Saturday, January 20, 2007

 

You still have until 9:00 PM Eastern on Sunday to bid on any of the 88 auction items in Rain Taxi’s annual fundraiser. It’s a terrific cause – Rain Taxi is a journal that covers every tendency & every genre with great fairness & intelligence – and there are some terrific items, ranging from signed chapbooks from Paul Auster, Alice Notley & James Tate, an original draft (with edits) of a poem by Ron Padgett, a rare copy of Robert Graves’ Nazarene Gospell Restored, a photograph of Moondog by Gerard Malanga, signed work from Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, a shawl by Maria Damon & much more. One of the secrets of eBay auctions is that a lot of experienced buyers wait right up to the last minute to bid, so that they don’t inadvertently drive up prices. So you might want to stay up late (or get up early, depending on where you are) just to make sure your bids are in.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

 

The title poem of Bob Perelman’s IFLIFE is a long piece, 26 pages in all, that occurs in its own section, the book’s second, entitled “Subject Matter.” The idea of giving the poem one title, the section (which contains no other work) another is something that happens twice in IFLIFE, the second occurrence in the last of the book’s five sections where a poem entitled “Tank Top” occupies a section that goes by the acronym “FUBAR.”

In both cases, the long poem is itself a compilation of titled sections that one wants, at least partly, to read as individual poems, not unlike the way one reads “Voice Play” at the end of People. But with both “IFLIFE” & “Tank Top” the interior poems have their titles centered, which gives the effect of making them appear to be more in the flow of the text, unlike “Voice Play,” ¹ and in “IFLIFE,” Perelman runs a continuing thread through each of its ten subpoems or sections, Laurence Britt’s “14 characteristics common to fascist regimes.” Since the poems also go back & forth between poetry & prose (they have a tendency to start in verse form, then spread out, so to speak, going back & forth, passages in verse as short as a single line or up to just about a page). One consequence, and I’ve thought about this for three days, is that there is no single page I could type up here that would be, in any useful manner, “representative.”

In many respects, tho, “IFLIFE” is deeply representative of Perelman’s interests as a poet – going between the personal & political, the historical & critical, the chronicler of daily life. He names names along the way, tho not so much in the way, say, Ted Berrigan did – there are, I think, just two references where only a first name is given & you’re supposed to recognize the allusion: “George says ‘up is better than down’,” alluding to the linguist Lakoff’s theory of metaphoric frames &, earlier, “One can think of contemporaries here: Ron’s SOQ” – this following a quotation, not from me, to the effect that “’The distinction a critic makes between Modern-self-analytical and Old Master –representational refers less to the works compared than to his own chosen stance – to be analytic about the one and polemically naive about the other.”

Elsewhere, Perelman himself affects naïveté, misspelling the name of Martin Scorsese, ascribing an Allen Ginsberg anecdote from the film No Direction Home about the song “Hard Rain” to “The Time’s (sic) They Are A-Changin" a work with a very different relationship to the literal and the role of language & imagery. The error reduces Ginsberg to a purveyor of political correctness, which wasn't Ginsberg's point at all.

“IFLIFE,” the poem, is Bob Perelman’s love-hate story with the whole of poetry. It’s interesting to see who Perelman goes after just as it is where he pulls his punches. An imaginary Ginsberg is one such target, but language poetry is another, as when Perelman conjures a Greek chorus & puts words into the mouth of one of its speakers:

That the gestures that Language poetry triumphantly says are still radical are actually super-codified now. And that’s my whole point. We need to rethink that equation.

I don’t know of any so-called langpo who either thinks or has ever asserted that the devices of the 1970s are in any sense above or outside of history – if anything, quite the opposite. So it’s interesting to wonder just what perspective Perelman is trying to present here, a position more in keeping with caricatures than the thing itself. And it’s interesting to read the following passage substituting the name Amiri Baraka for Thyrsis:

I think it’s interesting that Thyrsis came into the conversation. Because I think that we don’t observe enough that in darts or in gymnastics it’s possible for someone to be an innovator, who shows you a new way of making the moves, that they themselves might not take very far. And I would say that Thyrsis is an astonishing figure because he makes possible the careers of about ten other poets. Bruce Andrews is only possible because of Thyrsis. And for me that’s not a negative judgment on Bruce Andrews’s work, which I find very powerful. But it comes straight out of some of the Thyrsis work of the late 60s and early 70s. Thyrsis shows you how you can do it, but he usually does it in a limited sphere. He’s very restless. And he’s not an author who goes toward . . . I don’t know what to call it: personal insight”

Now reread that same passage and substitute the name Matthew Arnold for Thyrsis. Thyrsis was a shepherd in Virgil’s Seventh Eclog that Arnold appropriated for the title of an elegy for Arthur Hugh Clough.

If “IFLIFE” is a complex, problematic poem – the two quotations above both come from its next-to-last section or subpoem, entitled “Now Call It A Poem” – it’s because Bob Perelman is a very angry man and Bob Perelman hates, utterly despises, the whole idea of conflict. And because his subject here is not just poetry, but the poetry that is nearest and dearest to him.

Perelman is hardly the first or only self-conflicted poet in the world. It’s a role at least as old as Rimbaud & just possibly goes back all the way to Gilgamesh. And while there any number of poets of all types, from Robert Duncan & Clayton Eshleman to Hart Crane & James Merrill to Franz Wright & Bill Knott who could be said to be writers who have chosen (or been given) to be the conflict & not merely to speak of it, Perelman, like Eshleman, Andrews, Ginsberg & Hannah Weiner, does so consciously. The result here is that “IFLIFE” – and IFLIFE – is an extraordinarily passionate work, one that demonstrates that the poetic & critical thought are not opposing impulses but deeply intertwined, inseparable, hectoring us at every turn.

 

 

¹ Graphically, “Voice Play” is the only poem, or series, whose internal poems have titles at the left margin. One might, therefore, read them as being more subsections than “IFLIFE” perhaps, save that these texts are more distinct one from the next in terms both of content and form – they are distinct, short works, such as the couplet “Ideal Reader” that I quoted on Monday.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

 

Questions for John Ashbery

§

Questions for Charles Bernstein

§

It’s pretty much last call, Kyle Schlesinger tells me, for Woundwood, down to a few last copies in hand that he found in the back room recently, plus four others still at SPD. Woundwood is a part of VOG, the section of The Alphabet that functions something like a normal book of poems. For people who prefer poems to poetry, it’s probably the place to start with me. The Alphabet, by the way, will be published in its entirety in 2008 by the University of Alabama Press.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

 

I have this desire to read each poem of Bob Perelman’s IFLIFE closely, to worry over it and poke at it. Andy Gricevich’s comment to yesterday’s note – he calls IFLIFE “one of those "Oh –THIS is why I love poetry" experiences – strikes me as exactly correct. It’s definitely one of those books where the more you look, the more closely you read, the more you will find. That’s an issue, or question, that Perelman himself raises in “A Guide to Homage to Sextius Propertius,” another poem from the section People that I looked at yesterday.

Before I read the poem, I went back to my (still relatively new) Library of America Pound & reread “Homage to Sextius Propertius,” indeed even went to Wikipedia & read up on the real Propertius & his fellow Augustans there. And I went back & reread Pound’s interview in the Paris Review, perhaps because that was the last Pound I’d read, and I thought about the Pound panel I’d sat in on at the MLA, with Perelman chairing no less, Ben Friedlander focusing on Pound’s broadcasts, Rachel Blau DuPlessis & Jennifer Scappetone discussing Pound as influence, then Barrett Watten on Pound as symptom, reading Pound through Adorno (and, to a lesser degree, reading Adorno’s work on the authoritarian personality through Pound as well).

More than any other modernist, even Gertrude Stein, Pound’s role – indeed, Pound himself – has changed during my lifetime. When I was first coming up as a poet in the 1960s, one sensed a great unease with any reference to Pound’s “suburban prejudice” of anti-Semitism or his propaganda for the fascists during WW2, not so much out of deference to Pound per se but rather simply (and simultaneously) to keep the work available – people like Robert Silliman Hillyer had not so very long ago suggested that this was not a good thing & Hillyer (unlike Pound) had won a Pulitzer Prize – and also from deference to certain elderly wizards of the then-neonatal Pound industry, particularly Hugh Kenner, about whom one sensed that part of the attraction to Pound was, if not political per se, at least economic. That was a hornet’s nest best avoided.

Now, however, anyone who sidestepped “the problem” would look like a doofus. Indeed, as virtually everyone at the Pound panel appeared to suggest, the way, possibly the only way, to recover what matters in Pound is to go directly at the problem, to ask what in Pound’s politics is in harmony with his aesthetics & particularly the practice of The Cantos. One of the books that helped create this reversal was Perelman’s own The Trouble with Genius some twelve years ago.

Perelman’s “Guide” rhymes with Pound’s largely to the degree that each is composed of ten parts (in both cases using Roman numerals, a distinction that is not incidental). But Perelman’s “Guide” is less of a Cliff Notes tour of Ez, then it is a look at the issues Pound’s work raises for Perelman the poet & Perelman the Jew. To say problematic doesn’t really touch it. One might say of Perelman’s “Guide” “this time it’s personal.” Consider, for example, the predicate to the sentence that is the first section:

Now if ever it is time to translate modernism into a contemporary idiom

into “something to read in normal circumstances”

to quote Homage to Sextus Propertius, one of the few moments when Pound’s poetry

was fully contemporary, when he felt the distentions of writing time most generously

and thus most accurately.

Where you expect the predicate, at the sentence’s end, it’s missing. This throws the reader back on what at first seemed to the sort of architectural phrasing needed to set up a more complex syntactic structure – indeed, the “true” predicate here is it is time. And if ever sets up a sense of urgency – this is a crisis.

Much of the poem that follows deals with the same questions of address we find everywhere in this book. Pound after all is the epitome of the problem, constantly trying to raise the level of discourse by reminding you just how little you know, ideograms poised like a weapon (or, to use a more exact parallel, for the same reasons that gangsta slang choose terminology that shuts the outsiders out), trying to make a living – Friedlander suggests that Pound was not unsuccessful, consider that he had two households to support (three if one considers that his parents had retired to Rapallo by 1940) – through “popular” radio broadcasts ostensibly on economics that are the most overt racist ravings conceivable, cryptic to the point of comedy, but who would then write some of the finest poetry of the century, some of literally on toilet paper, in a cage at war’s end.

Perelman’s concluding questions are ones to which he has returned, in both his poetry & prose, his entire life. Here is the opening of section X, which borrows from Basil Bunting’s famous characterization of The Cantos as The Alps:

Will The Cantos outlast the Pound industry?

Or have they made it so that any poetry, to be read outside its group

must manufacture its own industry?

 

Do the scholiasts’ clarifications

do more than add to the rubbish at the base camps?

 

Heat-soured milk

overburdened verbal habits

the cold peak beckoning.

Scholiasts is an interesting word choice here, deriving as it does from a diminutive. What is the relation of the commentator to a reader – clearly Perelman doesn’t agree with Hilton Kramer’s hysterical lament that our times went to hell because people stopped letting the likes of him serve as our gatekeepers to Kulchur. Or Bloom. Or Vendler.

Yet if poetry is language being used to the fullest, how can it exist if it self-censors in order to communicate broadly? This is a problem that has bedeviled poetry since the days when the troubadours developed one literature for external consumption & another (trobar clus) just for themselves. Not unlike Pound, Perelman would love to have it both ways, to write fully & be read widely. That cleavage, that gap, is precisely the distance that is always being negotiated in IFLIFE. Pound, Perelman suggests, did not solve the problem. The poem ends by quoting “Homage to Sextus Propertius” not at its finest moment:

“Though my house is not propped up by Taenarian columns from Laconia

(associated with Neptune and Cerebus)”

that is not something someone “in the throes of some particular emotion”

would actually say. It’s something you

 

wrote. For pleasure

 

in flimsy exception

to general war.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

 

IFLIFE, all one word, is Bob Perelman’s 16th book of poetry¹ and his most ambitious. Like many of his earlier volumes, dating back to 7 Works, IFLIFE at first appears to be that straightforward thing, a collection of poems, but when examined more closely reveals layers of connection from one to poem to the next until a close reader becomes dizzy with the vertical dimensions that can lurk behind the simplest word, such as you:

Wrong Country

for William Carlos Williams

Yours were the first names I saw
a self-conscious speaking tube in love
with the loud gaps
into which we'd plunge, my idea

of you and the other action figures
attached to the air currents
lifting the words that move together
or not at all

I
read you?
A you? Now
divided by then
to amuse the ones to come

You'd hate the web
the buyable things against the screen
even more you'd hate
liking things like that

Quatrains helped or were you
against yourself on principle?
Meanings are still at large
The wills of so many involved

Cherry pink bra strap
lost to thought
and that person's dictionary of response
exciting the senses

to open a new document
A full day beneath the jets
hardly a shred of local left
America's sinking, everyone sees

By the time you reach this poem, eighth in a series of nine in a section entitled People, the third of the book’s five parts, you are – or at least should be – so oversensitive to this term that you, the “action figure,” echoes not just as an address at once both to reader & the dead Williams, but indeed, tucked into Williams’ own initials, double you see double you, the first two of which are likewise the first letters in the words of the title of this poem. What, in fact, is a “self-conscious speaking tube” with “the loud gaps / into which we’d plunge,” if not the actual physical construction of that consonant that mimes a vowel, W?

People, just to say within this one section, is constantly bringing us back to this question of who you might be, from its very first poem, an elegy in the form of a letter to Gil Ott (still the dean of Philadelphia poets), then a poem entitled “Indirect Address: A Ghost Story,” dedicated (if that’s the word) in brackets no less “[to Jacques Derrida].” This is followed by a poem entitled “In Memory,” which is unusual for this section in that it is neither dedicated to, nor for, anyone, nor focuses on a single influence, say the way “Notes on Memoir,” which shows up next, fixes on a single copy of Stendhal’s Life of Henri Brulard. This is followed by two poems, one dedicated to Perelman’s late father, the other to the medievalist Emily Steiner, and then by a long piece entitled “A Guide to Homage to Sextus Propertius.” It’s at this point that “Wrong Country” shows up, followed by a suite of short pieces entitled “Voice Play” that has, among 14 works, one titled “Enemy Reader,” another “Ideal Reader”:

What you write is perfectly true.
It makes me want to think so too.

But the anti- or counter-text to “Wrong Country” would seem to be “In Memory,” the poem that does not attach itself to any specific person:

Memory lying open to the one spread naked fa
shion plate earliest front page someone signing

Memory lying open to the one spread naked fashion pl
ate blood on the wall and a little around the back door

Earliest front page a smiling man in handcuffs
staged it turns out real weapons in the trailers

Unbearable hisses Go upstairs but me
mory’s already dusted the fingerprints

Blood on the wall and a little around the back door now h
ere’s a person in charge of the excitement going backstage

The pleasures of the night eyes shut maybe me
mory on the wall a little around the back door

Friendly smile but stopped by the shutter blurred
by the presses older machines heavy with capital

Upstairs the pleasures of the nigh
t smiling already “Dawn likes you”

Memory lying open friendly smile already dusted I’
m in the picture too at attention in front of the TV

Small bruise the picture swallowed into the
center dot and a little around the back door

Breathing in bad sectors not available
ash unreadable under the bedside light

Staged it turns out actors in charge backs
age too small bruise not a friendly spread

Rehear unrepeatable hisses b
ut memory’s already upstairs

With Freud wrong and nobody right th
e picture swallowed into the center dot

Older breathing heavy with substitution
accent raconteuring so I sound like this

Real weapons get used to it with
Freud wrong and nobody right

Blood on the wall and a little around the ba
ck door holding hands like book and reader

Here we are awake tell me if it hurts
bad sectors unhearable small bruises

The picture swallowed into the cen
ter dot the only one without accent

We all say that “Dawn lik
es
you” unhearable hisses

We can’t be translated resurrected not that k
ind lees less brutal once you make the toast

Now here’s a person in charge mayb
e excitement awake in a forged epic

But memory had son
s too another couplet

”Dawn likes you” sudd
en appearance of cum

Public light over everything a mess eyes shut seeking th
e pleasures of the night handcuffs backstage excitement

You can’t remember them yet
stuttering in front of the epic

Trees grow leaves leaves get
educated education fall off

The walls meet less frequently ho
lding hands like book and reader

Here we are awake earliest fro
nt page a smiling man likes you

Cross the bridge the one spread nak
ed when you come to it backwards

Cutting wood to fold rubles into esc
ape velocity forced awake in an epic

Chopping and sawing all day slee
p from dusk on substitute velocity

Caresses maneuvering over fix
ed scars tell me where it hurts

But memory’s already dusted the fingerprin
ts escape memory lying open in the forest

Fixed stars spread throughout the day invisibl
e behind the escaping light here we are awake

Lees less brutal once you make that toas
t the pleasures of the night tell me again

This is halfway between the lyric reiterations of a Lorca (or, say, of Celan’s “Black Milk of Morning”) & an episode of CSI. At one level, the “broken” linebreaks mid-couplet echo the “unhearable hisses” tho at another, they replicate the strategy Perelman has taken with his letter to Gil Ott two poems before, “Or Not,” part of which reads:

D

ear Gil,

I w
onder w

here
the dail
y

noises st
art making
poetry hap
pen hap
py

or not read
y to continue being w
that they on
ce sounded like
the
y
were starting out to say or not being one thing being one mani
fold sound in min

d

Here the abruptness of mid-syllable enjambments mimed the tragedy of early death. But in “In Memory,” where the lines aren’t as various in length, it functions more as a constant scraping, like a scratch across an old vinyl LP: click click click. Further, what I call the CSI elements bring in precisely what is otherwise absent here: the body. Forensic whodunits do indeed operate around this negatively sanctified phenomenon: the corpse who cannot be fully shown, not so very far from the picture swallowed into the center dot of the TV being shut off.

All of these dimensions, from I/Thou to elegy & influence, to absence & even the detritus of cable reruns, play off of one another here. It’s a dizzying display of mastery, and one thing about IFLIFE is that Perelman never lets up. The book as a whole can be exhausting, but in the exhilarating way that rafting whitewater is, although there are moments when Perelman will remind you that you’ve forgotten to bring the boat.

 

¹ Or so says the book’s jacket copy. Perelman’s books page on the Electronic Poetry Center shows the covers of 18 earlier volumes of poetry, plus a few critical texts.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

 

Hearing Creeley
with Steve Swallow
& Steve Kuhn

§

This is actually
the most important story
in publishing
right now

§

Canadian lit program
shafts
indie bookstores

§

Poet in residence
at the pub

§

Robert Anton Wilson
has died.

§

And so has
Alice Coltrane

§

The Beauty and the Brute
a.k.a.
his ‘true wife’

§

I give birth to poems
like a hen lays eggs
.”

§

Profile of a “gallerist

§

A short, revisionist history
of the blues

§

Arthur Danto
on Brice Marden
& a painting by Manet

§

Literature,
or at least
the “reality” version

§

Speaking of reality,
I will be in Vegas
all week,
so it may be spotty
hereabouts

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