Saturday, October 29, 2005

 

Some time this weekend, this site will have its 500,000th visitor. That is, reader-wise, an unimaginable number. When, in August 2002, I started this, I had a goal in mind equivalent to the number of readers at a successful reading: 30 per day. That is still, I think, a perfectly reasonable goal, tho it would have meant reaching my 500,000th visit sometime in 2048, a point at which I will be – on the off chance that I'm still around – a couple of years older than Stanley Kunitz is now.

I had obviously not understood the difference between reading online & the physical event of a talk or a reading. Not only is it easier to get to a website than it is, say, for me to make the hour-long¹ trip to Kelly Writers House, my commitment of time once I'm there is very different. I may be getting over 800 visits per day currently, but the typical stay is just slightly over one minute. If this is at all typical, the upside is that a reader can visit quite a few favorite poetry & poetics blogs during the course of a half hour.² That in turn actually increases the degree to which such blogs can function as a public sphere for poetry. And that, it seems to me, is the real value in the form.

In the process of writing these notes, day after day, I've learned far more than I could possibly have imagined when I first embarked on this process. The most obvious example would be that I had to give up my 1970s-centric map of the poetic landscape & replace it with one more appropriate to the 21st century. The absolute number of new, younger poets is one thing – the percentage who are actually good is even more daunting. But the process has forced me also to rethink poets whose work I thought I already knew, from Robert Duncan to Bill Deemer to Amiri Baraka.

Rethinking is good. In general, people don't challenge their own assumptions nearly often enough. That old bumper sticker – Question Authority – really needs to begin at home.

 

¹Presuming reasonable afternoon traffic on Route 3. If I try to come in via Schuylkill, the main east-west artery into Philadelphia, during the evening rush, it will take between two & three hours. On a Sunday morning, tho, the same trip takes just 30 minutes.

² Contrast, the discussion of anything from multiple perspectives. Take, for example, the World Series as viewed by two poets with deep connections to Chicago, Ray Bianchi & Tim Yu, and with a third who is a serious baseball fan, Jim Behrle.



Friday, October 28, 2005

 

Reading the comments stream to my note on Wednesday has been interesting & instructive, in a slightly lurid fashion. It is interesting to see how many respondents don't distinguish between awards & contests – the latter involves submission, in every sense of that word, & typically involves an entry fee. Taylor Brady's comments describe the Small Press Traffic process with considerably more detail than I could. If the overall process is less formal than, say, the Whiting Awards, it has the advantage of being considerably more open – you can see who the judges were & imagine what their motives might have been. Whatever entanglements one might imagine between myself & the SPT board¹, it takes an act of faith to presume that the anonymous judges of the Whiting Awards don't have the same general relationships. Consider that five of its ten recipients this year were writers who published their first book with Graywolf, Ecco/HarperCollins, Copper Canyon & Harcourt. That is arguably less diverse than the SPT list – the difference (beyond the money & an awards dinner) is that its judges remain masked, away from the prying eyes of Foetry et al.

All of this struck me as doubly ironic, since right before I'd received notice of the award from Kevin Killian, I'd read Kevin Larimer's “That Glittering Possibility: Eighteen Debut Poets Who Made Their Mark in 2005” in the November-December issue of Poets & Writers. Anyone who has met Larimer will, I presume, see that he is as non-sectarian & straightforward as it is humanly possible to be in the world of contemporary poetry. So I was intrigued to see this small sampling of “first book” authors – more than one of whom I own “pre-first” books by – and their correlation to such things as prizes, degrees, jobs & the sort. When I say small sampling, I mean that. Larimer mentions in his cover piece that Poets House in New York recently displayed 2,100 books published in 2004, and that “approximately 20 to 30 percent of these – over six hundred – were debut titles.” Think about the implications of these numbers for a moment. They suggest that, under the best of circumstances, the “average” poetry career currently consists of a total of five books – that's the only way you get 20 percent first volumes.

Five volumes is hardly a career or, if the word “career” gives you a rash, a lifetime of writing, unless one is either very slow, very sporadic in one's writing, or stops fairly early. What an average of five volumes suggests is that a lot of people produce a few books, then stop. There are probably as many reasons why, if you look at each closely, as there are poets. But the general trend suggests that the experience of publishing is that it gets harder over time for a lot of poets, not easier.²

Larimer profiles just eighteen of these poets: 12 women, 6 men; just four are ethnic minorities. I suspect the ratio of female to male may not be that out of whack in terms of representing the whole of publishing, tho I also suspect (hope) that the under-representation of people of color here is what statisticians would call a problem of sample size, not representative. Of the 18, 14 have MFAs, three have no degrees, one has an MA, and one has a second degree, a Ph.D. Exactly half of the MFAs have teaching jobs. The other poets range from a waiter and a trail crew supervisor to a senior editor at the New Yorker. All but one of the 18 list their ages – the exception identifies herself as being “Older than a prodigy, younger than Stanley Kunitz” – which averages 37 years. Just three are in their 20s, six are in their 40s, with the remainder in between. Two of the three with no degrees are in their twenties.

Of the 18 books, six were published by university presses, ten by independents and two by major trade houses, Norton & Penguin. Aesthetically, the independents range all the way from School o' Quietude (Graywolf, APR) to reasonably post-avant (Edge, Coffee House). The university presses range from UC Press to Texas Tech to Notre Dame.

While 14 of the 18 have gone & gotten MFAs, only nine of the poets here concede to being contest submitters. Larimer is savvy enough to ask just how many times they've participated in contests. On average, those who submit admit to participating in 49 contests. As appalling as that number might sound, eight of the nine contest junkies had their books published as the result of winning prizes, ranging from the National Poetry Series to the Walt McDonald First Book prize. Looking at the blurbmeisters associated with the prize volumes, it is evident that the writers do not all come from a conservative poetic position: included among the jacket note authors are John Ashbery, Rae Armantrout, C.D. Wright, Amiri Baraka & Lydia Davis. Henri Cole & Eavan Boland show up twice, each time on a jacket to which both have contributed blurbs. One is a prize-winner from Louisiana State Press, the other is the volume from Norton.

The two first books from trades are worth noting. The Norton volume was written by Dana Goodyear, the senior editor at the New Yorker, who at 29 is either a wunderkind or else just very well positioned to become the next Deborah Garrison. The Penguin volume, by Corinne Lee, is a National Poetry Series winner – of the submitters, Lee has done it the least often, scoring with just her fourth submission to a contest. She also appears to have spent the least time writing her book – while the 18 as a group averaged over 6 years work per book & nobody else claimed to have spent less than three years, Lee lists her volume Pyx as having taken three weeks.

All of this suggests that my simple dismissal of contests is perhaps a little too glib, or that the world of contests itself is changing. And for what it is worth, I've written positively here about two of the eighteen poets before, both of them prize winners. And I've appeared with a third, Thomas Sayers Ellis. While his book was not published as the result of a contest, he is one of this year's Whiting Award winners.

If you click on the link to Larimer's feature in the second paragraph (the text itself is not online), you will find a miniature anthology of the 18 poets. It's worth a look.

 

¹ Susan Gevirtz was a member of my graduate writing seminar at SF State in 1982 that served as my “focus group” (aka “guinea pigs”) for the first draft of what became In the American Tree). That's the one formal connection. But it is true that I have met seven of the board's nine members, tho actually mostly over the web. Four of the board's members are well-known bloggers.

² No doubt it is even worse for novelists. Trade houses have little use for the fictioneer whose first books have not demonstrated an ability to reap a return on the press' investment.



Wednesday, October 26, 2005

 

I have just received word that Under Albany is one of five books named “Books of the Year 2004” by Small Press Traffic in San Francisco. Others likewise named include Jeanne Heuving’s Incapacity, Christine Hume’s Alaskaphrenia, Paolo Javier’s The Time At The End of This Writing, and Kaia Sand’s Interval.

In addition, Small Press Traffic has given a Lifetime Achievement Award to Joanne Kyger, who totally deserves it. Previous Lifetime Achievement Awards have gone to Barbara Guest, Jackson Mac Low & Carl Rakosi. The SPT board also announced a “special award to a book of another order entirely” to the editors of the anthology Biting the Error: Forty Writers Explore Narrative – Mary Burger, Bob Glück, Camille Roy & Gail Scott.

Of Under Albany, the SPT press release says the following:

It may be Ron Silliman’s single most satisfying work. Under Albany lies outside of The Alphabet, Ron Silliman’s magnum opus, and yet strangely inside of it as well, as it is a free writing of each of the hundred sentences of Albany, part of the ABC volume Tuumba published 25 years ago. Under Albany reveals a new Silliman, a newish Language Poetry, and more about work and art and political action, than most other books published in 2004 all stacked together and made into shingles.

As deeply cynical as I am about awards of all kinds, there is no question that it makes all my nerve endings tingle with joy just to be mentioned in such company. My thanks to everyone involved!



Tuesday, October 25, 2005

 

Reading Other Traditions, watching John Ashbery explain, patiently & with humor, how to read to his audience at Harvard is instructive, and not only because it demonstrates that this Harvard alum recognizes the limits of education at his old school. If, in fact, Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose three-volume biography of Swift is still treated as definitive two decades after the death of its author, tenured at Virginia, twice a recipient of Guggenheim fellowships, the sort of person who gave papers with titles such as “The Wholeness of History: Social Theory and Literary Criticism,” who was himself the first to argue that there is no consistent narrator in Swift’s Tale of a Tub, and who reviewed contemporary poetry from Stevens in the 1940s up to Carolyn Forché four decades later, can be seen trapped within what it would be fair to call the referential fallacy, one can hardly expect less “professional” readers to fair any better.

Close readings of poets, neglected or otherwise, are invariably silhouettes. One highlights what matters &, by contrast, create a landscape against the background of everything else. Ashbery’s approach to all this, indeed his ambivalence & cautiousness, are worth noting. First, he is meticulous & methodical, presenting his poets in order by birth year:

Ø       John Clare, 1793

Ø       Thomas Love Beddoes, 1803

Ø       Raymond Roussel, 1877

Ø       John Wheelwright, 1897

Ø       Laura Riding, 1901

Ø       David Schubert, 1913

Of these, four might be considered modernists, or perhaps postmoderns avant la lettre, the first two romantics. Among the modernists, only Riding outlived Gertrude Stein, and Riding largely forbade the printing or reprinting of her creative work for most of the four decades prior to 1970.

Ashbery is also careful at the outset to place his poets well within a series of brackets. All were chosen because of their influence on Ashbery’s work, “but one can’t choose one’s influences, they choose you.” None qualifies as “major,” even among Ashbery’s own acknowledged influences (e.g., Auden, “chronologically the first and therefore the most important influence,” Stevens, Moore, Stein, Bishop, Williams “at times,” Pasternak & Mandelstam, tho he later adds Hölderin as well), nor among the longer list of poets “who have meant a lot to me at times” that contains F.T. Prince, William Empson, Nicholas Moore, Delmore Schwartz, Ruth Herschberger, Joan Murray, Jean Garrigue, Paul Goodman & Samuel Greenberg. “I could go on, but you get the idea. These are not poets of the center stage, though they have been central to me.”

Each of his poets is presented with a modicum of biography, after which Ashbery poses something of a rhetorical question:

“What is it about Clare that attracts us so much today?”

“Under the circumstances [of his work being out of print & hard to find], it is still difficult for readers of poetry to know whether or not the case [of Thomas Love Beddoes] represents a significant ‘adjunct to the muses’ diadem.’”

Robbe-Grillet says of Roussel: ’Here we have the perfect reversal of what people agree to call a good writer: Raymond Rousel has nothing to say, and he says it badly.’ One could quarrel with this. If ‘nothing’ means a labyrinth of brilliant stories told only for themselves, then perhaps Roussel has nothing to say. Does he say it badly?”

“It isn’t a question of Eliot’s ‘shadow’ that falls between the conception and the act, but a fertile short-circuiting, the result of many tensions pulling in opposite directions, that is the air [John Wheelwright’s] poetry breathes.”

“What then are we to do with a body of poetry whose author [Laura Riding] warns us that we have very little chance of understanding it, and who believes that poetry itself is a lie?”

“How then does one discuss Schubert, or more precisely, how does one talk about him to an audience of whom few will likely have read his work?”

With the lone exception of Roussel, in which the question leads to a rather hasty summation, defending Roussel through a comparison with John Cage that lasts less than five sentences, this posed or framed issue leads to some extensive examples & close, if casual, readings. Ashbery’s response to the question he poses of/for the work of Laura Riding in many ways stands true for his stance with regards to all six authors:

Why, misread it, of course, if it seems to merit reading, as hers so obviously does. This is what happens to any poetry: no poem can ever hope to produce the exact sensation in even one reader that the poet intended; all poetry is written with this understanding on the part of the poet and reader; if it can’t stand the test of what Harold Bloom names “misprision,” then we leave it to pass on to something else.

It is as if, coming to the famous last sentence of Wittenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ashbery would have us revised it to read That which we cannot speak about, we must read ever so much more attentively.

I’m not particularly convinced of Ashbery’s position here, but that’s okay – I’m interested just to hear him make the argument – these are issues worth mulling over, worth dreaming about. I note just how much more specific the questions or posed issues or whatever you want to call them (topic sentences?) become as the lectures proceed from one to the next – the book really doesn’t take off intellectually until the final three essays, but you absolutely have to wade through the first three to get there, as if Ashbery must himself discover what exactly the unifying topic of this series will be. In each case, the answer is some version of how do we know if some writing is great if it is also, at the same time, unintelligible? And what do we mean if we say that unintelligible writing is great?

Good question. Like his influences, Ashbery’s own stance here reflects his age and time. All of the poetry here existed before he himself began publishing – the Schubert poem I printed yesterday was first published by Poetry in July, 1936; it almost certainly could not appear in the decadent edition being published in 2005. There is a lot of work in recent linguistics (from the parsimony principle, a concept of the 1970s, to cognitive blends today) that suggests how one can read work that thwarts a projected referential realism – one senses that Ashbery has read none of it & probably doesn’t feel any need to do so. He may be right.

But one feels further, both in the kind of argument he is trying to make & where & how he chooses to do it – a prestigious series at Harvard, yet dawdling for a decade before getting the volume into print – that this is the Ashbery we know from the poetry as well, at once audacious & tentative, a combination that can be as maddening as it is lovable. What Ashbery is offering here – and consciously doing it without referring to Stein or to language poetry, two sources where it might seem more obvious – is that there exists, existed, a rift in writing, a cleft in meaning, and that it has been there even within the School of Quietude as well as in the salons of modernism & loft spaces of the post avant. He couches it when he writes that “These are not the poets of center stage, thought they have been central to me,” with the even more coy assertion that “If that means I too am off-center, so be it: I am only telling it as it happened, not as it should have happened.”



Monday, October 24, 2005

 

Because he is the most gracious of poets – the unquestioned king of the generous jacket blurb, worded just vaguely enough so that you’re never quite certain if he’s read the work – and perhaps because his own verse is filled with indirection if not active misdirection, fabulous wanderings off topic into lush, witty digressiveness, sometimes never to return, John Ashbery the person has remained above the petty poetry wars of his generation, beloved by post-avants & quietists alike, save for a churlish few who mutter into the margins about some need for direct statement. Thus, just possibly the most wonderful thing about Other Traditions, the little critical volume Ashbery has constructed from his Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard, is that he picks a fight.

Actually, he picks more than one – and the ones he picks & how he does this cast considerable light back on both person & poet. Other Traditions consists of six lectures given at Harvard a decade earlier, each examining the life & writing of an Ashbery influence who has received, in Ashbery’s opinion, less attention than he or she warrants: John Clare, Thomas Love Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, Laura Riding, John Wheelwright & David Schubert. That’s an interesting group of writers. Clare & Schubert died in asylums, Beddoes & Roussel committed suicide, Riding or (Riding) Jackson has as complicated a relationship with her own name as she did the idea of writing poetry – her relationship with her critics weren’t any better. Only Wheelwright’s biography is less than lurid, and the Brahmin turned socialist died under the wheels of a car at the age of 43.

Anyone who has read Ashbery at all closely over the past half century will recognize that these are all important influences on his own writing, which he readily acknowledges. All also tend to fall outside of the parameters of the received canon. Even Harold Bloom, Ashbery’s primary advocate in L'école de Quietude, fails to include Riding & Schubert in his Western Canon. Ashbery in is own way is arguing for the inclusion of each. His own way however is the softest advocacy imaginable, self-deprecating & acknowledging at the outset how hard it is to figure these outsiders in. At least so it seems until Ashbery arrives at his final poet, Schubert. Ashbery writes “I myself value Schubert more than Pound or Eliot,” and cites a previously unpublished letter from William Carlos Williams to Ted Weiss in which Williams declares Schubert “fit for a new anthology – where neither Eliot nor, I am afraid, Pound belong.” It’s not clear when Williams actually wrote that letter or whether he’s referring to simply his old complaint about the failure of modernist expats to extricate themselves from a European heritage that the Doctor seems to have regarded as just so much imperialism. There are, I should note, ways in which I think Williams may be arguing exactly the point Ashbery would like him to be making – that Schubert points toward a postmodern writing, to use that ungainly formulation, that modernists like Ezra & Eliot could never have foreseen. It’s an argument that would have been a whole lot clearer, I think, if Ashbery could have located Schubert more clearly with three other modernist masters, Stevens (whom Ashbery notes Schubert admired), Frost (who actually support Schubert financially for a time, and would have done so longer had not Schubert’s mental illness intervened), and Stein, about whom Ashbery says nothing, but who in many ways seems the modernists “most like” Schubert.

This, I think, is the fight Ashbery is picking, a refiguring of literary history itself toward the marginal as a, how can I say this, central theme. But the fight he actually declares is another one altogether:

How then does one discuss Schubert, or more precisely, how does one read his work? Not, I think, in the way of Irvin Ehrenpreis….

Ehrenpreis, who, as Ashbery then notes “contributed the longest essay to Works and Days,” the special issue of The Quarterly Review of Literature (QRL) in which Schubert’s collected poetry, selected letters and a handful of valedictory critical comments, including a two-page piece by Ashbery himself, appeared in 1983, was a well-known Swift scholar who occasionally wrote reviews of contemporary Quietists. Ehrenpreis has attempted to construe the inscrutable, making sense of Schubert’s poems through an application, as fanciful as it is forced, of the parsimony principle. One poem Ehrenpreis has thus read is “Kind Valentine,” the very first text in the QRL gathering:

She hugs a white rose to her heart –
The petals flare – in her breath blown;
She’ll catch the fruit on her death –
The flower rooted in the bone.
The face at evening comes for love;
Reeds in the river meet below.
She sleeps small child, her face a tear;
The dream comes in with stars to go
Into the window, feigning snow.
This is the book that no one knows.
The paper wall holds mythic oaks.
Behind the oaks, a castle grows.
Over the door, and over her
(She dies! she wakes!) the steeds gallop.
The child stirs, hits the dumb air, weeps,
Afraid of night’s long loving-cup.

Into yourself, live, Joanne!
And count the buttons – how they run
To doctor, red chief, lady’s man!
Most softly pass, on the stairs down,
The stranger in your evening gown.
Hearing white, inside your grief,
An insane laughter up the roof.
O little wind, come in with dawn –
It is your shadow on the lawn.

Break the pot! and let carnations –
Smell them! they’re the very first.
Break the sky and let come magic
Rain! Let earth come pseudo-tragic
Roses – blossom, unrehearsed.
Head, break! is broken. Dream, so small,
Come in to her. O little child,
Dance on squills where the winds run wild.

The candles rise in the warm night
Back and forth, the tide is bright.
Slowly, slowly, the waves retreat
Under her wish and under feet.
And over tight breath, tighter eyes,
The mirror ebbs, it ebbs and flows.
And the intern, the driver, speed
To gangrene! But – who knows – suppose
He was beside her! Please, star-bright,
First I see, while in the night
A soft-voiced, like a tear, guitar –
It calls a palm coast from afar.
And oh, so the stars were there
For him to hang upon her hair
Like the white rose he gave, white hot,
While the low sobbing band – it wept
Violets and forget-me-nots.

Of this, Ehrenpreis attempts to construct a coherent narrative. Ashbery, on the other hand, sides with Rachel Hadas, who later took Ehrenpreis to task in a piece in Parnassus for telling “us more than we need to know, quite possibly more than is here.” Ashbery underscores the point by offering his own close reading of sorts. It’s Ashbery at his Professor Irwin Corey-best:

“Kind Valentine” seems to me not a poem about the stages of life awaiting a young girl [Ehrenpreis’ reading], but an address to a girl who is slipping in and out of dreams by a poet similarly afflicted. Much of its effect comes from slight dislocations of grammar, so that one’s expectations are constantly in a tense state. For example: “This is the book that no one knows. / The paper wall holds mythic oaks, / Behind the oaks a castle grows.” (Is this an allusion perhaps to the growing castle in August Strindberg’s Dream Play, whose subject is the failure of communication between men and gods?) And then: “Over the door, and over her / (She dies! She wakes!) the steeds gallop.” We might expect the steeds to gallop through the door and over her, but dreams, nightmares no doubt in tis case, have their own rules of dimension and perspective and their own inscrutable reasons for having them. In any case, the steeds’ disorderly and hence disturbing arrival in the room foreshadows the quite possibly sinister nature of the contents of “night’s long loving-cup.” The poet then commands Joanne to live “in yourself!” In a letter to Ben Belitt, Schubert wrote: “Frost once said to me that – a poet – his arms can go out – like this – or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world.”; perhaps Schubert feels at this point that Joanne will cover the world most effectively by living “into” herself. The rest of the stanza, in which Joanne is told to count buttons to the tune of a childish rhyme and then pass down the stairs and onto the lawn, hearing “an insane laughter up the roof” – here again the phrase is slightly askew, as though the laughter were coming from someone not on the roof but perhaps wedged under it and who was insane enough to set the roof slightly ajar so as to be audible to someone on the ground below – the rest seems to me, pace Ehrenpreis, not a further stage in Joanne’s maturing into a girl dangerously in love but merely an extension of the dream, which is plotless like all dreams.

Like Ehrenpreis, Ashbery is able to generate a narrative. Only his succeeds by not making sense. Or, more precisely, through creating a plausible context for not making sense. At the least, there is, in Ashbery’s version, no requirement for a continuous figurative and temporal landscape projected by the text. Ashbery goes so far as to underscore the points at which the parsimony principle takes leave of the text itself for pure speculation: he uses the word perhaps. In fact, what Ashbery is doing here is actually offering Harvard students a demonstration in how to read.

What Ehrenpreis would have made of this we’ll never know. On July 3, 1985, two years after the QRL Schubert issue, but half a decade before Ashbery was to give the Norton lectures & 15 years before Other Traditions would come out in print, he fell while attending the Englisches Seminar at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, and died of his injuries.



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