Saturday, December 24, 2005

 

I’ve turned off the feature that allows for anonymous comments. Three abusive comments about the sexual habits of female poets from an anonymous poster in two days is three too many.

 

Θ Φ Θ

 

Plus, this friendly Christmas message from Franz Wright:

You're so full of shit, Ron.  Are you kidding, or do you really not hear the pathetic absurdity of terms like "Gang of Eight"?  It's embarrassing, & you're misleading young American idiots with no knowledge of history.  There's no conspiracy--your work is just tremendously, cruelly tedious, and nobody but a linguistic technician could read it for more than five minutes without dying of boredom.  You're the other pole of the formalists, an anachronism. And since you can't become Minister of Culture for Stalin or Mao, I suppose it's a good thing capitalism distributed a computer to you:  it's important for eccentric losers like you to have something to do, otherwise they might actually find a way to put their "ideas" into practice, and start putting the real artists in concentration camps. If you don't have the balls to put this in your blog (what a perfectly descriptive terms that is, don't you think?), that's ok.  I am bidding eternal farewell to blogdom as of this moment, I assure you.  And while you are busy writing your popular movie reviews, I'll be working on something about you for one of the publications real people actually read - it will take some work, since so few of them have even heard of you, but I'll do my best.

Like hell.

FW



Friday, December 23, 2005

 

Seth Abramson has questions. He is a poet who works as a lawyer & was a sociology minor in college, and who concedes to a fascination with the sociology of poetry. I’m a poet who has written – and passed – legislation & worked for years as executive editor of the Socialist Review, the largest group of whose editors were sociologists as well as socialists, and which was long associated with the qualitative (as distinct from quantitative) side of that discipline. I share Abramson’s fascination with the sociology of poetry, although I’m not sure that we actually like the same poets. Still, there are some magazines in which we’ve both appeared, albeit asynchronously: Verse, The Iowa Review, Southern Review.. It figures that he’s a public defender – most of my legislative work had to do with the rights & lives of felons. It’s even conceivable that Abramson may have once taken a government course at Dartmouth from my old colleague & dear friend Jim Shoch, who taught there for several years before heading back to California where he’s now ensconced at Sac State.

Reading Abramson’s weblog at moments is like looking at my own DNA tossed into a paper bag & shaken up into a different configuration. Except that he’s younger & obviously better looking. So when he published a blognote some 6,700 words long the other day on the sociology of poetry, I took notice. I took even more notice once I realized that the pathological symptom he chose to focus on is none other than yours truly. Not my poetry, which he doesn’t particularly discuss, but my weblog and what he perceives to be its social role at this particular moment. Abramson’s argument, in short, is that a sociology of poetry would seem to be impossible, that poets lack any objective position from which to establish the categorical terms through which to describe the literary landscape, and that the alternative is to behave as though someone’s personal dream of poetry were a shared reality. This makes knowing what you want to achieve in poetry, how you would go about that, and how you later ascertain whether or not you were successful, all but impossible.

Think, for a moment, about Ron Silliman's excellent and erudite blog. The denizens of the poet-blogger community frequent that blog as though it were a central hive for all things literary or theoretical or literary and theoretical, yet for me it engenders more questions than it answers, and not because have any complaint or contention with its author whatsoever (he is used, here, as a foil only, and he should know that); what I want to say, then, is that the appearance of sensibility on Silliman's blog is, to me, the final proof of its senselessness.

That it is so sure of itself, yet so manifestly exists inside an enormous vacuum – in the space where pragmatism meets ideology and loses both itself and the other – is at once terrifying and mystifying to me.

After all, why should Silliman be a kingmaker? Who is Ron Silliman? What place does Ron Silliman hold in the pantheon of modern writers, does anyone know? Does anyone agree? Why is Silliman the first, and not the second or the last, to bring us news of fresh voices on the national poetry scene? What other outlets bring us such tidings? Why do we choose Silliman over these other outlets? Are any of these newly-minted up-and-comers good? Is being "good" the same as being "relevant"? Would we ever hear of these poets if Silliman didn't discuss them? Are we better off reading these newer talents, or more deeply committing ourselves to reading and understanding existing talents? What's Silliman's bias? What's our bias? Do these new poets know Silliman's discussing them? Do they care? Did they ask for it? Will they last? Do they care if they last? Does Silliman care about us as much as we do about him? Will we ever meet Silliman? Would we have anything to say to him if we did? Who else reads Silliman? Anyone? How many? And which ones? And are they better for it? If I find myself left cold by the poetry Silliman favors, does that say something about me, about Silliman, about both of us, or about neither of us? If I'm satisfied to continue reading the poets I already read and not those pushed by the critic-of-the-day, does that make me a bad person? Or just a bad poet? How about if I've never heard of the poets Silliman discusses before he discusses them? Should I have known better? What does this say about my relative enthusiasm for poetry, as compared to Ron's? Can you hate poetry and be a good poet? Can you not understand some types of poetry and be a good poet? Can you love poetry and be a bad poet? Is being good a matter of work or a matter of talent? How much of each? Is Silliman a good poet? Who thinks so? Who doesn't? Does he teach? Could he teach? Anywhere, or just certain places? Is he improving over time? Or getting worse? Does he need an editor? A publisher? A ghost-writer? A collaborator? An interlocutor? A fan club? A School? A different School? Will we read Silliman in ten years? Was there another Silliman ten years ago? Is the name of that bygone Silliman clone luminous these days, or has it already been shelved and thus lost to us? When will we be shelved? Or our work? Is it too late? Has it already happened? Who decided? Can we convince them otherwise? Did we deserve it? Are the good things which happen to our poems the product of luck? Fate? Talent? Vision? Connections? Taste? Mere chance? Are there better poets than those Silliman talks about? Worse ones who've done better? Why did they do so well? Do we want to follow in their footsteps, or would that be an abrogation of our principles? What principles are in play here, anyway? Are the poets who do better doing better because they read Silliman or because they don't read Silliman or critics like Silliman? Or for other reasons? Do good poets read critics? Do they care about theory? Do they join Schools? Do good poets read lesser poets as much as lesser poets read their betters? Do good poets actually read poetry anymore, once everything they write has become eminently publishable? Are their interviews canned or spontaneous? Are they smarter than we are? Wiser? Did they have more money? More time? More drive? More talent? More street smarts? Is it okay to have some days in which you hate poetry? Would Silliman approve? Does Silliman sometimes hate poetry? Is it okay to admit these things, or will it cause one to be ostracized? Would one write better if one were ostracized? How much of what we write is material that has been adapted, copied, borrowed, improved upon, tweaked, unpacked, teased, paid homage to? How much is genius and how much what we think we can get away with? And just how much can we get away with, anyway? What are others getting away with? Are we being had? And do we deserve it, if so? How much love of poetry is too much? How much fear of poetry is not enough? Where does Art end and ambition begin? Where does ambition end and passion begin? And what's with academics? Are they wrong? Are we right? Is Silliman an academic? Could he be? Does he want to be? Do we want to be? What do we want? What do we want? Immortality, or just a good run?

There is no way I’m going to be able to answer a series of questions so dense as to call to mind my own Sunset Debris. But there are a number of good ones here, well worth thinking about, especially those that don’t fixate too much on my name. I take Abramson at his word that I am being used here strictly as a foil, even if I note that names one might substitute for the role he wants to assign for me would seem to be Vendler or even Bloom. That, I hope, is a misreading, one that I think results from the fact that Abramson is as far outside of the academy as I am.

I should note at the outset that the biggest problem I have with his argument and assumptions here is the existence of this “enormous vacuum.” If anything, I think that the problem is rather the opposite – there is an enormous quantity of evidence, books of poetry, magazines, on-line sites, now even weblogs. Poets House in New York collected – not just heard about, but actually got hold of – 2,100 books of poetry published last year. At that rate, over the next 40 years – the length of time I’ve been publishing – we can expect to see, at absolute minimum, 100,000 new books of poetry. And if we factor in the rate of acceleration from what it has been over the past few decades, a quarter million new books of poetry is itself a very safe prediction. The problem isn’t the lack of information, but just the opposite. How to make sense of all this: What about all this writing? as the doctor said.

I come along at the end of August 2002 and start posting to my weblog, reviewing maybe four books a week at the most, but often enough approaching the issues active in poetry from other perspectives – such as looking at Seth’s self-described “rant” on his weblog. Over the course of a year, it’s conceivable that I might actually discuss – at best – ten percent of a given year’s books of poetry. I’m not at all systematic, but I am informed, at least to this degree: as a poet, as a writer, as a reader, I come out of an identifiable tradition that stretches back pretty much unbroken at least to Blake & Wordsworth & Coleridge, and in the U.S. to Whitman, Dickinson, Melville & Poe. It’s not a random list, tho there are gaps that often strike me as yawning chasms of my own ignorance. My interest in Houseman, my interest in E.A. Robinson, my interest in Ted Kooser, my interest in Glynn Maxwell is pretty darn minimal. I read the Pound-Williams tradition, for example, as leading directly back to that quartet of 19th century Americans, whereas the School of Quietude (SoQ) leads instead to Robinson, Houseman, Kipling, Tennyson. But neither heritage is simple or unbroken – Gertrude Stein is a disruptive presence in the Pound-Williams tradition, for example, as is Joyce. The disappearance of the Objectivists in the 1940s – the first major modernist generation to virtually vanish, if only for a time – represents a crisis in modernism that I think we have yet to fully understand. I sometimes suspect that the shift from an avant-garde model, ushered in by the Preface to Lyrical Ballads in English & by Baudelaire’s prose poems in French (hijacking Bertrand more than following him), which ultimately is a military model, toward what I’ve termed the post-avant, which is more community focused and not inherently allergic to fessing up to its own sense of heritage, was triggered precisely by the absence of the Objectivists at the moment when the New Americans came along. Language poetry, my own generation of the 1970s, came along as a break within the New American vein in the name of that generation’s own higher values – it basically ditched the fetishized “I” and looked at the materials of writing with some of the same cold analytical eye that the abstract expressionists had used with a canvas & Jimi Hendrix used on a guitar. Somewhat inadvertently, it also exposed an inherent conservativism even within the New American tradition. Since then, we have seen a tremendous expansion of American poetry, fueled by an influx of women and people of color and different backgrounds. There are more poets now, and more good ones, than ever before. And the scene doesn’t look even remotely like what it did just 20 years ago when In the American Tree was about to be published.

I have been, I hope, reasonably out front about my own predilections, my likes & dislikes. I’ve insisted on a concept like School of Quietude because there is, and has been for over 150 years, a disequilibrium of power in American letters predicated on control of the publishing lists of the trade presses – the Gang of Eight I referred to in my note on the New York Times last week – and, at least once upon a time, around jobs within the academy. The most destructive and oppressive thing an elite group can do in our society is to pretend that it is the unmarked case, as if Robert Pinsky and John Hollander wrote poetry, but Kasey Mohammad wrote post-modern or New Brutalist poetry, Geof Huth wrote vispo, Erica Hunt & Harryette Mullen wrote langpo. That allows the unmarked set the opportunity of acting as if its monopoly of such traditional institutions as the trade presses and the awards conferred by the publishing industry – there’s that Gang of Eight again – were “normal” & anything outside of that were “exceptional.” In fact, the SoQ is one interest group among many, privileged more by history than by the bad acts of its current practitioners, but real nonetheless. It’s a little like white males coming to own their own whiteness & their gender. It really will be good for the SoQ to own their own heritage – they have more disappeared poets to recover than almost anyone.

The alleged centrality of my weblog is a bit of a myth, frankly. I was simply one of the early ones, and not as early, say, as Laurable or Joseph Duemer. My current daily readership is over 1,100 visitors per day, which is more than that of the New Criterion (745 per day) or Mark Woods’ (955 per day), but not that much more. My half million readers over the past 3¼ years are only about one-fourth of those that have visited Michael Bérubé’s site. And the roster of 700 similar blogs to the left suggest that a gradual democratization of poetic blogging is inevitable as well as a positive thing. For example, Kasey Mohammad has one of the very best sites, consistently provocative and intelligent. Currently, it gets less than 100 visits per day. That’s wasting a valuable resource.

But I will admit that I’m making a bet here. I’m betting not only that a Simon Armitage or Robert Pinsky or Franz Wright or whomever wouldn’t attempt to do the same kind of unsystematic daily commentary as this, but, further, that they couldn’t. One of the things this weblog forces me to do is to re-examine my beliefs as a poet every single day. Which is an interesting challenge – I’ve come to new conclusions in many new areas & about quite a few poets along the way.

I’m betting that any serious, sustained examination of the SoQ tradition would force its practitioners to change, not unlike the ways in which a whole generation of Boston Brahmin protégés in the 1960s bailed on the Old Formalism: Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, John Berryman, Donald Hall, W.S. Merwin, James Dickey, James Merrill. One of the reasons that there are more kinds of Quietist poetry today than there were 50 years ago is precisely that those poets all took flight from the old formalism they’d inherited – even Lowell did, after a fashion – so that the alternative within their broader tradition was no longer just the post-Auden branch that came mostly out of Iowa City. And one ironic consequence of that is today’s New Formalism, which has had to reinvent a tradition that had been left for dead by its own practitioners.

Just for the record, I’m not an academic. My “terminal degree,” a phrase that I just love, is a high school diploma. My teaching career consists of a graduate seminar at San Francisco State, two classes (one on fiction writing) at UC San Diego, a class on the prose poem at New College and a couple of one-week workshops at Naropa and Brown. I did work as a college administrator for four years, and have participated in accreditation visits at other schools, but it would be difficult to characterize that as much of an academic career. In fact, one of my out-front biases is that I think that the academy is an incredibly feudal institution and a dreadful arbiter of literary value. Rather, I look to the literary communities of the 1950s as a far healthier model, a period during which the only school that mattered for American poetry, Black Mountain College, went bankrupt. Of the other venues of that decade, Jack Spicer’s spot at the back of the bar at Gino & Carlo’s in North Beach was more important in the 1950s than Yale, Harvard or Berkeley combined. One of the real possibilities of blogging is to transfer a lot of the kind of authority that schools acquire almost like barnacles on the side of the Titanic away from the academy and back into the hands of poets. When Eileen Tabios recommends Allen Bramhall’s idea of positing the sign “Pullet Surprise” in bookstores atop books that have received that award for their poultry, webs of reference are constructed that really are, or ought to be, the focus of Abramson’s thinking here. That may be playful & deliberately in jest, but so was O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto, and for just that reason it’s more important than whatever theory ever showed up in a journal like Social Text or October. For one thing, it passes the basic seriousness test – a theory is not serious if its progenitor attempts to prove it by reading texts from the late 19th century. A theory is serious only if it attempts to intervene today, and if it attempts to throw light onto the art of the future. Any other theory isn’t about its subject, but about tenure. Which is why poetry is flourishing in 2005 and theory is not.

And which is why, ultimately, Abramson’s attempt to cast me in the Vendler/Bloom role strikes me as wrong. The institutional power they sought never wanted to leave the institution. I want to see it flow instead toward St. Marks & the Bowery Poetry Club & Woodland Pattern & SPD & Open Books in Seattle or Molly’s here in Philadelphia. I look at a scene like Tucson and it strikes me as obvious that a reading collective like POG is important, while the writing program at the university there is not. So I want to siphon some of the juju away from the school over to something like POG, and there is something like it in almost every major American city right now. Which makes me an optimist.

Which only touches the surface of Seth Abramson’s questions – and that passage I quoted above is less than one-seventh of what he wrote, all of which is well worth considering further, and more deeply.



Thursday, December 22, 2005

 

(L-R) Reed Bye, Harry Smith, Jack Collom & Steve Taylor
on
Flagstaff Mountain, 1988 (Photo by Allen Ginsberg)

 

The question of poetry & place will probably always fascinate me. One of the reasons that I prefer the term Projectivist to the more location-specific Black Mountain is because there were key members of that 1950s literary community, including Denise Levertov & Larry Eigner, who spent virtually no time at the North Carolina enclave. The New Western poets were never identical with San Francisco, and anyway had their own internal tendencies (maybe a better phrase would be distinct flavors) betwixt the Buddhist wing and the cowboy one. And the Missouri Linebreaks are hardly the first instance of a New York School aesthetic showing up well to the west of the Hudson River. In the 1970s, in particular, Actualism took this same aesthetic west, albeit having learned it not at St. Marks, but in the Iowa Writers Workshop during its brief flirtation with diversity when Ted Berrigan & Anselm Hollo were both in residence. And then, of course, for the past quarter century, there has been that St. Marks of the Rockies, the fabled Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. If you look at the actual existing faculty at Naropa, tho, only Anne Waldman qualifies as a New York School poet in the narrow & historically specific sense. But Waldman has always had one foot also in the Beat lineage, something which working alongside Allen Ginsberg for two decades no doubt accentuated. Anselm Hollo himself is a member of the faculty, but it makes more sense – I think – to consider Anselm an influence on the New York School than of it. On his home page at Naropa, Anselm describes himself as a

lifelong associate of the Beat, Black Mountain, New York (I and II), and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E schools of U.S. American Poetry (and a founding member of the more esoteric "schools" of Actualism and Continualism)

Jack Collom has always been his own phenomenon, his influences a unique mix of Beat, New Western, NY School & his own working class experiences, with a little ornithology sprinkled in. Bobbie Louise Hawkins is just as hard to characterize. Andrew Schelling comes more out of the Buddhist side of the New Western aesthetic, just as Keith Abbott has roots in Actualism, tho he was already doing what he does before it showed up in his home town of Albany, California.

One Naropa faculty member who has always struck me as being thoroughly New York School in his aesthetic, although so far as I know he’s never lived in any of its boroughs for an extended period, is Reed Bye. I thought at first that it just may be because he’s always been published by the small and independent presses I associate with the New York School – books from Angel Hair, Rocky Ledge (the imprint he & Waldman used during their ten-year marriage in the 1980s), Z Press, magazine appearances in Shiny, Sal Mimeo & Naropa’s own Bombay Gin. And now his selected poems, his first truly big book, Join the Planets, comes from Lewis Warsh’s United Artists. But reading Join the Planets, I can see it there, also, in virtually all of the poems. Here’s an early poem, “Indiana”:

A blue garbage truck goes by
and it’s already hot.
A guy with an unlit cigarette out his mouth
hacks down the motel walk.
Soon we’ll be driving,
Tom will be driving, me
off and on reading
Two Years Before the Mast.

In the coffee shop now
just me the cook and waitress,
nothing sexual but
the Declaration of
Independence
placemat.
What an excellent
taut nippled document –
governments are instituted
to secure individual rights for their peoples.
When they fuck up, they’re out.

And here is a recent one, “The Outflakes,” the first poem in the volume’s last section:

In the poem “The Outflakes”
you surprise yourself
later
now it’s just
flipped out from the page
in some ink
lodged in threads of a rag

You surprise
yourself later – that’s
the best we can do
with “The Outflakes”
a poem
writ mostly on fumes

We don’t know
everything yet –
”not,” “however,” etc.
but let’s not get carried away

In threads of a rag
on a hook in the ink
and anything else
that gets stuck to a mat

In what’s good in a book
when freed by a sneeze
from a tube that’s as blue
as its goo inside as red –
a surprise to yourself
it could be
the end of illusion

A tough bubble
of stuff
”The Outflakes,”
a text made
from weasel-like
filings

Like a breath of some cool
fresh air on some gruel
in the view
from the top of a granary

When a break spools it through
from a grotto of dew
where beavers
beat gravel to quicksand

Like a sneeze
from a tube
a hook in the mat
that pulls from the eye
a specular thread
”The Outflakes”
rife with errata

Mirabile dictu!
a wonder to say
it sneezed out into
”The Outflakes”

Both poems are lovely, a pleasure to read, each a work in which, as Bye has written of a piece by an earlier poet,

the energy of its content is found inside its language forms, and experienced most fully with attention given over to the moving feel of those forms.

Both poems show several tell-tale signs of NY School influence: the personal, casual tone; identifying people by first name alone; the presence of slang; the use of the second-person to frame an internal dialog; an inherent optimism; the off-hand way in which the poem itself is discussed; the whole concept of writing about a sneeze. Not one of these features requires actually living in Manhattan or on the far shores of Brooklyn or Staten Island. Yet it’s remarkable just how many of these are always already familiar to us, from O’Hara and Koch in the first generation, and from about ten different poets in the second.

It has been noted before that many of New York School, so-called, especially in its first two generations, were themselves not big city kids, or at least not Manhattan kids, before they got to the Big Apple. Even Kenneth Koch was born in Cincinnati & only Frank O’Hara had an East Coast childhood. Indeed, besides the fact that several attended Harvard, the most common element in their backgrounds appears to have been service in the U.S. Navy. Several members of the next generation were all in high school in Tulsa when the Pied Piper, in the form of GI Ted Berrigan, blew into town.

I have no idea where Bye grew up, tho I do that he served in the merchant marines before getting his Ph.D. at the University of Colorado. According to Waldman, his entry into the Naropa scene, like that of Collom, was that of a local poet whose aesthetic was immediately sympathetic to & supportive of such New York émigrés as herself & Ginsberg. You can find two readings of his in PENNsound’s archives of the Left Hand Reading Series.

Now there are more things going on in both of these poems than the list of NY School features above suggests. For example, in “The Outflakes,” there is a terrific deployment of internal rhyme (cool, gruel, view, spools, through, dew, all in the space of six lines). In “Indiana,” a political poem of the first order, the whole idea of these two travelers in the middle of the U.S. landmass being guided at least spiritually by Richard Henry Dana & his own account of the merchant marine offers a very different sense of America than that of the Declaration of Independence laminated as a diner placemat.

So I read this wonderful, long overdue book as a case of the New York School with New York itself erased, or at least absent & unaccounted for. Which in turn makes me want to ask what is New York about the New York school? And if you were describe or define this poetry without reference to the city, the way, say, Projectivism does for Black Mountain, how would you go about it?



Wednesday, December 21, 2005

 

Eight days after September 11, 2001, Semezdin Mehmedinović, a Bosnian national who first came to the United States five years earlier as a political refugee, took a train ride from the East Coast to the West & back again, traversing the United States twice in a period of just ten days. “Nine Alexandrias,” the title sequence of the book by the same name, is the result.

At one level, “Nine Alexandrias” is a sonnet sequence, a form normally accorded to love poetry. But there are so many other layers here – the classic American genre of the road trip, a nation in emotional disarray, Mehmedinović’s status not just as an immigrant (itself a major trope of American writing) but also as a European Muslim during a period in which that spiritual category was itself taking on an entire range of new, terrible, largely simplistic & stereotypical connotations for many Americans – that to call this a sonnet sequence misses the mark entirely. Rather, Mehmedinović has chosen a form precisely because, as in the work of Jack Spicer, that which appears “simple” & “lyric” can in the same moment also be “limitless” & “infinite,” not in the Montana Big Sky sense, but rather something closer to Dante, infinite darkness, infinite depth. Here, for example, is “Open Dialogue,” unique in this series only in its large number of stanzas:

“What are you reading”

“Poems by Jallaludin Rumi, a
Poet born in
Afghanistan.”

“Where are you from?”

Bosnia.”

“Serbs and Croats, right? Is anyone else there?”

“There are others.”

“What color are your eyes?”

“Green till
Colorado
But since we passed
Apache Canyon
They’re blue in the
New Mexico light.”

“So then what kind of Muslim are you?”

“White.”

To call this a sonnet mostly is to call that genre into question. At least formally, “Pound” would seem to be closer to the historic form:

I don’t know the name of the place
With the local radio station on the cliff
The neon sign with its frequency numbers rising
High in the night, almost to the sky.

It must mean the American interior still harbors the
Early notion of building the ruler’s temple as high as
Possible – a vertical optical illusion playing
On human and divine perspective.

In
Washington this kind of attitude’s been allotted the
Nicest plateau in front of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.
There, as an old man
(Since he’d committed to the asylum for reading on Italian radio)

Ezra Pound surveyed the city in the ravine,
His lion’s mane waving in the wind.

There are several things going on here worth noting. Most notable at first is the use of enjambment, especially at the end of the first lines of the second and third stanzas, but also the second line of the second stanza as well. How much of this is Mehmedinović & how much is his English translator Ammiel Alcalay, I can’t tell, but someone here is deliberately rushing us through these strophes to get us to the last stanza, the moment at which the referential stream of notions comes finally into focus. More interesting is the way the two major instances of metaphor – ruler’s temple, lion’s mane – play out in the poem. The first occurs in the one line in the text that is bounded on both sides by enjambment – which is to say that the reader’s ability to pause on ruler’s temple is made as difficult as possible. The term is then contextualized as an illusion, an explanation that deliberately drains the life of the image. But the second metaphor works in just the opposite way, as the poem literally ends on the image of Pound’s red hair wild & flowing in his St. Elizabeth’s period (where, as best I can tell from photographs, it had more or less already gone white). Is Pound literally being lionized? It’s hard to imagine, especially given the cues that come up ahead of it – Hospital, old man, committed, asylum – even if Pound’s anti-Semitic harangues themselves are oddly neutralized into “reading on Italian radio.”

The question of the Second World War & American poetry comes up again even more ambiguously in “After Spicer / (LA 9/22),” which reads:

I’ve already been sitting in the garden at the café
For hours before I spread the book out in front of me
Jack Spicer’s Language
So I can transmit what I’ve just read like it was
News, not something that
Happened half-a-century back:

“The 50 penny German postage stamp
Depicts a small chapel and an oak:
If you look real closely
You can see Hitler’s face come together in the crown of the tree,
And at the Bundespost the Reichmeister says:

We know what it is we’ve designed and it doesn’t represent Hitler.
It doesn’t speak very well for the German people
If they see Hitler everywhere.”

This quoted passage is, more or less literally, a translation back into English of the ninth poem from the sequence “Graphemics” by Spicer. More or less literally because only the last two lines are Spicer’s text word for word (not, however, line break for line break). While one might read the first six lines of this quotation or appropriation – Spicer himself would have approved of this theft – as a condensation of the original as when, after the word stamp at the end of the first line of Spicer’s, the parenthetical phrase (a grapheme to / to be paid for and cancelled) is eliminated. However, after the word tree (this quotation already gives its details in a very different order than does Spicer), comes a lengthier passage that has also been cut:

Graphemes should not be looked at
              so minutely.     The
Forest for the trees.     The kisses for
              the love.     The
Oakman grows behind every chapel.
The fine
Print on the contract.
God gives us that.

Strangely enough, looking minutely at the graphemes here is exactly what I’m doing. Is this simply excess baggage of Spicer’s that Mehmedinović slashes from his text so that he can end up with the requisite 14 lines? Is this material he doesn’t want us to think about? Or is its absence, like the use of a translation of his translation, rather than a pure return to Spicer’s original words, an active element of the text? This is not the first time in Mehmedinović’s series that the question of translation arises. In the poem immediately prior to “Pound,” entitled “Sufism,” Mehmedinović writes of Coleman Bark’s rendering of Rumi:

Initiates go so far as to claim the translations
Matches the original and that, in line with this,
Sufism is available here in a southern drawl.

There are any number of other lines one could trace here – for instance between Mehmedinović’s poem about the death of JFK and Spicer’s famous “Smoke signals/Like in the Eskimo villages….” Or the use of the word tower coming so soon after the fall of the World Trade Center, as in

Beauty towers – Japanese –
Like snow over
Denver

also from “Sufism,” or, from a later poem,

I’m going west but there’s an endless series of
Towers to the east, electric grid like Eiffel’s, facing
Paris

Or the multiple poems that refer not to travel, trains, destinations, but to prison life? And what does it mean for somebody who writes of antifascism to focus on Pound & Spicer, two of the more anti-Semitic poets in recent American literature? Where is the point between reading and reading into, projecting one’s own subtext over this language?

There are also two other, shorter series in Nine Alexandrias, each very nearly as dense in their web of reference & implication. Unlike the earlier Sarajevo Blues, this book clearly is about Mehmedinović’s new country, but it’s a country with a difficult history, and comes at a difficult time. The confusions that might abound in a nation in which “there are at least nine cities … called Alexandria” are not to be passed over, nor muted. Mehmedinović is willing to look at everything and does so without blinking.



Tuesday, December 20, 2005

 

Today would have been John Spencer’s 59th birthday. The actor, best known for his role as Leo McGarry, the former White House chief of staff now running for the vice-presidency on West Wing, died Friday morning of a heart attack. There was a time, back when Aaron Sorkin was still writing its scripts almost single-handedly, when West Wing was the finest show on television. And John Spencer was its intellectual, dramatic & moral center, playing a recovering alcoholic one-time labor secretary who convinces the governor of New Hampshire to make a quixotic bid for the presidency only to win. Even tho the series has become something of a shadow of its former self, I still watch most episodes. Indeed, just last Sunday, as the floundering Matt Santos campaign looks to VP candidate McGarry to take over the reins of the campaign from the manifestly incompetent Josh Lyman, Spencer muttered the line “They’re trying to kill me,” since his character had been forced from his White House post two years before after a major heart attack. It will be hard to see that line in the reruns that have become a staple on Bravo.

What was perhaps most impressive about West Wing, at its best & to some degree even now, was the degree to which it gets the actual feel & flow of electoral politics right. I worked as a lobbyist in Sacramento in the early 1970s, the legislative advocate for a group called the Coalition of 2600, consisting of almost all the prison movement and prison reform organizations in California. For four years, I kept the state of California from building any new prisons and co-led a successful effort to rewrite the entire penal code, replacing the thoroughly politicized indeterminate sentence with fixed terms. At one point, I stopped Governor Jerry Brown’s first choice as head of the parole board, ex-prison boss Ray Procunier, from being approved by the state senate…and managed to do so without having my fingerprints all over the controversy, since I still needed to work with Brown. Indeed, after I left that position, I was appointed to the state task force on health conditions in local detention facilities, a board that reported up through Brown’s secretary of health, Jerome Lackner.

While some of West Wing’s characters, such as Brad Whitford’s Josh Lyman & Richard Schiff’s Toby Ziegler, come across as so inept you know they would be eaten alive even in the relatively small universe of any state capitol, Spencer’s McGarry had the feel of the real deal in everything he did. Part of the show’s success, of course, has been its ability to use an ensemble to construct multiple plot lines that combine political issues with both comedy & drama, such as when the six-foot tall Allison Janey, whose character C.J. Cregg is code-named Flamingo by the Secret Service & whose height is accentuated by the fact that so many male actors are short – Spencer himself was only 5’6” – was helping first lady Stockard Channing film an episode of Sesame Street at the White House and had one scene where she simply sat down on a bench for a second’s respite, joined wordlessly there by Big Bird. But such rigmarole has little to do with what goes on day-to-day in any real political office. Leo McGarry’s no-nonsense push-ahead political style, accomplished largely by Spencer’s underacting in a world in which most television performers do just the opposite, has everything to do with it.

West Wing’s future has increasingly been tenuous ever since Sorkin left the show, and it remains to be seen if it can survive without Spencer. Whether it continues or not, the first three seasons or thereabouts of West Wing will remain as good as any television drama has ever been.



Monday, December 19, 2005

 

Kind words about this weblog from Ian McMillan on BBC’s Newsnight.

And thanks to Keith Tuma for pointing this out.



 

The very last item in the new Chicago Review is Paul Hoover’s “note,” entitled “My Kind of Town: Local Literary Community,” the text actually of a talk given at an AWP conference in Chicago maybe 18 months ago. In fact, this piece could just as easily have been the first, not a manifesto exactly, and too personal perhaps to be a major piece of literary theory as such, but much meatier than the term “note” implies. It is (a) a history, sweet, generous & surprisingly full of detail for a piece of writing that’s only five pages long, of Chicago literary scenes from Carl Sandberg to Ray Bianchi, (b) a record of Hoover’s own influences and their relationship (sometimes strong, sometimes not at all) to the city of Chicago itself, (c) a consideration of the impact of the local on Paul’s life, writing, career, and (d) a meditation on Chicago’s rise from being a “fly-over city” insofar as poetry is concerned to becoming one of the major contemporary destinations of the post-avant.

Hoover moved, albeit part-time, to the Bay Area roughly six months before I moved from Berkeley to Chester County, Pennsylvania, and I read his account, especially his sense of distance from Chicago & not-quite-really-being-there in Mill Valley, through the lens of my own experience. I certainly had trepidations about the scene in Philadelphia before I moved. Would APR be an overwhelming presence? Would it be like a small city scene, where the only events that happen are invariably linked to a university? What would become of my own sense of relatedness to San Francisco & the East Bay? At the time, I know that I told several people that I wasn’t sure I could have made the move without the existence, then relatively recent, of the Poetics List from SUNY-Buffalo, and without knowing that Gil Ott had found it a reasonable place to be, since I knew that his own relationship to universities was nearly as distant as my own.

One thing that really jumped out at me was Paul’s characterization of the impact of Poetry on the city in which it has been published now for some 93 years. This is it in its entirety:

Chicago’s main poetry event used to be Poetry Day, sponsored by Poetry.

As it turns out, this is a notably greater impact than APR has on Philadelphia. In ten years now, I’ve been in the same room with an APR editor exactly three times. On one of those occasions, I had a great chat with Arthur Vogelsang. And, when APR sponsored a special local edition as an insert to one of the local weekly newspapers, I was included. So my anxieties in that regard proved groundless.

The other thing that jumped out at me was Hoover’s recitation of the “incredible growth of experimental poetry in Chicago in recent years.” As Hoover says of Chicago, Philadelphia likewise “has finally grown up” as a literary community in its own right, not merely a feeder scene into Manhattan.

I would suggest that this is because there are more good writers now doing various kinds of post-avant work than at any previous time in U.S. history. Of the more than 700 poets listed in the blogroll to the left, at least 500 have some relationship to the post-avant, those interwoven traditions that grew out of the New American poetry & other modernist veins. Even if the percentage of post-avant poets who blog is ten percent – I personally suspect that three to five percent is more like it – then we’re talking about 4,000 active post-avant writers. Contrast that with the 44 participants in the Allen anthology a half century ago. Which is how you get active local literary communities in Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, North Carolina, Seattle, a whole series of places that literally didn’t have enough poets outside of English departments two or three decades ago to order a pizza. Hence even the Missouri Linebreaks, with very nearly as many poets having a shared aesthetic as there were in the first generation of the New York School itself.

I can already hear in my mind’s ear, certain voices – Curtis Faville, Joe Green – wanting to remind me that quantity is not quality, with which of course I concur. But I think you can make the quality argument also, tho the logic of it is different. For one thing, community itself has a salutary effect on poets. Friends push one another to work harder & then turn around & work harder themselves. Read the Ellingham-Killian biography of Jack Spicer, for example, or any of the memoirs of Black Mountain, or consider why so very many students of Ted Berrigan turned out to be good poets. While it is still true that you can have a superb writer working more or less in total isolation – Emily Dickinson or, more recently, Besmilr Brigham – the fact is that community impacts the writing, even tho and as it is never the writing itself. As I remember explaining to somebody once at the Grand Piano coffee house sometime in the 1970s, a reading series – your basic community event – is never the house of poetry, tho it just might be its kitchen.

It makes sense that institutions that come out of the School of Quietude, as APR always has & as Poetry has since the death of Henry Rago, the last editor to see that journal as representative, not merely partisan, should have so little impact on their communities. For, with the two exceptions of the Boston Brahmins around Robert Lowell & a generation of poets associated with the Iowa Writers Workshop, literary tendencies associated with place – the New York School, the Berkeley Renaissance, the D.C. scene, Black Mountain, the Bolinas poets – have always been part of the post-avant heritage. Indeed, recognizing that the modernist military metaphor behind avant-gardism is not the same as moving writing forward through formal innovation & that community has been as important a part of the avant tradition since Baudelaire arrived in Paris is precisely the shift in stance by which avant becomes post-.

So what Paul Hoover rightly celebrates as the emergence of Chicago as a destination city for poetry also is part of a much larger social phenomenon, one in which the number of poets in this country have expanded dramatically, even while the number of poetry books from trade publishers is dwindling down to a final few. This new cornucopia of writing is having an impact well beyond the Windy City, and not all of it is geographically focused (viz the web). Thus the concept of local itself is changing, just as the relationship of the poet to an audience is moving away from the few-poets-many-readers template of past centuries. It will be interesting to see if, at some point, this transformation has an impact on literary values as such, which in theory you would expect.



Sunday, December 18, 2005

 

For a film that is basically the cinematic equivalent of a roller coaster ride, King Kong is surprisingly effective, making the Indiana Jones series, for example, seem as creaky & old-fashioned as King Kong’s 1933 original on which Peter Jackson has lovingly based this remake. The new version has been well-received critically – four stars from Roger Ebert, no less – and both are now listed among the top 250 rated films of all time at the Internet Movie DataBase, with the new version coming in considerably higher than the original.

Much of what makes is the new film work is not simply Jackson’s magic with CGI effects – there is nothing here technically that you haven’t seen already in Lord of the Rings, save possibly the scene in which Lumpy the cook is devoured by something that appears to have wandered over from a Tremors remake – nor in Andy Serkis continuing mastery of non-human roles. What fills the screen and dominates this film from first scene to last is the luminous presence of Naomi Watts.

Watts is a tremendous actress, as anyone who ever saw Mulholland Drive must realize. Here, she plays Ann Darrow as if the soul of Harrison Ford has dropped into the body of Marilyn Monroe. She’s not at all the passive screamer of Fay Wray in the original. Indeed, the scene in which she confronts Kong on the streets of New York – new to this version – is one of the film’s best, recalling as it does gunfight sequences from any number of American westerns as well as the seductiveness of Mae West. Wearing more clothing than Wray does in the original – the scene in which Kong removes her garments is not repeated here – Watts has to make an amazing range of different kinds of scenes all work, from physical comedy to action to romance. In one scene on the tramp steamer, Watts even has to parody Kate Winslet from Titanic, and does so just enough to let us see the echo without ever stepping out of character. Perhaps most importantly, Watts is the one actor in the film who successfully plays against both Jack Black, whose version of movie director Carl Denham is a cross between young Orson Wells & Phil Silvers, and love interest Adrian Brody, a much quieter, more sensitive actor whose scale in a scene is completely at odds with the broad comedic gestures (even muted as they are here) of Black. This film works because Watts makes it work. King Kong is almost a master class in the number of ways one character, and one actor, can function in a film, and Watts is completely equal to the challenge.

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