Saturday, March 04, 2006
It only took the New York Times eighteen days to run an obituary of Barbara Guest. My favorite part is when Margalit Fox, an editor for the Book Review who is routinely tapped for literary obits, makes language poets of the
Two paragraphs hence, we find this historical sleight of hand:
In 1960, Ms. Guest attracted favorable notice with her first collection of poems, "The Location of Things" (Tibor de Nagy Editions). But by the end of the decade, the spotlight had shifted to poets like Denise Levertov and Adrienne Rich, whose work was overtly political.
Maybe Fox means that the New York Times’ spotlight had shifted. Or possibly that the big Book Review advertisers, the forerunners of today’s Gang of Eight, had decided that after John & Jimmy & Kenneth, they could ignore the rest of the riff-raff. In either event, Fox may be apt in her choice of metaphor here, tho it is the Times, not Barbara Guest, who stands revealed by that spotlight’s glare.
Friday, March 03, 2006
One of the telling differences between the Poetry Project Newsletter (PPN) &, say, Poets and Writers, is that the latter, relatively slick journal, only occasionally will have an article of great pertinence to poets & is often best read for its continual reminders that poetry & the trade publishing industry have nothing intelligible to do with one another, while the PPN invariably has a few gems in every issue. Indeed, it’s well worth the while of a young poet in Boise or Missoula to belong to the Poetry Project just because you can get the newsletter five times a year. The current issue is no exception, having in its pages what is easily the best review I’ve seen to date of Ted Berrigan’s Collected, written by Joel Lewis. I asked Joel if I could reprint it here, just to remind what you’re missing if you don’t get the Newsletter, & he and current PPN editor Brendan Lorber agreed. Obviously the name Berrigan is one to conjure with around St. Marks, both past & present, but in many ways a review like this strikes me as demonstrating all the ways in which poetry understood as community strengthens & illuminates the work. It’s not an accident that in Jordan Davis’ “nameless history” of the New York School Ted Berrigan is the key to the Second Generation, nor that the Fourth Generation is described as “one, more or less: Joel Lewis (and he chose to remain in
THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TED BERRIGAN
University of California Press / 2005
Nola Burger, the designer of The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan should get some sort of award for designing the most friendly-looking 750 page book I’ve ever seen. Most of the collected poems on my shelves have the taint of the library about them— a good example of this phenomenon being The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn; which, while being a fine example of diligent and scholarly editing, seems to entomb Blackburn in a crowded and sober format that is at odds with the poet’s wit and offhand brilliance.
What does account for the mysterious concept of a poet’s “reputation?” Harold Bloom may think it’s the task of the scholar and critic, but this might simply be an academic’s attempt to claim a stake much greater than their actual role. In the end, it is poets reading other poets and then participating in the underground economy of talking and writing that establishes a poet’s position within the active literary culture. Poets as diverse as Neidecker, Bronk, Oppen, Guest, Zukofsky and Schuyler owe their reputations to poets, often a single poet, who cared enough about the work to advocate, edit, publish and polemicize. The scholars who later arrive are akin to colonialists who civilize the landscapes that explorers cut trails through.
Ted Berrigan was one of those poets who fought for the “lives” of poets he cared about. He cajoled poems from the ever-reticent Edwin Denby and devoted an entire issue of “C” magazine to his work. In conversation and in the classroom, he advocated for poets as diverse as Philip Whalen, Tom Raworth, Joe Ceravolo and F.T. Prince.
In Berrigan’s lifetime, there were no critics or scholars I’m aware of that wrote about him in either a favorable or critical manner. John Ashbery’s positive review of The Sonnets appears to have been suppressed by The New York Times Book Review. His important collection So Going Around Cities was ignored by that same Book Review. Berrigan’s exclusion from the failed revision of the New American Poetry, The Postmoderns created something of a scandal at the time among poets.
The continuity of Berrigan’s work for the last 23 years has been the work of family, friends and a new generation of poets who came upon the work and found in it a voice that connected to the current moment. Late work was published by Leslie Scalapino’s O Press. Ed Foster’s Talisman House published a collection of talks. Anne Waldman put together the homage Nice To See You. Useful memoirs were written by Tom Clark and Ron Padgett, and Aram Saroyan edited a Selected Poems which made Berrigan’s work available again to a new generation of writers.
The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan, which is the culmination of that process of keeping Berrigan’s work available, is a terrific achievement. Edited by his widow, the remarkable poet Alice Notley, in collaboration with their poet sons Anselm and Edmund, the book aims to be both writerly and readerly and manages both tasks rather nicely. The ins and outs of Berrigan’s publishing career are deftly handled and the scholarly apparatus sheds fascinating information for even this longtime reader of the poet.
Notley made a wise choice in organizing this collection as “sort of” Collected Books. As the editor notes: “though Ted wrote sequences and constructed books, he didn’t produce a linear succession of discrete tidy volumes.” As anyone who attended his readings were aware, he was just as likely to read a poem written a week before as he was a poem written in the early 60s. The sobering thought is that, despite the book’s heft, we are dealing with a writing career that existed for only 25 years, as opposed to the half-century of poetry contained in Kenneth Koch’s recent collected opus.
There is a hefty amount of uncollected and fugitive pieces collected, plus a few earlier pieces that help set the stage for his master poem The Sonnets. The “major” inclusion in this volume is Easter Monday, a sequence which Berrigan finalized shortly before his death. Although most of the poems had already appeared in print and are familiar to readers of his work, Berrigan saw this sequence as a major statement. In a reading I attended at an Alice Notley workshop in 1980, he noted that the title alluded to his marriage to Alice Notley and the start of a new family — I recall him saying something about “what happens the day after the resurrection?” A bigger-picture question that Berrigan preferred over the issue of what’s with a glowing, formerly dead guy who probably had a thing against drug use and modern art.
Many of Ted’s old friends who attended the packed reading celebrating the collected’s publication were touched by the crowd of younger people who were in attendance. Perhaps young writers can identify with lines like: “It was gloomy being broke today, and baffled / in love. Love, why do you always take my heart away?” (“For You”). Or maybe it’s the insouciance and audacity of poems like “Ass-face” (“This is the only language you understand, Ass-Face!”) that offer up a dose of courage syrup to writers wondering can I say that?
In a larger sense, the genius and appeal of Berrigan’s work is a supreme example in poetry of what film critic/artist Manny Farber calls “Termite Art” in his 1962 essay White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art. You’re probably all too familiar with White Elephant Art: Steven Spielberg films, Meryl Streep, Bruce Springsteen, i.e., “a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition.” You know, Great Art.
Sadly, a lot of American poetry is a herd of White Elephants. Much of what Ron Silliman calls the “School of Quietude.” Big shiny edifices like James Merrill’s “The Changing Lights At Sandover.”
According to Farber, “Good work usually arises usually arises where the creators... seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.”
Berrigan, through his often gleeful use of assemblage, writing games, samplings, mash-ups, rewrites, borrowings (from both the Greats of the Past and the Poet Down The Block), imitations and juice from his own personal verse factory became an American original. Despite shallow readings by critics like Marjorie Perloff who dismissed him as a faux Frank O’ Hara, there are elements of Berrigan’s art that transcend his masters. His undramatic use of the quotidian is unprecedented in American poetry. What infuriated his more socially conservative readers about the mention of “pills” and “give yourself the needle” was the casual, unapologetic, non-confessional maner in which these statements were uttered.
Berrigan’s friendly tone, and an intentional and strategic use of sentimentality, distinguishes him from mentors like O’Hara, Schuyler and Whalen, who always have a touch of elitism and “the smartest kid in the class” about their works. Berrigan was a poet of the working-class and, particularly, of working-class communities. He was class-conscious, but not in the sense of a socialist poet like Thomas McGrath. With a dual sense of irony and reality, he sometimes described himself as a smalltime capitalist entrepreneur, with poetry as his stock in trade. On other occasions he’d declare: “I’d love to sell out, the trouble is—I have nothing to sell.”
So, the standard Berrigan is here—from a high class university press (no less) that also houses fellow travelers Olson and Creeley—not bad for a poet whose first and last publication were mimeo books. “Everything turns into writing” Berrigan repeated over and over in The Sonnets. And in 634 pages of poetry, that phrase in realized in every possible permutation. Berrigan’s work precisely realizes Kenneth Burke’s definition of literature: “Equipment for living.”
Joel Lewis is New Jersey’s Unofficial Poetry Goodwill Ambassador. His most recent book is The Tasks Of The Youth Leagues.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
I can go to a folk music concert one day, spend the next listening to the ROVA Saxophone Quartet, follow this with an old Public Enemy CD (back before Flavor Flav became the crown prince of strange), kick back to early Neil Young, spend an evening with Erik Satie, pull out a Folkways recording of Mongolian throat-singing, then listen to the latest from Buckethead & have no sense of cognitive dissonance in the practice whatsoever. I enjoy most music (with some notable exceptions: musical theater, the Grateful Dead & the current generation of Tin Pan Alley, be it Mariah Carey or American Idol). I would love to say that I’m this broad in my tastes in poetry, but I know it isn’t the case. There is a wide swath of verse – most of it in the heritage of the New American poetries – that interests me greatly, but there are some exceptions. I have very little patience for the
After several days of thinking about Oulipo, flarf & uncreative writing, my instinct is to turn to something that offers me a different set of values, yet still well within the range of what I take seriously. So I pick up this:
Some asshole, (I assume
he was an asshole),
threw half a loaf of bread
in the middle of a busy street.
A gang of blackbirds slammed
onto the burning asphalt
jabbing and clawing each other,
talons and beaks stabbing
at the bread.
I drove up at 40 mph
and all at once they exploded
into the air like gushing oil;
all the birds, that is, but one.
This one, so determined
for bread, so set on her path,
whether courageous or plain
stupid, made me swerve
at the very last minute
and swerve again
back to my own side
of the shimmering street.
When I glanced
in the rearview mirror,
that bird hadn’t budged.
There she pecked,
all alone, a brick of bread
twice her size.
This poem is about as far from flarf as you can get, the antithesis of uncreative writing. Indeed, reading it, the poets it immediately calls to mind are William Stafford & David Ignatow, two men who shied away from anything that carried even the faintest hint of the avant – Ignatow had to work at this, since his own roots were not too far from Objectivism, but as his confrontation with Charles Bernstein at the 1984 symposium on poets at Alabama captured so memorably in Hank Lazer’s anthology of the conference, What is a Poet?, shows, Ignatow was determined.
I have no idea how Seido Ray Ronci, the author of “Sheer Hunger” feels about such things. I know he has published in places like Ploughshares – the poetry equivalent of Tin Pan Alley – and has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska, yet his new book, a slender collection called This Rented Body, has just been published by Pressed Wafer of Boston, a classy veteran of the post-avant, and the man has taught at Naropa. He’s hardly a man of the sophisticate coasts, teaching at the University of Missouri, yet he’s also – if the term “Seido” (Japanese for “sincere way’) hasn’t already tipped this off – a Zen monk, director of the Hokoku-An Zendo in Columbia. As a teacher, he clearly inspires his students.
What I like first about “Sheer Hunger” is its economy & its balance, the two sentences in each of the first and last stanzas, the two one sentence stanzas in between – far shapelier than three two-sentences stanzas would ever have been. Also the balance in the presumptive gender assignments, he for the one who litters, she for the blackbird (imagine this same poem with those terms reversed¹). Probably the only thing in the whole work that rings falsely for me is the strained simile like gushing oil. Because it doesn’t feel accurate, it foregrounds its rhetoric, which I don’t think is what Ronci is attempting to accomplish there.
But that’s a small quibble in an otherwise exemplary act of craft. And the poem is fairly typical for This Rented Body. The works are contained, both formally & narratively, their gist pretty straightforward, their overall style not exactly the conservative side of the New American poetry, but not exactly not either. The pleasure here is in the craft itself & the degree to which the poet nails the narrative frame he’s after.
Fanny Howe in particular has noted the degree to which the Gnostic tradition within Christianity has much in common with Buddhist (and other) meditative practices, and it certainly has been true that over the past 50 years many of our most important religious poets have either been Buddhists or Catholics – not a Lutheran in the bunch. Zen practitioners with literary backgrounds are everywhere. Beyond Phil Whalen and Norman Fischer, both leaders at the
So it makes sense to me that the director of the Zendo in
¹ And if I had seen this same event in the real world, I would have been inclined to have reversed the genders in my assumptions, taking the bird to be an older male emboldened because it no longer is able to adequately feed itself, so that a feast like this is worthy of greater risk, and that an older woman either intended to feed the birds & was confused, or simply lost the bread there. I wouldn’t have presumed the casual sense of waste implied by the pejorative asshole.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Flarf, with its Google-sculpting, often feels like a rough-edged street version of Oulipo. Uncreative Writing, which tries to squeeze everything beyond typing out of literature itself, often feels like Oulipo turned sideways. So why not think out Oulipo proper, card-carrying Oulipo? Not just Oulipo the idea, but the actual workshop for potential literature that has been ongoing now for some 46 years in & about
This is essentially a 333-page encyclopedia of all things Oulipo, including a marvelous introduction by Jacques Roubaud, a new translation of Raymond Queneau’s 100,000,000,000,000 Poems, the work that originally precipitated the formation of Oulipo in 1960, followed by multiple alphabetical encyclopedias, a large one for Oulipo proper, then shorter ones for Oulipo outgrowths: Oulipopo, whose focus has been detective fiction; Oupeinpo, where the focus has expanded from painting to the whole of visual arts; and Ou-x-pos, where the x stands for whatever field one is interested in, from architecture to comic strips.
Not unlike the novel Hopscotch by the Belgian-born Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar, a sympathizer if not an actual member of Oulipo¹, which can be read two ways, one front to back, the other jumping around to chapters designated at the end of each chapter (although, if one does, one skips a certain key chapter & is never told this), Oulipo Compendium has no index because it is all index, but with a hundred thousand billion cross references. Each term that discussed or defined is marked, every time it occurs elsewhere, with a symbol (circle for Oulipo, triangle for Oulipopo, square for Oupeinpo, star for Ou-x-pos) pointing to its placement in the work. This gives the text the look of small pox, perhaps, but is vital for bouncing back & forth, which is exactly what this work envisions a reader doing.
Because Queneau had been a surrealist & Oulipo’s methodology includes formal group membership – something no literary tendency has ever tried in the fractious U.S.2 – the relation between the two groups has always made sense to me. But Roubaud’s introduction invokes a second group as well, the modernist mathematicians who published anonymously & collectively as Nicolas Bourbaki, and who attempted a systematic presentation of mathematics constructed around set theory. This in some ways makes even more sense, and the presentation here by Harry Mathews & Alistair Brotchie underscores why being a formal organization, however welcoming & open-ended, has been of such great value to Oulipoians in general. They not only hold meetings, they take minutes, several of which are reproduced here. And while there has been a gradual lessening of formality – the minutes from the 1990s are relatively short, those from the 1960s go on for pages – the real key here is not the formal structure, but the requirement of actually meeting face to face on a regular basis. If flarf is the poetry the web begot, Oulipo is an expression of what is possible in country that is centralized around a single major metropolitan area.
Poets have of course been playing games for decades, some more serious than others. There is a poem in my very first book, Crow, that came out of a card game I worked up one day with David Melnick & Rochelle Nameroff. Using a deck of “power words,” a concept we’d stolen from Michael McClure, we played what amounted to a version of rummy, adding and discarding cards until one had a seven word line that the other two would concede was “best.” Conceding, I recall, was the hard part. The one time we played this, the one hand I won with was
what high lurking hornets buick the moose
The use of systems intersect with language poetry, inspired more directly by the presence of Jackson Mac Low than by Oulipo proper. Language poetry replicated Oulipo’s insistence on mutual influence and it was never accidental that, with just one exception, the poets in In the American Tree could all be traced one of three cities. But America has never had a single center in the same way that Paris is to France – tho one might wonder what the fact of New York’s role as an economic center has meant not just to language poetry, but to the New York School & even the Beats & Objectivists, as well as noting that langpo’s two other centers, DC & San Francisco, also function as alternative centers in a nation that spans 3,000 miles east to west. Langpo always caught flak from other poets because it was felt to be exclusive, but just imagine what would have happened had it, like Oulipo, required members to elected.
Flarf, on the other hand, is the closest thing we have had to a movement without a geographic center (although it has a concentration in
Which brings me to one other question that the Compendium raises, that of diversity. While there have been women members of Oulipo – Anne Garréta, Michéle Mètail, Juliette Raabe – this volume makes Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry, with four women among its 44 contributors, seem like Our Bodies, Our Selves. People of color simply are not present. In part, this is no doubt an effect of the time & place within which Oulipo arose. But you would have thought that over the past 45 years some things might have changed. Not here.
¹ Cortázar never appears in the Compendium.
² One possible exception might be the group of surrealists around Franklin Rosemont in
Monday, February 27, 2006
What does it mean for a work of art to be eminently likeable and almost completely unreadable? That, I think, is the ultimate trick at the heart of the project of Kenny Goldsmith’s self-announced uncreative writing. Perhaps it’s his background as a visual artist, a degree in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design, or his work as a radio DJ (he is, after all, a man who wears many hats), but Goldsmith has found the perfect mix between complete mischief – a little deadpan, with a big wink – and serious investigation into the meaning of art and writing in the 21st century. And found more than a few folks who are willing to take his projects with rapt attention & perfect seriousness. Even as he seeks to arrive at a mode of writing that he himself characterizes as “nutritionless,” ever striving to get closer to something that would really really be boring. Typing the whole of one edition of The New York Times, a year’s worth of weather reports, documenting every move his body made for a day or every word he spoke in a week, Goldsmith has emerged as the most critically well-inspected writer now under the age of 50 in the United States. I knew people were taking him seriously when, over five years ago, the MacArthur Foundation called to ask me if I thought he was a genius.
The latest verification of Goldsmith’s anti-poetic strategy is the newest issue of Open Letter, Twelfth Series, Number 7, which is devoted to “Kenneth Goldsmith and Conceptual Poetics,” and jointly guest edited by Lori Emerson and Barbara Cole, 18 mostly thoughtful pieces about Goldsmith’s work. Joshua Schuster quotes Goldsmith directly:
I am the most boring writer that has ever lived. If there were an Olympic sport for extreme boredom, I would get a gold medal. My books are impossible to read straight through. In fact, every time I have to proofread them before sending them off to the publisher, I fall asleep repeatedly. You really don't need to read my books to get the idea of what they're like; you just need to know the general concept.
Schuster, like Marjorie Perloff, Johanna Drucker, Caroline Bergvall, Christian Bök, Geoffrey Young, Robert Fitterman, Craig Dworkin, Bruce Andrews, Darren Wershler-Henry & others, seems completely fascinated – I want to use the word enchanted, in all its connotations – by this.
One of the major social functions of art is to reveal the world to us, its inhabitants. At this, Goldsmith is certainly an unqualified success. That’s the part I think everyone gets – the language of The New York Times, including the tidal information and classified advertising, is indeed what we confront, as citizens & readers alike. When Goldsmith invokes, as he almost invariably does when interviewed, John Cage, Andy Warhol & Jeff Koons as predecessors, this is exactly what he’s getting at. Goldsmith is not only revealing to us the world as it is, but by doing so in the most extreme ways possible, reveals the presumptions that lie behind our art categories as well.
Yet what he is not saying is, I think, more intriguing and problematic. First, there is the cult of the artist as his own work of art. Open Letter is remarkably silent on the relationship of Goldsmith’s work to that of other simultaneous authors of appropriated materials, especially Mark Peters & Peter Balistrieri, both of whom are pointedly absent in this first festschrift of Goldsmith’s career. From Duchamp’s urinal to Kathy Acker’s version of Harold Robbins (or Bernadette Mayer’s inclusion of the entire text of a Jerry Rothenberg poem into one of her works), appropriation of the social world, whether aesthetic (Acker, Mayers) or anti-aesthetic (Duchamp), is as old as the hills. It’s not that Goldsmith, the archivist of Ubuweb, doesn’t know this. It’s because his projects, by design, never stand on their own, that his commentators invariably turn back to the cult of Kenny. It is, after all, his body, his words. Then, by repeatedly reciting the same few names over & over, the presence of a much broader landscape seems to fade from critical consciousness.
Another part of what makes Goldsmith’s project work is that he always holds back from the truly nutrition-free text. The full text of The New York Times is not the same thing as the full text of one day of the
To the degree that his commentators seem conscious of these two issues in Goldsmith’s work, their pieces have value, tho nobody addresses these adequately. In fact, the very best piece in the new Open Letter comes last – Darren Wershler-Henry’s consideration of the implications of Goldsmith’s work is a perfect foundation for thinking through its resonances for future practice. It’s guaranteed to make you think about what you do as an artist.
The other piece that I recommend here is Caroline Bergvall’s interactive interview with Goldsmith, done while traversing the streets of
Q. Your favourite historical figure.
I dont care much for history with a capital eitch so
That’s really worth thinking about. History is of course impossible if not written from a point-of-view and much, tho not all, of Goldsmith’s work tries very hard to erase that. It’s also diachronic where Goldsmith is, if not strictly synchronic – the paper comes all at once, it’s how you read it that adds temporal progression, which the paper can only partly dictate through design. History also requires a critical dimension – again something Goldsmith systematically seems to erase.
It’s not that Goldsmith is writing in opposition to history & its inevitable “this is how it felt to us winners” narratives, but rather that he tries to envision how things might look absent that dimension altogether. Imagine, for example, someone documenting every move a homeless person made during the course of one day. That would be an utterly dissimilar project than any of Goldsmith’s, calling up all kinds of social issues around poverty, but also around surveillance and real “appropriation.” All these choices would set up a network of connotations, including contradictory political dimensions, that the reader/viewer would have to confront. But since Kenny Goldsmith’s actual art project is the projection of Kenny Goldsmith, these are the kinds of questions his work passes over in silence.
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Michelle Buchanan is donating her portrait of me as a baby to WSKG’s forthcoming arts auction. I’m totally flattered, even if my eyes are hazel and I didn’t wear glasses until after I was 40. I may bid on this myself.
A note I made in the comments stream the other day, about how Chris Vitiello and Mary Burger were my two “finds” the last time I taught at Naropa in 1994, jogged me into thinking I should mention this. I’m going to be teaching there again this summer, in the second of its four one-week programs, trying out something I’ve wanted to explore for awhile.
I’m generally a skeptic about writer’s conferences, and the summer program at Naropa is really the only one I know I ever would recommend to anybody. For one thing, the faculty over the four weeks is amazingly diverse. Just a few of the folks who will be there this year include:
Joan Retallack, Michael McClure, Elizabeth Robinson, Harryette Mullen,: Elizabeth Willis, David Antin, Lisa Jarnot, Thalia Field, Alan Gilbert, Chris Tysh, Samuel R. Delany, Zhang Er, Hoa Nyugen, Dale Smith, Quincy Troupe, Meredith Quartermain, Peter Quartermain, Rikki Ducornet, Sawako Nakayasu, Mark McMorris, Anselm Hollo, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Bob Holman, Kristin Prevallet, Johanna Drucker, Karen Finley, Fiona Templeton, and Lytle Shaw
One thing I like about these affairs is the incredible range of participants, among the students as well as the faculty. One way Naropa accomplishes this is through what it calls Zora Neale Hurston Awards, scholarships to students of color. They can be attending the summer program for BA, MFA or – my favorite – no credit. “The award covers partial to full tuition and may include housing for non-local residents for all four weeks of the Summer Writing Program.” That sounds about right.