Saturday, February 11, 2006
Graham Foust reminded me of something Steve Vincent had pointed out to me at the time, that when William Anderson died in 2004, his old friend Wilbur Wood (the
Friday, February 10, 2006
Gian Lombardo’s Quale Press is nothing if not hardy & independent. Holly Iglesias’ volume on women’s prose poetry is calculated to deliberately piss off a lot of people, and the number of readers clamoring for a reprint of Arturo Giovannitti’s English-language poems can’t have been large. Lombardo obviously does what he thinks is important, which is exactly the way to go about publishing a small press.
Unfortunately, real small presses – one-person operations in particular – are prone to inconsistency, learning by doing (sometimes the hard way), and serious resource constraints. One older Quale Press publication is one of the most frustrating anthologies I know. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book, or that the poetry inside isn’t interesting – it is, for the most part – but that the press missed an opportunity to make an okay book a great one.
The culprit is When the Time Comes: A Selection of Contemporary Belgian Prose Poetry edited by Lombardo himself. It’s a relatively slim collection of nine prose poets spread out over 68 pages – fewer really, since left-hand pages at the end of selections are left blank & each poet has his or her own title page. One, Karel Logist, has two selections, one right after the other, so that there are three pages (one blank one at the end of each section, plus the second title page) that could have been given over to more of his work. But what really underscores this underutilization of pages is a sequence of eight blank pages at the back of the book.
This is important, because what the volume lacks is context. There is no introduction, no afterword, not a word of biographical data on any of the poets. Only one, Michel Delville (pictured above), who has published three books in English that I’m aware of – all critical in nature – can be expected to be familiar to an American audience. Another contributor, Eugène Savitzkaya, does have a more recent volume of his own work out from Quale.
The lack of context here is maddening, at least to me. Are these poets representative of current work on the prose poem in
Larry Fagin is always suggesting that one ought to be able to read poetry without reference to such information – in a way, Larry’s carrying the old New Critical notion to an extreme, publishing issues of magazines in which the poets remain anonymous. But an anthology like this disproves the presumptions of this position – it’s true that you can read what is on the page, but that is not all that is in, of, or around the poem – it’s simply not the sole dimension that is engaged. In fact, for my money, the most interesting poet here, at least in these translations, is Savitzkaya, whose excerpts from Rules of Solitude push shortness toward an extreme, at least for the sentence:
It would be necessary to be passed through the mouth of a lion, to have been digested, then vomited, or in some manner expelled at last, to feel a bit of pride in exhibiting one’s face.
Nine poems, every one of which has something to do with the concept face. When Quale decided to publish Savitzkaya’s entire book, it’s worth noting that Lombardo (translator here as well as publisher) chose a small, custom size, 4.5” high, 6” wide, 11.5 point type over a 15 point line, with the French originals on the facing page, giving the 29-poem sequence enough heft to warrant the book format. (When it was originally published in
I resist the notion that an anthology like this really is a shopping list for one’s next tour of Google, attempting to ferret out details that should be there already. It would really be useful if this collection is ever republished – I think the work here warrants it – if Lombardo or Delville or someone would step up and use all those extra pages effectively.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
When it occurred to me last Sunday that Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry and the Politics of Cultural Memory, 1910-1945, was a great source for thinking further about neglectorinos in poetry in general, I noted that
Nelson attempts to describe all of American poetry over that 35 year span by starting with its most despised position, leftwing doggerel in radical newsletters, and proceeding outward from there.
And followed that up by pulling my copy of
Nelson notes – I want to say “at the beginning,” but that’s really because the primary text has so very few paragraphs (and no chapter or section divisions at all) that it feels like we’ve barely just begun even tho we’re already on page 62 – that no organization on the American left during the period in question put the role of poetry more prominently than the International Workers of the World, the Wobblies or IWW. Over the next few pages Nelson briefly discusses the work of the three most prominent Wobbly poets, Ralph Chaplin, Covington Hall and Arturo Giovannitti.
Later that day, as I’m thinking about what I want to read & write about over the next week or two, I glance over the stacks of unread books of poetry I keep up in my bedroom – that’s in addition to the eight-foot-tall bookcase I have of them there. Sitting literally atop the leftmost stack of books is Arrows in the Gale & Other Poems by the same aforesaid Giovannitti, just republished by Quale, the same press that issued Holly Iglesias’ Boxing Inside the Box. Quale publisher Gian Lombardo definitely has a thing about publishing works with an edge, items that nobody else might dare handle.
Arrows in the Gale is just such a project. The title series – roughly the first third of the book – is the volume that Giovannitti published first in 1914, the book that cemented his legacy as the Wobbly Poet. The other poems were mostly written later & not gathered into book form until 1962, three years after his death at the age of 73.¹ “The Walker,” written while Giovannitti was in jail awaiting trial for murder in 1912² is his most famous poem. It’s interesting to think not only of Walt Whitman, but of Ginsberg’s Howl, when reading this text.
I hear footsteps over my head all night.
They come and they go. Again they come and they go all night.
They come one eternity in four paces and they go one eternity in four paces, and between the coming and the going there is Silence and the Night and the Infinite.
For infinite are the nine feet of a prison cell, endless is the march of him who walks between the yellow brick wall and the red iron gate, thinking things that cannot be chained and cannot be locked, but that wander far away in the sunlit world, each in a wild pilgrimage after a destined goal.
* * *
Throughout the restless night I hear the footsteps over my head,
Who walks? I know not. It is the phantom of the jail, the sleepless brain, a man, the man, the Walker.
One-two-three-four: four paces and the wall.
One-two-three-four: four paces and the iron gate.
He has measured his pace, he has measured it accurately, scrupulously, minutely, as the hangman measures the rope and the gravedigger the coffin – so many feet, so many inches so many fractions of an inch for each of the four paces.
One-two-three-four. Each step sounds heavy and hollow over my head, and the echo of each step sounds hollow within my head as I count them in suspense and in dread that once, perhaps, in the endless walk, there may be five steps instead of four between the yellow brick wall and the red iron gate.
But he has measured the space so accurately, so scrupulously, so minutely that nothing breaks the grave rhythm of the slow, fantastic march.
* * *
When All are asleep, (and who knows but I when all sleep?) three things are still awake in the night. The Walker, my heart and the old clock which has the soul of a fiend – for never, since a coarse hand with red hair on its fingers swung for the first time the pendulum in the jail, has the old clock tick-tocked a full hour of joy.
Yet the old clock which marks everything and records everything, and to everything tolls the death knell, the wise old clock that knows everything, does not know the number of the footsteps of the
For not for the Walker, nor for my heart is there a second, a minute, an hour or anything that is in the old clock – there is nothing but the night, the sleepless night, the watchful night, and footsteps that go, and footsteps that come and the wild, tumultuous beatings that trail after them forever.
* * *
All the sounds of the living beings and inanimate things, and all the voices and all the noises of the night I have heard in my wistful vigil.
I have heard the moans of him who bewails a thing that is dead and the sighs of him who tries to smother a thing that will not die;
I have heard the stifled sobs of the one who weeps with his head under the coarse blankets, and the whisperings of the one who prays with his forehead on the hard, cold stone of the floor;
I have beard him who laughs the shrill sinister laugh of folly at the horror rampant on the yellow wall and at the red eyes of the nightmare glaring through the iron bars;
I have heard in the sudden icy silence him who coughs a dry ringing cough and wished madly that his throat would not rattle so and that he would not spit on the floor, for no sound was more atrocious than that of his sputum upon the floor;
I have heard him who swears fearsome oaths which I listen to in reverence and awe, for they are holier than the virgin's prayer;
And I have heard, most terrible of all, the silence of two hundred brains all possessed by one single, relentless, unforgiving desperate thought.
All this have I heard in the watchful night,
And the murmur of the wind beyond the walls,
And the tolls of a distant bell,
And the woeful dirge of the rain,
And the remotest echoes of the sorrowful city
And the terrible beatings, wild beatings, mad beatings of the One Heart which is nearest to my heart.
All this have I heard in the still night;
But nothing is louder, harder, drearier, mightier or more awful than the footsteps I hear over my head all night.
* * *
Yet fearsome and terrible are all the footsteps of men upon this earth, for they either descend or climb.
They descend from little mounds and high peaks and lofty altitudes through wide roads and narrow paths, down noble marble stairs and creaky stairs of wood – and some go down to the cellar, and some to the grave, and some down to the pits of shame and infamy, and still come to the glory of an unfathomable abyss where there is nothing but the staring white, stony eyeballs of Destiny.
And again other footsteps climb. They climb to life and to love, to fame, to power, to vanity, to truth, to glory and to the scaffold – to everything but Freedom and the Ideal.
And they all climb the same roads and the same stairs others go down; for never, since man began to think how to overcome and overpass man, have other roads and other stairs been found.
They descend and they climb, the fearful footsteps of men, and some limp, some drag, some speed, some trot, some run – they are quiet, slow, noisy, brisk, quick, feverish, mad, and most awful is their cadence to the ears of the one who stands still.
But of all the footsteps of men that either descend or climb, no footsteps are so fearsome and terrible as those that go straight on the dead level of a prison floor, from a yellow stone wall to a red iron gate.
* * *
All through the night he walks and he thinks. Is it more frightful because he walks and his footsteps sound hollow over my head, or because he thinks and speaks not his thoughts?
But does he think? Why should he think? Do I think? I only hear the footsteps and count them. Four steps and the wall. Four steps and the gate. But beyond? Beyond? Where goes he beyond the gate and the wall?
He goes not beyond. His thought breaks there on the iron gate Perhaps it breaks like a wave of rage, perhaps like a sudden flood of hope, but it always returns to beat the wall like a billow of helplessness and despair.
He walks to and fro within the narrow whirlpit of this ever storming and furious thought. Only one thought – constant, fixed immovable, sinister without power and without voice.
A thought of madness, frenzy, agony and despair, a hellbrewed thought, for it is a natural thought. All things natural are things impossible while there are jails in the world – bread, work, happiness, peace, love. But he thinks not of this. As he walks he thinks of the most superhuman, the most unattainable, the most impossible thing in the world:
He thinks of a small brass key that turns just half around and throws open the red iron gate.
* * *
That is all the
And that is what two hundred minds drowned in the darkness and the silence of the night think, and that is also what I think.
Wonderful is the supreme wisdom of the jail that makes all think the same thought. Marvelous is the providence of the law that equalizes all, even, in mind and sentiment. Fallen is the last barrier of privilege, the aristocracy of the intellect. The democracy of reason has leveled all the two hundred minds to the common surface of the same thought.
I, who have never killed, think like the murderer;
I, who have never stolen, reason like the thief;
I think, reason, wish, hope, doubt, wait like the hired assassin the embezzler, the forger, the counterfeiter, the incestuous, the raper, the drunkard, the prostitute, the pimp, I, I who used to think of love and life and flowers and song and beauty and the ideal.
A little key, a little key as little as my little finger, a little key of shining brass.
All my ideas, my thoughts, my dreams are congealed in a little key of shiny brass.
All my brain, all my soul, all that suddenly surging latent power of my deepest life are in the pocket of a white-haired man dressed in blue.
He is great, powerful, formidable, the man with the white hair, for he has in his pocket the mighty talisman which makes one man cry, and one man pray, and one laugh, and one cough, and one walk, and all keep awake and listen and think the same maddening thought.
Greater than all men is the man with the white hair and the small brass key, for no other man in the world could compel two hundred men to think for so long the same thought. Surely when the light breaks I will write a hymn unto him which shall hail him greater than Mohammed and Arbues and Torquemada and Mesmer, and all the other masters of other men's thoughts. I shall call him Almighty, for he holds everything of all and of me in a little brass key in his pocket.
Everything of me he holds but the branding iron of contempt and the claymore of hatred for the monstrous cabala that can make the apostle and the murderer, the poet and the procurer, think of the same gate, the same key and the same exit on the different sunlit highways of life.
* * *
My brother, do not walk any more.
It is wrong to walk on a grave. It is a sacrilege to walk four steps from the headstone to the foot and four steps from the foot to the headstone.
If you stop walking, my brother, no longer will this be a grave, – for you will give me back my mind that is chained to your feet and the right to think my own thoughts.
I implore you, my brother, for I am weary of the long vigil, weary of counting your steps, and heavy with sleep.
Stop, rest, sleep, my brother, for the dawn is well nigh and it is not the key alone that can throw open the gate.
Some of Giovannitti’s work is in the simplest ABAB rhyme schemes. Others are prose poems written before the First World War. As in the case of the poem above, Giovannitti’s poetry often is spotty & theatrical, especially in longer forms – there are real moments in “The Walker,” but that’s what they are. This is an approach which makes sense if you expect that a significant number of your “readers” will in fact be getting the work live, orally, rather than from the page. Not only was the IWW an organization whose membership included many recent immigrants, Giovannitti himself emigrated from Italy to Canada at the age of 16, studying at a seminary associated with McGill University before moving to New York, where he took courses briefly at Columbia.³ He wrote books in Italian as well as English.
In many ways, Giovannitti seems a classic type if we think about neglectorinos, the poet who composes for a “non-literary” audience. This is, of course, what Billy Collins & Ted Kooser claim to do as well. It’s worth thinking about the differences between their conception of this kind of a popular mode & Giovannitti. They’re entertainers, he’s an organizer. But each, a half century after they have passed, is likely to be viewed as much as a symptom as a poet. Not surprisingly, Collins & Kooser have been well rewarded for their populism, both the poems & the project of Arturo Giovannitti is far more ambitious. He after all is the one who wanted to change the world.
¹ Or maybe 75. Different sites on the web tell slightly different stories.
² In what was not an unusual scenario for the time, the actual shooter was a police officer & Giovannitti & his co-defendant were three miles away at the time. But as IWW organizers, they were the ones charged.
³ Considering that Louis Zukofsky, who attended
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
I have been waiting for Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone for damn near 40 years. The subtitle of this brand new book, co-edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen & Lauri Ramey & just out from the
I’ve known for a long time that when this volume finally got edited and published what my own personal test of it was going to be – does the book include William Anderson?
This book is a cornucopia alright, yet it’s also disturbingly imperfect. The editors acknowledge & address this, albeit a little obliquely, in their introduction:
Anthologies may be read as simultaneous gestures of greeting and exclusion. While the editors make no pretense to encyclopedic coverage of avant-garde, black poetics from the decades following the Second World War, we continue to feel the deepest regret as we reread poems that we are not able to include here. Some artists elected not to be included. Some bodies of work are surrounded by legal difficulties of considerably greater complexity than the verse itself. Some readers will no doubt think that we have elided a crucial candidate. The gathering assembled here might best be regarded as a preliminary sketch….
Which is exactly the right way to read this book. I regret only that the editors pulled their punches and failed to name names in the passage above. Or at the very least suggested who else they would have wanted to include. I have my own list, which would have pushed this anthology to just over 50 contributors – doable at 400 pages, tho pretty cramped if
There are all kinds of other questions that might be asked, as well, and almost no doubt will be: a book of this sort – and this important – is almost by definition ONE HUGE TARGET. One series of important questions might be about the organizing principle throughout. The editors have taken the most passive approach, the alphabet of surnames, but even if they had followed a standard historical method, using birthdates (Tolson appears to be the oldest, born in 1898, Jodi Braxton & Eloise Loftin, both born in 1950, the youngest), the problem remains that for some poets – like Anderson, whom I believe was born sometime in the second half of the 1920s – there just may be no surviving biographical data, no way to fix his position. It would have been difficult if not impossible perhaps to have tried to group these poets, to cluster them, even in the crude half-fictitious fashion of the Allen anthology. But it might have been instructive to try, if only to underscore just how many of these writers have had to struggle in some form of isolation.
While I’m sure that there are quibbles one could make throughout, the editors show their rigor in their selections within poets as well as among them. The obvious test here is the selection for Amiri Baraka, whose life has been one of constant reinvention. At 28 pages, his contribution here is the longest (Steve Jonas is the one other poet to get more than 20 pages) and, yes, maybe half of them are devoted to the early writing, poems dedicated to Robert Creeley & Charles Olson among them. But the longest piece of Baraka’s – indeed in the entire book – is reserved for “The City of New
So this is a great collection & an important moment in the history of American poetry. Period. But it is also I hope the start of a great conversation. Not only just about this book, but about the condition of African-American poets and the role of diversity of American poetry per se. Like just how is it that this book comes out eleven years after Walter Lew has edited an equivalent volume for North American Asian poetry, Premonitions? Or even why are there so few African-American bloggers writing about poetry & poetics? You would think that this medium could go a long way toward reducing the isolation someone might feel who’s testing out innovative writing strategies. Lets hope that all the questions get asked. And that everybody listens carefully.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
Daisy Fried had just been accepted into an MFA program when, eight years ago, she learned that she had been named a Pew Fellow in the Arts. Since one requirement of the Pew is that its recipients not be students, Fried bagged the program and seems to have discovered since then that, even with just her Swarthmore BA, she can at least cobble together the high-end of an adjuncting career, teaching at the many colleges that dot Philadelphia’s Main Line, one year at Princeton as a Hodder fellow, & now as the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College.
The long-term result of all this is that Fried looks, for about one-quarter of one second, like your standard-issue School of Quietude (SoQ) poet, but without all the rough edges sanded down to a smooth finish. Her favored mode is the dramatic monolog, often (tho not always) in the persona of herself. Her work is strong in narrative cohesion, with sharply defined figures. Her ear is turned toward dialect, as distinct from the sound of language as such. In the SoQ scheme of the world, Fried tells stories as distinct from writing sonnets.
Yet once you get beyond the one-quarter-of-a-second impression, you start to realize that this is the real deal, not unlike the way Wendell Berry is the real deal. Fried would almost certainly be writing just like this even if no School of whatever had ever existed. Which of course is exactly how it ought to be. And why Daisy Fried is going to have one helluva career. She is precisely the kind of poet that dozens, if not hundreds, of other poets wish they were, and have gone to grad school to try to become. Fried is going to make them all look like pale copies.
Her second book, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, just out from
“I hate what I come from,” says my cousin Shoshana,
22, jawing per always, feather earrings tangling
in her light brown hair. Shoshana hangs on to Kinesha,
her kid, to stop her running off. Our cousin Deb’s
wedding just got out; we’re standing at the bottom
of the wedding hall steps. “White people
don’t have culture, except what they stole
from our African brothers.” Shoshana’s
wearing black, per always, me too, her in leather,
me in acetate-velour. “Weddings, U-G-H.”
Shoshana spells out ugh like it’s spelled
in books. “I hope yours was cooler than this.”
I nod. I always nod at Shoshana, whatever she says.
Shoshana checks, rechecks her watch, watching
for her boyfriend. I’m waiting for my husband too.
I’ve been a pain in the ass to him all morning.
Shoshana sips cheap
to hide her upset feelings. Kinesha breaks loose,
veers close to the street and parked cars and traffic,
thrashes her lace anklets and buckle shoes
into a crowd of part-white pigeons.
Shoshana says. “People gave me looks on the bus.
Ouch.” She detangles an earring. “Once I ripped
an earlobe on these. Anyway, I want you to meet
my boyfriend. He’s cool, he’s sticking by me.
He says he knew he could when I wouldn’t
dime him out after they caught me with his pot
the only guy I’ve loved since, you know, Ken?”
Ken’s the one who died beside her
of an overdose in the Motel 6 in
the time she was 16 and stole her dad’s Beamer
to run away. “You heard?” Of course I did,
in this family. “Kinesha’s Kinesha
to remember him,” she says. “I still miss him.”
I nod. I poke Kinesha’s belly, her nose.
“U-G-H,” says Kinesha, annoyed. I’m bad with kids.
“I’m teaching her to assert herself,” Shoshana says.
Her wrist-chains jangle. I twist my wedding ring.
An organ somewhere plays “Ode to Joy.”
Here comes the third bad cousin, Christina,
scruff-haired in the pale-pink prom dress
the bride her sister made her wear. $90,000
per year doing something with websites and she
can’t even keep her hair in order. “Isn’t it awful?”
Christina says, “What do I look like, Gwyneth Paltrow?
You guys look swell.” She’s good with kids:
Kinesha slams herself for a hug into Christina’s
legs. Christina and Kinesha kiss. She says
“Did you like my PowerPoint presentation
on the bride’s life? Did you think it was funny?
Go play with the pigeons.” She puts Kinesha down.
“Deb wanted a poem, but don’t you hate poems?
Was it wrong of me to start with an Eminem quote?”
Kinesha shouts, staggers, stamps at the pigeons;
jaded, they hardly move, only jump-start
halfhearted when Kinesha brandishes
her one-armed naked Barbie above her head,
then turns Barbie into a gun, shoots
at the pigeons. “I feel like we should be
sneaking around back with cigarettes
like we used to, remember?” says Christina.
“Too bad we don’t smoke anymore.”
Shoshana takes out her Newports, lights up.
I’m remembering we never much liked each other,
only hung together at family gatherings
because we were supposed to be the bad ones.
I hate what I come from. I say “My father
just told me again my poems are ‘too full
of disgusting sex.’ He said ‘Why don’t you
write more like Derek Walcott?’ I’m sick
of him throwing deep-thinking
genius men up at me.” Christina rolls
her eyes, shakes her head, fudges hair tendrils
back into her frizzy twisted updo, vibrates
her lips, blows air out. “Can you tell I’m
drunk already?” she asks. I nod. She shrugs.
“Well, why not, Deb didn’t invite single guys
for me like I asked her. Selfish as always.”
Shoshana checks her watch. “I’m gonna kill him.”
I wish I wanted to kill my husband.
Right now, I hate everything, everybody,
and don’t have a friend in the world
except my husband. It’s true he dislikes me
more and more these days but at least
he likes my poems and hates Derek Walcott.
Kinesha sprays Barbie bullets at everything,
Barbie’s head as bald as her elided crotch.
“I didn’t buy her that racist, sexist doll,”
says Shoshana. Christina and I nod.
“She found my old one. I pulled
all her hair out when I was 14
and shaved my head the first time.”
Kinesha moves away from the settling pigeons,
turns her Barbie gun on us, shoots.
Rat-a-tat-tat. “Ugh, you got me,”
we say, and “BANG!” I say. We turn
our hands into guns, three bad cousins,
Mother, Bridesmaid, and me, Wife-and-Daughter,
for all our different reasons, shooting the child.
An earlier version of this poem appeared in an issue of Ploughshares guest-edited by Campbell McGrath. The one change I can find between the two versions is in the next-to-last line, where Fried has added “and me,” to the version in her book, keeping the narrative clear.
One thing that I like very much about “Shooting Kinesha” is that there is no other poem remotely like it in this book, even tho there are a number of narratives as fully fledged. But that’s true of many of Fried’s poems here. Viz “First Boyfriend, 14,” one of the shortest poems in the book:
New Adam’s apple
destroying his soprano,
he bleats, tucks his chin
down to his neck. Mothballs
in his throat, can’t
figure out where to
put his voice. Harmony
hiccups away. After
choir practice he runs
barefoot, jeans rolled up,
through deep snow on a dare,
naked also to the waist,
mooing like the minotaur.
This poem’s linebreaks are perfect – after the opening sentence, not one of the other three start with the left margin, propelling the reading along all these soft enjambments right up to the final figurative image and the hard bang of that final period. This is critically important because the final word ends on one of the soft consonants, r. A poem like this is Fried’s way of demonstrating that she could be, if she wanted to, an entirely different kind of poet and be just as dazzling. I completely believe it. In another piece, “American Brass,” actually my favorite, the first few stanzas, and especially the first, looked and felt like broken-up prose when I first read the poem:
The percussionist is the only skinny member
of the American high school marching band
under overspreading horse-chestnut trees.
It really took reading the entire poem – seventeen similar quatrains followed a solitary last line – to understand that this was as formally felt as any stanza in this book, absolutely necessary to the mindset of the work, even shapely in the traditional sense of that word in stanza design.
So hat’s off to the Pew Fellowship folks for coming along at just the right moment in Fried’s career, if that’s what it was. The school Fried had applied to –
¹ Fried has argued with me about this before & may cringe at certain aspects of this review.
Monday, February 06, 2006
Back in the days when an 8088 was the only computer chip anyone seemed to have heard of & a PC meant a “green screen,”¹ I knew folks who argued, with some seriousness, that in a generation we would all be writing 22-line poems, 22 lines being what were displayed on these screens. That never happened, largely because the green screen was gone by the time personal computing became truly ubiquitous, roughly at the point that Windows 3.1 became the standard operating system, borrowing heavily as it did from the ideas of graphic representation that the folks at Apple had ripped from the labs at Xerox PARC. By the time the Windows vs. Mac wars were largely settled – less than four percent of the world uses a Mac – HTML and the world wide web had arrived, the current graphic regime. It might not be what we use when we’re writing – I still use notebooks as well as a Palm Pilot – but sooner or later, it seems to be what poems need to be coded in for them to be disseminated widely. And as anyone who has tried it has discovered, HTML is great for certain things, but pretty unwieldy for others.
Open field composition, as Robert Duncan characterized one writing mode that he shared with Charles Olson, the use of the entire page as a canvas, freed up from the perpetual anchor of a left margin, is one thing HTML does not do well, certainly not compared with the old days of the typewriter, especially before proportional typing became commonplace. Not that print has a perfect track record here either. Using all – and sometimes more – of the page, with ample portions of white space, this approach to the visual scoring of the poem once led Robert Duncan to insist that the first volume of Ground Work be typed – not typeset – in a courier font, which insured the volume’s failure to have any impact once it was published (and helped precipitate the decline in Duncan’s general reputation).
If you look around the web, you’ll notice just how seldom you see open field composition techniques in the poems that turn up here, including on this blog. If you are a master at HTML like Karl Young, you might try something famously ambitious, such as putting all of Larry Eigner’s Air the Trees into the format, but go one step further in the spatialization of the page, as with Jake Berry’s Brambu Drezi, and even Karl resorts to using JPEG files scanned from the original hardcopy. I bow to Karl’s skill here, even if I demur from the use of JPEGs as an adequate mode for representing text on the web.
All of this contributes, I think, toward a gradual lessening of open field texts among today’s poets. Seldom in the past half century has the tyranny of the left-hand margin felt more absolute. So it’s intriguing, from my perspective, to see two recent books, both superb just as poetry, come out in “wide” formats that are required in order to retain with some kind of integrity the look & feel of the poem on the page.
The first of these The California Poem by Eleni Sikelianos, was published in 2004 by Coffee House Press, in a 7.5” high, 8.5” wide format. The second, just out from Tupelo Press, is Why is the Edge Always Windy? by Mông-Lan, 9” high, 8.25” wide. The dimensions are important, because both publishers have taken great pains to design each book to meet the needs of the text. In an age of standardized formats, this is worth noting.
I have no evidence to suggest whether or not Eleni Sikelianos & Mông-Lan have ever even heard of one another, let alone read one another or met, even tho Robert Creeley blurbs both books. Yet both poets share an exceptional sense of self-possession in their writing, an ease with their considerable ambition, and a sense of the line that simply is not possible without the history of the Projectivists nearly half a century ago.
Sikelianos in some ways is the most Olsonian poet we have had over the past half century. The California Poem is to the golden state in more than a few ways what Maximus is to
Mông-Lan works with a floating line and often shows no sense of left margin. Here is “A Tractor”:
squats waiting for its season
the steel hand
music of crickets whiskers resound
hours of black rain
descend like cut hair gnawing crevices moss & mucus
awaken the clay
An earlier version of this poem can be found in Manoa and its instructive to see that while a few words were deleted, maybe eighty percent of the changes made consisted of pushing lines into different spatial formations. It’s a sense of the page as space that I haven’t seen since the death of Larry Eigner. Unlike Eigner, whose poems sometimes feel as if they’re escaping a left-hand margin that remains implicit, some of Mông-Lan’s poems, like the above, feel almost as if the hidden margin lies somewhere in the middle of this text, truly a vertical spine.
Note, however, that the poem beyond this form is very much a traditional pastoral lyric. The anthropomorphic conceit waiting for its season, with no hint of irony, is a device one hardly ever comes across outside to the School of Quietude, at least not since the 19th century.² A lot of the individual moments in Why is the Edge Always Windy? feel like a confrontation between these two impulses, as if what she wants to accomplish is to write mainstream poems (in every sense of that adjective) through Projectivist means. Her work transcends these two literary frames precisely because so many of the poems here – more often in serial form than not – are so manifestly ambitious & her eye – she’s a visual artist as well as a poet – is fabulously exact.
Sikelianos & Mông-Lan are hardly the only poets in recent years to use a line like this – Kathleen Fraser, Hank Lazer³ & Barbara Guest have all spread the page out, Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts have an almost Poundian sense of formal possibility, although in her case as generally in Fraser’s, there’s a tendency not to let the line get too long. One of the things I trust most about Mông-Lan’s poetry is its willingness to abandon that sense of caution.
¹ I was a fan of the Kaypro II in those days, in good part because of the better contrast that its orange print made against the black screen.
² With irony, however, the
³ Poets whose surnames do not rhyme, by the way.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
William Shakespeare on the attack on the
When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That Time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.
Blogger was down for several hours last night.
At least one Russian blog took note of my Mayakovsky entry the other day, as well, I take it, as the comments string that grew up barnacle-like alongside it. But when I ran the Russian through Babel Fish (my Russian is worse than my German is worse than my Spanish & I’m literate in none of these other languages) what I got was:
As near as I can tell, the author’s name is “the system of the mechanical transfer.” I suspect a Benjamin fan would call that Mechanical Reproduction.
This, on the other hand, is considerably more intelligible than Henry Gould’s remark that
the thing is, I don't think anyone has demonstrated that Brodsky ever "returned" to a "pre-soviet" aesthetics; that Brodsky ever was strongly influenced by the New Critics; that Brodsky ever was strongly influenced by the Russian Formalists.
I never argued that Brodsky even read the New Critics, only that his American friends had. And it should be clear enough from reading my post that Brodsky never showed any interest in the Russian Formalists, but instead sought a neo-classical, pre-modern poetics. You could argue that Brodsky represents a particular kind of deformed modernism, I suppose, but if that’s the argument you want to make, Henry, you should make it and stop chasing straw men.