Saturday, September 15, 2007

 

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Friday, September 14, 2007

 


Brian Calvin’s Half Mast is the cover image
for Graham Foust’s Necessary Stranger

This started out as a rave review for Graham Foust’s Necessary Stranger, a book that certainly warrants that response. Over successive books Foust has demonstrated that the easy brilliance of his first works was not in any sense a fluke, and that he is one of the best younger poets now writing. But then I thought about what I take to be the real risk in his work, that of recognizability. Foust’s works do things with language that are not quite like anything I’ve read before, but the poems themselves feel immediately familiar as text. Consider “Huffy”:

August, the thick end
of summer where I’m
from. I’ve a grill, shrewd
tools, a bag of glue,
some Neil Young. (The world
eats what it orders.)
My neighbors cough and
wave and wave and frown.
Your youngest cousin
weaves by on a shit-
to-bed ten-speed, two
crutches tucked under
her too-white right arm.
This is to refer
to almost falling
from falling. It’s a
dream I’m not ashamed.

What in this poem makes me feel that it’s special? (Which I do feel.) Certainly poems have presented dreamscapes before, even if not particularly this accurately. Poets have been writing this sort of single-stanza free verse affair now for decades. Think of David Ignatow and Alan Dugan, both masters of the form. Yet there are details here that seem out of place, or not explained by this readily recognizable framework. What’s the bag of glue for? It’s emphasized by running the vowel-consonant combination by in reverse order in the word tools, that same central vowel at the heart also of the prior adjective shrewd. Note even the hard g and trilled l in the earlier grill. That’s an awful lot of a set-up for a detail that goes by in passing with no further mention.

Similarly, the reiteration of the phrase and wave, this time mid-line rather than over a linebreak alters the syncopation of the poem – it also sets up the later falling / from falling. Foust is brilliant with these little details that foreground certain elements almost in passing – it creates a tone to the poem that you can’t ever quite put your finger on, which is important in a text where the subject is never quite announced. Consider, for example, just how long the sentence goes that introduces the cousin before it gets to her gender, present only in a pronoun: five freakin’ lines.

There is, I think, a possible sequence of connotation that then builds from too-white, taken symbolically rather than, say, as an allusion to a recently removed cast, tying to the poem’s final word ashamed. The number of plausible schema available to the parsimony principle here is not small, ranging from having caused an accident that resulted in broken limbs all the way to child sexual abuse, real or simply imagined. One could likewise build back from that rather opaque title, “Huffy” – is that a description of the girl, I first thought, of the neighbors? – to the bag of glue (glue doesn’t come in bags, silly, unless you’re planning to sniff it), that suggests that the hidden word here is huffing, the process of getting high from fumes.

Foust’s poems often present just this sort of conundrum – at one level a suburban still-life, on another a tale of depravity just below the surface – the economy with which all this is accomplished can be startling, and is why I feel no hesitation in praising this work to the skies. Yet the frame of this poem, its presentation of a lyric dreamscape, something akin to a daydream, is so familiar that you can’t tell if Foust is the most avant-garde of writers, packing meaning in as densely as any writer we have, or the quietest of the School of Quietude? Yes, he is doing all these many things at once, and yet it’s all so recognizable, familiar, even comfortable.

This is an aspect of Foust’s work that he shares with Rae Armantrout, the poet of whom he most reminds me. (The one time I met him was at one of Rae’s readings.) It’s something I see as well in the writing of Michael Palmer and Fanny Howe, among those of my own generation. I’m sure it’s why Billy Collins seems so ravishingly fond of the work of Ron Padgett, among the poets in the generation immediately before mine. Or why many readers and more than a few critics preferred Robert Creeley or Denise Levertov among the Black Mountain poets, rather than Robert Duncan or Charles Olson.

It’s a question that Armantrout gets at obliquely in her famous essay, “Why Don’t Women Do Language-Oriented Writing?” which leads off her new Collected Prose just out from Singing Horse Press. The implication in that question, of course, is that her work is comprehensible, whereas the likes of myself or Bruce Andrews will drive a reasonable reader to tears. Armantrout’s essay is hardly any longer than this note as she demonstrates how Susan Howe, Carla Harryman & Lyn Hejinian all write work that brings “the underlying structures of language/thought into consciousness.” Their work is no less “language-oriented” than David Melnick or P. Inman, it just takes something of a different form.

So it’s not an accident that Armantrout and Fanny Howe have appeared in The New Yorker and The Nation, where Foust also recently turned up. While I don’t think it’s impossible any more for the likes of a Christian Bök or Kenny Goldsmith to turn up in these venues, it’s certainly less likely. And P. Inman or Geof Huth? Don’t hold your breath.

There are two kinds of risk at play here, perhaps more. The first is that a young poet who discovers in him- or herself the capacity to write in such a manner that their work succeeds in reaching both traditions in American letters will decide ultimately to do only that, which then turns into a kind of holding back, atrophying the writing. This is, I think, the problem with the later work of George Oppen, for example, which is sentimental & lax in comparison to his earlier books. And I think it’s what ultimately kept Gustaf Sobin from becoming more than a footnote to expat literature. It’s an active element in the increasingly rapid production of self-similar books, all modeled on The Double Dream of Spring, in the writing of John Ashbery, and why, I think, his poetry is most likely to known not for that, but for the exceptions, the earliest books plus Three Poems, Vermont Notebook, Flow Chart, even Girls on the Run.

The second of risk is broader and effects us all. As MFA programs pop up like mushrooms in a damp forest climate, and the number of publishing poets in the USA moves beyond 10,000 toward the 20,000 mark or thereabouts, nobody will have any hope whatsoever of reading even a fraction of what is being written and American verse, which has suffered from its two competing visions now since the middle of the 19th century, will fragment that much further, so that there will be one audience that reads only the likes of Graham Foust, Lee Ann Brown, Laura Sims & Linh Dinh, another that reads only the next generation of Quietists, some of whom – take Daisy Fried and Alice Jones as examples – are terrific, while a third lives entirely in a world of performance, flash poetics & vispo. Plus a hundred or so metro scenes, poets who prefer their audiences face-to-face. Etc. Etc.

To some degree, what I see as the promise of a Graham Foust is that I think he works from any perspective. If you’re a fan of Wendell Berry, you will like Foust. If you’re a fan of Billy Collins, you will like Foust. If you like C.D. Wright, or Charles Bernstein or Lynne Dreyer, you will like Graham Foust. In this sense, he is one of the younger poets who strikes me as having moved toward a post-militant American poetics, neither post-avant nor Quietist. Which in a way is what Third Way poets, from Bob Hass to Forrest Gander to Ann Lauterbach to Jorie Graham have been advocating for years now. But the Third Way has always struck me as predicated upon the existence of the other two. Younger poets today I think have more of an opportunity of learning from all worlds without having to sign up & pick sides. And that in turn will itself impact how writing gets done, going forward.

One of the more interesting moments in the history of the School That Shall Not Be Named is the revolt of many of its younger stars in the 1950s when confronted with the reality of the New American Poets. Look, for example, at the poems Robert Bly published in Poetry in the early 1950s, or the first books of Bill Merwin or Adrienne Rich, or the magazine verse that James Wright was turning out until Bly recruited him. All were clearly little Lowells, little Wilburs & then, whammo, they were penning The Lice, discovering surrealism, doing all manner of things not heretofore admissible on the campuses of Kenyon or Harvard. The one book I know that really touches on this is David Ossman’s The Sullen Art, published by Corinth in 1963. A member of the famed Fire Sign Theater in Los Angeles, Ossman interviewed a number of postwar American poets for the Pacifica Radio station there, then transcribed the interviews for publication. In addition to New Americans such as Paul Blackburn, Robert Creeley, Gilbert Sorrentino, Denise Levertov, LeRoi Jones (now Amiri Baraka), Ed Dorn and Allen Ginsberg, plus even Kenneth Rexroth & Paul Carroll, Ossman thought to interview the new Deep Image poets who were then emerging as their own literary revolt, including Bly, Jerry Rothenberg & Robert Kelly. He also interviews Merwin and John Logan, then two of the major young stars of the Quietist landscape. But he’s very conscious of the turmoil Quietists are experiencing. Bly is already in full revolt, while Merwin is already proposing something akin to a Third Way:

I don’t know what either “school” is supposed to consist of, but I don’t think I’ve ever been a part of either.

That’s disingenuous to the point of dishonest, but in fact Merwin’s already trying to imagine something beyond, tho he’s not very clear exactly what that might mean.

It’s interesting that the only one of this first generation of disaffected Lowell protégés to ever come close to the New American Poetry, as such, has been Adrienne Rich, who has long been a friend and advocate for the work, editorial & literary, of Clayton Eshleman, not necessarily whom you might think of if you were free associating from the conjunction of “New American” and “feminist.”

The others, including the non-Brahmin Quietists at Iowa City, who borrowed from Williams without ever really grasping the implications of his work (hence Open Poetry), all seem to have already crossed the New Americans off their list of possible places to go. At least once Bly, Kelly & Rothenberg came to realize just how incompatible their concepts of Deep Image really were. The long-term result of these revolts within Quietism was a pluralizing of the tradition. But one of the difficulties of participating in the School That Shall Not Be Named is that it’s difficult to discuss trends with That Which We Shall Pretend Does Not Exist. Thus one-time Stanley Plumly student & University of George Press poetry series editor Bin Ramke gets characterized as a member of the avant-garde by Poets & Writers in its September issue when he’s never really had a direct connection with the Pound-Williams-Stein-Zukofsky tradition at all – he’s a Quietist, an interesting one at that, who’s moved into some other directions altogether.

Ramke’s problem is exactly the opposite of Foust’s: Ramke seems to have become unrecognizable where Foust’s recognizability is apparent to any reader even if he turns out not to be quite what he seems.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

 

Perhaps the most shocking revelation in Hannah Weiner’s Open House, out this past spring from Kenning Editions, comes in the very last sentence of Patrick F. Durgin’s excellent introduction. It’s not the fact of just how many of Weiner’s books are out of print, nor how lucid & unpsychotic Weiner’s pre-“clairvoyant” writing is, nor even how lucid & unpsychotic some of her later work is (Cf. “If Workshop,” a proposal it would seem from the late 1980s), not even how little actual space, just ten pages from 156 given to her work, that the excerpt Clairvoyant Journal, Weiner’s signature volume, takes up in this impeccable version of a selected works.

The real shocker is that Patrick F. Durgin never met Hannah Weiner, who’s been gone now for only ten years. This is a shocker because Durgin would appear to have become the best friend Weiner ever had. Durgin has done more than anyone to make her writing accessible, thus to enhance her reputation. Now with Hannah Weiner’s Open House, he gives us the big picture, the book that shows the overall arc of this remarkable poet’s entire career. It’s a wonderful collection, even tho (or perhaps because) it’s going to send many of its readers to AddAll or Abebooks.Com to find whatever remains available of the original texts.

In the past I’ve characterized Weiner as a militant & precise realist of a distinct reality, one conditioned by her schizophrenia. Nothing in HWOH makes me want to step back from that description, tho this volume does a far better job than any of her previous books in placing Weiner’s writing and its development into a larger framework, one that includes the downtown Manhattan performance scene of the 1960s & ‘70s, and the New York School, particularly its second generation.

One might have expected Weiner to have been closer, in fact, to the first round of the New York School poets, born as she was in 1928, just one year younger than John Ashbery, two than Frank O’Hara. But with the exception of Barbara Guest & Bunny Lang & a few painters, that was never a generation particularly open to women as such. And Weiner appears to have been a late bloomer, first performing her Code Poem works at the age of 40. A Brandeis grad who had gone through a marriage to, I believe, a psychoanalyst, Weiner was a successful lingerie designer when she performed the first work documented here, “Hannah Weiner at Her Job,” at the A.H. Schreiber Company on West 33rd Street, room 1200. She was successful enough that Simeon Schreiber, her boss, participated in the event, which included one pair of bikini bottoms “made especially for this show by August Fabrics and A.H. Schreiber.“

Weiner was even slower to begin publishing, with her first book, Magritte Series appearing in 1970. Clairvoyant Journal, the volume that made Weiner famous (or at least notorious) with its claim to have had portions of the text transcribed from language Weiner saw on people’s foreheads, on walls, or simply hovering mid-air, at times in elaborate textures, such as dog fur, is published by Angel Hair in 1978. It’s only her second book – Weiner was already 50.

This is a problem as much of the performance art scene as it was a question of the difficulty women still had getting into print in the 1970s. Jackson Mac Low, Weiner’s friend in that scene who likewise later gravitated toward language poetry, didn’t publish his first big book, Stanzas for Iris Lezak, until he was 48. It was only his fourth book.

Happily, both writers are now acknowledged as the major poets they were, and with HWOH, we finally have a good first step toward presenting her work in print in the same kind of comprehensive & intelligent fashion that has so transformed Jack Spicer’s influence & reputation in the four decades since his death. Durgin has done an especially good job dealing with the typographical challenges presented by Weiner’s texts, which can included many an undotted i and uncrossed t, can slide down the page or over other type. He treats the page as Weiner did, as a compositional field, reproducing some texts directly from books where Weiner herself had an opportunity to approve the final setting, and setting others “with comparable but uniform typefaces.” It’s the antithesis of the disaster than Duncan’s setting of Ground Work: Before the War was in its original edition, using a typewriter to set the page, tho in fact both books are attempting to accommodate the same dynamic, a page where the visual dimension is crucial but created with a technology that doesn’t translate well to contemporary standards.

Patrick Durgin here has accomplished something major. It makes you realize just how much a poet like Duncan could also benefit from his own Patrick Durgin. Weiner’s Durgin is not likely to get any rewards for this, just as the first generation of Spicer scholars¹ discovered that a specialization there was a ticket to adjuncting sans benefits for life. At best. But poets do, I think, recognize just how vital, even world-changing, such labor can be. For this, we must bow deeply in the direction of Patrick Durgin & offer our thanks.

 

¹ Paul Mariah, Lew Ellingham, Lori Chamberlain, John Granger, Steve Abbott, the editors of Acts, even Kevin Killian, just to name a few.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

 

Talking with
Nick Piombino

§

Talking with
Charles Bernstein
(a Bengali interview)

§

Talking with
Steve Vincent

§

Reading books
in the digital age

Linking readers
via social networking

Google
& the end of
fair use

§

A review of
Peter Gizzi’s
Outernationale

§

Talking with
Mark Wallace
(a Bengali interview)

§

Short reviews of
Stephen Paul Miller,
Eileen Tabios
&
Murat Nemet-Nejat

§

A profile of
Lana Darkac

§

New life
for Kerouac

§

Talking with
Joseph Lease

§

New York Post
cuts book reviews

§

Robin Blaser
returns
to SF State

§

Talking with
Joshua Marie Wilkinson

§

Not being a poet

§

Ireland anoints Longley
as
”Professor of Poetry”

§

A review of
Peter O’Leary’s
Depth Theology

§

The selected poems
of
José Kozer

§

Trying to shut the door
on open access

§

Talking with
Tracy K. Smith

§

Poetry & podcasts

§

Dylan as poet
one more time

§

Keeping the Beats
in their box

A week of
mostly “not getting it”
at The Guardian

including
Bukowski as Beat

§

Poetry &
September 11

§

Where are the war poets
of today?

§

Soft Geography

§

Naipul on Walcott,
Walcott on Naipul

§

Pinsky on Plumly

& Bielspiel too

§

Age & gender
variations
in the blogosphere

§

Cowboy poetics
and the oral tradition

§

The killer
who turned it
into a novel

§

Poetry & bats

§

When the poet is a doctor

§

The latest in the
Who Wrote Shakespeare
nonsense

§

Plus what’s new in
fantasy theory

§

Reading is
an unnatural act.”

§

Melbourne Writers Festival
briefly described

§

The Poetry Africa
International Festival

§

8 easy steps
to understanding
bestsellers

§

Hemingway as “Chick-Lit”

§

CEO retires
at
Simon & Shoe Store

§

First Carolyn Kennedy
& Garrison Keillor,
now Che

§

Too Bad It’s Poetry

§

Talking with
Billy Collins

§

David Amram,
writing for the giants

§

Documenta
on the ropes

§

A profile of
Peter Young

§

Last shot
to save the Barnes

Barnes picks architects
to complete the theft

Expanding
the Philadelphia Museum of Art

§

A tribute to
Elizabeth Murray

§

Hirst’s bling
goes boing

§

What’s become of
Turner Prize winners

§

Philosophy & sexism

§

Ranking the philosophy schools

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

 

It was a Tuesday, just like today. I had an appointment for my annual physical later that morning and Bob Dylan was releasing a new album so I turned to listen to WXPN’s New Release Tuesday when the newscaster for the University of Pennsylvania radio station broke in to announce the crash of the first plane into the World Trade Center. I made it upstairs to turn on the television in time to watch the second plane hit live, sinking into the shimmering glass lower than the smoking gouge in the first building milliseconds before the orange fireball burst open.

Everyone of us has our own memories of that morning, where we were, what we felt & thought. I can’t explain to you the anger & despair I feel today knowing that our president used this catastrophe to lie his way into an unwinnable war in Iraq that had nothing to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, even letting al Qaeda & Osama Bin Laden largely off the hook through the diversion of resources into the sinkhole of this conflict.

Since then, I have written of three works that I’ve looked to as the most articulate instances of poetry related to this tragedy. The first of these is James Sherry’s booklength prose poem, Our Nuclear Heritage, published by Sun & Moon in 1991. Which is to say before even the first attempt at bombing the Trade Center. As I commented in my blog on this book, Sherry’s anticipation of September 11 proved eerily on target. I also noted at the time that he has since been engaged in writing a long work on ecological disaster, entitled Sorry. Post-Katrina, he looks to have been right here as well. I wish only that Our Nuclear Heritage was back in print & that Sorry has been published as well.

The second work was the poem, “The Dust,” in Michael Gottlieb’s Lost and Found, published (by no coincidence) by James Sherry’s Roof Books. Actually this is true of all three works in this great book, but the elegiac ”The Dust” is the poem that stays with me, and to which I return. Its placement in the center of this suite of poems is, as I noted when the book came out, perfect. The poem is blunt and terrible and gorgeous and sad all at once.

The third is the poem “Kneeling Bus” in Fanny Howe’s On the Ground, from Graywolf. Like Lost and Found, the entire book is woven through with this experience, which makes for an intense, even exhausting book from a poet who is sometimes mistaken as an instance of the ethereal lyric. It differs from Lost and Found principally in being a later confrontation with the same events, so that it reflects a further moment in the grieving process. As I noted here, On the Ground is “wonderful, simple, terrible, and unfathomably complex.”

There are, of course, hundreds if not thousands of other books already that address September 11. But these are the three that I find I need, and to which I return for exactly the same reason William Carlos Williams once noted, because I can find here news at a level nowhere else available. It sounds corny as all hell to say that these are three works not just for the heart but for the whole person, but it’s true as well.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

 

David Giannini’s Others’ Lines (Series I and II) * Tricollage, published by Peter Ganick as a small chapbook, really nothing more than a saddle-stapled photocopy, is a fascinating if flawed attempt at a new form. As envisioned by Giannini, the tricollage consists of three lines, each taken from the first line of a poem by another poet. Thus, for example,

As a child
In cold hell, in thicket, how
I cried because life is hopeless and beautiful

comes Paul Pines, Charles Olson & Howard Nemerov.

Make passage an age
As under a vast squatting woman
You come back to life pissed off

brings together Ronald Johnson, Robin Magowan & Anne Waldman. Potentially, the combinations here are infinite: any poem by any poet in any combination of three would seem to be the game, tho I don’t believe that in practice Giannini uses translations in any of the seventy examples given here. Just from the first lines of these 70 poems, you could generate 9,129,120 possible tricollages (210 x 209 x 208). To these, you can another variable: spacing. While Giannini appears to preserve the indentation within the line of the material he recycles, he presents at least five different variations of the three-line poem. Thus, one might generate over 45 million different texts just from the lines in this slim chapbook alone. That puts a fair amount of pressure on the author to ensure that he or she has gotten the best 70 combinations to present.

There are, I think, two problems that Giannini doesn’t compellingly solve here. The first is the problem of famous or even just recognizable poems – the Olson in the first example cited above is a case in point. Olson actually pulled the title for one of the early Maximus volumes from that line. The impact over the space of three lines is like a giant foot kicking the gyroscope. It’s really a celebrity effect, like seeing a visual collage in which you suddenly recognize a context. While you might say that this is an effect that will vary from reader to reader, my sense is that the poem itself never survives the event.

The second, and more interesting, problem is that of first lines themselves. There’s a logic, even a violence, in breaking silence, a threshold the first line of any poem must cross, regardless of which school, what topic, which period, even which language it may involve. In fact, relatively few of the first lines Giannini has chosen work so well as second or third lines. This in turn gives Others’ Lines much more of a static feel than it might otherwise have. I’d’ve loved to have seen this project use the second & third of poems, even of the same poems as Giannini is using here. It would be a completely different book &, I suspect, both more subtle & quiet than the version here.

A third question – I wouldn’t call it a problem – has to do with the nature of the literary itself. Why quote poems, say, rather than newspaper copy, advertising, things heard in the street? While Giannini’s text doesn’t have the precious feel, say, of John Cage’s literary tourism through James Joyce, it still carries the air of the book. If tricollage as a form is to have as much chance as hay(na)ku, people other than Giannini are going to need to explore all these realms. Still, here is a mode whose moment (and source) of origin you can point to.

It’s a shame that this collection isn’t printed one to a page or given a cover with real cover stock, given really the much broader distribution it warrants¹ in an edition with perfect binding. Giannini’s “dynamic triads” may not be quite the revolution in verse his own preface implies. But I don’t see how any close reader won’t come away learning a great deal about the potential in quotation, the distinctness of firs lines & the possibilities of form. That’s a lot for a project of this scope to accomplish.

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