Saturday, August 04, 2007

 

This has been a terrible week in the history of film. Even tho their great works were decades behind them, losing Bergman & Antonioni in such a short time is the film equivalent of losing, say, Ginsberg & Creeley in three days. Or Pound & Williams – pick your generational elders. Plus the death of cinemaphotographer László Kovács. With the deaths earlier this year of Robert Altman & Ousmane Sembène, 2007 is not going to be looked at as a good year for cinema. It’s rare, if not impossible, to have four great directors born in one year, so to lose that many leaves a deficit that goes beyond just numbers. Altman & Sembène were still active. I reviewed Sembène’s last film, Moolaadé, when he brought it to Philadelphia in late 2004. I missed Altman’s last film because I couldn’t get past my allergic reaction to the smugness that is Garrison Keillor, the Howard Stern of the chablis set. But Altman was a notably uneven director. Some of his films – Nashville; Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean; The Player; Short Cuts – are as good as anything that has come from Hollywood, and there are a number that fall just short of those four. But I never cared for M*A*S*H, a big hit whose only redeeming feature may have been the title’s influence on the typography of Charles Bernstein, nor for McCabe & Mrs. Miller nor Popeye.

In my discussion awhile back concerning Barrett Watten’s list of influences (which he’s now revised, incidentally), I noted that Watten’s claim for Wojciech Has’ The Saragossa Manuscript, tho also one of my favorite films ever, as having “taught me that all art is a construction” isn’t one that I could make, simply because Antonioni had given me the same lesson somewhat earlier. For me, the magic movie is always going to be The Red Desert with its obsessively wonderful sense of color. Richard Harris & Monica Vitti bed down in a white room, the lights go out &, when they come back on, everything is the palest pink. There is one scene in which, in a small building on a pier, Harris looks out a window as a tanker passes by slowly, in real time. That scene for me is one of the two or three greatest moments in all of cinema, matched perhaps only by one in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore when the pathetic weasel of an intellectual, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (like Eustache, a protégé of both Truffaut & Godard), leaves his girlfriend, played by Bernadette Lafont, to dash off to his mistress on learning that she’s pregnant. Lefont puts on Edith Piaf’s "Les amants de Paris" – a 78 if I remember right – and listens to the entire song in real time with her head in her hands. It’s a devastating moment. Those two scenes showed me how art, any temporal art, at its very greatest slows down time.

I saw a cheesy movie about a catastrophic series of storms that begets a new ice age the other night on the telly, The Day After Tomorrow, written & directed by Roland Emmerich, a German-born director known for Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla & Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. In one scene, the last surviving people in Manhattan have taken up residence in the New York Public Library, where they’re burning books to stay warm (a conscious decision was made not to burn Guttenberg’s Bible, but everything else was toast), when an abandoned freighter literally floats up the street and comes to rest next to the library. The protagonists first see the freighter through a window – a straight steal from Antonioni, even to the direction in the frame, going right to left. In the midst of all this silliness (the arctic wolves on the freighter come a few scenes later), it was a breath-taking moment, simply because I knew what Emmerich was saying & doing with that shot, a level of communication I didn’t think this movie had the capacity to make.

Europeans routinely characterize Antonioni’s work as leading up to the “Eros Trilogy,” the three black-and-white films that immediately precede The Red Desert. From my perspective, that’s like saying Bach was pretty talented until he took up music. No one thought more thoroughly about the possibilities and meaning of color on the screen than did he – it’s true even in his less successful films like Zabriskie Point. Shooting some secondary scenes in the Bay Area, Antonioni put out a call for “college-age male extras” who needed to show up wearing brown tweed sport coats – something I did not own at the time. One of the local papers also noted that a scene that was being filmed out at a junior college campus in Contra Costa county took forever because the crew had to paste leaves onto the trees to get just the right effect for the director. Today this attention to detail seems reasonable – you could add the leaves through CGI even – but in the 1960s, this was the essence of European indulgence, or so the article suggested.

A piece in the New York Times notes the much of Antonioni’s work has never made it to DVD. It’s true that Antonioni only had one “hit” in America, the frenetic follow-up to The Red Desert, Blow-Up, loosely predicated upon a short story by Julio Cortázar. This film is about pacing and decidability as much as anything else – and the sense of timing is a telling commentary coming from someone capable of such lavish, languid shots. In typical western movie fashion, the revelation, which in Cortázar’s story is about homosexuality, is amped up into a murder. Even here, both in the studio sequences, in the choice of making the protagonist a fashion photographer, in the lush, layered greens of the park, Blow-Up is no less about color. It’s an active presence in the film.

I always found Bergman’s symbolism a little ham-fisted and corny. But any excuse to see Max von Sydow or Liv Ullman was good enough for me & Bergman’s films were something like the required reading of my generation. My first formal date with Krishna was to see Fanny and Alexander. Once, at UC Berkeley, when I was first getting to know David Bromige, he & I had repaired to the Rathskeller, a beer & burger place just west of the campus, where we attempted to talk poetics – this was ten years before Duncan’s famous allergic reaction to langpo, a moment when Bromige was not yet sure these new kids (Grenier, myself, David Melnick, George Ushanoff, etc.) were really aligned with his own take on the New American Poetry. We found talking poetics, as such, far too awkward, so had the longest discussion instead about Bergman & all his various films of that period, tho in fact neither of us was talking about Bergman at all. And we were not, as it happened, so very far apart. That was very much the kind of use one could make of his work – it literally was the coin of the realm.

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Friday, August 03, 2007

 

The only part of writing that is literally organic is the way in which the rhythms of production fit into the life of an author. This is something that can vary dramatically from poet to poet – was there ever a year in which Robert Kelly did not write more than the entire collected works of Basil Bunting? – and it doesn’t seem to be anything that can be very readily dictated from the outside. Surely there is no right or wrong way with this, any more than there is to the color of our skin or our height or even sexual orientation. Any teacher in an MFA program will have the experience of watching one student struggle with creating a manuscript of acceptable length to qualify for the degree while for another student the real question is how best to whittle down from a stack of writing hundreds of pages thick into something that makes sense as a short book.

This does not mean that a poet can’t change, nor that poets don’t go through periods in their writing during which this process might be quite different. When I first began corresponding with Tom Meyer, he was still a student at Bard writing a massive, decidedly Poundian epic that he was tentatively calling A Technographic Typography (I published two excerpts of the 42nd “graph” in Tottel’s in 1971). This isn’t who he turned out to be as a poet at all.

This question runs quite a bit deeper than the just the size and number of the poems someone writes. I’ve commented recently on my blog on the dramatic differences in the poetry of Edward Dorn, pre- and post-‘Slinger, but Dorn was hardly the only member of the New American Poets to have had this experience. Amiri Baraka’s output and style changed drastically once he abandoned his persona as LeRoi Jones. Denise Levertov did likewise, tho not with such flair. Frank O’Hara hardly wrote anything during the last two years of his life. Ted Berrigan likewise. Robert Duncan’s production drops rapidly once he announces his 15-year “hiatus” from publishing – and some would argue that the work does as well. George Oppen, Carl Rakosi & even Louis Zukofsky went through long silent periods. Pound has his pre-modernist period, when he wrote Persona, often cited by our Quietist (and quietest) friends as evidence that they also like this 20th century innovator – it’s just the innovations they hate. With Stein, it’s just the other way around. From The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas onward, she becomes a memoirist of the avant-garde more than an instance of it.

If you read Robert Creeley, you have to be struck with the degree to which his early work, through Pieces, Mabel and A Day Book, constantly pushes change. No two books are alike. As with Pound, there are poets who love the author of Pieces and those who love the author of For Love, but it’s rare to meet someone who feels equally passionate about both volumes. Then around 1975, Creeley settles in & moves gradually into what is now recognizable as his late style, which he continues pretty much without interruption for the next 30 years. I certainly know poets who insist that this is Creeley’s dotage, that basically he’d given up. That’s not my perception, but the narrative of decline they impose on what turns out to be more than half of Creeley’s life’s work follows the same general path I’d suggest for Dorn (or, for that matter, Levertov). And there is no question that the two volumes of Creeley’s Collected Poetry are profoundly different reading experiences.

John Ashbery, by comparison, presents a much more complicated situation. When Three Poems appears in 1972, he has already been publishing for 19 years, going back to Tibor de Nagy’s publication of Turandot and Other Poems. Yet, including Turandot, Three Poems is only Ashbery’s sixth book. In the 35 years since, Ashbery has dramatically picked up his pace, issuing 19 additional volumes of new poetry. Let me put this in even more stark turns. In 1966, when Frank O’Hara died, John Ashbery had just published Rivers and Mountains, his fourth book. Eighty-four percent of Ashbery’s career – to 2007 – had yet to be written. The writer whom FOH so affectionately dubs as Ashes basically had just begun to emerge.

Yet Ashbery was already quite famous, at least in the ways a poet might be. The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains had assured that he would be one of the defining figures for an American avant-garde for the next 50 years. Yet The Double Dream of Spring had been a confusing work, extending what Ashbery had been doing in the juvenilia of Turandot and Some Trees, but really more consolidating this style of the pop-art surreal lyric that resists going anywhere. Double Dream of Spring is a fine book, maybe even a great one, but it was also the first book that Ashbery produced that did not in some fashion change poetry.

Twenty books later, it becomes apparent that Ashbery was settling into what I take to be his mature rhythm as a poet: the steady production of books that are all, in one form or another, patterned upon Double Dream, a collection of short lyrics – relatively few that are longer than a page or two, save for one longer piece – seldom adding to more than 110 pages in print, even with fairly sizeable type. These lyric collections are punctuated with a series of other books that are very different from one another, and basically different from the Double Dream series of volumes as well. These include

The Tennis Court Oath
Rivers
and Mountains
Three Poems
Vermont Notebook
possibly As We Know
Flow Chart
Girls on the Run

I use the word possibly with regards to As We Know because I think this is the one volume that genuinely deserves to be on both lists – it’s overall composition matches the Double Dream schema, but the long two-column poem ”Litany” warrants being placed in this second group. Unlike the Double Dream series, whose volumes blend rather seamlessly one into the other, the books in this second list are deliberately motley – you cannot generalize from any individual volume to the group as a whole. If I term the first group the Double Dream series, I think of this second set as the One Offs, unrepeated, potentially even unrepeatable projects.

I’m prepared to argue than in a century, most of the poems we (or our grandchildren) will still be reading and learning of John Ashbery’s belong to this second list, that of the One Offs. Partly, this is the fate of any great innovator – the poems that change poetry, that become the most canonic, are (one could reasonably argue) “the most important,” are seldom the best, or the most polished of a given writer. People read, say, Stein’s Tender Buttons more than Stanzas in Meditation not because they are “easier” (if by easier we mean shorter), tho that never hurts, but because they were the poems that first taught her audience how to read in a different fashion. Similarly, it is the very first Maximus poems one remembers of Olson’s most clearly, again because they changed poetry. Sonnets really is Ted Berrigan’s first work – it is still his most famous. So too The Tennis Court Oath and Rivers and Mountains and Three Poems changed poetry, whereas Flow Chart is a poem that exists in a world these earlier books made possible. One could similarly argue that William Carlos Williams never wrote better than in Spring & All, tho it is his first mature work. Or that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is certain to be read in 200 years, while his finest writing – “Wichita Vortex Sutra” or “Wales Visitation,” say – are much more up for grabs. One might say the same with Stanzas for Iris Lezak and Jackson Mac Low, a work that seems almost brutal in its machinations compared with the subtle deft works he composed toward the end of his life.

The history of poetry is always the history of change in poetry, almost never the record of “all that is best.” One might, for example, argue that a study of the dramatic monolog ought to lead ineluctably to modern masters such as Richard Howard or Frank Bidart, capable of seeding the form with everything culled from a history of 20th century psychology, but the genre’s actual importance is that it was one of the three great innovations of the 19th century – along with the prose poem & free verse. The fact that dramatic monolog has grown mostly more nuanced where the two other genres have transformed themselves several times over in the past 120 years or so – the one great exception to this would be Maximus – suggests that the monolog’s history is as the stunted genre of the 19th century, precisely because it was the one least dependent on form as such.

But what interests me most today is that, when Three Poems first appeared in 1972, the rhythm of Ashbery’s work was not – at least as seen from the perspective of 2007 – yet apparent. Indeed, today we might see a steady drone – in the sense of a tanpura in Indian music, perhaps – of collections modeled on Double Dream. The foreground of the tabla, the great South Asian drum, which in this analogy would be the One Offs, has never been steady. This is consistent with the basic fact that each has been invented entirely anew. But in 1972, Ashbery had not yet established the regular rhythm of lyrics on the model of Double Dream or (more likely) wasn’t releasing them to the world, leading readers to imagine a potentially infinite string of One Offs extending limitlessly into the future. That was, after all, the same general model Creeley was using, more or less (Creeley’s model of “the book” was never so hard-edged as Ashbery’s in those early years), right through to, say, In London. In Creeley, it is as tho he reaches a point & can go no further, but settles in to develop a poetry befitting a much more settled life than the one proposed by the young man with a rep as a drunken brawler & seducer that was Creeley in the fifties & sixties. For Ashbery, the One Offs, the poetics of deep change, has never turned off entirely, even if individual works come more slowly now. Even if they don’t change poetry now when they occur. What appears in Creeley’s career as his “late style” is something that Ashbery has demonstrated as possible as early as Turandot and Some Trees, tho it doesn’t become a steady mode of production – or at least of publication – until Double Dream. And even though it is the One Offs, especially “Europe” and Three Poems, that changed American poetry forever, there are now so many books on the Double Dream model, some of them so fully feted with ribbons & trophies, that what we now think of as “the Ashbery way” is precisely these Double Dream lyrics, effortless & brilliant, subtle & still campy, remarkably attentive to the nuances of daily life, that to understand the context & importance of Three Poems, one has to imagine an Ashbery completely different from the one we have now.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

 

Talking with
Christian Bök

§

Charles Simic
is the new
poet laureate
of the
United States

§

Digital lit
from a non-avant
perspective

§

13 ways
of looking at
an electronic blackbird

§

Interviewing
Douglas Brinkley
about
Jack Kerouac

Brinkley’s edition of
Kerouac’s road novels
leaves out
Visions of Cody
&
This Railroad Earth

Unrolling the scroll
(& check out the other
YouTube
selections of Kerouac,
especially this)

§

Over 1,000 pages
by or about
John Tranter:
here,
here
& here

§

Talking with Dodie Bellamy
about inhabiting
Kathy Acker

§

A profile of
Victor Segalen

§

Bookslut
reviews
The City Visible

§

Poetry vs. Parnassus
(may require subscription)

§

Black sci-fi

§

The New Writings Ventures
shortlists
includes a performance poet
from
Bangladesh

§

Recording of an interview
with Martín Espada

§

Russell Baker
on the end of
newspapers

§

Newsroom
of the future?

§

The latest
save the newspaper
book review

piece

§

Sven Birkerts
on why blogging
won’t save
literary culture

§

A new model
for a university press

Plus more
on the Ithaka Report
on university publishing
for a digital age

§

Administrative shenanigans
put New College
at risk

§

A book series
focused on
Native American poets

§

Athol Fugard
in exile

§

Vernon Reid
on
Sekou Sundiata

§

The memoirs of
Wole Soyinka

§

Remembering
Abdullah Hamud Humran

§

Trakl’s
Song of Kaspar Hauser

& Scott Horton on
translating Trakl

§

JK Rowling:
what’s next

§

Harry Potter
& the rest of the book business

§

Can laser printers
cause cancer?

§

“The Great Curmudgeon

§

The “world’s worst poet

§

The “lost poems”
of Joe DiMaggio

§

Phillip Lopate:
Adapting fiction to film

§

Andreas Huyssen
on the secret of
Günter Grass

§

Robert Pinsky
on
Wislawa Szymborska

§

Used books
are a
buyer’s market

§

The NEA
gets a new
literature director

§

There’s no quietude
like Irish Quietude
unless it’s
Scotch

§

As distinct from the
”Raunchy, provocative poetry
forged amid the
sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll era”
of
New Zealand’s boomer poets

§

Poets & Writers
calendar of grant deadlines

§

At Antioch,
the president resigns
& calls for an independent board

§

The First Word

§

The role of culture
in American history

§

Priming the unconscious

§

Literacy & life expectancy

§

Join the fight
to save the Barnes

§

Guggie director Lisa Dennison
going to the dark side

§

Schjeldahl’s Courbet

§

More on the suicides
of Theresa Duncan
& Jeremy Blake

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

 


Verushka & David Hemmings in Blow-Up, 1966


Michelangelo Antonioni

1912 2007

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

 

Think about John Ashbery’s Three Poems from the perspective of readers in 1972 when it first appeared as a Viking Compass volume, a photo of a trim mustachioed Ashbery standing somewhere on a farm with movie-star good looks peering back at the reader. The Double Dream of Spring, Ashbery’s 1970 collection, had been the first book about which any Ashbery fan of the period could justifiably complain, as some did, that it offered little that was formally new or different from his earlier work. Previously, the one thing that had appeared certain about Ashbery, who followed Some Trees with The Tennis Court Oath and that in turn with Rivers and Mountains, was that you couldn’t predict what the next volume might look like based on whatever you thought about the most recent. One argument that I did hear made about Double Dream was that, well, you certainly couldn’t have predicted that.¹ In narrowly extending, consolidating really, aspects of Ashbery’s poetry that went all the way back to the early 1950s, Double Dream seemed to want to demonstrate the effortless excellence of Ashbery’s craft as he moved into his forties. The implication, at least according to optimists, was that readers should be patient – the next book would be a doozy.

It’s worth keeping in mind the role of the modern prose poem within American poetry in 1972. Hayden Carruth’s omnibus 1970 anthology, The Voice That Is Great Within Us, containing 136 poets representing “American Poetry of the Twentieth Century,” 722 pages long, has exactly zero prose poems. It’s not that prose poems were not being written. Robert Bly and his fellow contributors in The Sixties had been actively pursuing the genre, as had George Hitchcock’s ancillary deep-image journal, Kayak. At Berkeley, Kayak had already triggered a student-run imitation, Cloud Marauder. None of this was visible in the Carruth anthology, even though Bly, James Wright and George Hitchcock are all included. One poet who does not appear is Gertrude Stein.² Another who is not present is Russell Edson, whose first collection had been published in 1964.

If Edson’s model of the prose poem was the short fable of Kafka, Bly’s paradigm was borrowed from the work of French poet Max Jacob, author of The Dice Cup: a short piece of prose aimed at surprising the reader in some fashion, intended to “distract” the beleaguered language consumer, the one solace Jacob could envision for the poem. Readers of modern French literature knew, of course, that there was much more to the prose poem than this, but until the very late 1960s, the only readily available alternative translated into English were the works of St.-John Perse. Perse had won the Nobel Prize in 1960, but had begun publishing over a half century earlier and with a style that has always reminded me of the art of Maxfield Parish. Here is the opening of the fifth section of “Strophe,” a part of Seamarks, translated here by Wallace Fowlie:

Language which was the Poetess:

“Bitterness, O favour! Where now burns the aromatic herb? . . . The poppy seed buried, we turn at least towards you, sleepless Sea of the living. And you to us are something sleepless and grave, as is incest under the veil. And we say, we have seen it, the Sea for women more beautiful than adversity. And now we know only you that are great and worthy of praise,

O Sea which swells in our dreams as in endless disparagement and in sacred malignancy, O you who weigh on our great childhood walls and our terraces like an obscene tumour and like a divine malady!

Perse’s overly humid prose seemed so far removed from the proliferating Jacob-Bly & Kafka-Edson editions of the prose poem, predicated as those strains were upon brevity, that it’s not clear that anyone, at least in America, knew quite what to do with his work. Plus Perse’s translators, such as Fowlie & T.S. Eliot, were hardly paragons of avant-garde practice. Robert Duncan may have been equally capable of elevated language, but there’s an inner decadence here – the sheer predictability of such impossibles as sacred malignancy or divine malady that would have made Duncan shudder.

In 1969, however, Jonathan Cape published Lane Dunlop’s translation Francis Ponge’s Soap while Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California, brought out Nathaniel Tarn’s edition of Victor Segalen’s Stelae.³ From Japan, Cid Corman had already been publishing his own versions of Ponge in Origin, leading up to his selections, Things, which appeared in 1971. American readers were beginning to get hints of the broader landscape for poetic prose that Europeans had known already for several decades. John Ashbery, having spent roughly a decade in Paris from the middle 1950s onward, was perfectly positioned to know this. One might even say “to exploit this,” introducing into American poetry something that had not previously existed here: the prose poem as a serious – and extended – work of art.

 

¹ I am not including Ashbery’s first Selected Poems, which appeared between Rivers and Mountains and Double Dream.

² This was not atypical in 1970, a moment when perhaps only Robert Duncan & Jerome Rothenberg were seriously arguing for her inclusion in any consideration of American poetry. Patricia MeyerowitzGertrude Stein: Writings and Lectures 1909-1945, the volume through which many poets of my generation first became aware of Tender Buttons, was originally published by Peter Owen in 1967, but not reissued in the Penguin edition that finally gave it broad U.S. distribution until 1971.

³ Tarn had worked at Cape, which was then undergoing a defensive merger with Chatto, and may well have produced the Segalen for the famous Cape Goliard / Grossman series. Tarn was the editor of Soap.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

 

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

 

For sale:
An “Objectivists” Anthology
(buy it now: $1399)

§

Katherine Hayles
on the future
of paper

§

Adios to the academic monograph?

University Publishing
in a
Digital Age
(PDF)

§

Why publishers
pass on
masterpieces

§

Cell phone
comic book

§

This week’s
death-of-a-bookstore
piece
comes from
Monterey, California

§

“Bookstore Barcaloungers”
are disappearing

§

Book tours
of corporate offices

§

Changes in the offing
at the
Big NYPL

§

Felix “NjonjonjoKatsoka,
a
Malawi poet,
thinking through verse
in books & electronic media.

§

Better late than never:
LA Times obit
for Sekou Sundiata

§

A tribute to
Len Roberts

§

Yves Bonnefoy
in
Melbourne
& song

§

Talking with
Alexander Solzhenitsyn

§

The Columbia Anthology
of Modern Japanese Literature,
Vol. 2

§

Translating
Zbignew Herbert

§

A portrait of
Tamar Yoseloff

§

Culling your books

§

An Argentine novel
of Emily Dickinson

§

5 School of Quietude
nature poets
in 6 paragraphs & 389 words

§

Montana Poetry Day
in
New Zealand

§

An anthology of literature
in “non-standard”
English

§

Last of the
Cromarty fisher
dialect

§

A profile of
Darren Henry,
Guyanese poet

§

Parking Day
is coming

§

The old question
of which version
is “real”
gets more complicated
with respect to
Bob Dylan

§

Junie B.
& the language police

§

Reading bedtime stories
can be hard

§

Still more
on the plight of
book reviewers

§

The NuPoet Collective
of
Saginaw, MI

§

Summer reading,
Toronto style

§

Analyzing
Bush’s speech
at the Charleston AFB
Charleston, SC

§

Firing
Ward Churchill

§

As Yogi Berra
said of the
Barnes Foundation . . .

§

Monda’s mondo

§

Architectural
basket cases

§

A show for
Anthony Caro

§

A Belgian couple
funds a new
center for visual arts
in Beijing

§

Ricardo Favela
has died

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