Saturday, February 12, 2005

 

I was in DSL hell for a couple of days, complements of Verizon. I needed to switch the credit card that automatically paid the account each month at the turn of the year. Since the website didn’t allow for the option I needed, I called in the change only to discover that their systems were down. That was before I had to head out on my trip to California. I’ve been playing catch-up on my work since I got back and hadn’t gotten around to retrying that particular item when, on Wednesday, I lost my service. No email warning, no letter of warning, nada. That took only about ten minutes to clear up over the phone, but I was told that it would take 24 to 48 hours for the service to come back on. I was, I noted, not a happy camper. It’s a sign that back-end systems are not linked together electronically that this doesn’t happen automatically. And that is always a bad sign. But, I was told, it often happens faster. So I waited. And waited. And waited. After the 48 hour marked ticked past, I got to spend three solid hours talking with various technical and billing people & supervisors before, finally, a supervisor in the “customer advocacy” office finally got me back on. If I had any hair left – as my son notes, I only have hair in Jim Behrle cartoons – I’d’ve ripped it out over this one.



Friday, February 11, 2005

 

 

C.A. Conrad has posted an interview with yours truly up on the PhillySound blog site. Partly it’s about Woundwood, of which C.A. seems to be a fan, & in part it’s about the writing process, including my pen. The site, a collective project of a number of Philly poets, is well worth exploring, as are its links.

 



Wednesday, February 09, 2005

 

 

The Paris Review board has told current editor Brigid Hughes that her contact will not be renewed when it comes up again in March. A search is on once again for a replacement who can fulfill George Plimpton’s shoes. Depending on whom one talks to & reads, this is either absolutely necessary or an utter betrayal of Plimpton’s own editorial instincts. The more pedestrian reality is that it is neither. It is instead a rather ordinary occurrence in the conjunction of money, power & poetry, not at all unlike the way in which Poetry saw its board cast the editor out after it had received an endowment in excess of $100 million not so long ago.

 

The Review, unfortunately, has no such endowment. Yet, at least. What it does have is a serious brand & a backlist. And a board. And quite a board it is. While the group pretty much did nothing beyond put on and attend fundraisers while Plimpton was alive, it was – and is – a board that Plimpton himself constructed as replete with money & power as any such institution in the world of letters.

 

Board president Thomas Guinzburg was one of the journal’s founding editors, as was novelist Peter Matthiessen. It was Matthiessen and fellow novelist Harold Hume who first thought up the review in 1951. But it was their buddy George Plimpton, installed as the editor, who really made the journal an extension of his persona, that of a flamboyant preppy posing equally as a world weary bon vivant – and in Plimpton’s particular case, as a self-deprecating amateur in any number of outlandish sports events.¹ Somebody talked Sadruddin Aga Khan into serving as their founding publisher & off they went. They couldn’t afford to pay serious money for their major contributions, which meant that they would have to focus on up-and-comers for the bulk of their content. But somebody had the ingenious thought that they could afford to interview the truly famous, since they would be paying the interviewer rather than the interviewee. Thus was the brand born.

 

In addition to spending two years in the Marines & receiving the Purple Heart in World War II, Guinzburg had been the editor of the Yale Daily News & was less than two years removed from his undergrad days when the Review started in 1952. Nine years later, he was the president of Viking Press, which he ran for 14 years, and then of Viking-Penguin, which he ran for another four. He subsequently served as a chair for the American book awards & as a consultant to Doubleday & to the Turner Broadcasting System. His current commitments, beyond the Review, include serving as Governor, Yale University Press; Director and Executive Committee Member, Citizens Committee for New York City; Vice-Chairman, The Dream Team, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; Executive Committee and Sponsor, I Have a Dream Foundation; Vice-Chairman, Council of Branch Libraries, New York Public Library; Presidents Council, Memorial Sloan-Kettering; Founding Member, Special Projects Committee, Memorial Sloan-Kettering; and Society Nominating Committee, Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He is also the former director of the American Book Publishers Council and co-chair of the Council of the New York Public Library. It would be impossible to imagine a more established – or establishment – resume in the world of letters.

 

But Guinzburg is not the sole board member to have used his days at the Review wisely in launching a career. Robert Silvers left to co-found The New York Review of Books. Like Guinzburg, he is still an active member of the board. Other former Review staffers on the board include Matthiessen, Jeanne McCulloch, now an editor with Bloomsbury Publishing, and Antonio Weiss, now a partner in Lazard, the boutique banking firm. The other board member with serious editing credentials is Terry McDonnell, managing editor of Sports Illustrated & former editor of both Esquire & Rolling Stone. A more tangential editorial role belongs to Review board secretary James Goodale, former executive vice president and general counsel of The New York Times. A famous first amendment lawyer – his 1975 article in the Hastings Law Journal is seen as the first clear articulation of the concept of the reporter’s privilege – Goodale’s legal resume is as impressive & establishmentarian as Guinzburg’s publishing one.

 

Also on the board is Drue Heinz, for whom the Drue Heinz Literary Prize at the University of Pittsburgh Press is named. Part of the Heinz catsup family, the website “Scotland’s Top 50 Powerful Women,” notes that in addition to her giving in the U.S., she has made generous bequests to the British Museum and London Library and is “close friend of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles.” She is included on that website primarily because she likes to spend every August at her castle near Edinburgh.

 

Rounding out the masthead on the Review’s website are Plimpton’s widow, Sarah, new age philanthropist Bokara Legendre² and Richard Fisher, Chairman Emeritus at Morgan Stanley.

 

This is a board for a little magazine with just 5,000 subscribers? It is really more like having your own thermonuclear missile for a home burglary prevention system. One feels sorry for Brigid Hughes, who at 32 is still twenty years younger than the Review itself & has never worked anywhere else, but just how did anyone think that this sort of board would not sooner or later assert itself? One senses that the board did what Plimpton himself would have wanted them to do in putting Hughes into his slot after his death in 2003. But sooner or later this concoction of power was going to need to do something just to feel its own governing presence. Now it’s time to find an editor that matches this very different set of requirements. A lot of the rumors point toward Bill Buford, the former editor of Granta, who took a moribund review and increased its circulation into six figures without improving the content. That has a certain sense to it.

 

The Paris Review is, as I noted, a serious brand. Its interviews, especially in the early years, largely defined the form as we know it today.³ Happily, one thing the Review is now doing is putting its interviews up in PDF format on its web site. Its reputation for poetry has varied widely with its poetry editors over the years – far better in Tom Clark’s hands than in Richard Howard’s – and its reputation for fiction has, in good part, had a lot to do with the publication’s close relationship to the New York trade houses that can make somebody like Matthiessen successful.

 

But it’s really just a little magazine – in recent years, it hasn’t been able to hold a candle to Can We Have Our Ball Back or Jacket or Shampoo. Indeed, it’s barely more lively than the mausoleum of the living dead that is Poetry. How does somebody like Guinzburg, who was himself just two years out of college – albeit an older grad, complements of the War – when the Review first started, think it can reinvent itself as relevant today? I’m wagering that this is an impossible set-up. There is no way that this board can either reinvent the spark of youth underneath all the baggage that it is bringing to the table or transform the Review into something of value but altogether different (e.g. Granta for grownups). But the inertia of any object in motion is that it tends to stay in motion. At least until it hits the brick wall that is the real world. Whoo-hoo, Paris Review, full speed ahead!

 

 

¹ Amateurism was still very much a class marker in the 1950s. The whole idea of prohibiting professional involvement in certain sports was created in order to keep out those who could not otherwise afford to participate. Plimpton’s adventures as a Detroit Lion, boxer or whatever may have spoofed the phenomenon, but they were also really the last hurrah of that era in sport.

 

² Full disclosure: Legendre has served on the board of trustees of the California Institute of Integral Studies, where I served as the director of development in the 1980s. Our periods of involvement with the Institute, however, did not overlap & I’ve never met her. She has also served on the boards of Esalen, Threshold, the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and Tibet House. I suppose I should note that I have also had poetry published in The Paris Review.

 

³ Anyone who thinks that the current phenomenon of email interviews is a recent debasement of the form should look at the pastiche that is Robert Creeley’s 1968 interview.



Tuesday, February 08, 2005

 

 

I’ve disagreed with Eliot Weinberger with so many things over the years that it is probably easier to note the few things about which I think we both agree. If I am not mistaken, we concur on the importance of what I will here call the Pound-Williams tradition – I’m less certain that he would extend it as I do to include Stein & some of the other high modernists – as well as to the importance of the Objectivists & the Black Mountain School among the New Americans. I would extend that same sense, if not always to the same degree, to the other varieties of the New American project of the 1950s. But if, as I suggested on Monday, the poets I’ve most appreciated among my peers often took the work of Louis Zukofsky as a stepping-off point (one example I cited was Eliot’s highschool classmate, Bob Perelman), Weinberger seems very much to taken the other road, treating Zukofsky as an ultimate case, the furthest out one might venture. And that has always struck me, in Weinberger as well as in others, as a fundamental misreading, not just of Zukofsky, but of the nature of life & the world. Weinberger, I’m sure, would counter that I’ve been far too U.S.-centric in my own reading habits & not nearly enough of an internationalist. On some days of the week, tho, I would agree with him there too.

 

So it is with a little ambivalence that I must report that Eliot has written something important – you can find it in the current issue of the London Review of Books. What I heard about Iraq” is long – at over 10,000 words, it would run to over 23 pages as a typical Word document – 233 “I-statements” involving what has been said about the Iraq conflict, starting with

 

In 1992, a year after the first Gulf War, I heard Dick Cheney, then secretary of defense, say that the US had been wise not to invade Baghdad and get ‘bogged down in the problems of trying to take over and govern Iraq’. I heard him say: ‘The question in my mind is how many additional American casualties is Saddam worth? And the answer is: not that damned many.’

 

I heard this, I heard that – this is rather what you might expect, a lengthy litany of lies & deceit & rationalizations on the part of public officials. As a reading experience, it’s an event not unlike one’s first exposure to vomit porn – exactly how much of the obscene can a human being look at without gagging? If Weinberger wants to demonstrate exactly how pathological Bush’s war has been, “What I heard” is right up there with photos of blown-apart babies.

 

Is it a poem? That may be an academic question – Weinberg has long been an editor, translator & critic of poetry, pretty much ever since he baled on Yale after his first year there, but he has never actively claimed to be a poet as such. Not one of the 21 books of his listed in his profile at the Academy of American Poets is a collection of his own verse.

 

Yet parallel construction is right up there with rhyme in terms of its antiquity as a verifiable formal device of the poetic, right smack out of the Bible. Reading What I heard, I am convinced that Weinberger wants us to hear those echoes loud & clear. This is not, after all, simply another journalistic demonstration of the duplicity of George Walker Bush. If What I heard is not a poem, it’s because – as with the paragraph or line quoted above – Eliot Weinberger has no ear. But readers of his translations already know that. His interest in Black Mountain, for example, was for its forays into logopoeia, not melopoeia – I might argue that the latter were at least as important as the former.

 

If it is a poem, What I heard might well be the first great poem written about the Iraq misadventure. Yet if we contrast it with the two great poems of the Vietnam War – Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra, Part II” & “The Fire Passages 13” by Robert Duncan – What I heard is rather what the Brits might call weak tea indeed. Or maybe that’s wrong. Possibly what is problematic here is that the tea is far too strong altogether, an unrelieved recitation of evil.

 

“Wichita Vortex Sutra” parallels What I heard in some ways – What I heard mimes the structure of an oral form, “Sutra” was in fact improvised verbally into a tape recorder as Allen & his pals tooled around in a VW minivan, transcribed after the fact (when, presumably, such things as linebreaks & spatial decisions were added). “The Fire” similarly invokes orality, opening as tho a spell were being intoned: “jump stone hand leaf shadow sun”

 

“Sutra” may recount many of the evils men do – or did during that period – but it does so not as a simple listing, but rather to consider the role of language:

 

Put it this way on the radio

Put it this way in television language

Use the words

language, language:

“A bad guess”

 

That last phrase in quotation marks comes from George Aiken, a GOP senator from Vermont – Ginsberg returns to the phrase again & again, as he does the invocation of language to describe not the horrors of war so much as the perversion of meaning that is inevitable whenever politicians encounter a gap between their desires & reality:

 

Three five zero zero is numerals

Headline language poetry¹, nine decades after Democratic Vistas

and the Prophecy of the Good Gray Poet

Our nation “of the fabled damned”

or else . . .

Language, language

Ezra Pound the Chinese Written Character for truth

defined as man standing by his word

Word picture:          forked creature

Man

 

3,500 being the body count of “Viet Cong” killed per week, or at least so said General Maxwell Taylor – ”Sutra II” was written on Valentine’s Day, 1966², not quite halfway between the Gulf of Tonkin incident that LBJ used to get Congress approve of an overt war & the 1968 Tet Offensive that effectively determined that the U.S. would never win the conflict.³

 

While Ginsberg never moves very far from the events of the war itself, his poem is really about the mediating aspect of language in creating not only “televised reality” but America’s self-identity. This is the poem of ideological state apparatuses, as the Althusserians might put it.

 

Duncan’s strategy is not that far from Ginsberg’s. After a grid of individual words – six lines, six words per line, then two lines of two words apiece, he turns to the issue:

 

The day at the window

 

the rain at the window

 

the night and the star at the window

 

Do you know the old language?

 

I do not know the old language.

 

Do you know the language of the old belief?

 

Duncan’s strategy differs from Ginsberg’s however, in that he actually mentions the current cast of political characters & events only once in the entire poem:

 

Satan looks forth from

men’s faces:

Eisenhower’s idiot grin, Nixon’s

black jaw, the sly glare of Goldwater’s eye, or

the look of Stevenson lying in the U.N. that our

Nation save face

 

This is ostensibly a poem about Piero di Cosimo’s painting “The Forest Fire” – it is only the events of its time & occasion that would cause every one of its readers to associate it with the U.S. decision to drop napalm on the forest villages of Indochina. Duncan’s incorporation of lines such as the above serve to confirm what at the time would have been obvious to any reader.

 

 

Each of these poems then can be said to really bring an analysis to bear on the Vietnam War – both are concerned in great part with the use of lying by public speakers to justify the murder of innocents for no sane political purpose. Weinberger’s focus fixes on this very same point, but where they have something further to say about the problem, Eliot seems more determined to hammer us into mute horror at the degree to which such duplicity has escalated. 1984 has nothing on the newspeak of the Bush regime.

 

The other aspect – which may in fact account partly for the first – is that Duncan & Ginsberg can envision far more readily than Weinberger a real place for public discourse – for polis, in praxis – as a rhetoric for the poem. The flat parallelisms of Weinberger’s poem seems to me to show far less faith – in fact, the poets who strike me today as reflecting a sense of the possibility of the public would primarily be the likes of Barrett Watten or Bruce Andrews, Charles Bernstein or Bob Perelman, a very different set of possibilities than the paralyzing one offered by Weinberger.

 

But maybe it’s not a poem – that really I think must be a judgment call – perhaps it’s just a list, like a Pharaoh’s list of items with which to be entombed, or fields to be planted. Possibly it is the very absence of the poetic – which in this case would mean analysis – that Weinberger wants us to feel here.

 

In either case, this is a language object that needs to be confronted.

 

 

¹ So far as I know, this is the earliest occurrence of that particular phrase.

 

² Has anyone ever commented on the fact that “Sutra II” was written one day before “Sutra I”?

 

³ In retrospect, the Offensive left North Vietnamese & Viet Cong forces on the edge of collapse. But the assault on Saigon so paralyzed the Johnson administration – it made inevitable the presidential challenges of first Eugene McCarthy & then Bobby Kennedy that led to LBJ’s withdrawal as a candidate – that by the time Nixon arrived in office one year later, even attacks on Cambodia & Laos were unable to reverse the inevitability of a U.S. withdrawal.



Monday, February 07, 2005

 

I stopped for lunch at El Sombrero Grocery Store in Avondale, PA, a farm town west of Kennett Square where some of the Mexican families who fly in from San Diego to work the mushroom fields in the area have set down roots. It’s a funky little two-room store in a converted residence, right on Route 41, with a few tables in a side room that functions as a diner. There’s always Mexican music on the radio & it’s a breath of 24th Street to an old San Franciscan like myself. I grabbed a couple of the books I’d put in my bag for the trip to DC and went in for a burrito & lemonade, the perfect lunch. Opening one of the books, I suddenly recognized the typeface and page design as being exactly what I’d seen and identified as the work of Robert Creeley’s in my dream the night before. Only it wasn’t Robert Creeley. The book was Michael Kelleher’s To Be Sung. The book had just come in the mail the day before I drove down to read & talk with Leslie Scalapino & I’d thumbed through it briefly before tossing it into my bag for the trip.

 

How weird is that, I wondered. Then, reading the book – I got two-thirds of the way through just during lunch – I realized that it wasn’t weird at all. There is a way in which To Be Sung reads very much like a Robert Creeley book. Consider “Escapism”:

 

On a garden

Walk a life

 

Coughed up
In a hand

 

A waking

Dream

 

Or urn

On which

 

Frozen forms

Love

 

To yearn.

One asks

 

Oneself

What is it

 

One knows

One knows

 

Only one

Knows one-

 

Self not

The music

 

At hand that

Of a bird

 

Or bard

In flight.

 

Robert Creeley wouldn’t have written this poem, largely because the sentimentalism in its final gesture is a sentimentalism of writing, the closed arc, whereas Creeley’s sentiment is addressed almost always to friends or family, never into the process of writing itself. But beyond that distinction, this poem has the feel of Words, Creeley’s brilliant 1967 volume. It’s virtually a study of how to make such use of language. Consider, for example, “The Language”:

 

Locate I

love you some-

where in

 

teeth and

eyes, bite

it but

 

take care not

to hurt, you

want so

 

much so

little. Words

say everything.

 

I

love you

again,

 

then what

is emptiness

for. To

 

fill, fill.

I heard words

and words full

 

of holes

aching. Speech

is a mouth.

 

Now that is Creeley, from Words. Not all of Kelleher’s work echoes that book, necessarily, and much of his writing is quite good –

 

I’ll fuck anything

That moves.

 

But everything

is still.

 

What History of Dance

To be written this day?

 

What Kings to be crowned?

I am the King of May.

 

Already it is December.

This all happened

 

Before the barricades

Went up

 

When I was the state

You are in.

 

But if the Allen Ginsberg allusion here isn’t jarring, I wouldn’t know what was. Is Kelleher actively discussing his relation to his literary ancestors here or isn’t he? I can’t decide. Similarly, I’m not certain that Kelleher is discussing his own writing in the fifth section of “Tarkovsky Suite.”

 

The tree planted

Near the stream

 

Yields no fruit.
Bitter leaves

 

Litter

Waters and shore.

 

No one gathers

These leaves.

 

No one gather

these leaves.

 

One of the enduring problems of influence of course is that historical context matters. What Robert Creeley was doing in 1956 or 1967 was one thing – it changed poetry forever, as did the writing of many of his peers. Writing works that echo these achievements 35 to 50 years later is a very different proposition. To Be Sung is eminently readable and thoroughly enjoyable, but in the same moment it makes me want to scream or shout or wash my hands. I wonder, in retrospect, how much of this I divined just flipping through its pages the other night before I put in my bag. Is this why I had that dream?

 

Twenty-odd years back, I recall having a similar feeling about some writers of my own immediate age cohort with regards to, say, Louis Zukofsky as an influence. There were, or so I felt, one group of poets who took Zukofsky as stepping-off place – Barrett Watten & Bob Perelman would be particularly good examples of this – and another group who seemed to take his work as an upper limit, as “far out” as one might imagine. I don’t know Kelleher’s other work – he has had some other books – so I don’t to overjudge the man. To Be Sung is a good book, but confined very much to a retrospective view of poetry. To me that would feel like chains.

 



Sunday, February 06, 2005

 

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