Saturday, April 15, 2006

 

There is an instant – tho only that – immediately prior to the “live” performance of George Antheil’s Le Ballet mécanique in the National Gallery, an adjunct to the current Dada show there, when, all 16 grand pianos, four drums, three xylophones, gong, siren and assorted alarm bells are silent. An instant later all are in motion, governed by a computer program, the siren piercing but no more so here than the xylophones, the pianos revealing themselves as instruments of percussion – is this where Cecil Taylor first heard that? – and the entire audience hops back about two inches. It’s almost deafening & brilliant in ways I’d never previously suspected, having only heard the piece recorded. It’s worth going to the show for this alone. The piece plays twice daily on weekdays, at 1 and 4 pm, and at 1 pm on weekends. The show runs through May 9.

The other news is that it is the only reason for attending the Dada Show, unless you have an interest in seeing examples of specific works gathered by their cities of production – a gallery for Zurich, another for Berlin, another for Paris, another for New York, one for Hanover, one for Cologne – an approach not unlike the Impressionism retrospective of a few decades back that broke everything down by salon so that you could see the painters thinking in their work. This one doesn’t work, because the examples in each gallery are too few, ultimately, and the city-by-city approach is ahistorical – you don’t get to see them thinking, save maybe for the large selection of George Grosz paintings. The real news is just how moribund this show proves to be. The great workers – Duchamp primarily – continue to look really great, and the little alcoves set aside for sound poetry are – next to the Antheil – the most exciting parts of the program, tho only a couple of recordings are new. Otherwise, this could be a retrospective of American poetry pre-Poe. There is no there here.



Tuesday, April 11, 2006

 

Last May and June, I ran a couple of notes (here, here and here) on the idea of what one might include in a selected poems for Louis Zukofsky. I was thinking out loud, at the time, because Charles Bernstein encouraged me to do so, since he was then in the process of going through what I took to be an impossible task directly, editing a Selected Poems of Zukofsky’s for the Library of America (LOA). The volume is now out and it’s instructive to see the different decisions Bernstein made in shaping the final book.

It took me three run-throughs to get down to an LOA length, because when you’re aiming for a 150-page representation from a career that has left us with some 1,100 in total, the cutting has to be more than just brutal. You end up having to choose which Zukofsky (or whomever) to present to a broader reading audience. And with Zukofsky, the question is not just which poems will be included & which – inarguably essential – ones have to go, but also how to represent his master work, “A”. What percentage of the selected would be given to it, for example, let alone which sections, which passages?

Ultimately, I argued that “A” ought to be presented as the key text, given perhaps two-thirds of the 150-page format, but I also argued that, rather than presented in a single solid whole, it ought to be spread throughout in roughly chronological order. Here is the first part of that discussion:

Working with a predetermined page count, I would take basically that same stance, setting 100 pages aside for “A,giving the rest to the short poems. Further, using the Library of America as a model, I would reverse my adjustments for page size in the opposite direction. That is to say, to get to 100 pages in the LoA format, I would have to limit myself to something like just 80 pages of the UC Press version of “A.” My basic premise with regards to that longpoem would be to keep complete sections, but if I choose the one that I think show off Zukofsky at his strongest – 1 through 3, 7, 9, 15 & 16, 22 & 23 – I have ten pages too many and, save for the Poundian opening of the first three numbers, I don’t really include any of the passages in which Zukofsky lets his thinking air out, developmentally. This would be exactly the sort of impossible trade-off that a project like this would entail. If I were to think of the book less as a Selected and more as an introduction to Zukofsky’s work, I might be inclined to go the other way – excising 22 and maybe including some passages (the same material I noted on May 31) from “A” – 12. Yet dropping “A” – 22 would probably cause me to cry myself to sleep that night.

I don’t know whether or not Charles wept, but his ultimate selection is not so radically different. Instead of representing two-thirds of the final selection, Bernstein's excerpts from "A" take up slightly under half of the book. “A”-22 is not there, but all of the rest are, save for the 2nd & 3rd, passages, while Bernstein has added portions of 11 and 21. That de-emphasizes Pound’s role in Zukofsky, while emphasizing Shakespeare’s – it’s an argument I can listen to, even if ultimately it would not be my own. Most important of all, all of “A”-23 is here, Zukofsky’s finest piece of writing. It is, in fact one of two pillars around which this book is gathered.

The other pillar, to my mind, is more surprising – it is the 38-page “short” poem, “4 Other Countries,” originally published in Barely and Widely, a poem I’d rejected as “simply too long to consider.” I still think that, particularly since it is a poem that makes Zukofsky seem more of a Williams’ clone than he ever really was. And it forces Bernstein to make some other hard choices, most notably the exclusion of “’Mantis’” and “’Mantis’: An Interpretation” & “Motet,” two pieces that strike me as foundational for Zukofsky’s practice, as well as “Atque in Perpetuum A.W.,” a work that was very nearly Zukofsky’s anthology piece during his lifetime. In addition, “Poem beginning ‘The’” is excerpted down to three movements. I suspect that “’Mantis’” – note the quotation marks in the original, a la “A” – may have been the book’s final cut, the poem Bernstein is most likely to have wept over the exclusion of, since it is the work, outside of “A,” discussed in the greatest detail in the introduction¹, with but a “not included in this edition,” aside to suggest a scar of omission.

Bernstein also makes the decision not to put “A” first, but rather after the selection of poems from LZ’s shorter collections prior to Catullus. This has the advantage of emphasizing the importance of “A,” but of de-emphasizing the evolution of his writing. “4 Other Countries,” for example, appears before the early sections of “A” when in fact it was penned in the mid-1950s, after all of “A” 1 – 12. I can sort of understand this, tho I felt a closer chronological order would give the Selected an additional rationale that is indicated here only by approximate dates in the table of contents.

I should note that Bernstein includes two poems not found in either “A” or the Collected Short Poems, “A Foin Lass Bodders,” an ‘outtake from “A”-9,” in Bernstein’s words, that Zukofsky himself appears to have rejected, and “Julia’s Wild,” from Bottom: On Shakespeare. Both are great works, and the thorough Zukofsky aficionado will own this book for “A Foin Lass Bodders” alone. The other primary reason to do so is Bernstein’s introduction, which is remarkable in its own right, and will be the standard introductory essay going forward.

So this is a less dense Zukofsky than readers of his larger corpus will recognize, just maybe a little less forbidding to the casual reader who fears the idea of effort in reading. But it leaves open the possibility of another, lengthier selected a decade or two down the line, one that is more chronological, and ultimately more representative.

 

¹ “A”-22 is discussed in some detail as well.



Monday, April 10, 2006

 

The cover story of this week’s Publishers Weekly is on poetry’s engagement with the web, with some references to this blog. Special thanks to Craig Teicher! We’re still trying to figure out why Craig is hiding under that table.



 

Redell Olsen & Drew Milne gave a smashing reading at Slought on Tuesday evening. It was a short event – maybe 45 minutes total for the two readers combined – followed by a brief & very informal Q&A session led by Bob Perelman. It was a great blast of fresh air, getting to see & hear two poets, both quite different from one another, fully engaged in a poetics that was (a) global in its ambition & scope (what I mean by that I will get to in a minute) and (b) utterly content to be understood as intellectuals & critical thinkers. None of the “Aw Shucks” b.s. one gets from so many American writers when pushed on the question do poets think?

It’s been a decade since the Scottish-born Milne co-edited a volume with Terry Eagleton called Marxist Literary Theory: A Reader. He’s subsequently published a volume on critical thought and has another volume on Marxist literary theory as well as a volume of conversations with Eagleton in the works. He edits Parataxis.

Olsen jokes that she was born in “the wrong Gloucester,” and currently volunteers her services as managing editor to How2. In addition to her editing, her critical work & her poetry, Olsen’s curated or co-curated several exhibitions related in various ways to text and book work. Both teach for a living, something quite rare for post-avant poets in the United Kingdom.

Both poets seem to be participants in a post-national post-avant scene in which English is the currency, but where the meaning of that term is something quite different from it would appear to be, say, in the hands of Larkin or a Heaney, or, for that matter, an Olson or a Ginsberg. How2, for example, may have been started by poets for the most part in the San Francisco Bay Area, but she does her work as managing editor from her post at the University of London, while current editor Kate Fagan works from Australia. Jacket, another first-rate online literary journal & quite possibly the best chronicler of current poetry in the U.S. is itself edited from Australia. And then there is the question of influence & influences. “In what sense,” asked Milne, “is Tom Raworth not an American poet?” Taken seriously, that’s a complicated question. What is the relation of language to place? To history?

It’s one that Olsen addresses directly in her “Minimaus Poems,” a series that works off her name-sake – that Olson with an “o” – and the curiously double fact for each of them of Gloucester. Here is Olson’s famous first lines to the Maximus Poems:

Off-shore, by islands hidden in the blood
jewels & miracles, I, Maximus
a metal hot from boiling water, tell you
what is a lance, who obeys the figures of
the present dance

Here, in contrast, are the first lines of Olsen’s first lines of “I, Minimaus of Gloucester, to You”:

Inland, by Iceland hidden by the blood of
jewels & discounts, I, Minimaus
sitting on hot metal, boiling in a vest,
ask you who speeds obediently
are we past ENTRANCE?

Reading Olsen’s passage, it is useful to recognize Iceland as the British retailer specializing in frozen foods & kitchen appliances. Olsen’s piece is both a reading of, and a reading through, that other Olson, some wryly satiric, as above, much of it quite brilliant. It is not, repeat not, that classic student exercise of imitation, but rather a meditation on the roles of influence, not simply of the Projectivists on subsequent post-avant poetry, particularly in the U.K., but of brands altogether & branding, the replacement of Maximus of Tyre by Minnie Mouse, alternately of Orlando & Anaheim, which is how anyone not at the center, wherever that might have migrated, could claim, as does Olsen,

even the trees are bigger
in
New York

Each, it is worth noting, are dealing with the question of how best respond to those “who advertise you / out,” but, for Olsen, the problem of Olson is a recursive one – he might identify the problem, but cannot quite ever become apart from it.

While Olsen read only the first of this sequence during the event at Slought, the questions beneath it reverberated not just through the remainder of the event, and beyond. I’d wished she’d read more & longer, Milne also. It is not just that one loses a minute or two at the head of any reading in which there is a notable (read: difficult) accent – think of how often the first speech or two in any Shakespeare play is a “toss off,” there really just so that the audience can adjust to listening at that distance, and to that rhetorical form. That adjustment alone meant that each poet had, at most, 17 or 18 minutes to get across functionally the whole of a life’s work.

Bruce Andrews used to joke that you could always tell a poet from San Francisco because they read “too long,” by which he meant 40 minutes or more. But, in fact, longer readings make infinite sense for the traveling poet. I left Slought, heading back out toward Chester County, wanting to read, and to hear, much much more.



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