Saturday, February 10, 2007

 

Jasper Johns
talking with
John Yau
about artists, O’Hara,
Sitwell & UFOs

§

Digital text is different

§

Why tags
are like poetry
(talking with Tom Mandel)

§

This week’s
“death-of-indie-bookstores”
article
cites this blog
right down to Curtis
in the comments stream

§

Tom King
made the 1,000,000th
visit here

§

The first review
of David Shapiro’s
Selected Poems

§

A portrait of
Steve Clay
of
Granary Books

§

Talking with
Michael Gizzi

§

This time
it’s not a net hoax:
Bush is trying
to gut funding
for NPR & PBS

§

The Brutalists
&
the Offbeat

§

Racism as criticism
at the
National Book Critics Circle

§

Time to read

§

Not for sale

§

Wordsworth, Coleridge
& somehow
Van Morrison

§

An oddball piece
on Zbignew Herbert

§

Paul Muldoon
being in the moment

§

Anne Fairbairn,
connecting Arab poetry
to Australian lit

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

 

David Melnick and I were riding a BART train that seemed far more tattered & worn than I had remembered them, the screech of the under-the-bay-tunnel making it difficult to hear one another, while David thumbed through his newly acquired copy of Rae Armantrout’s Next Life. “She’s still true to the same values,” David said. “She loves those words with short vowels. All those as and ifs.

I knew what David meant. We had just come from hearing Rae read with Leslie Scalapino, a superb performance on both their parts. Leslie had read from a couple of books, one of them being (I think) Day Ocean State of Star’s Night, forthcoming from Green Integer Press, another being ‘Can’t’is ‘Night’ and other poems, not a book but a CD from stemrecordings.com. I had heard in Leslie’s reading something I’d not considered before with regard to her writing, its affinity for the work of Larry Eigner. In Eigner’s work you are never very far – seldom more than a word or a few syllables – from the immediate. One reads – or at least I read (and my hearing Scalapino again reminded me why I think this) – her work with a similar sense of the phenomenological present. Sentences often change direction or angle off in ways not anticipated, certainly by the syntax, but because decisions & priorities must be made in the now which is constantly shifting, always in question. There is an urgency to the work that I find I trust completely and am willing to let her go further than almost any other writer before I insist on some sense of return (not the same thing as “making sense,” for the record).

And I’d heard the short vowels in Armantrout’s poems to which Melnick had been alluding. It’s an aspect of her writing I associate, to be honest, with George Oppen, who similarly preferred those vowels and knew it. (I know that I’ve told the story more than once of standing next to Robert Duncan at a reading at Glide Church when Mark Linenthal brought Oppen up to introduce him to Duncan. This shocked me at the time because, being but a callow lad, I thought surely all the famous poets knew one another. Oppen’s first remark to Duncan was “I want to talk to you about all those open vowels in your work,” the implication being that he did not find them as mellifluous as Duncan. I only wish I could remember what Robert replied!)

I turned to my copy of Next Life and read “Some,” a poem that, in fact, Armantrout had not read at Moe’s, just listening for the vowels:

Someone insists on forming sentences
on my pillow
when all I want is sleep:

marching orders,
wisecracks about others elsewhere.

I’d like to kill her
but I’m told it’s she

who must go on
at all cost.

*

The old cat casts her eye
about the carpet near her,
jerkily,
preparing to lick herself.

*

A sense of mission      lost
in ink’s
jagged outcrops.

I try to tell myself
what I must have known
before

in a form
I wouldn’t recognize at first.

*

Blinksmanship.

Bright ranks of
                    of

slip rapidly
over bars of it.


Blank-pedaling.

Long live illumined
oblongs

with this shuttling
                        cross-hatch

I don’t know if a linguistic atlas would identify the rate of long-to-short vowels generally and, if so, just how far a poem like the above might deviate from the norm, whether it be nationally, from Armantrout’s lifelong San Diego home, or even the “edge of the south” states (Missouri to Oklahoma) from which her parents emigrated.

It’s not that Armantrout doesn’t use long vowels here, so much as it is that she uses them to set up effects that land more directly on the short ones. Thus, for example, the two long syllables in old and eye in the second section (reiterated by the shorter version of a long vowel at the end of jerkily) aurally set up the last line: preparing to lick herself. Indeed, the key word of the last line, lick, can be found inverted as the second syllable of jerkily, whose k sound has already been set up by cat, cast and carpet. The way Armantrout sets up these minute effects is a pleasure to watch.

Similarly the long vowels of Bright ranks set up not just the double of / of, but are part of the gradual build-up for the brilliant final sentence, whose lone long vowel is the ē in ing. That’s a wonderful sentence to read aloud: Long live illumined / oblongs etc.

Obviously, Armantrout is no sound poet – she consistently uses it to reinforce arguments, to suggest ironies, to set a sense of tonal color. But it’s always an active dimension of the work, part of the great pleasure in reading (and in hearing her read) her poetry.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

 

Unveiling / Marianne Moore, the latest chapbook from Michael Cross’ Atticus/Finch Press consists of two movements from a larger work by the Cumberland Valley poet, John Taggart. Taggart, whom I’ve been reading since he was what you might call a student poet out of the University of Chicago (he would go on to get his Ph.D. at Syracuse), is somebody I never would have thought to have called a Cumberland Valley poet before his last book Pastorelles. As a young poet, Taggart was one of the first in his generation to really base his practice on his reading of the Objectivist poets, especially that of Louis Zukofsky & George Oppen. But where others might have been interested in the work of these poets for their political allegiances, or in Zukofsky for his work on the materiality of the signifier, the thingyness of his language as Stephen Colbert might put it, Taggart’s interest appears more to have been in the careers of these two poets as a philosophical or critical project.

It was, at least as I read it, that philosophical dimension that proved to be a bridge from these early books to the works for which Taggart is most widely known, Slow Song for Mark Rothko and a series of works that invoke the musicians Thelonius Monk & John Coltrane. Marked by a use of reiteration that reminded some readers of Steve Reich or Terry Riley, and which others took as a call for poetry as ecstasy or transcendence, it’s worth noting that Taggart has not only used his influences as conscious, even revered models, but that he has always chosen those whose practice can be read (or seen or listened to) as among the most philosophic in their genre’s recent history. Indeed, that musicians like Monk & Coltrane demonstrated how one could think in their music is precisely what someone like Wynton Marsalis objects to in their work. And when one hears that “the trouble” with Zukofsky is that he is so willing to be difficult, it’s largely the same complaint. So it’s intriguing, if not absolutely scandalous, that somebody like John Taggart can come along and demonstrate the arc of emotion that lurks in the work of these artists.

Taggart’s current piece, at least from the portions visible here, continues these inclinations, organizing Unveiling / Marianne Moore around three historic figures: Moore, who was herself briefly a Cumberland Valley poet during the years when she taught at the Carlisle Indian School prior to heading to New York, 18th century Philadelphia naturalist William Bartram &, geographically the outlier here, Marilyn Monroe. Seeing in Monroe not simply an echo of Moore’s own name, but also an antithesis in their conceptions of the feminine, yet even deeper an echo of their self-willed approach to the world, neither of them really capable of being copied as such (tho with Monroe at least there have been nearly an infinite number of attempts). These elements commingle, section to section:

8

 

“Curious men”

 

18th century common

name for botanists naturalists horticulturalists all the attentive students of nature

 

 

9

 

The truth is naked

 

the truer truth is the A after B truth the figurative/the body

after finally/at last without

a stitch.

 

 

10

 

A new name a true name unpublished not

in the books

 

nomen nudum a naked name

But the structure of this chapbook opens up many more questions than it answers. The two movements represent sections 1 – 27 and 73 -87. What comes between? Does it end with 87 or, as I hope, go onward? How do the elements of Chinese cultural history, which are sprinkled throughout, come to relate finally to the trio of major figures spelled out here (and, in fact, are the three all there are? What about Alexander Wilson, Bartram’s student, who just peeks in here toward the end?

As always with Atticus/Finch books, the production values here are simply gorgeous. In the image above, you can just make out the “Skinny tree sparsely branched’ impressed in the palest gray ink into the pale green cover, the image itself taken from the first line of this work that proclaims it is “lacking / a felicitous phrase to begin.” But as so often happens with chapbooks taken from much larger projects, as grand as it is – and this is one of the nicest books Taggart has ever had – it leaves you hungry for more, maybe not answers to the mysteries here so much, but at least the full suite which promises to be grand.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

 

One poem in Next Life that strikes me as revealing a good deal about how Rae Armantrout weaves her verbal magic is called “Close”:

1.

As if a single scream
gave birth

to whole families
of traits

such as “flavor,” “color,”
“spin”

and this tendency to cling.


2

Dry, white frazzle
in a blue vase –

beautiful –

a frozen swarm
of incommensurate wishes.


3

Slow, blue, stiff
are forms

of crowd behavior,

mass hysteria.

Come close.

The crowd is made of
little gods

and there is still
no heaven

Formally, the first two sections are built up out of incomplete sentences, the first a dependent clause, the second a complex noun phrase, while the third section entails three short sentences. The second of these three sentences consists of just two words addressing the reader, and is the one from which Armantrout has claimed her title, so that the title functions as a kind of caption, highlighting just this moment in the text.

The first section is almost archetypal Armantrout, invoking as it does her favorite social form, the family, suggesting at one point the violence of childbirth, at a second the ontological status of categories &, finally, a deep emotion that may (or may not) signal dysfunctionality. The “As if” sets the entire section atilt, so that we don’t read “gave birth” for what in some ways it is, the true verb phrase of all that follows. Armantrout pulls back on this verb, I think, precisely to foreground what follows.

One might read the second section as the simplest of metaphors – Armantrout avoids using the word flowers at the end of the first line, replacing it with a quality very much in keeping with the ones that appeared in quotation marks in the previous sections. Then she offers this same sense of the qualitative again, this time in a more conventional (and, here, italicized) mode: beautiful. The final couplet appears again to offer us the same image without actually deploying the noun flowers. Note the three stages of her depiction – the first suggests motion while stopping it, the second implies plurality &, not coincidentally suggests bees so as to reinforce the image of what is not said, but the last line brings in – as had the last line of the first section – emotion & specifically emotion that has somehow gone beyond. The parallelism of the first two sections, these incomplete sentences ending in periods, is nearly as important as what is being said.

The third section’s first sentence could be read – in fact, it would be hard not to – as tho it also were a depiction of flowers and/or a roster of “traits.” The idea that such traits represent crowd behavior takes us back not only to the frozen swarm of the previous section, but to the whole families of the first. Characterizing them as mass hysteria again calls up the scream of the first section, the incommensurate emotion of the second. All of this thus far is built, for all purposes, around a single image of flowers in a vase. No wonder then that Armantrout wants us to look closely.

So that the final pair of couplets, the last complete sentence (albeit the first one to close with no period) offers us that which is incommensurate, that these are, flower by flower (child by child) little gods born into a universe in which there is still / no heaven.

If, as a reader, you aren’t paying close attention, a poem like this goes down so easily & lightly. But if, instead, you read it three, four, ten times, the depths, the cohesion, the themes & their underlying starkness will exhaust you.

This is a story that Armantrout explores over & over. On the page immediately prior to “Close” is a simpler version, entitled “Blur”:

I’m called home
but don’t go.

I have enough past
and future

to accompany me now.

The solitary one
interferes with itself.

They should give up
                     counting.

Four simple sentences divided across five stanzas. That third stanza, lone line, would in fact function as a kind of formal hinge if only Armantrout hadn’t pushed that last one-word line in the final couplet out to the right (which I suspect is why she did that). The first two sentences start with “I,” but the last two turn in different directions. The third would appear to talk about the narrator in the third-person. The fourth, tho, uses the most mysterious of words here, They, reminding us that someone or something in the first line of poem must have been doing the calling, but without us ever know just who it might be.

At one level, I think it’s easy to read this as a poem about death, about accepting the limits of one’s life, but at another level it appears to be about obligation, perhaps family responsibility, and the resistance that is the self, that may in fact be what defines the self. That at least is how I read what I take to be the key word in this poem, interferes. It’s a wonderful choice of words, suggesting exactly the push-pull dynamic that I think Armantrout is after.

But what then do we make of the title “Blur.” It’s not a caption like “Close” but suggests something else, perhaps that very push-pull dynamic or possibly even the figure implied by They. It’s a title that I relate – and this may be my own projection here – to the cover image of Next Life, a photograph by Albert von Schrenk-Notzing of “The medium Eva C. with a materialization on her head and a luminous apparition between her hands, 17 May 1912.” The materialization looks like a little cap, too small for Eva C’s head & at an angle that makes no sense. The apparition looks like an electrified thread, glowing mid-air.

There is, I think, a serious sociological dimension to such off-shoots of random spirituality as the ectoplasm-seeking psychics or the 19th century movement that gathered around, say, forms such as theosophy, aspects of spirituality seeking new modes of expression in an Enlightenment universe. I don’t think that Armantrout is interested in that. But I do think she wants to investigate, in almost every poem here, the role of spirituality in a world that is no longer god-infested, tho without particularly investigating all the ways its usual expression, religion, leaves vast swaths of devastation in its wake. It’s not that Armantrout sees no devastation, but for that she usually employs a different model, that of the family.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

 

This blog will receive its one millionth visit sometime later this week. I may very well miss it since I’m on the road on a business trip & don’t have regular access to the web. You can find the current number in the Site Meter box on the left column, just below the big Poets in Need button amidst all the link icons that separate out the blog archives from the blogroll.

It has been just short of four and one-half years since I started this project. At the end of the first full year, the blog had received some 50,000 visits, a number that today shows up in less than two months. Obviously, tho, those weren’t 50,000 different visitors any more than last year’s 350,000 visits represented that many distinct individuals. Rather, as best I can tell there is a core readership of maybe 1,500 people, folks who stop by somewhere between daily – a handful more often than that – and once a fortnight. These are people who never need to explore beyond this top page unless they’re working on some project and need to get archival.

Around this core is a somewhat larger number of individuals who stop by for a time – perhaps they’re taking a class & have been told by a professor to check it out – but who don’t develop the habit. These readers tend to look at a number of pages when they visit, but they may not last as readers more than a month or term.

These days, the average number of pages read per visit is fairly high – around 1.8 – suggesting that classes are actively using the site. Toward the end of summer, that number might drop as low as 1.1 or 1.2. Even the latter means that one out of every five readers is going beyond just the top page.

When I started this blog, my goal, as I’ve noted before, was to have maybe 30 readers a day, 30 being the audience size of what I take to be a completely successful reading. And I still think that any blog that gets 30 readers a day deserves to be called successful – indeed, I think you can have a successful blog with considerably less, since the point of the blog is not numbers but rather the quality of thinking that the form helps to bring out in you. But my model was obviously wrong, in that what goes on here is not a public reading – this is not a podcast, tho Didi Menendez has been trying to persuade me that it should be – but actual eye-mind-brain reading, if not exactly the way it’s done with books & hardcopy magazines, then the way it’s evolving online. Right now, my average visitor spends exactly three minutes each time they come by. That’s roughly three times the length it takes to read the words in this note up to here silently, but less perhaps than it would take to read these same words aloud.

What this suggests to me is that the web is more than simply a new distribution medium for the same modes of writing with which we’re all familiar. The idea that Jacket is a magazine is probably a very useful metaphor for its editors, but ultimately that’s what it is – a metaphor. I can’t say what will come next exactly, tho I don’t think flash poetry is it, precisely (tho it might be for concretists & visual poets). In fact, I think we’re about to see several different & somewhat contradictory trends occur simultaneously. One is that blogging has gone from being a new medium to an old one in just five or six years, tho to date nothing has shown up yet that suggests to me anything better. I tend to agree with my son who argues that social networking sites all suck. But that might not be true three to five years from now.

I also think we’re seeing something of a backlash to online content, as such. One history department has already banned the use of Wikipedia as a citable source for papers & there are certain to be others. Similarly, we’re already familiar with the model of the brilliant grad school poet-blogger who suddenly goes silent (or at least dampens down the activity markedly) the instant he or she gets a tenure track job, suggesting that there is a conflict (real or imagined) between community & career. As least such poets are being clear as to which value they’re going to pursue.

Similarly, I think there’s going to be – already is, I suspect – some clashing over whether it’s possible to do serious critical writing in this form. One of the most interesting things about last December’s MLA convention in Philadelphia was listening to one fifteen-minute paper after another & realizing that two-thirds had less in the way of ideas than the average blog note. And this was, by all standards, an excellent MLA convention. Try writing 200 MLA presentations in one year, tho, and your whole idea of what constitutes a critical piece of thinking is going to change. In this sense, the real promise of blogging is the one that it holds for changing what constitutes critical thought, literally marginalizing the academy as a site for such about poetry, returning critical writing instead to the poets themselves, most of whom do not teach, or do so only under the most abject of adjunct circumstances. Perhaps marginalizing is too strong a term – there are, after all, good people in the academy who do serious work – but at least “de-authorizing,” de-legitimating academic critical writing as such, forcing it to compete on an equal basis with the “deep gossip” of poets writing about their own work & that of others. Nothing could be healthier than that.

But mostly I want to say what I’ve said before when I’ve come across these little milestones in the history of this blog, which is thank you for stopping by, whether you agree with anything I write or not, or simply love to watch a train wreck in slow motion.

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