Saturday, January 27, 2007

 

This week’s blog at the Poetry Foundation has been Kenny Goldsmith on the virtues of uncreative writing. While this sounds like coals to Newcastle, Goldsmith’s conceptual poetics – he offers lots of examples, especially with Friday’s annotated reading list – is both well-considered &, given its location, hysterically funny. The best thing Poetry has done in years.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

 

Warning: spoilers below

What I think of as the ensemble film of globalization is evolving into a genre all its own, and the results so far are pretty good. Traffic, Crash, & Syriana were all serious, well-crafted films involving large casts of actors following multiple story lines that intersect in particular ways. Their ostensible topics may differ – the trio above focused on drugs, racism & oil – but underneath is a core belief that people really are more interconnected, interdependent really, than we imagine. In a sense, each is committed to the idea of the butterfly effect, the thought that how a butterfly flaps its wings in Mongolia will impact the weather in Florida. Except that, at least for the first and last of these three films, the butterfly effect is articulated in the cruder, more violent formula by which most of the rest of the world knows it: Dick Cheney sneezes and the Third World gets pneumonia.

I’ve always thought that the origin of this genre lay in the work of the late Robert Altman, whose Nashville in particular anticipates much the genre would offer: ensemble acting, multiple storylines, people caught up in politics they don’t really understand. In a sense, it’s closer to Crash in that it takes place in one city. I don’t think Altman thought he was doing a film about globalization, but I think he did show a younger generation of filmmakers and screenwriters how to go about it. Both Traffic & Syriana were written by Stephen Gaghan, who also wrote the screenplay for Rules of Engagement, based on a story by Virginia’s new senator, James Webb, and The Alamo, which attempted to de-mythologize what was once known as “Polk’s War.”

The Academy Awards in particular have been good to this genre, awarding Crash the Best Picture prize over the highly favored Brokeback Mountain. In addition to Best Picture, Crash won Oscars for editing and writing, and got a supporting actor nomination for Matt Dillon. Both Traffic and Nashville – both of which are better pictures than Crash – made the shortlist for Best Picture, while George Clooney won for Best Supporting Actor in Syriana, for which Gaghan was nominated for best screenplay adaptation, an award he won previously for Traffic. Magnolia, another film that is formally close to this genre (tho in its case more an instance of Altman-worship), got a supporting actor nomination for Tom Cruise & likewise a nomination for writing for its writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. Lone Star, one of a couple of John Sayles’ pictures to follow this general model, likewise got a writing nomination.

This year’s candidate from the globalization ensemble category is Babel, and it comes will all the requisite elements: three story lines involving four sets of characters, set variously in Morocco, Tokyo, Mexico & Southern California. Even more than Traffic, which based one of its story lines around a major U.S. politician & another around a highly romanticized feminist drug lord, the narrative threads in Babel focus on its non-Anglo characters – the only real exception are the two tourists in Morocco played by Brad Pitt (the role of his lifetime, which he manages not to screw up, letting the bags under his eyes do much of the heavy emotional lifting that’s required) & Cate Blanchett, who increasingly looks like the best actor alive. Even in the Mexican section of the tale, the two children brought across the border by their nanny, stuck with watching the kids on her own son’s wedding day, are little more than a narrative appendage. When, after problems that I won’t recount here, they find themselves stranded – ages 6 and 4 perhaps – in the middle of the desert, the film functionally ignores them, focusing instead on Adriana Barraza’s role as the nanny. Similarly, the film spends at least as much time with the two Moroccan goatherds – themselves children – who are playing with the rifle their father bought to ward off jackals when the younger one shoots into a passing tourist bus on a desolate road. The man who sold them the gun was given it as a gift from a big game hunter from Japan for whom he had served as a guide, and it’s the story of that hunter and especially his deaf teenage daughter, fabulously played by Rinko Kikuchi, that makes up the fourth tale of Babel. In her case, she’s an object of constant rejection & deeply depressed at least partly as a result of her mother’s suicide the year before. Her rage is directed pretty much at everyone around her, tho it gets perilously transformed when she decides to “solve” her problems by losing her virginity, which she proceeds to attempt in the most inappropriate & inept ways. Given that her narrative is to some degree the “comic relief” that contrasts with the Mexican & Moroccan tales, the most powerful scene in the entire movie comes when she gets smashed on pills & whiskey & finds herself in a crowded disco where she alone can’t hear the music. Her isolation is clearly intended to serve as an objective correlative for everyone else’s situation in this film and, as clumsy as that imagery may sound, the director, Alejandro González Iñárittu, makes it the most successful drug & disco scene in a motion picture since David Hemmings ran into The Yardbirds in Blow-Up forty years ago.

Babel is by no means a perfect film – it’s really no stronger than Syriana & a far cry from either Crash or Traffic. Still, by comparison with some pictures that have won the Best Picture Oscar – Chicago, Rocky, Out of Africa, even the bon-bon Shakespeare in Love Babel is The Godfather and Children of Paradise rolled into one. The relationship between the Japanese family & the events in Morocco is so contrived as to make you want to laugh when you see the connection. Yet like all ensemble pictures, Babel offers a wonderful setting for great acting, even on the part of “amateurs” in Morocco. Barraza & Kikuchi have both been nominated for supporting actress Oscars – a tough category in a year in which Jennifer Hudson single-handedly stole Dreamgirls with her Aretha-meets-Janis song-as-tantrum – and it’s worth noting that without this film genre, neither Barraza or Kikuchi would ever get the kind of multi-million dollar PR boosts to their careers that both are about to receive. Barraza is a great character actor, but great character actors go for decades without recognition. Kikuchi is just starting her career and her credits were heavily weighted with TV commercials and video game roles right up to this last year.

One aspect of Babel, the film, that I found disturbing was its soft landing for all of the Anglo characters – the wife survives, the kids are found (a detail that is not even shown on screen) – while the Moroccan family lies in ruins, the nanny finds herself deported & the teenage girl is left naked & still a virgin when her father finally comes home to the penthouse they share. There are very different ways one could look at this disparity – Iñárittu is chicken & wants to give the audience at least part of a happy ending; Iñárittu wants to show that it is always the others who get hurt most, even when it is the Anglos who appear to be most at risk throughout much of the movie. Either of these results is plausible and, afterwards, the folks I was with and I could not decide which line of reasoning guided the director. In part, I think that the Tokyo story – in which the heroine is clearly a rich kid, living in a penthouse with a father who can go globetrotting to hunt exotic animals – deliberately messes with the race = class equation that would otherwise jump out at you (as it does, say, in Crash). So maybe it’s a step toward a more sophisticated argument that causes Iñárittu to forestall this blow. But there is no question that this robs Babel of a good deal of its potential dramatic effect.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

 

As you might have gathered from what I wrote Tuesday, reading what William Deresiewicz passed off as literary criticism in The Nation made me furious – if you’re going to be a fraud, at least have style. Fortunately for me, I had an antidote with in my bag on the plane, a copy of a chapbook entitled The Experimental Form and Issues of Accessibility, a series of presentations given at the 2005 AWP conference in Vancouver. Susanne Dyckman moderated the panel, which also included Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Rusty Morrison & Jaime Robles, the executive editor of Five Fingers Review, which published the pamphlet under its Woodland Editions imprint. All five contributors get both the tactical and strategic questions at the heart of writing & the result very much feels like down home theory you can use. The contrast with Deresiewicz could not have been greater.

Basically each proceeds by describing a specific project:

Susanne Dyckman combines the work of Kabir, a fifteenth century mystic, with that of Artaud, to identify a third space generated by the juxtaposition

Rusty Morrison writes of grammar sampling techniques that she derives from the work of SF State linguist Francis Christenson & discusses the role of sampling more broadly, and notes the distinction made by philosopher Giorgio Agamben between

1) praxis, from prattein, meaning to do, to masterfully make the thing that one has set out to make by wielding all the skills at one’s disposal, and 2) poesis, from poein, which means to “unveil” the previously unseen, unrealized, and bring it “into presence… from nonbeing into being, thus opening the space for truth.

Morrison writes further that “Central to the exploratory tradition of modernism, now pervasive in our era, is the view that being adept in praxis is indispensable, but it is not enough.” Experimental writing practices empower indeterminacy & even surprise.

Maxine Chernoff contrasts the idea of possibility between one tradition, represented in her talk by Billy Collins, and a second tradition characterized by the work of Lyn Hejinian. She talks at some length about her experience with students at SF State, and then focuses in on, not an experimental work as such, but rather the translations of the work of Frederich Hölderin she is completing with Paul Hoover. The example she gives – it was not presented as such at the panel, but is one of three additions to the printed version here – suggests that what she & Hoover will do for the German poet is not unlike what Clayton Eshleman has accomplished for Vallejo, render him completely accessible in English as a powerful, innovative poet.

Paul Hoover interrogates his techniques and to some degree offers the most historically framed of the pieces here:

Has Charles Bernstein dragged Charles Olson past the tree where Olson dragged Pound?

It’s an interesting question, raising issues that can’t be resolved in the depth of a single panel, and which may, in fact, require a series of responses to more fully explore.

Jaime Robles proceeds from Oulipo, using methods she characterizes as “both an homage and a parody” of the French tricksters. Also looking at the work of Lyn Hejinian – perhaps the single most common thread among these poets – Robles crafts a process which she then uses in collaboration with composer Peter Josheff to create a libretto for female spoken voice, soprano and baritone. The 34-page pamphlet concludes with an excerpt from the score that made me wish (again) that I could read music.

I always try to avoid the term “experimental” when discussing post-avant writing, not just because of implications of the retro scientism in this age of stolen nuclear missiles, genetically modified corn & weaponized anthrax – that by itself is problematic – but because of the insinuation that the writers of an experimental work (e.g., The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, on whose subtitle I was outvoted) don’t really know what they’re doing. That’s the flip side of the same complaint Bob Perelman makes in IFLIFE:

the gestures that Language poetry triumphantly says are still radical are actually super-codified now

which is in fact true (even tho I don’t hear any langpos “triumphantly” making any such claim). With the plausible exception of Rusty Morrison’s grammar sampling, all of the co-authors here are using literary devices that are considerably older than language poetry, some decades older. They aren’t so much “experimental” as they are in the experimental tradition. I know that last phrase will cause a few readers to choke, but since Blake & Baudelaire it is clear that an evolving and expanding community exists, of which these five writers represent certain aspects of the current generation. The value of the devices they employ isn’t that they’re “new,” but rather that they empower indeterminacy and surprise.

In his new commonplace book, Gists, Orts, Shards, Jonathan Greene quotes Ken Kesey on this very point:

The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.

Amen to that. This is precisely why pulling words randomly out of a hat, not to mention what Robert Sward once characterized in a review of Clark Coolidge¹ as “verbal hop-scotch,” “a psychedelic outpouring,” and a “trivial piling up of images,” will always have greater immediacy, power and even insight than run-of-the-mill School of Quietude (SoQ) poetry.

Whether you call it mystery, immediacy, ambiguity, surprise or presence, indeterminate immanence serves an important human function. In addition to everything else it does and says, indeterminate immanence always enables us to safely test out our own reactions to the unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity is a major dimension of all important experience – think back to the birth of your first child or losing your virginity (or, for that matter, losing a partner or parent).

The crushing predictability with which the SoQ minimizes ambiguity to sedate experience – complete sentences, conventional narratives, a preference for codified patterns – may make it possible to “discuss” such events, but it does so by sacrificing much capacity to participate in them emotionally. Yet even within the framework of the quietest of the quiet, what makes the writing of one poet – Sylvia Plath, say – more powerful than that of others (say Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton) isn’t that she’s experimental & they’re not, or that she’s a better craftsperson & they’re not. Rather, it’s that she finds ways to say things in terms one had not seen before. What Paul Hoover writes in his piece applies even here:

Innovation prides itself on its strangeness.

Exactly. Now the counter-argument – one that has never persuaded me since it always seems to be a coded defense of conventionality itself, not so much formalist as conformalist – might be that the post-avant tradition trivializes the new by finding it everywhere.

But here, if only the conformalists were legitimate close readers, is the one real weakness in this book. Nowhere is there a proposal that might help explain why some “experiments” work better than others, or to suggest any position other than total acceptance to all modes of the new. It also would not hurt to have included some discussion on the panel of more recent developments in literary form, especially flarf and flash poetics. Certainly, whenever I read the discussion threads of SpiderTangle, Ubuweb or Imitation Poetics, I sense that there must be some perspectives from which my own work might look as sclerotic as that of Edward Hirsch. After all, the contemporary version of Hoover’s assertion just might read

Has Gary Sullivan dragged Charles Bernstein further than Bernstein dragged Charles Olson past the tree where Olson once dragged Ezra Pound?

 

 

¹ In Poetry, March, 1967, p. 410.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

 

The tip
of a Robert Kelly interview

§

The impact of Katrina
on the poetry of
Lagos

§

A celebration of
Mahmoud Darwish
in
Tehran

§

Allen Ginsberg
talking & meta-talking
to you

§

Missing the poetry,
missing the charm

§

For 50 years
Josh Malihabadi
dominated Urdu poetry

§

The Caribbean-Kenyan
poetry connection

§

Meaning, music, Vietnam

§

Poems from Gitmo

§

Death row tanka

§

“She burns like a shot glass of vodka
She burns like a field of poppies”

§

Breaking the code

§

Perseus offers to buy PGW
but small presses who sign on
may be stuck
or worse

§

Are books doomed?

§

Donald Hall in Kansas City

§

Talking with Bruce Covey

§

Talking with Tom Lux

§

Selling out
vs.
getting sold out

§

Gong fatigue

§

“How aware was MacNeice
of his creative decline?”

§

Puts Keats to shame” –
a new poet
fit for the 1840s
fresh from Faber

§

The literary prize
that lost its edge

§

Pete Seeger,
award winning author

§

Daisy Fried
should win
the National Book Critics Circle Award
by acclamation

§

The problem with poetry
in the state capitol
of
Montana

§

Poetry vs. song

§

At least this week’s
death of independent bookstores
tale
isn’t about a store
closing

§

Parodies are targeted
in the PRC
(the form in question:
e'gao)

§

The thought of what America
would be like
if “ethically inspired TV”
had wide circulation –
well, it troubles my sleep

§

Googleschaden

§

Poe’s Virginia home

§

An interview with Bert Stern
(the poet,
not the fashion photographer)

§

A curious
(but fun)
collection of
arts related videos
that include
a tour of Fallingwater,
Bill Clinton on sax
& Richard Nixon on piano

§

Requiem for Darfur

§

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

 

I know a young man who is currently doing his doctoral dissertation examining the nature of characters in novels who die. What does it mean to create a character whose fate is predestined to such doom? This is potentially an interesting question, potentially because it will be so only insofar as this fellow remembers – and makes manifestly clear in his dissertation – that a character is, by definition, a literary device. If he gets caught up in the deep weeds of characters as persons, well, then he might as well have done his dissertation on the uses of narrative in Surreal Life.

I thought of this young man, the son of close friends, on my way back from Las Vegas to Philadelphia, pulling out of my computer bag an old copy of The Nation that I’d brought along with me to read, the December 4th issue to be exact. In it, William Deresiewicz has what can only be termed an appalling review of Franco Moretti’s two volume anthology of essays on The Novel, which he goes after with the tenacity of a pit bull for all of the perceived sins of “distant reading” and quantitative analysis. But that’s not what’s appalling – while I’ve made use of quantitative analysis myself from time to time, I see no particular reason to defend Moretti, whose work I’ve read in New Left Review on occasion, but which I’ve never found either memorable or useful.

Rather it’s the grounds on which Deresiewicz predicates what he imagines – hallucinates – to be a defense of the literary that I find shocking. Here is one such passage:

Fictionality enables the identification, the chief of readerly pleasures, because it frees us from moral responsibility toward those about whom we read, but it also enables self-reflection, the chief of readerly virtues. Fictionality allows us to imagine (not fantasize) – an act that is not only not anti-intellectual but is in fact supra-intellectual, for it integrates intellect with feeling. The truths that the reading of fiction brings us are not factual and specific but general and philosophical – what earlier ages called wisdom.

This crude formula is patently crap. Not only is it not true – as I shall demonstrate shortly – but it reveals precisely why the novel and literature have been largely displaced by the “reading” of bric-a-brac and the popular culture of different ages. I would go further to argue that what Deresiewicz describes here is not reading at all, but rather a pre-literate response to writing. I see no evidence here that I should even call him literate, tho in fact he teaches English at Yale and “is working on a cultural history of modern friendship.”

Identification with characters is what the novel has in common with cinema, what it has in common with Desperate Housewife and My Name is Earl, what in fact it ultimately has in common with reality TV shows like Top Chef or Surreal Life. Empathic identification is possible, perhaps even plausible in all these forms. The questions of race, class, national background & gender when, in Surreal Life, Flavor Flav & Brigitte Nielsen got together are hardly less real, nor less fully envisioned, just because as characters they inhabited a reality show than because, say, Thomas Hardy didn’t imagine them first.

One does not read Ulysses because one is interested, “chief of readerly pleasures,” in the lives of an ad salesman & a self-important fop. One does not read Gravity’s Rainbow out of a concern for Tyrone Slothrop & his curious anatomical anomaly. One may, in fact, read what Deresiewicz calls “weepies” or what Jonathan Franzen imagined (with horror) as the “Oprah novel” that his own book was being lumped together with, on such terms. But this would be no different than reading a Robert Parker Spenser novel because the detective is “sensitive,” and his black sidekick Hawk, inscrutable and lethal, makes a virtue of the worst racist stereotypes. When Deresiewicz frets that

I don’t just want the students of tomorrow reading Dan Brown and John Grisham and Jackie Collins for what those authors might show them about our culture. I want them reading Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy for what those authors will teach them about ourselves.

he finds himself arguing not in terms of what makes these two sets of authors different, but rather that which makes them the same. No wonder Deresiewicz finds himself having to defend this version of reading and the texts it privileges from the likes of Moretti. It’s not, in fact, reading at all.

What separates James Joyce, say, from Robert Parker is not that one writes deeply of the human condition & the other not. Indeed, from a character-centric perspective, one could probably make a credible case that it is Parker, not Joyce, who offers us greater depth. But what Parker doesn’t do, has no hope of doing, is not to offer us greater depth not into Spenser the detective or Leopold Bloom, but of himself. What separates mediocre literature from the great is the access the latter affords into great thinking – how it perceives, how it shapes, what it hears, how it sounds. We can, if we wish, think of this process as identification, tho it is not that of identifying with a character, but with the author. It is the author’s mind that Wordsworth confronts crossing the alps in The Prelude, and it is the author’s mind we greet in Beloved, or even, for that matter, in The Da Vinci Code. In fact, that’s exactly what’s wrong with Dan Brown & John Grisham – they are shallow human beings who have very limited experience of the world. Not because they haven’t done or seen things, but because of the very real limits of their imagination. There is no particular reason for a reader to focus on the same dimensions of their work as we might find in Faulkner (or Gertrude Stein) simply because, at that level, not much is going on.

One could say much the same about Deresiewicz. When he writes that

what distinguishes fiction that’s worth reading closely from fiction that isn’t is precisely what [Catherine] Gallagher might call representativeness. Literary power is the power to tell stories in a way that makes you feel like the author is talking about you.

Deresiewicz is presenting, almost point for point, Althusser’s definition of ideology as that which appears to call your name. The sort of pre-literate narcissistic identification he’s talking about isn’t even reading – that’s why this level of literature has proven so readily drainable into other forms, whether it be the comic book or TV sitcom. It is not unique to either the novel or even to the book.

Reading begins – literacy begins – only at the point where the reader understands enough about the text not to get trapped by a subdomain like the author’s characters and actually starts to read the author. The same is true with watching movies, or even, dare I say, The Sopranos or West Wing. There’s a reason why the latter tanked when writer Aaron Sorkin stalked off into the sunset, and it wasn’t because Josh and Donna finally slept together, or because Jimmy Smits is a wooden actor. Just as there are many reasons why the “Two Cathedrals” episode of West Wing remains the finest single hour of fictional TV ever – choosing, for example, to run the final six minutes of action over Dire Straits’ recording of “Band of Brothers,” as the president stands in the rain outside the West Wing before driving past the National Cathedral to address a press conference in which he must announce, having just admitted keeping his MS a secret from voters & even colleagues, whether or not he’ll seek re-election, is not about the characters – you can’t even call it writing in the strict sense. Yet it is clearly part of what any intelligent viewer “reads” when they watch the episode. As the late John Spencer says among the final words of the episode: Watch this.

This should be so obvious as to be required information for a degree from any high school in this country. That is what makes an article like this so embarrassing, even in a midcult rag like The Nation. When critics complain about the “difficulty” of modern poetry (or the so-called postmodern novel), it’s stuff like this piece in that makes you realize just how very simple literature is going to have to be to reach a pre-reader like William Deresiewicz.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

 

More than any other poet of my generation, the work of Nathaniel Mackey comes directly out of the projectivist poetics of Charles Olson, Robert Duncan & Robert Creeley. From Olson & Duncan, and beyond them Pound & especially H.D., Mackey evolves a poetry that borrows deeply from mythology without becoming mushy. From Duncan, whose Passages and The Structure of Rime were long works that intertwined, never once separated out into books of their own, kept always commingled and in context, Mackey takes his own twisting together of “mu” – that title always in quotation marks a la Zukofsky’s “A” – and Song of the Andoumboulou. Indeed, the first section of Splay Anthem, Mackey’s 2006 National Book Award volume, is titled “Braid.” That image gets it exactly right.

From Creeley more even than Olson, Mackey takes his line. No one in my generation has used sonic enjambments more effectively than Mackey, perhaps because he leavens them so often with the countermeasure of alliteration. It is flat out impossible to read Splay Anthem silently, but it is a total pleasure to do so aloud.

Asked once what it was that the Black Mountain poets all had in common, Charles Olson replied “Bird!” The incomparable Charlie Parker having been the first perhaps to demonstrate how jazz as a medium could at once be philosophical & profound, not as a dispassionate academic practice, but thru stretching intensely in almost all directions. Mackey in his medium continues this stretching, reaching both forward formally & historically/mythically back, the lost continent “mu” figuring a longing much deeper than could ever be assuaged, say, by a mere visit to Africa. With its roots in the music of a Dogon burial ritual, Andoumboulou – the name refers to first inhabitants, who function it would seem both as ancestors & as a bridge back to a world not yet fully “human” – is no less elegiac. Yet in the Dogon formula, one does not die so much as one is born into the world of the dead, a reversal that is entirely consistent with Mackey’s own back & forth strategies in the text: throughout, one glimpses images of narrative that one never fully makes out, told through the very music that in some sense seems to drown it out.

It is easy of course to read Mackey’s award as just the third instance of a person of color (the others were Ai and Lucille Clifton) to receive the National Book Award for poetry, historically the least undemocratic of the so-called major awards. Yet where Ashbery & Schuyler won multiple honors for the NY School, and the National Book Award – whose very first prize for poetry went to William Carlos Williams in 1950 – gave prizes to Allen Ginsberg & William Bronk, Creeley’s Bollingen remains the sole such award ever given to the projectivists, even tho they were the poets that everyone among the post-avants in the 1950s defined their writing if not actively against, at least as a contrast, a context, a backdrop. Splay Anthem is the first volume that is, at all moments, consciously destabilized, always restless, never still, ever to receive such an award. That in itself has historic importance, tho the reasons for reading this wonderful book (aloud! you have to read it aloud!) have nothing to do with prizes whatsoever.

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