Saturday, August 18, 2007

 

Photo by Helen Adam

Better late than never:
a superb bio-page
for Jack Spicer
on the
Academy of American Poets
website

§

The Lessons of
On the Road

Dozens of covers
for On the Road
including Kerouac’s own design

Review of The Scroll

1957 New York Times
reviews of
On the Road
(PDFs)

Why Kerouac matters

§

Three articles
on
Liam Rector’s
suicide

§

Bangladeshi writer
indicted
for criticizing
”honor killings”

§

Pakistani poet
Khalid Alig
has died

§

Vincent Katz
interviews
Jerome Sala

§

The logo of
Metropolitan Market
in
Seattle
appears to have been
stolen
from
Aram Saroyan

§

Poetry & Adolescence:
the introduction
to Stephen Burt’s
The Forms of Youth
(PDF)

Bob Dylan
&
the adolescent sublime
(by Charles Bernstein)

§

Three Women
of the
Harlem Renaissance

§

Robert Creeley
reviewed by
Arkadii Dragoshchenko

§

Doug Lang
on
Michael Lally

§

Talking with
Leevi Lehto

§

An e-bookstore for poetry
that is decidedly
not
U.S.-centric

§

A dozen new bookstores
opened last month

§

In Australia, Angus & Robertson
has a new idea –
demand extra payments
from publishers

§

Paintings & drawings
of
Sylvia Plath

§

Marjorie Perloff
on
Guy Davenport

§

More on Sally Crabtree,
poet of the trains

§

Collage
& Alice Notley

Talking with Alice

§

Michael Palmer:
Poetry & Contingency

§

The final fiction
of
Edgar Allan Poe

§

International Book City

§

A theory of
book jackets
(note the bit about
distressing fonts)

§

Les Murray & Ted Hughes

§

Pentagon poetics

Plus
no authors’ tour
for
Guantanamo poets

§

Phil Rizzuto,
inadvertent poet,
has passed on

§

A new volume
from Geoffrey Hill

§

The hidden cost
of newspaper cuts

§

The gonzo legacy
of Hunter Thompson’s
widow

§

Hands talking

§

Albert Goldbarth:
The Poem as Prediction

§

Alan Bennett
& Norman Mailer
in Edinburgh

§

An introduction
to modern poetry
in Brazil

§

Excerpts from
The Wall Street Inferno
by
Joaquim de Sousândrade
(a Brazilian epic
of the 1870s)

§

Three books
highlighting the relation
between poetry
& the divine

§

Verse:
the dark side

§

Maxing out
on the minimalism
debate

§

Max Roach,
the great drummer,
has died

§

A New Yorker profile
of Mark Morris

§

Theater
without actors

§

The largest
arts festival
in the world

§

Talking with
George Lakoff

§

First bot, best bot
(Robbie, #16,
was robbed)

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Friday, August 17, 2007

 

If, as I wrote Monday, the formal advantage of cinema as a narrative art is that you can see the story, the obvious implicit challenge, the one that would occur to an ambitious filmmaker, would have to do with cinema’s ability (or inability) to speak of that which is not visible, not present, what cannot be directly seen. One obvious realm would be that of the psychological – dreamlife, memory, the repressed. In The Bourne Ultimatum, for example, you can tell which sequences – barely more than a second or two in length – are Matt Damon’s character’s memories surfacing, his identity coming back, by virtue of stylistically blurry film, letting in, as it were, too much light.

What then of a more complicated question of absence? How would your closest companions respond if you were suddenly to disappear? How calculate or project the arc of their despair? It’s the question of death seen in its most social light – how will the kids react? Will your spouse marry your worst enemy? This, in one sense, is the thought experiment that is the basis for Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the first of his trilogy of films on the subject of eros (a quartet if you consider The Red Desert to be of the same set, which many reasonably do). Seven or eight of the idle rich head off for a cruise around the Aeolian islands, including Anna (portrayed by Lea Massari), her best friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) & Anna’s fiancé Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). These islands are hardly idyllic – they’re basically volcanic rocks pushed up above sea level – a contrast Antonioni uses to good effect in this most painterly of black-&-white films.

Claudia doesn’t really know Sandro at the start of the picture. She & Anna head to where they’re supposed to meet ahead of the cruise & Anna makes Claudia cool her heals while she & Sandro have sex upstairs. But on the boat itself, Anna appears moody & quarrels with Sandro. When everyone is swimming, she screams that she sees a shark, which puts an end to that pleasure, but only after tells Claudia that she was lying. When they’re on a tiny island, Anna stalks off by herself. Up to this moment, every scene has been filmed as tho the movie were about Anna & Massari was the star.

Later when the boaters are ready to leave, however, Anna is nowhere to be found. Searching everywhere turns up nothing. Sandro, Claudia & Corrado – the oldest male in the group – stay behind on the island to keep looking while the others head off to the nearest inhabited island to call for the Coast Guard. It rains & they take shelter in a little shack owned by a hermit (who speaks English and claims to have spent 30 years in Australia, one of the stranger, more delightful twists in this deliberately spare tale). Soon boats and divers and helicopters are everywhere, looking for Anna.

Then the question is posed, what if she swam to another island – some are only a few hundred yards away – and the search spreads further. And then another question, what if she got a ride back to land? This eventually leads to stories in the media up & down the coast, trips to hostels and much casting about looking for Anna.

During all this, Sandro continues thinking – as he does from his first scene – with his penis, which now targets Claudia as the next most warm & inviting home. Before too terribly long, the search for Anna has given way to another love story, this time between Claudia & Sandro. A certain amount of guilt is involved, at least on Claudia’s part, but that just seems to give everything more flavor.

That Antonioni knows exactly what he is doing here is demonstrated best perhaps by a scene in one of the coastal towns in which a beautiful single woman – who may be married or may be a prostitute (or both), both alternatives are offered – causes a near riot just by walking down the street. Later in another scene, Claudia decides not to accompany Sandro into an interview with the police and soon finds herself surrounded by young single men in very much the same way. Antonioni uses men here exactly as Hitchcock does the birds in his films by that name, as tho it were a predatory supernatural force.

I saw this film initially when I was a teenager on the “big screen” of one of Pauline Kael’s Studio Guild theaters on Telegraph in Berkeley. This pair of tiny art-house theaters seated maybe 50 people each, and was later replaced by a rather small restaurant. The “big screen” was smaller than some of the projection systems you find today at Best Buy. I only saw the film again this past week, prompted by the hoopla surrounding Antonioni’s death.

It’s a somber, slow – I like slow, as I’ve noted before – visually stunning experience. You can see Antonioni paint his canvases with great care, even though the DVD that is available in America is (idiotically) not letterboxed. The scene above, the very last shot of the film, is not atypical in its use of composition. Envision it now as a square and that’s what you get with the Netflix version.

But this film also is a particularly tricky & complex narrative. I’m certain that I didn’t “get it” when I first viewed L’Avventura, probably because at 19 or thereabouts I didn’t have enough distance myself from Sandro’s own agenda. It’s also interesting to realize that Antonioni’s use of absence here is not unlike – may even be the reason for – the ways in which abstraction is used in other films made since then. An example would be Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty in which Liv Tyler’s virginity is treated by the other characters as so objectified it could have been given a line in the credits. Is Bertolucci conscious of that as an homage to his countryman? Seeing L’Avventura, I felt certain the answer was yes. But one of the aspects of this is that a film viewer today has been prepared to see this dimension of Antonioni’s film, not unlike the way a reader of books like The Color Purple will discover that the “difficult” works of Faulkner don’t seem difficult at all because we’ve all learned how to read those devices in the 78 years since The Sound and the Fury first was published. It’s impossible now to recreate the “innocence” of the viewer when Antonioni’s film was first released.

L’Avventura is also a surprisingly feminist film in its critique of gender, especially coming from Italy in 1960. Were it released today, I think it would primarily be seen in those terms, whereas originally this was only one of several interlocking layers. Sadly, the world the film portrays hasn’t changed all that much. Both Vitti and Massari had major careers that ended, whether they wanted them to end or not, around the age of 50. Ferzetti, who is roughly ten years older than the two women, is still acting today in his eighties.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

 

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

 

The itinerant
poet-librarian

§

Talking with
Eleni Sikelianos

§

A profile of
Past Tents Press
(one of whose books
we recently reviewed
here)

§

Author attacked in India
for writing about
“honor killings”

§

A new font
means
a new idea

§

Talking with
Catherine Wagner

§

They’re big
in
Japan

§

A New Yorker profile
of Philip K. Dick

§

University of Arizona
Poetry Center
gets a new home

§

Günter Grass
in America

§

Talking with
Alison Knowles

§

Lunch with
Paul Muldoon

§

Robert Pinsky
on
Charles Simic

A Simic poem
in The New Yorker

§

A home
for books

§

Talking with
William Gibson

Even more talking
with William Gibson

§

Fear of poetry

§

Talking with Nick Laird

“better known for his marriage
than his writing

§

A new Wilfred Owen

§

A profile of
Peter Abbs

§

Carol Ann Duffy
on Dannie Abse

§

The “best writer of poetry in English
& other hallucinations

§

This week’s
death-of-a-bookstore announcement
comes from New Jersey

§

New books from
the School of Quietude

§

When Quietists
debunk awards

§

The End of the Alphabet

§

Landscape
& Anthony Hecht

§

Elizabeth Murray
has passed away

§

The why
of a new museum
for contemporary art

§

And why
The New Criterion
hates contemporary art

§

A profile
of the
Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music

§

Minimal music,
maximum pushback

§

Tom Johnson’s
The Voice of New Music
(PDF)

§

The known unknowns

§

The privilege
of the present

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

 


photo by Joan Eichner



Margaret Avison

1918 - 2007

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Monday, August 13, 2007

 

Jon Carroll played the accessibility card the other day & boy did he bungle it. Carroll, a one-time editorial presence at Rolling Stone, Rags, Village Voice, New West and other “hip” publications, has been a daily columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for 25 years now, sharing insights of life in Oakland to readers of the Bay Area. Want to know about gyms in converted courthouses or the doings of Bucket (and the recently deceased Archie), Carroll’s cats, he’s the guy for the job. Periodically he skewers the Bush administration as well as anyone living for its inhumanity & its inconsistencies. And he’s one of the world’s finer collectors of Mondegreens (e.g., Jimi Hendrix’ paean to gay love, “’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy,” or the Beatles’ “The girl with colitis goes by”). He can be, when he’s on, as good a columnist as any in America.

But when he’s off? Well, it could hardly have gotten much worse than his first foray into poetry & poetics in several years. First of all, he doesn’t know the players, even with a scorecard. Everybody he picks ultimately is on the same side of this argument, tho it’s true that Helen Vendler is going to offer you the uptown version of whatever suburban dream Billy Collins wants to peddle. The truly difficult poets – my friends, for example, not to mention that good-looking guy in the mirror – are so far beyond the horizon that Carroll doesn’t know he’s left them (us) out. Which is to say that he doesn’t know who David Lehman & Billy Collins feel they’re defending themselves against when they argue (a) for accessibility and, in the same moment, (b) attempt to demonstrate that they too understand the importance of artfulness & aren’t simply country bumpkins. Carroll actually seems puzzled and/or offended by this latter position. He doesn’t just want Collins to seem artless, but actually to be so as well. Which leaves Collins to stand up for the values of art, defending difficulty against those who would insert instead the simple family values of weepy nostalgia & necrophilia.

Carroll actually knows better, which might become apparent to him if he were discussing a genre into which he had some knowledge & insight. Both of his daughters, for example, have had careers in avant-garde circus.¹ You know the kind: based in Montreal, run by people who speak French, thinking of circus as art, actual skills involved, no abused elephants or obscenely caged tigers, no clowns with red noses, none of that icky cracker-jack-cum-cotton-candy odor thick in the air. You call this a circus, buddy? Where are the geeks? I have no doubt that Carroll could knock out a 700-word column on this topic in the bat of an eye, and do a good job as well.

But when it comes to poetry, he’s like the guy who got into a boxing match with a kangaroo & lost.

His problem is that he really wants an effortless, artless form, one that just gets out of the way so that the emotions can flow & wash about & we can all have our good cry & feel better. Let’s hug.

In fact, there’s nothing wrong, or even deviant, about this desire. MSNBC isn’t running a TV show anywhere in which readers who want this can set up “dates” with poets who are ready to really mean it, only to trap these readers & reveal them for the pervs they are. But, on the other hand, there is a reason, a real historical reason, why we keep having this discussion in poetry, over & over. The people who turn to poetry because it makes Bill Moyers go all misty aren’t its regular readers. They’re there for awhile & then they move on, usually to genre more suited to what they want from their arts. The readers who stay with poetry, the ones who sustain it year after year, generation after generation, are those who seek what it can do you can’t get in any other way, and those are features that are fundamentally linguistic in nature – they’re formal.

Lets go back to before there was TV, before complex novels like Ulysses (let alone Finnegans Wake), before Neil Gaiman & high-art comic books, even before thorny deconstruction or other abstract postmodern critical interventions, to the 12th century, where the troubadour poets mostly of Southern France already demonstrate the strains that exist because literacy isn’t distributed evenly throughout the population.

The troubadours had to survive by their writings – they didn’t have tenure, there was no NEA, no Miss Lilly with the big $200 million grant. Therefore, the troubadours developed multiple genres to address different possible audiences. You can almost see their formal modes in the same way that a technology or car company offers its products today: you got your premium line for the high-end consumer, your basic standard line, and over there in the corner is the economic value line, for those who just need the widget & can’t afford any bells or whistles. For the troubadours, Trobar leu offered plain lyrics to the nonliterate masses. These poems were the odes of Billy Collins circa 1150. Trobar ric focused on poems that fixed around verbal pyrotechnics – even if you didn’t understand them, you could at least hear them, the way more recent readers could see, say, e.e. cummings’ play on the page without necessarily needing to know the history of modernism into which his poems fit. Trobar clus were the truly dense poems intended for other poets. Think J.H. Prynne, Peter Seaton, Tao Lin, Bernadette Mayer, Taylor Brady, Linh Dinh.

Already, of course, the romance tales that Cervantes will exploit in his version of the invention of the novel some 450 years later are competing with trobar leu for the attention of the masses. And the rise of the novel represents a significant moment in the history of poetry where part of its traditional social function – telling stories – literally goes away. It’s not that you can’t still a story in a poem, of course, but why would you? There is a genre right next door whose very premise is built around the devices it uses to convey narrative. (Thus the rise of a second genre, cinema, that does the same thing even better – you can see the story – represents a true crisis for the novel, since the silver screen robs that form of its only real rationale, something the novel could not do to the poem. Trobar clus turns out to be immune precisely because its purpose was never instrumental.)

The distance between the troubadours & Cervantes & between Cervantes & ourselves is such that it makes sense that nobody yet really knows if any of these newfangled narrative genres that are burgeoning around the fringes of the web will amount to anything. But the process left in place by this sequence – a poetry centered around poems for other poets, around which exist various “popular” variants, perpetually crumbling at its margins as the popular genres & poets (Edgar Guest & Ogden Nash in one generation, Ted Kooser & Billy Collins in another) prove to be short-lived as social phenomena – goes on, generation after generation. There is a certain amount of celebrity to be had if you’re a poet who falls into that slide zone, but any historical perspective on the phenomenon ought to make a poet like Billy Collins nervous as a cat. That’s why it’s so important for him to be understood as a “real” poet & not simply an artless spewer of emotion. After all, the reader who really wants artless poetry streaming “real” emotion circa 2007 can turn just as easily to Jewel. She can sing too. But the instant you can tell that Collins & Kooser aren’t Jewel, they’ve become something else altogether by definition – sort of Bob Perelman & Charles Bernstein lite. And that’s always the beginning of the end, because this now positions them in a social world in which Kooser & Collins simply represent something else done badly. Not a fresh breath of air at all.

But the question I have is why does somebody who comes up to this fairly large social machine – the 10,000 publishing poets who exist just in English, say – expect every place on the map to be equally accessible or want to require (Carroll’s complaint after all is really a demand) all poems be as artless as Jewel? Do we want every musician to be John Denver? Can’t somebody be Pete Seeger or John Coltrane or Bela Fleck or Meredith Monk? And wouldn’t that, actually, be more interesting? What if you want Lou Reed & Tuvan throat-singing? The world becomes very monochromatic the instant you want the same level of accessibility everywhere.

The flip side of which is what does it mean to demand of an art form that its practitioners not take the art to the max, not carry it as far as they can. Demanding universal accessibility is like going to a circus where the “high wire” is about 18 inches from the ground. Yes, you could do this too. But, again, why would you?

 

¹ Carroll himself has been on the board of the Pickle Family Circus

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