Saturday, May 21, 2005

 

At Colin’s behest, we were watching Julius Caesar, and the kids were responding to one of the great little games kids can play with Shakespeare, namely the “Oh, that’s where that came from” reaction to famous quotations. They were not moved by “Beware the Ides of March!” or “Et tu, Brute,” but they lit right up with Casca’s comment to Cassius, describing an overheard conversation not conducted in Latin: “It’s Greek to me.”



Friday, May 20, 2005

 

A quick note: I’ve toggled the Blogger settings to require that anyone making comments be registered. The civility (or lack thereof) of the Comments section today has been distressing. I deleted one remark that was nothing more than a link to a porn site.

Almost any halfway careful reader will note that I seldom, if ever, respond to anonymous comments. The idea that a response can be cogent or pointed when it exists outside of any relationship to a source is self-defeating at best.

Registering only takes a minute and one always retains the ability to use a creative (or other) pseudonym. Hopefully, this will generate enough self-reflection for people to act as if they themselves would appreciate some respect.



 

I got a questionnaire from Fulcrum asking some very basic questions.

 

1. What is and what isn't poetry? What is poetry's essential nature (if any)?

Poetry is the art form that uses language as its medium. That’s a very broad statement & doesn’t tell you a lot. But, beyond that, any discussion of “essential nature” has to be about the old & tired problems of essentialism in general, not poetry.

 

2. What is the most important poetry? Who are the greatest poets? What do they accomplish?

The best art in any medium is that which expands our understanding of the possibilities of the medium itself. This can be done in many different ways & any history of American painting of the last century that doesn’t put Warhol on the same plane ultimately with Pollock isn’t credible, I would think, just as one that tried to place Rothko or Rauschenberg on that same plateau would not be credible. If you look at poetry dispassionately, it becomes very clear who moved the art forward, or at least in a new direction, over time. This is not necessarily “progress,” in the modernist sense of that term, but it is always movement, evolution.

 

3. What is the relationship between poetry and truth? Is there such a thing as poetic truth?

A poet who directly understands & confronts his or her medium has an opportunity to address questions such as truth. One who uses language instrumentally, as a second-order mechanism to get at some “truths” that lie elsewhere is not only a bad writer, but a dishonest one.

 

4. How does poetry relate to the human condition?

Each of the major arts corresponds to one of our basic media, literally our senses. Poetry – the art of language – literally is the only one that rises out of a media uniquely possessed by the human species. Other species have sight & sound & respond to mass & texture. But unless you think that the whales are chatting down there in that human cesspool we have made of the oceans, only humans truly have language.

 

5. Is there (or can there be) a meaningful philosophy of poetry?

This is a trick question, sort of a linguistic Moebius strip. Poetry is the active side of the coin of which philosophy is the opposing face.

 

6. Does the fundamental nature of poetry change over time?

Only slightly. The last “fundamental” change came with the emergence of the book in the 1500s. At the same time, poetry is – and should always be – as sensitive to the cultural and social environment as any art form. The idea of writing poetry in the same forms as were used in the 1890s is exactly the same as the idea of writing music in the same forms & arrangements as were used in the 1890s.

 

7. Is there one "poetry" or are there "poetries"?

It depends on how you define it. If you mean poetry literally, as the art of language, then even the novel is a (degraded) part of poetry. But if you try mapping this art against the complex topology of social & linguistic groups that are forever in contention in the world, you will never stop counting poetries.

 

8. What makes a genuinely great poem?

This is the second question all over again, asked in functional terms. But the answer is the same – any poem that expands our experience of & insight into the medium of poetry qualifies.

 

9. What is the relationship between tradition and innovation in poetry?

Change in poetry really is how we sense the friction of social contexts against the medium of language. A poem must make itself new every day. Poets who write as if this were still the 1950s are the equivalent of lounge singers belting out the hits of Johnny Ray or Nat King Cole. Poets who write as if this were still the 1850s are simply pathological.

 

10. Is a particular poetic method (e.g. the "lyricist," "formalist," "free verse," "experimental," or any other approach) preferable?

No. Any method that enables a poet to confront and expand their relationship to the medium is adequate, and that can be understood in more than one way.

 

11. Are there deep associations between poetics and politics? Please give some evidence.

I think most poets would love it if this were true, but the history of literature suggests that the medium is amoral. It’s what poets do with it that matters.

 

12. What fundamental misconceptions about poetry annoy you most, and how would you correct or refute them?

Most of the questions in this survey would qualify, as they attempt to connect poetry up to a discourse of “timeless truths,” “essentials,” “fundamentals” and “greatness” that was laughable when Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, H.D. & Marianne Moore were still students in Philadelphia. So here is my counter question: what would it take to make these questions interesting?



Thursday, May 19, 2005

 

My publicist & fantasy biographer, Jim Behrle, is writing a series of works entitled Why I Am Not Post Avant. In the process, he proves himself wrong once again. Bill Corbett’s Pressed Wafer has been good enough to publish a selection of seven of these works. You should get hold of a copy.

Jim – or Jimmy as everyone calls him – is so well known for his weblog (Daisy Fried waxed ecstatic over it in her piece on poetry on the web for the online section of Poetry magazine, of all venues), his cartoons, his antics (jumping, Jackass-style, from a rooftop onto a trampoline is the current banner sequence on the blog), his lovelorn persona & periodic quarrels with other poets, that people lose sight of the fact that he’s a pretty fair practitioner of the North American post-avant lyric poem. Dig “Detecting Flash Version”:

bring me the head of the Energizer bunny
can’t year you through the bedsheets
no touches nada, ese
I can only stand to heckle myself
you have just been married in a green shirt
and I am standing in front of your painting
and there is so much green in it
Eddie, can I be the fetus in the heart
in service of the most vicious of masters
ash raining down off the volcano today
right down to you, amino acids
no horn blowing except for danger
coming soon: laundromat

Here we have all the tell-tale signs of post-avant writing: found language, lines treated as new sentences but with a consciously anti-systematic stance, vamping on Frank O’Hara’s stylistics, plus Behrle’s own patented (and very Catholic) sense of humor. Indeed, the title of this entire series, alluding to O’Hara & yours truly simultaneously, is a deft little P-A gesture, if ever there were one.

Post-avant, after all, is precisely what happens to avant-garde writing the instant that it gets it that the old master narrative of progress is bunk & that the role of the avant-garde has naught to do with the military metaphor implicit in that term, but with a literary tradition that stretches back at least as far as Wordsworth & Coleridge & Blake, & that this tradition is understood best as a diachronic view of an ever evolving world literary community. And if you look at Behrle’s website, you can’t possibly miss just how important community is to Jim Behrle, nor how passionate he is about the subject, regardless (or perhaps because) of the rude ways through which he expresses this love. Linking O’Hara & Silliman in the title of his project without ever naming either is precisely a mechanism for specifying a sense of community across generations while maintaining a critical distance. Not that O’Hara & Silliman have all that much in common, but that’s just the tension that Behrle seems to find so compelling & wants to point to whenever he uses the first person singular.

Behrle’s wit & omnivorous approach to pop culture are his greatest assets as a poet. Here’s another sample where these are just as visible as in the poem above. This is “Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Blue is the Color of Your Baby,” a title that suggests both marketing & rigor mortis:

that arrow was meant for Natalie Portman, meow
The Taco Bell on Delancey St.
is a portal to another dimension
Winkler Grateful for the Role of “The Fonz
which is not the purpose of this letter
sorry the culture war didn’t go your way
so who’s writhing now? if it was up to you
the heavy suitcase might contain a single cherry
emerge from missile lock, audition for reality TV
I don’t see no badge and I ain’t your mama
somehow, sadly, everything ends up
*right* where you left it

Why I Am Not Post Avant is a folded broadside & has no price listed, but I suspect that a couple of bucks posted to Press Wafer at 9 Columbus Square, Boston, MA 02116 could get you a copy.



Wednesday, May 18, 2005

 

Two of the oldest – and most cherished – volumes in my library are Amen, Huzzah, Selah and Elegies and Celebrations, technically volumes 13(a) and 13(b) of Jargon magazine, before it fully conceded that it was, indeed, a press more than a journal. These books, published in 1960 & ’62, are the work of Jonathan Williams, the most cantankerous & unique contributor to the New American Poetry. One of the most important publishers of the 20th century & one of the best photographers of the past fifty years, Williams tends to have been the exception to every rule of thumb one could make about the New Americans in general & the Projectivists in particular. They were urban – he stayed on in Highlands, N.C., not far from his birthplace in Ashville. They were serious – he is the ultimate poet of the wisecrack. More than a few of them were practitioners of the Wounded Buffalo school, a testosterone heavy approach to the world & personal relations – Williams turned out to be a domestic poet, whose life has been spent in two major relationships, first with Ronald Johnson & then, and for far longer, with Tom Meyer.

Now Copper Canyon, of all presses, has seen fit to issue a big, juicy “new & selected poems,” entitled Jubilant Thicket. It is just that, a volume far larger than its 301 pages suggests, maybe 500 or 600 poems in all – out of an oeuvre of some 1,450 – as raucous as anything in recent writing. At the same time, sans index, there are poems of Williams’ not just from these two early books, but even from his earlier selected volumes, An Ear in Bartram’s Tree & The Loco Logo-Daedalist in Situ (just possibly the best book title ever), that I cannot find here. Indeed, the only earlier publication that appears to have made it into this collection in toto is Mahler, Williams’ one extended suite of poems. This is not atypical for a poet like Williams who, like Phil Whalen or John Wieners – just to pick among the Ws in the New American vein – never has had a consistent publisher. The volumes, when they emerge, tend to represent what was possible at the time to get into print. So if you own one Williams’ selected, you still need all the others, and the smaller, earlier volumes as well. Hopefully, at some point, each of these writers will be gathered into a large Collected. Yet, among the New Americans, that hasn’t even happened as yet for Robert Duncan & the four-volume Spicer collected is still just something that we can salivate at the idea of – who knows exactly when that will emerge? So Jubilant Thicket is a wonderful event – far larger than any previous volume. But it will leave Williams’ older fans sighing, wanting & waiting for more.

The dozens, the wisecrack, the sardonic aphorism have a heritage in poetry that is as old as Catullus, at the very least. In our time, hardly anyone has done more to plumb this rich vein of possibility than Jonathan Williams. He is, easily, our most obscene – and yet our most fastidious – poet. Thus, alluding to the former first lady all in caps, we read:

NANCY:

“TOGETHER
WE CAN LICK
CRACK”

or, from the series of “Meta-Fours” that opens the book, mostly untitled poems printed several to a page whose only formal requirement is that their lines should have exactly four words each:

O.J. IN SOUTH FLORIDA
i met this girl
once and she tells
me she only dates
guys with ten inches
i said baby i
ain’t cuttin’ off two
inches not for nobody

And yet from the same series we find a one-liner worthy of Robert Grenier:

bucket of blue smoke

Or this, from the selection of homages, elegies & valedictions that concludes the book:

COMPANIONS FOR THE DARK SLATE HEADSTONE OF CHARLES JOHN OLSON JR.

small,
yellow

flower
heads

of
tansy

Tansy,
fr. Gr. athanasia
(deathlessness)

because of
the characteristic
permanent possession
it takes of
the soil

he takes of
the soul

That last piece works so carefully via its use of words per line – the three three-worders are key to it all – and its use of imagery & enjambment is so perfectly tuned to Olson’s own way with the language – that Williams approaches a kind of perfection that objects made of words seldom attain.

Jubilant Thicket is one of those absolute must-have books of poetry. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 30 or 50 years to have a collected in hand.



Tuesday, May 17, 2005

 

 

My Matt Hart

I had a full-on Yogi Berra experience when I went up to New York last week to read with Anselm Berrigan & Matt Hart at the 11th Street Bar in the East Village: déjà vu all over again. The reason being Matt Hart.

Matt Hart is a critic, poet, musician &, betwixt 1997 & 2004, a grad student at Penn (having already gotten masters degrees from both the University of Sussex & Edinburgh University), very active in & around the Philly Talks scene & Writers House. He hails from Manchester, U.K, &, PhD in hand, he eventually decamped to an assistant professorship at the University of IllinoisUrbanaChampaign. So when Thomas Heise told me that he’d lined up Anselm Berrigan & Matt Hart as co-readers, I was completely pleased.

Once I arrived at the 11th Street Bar – your standard New York tavern, with something of an alcove in back where readings take place behind drawn curtains with just a little more light than the old Double Happiness – I looked around for the tall guy with the Manchester accent, when Heise proceeds to introduce me to a shorter fellow – also dirty blond with glasses – whose accent I’d wager is distinctly Midwestern. When Thomas said this was Matt Hart, my eyes must have dilated.

This Matt Hart, as it turns out, is likewise a poet, musician, teacher (Art Academy of Cincinnati) & editor (Forklift, Ohio). He has an undergraduate degree from Ball State University & did some grad time in philosophy at Ohio University before getting the MFA at Warren Wilson College. He’s the one on the right with the bow tie in the photos above, my Matt Hart being on the left. This Matt Hart has published a fair amount, tho a lot has been in School of Quietude (SoQ) type magazines like Ploughshares. Until I shook his hand in the 11th Street Bar, I had never even heard of this Matt Hart.

I was so stunned by this that I said not a word. I just sat & listened. And frankly liked what I heard. This Matt Hart is sharp, funny, full of pop references & allusions – twice he noted Gregory Corso, both times with approval – and hardly at all what one might expect out of a context like Ploughshares, one of the most somnambulant of all SoQ venues. If anything, this Matt Hart took me back some 30 years to the heyday of Actualism, which is to say the verse that rose up out of Iowa City in response to the energetic teaching of Ted Berrigan there – poets like Darrell Gray, Pat Nolan, George Mattingly, Alan Kornblum, Keith Abbott, Jim Gustafson, Andrei Codrescu, Dave Morice, G.P. Skratz & Victoria Rathbun. Just like Actualism, much of this Matt Hart sounds a lot like maybe third generation New York School poetry – a tone, it is worth noting, that is entirely absent from the work of Anselm Berrigan, a more serious & subtle soul than people seem to have yet recognized.

Unlike Dean Young, say, who always strikes me as an experiment to see what would happen if you crossed James Tate with Bob Perelman, this Matt Hart isn’t simply an echo of Ron Padgett or Kenneth Koch, tho the reverberations are unmistakable in his poems. But it did strike me that, like Dean Young, Matt Hart may see his project as – if he should think about it in larger historical terms – making that side of the New American poetry “safe” for the SoQ going forward. If the ellipsism of Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright & Ann Lauterbach can be understood as one tendency where impulses of both SoQ & post-avant traditions are woven together as tho there were not deep fissures & contradictions in the project, just possibly Hart & Young could be seen as another such attempt, along somewhat different fault lines.

The trick in all this is that one has to be more than a little good to get away with it. Wright & Lauterbach would be fabulous poets regardless of which tradition & tendency they involved themselves in & it wouldn’t surprise me, ten years hence, if I didn’t think the same here with this Matt Hart.

But the event I most want to hear, obviously, would be Matt Hart with Matt Hart.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

Drew Gardner has a review of sorts of my part of the reading. It was only reading Drew’s piece that I realized that it was Murat Nemet-Nejat who was sitting at my table. I can be so dense when I’m in an unfamiliar setting, especially when the people I know aren’t whom I expect them to be . . . .



Monday, May 16, 2005

 

Perhaps the single best example of the ways in which the web has emerged as a more powerful publishing solution for progressive arts than traditional print forms is How2, the onsite zine that has evolved from the relatively simple newsletter HOW(ever) originally founded by Kathleen Fraser, Bev Dahlen & Frances Jaffer 22 years ago. Whereas the original publication never grew large enough to warrant perfect binding, the current online zine has evolved into a rich gathering of diverse materials & resources from all over the world. If How2 couldn’t be captured in perfect binding today, that’s because some of its content literally requires the web as a platform.

HOW(ever)’s original project was straightforward enough, to be:

A vehicle for experimentalist poetry – post-modern if you will, to be thought of seriously as an appropriate poetry for women and feminists.

Today, when women make up an absolute majority of post-avant writing, Frances Jaffer’s words sound almost banal. In 1983, these same words represented the jarring coming together of what many had imagined to be radically disjunct vocabularies. HOW(ever) & How2 have an awful lot to do with that transformation. They offer the textbook example of how the right idea, simply done in a modest format, can absolutely change the world. If a future literary historian wants to identify the moment when avant-garde tradition took the leap forward into becoming post-avant – which is to say incorporating that 200-year-old tradition while moving it beyond the elitist presumptions of modernism & toward a sense of formally progressive tradition as community – you could make a very good case for HOW(ever) as the key event.

The present manifestation of this same institution has become one of the two or three richest & most varied resources on the web, not just for women writing “experimentally,” but for all writing, period. The current number, just up, has no less than seven major features in addition to the usual riches one finds in each issue:

Any one of these would qualify the issue as warranting special notice – the issue is, instantly, the best source of materials available in English on Brossard on the web, for example – but together, it’s really overwhelming. Reading something like Bridget-Rose Lee’s “The Last Bus” from the Singapore poetry portfolio is to glimpse into a world that is both very like & very different from my own:

in the event you must die in a crash I want me there, best if you want me too. in the event you prefer another I have been living with this. you’d rather end relations than to mention possibilities. it is hard to love you but harder to not love you because there is no chance. roots grow in this strange familiar way and it is an earthquake every day only you don’t know. how many people part this way I don’t know but they do and death parts pain from forever. so I can’t say when I’ll get to say I love to marry you as even death will fall short of its part. each time I send you away I wait for the time again for you to say you don’t want me to wait anyway. I wave as I’ve waved, don’t need to mind about forever when forever is mine.

Or consider Yoko Isaka’s “Boxed Panthers” from the Japanese portfolio:

The hallway extends to either side
A patient headed for surgery passes by us on a stretcher
“I left it behind. I left one behind. Don’t know where it went. I went
    to the dentist”
The boy sitting on the couch leans on the old man
His small hands are wrapped tight around the small box on his lap
The old man sleeps
In this place, where even the light is bandaged
A woman single-mindedly eating a bag of candy, uninclined to talk
Is on the edge of the couch
    - Is that me
A painting of women crossing from thicket to thicket
Becoming white veils and white trains
Hangs on the wall behind

I once went to go look at the gallows near the gates of the city  back when I was little they would hang people now the gallows still remain but only in form, to signal the city’s enforcement of the peace to foreigners who enter that day I stayed there all night the sun shone brightly on the pedestal the blue paint flying off  like the gray color seeping out the colors of the earth well up from the lump of flesh, neither face nor body as the sun shone I continued to gaze up at the hung man as he slept   everyone but the man was vaguely aware of me sitting on the ground, waiting for him to come back to life
I become a tongue  inner ear   skin  in order to know the subject and learn my position as measured by the subject  it is easy to think of myself as a long series of organs  taking something in and out is accompanied by pleasure  pain and emotion  a spirituality  it is too easy to think of the man as a long drawn-out series of organs   rather the man is a hanging bell  and wishes to be struck  the man would resonate gently on the inside  boaubouarun  boaubouarun  and the colors of the earth well up   impeached by the light that says  Agitator!

The boy looks up this way with the expression of the old man

(What is inside the box)
Inside is a tunnel   very long
Solemnly creaking at the joints

(Is it impossible to exit)
Well
A black panther had babies
The box is packed with them
Their eyes shining, lighting the way

(Is it possible to walk)
Yes, anywhere
However   they get chewed apart
And just the bones remain laying around
The probably lose sight of which, among the many eyeballs,
Is the exit

“I’ve got teeth in here. My teeth”
The boy
Leans on the old man
The old man opens his eyes wide and says
“Any act originating from an innocent place is violent”
The woman with the candy gets up
And enters the painting on the wall
As a bell rings

A distant will   seeps into the ears of the sleeping man
Live,   it may have whispered

Another patient headed for surgery
Passes by us on a stretcher

In addition to the usual news & notes, there are eight books in the issue as well. Of particular interest is Mairéad Byrne’s preview of Open Field, an anthology of Canadian poetry edited by Sina Queyras, which makes me anxious to see this new collection from Persea.



Sunday, May 15, 2005

 

Only a few weeks left before the School of Quietude’s most hushed event of the year – the annual fest at West Chester University. Christian Wiman, Timothy Steele, Dana Gioia, Mark Jarman – the list goes on. It’s almost too delicious. Given that it’s all of 10.7 miles from my house, I did attend this one year, briefly. I wish I could tell you that it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds, but the truth is that it’s worse. One could tear a retina from all the eye-rolling this event evokes.



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