Saturday, May 07, 2005
We Knew a Man:
Robert Creeley Memorial Reading
Saturday, May 7,
Joel Sloman, Dasha Lymar, David Rivard, Evan Ziporyn, Forrest Gander, C.D. Wright, Michael Gizzi, Bill Howe, Louisa Solano, Joseph Torra, Martin Espada, John Landry, Ruth Lepson, Everett Hoagland, Irene Aebi, Michael Franco, Jim Dunn, Peter Gizzi, Elizabeth Willis, Clark Coolidge, Jorie Graham, Gerrit Lansing, Fanny Howe, William Corbett
Friday, May 06, 2005
The California Department of Fish & Game describes Eureka Slough as
3 acres of tidal salt marsh. Egrets, herons, seals and sea lions are often found here. Access is by foot or boat only.
It is also the setting for one of the most subtle books of poetry I’ve come across in some time, Joseph Massey’s Eureka Slough from
Eureka Slough consists of eleven short poems – none is above 15 lines long – plus a longer poem or suite containing nine sections. Save for the suite, titles refer to settings, some as simple as “Alley” or “Porch.” Here is the first of two poems entitled “On Samoa Peninsula”:
– left edge
a gray sliver
where the jetty
by a stiff tuft
of beach grass.
within the poem.
The logic of the poem isn’t that much different from that of a syllogism or haiku: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The long view of the first stanza is balanced by the close-up of the notebook in the second – a miracle occurs & we get the realization with which the poem concludes. I say “a miracle” because the conceptual leap between the second & third stanza, between the outer world of vision & the inner one in which consciousness exists & is acknowledged, is ultimately the premise of the entire poem. Massey sets this up perfectly, making terrific use of wonderfully crunchy consonants (jetty/juts, Notebook/propped, propped up/by a stiff tuft) that flow finally into the hush of the double s in grass. The long vowels of the last strophe’s first line are foreshadowed by beach (and You’s role as the first word following a longer pause is accented not just by the lengthier than usual stanza breaks but also by the way in which each stanza has begun with a syllable containing o). The reader pauses on that hard k in awake before slipping into that last flowing line. Just how well Massey constructs this can be tested by how very little the hard p in poem in that last line is felt. Reading it aloud, one is much more conscious of the hidden
This is, I think, the dynamic one finds in Massey’s poetry generally. You could say that there is little here that you haven’t seen before, but you can also say – you’re virtually forced to – that you’ve never seen or heard it done this well before either. What about the poems of Cid Corman or Ted Enslin’s miniatures or even the best of Larry Eigner? Massey is practicing his craft at an extraordinarily high level:
leaves latticed over
the sunk shed roof
gnats or bees
– both – blur.
For me, Massey raises the question of historical time in the poem in an interesting, sometimes troubling way. A poetry that isn’t seeking to evolve risks becoming merely decorative, the trap that Andy Goldsworthy’s earthworks fail to elude. Yet Massey’s attention to sonic & literal detail is so intense that it carries within itself a rigor that someone like Goldsworthy lacks. The joke in that piece above lies precisely in our recognition of how that final word mimics the sound of insect wings. Massey not only has to do it, but we have to get it for the poem to work. He makes it seem effortless.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
My idea of the relationship of mindfulness to reading & to the new sentence is not a prescription, by any means. There are – and indeed always have been – multiple possibilities here. It’s been at least three decades, for example, since Bromige first noted just how often I can be seen at a reading jotting something down into a notebook. It is rare, actually, that what I am scribbling relates directly to the reading (tho at times there will be depiction of the event itself). Rather, I find that mental space of confronting the well written word aurally is a remarkable – unsurpassed, in fact – tool for turning over the language in one’s own mind/experience/daily life as well. Thus I find myself at a reading listening to the text, observing the event & often composing something completely different all at once. Sometimes I feel that I will wander – get too far away from the reader’s text, or forget literally my own environment if I get “absorbed” into a work – but I usually can make myself return if I try. But I often think of this as the trifecta of literary environments, the best possible context in which to produce work. I have had the experience at other kinds of events from time to time – Zyxt has a description of an evening of jazz improv on Bernal Heights that took place over 30 years ago that I still think about as an exemplar of such an occasion.
In this regard, I wonder how different I am or might be from other poets. So I thought I would ask.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Whenever I’ve been paired up at a reading alongside a poet who makes great use of memory to recite poems sans reference to any written text – Ivan Zhdanov, Jane Miller, for example – I’ve been impressed by the physical feat of it, & in Zhdanov’s case, by the rich, even luxuriant prosody that flows from his resonant baritone. But it’s an impulse I distrust.
Accordingly, I’m terrible myself at memorization of poetry – I’m sure that the longest poem I’ve ever committed to memory in its entirety must be Creeley’s “I Know a Man” – and mostly what I remember from poems, even my own, are phrases or snatches of text.
The memorized text, it strikes me, is the antithesis of what I think of – or want to think of – as the read text. To recite a poem, one is required to have the whole of it in mind, to be ever vigilant as to one’s position – the way an actor has to be on stage – with all of its past and its future right at the surface of awareness. One is perpetually other than present with the text at hand.
That is what I think has always bothered me most about referential or even argumentative texts – they have their place certainly (and this blog is one of those), but the reading experience they generate strikes me always as being radically different from what I want in my own poetry. What I want is to be present in the text right at the instant one is reading it. You can’t do that if the text is sending the mind to other places, to characters & tales, to arguments and positions.
Buddhism has a concept of mindfulness, which means paying attention, that I often think of as related to this. In the west, it’s been sort of bastardized in recent decades into a “be here now” kind of slogan, but that’s never bad advice. One of the advantages of the new sentence – indeed, perhaps its primary advantage – is that weaving together works from disparate sentences (or lines), the reader is prohibited from generalizing their experience save for in the most general ways, prosodically or through an abstract apprehension (bordering on intuition) as to the evolution of form at hand.
The genius of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life lies in its ability to both do this and play with the ultimate-Rashômon presentation of what, behind the text as a kind of perpetual tease, is really a coherent tale. In some of Peter Ganick’s more extreme works – the dense uncapitaliized prose of MATHEMATICS(s) or the visually regular tercets of <a’sattv> – one’s focus drops below that of the line or sentence, down to the phrase or word, with no other mediating second channel than the poem’s prosodic tone. Not surprisingly, I think Ganick is interested in the text as a meditative object, whereas Hejinian I don’t believe is.
The great high I get when I read aloud – I can’t think of a better word to describe the experience – is precisely the intersection of my breathing and that perpetually forced focus in on the sentence, the line, the phrase. At one level, that is exactly what my work is “about.” And when I read Bobby Byrd’s quotation of Robert Creeley at the head of his fine obit in The Texas Observer –
I believe in a poetry determined by the language of which it is made. I look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption… I mean the words as opposed to content.
– my sense was that this was exactly Creeley’s sense of it as well.
It is hardly a surprise therefore that many of the poets whose poetry I’ve liked best in recent decades have had some kind of active engagement with meditation, Buddhism or, most often Zen, including Phil Whalen, a Zen monk for many decades, and Zoketsu Norman Fischer, the abbot-emeritus (if that’s the right phrase) of the San Francisco Zen Center as well as one of the finest poets of my generation. This isn’t even necessarily a Buddhist concern – I think this is the point where Fanny Howe’s Gnosticism links her right into language poetry. Nor necessarily even spiritual. I think one can talk of the poetry of Zukofsky, Stein and Watten, for example, in remarkably similar terms.
Nor does it surprise me, at this level, to discover that precisely what Billy Collins appears to find “inaccessible” about the poetry of Rae Armantrout is its requirement that the reader read. He wants that attention to go elsewhere, to a figure, a character, a tale. Accordingly his own poetry is a study in distractedness, which let’s recall is exactly what Max Jacob once argued that all poetry should be about. Collins’ verse fits that bill. Like Gertrude Stein’s home town, there is “no there there” in the most literal sense in Collins’ work. Nor in much of the School of the Q. That’s not an accident – that is what they’re after.
Jesse Crockett asked me awhile ago a trio of questions, just like those he asked Jordan Davis, including “How do you define poetry?” For me the answer to that it’s a constantly ongoing process. It’s learning to use one’s confrontation with language & the world to its fullest. Which inevitably means that one should sense oneself reading, just as the weightlifter can feel the weights – as resistance, indeed afterwards even as “burn” retained in the muscle & flesh. Reading without being aware of reading is not reading at all.
The other day I came across what I think may be the earliest historical example of the new sentence, and of language predicated on a refusal to integrate into higher, distracted mental models. It’s in the language of Edgar,
The country gives me proof and precedent
Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,
Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms
Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary;
And with this horrible object, from low farms,
Poor pelting villages, sheep-cotes, and mills,
Sometime with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers,
Enforce their charity. Poor Turlygod! poor Tom!
That's something yet: Edgar I nothing am.
Those last four words have always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s – they’re not so much grammatical as they are a series of concentric circles, starting with the outmost definition of self, one’s name, preceding through three other modes of being – I think it’s brilliant that nothing as a definition precedes am.
Yet it is in the following scenes that Edgar really displays a language of rapid reorientations:
Let us deal justly.
Sleepest or wakest thou, jolly shepherd?
Thy sheep be in the corn;
And for one blast of thy minikin mouth,
Thy sheep shall take no harm.
Pur! the cat is gray.
This of course is only part of what Shakespeare is doing here. He contrasts the calculatedly faux folly of Edgar with Lear’s own deteriorating condition as well as the duplicitous (but superficially crystal clear) language of Lear’s older daughters, Goneril and Regan, their husbands & the would-be parricide Edmund. The whole chain of events set in motion by Cordelia’s refusal to speak untruthfully. Lear is about language, embodying a whole range of possibilities.
This of course reminded me that it is Lear that Olson spells out so brilliantly as the Ur-text behind Moby Dick in Call Me Ishmael. And that, if – to use my Zukofskyian counter-example, the other approach to Shakespeare among the late modern poets – the key lesson of Shakespeare is that love is to reason as eyes are to the mind, a key part of Lear turns on the blinding of Gloucester by Cornwall. There seems so much here to think about! Yet if there’s an earlier instance of this literary device that 370 years hence would become the new sentence, I’m not aware of it.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Rivers and Tides is a documentary that follows British earthworks artist Andy Goldsworthy as he proceeds about his work – in Nova Scotia, where he constructs something vaguely akin to an igloo of driftwood that is carried out into the Bay of Fundy by the rising tides, at the Storm King art park in Mountainville, New York, where he arranges leaves into a circle of red & yellow, and at his home in Penpont, Scotland. Goldsworthy works with stone, twig, leaf, even ice, creating works that can last minutes or centuries, depending on the circumstances & materials used. (The piece above, which is literally hanging from a tree, collapsed before Goldsworthy could finish it, an occupational hazard in his work.) Some of these pieces – a wall at Storm King that snakes through a grove of trees, several egg-shaped mounds of stones or wood chips that one could run across in a wood or along a roadside – become site works. A few actually survive a trip to a gallery, or else are constructed (reconstructed?) there. But most are evanescent, surviving only as photographs in Goldsworthy’s many coffee table art collections or as limited edition prints in the hands of collectors.
At one level, Goldsworthy’s work is gorgeous – he knows it & he knows we know he knows we know it. On another, that’s a problem. Between the intellectually rigorous & the faux natural drop dead gorgeous, Goldsworthy will always opt for the latter. One is reminded of the austere philosophical pieces Robert Smithson used to produce, that simple cut in the lawn at the museum in
And yet not. Goldsworthy’s work exists in a continuum that might start, at one extreme, with Robert Smithson & then continue to Christo & Jeanne-Claude, then to Goldsworthy & finally to somebody like Jim Denevan, the Bay Area chef who does “beach art.” That’s the intellectual rigor chart. Another variant, tho, might put Goldsworthy’s position second, just to the right of Smithson, with Denevan third & the Christo/Jeanne-Claude team fourth. That’s the inwardly motivated chart. One can shuffle these cards a lot of different ways, but only on some sequence that measures “warmth” or some vaguely fuzzy term like that does Smithson finish anywhere but first.
I doubt seriously that Billy Collins or Ted Kooser would agree. That Smithson could have been contemplating the historic implications of the work of Frederick Law Olmstead within his own work on Spiral Jetty would just make them scowl. That Denevan’s spirals in the beach mimics Smithson’s jetty, this time as farce, might be lost on them. But then, this is the branch of poetry that thinks promoting Shakespeare will cause people to write more like Dana Gioia or Ed Hirsch, instead of, for example, Olson or Zukofsky.
One of the great values of the austere approach is that it throws the viewer/reader back on his or her own resources. They have nothing to do but actually look, read, hear. Narrative figuration – Denevan sometimes draws fish, for example, just as Goldsworthy builds stellae in the form of eggs, or snakelike curlicues of various material – lets the viewer escape, literally, to the frame of reference. They no longer have to be in the art. Smithson for the most part avoids that & so, for that matter, do Christo & Jeanne-Claude. Think of John Cage’s 4’33” or Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, works that actually force you to confront the evidence of your senses.
Yet Smithson’s engagement with the history of landscape architecture, Cage’s with Buddhism, Brakhage’s with the history of film (or poetry, another art as temporal as film) are all also always going on. To know about them expands our understanding of the artist’s endeavor – but the reality is that they’re not necessary to look or listen. With somebody like Goldsworthy, tho, that reliance on reference to nature never ever goes away. In that sense, even tho his work – like this documentary of it – can be fascinating to look at, it will always be (“always already”) compromised.
Monday, May 02, 2005
Of the 28 theater companies selected to receive funding from the NEA’s Shakespeare in American Communities program, one – People’s Light – happens to be based within 15 minutes of my house. People’s Light is a good regional theater group, with usually solid acting & crisp direction but – as is the case everywhere with regional theater – a bad case of going for the predictably safe shows. In the ten years that we’ve lived here, the best single production we’ve seen was the first – a staging of The Gospel at Colonus directed by Lee Breuer, the play’s co-creator, and utilizing singers from several of the black Baptist congregations in Coatesville, a black community in still moderately rural
This year’s Shakespeare was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Nick Olcutt, his first production with People’s Light. It was a good, tho not great, staging – well timed & generally well acted (only one performer audibly struggled with the 16th century dialog), tho presenting the frame fable – the story of two men in love with the beautiful Hermia, whose father wishes her to marry Demetrius, and whose will the state, in the form of the Duke of Athens, will enforce at the penalty of death, but who instead loves Lysander & thus absconds with him into the forest, followed by Demetrius, who in turn is followed by Helena, who pines only for him – as a physical farce, so that the play-within-the-play, enacted by the “mechanicals,” town craftspeople offering amateur theater, led notably by Bottom the weaver, loses a good deal of its contrast with the more earnest problems of the star-crossed lovers, who become enmeshed in yet a third layer of plot, a dispute between Oberon, king of the fairies, & his queen, Titania. For awhile Bottom is turned into an ass, an experience that later seems like a dream, only to have Titania become enchanted with him. Lysander & Demetrius both are made to fall in love with
Mark Lazar, the best physical comedian in the People’s Light company, plays Bottom divinely, braying his lines when transformed & “dying” in the mechanical’s performance of Pyramus & Thisbe for a good five over-the-top minutes (brilliantly contrasted, I must say, by Ahren Potratz’ Flute, who, in drag as Thisbe, plays the role straight, underscoring, however inadvertently, just what has been lost by making the two pair of lovers in the forest into buffoons of romance).
It was the first Shakespeare play my boys had seen in person, tho they’ve been to a number of plays over the years. They were engrossed & the slapstick versions went over just fine with them. When we got home, it was Colin who noted that through his entire life we have had a print on the dining room that I’ve always described as having to do with Bottom: On Shakespeare, Louis & Celia Zukofsky’s response – that’s probably the best word – to the impetus of Shakespeare. The print is a blown up notebook page – the original was just five by nine inches – containing Zukofsky original plan for the third section of the book, “An Alphabet of Subjects.” Though it is printed maybe four times the page’s original size, the penmanship – the black is still quite legible, even given the crabbed hand, tho the red has faded in the 20 years since I first bought the print in
So I went down to my office in the basement & brought up my copy of Bottom. I’ve read around in it a fair amount over the years, since I first bought my copy from Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books (back in the days when Small Press Distribution was just one part of the operation, so maybe 1970, maybe earlier). At the time, Bottom was certainly the most expensive book I had ever bought – I probably paid $20, back when Howl still cost 75¢. I remember that my copy of the OED, which I acquired in ’73, cost less. Yet tho I’ve read around in Bottom every year now for some 35 years, I’ve never read it front to back – and since I don’t read music, I’ll never be able to fully fathom (even partly fathom) what Celia is doing with & to Pericles in her setting of that play to music. This year, I thought, when I finish reading the Greenblatt biography & Lear (I’m alternating a chapter in the former with an act in the latter), I’ll set forth. This seems obviously to be the year for which I’ve been waiting.
Louis’ volume, after all, is really straightforward, just three chapters. The first is an attempt to define love – right on the first full page Zukofsky characterizes it as “the desire to project the mind’s peace” – as the central philosophical dimension in Shakespeare. The second, more wide-ranging, carries this forward & brings in everything from Bottom (hence the title) to healthy doses of early Wittgenstein. The third, literally, is an alphabet of subjects, beginning with A-Bomb and H-. “What does Shakespeare have to do with the A bomb?” Jesse asked. Shakespeare has to do with everything I replied, but a part of me felt that that answer was a dodge. I really need to focus on the book before I try to respond to that question again.
All of which reminded me that Zukofsky & Olson are our two great “Shakespearean poets” of the past 75 or so years, so radically at odds with the doting bourgeois everyman that the NEA hopes to insinuate into the hearts of the masses. Further, as both Creeley & Duncan made a point of noting, these two poets could barely read one another. There is an opacity from each to each that is worth contemplating. They did not share their Shakespeare, nor did they draw from the bard’s work the same conclusions. Yet they ensured, however indirectly, that an entire line of American poetry would carry it as a deep – even unconscious – resource. Time perhaps to think about bringing that aspect forward.
Sunday, May 01, 2005
It may seem paradoxical, but I was pleased to see so many people make use of the comments box to inform me that my reading of Evie Shockley was deficient. Not that anybody persuaded me, exactly – I have the book & I don’t see anything in there that stands up to any of the other readers I saw/heard that day – but sometimes the map is not the territory & there may be more than goes on between the pages of the Carolina Wren Press volume. In any event, I duly noted that Shockley’s advocates don’t all share the same aesthetic – so it wasn’t just that I upset the conservative poets – and the replies very much had the feel of members of her community speaking up. Citing specifics, in fact, not just advising me that my noggin was up my derriere. Those are all good things, and I will remember to take a closer look at her work when I come across it again in the future.
Θ Φ Θ
There still may be a dead link or two – by which I mean nothing posted in the past three months – on the blogroll to the left, but I should note that “Miss Boynton” – who appears not to be a Boynton & may not even be a miss – was the blog that pushed the roll to the 500 mark last Thursday. Those devoted to poetry make up about 90 percent of the list & half of the rest are related at least obliquely to writing. If the goal is to create a public sphere in which poets can take their work, & that of others, seriously, then it’s no contest – poetry wins.