Saturday, July 01, 2006
The most expensive reading ticket
I’ve heard of in some time
promises to be a bargain.
gets you a book-length reading
of The Men
by Lisa Robertson,
a three-course dinner
& all male fashion show
Friday, July 7, in
as part of
& for $5 more
you get the book too.
Soft Skull Press is bringing out a new edition of Eunoia.
I’ve been getting thank you notes
for shutting down
the comments stream.
But there has also been a drop-off
in the number of visits per day.
Personally, I miss the serious comments
that were on topic.
But toward the end,
that had declined to no more than
ten percent of the comments overall.
So if & when I reopen that feature
it will be after I have figured out
some way to ensure
that comments stay focused.
One of the great presses
from the 1960s onward
finally has its own web site:
Check out those early journals
& those up-to-the-moment books
Sunday’s NY Times Book Review
looks at the collected poems
of Ishmael Reed.
Friday, June 30, 2006
I don’t teach that often, maybe once every five or six years, save for one-day deals here & there. Over the years I’ve turned down a couple of tenure-track positions – they always assume you’re willing to take a 50 percent (or more) cut in pay – as well as a number of adjunct and one-semester or one-year positions. So when I actually do run into a class of bright, energetic, talented individuals, especially at the graduate level (thus having thought enough about what they want to do for writing to be more than a distraction in the undergrad hookup scene), I get a great rush of enthusiasm. These folks are great and a few of them have the chops to do something serious with writing.
But they’re so unread! This was an observation I made with my first grad level class at
These folks are not dunderheads, not in the slightest, but unless you’ve had John Taggart as a teacher (one of my students has), studied at one of a handful of identifiable schools like SUNY Buffalo, Brown, Bard, Temple, Penn, Mills, Wayne State or UC San Diego, or are some kind of manic autodidact, your chances of entering a graduate school program with even a remote understanding of the history of American poetry over the past half century are pretty minimal. (High schools, where poetry is routinely taught by people who don’t even read it for pleasure, are of course a million times worse.)
Think for a moment of just what the problem is. If you read two books of poetry per week, you will fall behind in your knowledge of what exists and is out there to the tune of 3,900 books a year at minimum. Another way of putting it is that, at two books per week, you could read the poetry books published in the
This is obviously where canons, anthologies and selection comes in. You really don’t want to read all 4,000 titles that will be published this year, regardless of what your allegiance is to aesthetic camps. Indeed, you can’t possibly read just the post-avant texts that will be published this year, just because it’s probably the largest single semi-coherent grouping of those titles today. It would not shock me to discover that, of the 4,000 titles, as many as 1,500 can be identified as post-avant, either some kind of poetry that grew out of the various traditions once represented by the New American poetry or some other postmodern tendency (Stein, dada, surrealism, sound poetry & vispo, for example, were all noticeably not a part of the New American scene). Perhaps 500 books out of that pile of 4,000 can be traced likewise back to the
Now I may have my numbers wrong here – there may be as many as 2,000 post-avant books, for example – but if you want to challenge the numbers, I suggest you put up some alternative ones of your own, thank you.
The culprit here no doubt is undergraduate curricula, which sees no need to teach contemporary poetry, or does so ahistorically, without reference to the shape of the landscape. You can call that educational malpractice – and it surely is – but the real question isn’t what to call it, but rather what to do about it. I would presume, for example, that even the sleepiest of MFA programs² confront the same problem with each incoming class.
I do have a suggestion. Two actually. One for students, another for schools. For students I would seriously recommend taking a year off between your undergraduate education & any MFA program you might be thinking about. Use this year to read voluminously and historically. I would start with Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry. Of the 44 poets in that volume, there are least 30 whose work you should know pretty much in its entirety. You should also be able to trace at least three of the groupings – the Projectivists, the
There are more recent anthologies, of which Paul Hoover’s Norton Postmodern is almost certainly the best, that attempt to give a sense of the broader contemporary landscape. How do these poets fit into those same historic lineages? Then take an anthology devoted to new poets – such as Stephanie Young’s Bay Poetics – and conduct the same exercise. If you can get through all this in one year, ask yourself why there has not been a good anthology of Objectivist poetry – the generation that comes after Pound & Williams, but before the New Americans – since 1932. Read all of them & then work your way back to the modernists.
That would be a year of excellent reading, and it would give you a foundation to build upon as a poet. The choices you made for your own poetry would be based on some perspective, not simply because you don’t know better.
For schools, my recommendation isn’t so different. Rather than simply admitting students to MFA programs if they have a remotely decent manuscript (or simply the dollars necessary to pay the tuition), grad programs should require prospective students to write a critical or historical paper. For prospective poets, that paper would take the Allen anthology, The New American Poetry, as its starting point. Students would have a large number of options including tracing on grouping in the anthology up to the present, identifying major new poets and formal evolutions along the way, analyzing the relationships between one another (and between the poetry of one another) of one or more writers from each of the different sections of the anthology, writing about the absence of people of color from the anthology and the relationship of a particular identarian poetics to the poetics of the Allen anthology as it has developed from the 1960s to the present, writing about the relative absence of women from the anthology and doing pretty much the same thing there, writing about a new trend in American poetics and how it relates to (or contests) the poetics implicit in the Allen anthology, writing about a particular kind of poetics or poet (vispo, deep image, performance poetics, chance poetry, W.S. Merwin, Robert Lowell, Robert Bly, James Wright, rap poetics etc.) that is absent from the anthology, analyzing why that is and what that means, and tracing the influence of that alternative poetics to the present. All of these essays would require prospective student finally to position themselves with regards to whatever they’re writing about, and to write about their hopes for this line of development going forward and how they fit into that.
This is not, you might have noticed, so terribly different from the questionnaire that Jack Spicer used for his own Magic Workshop back in the 1950s, where he asked prospective attendees to choose one of two models for literary inheritance (one looks like a genealogy chart, the other planets in outer space, some larger, others smaller, some central, others not) and to fill in the boxes. Spicer’s Magic Workshop was not only a seminal event in the history of
I don’t imagine that this exercise would beget a generation of students who sought to write like the next New American Poetry, only that it would help generate a cohort of MFA students who were not illiterates when it comes to American literary history. That way MFA programs would not have to spend at least half of their two-year programs on remedial education. And it just might cause a few more undergraduate programs to look at what they’re doing when they teach contemporary poetry.
¹ These numbers also suggest that the quickest way to become famous as a poet is to become a
² And wouldn’t it be fun to have contest identifying those.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Laird Hunt, Rebecca Brown and Thalia Field were discussing “The Poetics of Prose” on Tuesday morning, although from my bailiwick at the rear of the auditorium it felt more as if Thalia Field had decided to take on genre once & for all as having no true value beyond “getting in the way” of whatever you need to write next. She was, so to speak, taking no prisoners. It made for such a lively discussion – one student after another clung to the questioner’s microphone in the middle of the audience trying to see if Field would bend even a little – that I forgot I was supposed to step outside at 11 o’clock to take a call from Jordan Davis. My bad,
Certainly anyone who has ever written a work that gets mangled & muddled by the institutions that surround literature is going to sympathize deeply with Field’s frustration, if not necessarily the moral terms into which she was casting her jihad against genre. I won a Pushcart Prize for Fiction in 1979, although in fact I have never, to this day, written any. It was nice to receive an award & all, but I made them take the word fiction off my work in the paperback edition. The work that received this curious honor, Sitting Up, Standing, Taking Steps, one of the satellite texts of The Age of Huts, has neither character, plot nor even, for that matter, verbs. But it does appear as a single block of print that might be read as a paragraph. Which apparently is all that is required to be an award-winning author of fiction.
Then, three years later, UC San Diego offered me a visiting lectureship to come and teach fiction there. This appeared to be a result of the books Ketjak and Tjanting, works that have verbs for the most part, tho plot & character never really darken their doors unless, as Bob Perelman once theorized, the repetition of sentences in these poems is understood as plot. I insisted that UC let me teach a poetry course before I said yes. Did I feel guilty saying yes, knowing how many thousands of hardworking, dedicated, intelligent fiction writers there are who haven’t been getting such support for their work, either in the way of Pushcarts or teaching jobs? Yes, for about 30 seconds. It says something about the state of fiction – or maybe just the state of fiction in that little pocket of time 25 years ago – that someone could garner jobs & awards just by virtue of reaching the right-hand margin.
Elizabeth Willis, one of the shining presences at Naropa this week, rose up from the audience to note that genre distinctions are a necessity for institutions such as the New York Times Book Review as well as for bookstore managers. Since I’m teaching Povel this week, a book that received a poetry award that led to its publication but which has been reviewed almost exclusively as a novel, I wondered about that. It might be a bit much expecting bookstore managers to read the product before stocking their shelves, but what would the New York Times lose by the disappearance of easy categories besides the ability to know that it was dissing poetry as ever? Later, I pointed out to
The discussion also reminded me of an experiment I conducted in the mid-1970s when I was invited to give readings within a two-week period at the Maximum Security Library at Folsom State Prison¹ and at UC San Diego through the Visual Arts program where David Antin was teaching. I gave the same reading in each institution, centered around the poem “
The students at UCSD heard my writing as theory-savvy in some way – that accounted for their positive reaction there, but I suspect that on other occasions it has been every bit as much a turn-off to other student listeners. Certainly an awareness of theoretical debates later proved to be one of the great crimes that I & other langpos were charged with, mostly by professional academics, but also occasionally by some poets who had consciously rejected the academy themselves. Theory-savvy text is not (or was not then) a category among urban black felons, but they had their own set of categories & I happily came close enough to one to fit. But the white cons at Folsom had a different set altogether & there wasn’t any slot that seemed appropriate.
So in this sense I don’t think that categories or genre are a plot by Times editors, curriculum administrators or the buyers at Borders or Barnes & Noble. Rather, all of those institutions are trying to work with & shape, however ineptly (& it’s pretty profound), categories that begin with readers, as such, that come out of their own life experiences, which will differ dramatically according to their backgrounds. At some level, they’re not much more than an awareness – it can be quite vague in the absence of a specific text to identify & type – of the ensemble of cognitive frames we carry for any literary or textual phenomena. Some of it is learned, of course, but not necessarily always in school.
It’s not unlike the question of the relationship of a blog like this one to so-called serious critical writing. There no doubt are some readers who don’t trust a text that hasn’t been refereed by representatives of a critical journal. I’ve been pretty clear over the years that I tend to think of refereed journals as second-rate repositories of critical sludge and that direct discourse by poets amongst each other is really the only critical writing of lasting value. Which is to say that all the Fred Jameson texts in the world will never have the impact of a single copy of The Mayan Letters or Call Me Ishmael. Now there are some writers – Barrett Watten, Bob Perelman, Rachel Blau DuPless all immediately jump to mind – who successfully address both worlds at once. That’s a phenomenon worth studying on its own, but I would suggest that it’s a success that comes not through denying the differences between genres as Thalia Field seems to desire, but rather through acute sensitivity to the active dimensions (and limitations) of each.
¹ That way minimum security prisoners could attend & so could those in maximum security. Had I read in the minimum security library, the prisoners assigned to higher levels of security would not have been able to be there.
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
When I was a student at
Similarly, this summer at Naropa, I’m teaching a course that looks at the dividing line between self & other in contemporary writing. There are, of course, a million works these days in which the poet has brought in various literary devices to ensure that everything in the work is not the “pure expression” of the poet’s ego. In class, we’ve discussed John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, Oulipo, flarf, Kenny Goldsmith’s uncreative writing. At the same time we’re reading three major critical pieces by Charles Olson – “Projective Verse” and “Letter to Elaine Feinstein,” two of his programmatic statements of projectivism, very much articulations of how the self might proceed in poetics, as well as “Proprioception,” Olson’s dialectics, which contains within itself a glimpse finally not just of self, but of other. Against this, what I didn’t want to do was simply pose works that offer the polar opposite practice, such as Mac Low or Goldsmith (different as they from one another), but in fact writers who don’t normally proceed as if the self/other question in the work is a major axis of their writing. The three books I chose were Aaron Shurin’s Involuntary Lyrics, Christian Bök’s Eunoia, and Geraldine Kim’s Povel. Not only does each poet come to a very different conclusion in these works as to how this question plays out in their writing, each represents a different demographic approaching this issue.
Shurin, with whom I went to UC Berkeley (for all I know, he may have taken Crews’ class), is a member of my own generation, old enough now to have had a couple of different careers as a poet, emerging first as one of the gay activist poets of the post-Stonewall period, then pushing himself further toward a post-avant poetics after working with Robert Duncan at New College. Involuntary Lyrics represents a return to the line after 15 years of prose poems, but for the project he chose the end words of Shakespeare’s sonnets (not necessarily in the same order as they appear in that sonnet) for which he wrote new lines, so to speak.
The best-selling poetry book in Canadian history, Eunoia is a marvel of narrative & sonic invention, as Bök, a generation younger than Shurin &, like many Canadians, as close to the European tradition of experimental literature as he is to the
Gerald Kim’s Povel presents this issue in exactly the opposite way. One could read her new sentence structured verse novel as tho it were an autobiographical text and, tho her book received the 2005 Fence Modern Poets Series prize from Fence (Forrest Gander was the judge), at least some reviews treat the book as though it were entirely a novel. Born in 1983 – she couldn’t have been more than 21 when she wrote Povel – Kim is of a new generation entirely, as well as a Korean-American writer, a cultural take that
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Last Sunday night at Naropa, there was a celebration of Howl, in print now continuously for the past 50 years. There were excerpts from a documentary called Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds, Steven Taylor used Allen’s old harmonium to lead everyone in a song by William Blake & Taylor, Anne Waldman, Randy Roark & others got up & said or read things (I never noticed before just how much Anne stands with one foot raised off the ground as she reads, as if ready to spring into flight or dance). But the key to the evening was everyone – maybe 300 people! an SRO crowd in what I take to be Naropa’s largest auditorium – reading Howl aloud simultaneously. You should try this sometime.
One of things that happens is that the event itself takes over – there really are only one or two ways that that many souls can sound the same text at the same time & it sounds curiously similar to the pledge of allegiance, only this time to a very different nation, the real one. But underneath this overtone – it borders on the chants of Tibetan monks after awhile – you become aware of the lines in the text that fit comfortably with such a mode, both declamatory and almost hushed, and those lines that don’t. In Howl, there are many that don’t. Consider for example this six-line passage & how radically the four-part structure of that last line slows down the incessant forward motion:
who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,
who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword,
who lost their loveboys to the three old shrews of fate the one eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar the one eyed shrew that winks out of the womb and the one eyed shrew that does nothing but sit on her ass and snip the intellectual golden threads of the craftsman's loom.
The key word in Howl, at least part I, is who. After the first three lines, in which the word doesn’t appear at all, it then is the first word¹ in 56 of the next 63 lines, 89 percent of the time. It occupies this position only twice in the final twelve lines², just enough to infer the cohesion of parallel syntax, even as the poem opens out to a wider range of syntactic forms as it winds to a stop.
Because Ginsberg uses anaphor and long lines, the poem encourages rapid pacing & few breaths at the end of line breaks. Yet these last lines are line brakes as well as breaks, as Ginsberg takes great care to let the text coast to a stop.
¹ There’s an argument to be made that the word in a line that receives the most emphasis is the one at the line’s end, followed by the first word, followed by the word that comes immediately before a caesura, followed in turn by the first word after that, etc.
² It is the second word in the 73rd line.
Monday, June 26, 2006
That sentence, which is true in the sense that it is possible, that we can say & think it, can hear echoes of other similar sentences within it, can substitute any discipline into that first word-slot – mathematics after Auschwitz is barbaric – can substitute any horror into the third position – mathematics after Hiroshima is barbaric – can even, if we are prepared to cross a line not everyone will be comfortable with, substitute any characterization into the last slot – mathematics after Hiroshima is transparent – bedevils me.
Poetry & philosophy are twins, each looking to the other, anxious to compare. For every Adorno or Sartre or Cavell who addresses literature as a professional philosopher, we have poets who mime, as well as mine, philosophy itself, from Ezra Pound to John Taggart to Anne Carson & Susan Stewart, from Charles Olson to Charles Bernstein to Allen Grossman to Geraldine Kim. And then there is Wittgenstein, more widely imitated by poets, yours truly included, than any other practitioner of a “non-poetic” genre, more even than Bob Dylan. Not to mention Walter Benjamin – him I see as philosophy’s Jack Spicer. Both were obsessed with the task of the translator.
Like a lot of poets, I enter into this with a history & a bias. My formal training in philosophy consists of two classes, one on set theory, the other an intro course at
I found Chomsky’s linguistic texts impenetrable. The most intelligible line I ever read there, to this day, is ”Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” though I think it’s considerably more meaningful than does he. On the other hand, Dwight Bolinger’s Meaning and Form, a basic text, and the writing on linguistics by Charles Hockett in Scientific American, had a deep and lasting impact, sending me back through the history of linguistics first to Saussure & then to Roman Jakobson. It is not an accident, I think, that when MIT math major George Lakoff wanted to take a course on poetry & got Jakobson as his teacher,
that Lakoff was destined – one might say doomed – to become a linguist. Nor is it an accident that when Claude Levi-Strauss heard Jakobson at the New School while in exile in New York during World War 2, that Levi-Strauss was similarly doomed to develop the structuralist school of cultural anthropology, which is exactly the structuralism to which all post-structuralism today imagines itself to be post-. The series Levi-Strauss attended was later published as Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning. Sound & meaning, not accidentally, are the critical dimensions of the poem. Jakobson’s ideas first began to percolate when he was still in
Reading Wittgenstein for me was a life-changing event, perhaps because I read Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations back to back & could see there the passion of the self-tortured mind. Passion, I would argue, is precisely what separates the very best philosophers from the bulk. It’s what I love about Willard Van Orman Quine & about Sartre, with whom I never ever agree. It’s what I love about Adorno, even if his attitude toward jazz makes me want to club him with a saxophone. Philosophy is all about feelings, but that’s not all.
Poetry & philosophy are two practices that propose their texts as instances of the self-valuable word. It would be easy enough to sketch them out, one pulling on the side of connotation, the other denotation. But as twins, this pair is incestuous. One could argue that continental philosophy is on the side of connation, analytic philosophy on the side of denotation, that continental philosophy as such has been infected with the poetic.
When I was a creative writing major in the 1960s, the obsessive quest of such programs was to help young poets find their voice. It was early in that decade when Charles Olson first drafted the nines essays that make up Proprioception, the closest thing we have ever had to a dialectic of, by, and for poets. Over the decades since the obsession with voice has changed. We live now in the age of flarf – at least one definition of which is poetry created to be deliberately awful or anti-literary – as a genre and of Google-sculpting & myriad chance operations as everyday literary devices, of appropriated texts & found ones. Kenny Goldsmith, sometimes known as Kenny G, writes &teaches what he calls uncreative writing, scanning in an entire edition of The New York Times, offering us a year’s worth of weather reports. Today, younger poets find themselves in exactly the inverse position of the one I confronted 40 years ago, seeking not so much their Voice as ways out of it, seeking not their Self but their Other. But what does that mean? I think it’s at least as nebulous as the concept of voice. My own goal for this week is to explore that dividing line in as many ways as possible.
This statement is for a panel, to include Elizabeth Willis, Anne Waldman, Chris Tysh, Donald Preziosi and me, Monday morning, June 26. The description of the panel itself is as much instruction as we were given, save to prepare a statement, seven to ten minutes in length:
What is it in philosophy that writers find so attractive? How important should philosophy be to a writer? Panelists will discuss how philosophical inquiries have informed their thinking and writing. Be it Marx, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Jean-Luc Nancy, or some other French guy, our panelists will discuss the philosophers they have been reading. Panelists will also discuss which investigations‹whether class, gender, society, desire, philosophy of language, or other areas‹most inform their work and thinking.