Saturday, June 25, 2005
The following list comes from an email sent out by Arianna Huffington this week, noting the priority of American TV’s news organizations:
Here are the number of news segments that mention these stories: (from a search of the main news networks' transcripts from May 1-June 20).
ABC News: "Downing Street Memo": 0 segments; "Natalee Holloway":42 segments; "Michael Jackson": 121 segments.
CBS News: "Downing Street Memo": 0 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 70 segments; "Michael Jackson": 235 segments.
NBC News: "Downing Street Memo": 6 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 62 segments; "Michael Jackson": 109 segments.
CNN: "Downing Street Memo": 30 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 294 segments; "Michael Jackson": 633 segments.
Fox News: "Downing Street Memo": 10 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 148 segments; Michael Jackson": 286 segments.
MSNBC: "Downing Street Memo": 10 segments; "Natalee Holloway": 30 segments; "Michael Jackson": 106 segments.
Friday, June 24, 2005
While I may not approve of the idea of having heroes in poetry, I do have a few of my own. One of these is – and has been for decades – Steve Benson. He has all the requisite elements: enormous courage to try new things, unblinking honesty as to what he is doing, a great mind, a gentle soul, and terrific writing chops. That’s an unbelievably rare combination of “must-have” qualities. I’ve learned an enormous amount from Benson in the 30-plus years I’ve known him, and the careful reader of my work will note pieces –
the ball (30 times in 2 days) takes the concept of the micropress right to the level of the nano – its 4¼-by-5½ inch pages are simply plain copier paper cut rather roughly in half, stapled twice for binding, the texts appearing on the right-hand side of the page only. No publisher, address or price is listed & I have no idea just how many copies Benson printed & sent out.
I flip the book open to its center page & read the following:
If I do this, does that exempt me from
having to do that? Side effects are numberless,
I vow to ignore them. In order to focus on the task
at hand, you’ve got to, uh . . . Just a glance at
the hourly news headlines – That’s enough! The
big picture: on the one hand there’s static, color
distortions, snow, that rolling image effect, more
focus problems, and the nerve-wracking jump
cuts; on the other hand there’s terror, denial,
numbness, overwhelment, obsessionality,
delirium, rage, and more trouble with the focus
This would seem to be – at once! – both an extremely casual, or at least casual-sounding, text & a remarkably tight one that both comments upon & enacts the mind’s challenge with focus in a media-driven world. I find myself dazzled at the gem of overwhelment, a perfect neologism coming as it does after terror, denial, / numbness. Overwhelment is exactly the right term to pull the text into utter clarity at that particular instant, setting up the remainder of that list perfectly. There is a comedy being enacted here – all these powerful & negative emotions ultimately have to give way to the problem of focus, whether we mean that word in its “bang the TV & see if that helps the reception” or purely internal context.
I flip to another example, slightly earlier in the sequence:
That was walking together. I held
you on a leash, and you decided
where we would go and at what
tempo. In five minutes we got about
twenty feet away from where we
started. But I was going to say,
rather, the discontinuity is at the
beginning. The end is interrupted,
true, but that’s artificial, arbitrary,
I mean, or illusory – I forget why.
Is this convincing? But the initial
entry, getting underway, weighing
anchor, setting pen to paper after not,
shifting frame so radically that one
”knows oneself to be” doing that which
one was not before then up to – that’s
where an interruption really occurs,
and where confusion and disorder reign,
as idea, act, being, consequence
jockey for position, uncertain of
Again, that absolute balance between the off-the-cuff remark & a high philosophical treatise. Not really since Frank O’Hara has there been somebody who so completely masters these two levels of discourse simultaneously as seamlessly as does Benson. It’s a gift – I don’t think it can be learned & so much of what we do learn would seem only to get in its way. I give a big sigh, knowing that this is one skill that I will never have.
A note at the back explains the project:
Saturday and Sunday, April 23 and
24, 2005, every hour on the hour,
when my wristwatch alarm sounded,
I wrote five minutes in a brown book
Lyn gave me several years ago, as
well as I could. This is the transcript,
completed two weeks later.
Lyn presumably would be Lyn Hejinian, but that is in fact a presumption. Much of Benson’s work has always been about attention & one consequence of reading any batch or book of his writing is that the reader’s (this reader’s) own awareness is heightened as a direct result of the process. I love being in the middle of his texts, but when I set them down, I find that even the colors in the room seem brighter, the demarcations between instants more easy to see/hear/feel.
So far as I can tell, it was Benson who really pioneered the idea of “the sitting” – as in “write for five minutes” – as a unit for poetry. No doubt that is what many poets – think O’Hara, think Whalen, think
Anyone can do it, but generally speaking,
few do. You can see it in the morning,
a subtle glimmer behind the glare. Whenever
treetops are brought plummeting down by
winter winds, lightning, or collisions, some
people, like animals, wake with a start. At
each evident instance, I start again. What
makes it seem one might be a perception
of ending, or it might be my refusal to
continue as I had been, as when, planning
or daydreaming or rehearsing recriminations,
I stop and notice that I am breathing again,
what color the moss is in this light, the
sounds no one is making
Here’s hoping the ball (30 times in 2 days) shows up in a newer, larger edition, so that everyone can read it, every word.
Labels: Steve Benson
Thursday, June 23, 2005
A brain tumor finally silenced Jimmy Weinstein last week at the age of 78. Jimmy – or James as he was called on the cover of his several books & on the mastheads of the different publications he founded or co-founded – Studies on the American Left, Socialist Revolution (SR), The East Bay Voice & In These Times – was a starter. In addition to these various journals, he co-founded the San Francisco bookstore Modern Times, partly so that Socialist Revolution (later Socialist Review & later still, Radical Society) would have an outlet from which it could be sold and as a means of paying the rent for the journal’s offices.
I got to know Jimmy somewhat during my tenure as SR’s executive editor, primarily as a part of my fundraising responsibilities. An heir to a Havana hotel fortune – the American left was built on the ruins of such ironic ventures, the journal Mother Jones tracing its roots to South African diamond mines – Jimmy was always better at initiating projects than sustaining them, at least up until In These Times. Studies on the American Left had been begun largely by students of the great historian William Appleman Williams as an answer to
That of course proved to be Socialist Revolution, tho Jimmy & the original editorial collective were already stepping back from the hubris of that title, in good part because the ultra-leftists within SDS had by then emerged as the Weatherman (& would soon morph again into the Weather Underground), revealing however inadvertently just how far the U.S. was from the necessary conditions for any revolutionary political party.
Jimmy was instrumental in getting SR & Modern Times going – in typical-for-those-years fashion, the original location at 17th & Sanchez Streets in
Jimmy himself soon left the SR collective, leaving it & the bookstore pretty much to fend for themselves, in order to try a more populist political project in the
In Jimmy’s wake, Modern Times ran – and still runs today – on the energy of its collective, and especially that of co-founding members Michael & Pam Rosenthal, whose 35-year commitment to the project remains one of the great sustaining contributions to progressive institutions of our time. SR, whose original collective had been divided between local community activists & grad students (mostly in sociology) from
In These Times evolved as well, going from newspaper to magazine & surviving a nasty reputation for being late – or worse – at paying freelance writers. But the journal never became the radical answer to The Nation & indeed, it’s always been hard to see how it, The Progressive, Mother Jones & even Counterpunch don’t functionally compete for the same audience, part of the left’s longstanding commitment to self-marginalization. Jimmy retired from the magazine after 23 years in 1999.
For all of his limitations, Weinstein’s commitment to his project, the radical transformation of society, never wavered. He once wrote in In These Times, that “To me socialism means the fulfillment of the promise of American democracy.” My own experience of the man was that he was much more free with advice than with financial aid for SR, and yet he turned me onto some extremely important contributors, without whom the journal would not have survived those years and who actually underwrote its transition to computerized production methods. He was irascible in the best sense of that word, and without him the American left will lose not only part of its memory, but its personality as well.
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
The RealPoetik email zine imploded over the weekend. The way I read the process of what happened is roughly like this. Editor Kirby Olson announced a contest for a one-line poem to the list, then headed out for two weeks in
Not too surprisingly, this generated the first “Remove me from this list” message, sent not to the administrator, but to the entire list. That generated the second such request, followed by a third. At around this point, the breakdown in the process hit an inflection point – over two-plus days, I received more than 170 messages. A half dozen folks sent multiple messages & one sent over twenty. Many of the messages were ill-tempered, some were amazingly rude.
Interestingly, instructions on (a) how to unsubscribe from the list and (b) avoid spamming everyone else were sent out fairly early in the process. That the hysteria continued showed that people were not reading their emails, just responding blindly & wildly in an attempt to extricate themselves. It was like watching people try & put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it. Olson, list owner Sal Salasin & Guy Koehler tried to shut down the outgoing email address but didn’t get an immediate response from the service provider as a key individual apparently was "in flight." Such is the state of computer services for non-corporate users circa 2005. The stream of messages finally stopped mid-day on Monday.
Like many people on the list, I never asked to subscribe, but I always enjoyed seeing what first editor Mike Topp & later Kirby had to offer. Like Halvard Johnson’s “Poems from Others,” it’s an interesting experiment in poetry publication, far more effective, to my mind, than earlier attempts at email zines that tended to include way too much work to be followed within the tight constraints of the email format. Indeed, when I switched my primary email address, I made sure that RealPoetik went to the new one. Like Poetry Superhighway or Rob Read’s “treated spam” poems that also arrive this way, I’m always intrigued to see what they’re doing, even if it’s not necessarily central to my own activity as a poet.
So I was sorry to see RealPoetik collapse in on itself like that. Even more sobering was seeing the abusive language so many respondents seemed to feel was suddenly their privilege. The funny thing of course is that messages to this list were hardly private. Hundreds of readers could see just who was behaving just how badly.
I really do believe in poetry as an art form that organizes itself through communities, rather than through markets (one of the basic differences between the poem & the novel), but that presumes – or at least hopes – that these communities hold themselves to a higher standard than the kids in The Lord of the Flies. And that is not what I saw in the flame war over the weekend.
A big part of the problem lies in how the list was originally put together – not as an opt-in process, but rather as a fait accompli that required opting out instead, something that can confound PC users who don’t have a strong sense of how the technology works. It raises the question, however inarticulately, of using email as a publication medium altogether. Had this been a blogsite, emails would not have been posted unscreened. Nor would people have been forced to read or delete them if that was not what they wanted.
As a technology, email predates the World Wide Web by some 30 years. Yet email is still the most widely used tool on PCs, but it’s one that increasingly has become compromised. In good part by spam – and this was a group self-spam if ever there was one – but also because email itself has not evolved at the same pace as the net over the past decade. Between work, poetry & my home life, I get fifty or sixty personal emails a day to which I ought to respond – add to that a few hundred spam items & the several listservs I participate in, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. That’s why a well-meaning project like Poethia never quite worked for me – even if I saved the text to my hard drive, its association with email placed in the lowest possible priority category, and its length kept me from going back to it. But the one poem per email model, especially if it’s only once or twice per week, is easily incorporated.
It may be that the email zine is a form whose time is past. Even the listserv seems under quite a bit of stress in 2005. At the same time, the blog flourishes, and so do online zines. Yet, if everything is moving forward, as this might seem to suggest, why is it, nearly eight years after John Tranter first introduced Jacket, no other HTML journal does it half so well?
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
One of the side effects of the evolution of literary generations in the 1970s was that more than a few of the poets who, age-wise, fell in between the New American Poetry of the 1950s & language poetry twenty years hence have never received anywhere near the attention and appreciation their work deserves. For every poet like Ted Berrigan, Kathleen Fraser, Anselm Hollo or Jerry Rothenberg who managed to become widely known & read, there are others who remain to be discovered by broader audiences. That was one reason why Qua Press’ publication of George Stanley’s A Tall, Serious Girl last year was such an important event. Why Flood Edition’s publication of the works of Ronald Johnson is likewise. Why Jack Collom’s Red Car Goes By – a 500-page Selected Poems – may prove to be the most important book that Tuumba Press will ever publish. Why it is so critical that some press step up soon to the same level of commitment for the writing of Kenneth Irby & David Shapiro & Bev Dahlen.
And that’s why it’s such a great thing that Shearsman Books has published the Collected Poems of Lee Harwood. While Harwood has published 23 other volumes of poetry & prose of his own, plus five volumes of translations of Tristan Tzara, only two have appeared in the United States, a very early chapbook from Angel Hair press called The Man with Blue Eyes, typeset on a typewriter, in an edition of just 500 copies, plus a collection of Assorted Stories from Coffee House Press, published in 1987. It says something about the state of book distribution that I never even heard about the Coffee House Press volume until I saw it listed in Collected Poems.
I picked up a used copy of The Man with Blue Eyes sometime in the late ‘60s & have been a fan ever since. Over the years, I’ve been able to obtain some of the volumes that have made it over here from such British presses as Fulcrum, Oasis and Pig, but somehow I never was able to get hold of the 1971 Penguin Modern Poets edition – Harwood’s one book from an international publisher – that contains his work alongside John Ashbery & Tom Raworth. The Collected makes clear that this was an appropriate pairing (tripling?), but it might surprise some American readers to discover that a poet of such consequence is not more well known here.
If there’s a rationale to such neglect beyond shitty distribution, it might be that Harwood has never been a formal extremist within the general framework of that poetics best known as the New American Poetry (a little harder to pin down when the poet so obviously is not an American at all, tho Harwood has done a couple of short stints Stateside over the years). Writers like Ginsberg, Olson, Creeley, Ashbery, Duncan, Eigner, McClure, even O’Hara all benefited enormously by developing signature styles that at times felt positively trademarked. This may have made it possible to more easily imitate, even parody, their poetry, but it also ensured that even a casual reader could pick up a book and immediately “get it.”* It’s a reality of the poetry market that poets who may have greater range often are less well rewarded for this – Jack Collom is a great case in point – precisely because that scope comes by sacrificing a brand so visible that it is identifiable on the page even before you read the words: McClure’s centered texts with generous displays of CAPITAL LETTERS, Creeley’s short lines, Eigner’s sweep invariably down & to the right across the page, etc.
Here’s a relatively early poem of Harwood’s, whose title – “
the blue cadillac
sweeps round the sky
into its tower sun setting
people file out of the offices
and crocodiles move into the subways
a grey man standing on a column
of sponge cakes
shook himself awake
and continued counting the pigeons
while a red cat
twirled his tail
on a bar stool
sucking the scotch
still in his whiskers
”life gets tedious …” he said
as the last indian arrow
passed through the breast pocket
of his last check-shirt
one dollar is seven shillings and tuppence
and at present there is a water-shortage
in new york meaning water cannot be
served at table unless requested
so the love song and finger strokings
and eyes meeting on the stairs
of eastside tenements
all at a meeting planned a year
Right up to the phrase “check-shirt,” this sounds a good deal like a second generation
Devices associated with the
On the maps the countries marked there
and the distances
the areas between
… called “land masses”
No matter what
You there at that distance
to be measured in miles?
a red truck parked in the dusty town square
a relentless and continuing series
of separations that by number grow unreal
left with the place you’re in now
(the word “you” variable)
From the window
There is an isolation figured in that last line – this being the first of three sections of the poem “With a photo by John Walsh” – that over the years has become something of Harwood’s own signature. It has nothing to do with the New American Poetry, or American anything really. Its lack of sentimentality & sharpness of observation are characteristics one might associate, say, with Objectivism, but I don’t sense that this where they come from for Harwood, but rather that they’re values he has held now for many decades, so that they emerge again & again throughout these poems. A complex little poem from the book’s final sequence is entitled “On the shelf”:
Tiger you’re snarling, but you don’t know why.
Your eyes large with desperation, and what?
Life on a dusty shelf suddenly hits you.
The company of a grey dog with green eyes,
an alpine cow with bell and flowers,
a croaking frog, and a balding monk hand-puppet,
is useless, irrelevant.
A little dog trots by in the street outside
ready for combat.
Five hundred pages of such measured clarity is a remarkable achievement for any poet. You’ll have to order this book direct from the publisher – I’m not aware of an American distributor – but ordering via the web is quick & painless, and it’s a volume that should be on everyone’s shelf.
* The first time I read Creeley’s “I Know a Man,” it was being used as an epigram to a campus novel by Jeremy Larner called, no less, Drive, He Said.
Monday, June 20, 2005
Rosa Luxembourg’s grave
I am often surprised at just how little poets seem to know of what they are actually doing. There are many brilliant poets, some of the absolute best, who seem strikingly incapable to saying anything intelligible, let alone intelligent, about their own work. Others may have that capacity, but prefer to hide it behind a cloying veil of coyness that is supposed to come off as a cute form of humility – that is almost always a disaster. Jennifer Moxley’s straightforward & wise “Afterword” to her new book, Often Capital, is so exceptional in this regard that it positively jumps out at you. As I noted the other day, Moxley positions this book with regards to her later volumes. But she does quite a bit more than that in six short pages – she explores both texts’ origins in the life & letters (specifically, the love letters) of Rosa Luxembourg, the German Marxist who co-founded the Spartakusbund, which would evolve into the Communist Party of Germany, and who was murdered following the collapse of the 1919 attempted revolution in Germany; she discusses differences between the texts & her relationship to them, both at the time of composition & more recently, as well as contexts in her own life as they relate to these texts.
The reason to read Often Capital, however, lies not in its afterword, but in the poems themselves. Here, for example, is the first poem in the first sequence, “The First Division of Labour”:
how given chorus
a she complete
alleged fair and castor
donned ritual, this year’s bouy’s
to Brontë, or avant committal
read him tied,
contained bound and white
here is a great leader, a lullaby
to be kept
if and Narcissus straddled the lake
And here is a poem – perhaps one might think of it as a section – of the book’s second & last sequence, “Enlightenment Evidence”:
the rumor, it isn’t merely a fond perception
but the celebration of manly kind,
underground living made you monstrous Leo, a forgetter,
notorious evasion floats above
fucking day to day, the supposed hours flourish
they are stone-like in memory,
while opening words and walks display evaporation
hence the lady’s journal, hence the letter entreating,
for even I don’t remember my over life anymore
erector though I was, and you quiet hours of dawn
where is your confirmation now except
in everyone’s mouth
I should note, I suppose, that this second poem is not necessarily as representative of its sequence as “how given chorus” is of the first – many of the texts in “Enlightenment Evidence” use long lines, so long – and with “runover” syntax – that one is perpetually having to decide “is this a linebreak or is this in prose?” (Yet in every case, I think the answer is the former, for reasons that will become apparent.)
Both texts are derived from the same general material & reflect Moxley’s concerns – the tension between political commitment & personal desire – yet the resulting poems are very different. Of this, Moxley herself writes:
Finally, the writing of these poems was not simply an exercise in conceptual or emotional inquiry. It was also, perhaps more importantly from the standpoint of my development as a writer, an apprenticeship in form. In The First Division of Labour I wanted to tape the word, to give it depth and resonance, to open it like a floor-hatch and walk down through its etymological history. In section two, Enlightenment Evidence, I left the isolate word behind and concentrated all my efforts on the line.
I have no doubt that this is completely accurate from the standpoint – love that word – of the poet, but it’s not how I experience it as a reader, exactly. The distinction between what one might see in these very different roles intrigues me. I don’t, for example, read the sequences as word vs. line so much as I do between two alternate models of the line. In the first, the line coalesces around the tension between word & line or between word & phrase, but it is the line one reads, that flow through the words, ultimately.
In the second, the tension has shifted & coalesces now between the line & syntax – as a reader I’m constantly having to negotiate a decision as to which takes precedence, a minute, even nano-distinction that creates something of a foreground, background sensation. Indeed, I think that tension lies at the heart of what makes both types of line inherently interesting, it is a kind of depth.
It makes me wonder if this is something that is particular to Moxley’s work, or maybe even just this book, or isn’t, in fact, something that occurs in much – part of me really wants to say all – good writing. It’s clearly something that doesn’t occur in all writing per se – indeed, the metrical line of the closed-verse stanza seems constructed around a desire to keep it out, which may be why that model of verse now seems so narcoleptic.
My mind turns to other instances of inherently interesting line use – Olson almost invariably is the model here for me, the prosody of his long lines in particular is something I can explore for hours if I let myself take the time.¹ I think of Oppen, however, as somebody who – at least during the years in the 1960s & early ‘70s – preferred a deliberately flattened line. This is not, however, what one finds in Discrete Series, his very first book. Not surprisingly, I still think of Discrete Series as Oppen’s very finest work, although the later books at least through Of Being Numerous are themselves superb – it’s just that they lack this one added dimension.
So I find this depth-effect, this tension, is a feature in Olson & in Oppen’s Discrete Series, but might not be in Oppen’s later work. It’s always there in Rae Armantrout’s poetry, yet in Robert Creeley’s it’s more pronounced in the early work than in the late – that might even be a defining difference between those periods in his poetry. It would be interesting – but time consuming – to go back & reread everything -- the whole damn library – with this in mind. In Moxley’s case, I think it must have been her various foci that caused it to rise up like this, to occur in both parts of this book, but in such very different ways that she’s made the effect perceptible to me really for the first time. So in addition to some great poetry, I want to thank her for this gift.
¹ & the implicit logic of so many of his poems starting out with very long lines, moving gradually towards very short ones, operates with that minute pause at every linebreak to articulate a discourse that perpetually is moving faster throughout the course of the poem – it’s hard not to hear the emotional narrative in that, even when Olson’s discussing something largely abstract or obtuse.
Sunday, June 19, 2005