Saturday, March 19, 2005
You can now download an MP3 of my talk on Robert Duncan’s H.D. Book from the PENNsound site. The talk lasts an hour & a half, with Q&A, and the file clocks in at around one megabyte per minute, so I wouldn’t try it with a slow dial-up connection.
Friday, March 18, 2005
While toodling about in my motorcar the other day, I heard Garrison Keillor broadcasting Prairie Home Companion from St. Catherine’s University in Minnesota, providing all sorts of arcana about that school, but not mentioning – least while I was listening – that it is the home to XCP, the cross cultural poetics magazine. A future double issue thereof will be devoted to keywords, Raymond Williams’ concept of words vital to public discourse. The editors wanted to focus on words that should prove critical for the 21st century, but I chose instead to pick one that just might disappear.
A nostalgic term from the last century meaning the presentation of news & analysis through media. From journal, a French-derived term that means literally daybook. In an age of blogs & wikis, journalism as an institutional practice is being transformed from below. In an age in which the current
Thursday, March 17, 2005
One of the positive aspects of the use of a standard set of questions in Lance Phillips’ Here Comes Everybody interview blog is that everyone responds to the same inputs, and some of these replies tend to surprise. Stephanie Strickland gives some great responses to the questions of (a) what is something “non-literary” that she reads that may surprise her colleagues and (b) how important is philosophy to her writing, to which she answers “Not as important as mathematics or poetry.” All the adrenalin receptors in my brain picked up at that remark. And it made me realize that I needed to rethink my presumptions about Stephanie Strickland and her poetry.
I had an impression of Strickland that must have been 15 years old at least as a typical
Strickland must have always been interested in mathematics, tho nothing I’d ever read before had indicated that. But sometime in the post-1990 timeframe, this interest began to manifest itself in poetry that could not only appear on the web, but which might exploit its features directly. Usually, I think of web-enabled work as coming out of an aesthetic that includes Oulipo, the writing of Jackson Mac Low & just possibly an historic interest in Fluxus & zaum beyond that. Not your standard Prairie Schooner material.
But when I looked at the examples of her writing linked to the Here Comes Everybody piece, it didn’t look much like Prairie Schooner either. This is from my favorite sequence of her work directly accessible on the web, from the second issue of the online zine Drunken Boat. The work is number 19 of Strickland’s series entitled “WaveSon.net”:
and that it tilts. The thought
of such knowledge, hard to gain,
how to keep, we have lost,
except for the Rabbis who copy the Talmud,
who know by G[ ]d no scintilla
must change, not by unconscious slips,
not "corrected" by sages, not in 26,000 years—
me, I take what I get
from the Navy’s lunar Web Page,
but I should go to Tarot: 52 weeks, 4 season
suites of 13 (moon-months, 14 x 2 days)  are not
enough: "a year and a day,"  will (nearly)
fit the sun in, that’s the Joker,
and in the Leap, fourth
Year, a year-and-a-day and another
You will of course have caught the pun sonnet in the title, just as you will have duly noted that this poem has 15 lines. The discourse continues as if with no interruption at “WaveSon.net 20”:
day, then the long counts begin. After one-hundred
years, the need to take a day out—
as the osprey pulls a salmon from the sea
or the knave steals a tart. Penelope, star
undoer, keeps 128 suitors
at bay, while her husband cycles.
At Arthur’s table, 128 Knights.
for the pole to "precess," to draw its circle
in the sky and return to the star
where it started out, while the Zodiac belt
slips backward through its signs.
2000 years ago we came
to the Age of Fishes, rising horizon at the vernal
What I want to note here is that Strickland’s language is always absolutely precise – something I never associate with the
This work also to my ear passes the Blake test with great ease. Like Christian Bök, but not – for example – the English versions I’ve seen of the writing of Young-Hae Chang (to whose website Strickland directs our attention), Strickland’s poems are inherently interesting as writing, regardless of how they might be realized on the web. Chang’s work is interesting in the way that writing in the art of Barbara Krueger or Jenny Holzer is interesting, which has everything to do with its context & little if anything to do with the writing per se. Not so Strickland.
Strickland’s work is sufficiently interesting to make me wonder – and I know I’m not the person who could answer this – if it is possible to arrive at interesting web-enabled poetry without at some point going through that interest in Oulipo, zaum, Fluxus & the rest. Maybe Strickland is even the poet who proves that, I’m not sure. But now I realize I’m going to have to go back & read the work with more attention. She’s earned it.
Wednesday, March 16, 2005
Amidst the backwash of Alyssa Lappen’s attack on Ammiel Alcalay in a rightwing online zine called The American Thinker, reprinted by the equally rabid but more widely read Campus Watch, Lorraine Graham posted a note to the
Ron Silliman and Leslie Scalapino gave a reading at
“Used to it” is a strange category. Actually, one conclusion that I’d drawn differently from Graham’s was that I had not assumed that these fellows were “clearly FBI agents.” There are more than a dozen intelligence agencies, with the FBI & CIA simply being the most widely known. Also, I had not presumed that they were there necessarily for me. Leslie's antiwar work has been both visible and articulate.
Surveillance is one of the ugliest aspects of American life & yet we know that it’s gone on for decades. When I was in high school, my ninth grade social sciences teacher was “named” by the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a “person of interest” they would like to talk to on some future occasion because he had a very retro jazz program on KPFA, the
My first conscious direct experience of it came in 1974, when I was working with the Committee for Prisoner Humanity & Justice (CPHJ), a prison movement organization headquartered in
So here I was with Stephen Weed coming to my front door on
My roommate and I began to hear old phone conversations when we picked up our phone. In those days, you only had one line hardwired into the wall, without any fancy answering machines, let alone recording services available. Sometimes these were conversations one or the other of us had had days before. This was, we presumed, what was known in the intelligence trade as an “open tail.” Somebody wanted us know that we were being watched, just to see what we would do. Yet we were never questioned about our activities in the slightest, tho we reminded each other that should the FBI ever come to the door, we should step outside and close the door behind us, so that they couldn’t come in and claim they were invited. Every activist in the 1960s & ‘70s knew that.
I spent the better part of a week with Weed, mostly at a flat over in the
Two years later, after Sara Jane Moore, an FBI “stringer” who had infiltrated the United Prisoners Union, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford, I got a call from the FBI. My name and my phone number at CPHJ had been in her address book. I explained over the phone that I presumed my name & number was in the address book of everybody in the prison movement in
But that incident made me stop & wonder just how much the FBI did have on me, so I used the Freedom of Information Act to request all intelligence files relating to me. I expected to see that phone conversation & the stuff about Stephen Weed & possibly something relating to an incident in 1970 when I had been briefly stopped by the
That is what I expected to find, but in fact none of those three events was mentioned even once in the 130 pages I received back, mostly from the FBI, with a few pages actually from the CIA. Most of what I got back related to my application for a conscientious objector’s status with the Selective Service. The FBI had gone around and talked to the janitor at my mother’s apartment & to the professors of classes that I had dropped in college (tho not, apparently, to professors whose classes I actually took). A lot of this looked to me like a federal government with too much money & too little to do until I noted the CIA material. The CIA had a stringer, someone who turned in reports & got paid apparently by the piece, in the English Department at UC Berkeley. Although his name was blanked out, I could
tell exactly who it was – a grad student in the same apartment complex my wife & I had lived in during 1968-69. He had identified me as being involved in rallies during the
Sometime after I got my files in 1976, they disappeared from the collective household I was living in on
After working in the prison movement up through ’76, I worked in San Francisco’s Tenderloin as an organizer for the next five years, then shifted my work – after a year of teaching at SF State & UC San Diego – becoming a grad school administrator for another five years, doing political work basically on evenings & weekends with the Democratic Socialists of America, until I was selected as the executive editor of the Socialist Review. The CIA actually had multiple subscriptions to SR, but so did the Ethiopian air force and the premier of
Working in the industry, though, I have gotten to know some former spies. Market intelligence departments of large corporations – especially the pharmaceutical industry – have a fair number of these people and once they get used to the fact that they no longer get company cars and have to work from cubicles like everyone else, they’re pretty much the same as any other co-worker, except that they tend to gravitate toward high-adrenalin recreational activities.
This blog gets a steady trickle of readers from dot gov & dot mil addresses. Some of them may in fact be interested in the poetry – after all, from Christopher Marlowe to Basil Bunting & Roque Dalton, spying & poetry have intermingled. Once, when I read at the Ear Inn, I had a table full of kids in military haircuts right up front. When I read the line “Your haircut’s too political,” everyone at the table laughed (you can hear them on the Live at Ear recording, available now via PENNsound). It turned out that they were a group of cadets from
Anyone who has read my work at all closely – spooks included – will note that one constant, dating all the way back to my days as conscientious objector in the mid-1960s, has been a serious & close reading of the U.S. Constitution & Declaration of Independence. If I’ve been an advocate for any principles, you will be able to find them enshrined there. Documents that you will note never once mention capitalism. But there are certainly periods when a serious reading of the Constitution will put you at odds with the government. The Nixon administration was one of those times & the current regime is another. My strategy has always been to be completely above board about what I do. But if/when they ever show up at the door, I’m stepping outside and closing the door behind me.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Presence is the center of attention. The old admonition Be here now literally is accurate. It is also exceptionally difficult. At or very near to the heart of Michael Rothenberg’s forthcoming book, Narcissus, is a 14-page linked poem annotating daily life as the poet criss-crosses America, starting from Colorado going southeast, then up the coast to New Jersey before turning west all the way to California. It’s a remarkable hymn to detail, a chorus in the great American tradition that starts with Whitman & still has so far yet to travel. If the poem has a direct antecedent, it’s Phil Whalen – no surprise there, given Michael’s work with the late Zen master – (and, behind that, Williams) but it has cousins in many different places, including Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Paul Blackburn’s Journals, work of Ted Berrigan & Anne Waldman, even, I dare say, the French writer Michel Butor’s great American road book, Mobile, which may or may not be a poem. Rothenberg’s poem is entitled “Narcissus Journal” and here is the entry for July 29:
Suburban circa 1940's house
Model of Concorde
Commemorative dishes of Coliseum
Hand-painted scenes of winter in
Ship in a bottle
Tourist map of
Narcissus in white shorts, white shirt
Cheeks aglow from riding about childhood haunts
in a rented convertible
Narcissus putting on make-up
Do I have sneakers to run?
, I'm not ready yet
Sip second cup of coffee from a
Take another cup of coffee outside, sit beneath an umbrella
look down in a plastic pool. . .
We sit on a concrete bridge
The reflection of two faces turned in opposite directions
Rothenberg oscillates between the dramatized figure, literally a mask, and the specificity of particulars, but it’s the latter that flood the work with life, immanence, that now now now quality that keeps you absolutely riveted to the text. Whether we think of this as the poetic journal or simply a linked verse text, my own sense is that you can divide examples such as those I gave above into two basic categories – those who approach with a reading & sympathy for the work of Phil Whalen, who brought an understanding of the Japanese literary tradition to the mode, and those (like Williams & Butor & to some degree Blackburn) who approach it almost entirely from a Eurocentric background. The Whalen-Berrigan-Waldman-Rothenberg line I suspect will prove hardier over time, because it situates the daily in a philosophical frame to which the mode is ideally suited. It’s a genre that I expect we will still be reading one, two hundred years from now.
One reason I focus on Whalen & his influences is because of the other major poetics tradition that centered much of its work on particularities that isn’t represented really by any of these examples, so much so that its absence is telling: the Objectivists. I don’t think there’s a way here to trace influences back, say, from “Narcissus Journal” to Of Being Numerous, even if each is an instance of linked verse. The Objectivists were every bit as particular – indeed, that’s their strength as a group – but they weren’t daily. The notational or even occasional is really outside of their ken, they just did not get it.
Happily, tho, there are poets that do. One of these is in fact Michael Rothenberg. His is a generous, open, joyous voice, even when he’s being contemplative or angry. Narcissus will be published by Jukka-Pekka Kervinen’s xPress(ed). One of the poems, in fact, is a collaboration between Rothenberg & Kervinen. Once the Spring 2005 list goes up on the website, you will be able to download it for free.
Monday, March 14, 2005
I have sometimes said that at least part of the reason why Jack Gilbert has been so vituperative in his rejection of language poetry is because, were he but a bit younger, he would have been a language poet himself. I was thinking of this reading the profile of Jack in the current issue of Poets and Writers. In some ways, the article suggests that Jack hasn’t changed a bit. But the romantic posturing that looks sweet & foolish in a young man seems completely embarrassing in someone turning 80 & the piece left me depressed for days.
I first met Jack in the fall of 1966. I was his student at
What I liked most about Jack was his utter commitment to writing – he would rail at the other faculty members in the creative writing department at SF State who wouldn’t walk 100 yards down to the “gallery lounge” to hear Allen Ginsberg or George Starbuck or Carolyn Kizer or Lew Welch. For a kid who’d grown up largely without male models for anything, seeing a grown man with this degree of commitment for the poem was enormously helpful. It was in Jack’s class where I first met Robert Duncan & George Stanley. Gilbert had been something of a protégé of Stephen Spender, but had arrived in
Four years before I’d met him, Gilbert had won the Yale Younger Poets prize, back in the days when the brand still had some meaning. But it was a poem that he published in a special issue of Genesis West also in 1962 that had the greatest influence on me – it certainly had a fair amount to do with opening me up to the possibility of language poetry when I first met Bob Grenier a few years later. And it’s what I mean, frankly, when I say that Jack could have been exactly that.
The Genesis West feature is very much a Gilbert phenomenon, in that his poems for the most part are printed on the right-hand page with extravagant salutary statements on the left, after the obligatory photograph highlighting his intense good looks (in those days the comparison would have been to Montgomery Clift, but in actuality he looked more like a younger, shorter Jeremy Irons). The very first such quote comes from Kenneth Rexroth, but on the next left-hand page are four more from F.W. Bateson, Dudley Fitts (who had picked Gilbert’s manuscript for the Yale series), Theodore Roethke & Muriel Rukeyser. The next quotation, the longest one, is from Denise Levertov. After that, one from Stanley Kunitz. Then, broken into lines, a cable from Stephen Spender. Finally a quote from The Times, tho it is not clear whether it is the
The poem I’m thinking of faces the Kunitz comment & it’s the first two lines in particular that point directly toward langpo. The title is “Singing in My Difficult Mountains”:
Helot for what time there is
In the baptist hegemony of death.
For what time there is summer,
Island, cornice. Weeping
And singing of what declines
Into the earth. But of having,
Not of not having. What abounds.
Amazed morning after morning
By the yielding. What times there are.
My fine house that love is.
With four decades' hindsight, I can see now the degree to which Jack’s strategies in this ten-line stanza are derived from the influence of Gilbert’s old
Two pages later, Gilbert’s next poem is an imitation – I’ve heard Jack himself call it that – of Robert Duncan, whose title is its first line:
“Perspective,” he would mutter, going to bed.
“Oh che dolce cosa e questa
Prospettiva.” Uccello. Bird.
And I am as greedy of her, that the black
Horse of the literal world might come
Directly on me. Perspective. A place
To stand. To receive. A place to go
Into from. The earth by language.
Who can imagine antelope silent
Under the night rain, the Gulf
An adobe house magenta and crimson
Who thought they were painting it red. Or pretty.
So neither saw the brown mountains
Move to manage that great house.
The horse wades in the city of grammar.
The earth by language…the city of grammar. Gilbert can almost feel it, but he can only talk about it & that coming right to the edge of language writing without ever getting there is sort of the tantric sex of this & so many other of his first-rate works. I remember at the time thinking that the phrase “Or pretty” juts out there so awkwardly, it functions almost as a scar of sincerity on the work itself.
These are in fact fine poems, especially if you can get past the yawning sentimentality that is at the heart of so many of his heroic-tragic images – there is a side of him that is very much Jeff Koons without the irony – but they aren’t language poetry so much as a demand that it needs to exist. Having studied with Jack – and a Jack Gilbert who very much directed my reading towards the likes of Duncan & Spicer – it seems obvious to me in retrospect that when I finally got it, could see not only writing about language but through it, I would have to take that path. The great tragedy is that Jack himself never took that step.
¹ The passive verb of being is very close in kind to the incomplete sentence itself, two devices that are often frowned upon by undergraduate English teachers, but on which an enormous amount of contemporary literature rests. No one has written more intelligently about this phenomenon that Barrett Watten in his great essay on the work of Larry Eigner. If you look at how Gilbert uses these devices here, you can also see how it reflects of another poet almost as deeply an isolato as Gilbert: William Bronk.
Sunday, March 13, 2005
Didi Menendez offers this version of a portrait, much more flattering than Jim Behrle’s. I was never this good looking.