Saturday, July 09, 2005

 

 

Gustaf Sobin

 

1935 – 2005

 



Friday, July 08, 2005

 

Steve Benson, who’s not a chronic reader of blogs, finally saw my June 24th note on the ball (30 times in 2 days) & posted the following note in the Comments section. More people will have the opportunity to read it, tho, if I repost it here.

I’ve never written to a blog before.  So I feel kind of raw and honored.  I certainly am grateful for what Ron wrote and that it received some diverse attention from others. I didn’t find it until last night.  I just want to comment briefly.

 

I think Curtis’s idea that I may seek a measure of invention (or awareness, or initiative, or . . .) has an appealing ring something like truth, but I don’t think the SATs would provide me with an acceptable model of measuring anything at all.  The term ‘measure’ has more resonances in the literature and experience of poetics that need to be figured in, and the statistical presumptions would need to be figured out.

 

I am not ‘insisting on’ any extemporaneity.  I am only documenting the method of composition, something that any other writer might do without requiring the Paris Review to come feature them in a lengthy tête-à-tête, but that rather few writers actually do in the instance of a work’s publication.  I myself often wonder how someone wrote a text and then wonder why they won’t just tell me in the same book (or magazine—like they do in Chain).

 

It seems to me that many of my contemporaries write only or always without revision.  I myself do sometimes no revision (usually after trying some and finding it misserves the work) or a little (to delete vocalized hesitations or mis-started words, to excise lines or verbal sallies that appear in retrospect futile and non-contributing) or quite a lot.  Some works like Briarcombe Paragraphs, Reverse Order, and On Time in Another Place involved extremely involved and effortful exercises in deliberate revision in order to arrive at compositions I chose to stand by—but it is also notable that in two of these examples the revision structured the work [a serial project in which each stanza or paragraph is a processed revision of the previous].  In the third I further revised the already- heavily-revised paragraphs by juxtaposing them interlinearly in a manner that owes much to fortuity and a little to minor edits but nothing to chance.

 

I don’t understand the difference between warts and perfection, either in my work or in a person who might become a friend.  I do not believe the body is stranger to the soul. 

 

The nature and relationships that become apparent and available to use in the complex dynamic organism that results from composition (which includes revision) become the index of what works and whether a useful kind of unity in diversity becomes grounds for publication.

 

What has happened in my writing project(s), over the past twenty or thirty years, that I would not have been able to anticipate, is that I have become aware of the poem (as printed or read) as a problematical site of documentation of the poem (that is not to be ‘grasped’).  Poem as event does not appear to me identical to poem as text, but I would be hard put to believe either can exist without the other.  Perhaps one could say they are coterminous.  By risking poem as event, one allows poem as text to ‘take place,’ and so one gains ground to reflect whether publication may be worth the candle.  (‘the ball’ was written much as stefen suggests.)

 

I wouldn’t pretend to do again what I did in April that weekend.  (Nor would I pretend to do it by a chic ruse if I hadn’t found myself doing it.)  That’s part of why I mailed it out to 39 friends who I thought might like to read it.  I brag to them by doing so, it’s true, much as a goose may brag of her golden egg.  Look how it shines!  Whoever would have guessed?  I was surprised.  The end-note is not the point.  It is just a disclosure, in order to put the material into perspective.  Without it, the material (I believe) would have another perspective (Wonder if – wonder how – is this like Bernadette’s Midsummer . . . But did she really?. . . If I were trying to do this kind of con, . . .  et cetera).  It’s still words.  Or are they moving after all?

 

There is an addition intention, however, to documenting by a note how a piece was written.  That is to make it available more widely—which does indeed mean to temper its potential elitism.  Others can try the same method, or one that it leads them to consider, if they so choose.  And people can consider its implications in their reading, in the way that and to the degree that they find it given to them.  There is not ‘right reading’ of an author’s note, any more than of a poem.  I’d like to stand by that!

 

Merzbook’s characterization of the sitting as a formal factor appears accurate to me in the case of this work and perhaps many others.  There is no need to argue for it as on a par with any other formal value or choice.  There are opportunities in this and other works to consider the resonances, shaping, valences, implications of a ‘sitting’ as a value.  I probably got the idea from Creeley’s Daybook and some of his other work, as well as my (illusory?) impression of many NYSchool writers (e.g., Train Ride by Berrigan, O’Hara’s swift lyric attacks, Mayer’s journalistic sessions). 

 

‘Transcript’ doesn’t say I didn’t cross out a word, and I didn’t mean to be making any claims.  It’s just reporting what I did (if not exactly warts and all). 

 

The actual chance to write (freely, as it were, or of what appears to be as close as I may come to actively exercising what I’ve been led to term my free will) is (in my experience) rare and also potentially joyous, potentially grisly and bathetic. 



Thursday, July 07, 2005

 

A few folks have written to let me know that they were “disappointed” or “hurt” that their ezines were not mentioned as the obvious answer to the comment I made last June 22nd, when I asked “why is it, nearly eight years after John Tranter first introduced Jacket, no other HTML journal does it half so well?” It makes sense, I think, to spell out why I think that Jacket does such a superb job. And to note two important qualifications:

·        Just because Jacket does a great job does not necessarily mean that all other e-journals do poor jobs.

·        One ezine, in fact, does very nearly just as good a job as does Jacket. That publication is How2.

Comparisons of the two journals are, in fact, instructive with regards to what makes not just a great e-zine, but a great journal altogether. Both publications, for example, publish both poetry & critical writing – an absolute necessity to my way of thinking – and both do so from points of view that are partisan, articulate & far-reaching. John Tranter’s vision, as viewed through Jacket, might be said to be the following:

The New American Poetry (NAP) of the 1950s & ‘60s was a phenomenon that touched all avant movements of poetry in the English speaking world. As such, one can use it as a focal point from which to investigate the poetries of the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand & the British Isles, not only going forward from the 1950s to the present, but also in reconstructing their modernist heritages. As such, Jacket is not only interested in the NAP, but it is almost always the point that will enable you to get from poet A in this country to poet B in that one.

How2’s editorial vision is broader & more diverse, a reflection of an evolving and collective / collaborative approach to editing. The journal’s website pegs its role as

Extending HOW(ever)’s original spirit of inquiry into modernist and contemporary writing practices by women.

For good reasons¹, neither HOW(ever) nor How2 have ever focused in the same way on the NAP as does Jacket, but it is worth noting how complementary the two journal’s missions are, otherwise. Each takes on a range of writing that gives them over a century of material on which to focus, a substantial amount of which may be “news” in the most literal sense to readers outside of its original closely held context. Thus an American, turning to Jacket 25 out of an interest in the poetry of Barbara Guest or Kathleen Fraser, or interested perhaps in the memorials to the recently deceased Donald Allen & Carl Rakosi, can find out also about the Bolivian Jaime Saenz, the Brit Peter Robinson or the New Zealand modernist (pre-modernist?) Robin Hyde. Something akin to this process is possible with every single issue of Jacket & How2. They are educations in themselves.

A second feature that both publications share is an understanding of the importance of archives. This is another absolute requirement in my mind for any journal that seeks to be taken seriously. Both are meticulous in presenting everything they have published – Jacket, in addition, has a search capacity and an index that is essentially the table of contents over every issue published on a single page of HTML. Indeed, it is this ability to find material that is the primary advantage Jacket has over How2.

One might argue that neither publication focuses primarily upon the publication of new poetry – but, in fact, both publish large amounts of it, almost always with some sort of context. Indeed, it is precisely that giving context that unites both journals’ vision of the editorial function to the body of work they publish. Contrast this with journals that never publish any critical writing, or do so only in the framework of reviews, or with critical journals – such as Chain – that print some extraordinary work, but which actively resist any editorial perspective beyond the broad topic assignments given to an issue.

So, yes, I will stand behind my original comment with regards to Jacket, even if I will modify it a little to make room for How2. And I note, for what it’s worth, that at the moment both are being edited by Australians – this may be the first moment in history when that continent can claim to be the center of the English-language literary universe, at least in this one regard.

I also note, of course, what seems to me the obvious next step, the journal that so clearly needs to exist that it will feel “inevitable” once it arrives, and that is the one that steps forward to focus in similar manner, but from a contemporary perspective, on the literary scene. The NAP, after all, is a phenomenon of a half century ago & modernism, How2’s unifying framework, is older than that. Where is the journal that steps up to looking at the world with such rigor, but from the framework of poets age 35 & under?

 

¹ Having to do with the sexism that was rampant & often explicit in the NAP.



Wednesday, July 06, 2005

 

Aaron Kunin first caught my attention back in April 2003 when he sent a note to Kasey Mohammad concerning John Milton & Leslie Scalapino. The idea of younger poets talking up such a conjunction struck me as an enormously hopeful thing – I didn’t even mind that Kunin, who argued that Scalapino was comfortable with the English language where Milton was not, got it exactly wrong.¹

Since then, Kunin’s name has been everywhere – the author of a PDF volume via Ubuweb, an audacious project that “translates” Pound’s Mauberly into something akin to Dolch’s restricted vocabulary for the English language², reviews appearing in Jacket & Rain Taxi, multiple appearances of several different poems all entitled “Sore Throat.” He presents himself as a “poet, critic, and novelist,” and generally doesn’t note where he’s teaching (Brown & Wesleyan that I’ve been able to discern) nor where he fetched his degrees (Brown again, for the BA, Johns Hopkins for an MA, PhD from Duke).

I like ambition & audacity & it’s easy to see that Kunin understands that where you publish is more important than where you studied. So when Folding Ruler Star arrived in the mail, I dove in right away. A jacket-flap note says of the text inside,

These poems are conceived as a value-neutral Paradise Lost. In other words, someone who is not god tells you to avoid a certain tree, and you disobey the instruction: the result is shame….

The measure is a five-syllable line arranged in three-line units. Each poem is mirrored by another poem with the same title.

Which isn’t precisely accurate. The text is, in fact, continuous from beginning to end. Titles, the lengths of poems, and the decision to board two of each onto this ark, are functionally independent – I can imagine an SoQ reader thinking “arbitrary” – determinations. They cleave the work into digestible units & one of the tests of reading, I would think, is the point at which a given reader recognizes that these aren’t “individual” poems & what that recognition does for/to his/her reading from that point onward.

If this sounds rather like Oulipo on steroids, Kunin lets you know early on that he’s paying attention, letting the demands of the “individual poem” dictate key choices, as when, in the third poem (or, first half of the second pair, depending on how you read this), entitled “False Nativity” –

masking memory
(no current photo
available) with

furniture placement
(that memory has
two faces is true)

but what I saw then
terrified me(I
removed my glasses

I put them on the
desk) and the desk was
terrified

that I might sit on
my glasses and what
my bottom would see

– Kunin lets, right at that critical moment at the end of the fourth stanza, the line depart from the five-syllable rule. In this sense, he differs completely from a “new formalist” like Geoffrey Brock, who would have to puff that line up another couple of beats. Further still, the book has two key sections that have no “twin,” both of which occur also outside of the ongoing text – one is a comment on software, a writing medium as such, the other on the integrity of the book, or a book at least, both using what sounds like found language, and both having titles that appear only in the table of contents. I’m convinced, by the way, that “False Nativity” as a title describes the role of titles in giving rise to content.

This is an inspired project, one part Christian Bök, the other Barrett Watten, with echoes of Mac Low, Mark Peters, Brian Stefans & others, yet with a presence that couldn’t possibly be any of those other poets. If I have any qualm at all about this book, it is only that the metrics of a syllabic line (whether five syllables, as here, ten as in so much SoQ writing, or whatever) resolves into a kind of white noise – the advantage of counting words rather than syllables (viz. Zukofsky’s five-word line, Bob Perelman’s six-word line) lies precisely in the metrical variety available. Folding Star Ruler³ is a poem (not a book) for the mind & eye, if not the ear. Reading it makes me hungry to see what Kunin will come up with next.

 

¹ Once you get it that Milton always hears an undertone – almost in the same way that Zen monks or other singers train in the dual-note phenomenon of Tibetan or Tuvan throat singing – and that his tone is Latin, envisioned almost as tho it were a locomotive of syntax, absolute force, the drone of an unceasing barely conscious stream of thinking, Milton’s ease with overtone of English is without peer. Scalapino, on the other hand, is driven by an ethical vision that demands a level of precision in language almost impossible to sustain – her syntactic shifts occur right at the instant of maximum tension as a result. That is why commas are so important in her work.

² The project echoes Kit Robinson’s The Dolch Stanzas as well as Steve McCaffery’s translations of Marx into lower class English dialect.

³ It would really constitute a spoiler to tell you where the name fits into Kunin’s text, so I will say only that he has employed David Ignatow’s favorite naming strategy here.



Tuesday, July 05, 2005

 

Last Wednesday, when I was demonstrating that a ten year old could write better than some work offered by the School of Quietude, and used Geoffrey Brock as my example, I conceded that I was being unfair: “there are Brock poems that are actually quite good.” I think it makes sense to point to an example of this also, and to say a little why I think it’s exemplary, even tho it’s certainly SoQ to the max.

My favorite Brock poem is a recent piece entitled “Exercitia Spiritualia,” published in Deborah Ager’s zine, 32 Poems. What it does with rhyme would – should – impress any fan of Oulipo.

We met, like lovers in movies, on a quay
Beside the Seine. I was reading Foucault
And feeling smart. She called him an assault 
On sense, and smiled. She was from Paraguay,
 
Was reading Saint  Ignatius. Naivete
Aroused her, so she guided me to Chartres
And Sacre Coeur, to obscure theatres
For passion plays - she was my exegete.
 
In Rome (for Paris hadn't been enough)
We took a room, made love on the worn parquet,
Then strolled to Sant'Ignazio. Strange duet:
Pilgrim and pagan, gazing, as though through
 
That ceiling's flatness, toward some epitome
Of hoped-for depth. I swore I saw a  dome.

 

This is the first strategy for an A-B-B-A rhyme scheme, to call it that, that could make me envision wanting to read a long poem in it, at least until the deadening metrics overcome me like so much carbon monoxide. Sonnet-sized, tho, they don’t detract.

This is rhyme at the level of the graphic signifier, not the audible one, exploiting a feature within English’s notorious pliability to demonstrate the ongoing slide between sound, sense & visual representation. While there is nothing here that could be called opaque, as such, the scandal of opacity – representation’s ultimate failure-from-within – lurks everywhere.

Another poem, I find effective, but problematic, is “Hopes for My Daughter,” which appeared in The Hudson Review in Winter, 2003:

I hope that, once or twice, she's chosen last.

I hope that some friend's trusted smile

Proves false, and that when she betrays a trust

She hates herself a while.

I hope a handsome good-for-nothing boy

Bruises her heart when her heart's strong.

I hope she isn't granted each wished-for joy,

Occasionally is wrong,

And learns firsthand what loss is, and regret.

I hope she faces prejudice.

I hope her world will still need saving - yet

Not be as dire as this.

I hope her father's flaws are, in her eyes,

Flaws. And if she has children too

If anyone still does - I hope she dies

Before the children do.

 

The variable line lengths soften the predictability of the rhyme scheme enough so that one focuses first on the content, a poem that echoes works by such disparate souls as Robert Creeley & Weldon Kees. The trick is that, like Kees, Brock has no daughter. The poem is also an exercise in speculative fiction. That detail, I suspect, also elevates the layers of irony at work in the final lines.

Yet this latter poem is also filled with eyebrow-raising clichés – trusted smile, handsome good-for-nothing boy – and language added just to pad out lines (handsome good-for-nothing again, but also If anyone still does). My experience has been that the more times you read this poem, the larger & more gaping these flaws seem, so that the power of the initial reading is followed by a series of progressively larger disappointments. Still, the power of that first reader cannot & should not be denied.

When I contrast these two poems with the cringingly bathetic piece I ran last Wednesday, it demands an act of imagination to conceive that they were written by the same human being. Yet there must exist some place, some perspective, from which all three make a kind of sense that is compelling enough for Brock to put his name to all three.

So while I would actually agree with Curtis Faville’s point from the Comments trail the other day that School of Quietude poetry is not necessarily always bad poetry, my own conclusion is that the tradition offers a framework that perpetually invites the mawkish, the overstuffed, the conflation of pattern with form. Great SoQ poems are being written, but almost invariably it is in spite of the tradition from which they arise.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

 

 

 

Lorenzo Thomas

31 August 1944 -  4 July 2005

 



 

One hundred fifty years ago today, Walt Whitman self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a book that one could easily claim doomed the School of Quietude to the dustbin of history, or which, at the very least, revealed its love of Anglophiliac form to be an aberration born of the nation’s particular narrative. In the following poem, untitled in the first edition, tho later called “Europe, the 72nd and 73rd Years of These States,” the ellipses are all Whitman’s, as are the idiosyncratic capitals:

Suddenly out of its stale and drowsy lair, the lair of slaves,

Like lightning Europe le’pt forth . . . . half startled at itself,

Its feet upon the ashes and the rags . . . Its hands tight to the throat of kings.

 

O hope and faith! O aching close of lives! O many a sickened heart!

Turn back unto this day, and make yourself afresh.

And you, paid to defile the People . . . . you liars mark:

Not for numberless agonies, murders, lusts,

For court thieving in its manifold mean forms,

Worming from his simplicity the poor man’s wages’

For many a promise sworn by royal lips, And broken, and laughed at in the breaking,

Then in their power not for all these did the blows strike of personal revenge . . or the heads of the nobles fall;

The People scorned the ferocity of kings.

 

But the sweetness of mercy brewed bitter destruction, and the frightened rulers come back:

Each comes in state with his train . . . . hangman, priest and tax-gatherer . . . . soldier, lawyer, jailer and sycophant.

 

Yet behind all, lo, a Shape,

Vague as the night, draped interminably, head front and form in scarlet folds,

Whose face and eyes none may see,

Out of its robes only this . . . . the red robes, lifted by the arm,

One finger pointed high over the top, like the head of a snake appears.

 

Meanwhile corpses lie in new-made graves . . . . bloody corpses of young men:

The rope of the gibbet hangs heavily . . . . the bullets of princes are flying . . . . the creatures of power laugh aloud,

And all these things bear fruits . . . . and they are good.

 

Those corpses of young men,

Those martyrs that hang from the gibbets . . . those hearts pierced by the gray lead,

Cold and motionless as they seem . . live elsewhere with unslaughter’d vitality.

 

They live in other young men, O kings,

They live in brothers, again ready to defy you:

They were purified by death . . . . They were taught and exalted.

 

Not a grave of the murdered for freedom but grows seed for freedom . . . . in its turn to bear seed,

Which the winds carry afar and re-sow, and the rains and the snows nourish.

 

Not a disembodied spirit can the weapons of tyrants let loose,

But it stalks invisibly over the earth . . whispering counseling cautioning

 

Liberty let others despair of you . . . . I never despair of you.

 

Is the house shut?   Is the master away?

Nevertheless be ready . . . . be not weary of watching,

He will soon return . . . . his messengers come anon.

 

I regret that the Chandler facsimile edition of Whitman’s first printing of this book, which in so many ways is the true first step of American writing – the first American writing that did not itself echo the inherited forms of polite British culture (tho anticipated surely by Poe & others) – has been out of print for some time. The link at the head of this note will take you to a half dozen used copies, none of which is unduly overpriced. My old teacher, Dick Bridgman, just before he turned his attention to Gertrude Stein, did a good job letting Whitman’s work present itself in the 1968 reprint. Leaves of Grass is one of those volumes every American should know. It is the work from which every last one of us extend.



Sunday, July 03, 2005

 

I’m not going to argue that Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a great, or even good, movie. It is a good index, I suspect, of just how traumatized Spielberg was by September 11, whose shadow is everywhere over this dark film. The movie is a direct descendant more of Jaws than of Jurassic Park, where the foreboding is leavened somewhat by the wonder at seeing its creatures in situ, and where the devastation is limited by the dinosaurs’ dietary restriction of being able to chomp up only bad people. But here the threat isn’t only in the water – it’s in the sky, in the streets & underground as well as floating with glowing danger under the Hudson River. It comes looking for our protagonist & his daughter with its giant tentacle eyeball down in the basement (shades of Minority Report’s far more effective spiders), and sends out recon teams of critters that appear to be teenage descendants of that malevolent mother in Alien. And there are some scenes, as when a mob overwhelms Tom Cruise & his kids in the only working vehicle around, or when they are “rescued” by the ambulance driver from hell, Tim Robbins, where the human race doesn’t appear any less horrific than them. Whoever them may be.

Spielberg taps effectively enough into the same vein of free-floating dread that George W. has been mining ever since 9/11. And Spielberg offers no solutions. This movie’s “happy” ending – which I suspect will piss off everyone in Boston – is so sappy that it makes the Matt Damon visit to the Normandy graveyard in Saving Private Ryan that fades into a giant, worn American flag look like punk nihilism. The audience we sat with on Friday night laughed at the final scene. But when we stepped outside to see not one but two fireworks displays off in the distant horizon – a kind of lightning without the thunder – it took us right back to the early scenes of the film.

In that it is a somewhat faithful rendering of the H.G. Wells story – I don’t recall there being this concern with dysfunctional families, or with families at all, in the original – Spielberg has held himself back here, so that – as is not the case in Minority Report, the strongest of his recent films – this movie is never stronger nor weaker than Tom Cruise can make his reaction shots to each new revelation of devastation. Cruise is a poser more than an actor & only now starting to age enough to get a little beyond the pretty boy movie lead impression he gives to all his films. Our own John Wayne, he perpetually plays Tom Cruise, which puts a lot of the film’s dramatic weight on the shoulders of its supporting actors. In War, it is Dakota Fanning – age 11, but probably only 9 or 10 when this was filmed – who carries much of the movie. The very same actress who provided the narration to the Henry Darger documentary I mentioned last Monday, who was the girl in I am Sam & who gets her first starring role in next year’s Charlotte’s Web, Fanning actually may deserve an Oscar nomination for supporting actress just for holding up the weight of this behemoth.



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