Saturday, November 12, 2005

 

Shann Palmer

It was Shann Palmer’s comment in response to my note on Nadia Anjuman that brought me up short: am i the only woman who replied? Of the first 21 responses to my note, it did appear that Palmer was the lone female, although there have been a couple more since then.

My initial reaction to her note was the thought that the comment stream had predictably been overwhelmed by some of the same five or six guys who show up most days, arguing this time about the role of Islam in Anjuman’s murder. Women, I thought, would have recognized her death as the consequence of a phenomenon much older than either Islam or Christianity – violence by men against women.

But Palmer’s remark made me conscious of just how one-sided the comments stream of my blog has become, gender-wise. I knew, for example, that Thursday’s note on the Anthony Braxton Sextet would be largely male because 40 years of jazz concerts has made me recognize that perhaps 70 percent of that music’s audience is male. Not as bad as the computer industry events I go to for work, but not so far removed from that level of imbalance. Yet that sort of breakdown on my blog's comments stream on days when I'm not discussing jazz, when in fact I'm discussing violence against women, bothers me.

The poetry world was like that once, but not in the past 15 years. In comparison with the Donald Allen anthology in 1960, using that as an index of the post-avant world of its time, with just four women among its 44 contributors, and even my In the American Tree, which has just 12 women among its 40 poets in 1986, the poetry world of today certainly appears to have at least approached parity. What percentage of MFA students are women?.

Yet a quick count of noses among the first 200 participants in my blogroll to the left, down through Scott Esposito, turns up 117 blogs by men to just 59 by women, almost a two-to-one ratio, the rest being collective blogs, ambiguous blogs and/or ambiguous people (Hi, Kari!). I’ve read elsewhere that this disproportionality exists among blogs, and I’ve read pieces on the problem with science blogs & tech blogs, but it’s disconcerting to see it in my own blogroll, especially since so many of the very smartest & most well written blogs about poetry are by women.

There are multiple possibilities here. One is that my blogroll is reflective of the current state of blogging about poetry & poetics. But another is that my blogroll is not so reflective as it should be. In general, I add new blogs to the list in one of two ways – people send me emails and ask to be added or else I come across their blog, usually through that of someone else on my blogroll, and add them because their blog is clearly about poetry &/or poetics, broadly defined. I’ve found some blogs in particular, such as that of Eileen Tabios, to be especially useful. In Tabios’ case, it’s because (a) she’s conscientious about adding new and interesting blogs to her own blogroll, (b) she’s a perfect example herself of that “very smartest and most well written” category (which means, in practice, that I go back to her blog more often than I do some others), and (c) we travel in somewhat different social circles.

I’ve noted over the past few months that when I add the link of a woman writer to the blogroll, it’s more often because I’ve come across it in scrolling about, less often because they actually emailed me to ask. One way to at least minimize whatever skewing I’m adding to this process, however, might be just to put it out here – if you have a weblog that’s relevant to writing & is not already listed here, please send me an email. If you know of one that I should know about but don’t, send me an email & let me know.

I have heard – from three different women in the past month – that the requirement of registering with Blogger has kept them from posting comments. Therefore I am dropping that for the time being, to see if it makes a difference. If there is a return of the problem of vicious personal attacks from anonymous posters, I will have to go back to that. Hopefully, the verification task will be enough to keep spam to a minimum.

Maybe this will make a difference. I’d like to hope that it will.



Friday, November 11, 2005

 

One of the benefits of the model that Temple University uses for its poetry readings – pairing up one of its students with the main reader – is that the audience (me, for instance) gets an opportunity to hear a new voice in an interesting context. For reasons I don’t quite understand, the very best readings I’ve heard from Temple students came immediately prior to some of the very strongest readings I’ve heard in that series from “major” poets – thus this was where I first heard Pattie McCarthy, right before Charles Bernstein, and more recently Brennen Lucas was taking no prisoners in advance of Christian Bök. Divya Victor fits very neatly into this same tradition, having offered a superlative performance of a multi-voiced text in advance of Rodrigo Toscano a week ago Thursday. Possibly it’s knowing that one is reading immediately prior to a great performer that ups the ante, but whatever the cause, Temple does a great job fitting readers together & getting the “student readers” ready for prime time. (Half the secret, of course, is that “student readers” like McCarthy, Lucas & Victor are that only by the accident of going to grad school – all are young poets well on their way to serious careers. That Temple is able to attract such students is another interesting tale all its own.)

That Victor offered a text for three voices in advance of Toscano, whose “reading” included pieces for three & four voices, was fortuitous. Both readers offered a chance for me to contemplate what a multi-voiced reading actually does, and how it operates. It made me sorry that I couldn’t get up to the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday for a show of multi-voiced pieces. And it made me think of the times in which I’d written – and participated in others’ – pieces scripted for more than a single reader. The most recent of those, a couple of years back, was a piece by Jena Osman that Bob Perelman & I helped out on, in the now defunct Tredyffrin Library reading series right here in my home town.¹ But it’s been nearly 30 years since I last wrote a piece, technically a “radio play,” for an evening that Steve Vincent curated at the Grand Piano in the Haight.

To call my piece something for multiple voices is plausible only because I needed a text to thread together the spatial & sound effects that were the work’s actual focal point. With Tom Mandel, I had been curating the reading series at the Piano for around a year when Vincent proposed this evening – part of his thinking process that went into his anthology, The Poetry Reading – and I knew the room, such as it was, all too well. Thus I had both phones in the place – this was pre-cellphones – ringing, David Melnick in the audience whistling some music from the opera Lucia, Rova sax great Larry Ochs wandering past the large window front of the café on Haight Street playing his horn, while in back a thoroughly terrified Tom Mandel was setting off firecrackers in the restroom sink. Do I remember what was said? Not a word of it. Yet at least some of us – country singer Patty Hume & I who were working the phones, maybe Mandel – had speaking roles. ²

One of the things I became conscious of in the production of this piece, which was not more than six or seven minutes long, part of a much larger evening of such events, was that I actually had to think about the relationship of text to voice & to character, really for the only time anywhere in my writing. And I’ve thought about that every time I’ve listened to a multi-voiced performance since then.

In general, the poets I know don’t write for character in such pieces – this was true for both Victor & Toscano at Temple – a fact that by itself creates some interesting dynamics. In one piece, Frank Sherlock, one of Toscano’s voices, called upon his deep south Philly roots & gave his share of the text an accent that Rocky Balboa would have been proud of. But in general readers in such events tend to be content to “be themselves,” so that Alicia Askenase will sound different than C.A. Conrad simply because she always has & always will.

In this sense, performance pieces – Toscano termed one of his texts a “radio play” – differ as sharply from traditional theater as they do from sound poetry. It’s convenient to think of them inhabiting some theoretical position in the middle, but I distrust the metaphor of the spectrum here. If you look at Doings, the wonderful new collection of Jackson Mac Low’s half century of involvement with performance pieces³, you quickly realize that these text-and-voice-centric readings are just one slice of what is possible with the form. Indeed, if anything, one could argue that Victor & Toscano, sticking to recognizable language, the elaboration of themes, are playing it far safer than Mac Low ever did.

Once one gets beyond issues of character, multi-voiced texts often strike me as having issues of “aboutness.” Multiplying voices seems to invoke the question of reference, or at least pose the issue of distinction between parts in a way that implies it. Often, as with Victor’s work at Temple, the result feels existential in the way I often think of Sam Beckett’s work as existential, perpetually probing its own being. When the language occurs in short segments, as it did for much of this evening, the divide between reference & vocabulary is reduced to an absolute minimum. Perhaps the most important element in the work the rhythm of movement from one speaker to the next, dictated largely by the length of text accorded each.

This is where Toscano’s maturity as a poet & mastery of the form shines through. His sensitivity to pacing is nothing short of stunning. Further, he manages to set up a second rhythm through the text predicated on humor, literally the time lapse between jokes – although many are not jokes, so much as they are sardonic twists. As an aural experience then, it is more complex than just listening to the polyvocalic text of a single speaker – and yet it is instantly graspable to anyone in the audience. The two rhythms play off of one another in ways that foreground both the language & the interactions between voices.

Toscano’s sense of play, as well as his recognition of the role of contrasting elements in the work, shows up in one of the critical essays that he read at the start of his performance, a piece penned for the recent noulipo conference at Calarts in Los Angeles entitled “De-Liberating Freedoms in Transit,” which begins in part:

Two formulas of constraint for text-making:

Formula number one (vroom)

All poetic installments must index the wiles (as well as vagaries) of current global class struggle as currently being acted out in the text-designer’s actual locale of habitation. All installments must allude to—own up—flesh out the text designer’s directed institutional or random institutional bodily relation to that drama. All installments must in situ deconstruct at least two competing representative strategies to that drama. The text designer must deploy LIP, as in, “You givin’ me lip?” “Yeah I’ll give you lip!” “Yo, he’s givin’ us lip!” as the building blocks of the drama. The text designer must create a distance between LIP, the drama, the text designer, and THROG. Throg must tug. The words “Haitian Revolution of 1791” must be liberally plopped onto every installment without regard to either grammatical or logical sequence. Shipping is still a precarious business. So too is Literature.

Formula number two (vroom vroom)

All poetic installments must put on display at least ten proper names that reference the flow of European Art-Wares to Atlantic-American Cultural Trusts. All poems must delineate a nuanced correspondence between such a flow and liberal-bourgeois democratic tree-cutting practices. The words “Haitian Revolution of 1791” must be strenuously avoided. Any references to the text designer’s secret stash of cash must be sublimated into SLOG. Slog must slip. And slide. The Cyrillic alphabet may be used. Although the words incunabulum, perambulistic, and defenestration have little tug on the masses THROG, they are to be slipped onto every installment. The robe may be worn loosely. Or tightly. When the time comes to kiss the installment good morning, the text designer must simply say, good night. When the wood-pile is ready for shipping, call us—for an estimate.

That’s Toscano in about as unitary a voice as you’re ever going to find. One of the multi-voiced pieces that Toscano performed at Temple is “Truax Inimical.” The other, “Eco-Strato-Static,” can be downloaded in PDF format from Toscano’s EPC website by right-clicking & doing a “save as” on the title earlier in this sentence. The one truly multiple voiced work I can find a sound file for on the web – on Toscano’s PENNsound page – “Balm to Bilk,” is really a different creature from the works Toscano performed at Temple.. Co-read with Laura Elrick, the reduction to a dialog of gendered voices creates a sexual undertone not present in the works at Temple & demonstrates just how rapidly the parsimony principle generates character, as such. But it’s fabulous to listen to & will prove my point about Toscano’s mastery. Right click on that title above to download the MP3 or right click here to fetch the PDF of its text.

 

¹ Paoli is one of several towns incorporated into Tredyffrin Township, a level of government that exists between the town – which has no government beyond a post office & olunteer fire department – and Chester County. I haven’t run into this model of administration elsewhere & believe that it dates back prior to the colonial period. It makes some Pennsylvania towns very nebulous. The “town” immediately east, Wayne, which New York Times house reactionary David Brooks has memorialized more than once as “Paradise” in books such as Bobos in Paradise, is a jurisdiction like Paoli, but manages to exist in three separate counties: Delaware, Chester & Montgomery. marker on Route 30 notes that Wayne used to be known as Luella. Regional differences around such things can be quite marked. Hardly anybody in Oakland, California, can tell you where “Brooklyn,” the town in which Gertrude Stein grew up, was before it got incorporated into the city, tho that happened sometime in the past 120 years. Many residents of Paoli, however, can tell you all about the Corsican separatist for whom the town is named, noting that there was a political subtext to naming a town after a separatist in the decades prior to the American revolution.

² If any text survives, it would be in the archive at UC San Diego.

³ The first collection I’ve ever seen that enables one to see how a performance poet’s work actually evolves over time.



Thursday, November 10, 2005

 

Thanks to Jack Krick, I found myself Friday night sitting in the front row of the all-but-sold-out auditorium of Philadelphia’s International House, all of about eight feet from trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum, one sixth of the Anthony Braxton Sextet. Bynum, who plays trumpet, cornet, trombone, bugle & conch with a dexterity that is – no pun intended – breath-taking, is working his way through a page labeled at its top No. 340, which may or may not have been the title of this 90-minute long performance. In addition to Braxton & Bynum, Jay Rozen is playing tuba (with a tin-foil pie plate in its bell at the moment), violinist Jessica Pavone (a member of SpiderMonkey Strings, with whom Bynum has recorded) is to Rozen’s right, while up on the I-house stage proper are bassist Carl Testa (who doubles on bass clarinet) & percussionist Aaron Siegel.

The band area, both on the raised stage & in front, is a forest of music stands – I count ten for the musicians plus one turned at a 90-degree angle to make a table of sorts for an hour glass that Braxton uses to gauge time. Add to this five microphone stands, amplifiers & the various stands for Braxton’s & Bynum’s horns – Braxton’s contrabass saxophone rises up at least nine feet tall – and the image of an electronic forest hardly seems a metaphor.

It has been over twenty years since I last heard Braxton in person (playing with Sam Rivers at the Keystone club in San Francisco, literally next door to the North Beach police station), tho I’ve listened to his music a lot via recordings – after Dylan & the Rova Saxophone Quartet, I may have more CDs (and in the garage, LPs) of Braxton’s than anyone. Never, live or in recording, have I heard him as luminous & articulate as his sextet is tonight.

To call what Braxton does jazz is to use that category historically more than descriptively. Like many of the current generation (he turned 60 on June 4) of jazz-based virtuosos, from the late Steve Lacy to John Zorn, Henry Kaiser, Rova, & many other veterans from Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), everything is available, from medieval to tribal to blues to classical to post-contemporary. And while improvisation is always close to the heart of what is going on at any given moment, much of the music is scored, even tho the score looks like this:

Or possibly this:

As a leader, Braxton’s style is cerebral, orchestral, even (& this is new I think) avuncular. In his wire-rimmed glasses & trademark cardigan sweater, Braxton signals other musicians with hand gestures that clearly include number – just like a catcher calling for a curve ball – among their elements. At other moments, Braxton would hold up a card & Bynum & the others would thumb through stacks of scores for the right one to raise up to their stands. Only Rozen, a one-time member of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra as well as the Austin Klezmorium who was himself the subject once of a composition by Virgil Thompson, is anywhere close to Braxton’s age. Everyone else is in that mid-twenties to early-thirties bracket where scores like the above seem no longer at all unusual or quirky, because they’ve been seeing & playing such their entire lives. Once I watched Bynum “playing” a shape that on his score looked like a pink cartoon drawing of the state of Texas – was I imagining that his trumpet traced that outline in the air?

Braxton has written extensively about his work & musical theories, but often in the most dense prose conceivable:

The subject of narrative form-building and it’s role in creative music is a complex subject that establishes at least four areas of ‘subject-focus’ that can be isolated for discussion, that being: 1) that the base nuclear logic that defines cognition is a tri-centric thought unit that cannot be properly transmitted ( or understood) without some inclusion of a ‘corresponding- poetic’ logic (association/binder) that respects the experiences of the ‘living person’ (the actual ‘experien-cier’). 2) that narrative form building is directly related to the form of evolution that produced the ‘modern-era’ and should not be discarded,  3) that the challenge of the next time cycle transcends two-diminsional modeling constructs and instead calls for a fresh unit of perception that recognizes target ‘sub-level experiences’         ( that included intention, and ‘vibrational-spectra’).¹

What I can see & hear from my vantage, less than three yards from the sextet, is that often – tho not always – Braxton’s “Tri-Centric” music translates into three distinct lines occurring at once. My notebook has jottings like

Sax
violin     trumpet     tuba
bass     vibes

to indicate which combinations functioned when. Over the course of the performance, every possible variation seems to have been explored.

Now Braxton is blowing over his reed, so that you can hear the breath but not the horn (all kinds of resonance with everyone from Charles Olson to Buddhist meditation lurking there) while Bynum is whistling rather in the mode of a theramin (which, at another point, Siegel appeared to be playing, tho I couldn’t fully see it behind the drums & vibes). Krick tells me that Rozen had actually thrown reeds into the bell of his tuba & was thus playing the reeds through the instrument. At another moment Rozen is shaking miniature marimbas or an instrument in the form of a ceramic animal (dog? frog?), Bynum is kicking & spinning & throwing his mutes all over his portion of the performance space, or is on his knees rubbing two small cymbals together.

This is one of those instances where I wish that I had had some formal music training as a child, since what I can’t do here is really explain how cohesive & magisterial this performance was. At 90 minutes, it’s not likely to be released on a current-technology CD, and, as with any live contemporary music event, the room itself is an important factor. The only contemporary music concerts I can think of that were at all comparable in their impact on me were Rova’s performance of The Hive at the old 80 Langston Street performance space in San Francisco that has never been recorded² & the 1974 West Coast premier of Steve Reich’s Drumming in the auditorium of the old Asian Arts Museum in Golden Gate Park, whose acoustics made the event much fuller than the later recording could ever hope to capture. But, just as Drumming was a work that led directly to my poem Ketjak, Braxton’s sextet left me so filled with ideas that I want to think & rethink & dream about that it is certain to get into my poetry, tho you may not be able to see where or when.

 

¹ From “Narrative Structures.” There is no number 4 in the original.

² Larry Ochs, a member of Rova, swears that The Hive can’t be recorded. The audience was seated in the center of the space – an old brick warehouse – with chairs placed in triangles back to back to back while the musicians moved about the outside perimeter of the room, playing inward toward the audience.

Photos by Jack Krick



Wednesday, November 09, 2005

 


William Carlos Williams                     

 

I had just met Ian Keenan, sometime contributor to this blog’s comments stream, and Jack Krick & I were descending the stairs of Philadelphia’s International House after the Anthony Braxton Sextet concert Friday night as I explained my general idea about what I might write in this space in the coming week – a piece or two on soft enjambment, one on the Braxton concert, another on the reading by Rodrigo Toscano & Divya Victor at Temple last Thursday, and of the role of humor as a governor of pacing in the text I sensed in Rodrigo’s work, when Krick – whose work you may know as the hand behind many of the more recent web pages at the Electronic Poetry Center – says to me, “Sooner or later, you always come back to the line.” I realized, of course, that this was true – and he wasn’t the first person to make that observation. Some of the folks who’ve made that comment in the past have said it with a sound of puzzlement in their voices, probably because my first big books, Ketjak & Tjanting, are both perceived as prose poems, and because the title talk in The New Sentence explicitly addresses the history of the prose poem, and specifically its formal possibilities (largely unnoticed since nobody after Baudelaire seems to have actually counted sentences).

Yet as should be obvious to anyone who has read this blog for any length of time, my own roots as a poet lie very much in my identification in the late 1960s with the Projectivist poets – Olson, Duncan, Creeley, Blackburn, Jonathan Williams et al – most of them related at some point to Black Mountain College, but geographically dispersed after the school’s implosion during Olson’s tenure in a way that neither the New York School & the San Francisco Renaissance, so called, were, while being at the same time much more formally invested than, say, the Beats. As much as I loved Zukofsky’s “A,” Bunting’s Briggflats & Oppen’s Discrete Series, I couldn’t quite see how to directly employ in any present sense a poetics that had evolved among folks who were – let’s face it – considerably older than my parents.¹ There was certainly a period in the late 1960s where I felt as if Olson’s theoretical work had “solved” all questions concerning the line once & for all. It was in that spirit that I read Williams & Pound as leading to Olson, on the one hand, and all their contemporaries who failed to practice the line-as-a-unit-of-speech at least nominally (as did Ginsberg, for example, as well as O’Hara, Snyder & Whalen) as hopeless folks who simply did not get it, and whom history would treat with short shrift. It was during this period that I tended to leave writers like Alan Dugan, whose poetry was clearly speech, but whose line was configured so as to border on prose, behind. The nearly allergic reaction I got from Quietest mags when I started sending work with aspects of a Projectivist line only served to make my sense of the divide even more severe. So this was the bubble that burst when I first confronted the work of Bob Grenier & Clark Coolidge.

It certainly didn’t hurt that Grenier had been close to Robert Creeley (tho, to be quite honest, he’s never, even now, dissociated himself from his earlier work as a student of Robert Lowell’s & it was through the efforts of Richard Tillinghast & James Tate that Grenier first came to Berkeley). Nor did it hurt, from my perspective at least, that one could see the visible influence of Jonathan Williams & Phil Whalen in Coolidge’s early work much more readily than one could the 2nd & 3rd generation New York School poets he was often associated with in those days.

One of the inherent problems with the Olsonian program was that it promised, after the first few heroic efforts by the New American Fathers, to turn into a form of anthropological research, interesting, but minor almost by definition. I was talking with Drum Hadley the other day, who sees his poetry on one level as just such documentation of the ranching industry – I think I tend to hear it more as voices of the Southwest – speculating that you could do the same project for every one of the major trades. That surely was the possibility – but for a lot of 2nd & 3rd generation poets with that bent, it was the threat as well.

Early langpo emphasized the prose poem in ways that had not been done before. Instead of the Max Jacob appropriations that characterized the Americans in an anthology like Michael Benedikt’s The Prose Poem, the prosoid work that showed up especially during the 1970s opened up the possibilities of what might done in the form, in terms of length, in terms of effect, in terms of language. But for me at least – I can’t really speak to the motives of others – this was never a rejection of the line, so much as it was an attempt to see if one could bring the level of rigor that Olson had used with the line on the sentence & paragraph. In this way, it was not a break with the Projectivists nearly so much as it was steering the same vehicle down a slightly different path.

But that path still made it hard for me to see something like the device I called yesterday soft enjambment, the use of linebreaks to consciously minimize the disruption of the line’s end. I wasn’t reading Alan Dugan any more during this period and when I did come across Jimmy Schuyler, what I tended to see was how the surface imagery of his work reminded me of some elements of John Ashbery’s tamer ventures. Where had Schuyler come up with this idea of the linebreak? You don’t find it in Stevens, nor Elizabeth Bishop, nor Auden, nor in somebody like David Schubert – indeed, it is instructive to read a poem that approaches the idea of a shorter line – which seems to be precondition – like Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and you see just how dramatically the use of capitals at the left hand margin shape the line.

The closest I can come to his idea antecedent to Schuyler & Dugan, is in certain poems of William Carlos Williams, particularly from the mid- to late 1930s, such as this first stanza of “The Crimson Cyclamen” (which Williams dedicated To the Memory of Charles Demuth):

White suffused with red
more rose than crimson
– all a color
the petals flare back
from the stooping craters
of those flowers
as from a wind rising –
And though the light
that enfolds and pierces
them discovers blues
and yellows there also –
and crimson’s a dull word
beside such play –
yet the effect against
this winter where
they stand – is crimson –

We don’t even see a period until well into the second stanza, while in the third we come across this sequence:

                     In
September when the first
pink pointed bud still
bowed below, all the leaves
heart-shaped
were already spread –

That is, I think, a true instance of soft enjambment at the end of that first line & very nearly another at the end of the third. Once introduced, it shows up again more frequently, as in the opening of the sixth stanza:

Under the leaf, the same
though the smooth green
is gone. Now the ribbed
design – if not
the purpose, is explained.

Yet at the end of this long stanza, the poem moves largely (tho not exclusively) into quatrains before moving back to longer stanzas again before it closes. At one level, I think it’s extraordinary that either Schuyler or Dugan – both of whom I feel certain must have gotten it from Williams – would even have noticed the device, tucked as it is so deeply inside work that is more various & ultimately not using soft enjambment for the same purposes that they sought it out. That two poets, working in fairly different social & aesthetic venues – tho both within New York City for much of this time – would build so much of their careers out of this one device (without, so far as I can tell, really reading one another).

I myself didn’t really completely discover Schuyler’s work until I found his line, quite by accident, when writing What, a section of The Alphabet. Superficially at least, What has a line that one might read as Schuyler-esque, although the effect is the consequence of a happy accident. Here is a passage, picked more or less at random:

The meter maid is a
burly guy. Mesh on
the windows of
sheriff's bus. Curly headed
blonde looks wrong,
thick dark brows.
An African man with a
hat made of beads,
beans. Now styrofoam pasta
mock snow, drugstore window
holiday display. Brown, dry
outer skin of onion.

Smell of piss in rear of bus.
"Ju-ju con Danny," thick
felt tip strokes
cover rear window's
safety glass. Drop cloth
protects the hydrangea
beneath painters' scaffold.
The jaw moves in circles
massaging itself
as if over cud – she's
chewing gum (smoking
a cigarette!). Bright
red scarf over
long black coat
skips across street.
The bicyclist, panting,
pedals uphill. The collator
on the xerox (which is not
a xerox) beeps in distress.

Like Williams, I’m not systematic at all in what I’m doing, and I’m not trying to cause the line itself to fade, at least not consciously. Instead, the rule for the composition of What was that I could only break the line at points that felt “unnatural” to me. But after ten or fifteen pages of this, I could see what was emerging. Amazingly, I would later learn that the one book of mine that Jimmy Schuyler ever seems to have read is What, a little detail that continues to give me great pleasure.

 

¹ My mother was born in 1926, my father in ’27, making them contemporaries with the largest group of the New Americans: Ginsberg, Creeley, Eigner, Ashbery, Blackburn, O’Hara, Lamantia, even Spicer & Dorn if we stretch it a little.



Tuesday, November 08, 2005

 

I want to take this moment to acknowledge the short life and passing of Nadia Anjuman, a 25-year-old Afghani poet popular in her native country and neighboring Iran. According to police, she died after being knocked unconscious by her husband. Her husband has confessed to the beating, but denies causing her death. The family has denied authorities permission to conduct an autopsy, which may hamper any prosecution.

A student at Herat University, Anjuman published one book, Gule-Dodi (Dark Flower,) earlier this year. A second book is scheduled for publication in 2006. She leaves behind a six-month-old daughter.



Monday, November 07, 2005

 

Alan Dugan

 

Consider, if you will, just the linebreaks:

This Morning Here

This is this morning: all
the evils and glories of last night
are gone except for their
effects: the great world wars
I and II, the great marriage
of Edward the VII or VIII
to Wallis Warfield Simpson and
the rockets numbered like the Popes
have incandesced in flight
or broken on the moon: now
the new day with its famous
beauties to be seized at once
has started and the clerks
have swept the sidewalks
to the curb, the glass doors
are open, and the first
customers walk up and down
the supermarket alleys of their eyes
to Muzak. Every item has
been cut out of its nature,
wrapped disguised as something
else, and sold clean by fractions.
Who can multiply and conquer
by the Roman numbers? Lacking
the Arab frenzy of the zero, they
have obsolesced: the butchers
have washed up and left
after having killed and dressed
the bodies of the lambs all night,
and those who never have seen blood awake
can drink it browned
and call the past an unrepeatable mistake
because this circus of their present is all gravy.

Two of the first four lines are enjambed – their last word is part of a phrase that only completes itself on the next line. The effect, because we expect all & their to lead somewhere, is to minimize the gap between the end of one line and the start of the next. This is what I meant the other day when I referred to the concept of soft enjambment as a specific literary device & the idea has been haunting me since then. The poem is by Alan Dugan, one of the masters of soft enjambment, and was originally part of his Yale Younger Poets volume, Poems. Only two of the poem’s 33 lines end on a period, partly because there are so few: just four sentences to divide up 185 words, an average of more than 46 words per sentence. Yet there is nothing inherently difficult about Dugan’s language. The length of both first & last sentence is extended through the use of colons. And note how the middle two are quite short – just 28 words between them. Which means that first & last average just under 80 each (100 exactly for the first, 57 for the second). It’s a poem that seems so casual at first that the degree of control Dugan exercises on the text seems almost a surprise – it is, after all, something of a magic trick done in plain sight.

Now consider “Deep Winter”:

A starling drops
from branch to
branch, it’s cold
but not that cold:
the feel of cold-
ness is movement
on the skin so
walking in it
robs the air of
stillness: walking
on the half-thawed
yard you charge
the air with motion
you are a kind of
breeze a light
wind stirring still-
ness like shaking
out a rug the dust
hangs and swims
and shows a pattern
for a while, unstill.
Squirrels are every-
where, they fight
and follow “chase
the leader.” Where
are their larders?
They seem still
to hunt for food
in winter-waiting
weather. The only
blue is shutters
or a car. The car
sits still behind
a house: that’s Sun-
day for you. The
church bells swing
sound invisible
so palpable, it’s
strange. Shops
are shut. That’s
Sunday for you.
Purchases can wait
for Monday. Each
day so different
yet still alike
in waiting weather.

This poem, one of the “Elsewhere” sequence in Jimmy Schuyler’s Hymn to Life, makes use of the same toolkit, but to very different effect. It’s 150 words is divided into 46 lines, the shorter line giving the poem an austere feel that echoes the leafless, sunless, colorless condition of winter in the Northeast. Once again colons are used to stretch out a sentence, but in this poem only the first, which at 73 words is nearly half of the text – the next ten sentences will average just 7.7 words each. Here four of the lines end on terminal punctuation: three periods & a question mark. More pronounced are the four lines so enjambed that they break up individual words. Note also that Schuyler here uses a less colorless, less specific vocabulary than does Dugan – Schuyler’s small nouns almost mimic the palette of Larry Eigner. Yet what is profoundly different about Schuyler’s poem, both in contrast to Eigner’s work in general or the Dugan poem above, is his use of repetition, not just that’s Sunday for you, but the subtler echo of winter-waiting / weather in lines 29 & 30, and waiting weather at the very end. Who’d’a thunk it woulda been the New American to resolve the poem through rhyme?

Yet the poems are going in very different places. Schuyler is interested in identifying a certain dailiness, an unhurried rhythm that can exist in life away from the big city. Dugan is painted a pointed political allegory, equating meat consumption with the Holocaust. Such similar devices to such dissimilar ends.

Try to imagine, if you can, Robert Creeley reading each poem aloud. Or perhaps Robert Duncan during that period circa 1970 when he was counting three beats (sometimes whispered) at the end of every line. If you hear that pause at the end of every line, actually, it undermines Schuyler’s poem fairly seriously, because these short lines sound suddenly anxious & asthmatic. Yet Schuyler clearly doesn’t want you to hear that pause – there are lines that read, in their entirety, on the skin so that become almost unless they recede almost to the point of invisibility. That recessiveness is absolutely necessary tho, in order to foreground the deliberately askew syntax of The / church bells swing / sound invisible / so palpable, it’s / strange. Schuyler reiterates the point with the simplicity & directness of the next sentence: Shops / are shut.

The idea of writing a line that becomes invisible as such is a concept that could only have occurred in a world in which the line was always already visible everywhere. Schuyler & Dugan approach it from different angles, but operating on very similar assumptions. For each, it gave their work, within their different literary contexts, a distinctness, an identifiable formal signature that they would return to again & again.



Sunday, November 06, 2005

 

On the edge of a ridge removed from the sea lay a small wooden inn half-buried in snow. Four hooded figures, grunting against the storm, struggled unbidden into its darkened entry. Snow swirled in around them, and the clouds of their breath were torn away.

Thus begins The Apprentice, the 1996 novel by I. Lewis Libby, better known for fictitious weapons of mass destruction. The novel went into paperback after some decent reviews, but appears to have sunk without a trace. Amazon claims that you can find copies for as little as $124, but the cheapest I could see in Abebooks.com was going for $169. I don’t think the price has much to do with the quality of writing: “grunting against the storm”? “struggled unbidden”? “the clouds of their breath were torn away”? This first paragraph reminds me of nothing more than Snoopy typing on the roof of his doghouse.

Word is that Libby is working on a new piece of fiction, soon to debut in federal court.



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