Saturday, July 29, 2006

 

Sylvester Pollet’s Backwoods Broadsides have finally come to a conclusion, with the publication of Jonathan Green’s Songs of Farewell, a gathering of 15 poems published on a single sheet of paper, the 100th such “broadside” in Pollet’s series. In its 12 years, Backwoods Broadsides has been a Who’s Who of mostly post-New American poetics, including such authors as

Antler
Bob Arnold
Amiri Baraka
Tom Beckett
George Bowering
Nicole Brossard
Lee Ann Brown
Cid Corman
Robert Creeley
Mary de Rachelwitz
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa
Diane Di Prima
Sharon Doubiago
Rachel Blau DuPlessis
George Economou
Clayton Eshleman
Ted Enslin
Kathleen Fraser
Ben Friedlander
Michael Heller
Dick Higgins
Jack Hirschman
Anselm Hollo
Ronald Johnson
Devin Johnston
Pierre Joris
Robert Kelly
Joanne Kyger
James Laughlin
Jackson Mac Low
Osip Mandelstam
David Meltzer
Stephen Paul Miller
Jennifer Moxley
Sheila E. Murphy
A.L. Nielsen
Hoa Nguyen
Alice Notley
Peter O’Leary
Rochelle Owens
Bern Porter
Kristin Prevallet
Meredith Quartermain
Peter Quartermain
Carl Rakosi
Joan Retallack
Jerome Rothenberg
Aram Saroyan
Andrew Schelling
Armand Schwerner
Dale Smith
John Taggart
Anne Tardos
Nathaniel Tarn
Sotère Torregian
Robert Vas Dias
Anne Waldman
Keith Waldrop
Rosmarie Waldrop

Plus maybe 40 more. I do believe that he only “repeated” two contributors in the entire series, Sheila Murphy (once solo, once in a collaboration with Doug Barbour) and Clayton Eshleman (once in his own right, once as translator for César Vallejo).

One amazing aspect of this series is that you can still get it all or in parts. Back issues – and they’re all back issues now – go for $1 postpaid in the US (“Canada/international add postage” reads the flyer, suggesting perhaps that Canada is not fully international vis-à-vis the U.S.). Complete sets are available for $100 postpaid in the US (international airmail add $10). I’m only willing to tell you this because my check for $100 is already in the mail. Send your check (which I would make out to Sylvester directly) to Sylvester Pollet, 963 Winkumpaugh Rd., Ellsworth Maine 04605-9529.

Here is Jonathan Greene’s title poem from the last “chaplet,” “Songs for Farewell”:

They say his robe is flowing.
He, too, flowing downstream . . .
wave, goodbye.

§

To leave like a winning dive,
clean into the water like a knife,
no splash.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

 

It’s hard not to like John Phillips’ Language Is, from Sardines Press. Phillips, a British poet who has spent the past decade in Slovenia & now returned home, writes with a precision, balance & grace that calls to mind the very best of Louis Zukofsky’s short poems, or Creeley’s early period, or Lorine Niedecker’s work. At his best, Phillips is absolutely dazzling:

Seeing how
each thing

singly is –

that tree
a tree

its leaves,
leafs

Or, also untitled:

What we read
we write
ourselves
into
the text of.

Yet this work comes to us now not only decades removed from the age of Objectivism or Projectivism’s first decade, but some 40 years after the heyday of Ted Enslin & or James L. Weil as well. Indeed, in the late ‘60s & early ‘70s, there were dozens of younger poets similarly focused in their concerns. Those who went on to have significant careers – David Bromige would be an example – saw these same concerns evolve. Still, every decade sees a new group of young poets emerge insisting on this same level of precision.

My own sense is that I inherently trust this impulse, especially when I see it coming forth slightly askew, as if to suggest that the poet has a somewhat different angle on the whole thing. Graham Foust & Joseph Massey would be good recent examples of such slanting. They may well be of the tradition, but they extend it into places where it has not previously gone.

The arts in general, and poetry in particular, are quite unlike most modes of commerce in that the new doesn’t necessarily push out the old so much as it nudges it aside just slightly so as to make room for more. It’s not like, say, the PC sending typewriter companies like Smith-Corona to the corporate graveyard. In poetry, new forms mean more forms. The three major innovations of the 19th century, for example, free verse, the prose poem and dramatic monologue, continue forward to this day. Yet so does the sonnet. And, according to Google, there are just under 18 million websites that mention haiku.

Invariably a point comes when the evolution of these forms slows and people become more interested in reduplication of the form than in pushing it further. That’s the story with haiku & a good part of the story with dramatic monolog (which hasn’t had a major push forward since Olson’s Maximus Poems, unless you consider David Antin’s talk pieces an instance of the same form) and the sonnet as well. That is a moment that will occur with every literary device over time, the real question being when & how & whether the device in question will later be able to be resuscitated, as the sestina was by the New York School.

My question, reading John Phillips, is where precisely he fits in the history of that subsector of free verse that passes through Zukofsky & Creeley & Corman et al. As well crafted, and as much fun, as these poems are – which is a lot, on both counts – it’s not clear to me that Phillips sees himself pushing the form forward. If that is not what Phillips is trying to accomplish, then his book represents a different moment from any found in the work, say, not only of Graham Foust & Joseph Massey, but Gustaf Sobin & Devin Johnston & Michael Heller & so many of the other poets who have taken this approach in years gone by.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

 

Writing of Gabe Gudding’s essay on the impact of creative writing programs on the evolution of American poetry yesterday, I noted that at “its heart, what [Gudding’s essay] asks us to do is to think what the poem might be absent this particular literary history.” I found myself thinking of that exact question while reading the latest book from Quale Press, Sherwood Anderson’s Mid-American Chants. Originally published in 1918, Mid-American Chants is an anomaly, a relatively early work – his third book – of a late starter (Anderson was 42 when it first came out, four years after his first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son), a collection of poetry from an author known for his fiction. Here is a reasonably typical example, entitled “Song to New Song”:

Over my city Chicago a singer arises to sing.

I greet thee, hoarse and terrible singer, half man, half bird, strong, winged one.

I see you float in cold bleak winds,

Your wings burned by the fires of furnaces,

In all your cries so little that is beautiful,

Only the fact that you have risen out of the din and roar to float and wait and point the way to song.

 

Back of your grim city, singer, the long flat fields.

Corn that stands up in orderly rows, full of purpose.

As you float and wait, uttering your hoarse cries

I see new beauties in the standing corn,

And dream of singers yet to come,

When you and your rude kind, choked by the fury of your furnaces,

Have fallen dead upon this coal heap here.

 

Kneeling in prayer I shall forget you not, grim singer,

Black bird, black against your black smoke-laden sky,

Uttering your hoarse and terrible cries,

The while you do strive to catch and understand

The faint and long forgotten quality of song,

By never sweeter singers to be sung.

Several things in this text stand out, above & beyond the obvious influence of Whitman. One is the fact that there is nothing personal here about the use of the first person singular. Is “I” here even a person? More accurately, it strikes me as a rhetorical position. Nor is there anything personal, even personified, about “you,” bird man of the furnaces. Rather, this is a kind of public, figurative language we hardly hear any more, save possibly in church. If it seems preposterous or stilted or dated, that is the index of just how far outside our expectations such language is today within the poem.

And yet it is not, clearly, a sign of any weakness on the author’s part – rhythmically, this work is rock solid. You can tell almost instantly just how certain of his craft Anderson is here. In its 19 lines, only ten words have as many as three syllables and just one – beautiful – has four.

It’s hard for me to imagine that this kind of poetry was possible less than 30 years before I was born – my ear hears it as tho an echo of another age altogether. But of course those 30 years were not just the period of the rise of the creative writing program with its emphasis on getting in touch with personal experience, but also of aural mass communication for the very first time as radio, in particular, and later motion pictures made the spoken word something that could take place on a one-to-many basis for the very first time. The very first thing you noticed about an emerging public figure like JFK or Lyndon Johnson was that they “talked funny,” which is to say that each showed pronounced vestiges of a regional accent. A lot of that has dissolved for those of us who grew up in the years immediately after World War 2, especially after corporations began to dictate the movement of families hither and yon over the landscape. So Anderson employs a rhetoric that sounds as foreign now as does Ezra Pound’s trilled r in the recordings of his readings, conventions that have ceased to exist over the past century.

One of the listservs I’m on has had a somewhat similar discussion about a more recent project, Robert Duncan’s Ground Work, recently reissued by New Directions. Some writers there noted that they had not gotten into his work because they found it grim. I hardly think of it myself in those terms, but I do think that it insists on the seriousness of poetry itself as a vocation, and that Duncan himself – even where he farms his childhood and family mysteries for material – never particularly saw the poem as an occasion for personal expression. He was, literally, much more interested in the transpersonal, the idea that, as he put in an earlier poem, the dance exists prior to the presence of any dancers, who are merely “permitted to return” from time to time. It’s a view as old as Blake’s, but one that is a far cry from the experiential voice of the old McPoem of creative writing workshops and from the phenomenological sweep, say, one finds in much language (and post-) poetry.

Once you begin to do this, you start to see other kinds of poetry that likewise fall outside of Gudding’s model – the whole of vispo for one – and you begin to wonder what it means that this alternate tradition has not, at least to this point, ever been articulated as such. Is it that they have not had the institutional advantage of the MFA programs that carry forward the “growth agenda” of creative writing. Where, say, does Kenny Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” fit into such a counter tradition? Or the post-dada noodling of the likes of Fluxus or Dick Higgins? Or, for that matter, Gertrude Stein.

I don’t – today, anyway – have answers. But looking at the world through Gudding’s glasses does tend to bring different elements into focus. And that’s what I find interesting.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

 

Gabe Gudding loves the role of trouble maker. You can see it in his poetry, his criticism, his weblog, his missives to listservs, the people he chooses to champion. He lists “tastelessness” as a research interest on his web page at Illinois State University in Normal and is photographed there in front of the razor-wire fence of a prison.

Not unlike Kent Johnson, Gudding is one of those people whom it’s possible to admire even as you want to slap him across the face with an old trout. The impulse behind the ruckus is often good, but the impulse itself comes with a lot of baggage. It’s taken me years, for example, to get around to reading his essay, “From Petit to Langpo: A History of Solipsism and Experience in American Poetics Since the Rise of Creative Writing,” which I finally loaded onto my Palm TX & read while I was in California. The title is off-putting enough, but somewhere early on when it was first posted to the FlashPoint magazine website in 1999 I scanned it, saw a cheesy comment about Charles Bernstein (“arguably one of the most benighted and boring writers in the United States”), an aside that actually had nothing to do with the point then being made in the paper & thought of all the other times that Gudding has gone jousting against some of my own favorite windmills, myself included, and decided for the time being that I didn’t need to read that.

In fact, I was wrong. In spite of its somewhat misleading title – the subtitle is where all the action is here – Gudding’s essay is an attempt to understand the impact of creative writing programs on poetry itself, both the verse being written and, even more so, the divorce between the poet as experiencer of Big Feelings – what everyone from Oprah to Garrison Keeler mean by the adjective poetic – and the contemporary writer of poems that are often dismissed as too difficult or insular to bother reading. While there are a few poets – Robert Bly, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Amiri Baraka – who deliberately produce verse for audiences who don’t otherwise read poetry, most poets, regardless of their literary heritage or tendencies, are readily dismissed by mass audiences.

Gudding’s genius here has been not to ascribe this disjunction to one literary tendency or another (tho he also, just as clearly, demonstrates that its roots, if not its effects, are as far from the post-avant tradition as one could imagine), but would appear to be grounded in the history of American education as such, specifically in the rise of English departments, a phenomenon that did not exist 200 years ago, and within them the rise of creative writing courses. Gudding makes great use of John Dewey’s Art and Experience and the writings and work of William Hughes Mearns, whom Gudding credits as the first to teach the subject by name.

Gudding’s point is that creative writing never was intended to produce poets, fictioneers, playwrights or (the latest and most telling development, tho Gudding somewhat surprisingly doesn’t mention it to support his case, which it surely does) professional purveyors of the “personal essay.” Rather, from the beginning, the purpose was to develop, in Mearns’ words, “self-expression as a means of growth, and not poetry…. The business of making professional poets is still another matter – with which this writer has never had the least interest” (Gudding’s ellipsis). Mearns’ efforts might not have created poets, but it sure did create jobs for them, paid work aimed precisely at replicating the same fuzzy experiential agenda – the idea that a creative writing course is the one class in college that is explicitly about You. Gudding cites a then-current University of Montana creative writing program’s brochure that quotes the late Richard Hugo saying “a creative writing class may be one of the last places where you can go where your life still matters." Gudding implies, and he’s not wrong, that this isn’t necessarily a good thing. While I was out in California last week – staying at the home of one of Hugo’s former students, no less, now a psychotherapist whose bookshelves are full of the Pablo Neruda-to-Jane Kenyon spectrum of verse – one former Mills professor told me of a “revolt” that occurred in one of his classes when he had the temerity to suggest that his students actually read contemporary poetry.

The very same poetics of experience that lies at the heart of this growth agenda – Gudding calls it “democratic freighting,” acknowledging the impulses behind Dewey’s view of curriculum – leads to an aesthetic of the overwrought on the side of the School of Quietude, and to a phenomenology of the signifier among post avants, neither of which is calculated to gain a broad readership in a world where the lowest common denominator seems to be Dan Brown’s plot-driven conspiracy narratives.

Gudding concludes by demonstrating just how pervasive this aesthetic of the personal has become, quoting poet after poet, from all literary tendencies, who argue, in form or another, that the poem is found – the contemporary poet doesn’t so much write the poem as she or he discovers it – rather than constructed (the alternate model Gudding traces back to Coleridge): Robert Frost, Eudora Welty, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Bill Stafford. A secondary, but not unimportant aspect of Gudding’s panoply of consequences is the rise of prose within poetry, precisely on the theory – Russell Edson is cited here – on the grounds that it is closer to experience because prose entails less of a formal dimension.

At its heart, Gudding’s argument is fascinating and troubling pretty much in equal amounts. At its heart, what it asks us to do is to think what the poem might be absent this particular literary history. That’s a profoundly important question.

But Gudding’s execution – this appears to have been written while he was himself still in the MFA program at Cornell – is beyond sloppy. His gratuitous dismissal of Charles Bernstein ignores Bernstein’s own work in this area – and Bernstein’s Brechtian send-ups of the personal in his own poetry would seem to be exactly what Gudding is tacitly advocating.

Further, Gudding’s description of prose as an anti-formal aesthetic strategy sounds very 1960s and the constructivist tendencies of the language school are nowhere considered, particularly since they (we) are being dismissed out of hand. It puts Gudding into the convoluted position of arguing for things that he otherwise trashes. One wishes, for example, that he had simply set aside the cheap shots and made the sort of meticulous case for his position that one associates, say, with the work on the history of canons done by Alan Golding. It wouldn’t have been that hard to do, but FlashPoint is hardly the only online journal that seems to think that editing stops with accepting a particular work.

But Gudding shouldn’t be dismissed just because he may be his own worst enemy rhetorically. The argument that he is making – however incomplete and riddled with problems it might be – has elements that ring true and would be good to think out at far greater length. Gudding’s own poetry might be characterized as neo-Georgian, particularly with its emphasis on satire and social wit, as if the only way to sidestep the problematics of the personal might be to go back to the last period in which such concerns were not (yet) an issue. I’m not convinced of this, either by the poems themselves or by Gudding’s reasoning here, but at the very least this misnamed essay offers gateways through which one might begin to address such issues.

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Monday, July 24, 2006

 

While I was in California back on July 10, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Afghan poetry in the U.S. on its front page. The article by Masood Farivar, which has been reprinted by a few other newspapers in places such as Pittsburgh and Birmingham, Alabama, is worth reading in its entirety – when was the last time you saw a cogent piece on the sociology of poetry on the front page of a newspaper? Me neither. The headline in the Journal was “For Afghan Cabbies, A Poetry Tradition Spurs War of Words.” Most of the other papers, however, realized that this wasn’t about taxi drivers, giving it the plainer, but more accurate heading of something like the Post-Gazette’s “D.C. Afghan poetry groups fight war of words.”

The gist of the article concerns two reading series that take place in the same Masonic Lodge in Springfield, VA, on different Friday nights each month. One, “An Evening with the Dervishes,” in the words of Farivar, “

prefers what it calls the serious, scholarly pursuit of poetry. The group views itself as a literary clique focusing on masters such as Abdul Qadir Bedil, a 17th century poet and Islamic mystic, or Sufi. Its gatherings feature top scholars and poets.

The other, older series, “An Evening of Sufism,”

brings all forms of Afghan poetry to large audiences. It also treats attendees to free refreshments and pop-music performances.

The article makes a point of noting that a reader in the latter series recently “informed the audience that she’d just finished her poem in the parking lot.”

The differences between the two groups echo the division within American poetries between the School of Quietude, that ensemble of aesthetic tendencies that tends to stress the conventionality of poetry and its continuity with English literary traditions (and tensions) & the broad range of post-avant alternatives that emerged with the New American Poets of the 1950s, but which can be traced back to Whitman & Poe a century earlier. Farivar characterizes the dispute:

Mostly they adhere to Afghan social norms, treating each other with civility and even deference. Occasionally, they drop by each other's gatherings. But at times, their rivalries have burst into the open.

Members of "An Evening of Sufism" accuse the Dervishes of tearing down their flyers from Afghan stores, and have dubbed them "hash-heads," which in Afghanistan is a term associated with the uneducated.

In fact, the Dervishes seem closer to the group’s origins in a series of evenings when the poets would seriously debate the nuances of classic Afghan texts, pooling their money to call M.I. Negargar, a former Kabul University professor now living in exile in England, to tease out the full potential of the works they were discussing.

If one steps back from the specifics of the current tempest – who tore down whose flyers or who is trying to get whom kicked out of the Masonic Lodge – one sees two distinct approaches to literature emerging, one focused on the historic canon of Afghan poetry and emphasizing continuity with traditional Afghan culture – there is a move among the Dervishes, for example, to ban all forms of musical accompaniment at their readings – the other focused more on the present, which includes contemporary writing and concerns that may affect Afghan exiles in the U.S., but which would be of little import from the perspective of traditional culture in Afghanistan. Finishing a poem in the parking lot just before the start of a reading may not be the best way to present polished writing, but it certainly is one way of foregrounding the value on the present that the other group has.

The article made me wonder just how much these same divisions may underscore roughly parallel, and far older, chasms within American poetry. For example, just how much of the School of Quietude/post-avant debate can still be traced back to this nation’s origins as a gathering of exiles, one group concerned with accentuating its continuity with European cultures, especially British culture, the other hoping to foreground that which is somehow uniquely American about American poetry?¹ How does this compare with the same sort of division, say, back in the U.K., where the distinction seems instead to reflect class divisions as much as anything else (a cleavage that goes back to Shakespeare’s day, at the least, when the Bard initiated the post-avant impulse by composing his own sonnet series to demonstrate that an uneducated writer of popular entertainments from the boonies could perform at least as well as a “University wit” like Ben Jonson).

The U.S. Afghan exile literary scene dates, according to this article, back to the 1980s when the first wave of exiles began to write. The article implies, without seeming to realize that this is what it is suggesting, that the scene in Springfield, VA, represents literary processes that may be larger than just Afghan or U.S. verse, and represents an opportunity to observe an evolution in the social history of poetry not unlike the way a cyclotron enables a scientist to recreate conditions near, if not at, the Big Bang from which all current tendencies necessarily follow. Regardless of where you might fit into these broader literary traditions, the rise of Afghan poetry in the U.S. should be worth watching.

 

¹One could argue that between a colonial imperialism lurking within one tradition & an unexamined nationalism lurking in the other, that both tendencies offer ample territory for critique. This division isn’t so much about who might be “right” as it is about the values being propagated by each tendency’s agenda.

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