Saturday, March 24, 2007

 

Happy 50th Birthday
Helvetica!

§

The scourge of Arial

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The Poetry Foundation
&
Americans for the Arts
find themselves poorer
by $100 million
(not a typo)

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Terry Eagleton
does
Monty Python,
this time for real

§

The best-selling books of poetry
this past February
from Small Press Distribution

§

Situating Apollinaire

§

Origin
is back

§

Dana Gioia,
a Republican,
finds himself facing the Dems
now in congress

§

LibraryThing
you make my heart sing
you make everything
groovy

§

Most of my first drafts are done by pen.

Actually,
unless the paper in the notebook
proves too porous,
it’s been the same pen
for over 25 years,
a Waterman I bought
in the stationery store
that used to be next to Zabar’s
on the
Upper West Side
of
Manhattan

§

Merger looming
for Borders &B&N?

§

Britain’s only
”gay bookstore”
is on the brink

§

The archive broker

§

Tom Christensen’s
glossary
of publishing terms

§

Through the Russian
looking glass

§

20 percent of American
can’t read

§

Baumol’s cost-disease
and the future of art

§

The “most successful
living artist
is Damien Hirst

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Rothko for sale

§

Steve Reich:
The orchestra is a museum
(MP3 files
from the New York Times)

§

Two shows I’d love to see
in San Francisco

§

Saving
the Tugendhat house
maybe

§

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

 

Recently Received

 

Books (Poetry)

Melanie Almeder, On Dream Street, Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT, 2006

Kemeny Babineau, VDB Worldlist, BookThug, Toronto, 2007

Jonathan Ball, Wolves (lone.ly), BookThug, Toronto, 2007

Aaron Belz, The Bird Hoverer, BlazeVOX, Kenmore, NY, 2007

Laynie Browne, Daily Sonnets, Counterpath Press, Denver, 2007

Chris Cheek, The Church – The School – The Beer, published as Plantarchy 3, Oxford, OH, 2007

Jack Collom, Two Square Feet of Turf, privately printed, Boulder, CO, 2007

Mahmoud Darwish, The Butterfly’s Burden, Copper Canyon, Port Townsend, WA, 2007

Clayton Eshleman, An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire, Black Widow, Boston, MA 2006.

Peter Gizzi, The Outernationale, Wesleyan, Middletown, CT, 2007

Anthony Hawley, Record-breakers, Ori is the New Apple Press, New York & Lincoln, 2007

Barbara Henning, My Autobiography, United Artists, New York, NY 2007

Brian Henry, The Stripping Point, Counterpath Press, Denver, 2007

Hailey Higdon, The Palinode Project: Book One, no publisher listed, Philadelphia, 2007

Paul Hoover, Edge and Fold, Apogee Press, Berkeley, 2007

Meghan Jackson, Movement in Jars, Chaudiere Books, Ottawa, 2002

Amy King, I’m the Man Who Loves You, BlazeVOX, Kenmore, NY, 2007

Joanna Klink, Circadian, Penguin Books, New York, London, Toronto, etc., 2007

Tom Konyves, OOSOOM: Out of Sight, Out of Mind, BookThug, Toronto, 2007

Bob Marcacci, Beijing Background, Dis Press, Beijing, 2007

Jeremy McLeod, Search, BookThug, Toronto, 2007

Jay Millar, Lack Lyrics, BookThug, Toronto, 2007

Mohammad Ali Niazmand, Change of Atmosphere, Green Zone, no location listed, 2007

Alfred Noyes, Compression Sonnets, BookThug, Toronto, 2007

Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Green and Gray, UC Press, Berkeley, 2007

Shin Yu Pai, Sightings: Selected Works (2000-2005), 1913 Press, Roanoke, VA, 2007

Ethan Paquin, My Thieves, Salt, Cambridge, UK, 2007

Richard Rathwell, Rules of the River, graphics by Pierre Coupey, DaDaBaBy & Blue Orange Publishing, North Vancouver, BC, & London, UK, 2007

Lisa Robertson, The Apothecary, BookThug, Toronto, 2007

G. P. Skratz, Fun, Philos Press, Lacey, WA, 2006

Rachel M. Simon, Theory of Orange, Pavement Saw, Columbus, OH, 2007

William Stobb, Nervous Systems, Penguin Books, New York, London, Toronto, etc., 2007

Ko Un, Abiding Places:Korea South & North, translated by Sunny Jung and Hillel Schwartz, Tupelo Press, Dorset, VT, 2006

Steve Willard, Harm., UC Press, Berkeley, 2007

 

Anthology

Decalogue: Ten Ottawa Poets, Chaudiere Books, 2006. Edited by rob mclennan. Includes Stephen Brockwell, Michelle Desbarats, Anita Dolman, Anne Le Dressay, Karen Massey, Una McDonnell, rob mclennan, Max Middle, Monty Reid & Shane Rhodes

 

Books (Other)

Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Rusty Morrison, Jaime Robles & Susan Dyckman, A Continuing Discussion:Experimental Forms and Accessibility, Woodland Editions, Five Fingers Press, San Leando, CA, 2007

Andrew Joron, The Cry at Zero: Selected Prose, Counterpath Press, Denver, 2007

 

Journals

Court Green 4, Chicago, 2007. Includes Judith Kroll, Maggie Smith, Susie Timmons, Larry Sawyer, Brenda Coultas, Sheila E. Murphy, Elaine Equi, Phyllis Koestenbaum, Joan Larkin. Dossier on political poetry includes Joan Larkin, Susan Tichy, Nin Andrews, Elaine Equi, Aaron Belz, Tom Orange, Jerome Sala, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Gail Mazur, Susie Timmons, David Baratier, Joshua Edwards, Naomi Shihab Nye, D.H. Lawrence, George Kalamaras, Eve Packer, Aaron Smith, Lee Upton, Anthony Robinson, Michael Lally, Terrence Winch, Bernadette Mayer, Muriel Rukeyser, more.

Damn the Cæsars, Vol. II, Buffalo, NY, 2007. Includes Christopher Middleton, Pierre Joris, Meredith Quartermain, Michael Basinski, Andrei Codrescu, Kit Robinson, Nathaniel Tarn, Kyle Schlesinger, Diane Di Prima, Jerome Rothenberg, Rick London, John Latta, Ethan Paquin, David Hadbawnik, Christine Hume, Roger Snell, Peter O’Leary, Devin Johnston, Tom Pickard, more

Fence, Vol. 9, No. 2, New York, NY, Winter/Spring, 2007. Includes Morgan Lucas Schuldt, Sasha Steensen, Sandra Simonds, Wayne Koestenbaum, Ed Roberson, Allison Carter, Kish Song Bear, Loren Goodman, James McCorkle, more.

Matrix, 76, Montreal, 2007. Robert Allen memorial issue. Includes Robert Allen, Jason Camlot, Angela Carr, lydia eugene, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Angela Hibbs, Taien Ng-Chan, Joe Ollmann, Luc Paradis, Sina Queyras, a. rawlings, Todd Swift, Darren Wershler-Henry, more.

The Modern Review, Vol. I, No. 4, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Summer 2006.. Includes Ali Zarrin, Peter Gizzi, Simon Perchik, Robert Kelly, William Wordsworth, more.

The Modern Review, Vol. II, No. 1, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Fall 2006. Includes William Logan, Brenda Hillman, Geoffrey G. O’Brien, Peter Gizzi, Tyrus Miller, Andrew Joron, Marjorie Perloff, Richard Deming, James Meetze, David Hess, Bertholt Brecht, more.

The Modern Review, Vol. II, No. 2, Richmond Hill, Ontario, Winter 2006. Includes Peter Gizzi, Robert Kelly, John Kinsella, Nancy Kuhl, John Latta, Simon Perchik, Ezra Pound, Patrick Pritchett, Steve Evans, Andrew Joron, Jennifer Moxley, more.

Open Letter, Thirteenth Series, No. 1, Strathroy, Ontario. Festschrift for Ray Ellenwood, includes Barbara Godard, Beatriz Hausner, Jean-Antonin Billard, Betty Bednarski, Patricia Smart, Stephen Cain, Barry Callaghan, Alok Mukherjee, Paul Wilson, Susana Wald, more.

Primary Writing, 2/07, Washington, DC. Includes Tom Orange & Joseph Mosconi

Soft Target, 1, 1, Brooklyn. Includes Ben Lerner, Catherine Wagner, Linh Dinh, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Herman Melville, Paul Killebrew, Brian Howe, Martha Ronk, Dan Machlin, Dennis Phillips, Lara Glenum, Carla Harryman, Damon Krukowski, Matthew Rohrer, Sabrina Orah Mark, Dennis Cooper, Allyssa Wolf, Wayne Koestenbaum, Daniil Kharms, Jason Fox, , Joan Retallack, David Stromberg, Franz Kafka, audio CD by teleseen, more.

Vanitas, 2, New York, NY. Includes Kathleen Fraser, Tom Clark, Joanne Kyger, Susan Gevirtz, Catherine Meng, Cynthia Sailers, Alli Warren, Robert Glück, A.D. Winans, Lewis Mac Adams, Maureen Owen & Jack Collom, Duncan McNaughton, Kit Robinson, Ron Silliman, Larry Kearny, Del Ray Cross, Brent Cunningham, Laura Moriarty, Mary Burger, Stephanie Young, Bill Berkson, Norma Cole, Kiki Smith, Amanda Nadelberg, Kate Greenstreet, Akilah Oliver, Jeni Olin, Judith Malina, Prageeta Sharma, Elaine Equi, Anne Waldman, John Latta, Morgan Russell, Steve Dalachinsky, Joshua Edwards, Sean Casey, K. Silem Mohammad, Barry Schwabsky, Rob Fitterman, Erik Sweet, Ed Sanders, Jerome Sala, Clayton Eshleman, Bob Holman, Brenda Lorber, Jack Kimball, Franklin Bruno, Lewis Warsh, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Mark Du Charme, Jeff Wright, David Larsen, Frederic Rzewski, more.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

 

Text paintings by Stephen Rodefer

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Rae Armantrout,
reviewed by Stephen Burt
in the New York Times Book Review,
transcends her
”West Coast cult following”

§

Reading in New York
Tuesday, March 27
6:30 PM
at the Drawing Center
35
Wooster
John Ashbery & Ron Padgett
reading the work
of Kenneth Koch

§

Another tribute
to
Niyi Osundare

“I won’t stop talking about Nigeria
We live in rot.”

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Hanoi Misses You

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Poetry slam:
Homer vs. Hesiod

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“100 poets, one room
(Scotland’s largest poetry gathering)

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Andrea Brady’s Tracking Wildfire
(all ten sections
complete with source material
& an essay on methodology)

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Talking Vancouver
with Lisa Robertson

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What the workers want

A contrary view

§

BookForum
looks at five “new”
books of poetry

§

Will bookstores change
as much as
libraries?

§

Archive
of the Communist Party USA
goes to NYU

§

Writers live
and
on screen

§

Check out Mr. Thingamajig
at American Accent

Not to be confused with
American Dialect

§

Shakespeare in other tongues

§

Sylvia Plath meets a Bee Gee

§

Leaping poetry

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More nonsense about Shakespeare

What’s wrong with the surge
in the Shakespeare Wars

§

One person who should know
King Lear

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A new prize
for the
School of Q

§

Here comes Jane

§

Is Deborah Garrison
Billy Collins in drag?

§

Embarrassing Chester County
for 13 straight years

§

Against “creative writing

§

Driving with Zbignew Herbert

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Supreme ©?

§

Saving Manchu

§

Getting abstract
with Peter Schjeldahl

§

The People’s Republic
gets jiggy
with contemporary
visual art

§

$680,000 fine
for destroying art

§

Art Brut
vs. Crit Brut

§

Should the Cincinnati Pops
bar the Dukes of Hazzard?

§

It’s
the end of the world
as we know it

§

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

 

For a reader of my generation, a collection like Way More West: New and Selected Poems by the late Ed Dorn comes as a potentially useful corrective, not the least because it’s instructive to see that the relatively brief excerpt from ‘Slinger comes early, with more than half the book’s weight falling after the completion of this comic epic. Easily the most contentious and controversial of any of the New Americans – Amiri Baraka would be a pretty distant second on that scale – one version of the received wisdom about Dorn was that he was one of those rare individuals blessed with a natural lyric gift – the brilliance of a poem like “Vaquero,” one of Dorn’s earliest, and best known, poems would attest to that – who chafed at the intellectual demands of the projectivist poetics with which he was so closely aligned. In this reading, Dorn wrote What I See in The Maximus Poems as an attempt to come to terms with this challenge, and then produced one, perhaps two great books (depending on the version you heard – The North Atlantic Turbine was always cited, but some folks would argue for Geography as its equal), before flaming out spectacularly by writing Gunslinger, the metaphysical comic western that is, in many ways, a refutation of the projectivist program – a break not unlike the ones that Amiri Baraka & Denise Levertov would make as well. In all three cases, the received wisdom went, none of the apostates was to fulfill their early promise as poets. The villain in Baraka’s case supposedly was Maoism, in Levertov’s a fundamentalist feminism & in Dorn’s cocaine. In this telling, Dorn went off to noodle on some brief poems that basically showed him trying to relearn how to write, producing nothing of consequence unless you consider the bile that spilled forth during the Naropa Poetry Wars where the position of Dorn & Tom Clark opposing the excesses of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, which were considerable, was often taken, with evidence in print (and Dorn himself the publisher), to be racist, xenophobic & homophobic. But by then many, perhaps most, of the poets of my generation had long since stopped reading Dorn. Tho he lived the last several decades of his life in Boulder, Colorado, my understanding is that he seldom set foot on the Naropa campus after that dust-up.

There is no question that Dorn had difficult relations with his peers. When, in 1973 – pre-Naropa but post-‘Slinger – I got him to agree to read with Robert Creeley & Joanne Kyger in a benefit for the prison movement in California, Dorn’s one condition was that he be allowed to go last, so that he could arrive late & not have to speak to either Creeley or Kyger, with whom he was not then talking. It was the only time in my life I ever saw Creeley read first at such an event, but if Dorn took any pleasure in that, I couldn’t tell since Dorn didn’t arrive until right before he was to go on. His reading that night was terrific, that part is unquestionable, the first time I’d ever heard Recollections of Gran Apachería. But his behavior prepared me for all the claims later that he’d become the Mel Gibson of the New American Poetry. His remark years later that he didn’t need to read language poetry because Clark told him he didn’t need to only reinforced that impression.

So it’s fascinating to see that the editor of Dorn’s new selected – it’s not the first & there was even a collected that went through three editions in the 1970s & ‘80s – is Michael Rothenberg, editor of Big Bridge & most recently the editor of Phil Whalen’s selected, also out from Penguin. Think about that. The editor of the poems of the writer most closely associated with Zen Buddhism in America has just edited the poems of the poet perhaps most militantly anti-Buddhist as well. A poet of substance himself, Rothenberg’s presence here alone is enough to suggest that Dorn deserves a second look. If the received wisdom selected poems would look a great deal like the Four Seasons Foundation Collected Poems 1956-1974, plus the first two books of ‘Slinger, plus Apachería, and maybe 20 pages to represent the last quarter century of Dorn’s life, this is a completely different book, indeed a significantly different poet.

It’s not that Way More West slights the early work – six of the nine sections of North Atlantic Turbine are present, plus more than half of Geography. If I have any qualms about the selection, it’s only the absence of any of the second volume of ‘Slinger, since that was the section in which it became clear that Dorn was not interested in going back to a world in which Charles Olson was the poetry equivalent of god-on-earth & Dorn the favored one among his potential successors. Since Gunslinger continues to be available – tho Duke rather stupidly hasn’t gotten that much of its backlist up on the website – this isn’t a major failing.

The real question is whether this Ed Dorn is as good or significant a poet as the Black Mountain acolyte gone bad of received wisdom. The answer I think is “it depends.” What it depends on is how you respond to the far flatter poems of political agitprop Dorn filled so much of his work with the last 20 years of his life. What makes his position different from that of Baraka or Levertov, about whom much the same charge might be made, is that their politics was relatively clear- (if, especially for Baraka, wrong-) headed, they had a consistency as political thinkers. Dorn, on the other hand, is rather all over the map, with a constant & macho attitude toward violence that comes across at this distance as quite shallow:

a bullet
is worth
a thousand bulletins

The first poem (in its entirety) from Abhorrences is a position that captures the Bush foreign policy in Iraq all too presciently, tho I’m sure that’s not what Dorn intended. But we’ve had, at this point, a damn thorough test of that thesis and I think we can say it’s wanting. It’s precisely because the bullet is the irrevocable act – we can’t put Iraq back together again no matter how we try nor how many dead Americans we throw at the problem – that a thousand bulletins will always be worth far, far more.

Equating a seven-word poem to the Iraq invasion may seem like a cheap shot, tho it’s not, merely a language game that has now been tested in the all too real world. But Dorn’s fascination with violence undercuts his green / libertarian tendencies repeatedly. Here is a 1992 elegy for Petra Kelly, founder of the German Green party. Dorn makes much of Kelly’s having spent her high-school and undergraduate years in the U.S., tho it’s not clear if he realizes that more than half of this time was spent in Columbus, Georgia:

When Petra Kelly shot herself
I was right beside her in my heart
and my admiration for her steadfastness
was complete and totally unlike
what I feel for the black-boy whips of McDonna
or the earlier pretenders like Jane and Joan
in the brief history of corrective sensibility.
         The careful mediation of her
American accent, the pure
Georgetown
german weltwaves in the background.

         Certainment, why hang around
for the land to fill up with genetically resentful and
overproduced Southerners just so the pretenders
can get their carpets vacd?
         The history of the world has been written
with the disappearing ink of those accounts
and the pilfered wages of their solution –
the sine qua non of population dumping.

 

¡Salute! and so long Petra.
For the price of a single round, you ducked
the destiny you described, and gave the colour to,
and framed – the born prophet
of a finale full of Fall Out, - Bye Bye.

Dorn of course gets it wrong. Petra Kelly didn’t shoot herself – she was shot and killed by her partner & whether it was a murder-suicide or a joint suicide is one of those unknowables of history – tho frankly the idea that it would have been the latter without the presence of any suicide note is extraordinarily improbable given Kelly’s life as a political activist. Misreading a sad act of depression & domestic violence as a political statement is sort of the archetypal stance of Ed Dorn. But what is he actually trying to say? That by dying Kelly is less of a “pretender” than Jane Fonda or Joan Baez? Given their starkly different political trajectories, it’s hard to know what point Dorn is making by conjoining them thus – that anyone who demonstrates is a pretender? Or perhaps just anyone with money, which I take to be the content behind the “Georgetown” allusion, Kelly having gone to the American University. Is he suggesting that anyone in a privileged position who tries to reduce their carbon footprint (Dorn would have loved that phrase) is forcing the Chinese to go without their cars? Or is it simply the idea that first world women who take any political position are thrusting a top-down politics on the rest of the world, a politics of pure (if unanalyzed) sexual resentment? My guess is that it’s the latter.

So what we get, finally, is a rather sad case – of all the New Americans, Dorn’s later poems rank up there with Diane DiPrima’s Revolutionary Letters as the silliest when it comes to their actual political thinking. And like Pound’s politics, it undercuts the poetry, even more so because Dorn has sacrificed so much of his poetics for this muddle of pissed-off agitprop. Consider Dorn’s poem “about” the case of Ezra Pound, entitled “Dismissal,” part of the last suite of poems, save for the cancer odes of Chemo Sábe, Dorn was to write. Its first stanza notes that Pound “made anti-Semitism a heresy, / although he wasn’t the greatest anti-Semite of his time. / Or even close.” Which is true enough, tho it’s worth noting as Ben Friedlander has, that Pound was considerably more anti-Semitic than, say, Mussolini. What gets me most, tho, is the next stanza:

A Modern gang of cutthroats
in cartoon berets, with sumo champions
like Gertrude Stein –
The giant abbreviator from
Oak Park
who wrote, stuttering
pseudo-wise hymns to war, and
its effects on the adventurous sector
of the lower / upper middle class.

There is an implicit, well not so implicit as cheaply explicit, homophobia in making fun of Gertrude Stein’s weight, but the connection to Hemingway, made with no more than a dash & linebreak & no verb phrase for either side of this equation. What is being said here? Are Stein & Hemingway the anti-Pound gang of cutthroats? Or merely a front for same, these otherwise unnamed figures “in cartoon berets.” Dorn takes up three stanzas & a section title to simply note that there was no trial. “Besides / insanity is the ultimate dismissal!” Then come two further stanzas that carry the implications further:

It was too familiar, a fitting end
to the old, uniformed fascism of the two wars
gliding into the transpace of the new
hierarchical oriental fascism of beehive
conformity, industry devoted only to survival
and ruinous increase. Singularity,
the swamping of the gene swamp.

All of it fondly called
the Modern Movement by those
who fervently hope it is over
and that their banal attempt
to get rid of a whole period
by driving a stake through it
will finally give them an end
to their belaboring the scapegoat.

One might reasonably read this as arguing that state fascism is being replaced by its corporate counterpart, and that modernism is about to be canned by the School of Quietude (parts of which did, in fact, attempt to ban Pound’s works, led by sonneteer & 1934 Pulitzer winner Robert Silliman Hillyer), using Pound to drive “a stake through it.” Why, however, the gratuitous racism of oriental midway through the first stanza above – there’s been no discussion anywhere here of Japanese or Asian capitalism, let alone the outsourcing of manufacturing to China (which hadn’t really gotten going when this was written)? And what, precisely, is intended by “Singularity, / the swamping of the gene swamp.” This isn’t polysemy and these aren’t new sentences – this is someone trying to make an argument who just can’t do it.

There is more than a little Pound in Dorn. Imagine ‘Slinger as Dorn’s Mauberly, but that the only “Cantos” that follow turn out to be those devoted to Martin Van Buren & that he dies before he can be rehabilitated poetically in Pisa. You would get a selected that feels not so terribly different from Way More West. It’s a career arc that is functionally going over the cliff even with Gran Apachería, and it makes you reread all the earlier work, and especially the ellipses in the earlier work, not as moments of Olsonian leaps, but as real gaps in thinking.

There is a story worth telling – it would make a great doctoral dissertation, frankly – about what happened in the 1960s to the New American poets: who got political, like Ginsberg, Baraka, Levertov & Margaret Randall, who merely played at being political like Diane DiPrima, who incorporated the political into their work (Duncan, Zukofsky, Oppen), who freaked at the idea of poets as political such as Jack Spicer, who stayed silent throughout (Ashbery, for one, but pretty much every NY School poet not named David Shapiro), who actively rooted for the far right (Kerouac), etc. If the aesthetic reign of the New Americans proved short lived (even as their impact continues to resound and expand to this day) a lot of this has to do with their movement being a quintessentially post-World War 2 phenomenon. It was never prepared to survive drugs, the Beatles or Vietnam. Among the wreckage of all that, there is no more tragic tale than that of Edward Dorn, who got political only to be revealed as incoherent. Way More West is an important book, precisely because it is such a sad & ultimately disappointing one.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

 

Nothing is harder or more tricky than a selected poems. As Robert Grenier demonstrated when he delivered a selected Creeley that showed the poet’s work centering around the poems that confront language most directly – focusing on Words and Pieces more than on the earlier “popular” For Love – not everybody views the same poet the same way. Several Quietist poets have suggested that Mauberly represents the pinnacle of Pound’s achievement, but then I would edit a selected Eliot completely absent of the molasses that is the Quartets. It would be fun, just as an exercise, to see just how many different John Ashberys we could create via a selected poems. And we know how some poets, including both Auden & Moore, actively revised their own pasts through cautious, if injudicious, editing.

So it pleases me no end to see that the David Shapiro who emerges from New and Selected Poems (1965-2006) captures what is unique about this most difficult (& just possibly most rewarding) of all New York School poets. One way of looking at Shapiro might be to import Zukofsky’s musical notion of the integral & to suggest that for Shapiro, the upper limit is Joe Ceravolo, the lower one Kenneth Koch. That’s a range with a discernible path, but an enormous reach from one to the other: Here is a poem that has elements of both:

A Problem

 

There are two ways of living on the earth

Satisfied or dissatisfied. If satisfied,

Then leaving it for the stars will only make matters mathematically worse

If dissatisfied, then one will be dissatisfied with the stars.

 

One arrives in England, and the train station is a dirty toad.

Father takes a plane on credit card with medical telephone.

One calls up America at three-thirty, one’s fiancée is morally alone.

But the patient is forever strapped to the seat in mild turbulence.

 

Thinking of America along psychoanalytic lines, and then

delicately engraving nipples

On each of two round skulls

You have learned nothing from music but Debussy’s ions

And the cover of the book is a forest with two lovers with empty cerebella.

 

Beyond the couple is a second girl, her head smeared out.

This represents early love, which is now “total space.”

These are the ways of living on the earth,

Satisfied or unsatisfied. Snow keeps falling into the brook of wild rice.

It took me quite a few years to learn how to read a poem like this, in good part because, while I “got” Joe Ceravolo instinctively as a young poet, it took me a long time to warm toward the work of Kenneth Koch whose surrealism originally struck me as far too derivative of what I’d read elsewhere translated from the French. Here, I once would have found myself loving certain lines & images (“the train station is a dirty toad” and that great final sentence, which has both image & tonal echoes of Grenier’s early work – I’m not sure that Shapiro even knew of Grenier at the time this must have been written in the very early 1970s), wishing they hadn’t been “stuck” in the midst everything else. Now, however, I can see all the ways in which “everything else” really is necessary, just how very closely calculated every decision is, like when to use punctuation & when not. There’s a whole narrative here just in how periods are used & where: it’s no accident that they turn up midline just twice, both times following the very same phrase, each at the end of similar, tho not entirely parallel, sentences. Aesthetically, read aloud, the two sentences could not have a more profoundly different sense of sensuality – and the second makes the final sentence so much more powerful.

The poem is also both sad & serious in ways quite unlike Koch, unlike Ceravolo also for that matter, an emotional register that one finds in Shapiro that is rare anywhere else in the New York School – there are instances of wistful regret in Ashbery perhaps, but that’s about it. As if one of the registers of how difficult it is to live day-to-day in New York City is that, even as a poet, you never can let your guard down. In this way, Shapiro is completely different from Berrigan, O’Hara, Padgett & many later poets, precisely because he lets us see the jagged vulnerability that is such an important part of his psyche:

The snow is alive

But my son cries

The snow is not alive
The snow cannot speak!
The snow cannot come inside!
You cannot break the snow!

But the snow is alive

And the tree is angry

This is the first section, of two, of a poem that takes its title from that first line, a part of the title series from After a Lost Original, written some 20 years after “A Problem.” Formally, you can see how close this poem gets to Ceravolo’s sense of a magical world, but nowhere in Ceravolo will you ever find this tone, which is both layered & complicated, with more than a little hurt.

If Shapiro is emotionally the bravest poet among the New Yorkers, it’s not accidental that he’s also the most political – indeed, one might say he’s almost the only political presence, at least for his generation. Once you get to Joel Lewis, Eileen Myles & after, this isn’t so rare, but before Shapiro – who was very visibly a presence during the Columbia student strike circa 1968 – it appears not to have been even an imagined possibility. Try to imagine Frank O’Hara or John Ashbery at an anti-war rally a la Ginsberg, Bly, Levertov or Rothenberg. Or Ted Berrigan organizing a rally to support his best friend Anselm Hollo back when the immigration service was trying to deport this partaker of cannabis. Political action is not only a fact of Shapiro’s biography, it’s in the work, in poems as diverse as “House (Blown Apart)” from the 1980s or the very recent “A Burning Interior,” one of whose sections is this “Song for Hannah Arendt”:

Out of being torn apart
comes art.

Out of being split in two
comes me and you. HA HA!

Out of being torn in three
comes a logical poetry. (She laughed but not at poetry.)

Out of the essential mistranslation
emerges an illegitimate nation.

Better she said the enraged
than the impotent slave sunk in the Bay.

Out of being split into thirteen parts
comes the eccentric knowledge of “hearts.”

(Out of being torn at all
comes the poor-rich rhyme of not knowing, after all.)

And out of this war, of having fought
comes thinking, comes thought.

The very flatness of these lines almost echoes Levertov’s most political pieces, even if Shapiro’s source undoubtedly is (again) Koch, (again) put to purposes Koch himself could never have imagined. But it’s simplicity is undercut with the two post-rhyme interjections – and consider how that laughter sounds at the end of the fourth line: it is very much laughter without joy, an extraordinarily complicated emotion to present in a poem, even in this one, which in so many ways is heart-breaking.

When Joe Ceravolo’s selected poems, The Green Lake is Awake, appeared, it had a huge impact on people’s sense of the New York School, gen. 3 and beyond, because Ceravolo had been something of a secret save to the people for whom he was really really important (a situation not unlike Jack Spicer’s during the decade between his death and the appearance of the Collected Books). Shapiro’s selected won’t have the same impact – tho it should – in part because he’s never truly disappeared, steadily bringing forth books now for more than 40 years, doing important work as an art critic, visibly a presence around New York. Yet I’ve never been certain just how many poets actually know David Shapiro & his work. Because Shapiro wrote superbly when he was very young – January was not only a book of poems published Holt, Rinehart & Winston in 1965, a time when even Frank O’Hara couldn’t find a real publisher among the trades (Grove Press was a bottom feeder there), but was written for the most part by Shapiro when he was still in high school – it would have been easy (but wrong) to impose on him the narrative of the brilliant savant, and not to recognize the decades of discipline he’s subsequently added to what he brought to the blank page in the 1960s. He’s not Frank Stanford goes to New York. Nor is he a jack of all arts, master of none, tho his skills as violinist (the career ultimately not taken) and art critic are daunting. And because he’s one of the more anxious souls around the poetry scene, I’m not sure just how many people really know him as the generous, loyal, brilliant friend to so many poets he’s been all these years. The person he reminds me of most in that regard is Bob Creeley.

So this volume is one of the great “must have” books of the year. If you have any interest in the New York School, or in the New American Poetries, or even just broadly in the history of the post-avant, David Shapiro’s New and Selected Poems is required reading. It’s also a great, if complicated, joy.

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