, there is an interesting relation for us contemporaries between imagist/objectivist tactics of selection, condensation and juxtaposition and ballad tactics of "leaping" and "lingering." Like the apparently anti-rhetorical poetics of imagism, the ballad works by the caveat against excessive words, by condensation and intentness of the framing of significant images. By means of the “leaping” and “lingering,” ballads move with buried, compacted affect. They run on inference.
The ideology of the ballad form is an ethical witness about political power in relation to which one is somewhat powerless. The ballad engineers a partial reversal of this situation, because by witness, by song, one reclaims cultural (inspiring, and in rare cases political) power. Traditional and literary ballads are good for expressing the implacability of the things that happen, especially in personal relations involving grief, violent emotions, or events which one could not prevent — perhaps because one always already was politically disenfranchised. Most ballads can be summed up by the phrase: something dreadful happened, something driven by a fatedness that cannot be stopped or even explained. Sometimes this fatedness is a very bad politics, like the politics of racism in Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling Brown’s ballads; fate there is driven by an often unnamed white racism, but it might as well be fate in its dreadful, unstoppable effects. Sometimes the fatedness involves gender assumptions (i.e. sexual politics), as in Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The tension between fate and politics is a dialectical edge in the ballad.
And the narrative is absolutized. Actions have little background or motivation. Ballads do not tell you why something happened in a cause and effect sense (why did Lord Randall’s lover poison him? exactly why did Sir Patrick Spens get sent off when the king knew he would have to sail on a dangerous, winter ocean?). Rather, ballads offer images that it happened — eels in frying pan; courtly, fashionable shoes floating on salt water. One rarely hears answers to the question "Why." But (in part as a substitute) one hears many answers to the question "How." So ballads spotlight circumstantialities — names, places, times, colors of dresses — but leave motivation, psychology, and rationales totally in shadow. We get, in ballads, the facts and the effects, not the causes. This gives a sense of inevitability, implacability, an a-judgmental stance, or a judgment very oblique and almost affectless. This can be Brechtian in impact — the contradictions travel out of the art work into our space. This is like Charles Bernstein’s uses of nursery rhymes and ballads (i.e. doubling William Blake’s use) in something like “the boy soprano” in With Strings, or the amazing “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” (in Republics of Reality).
The ballad therefore has the possibility of a class figuration. It can be used by, or can sing of, the relatively powerless, those who, for reasons of positionality (woman to cruel man; man to vampish woman; commander to king; pregnant lady-in-waiting to court; laborer to exploitative boss), have a minimum of choice or agency, or those who for analytic reasons wish to sing of that divestment of agency. Ballads condense and focus areas of emotion and social pain, yet they are rather uncomplaining. Ballads are sometimes like epitaphs and revenants at once — telling you what social forces are “buried” at a site and what ghosts have been created — the ballads of Sterling Brown are like this. The ballad's implacability can express the freezing of divested social agency into fate.
YET this is not a complete description of the ways the ballad was being used in the reading in Philly; there is also a tradition of the protest song that was being alluded to. “Ballad of the Girlie Man” (by Charles) hardly lacked judgment, and rage. To say the least. So this kind of poem can also be used to protest our sense of plunder and being ripped off; we want our social agency, we want our politics to be heard, we want our understandings to matter. To complete my statement about “the freezing of social agency into fate,” I’d want to say that the ballad can also express the heating up of our sense of disenfranchised social agency into political outrage. And that’s how I think a number of us were using it on
* Squawkbox has not been very reliable of late.
Sunday, January 09, 2005
There is a question in the interview that each poet responds to on the Here Comes Everybody website that reads “What is something which your peers/colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?” My own answer to that was:
It’s impossible for me to know what my peers may assume that I’ve read. I haven’t read Henry James or Thomas Wolfe. Why? Because I haven’t gotten around to it yet.
Yet I might have answered, just as well, Guy Davenport. I must have tried ten or twelve times, but I never got into any of his books in any significant fashion. After recognizing that I had several volumes in which I had read 25 pages or less, I sold them among the 13 cartons of books we took to Shakespeare & Company and Moe’s as I was leaving
It’s not simply that Davenport represented a side of the New American aesthetic I could not get into – like Paul Metcalf, say. But rather he always struck me not only as precious in his writing, particular as it was, but also as the last living example of a kind of critic whose work I deeply distrusted – someone attracted to Pound not for the poetics, but for the politics.